Saturday, 29 March 2008

The First Animation

In an 11 minute documentary Iranian scientists presented what may be considered the world’s first flip-book. The five, 5200-year-old, drawings of a goat on a goblet could be set into rotation and then give the impression of a short moving picture: the wild goat (Capra aegagrus) jumping up to eat the leaves of a bush. The goblet was discovered in a grave at the city of Shahr-e-Sookhte (the Burnt City), at the banks of the river Helmand along the Zahedan-Zabol road, in the southeast province of Sistan. The settlement is part of the Jiroft civilization.The site is considered an archeological treasure trove.

The goblet is also featured on this Iran’s Press TV site’s article.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Brilliant Work in Progress

Toward Kawkaban

Sana’a at night is especially charming. With their illuminated stained-glass windows the multi-storey tower buildings really look like lanterns. Since early afternoon, most men (and probably women in their more hidden parties, tafrita, as well) had chewed their daily portion of qat, the leaves of the shrub Catha edulis, providing them with its mild alkaloid stimulant. It is part of the social activity of all Yemenis and fully accepted and legal. I saw even a traffic policeman in the center of crowded streets with a good portion of qat in his cheek. When life returns in the evening, Yemenis are not really stoned but, of course, in an excellent mood.

Anyway, it seems to be a problem in a pretty poor country when most of the fertile areas are used for qat production. There are huge plantations with the green bushes everywhere and men sell and buy the daily portion either in one of several larger qat markets in Sana’a, or outside of the city.

Mohammed apologized early in the morning in Arabia Felix. Understandably, he didn’t want to spoil his car and handed me over the travel permission papers of the Ministry of Tourism. Luckily he made sure that I could go with the two Spaniards living in the hotel and its travel guide, another Mohammad, in his Pajero.

Hababah with its picturesque cistern, then Thilla, with small shops everywhere, selling beautiful local collectibles. Ancient villages completely depending on tourism. Some quieter corners with spectacular views.

Up we went to the village on top of Jebel Kawkaban, almost 3000 meters above sea level. Another amazing cistern. A little bazaar for the tourists. Then a walk down, 6 km or so (and almost 1000 meters difference in altitude) to the village Shibam.

When arriving there we had lost Mohammad who had to take his Pajero down, of course. I bought a football for the young boys in Shibam, but more boys were coming who also wanted footballs. Several cups of shai and 2 hours later Mohammad found us and we went back to Sana’a, having a lunch in a small restaurant along the road, salta, of course, the national Yemeni dish of very hot and spicy stew of meat, beans, and other vegetables. Very delicious!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Nowruz Mobarak! Happy Easter!

The most significant Holiday in Christianity, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Glorious Resurrection after 3 days in his grave, i.e. Easter, is celebrated (in the Western Church) on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. This year, spring (or Nowruz in Farsi, the Iranian New Year) starts today, the vernal equinox. And since the full moon is seen tomorrow, Easter will be on March 23 (while the Good Friday is tomorrow).

So, Happy Nowruz! for all my Iranian friends, and Happy Easter! for the others.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Back From San Antonio

These days, the so far 3rd war (not the second!) in the Gulf region marks its 5th anniversary. The operation was called Shock & Awe and I was watching the bombing of Baghdad live on my TV in a flat in Kuwait. Incredible, Baghdad and its avenues at the Tigris river were brightly illuminated when the first bombs blasted! It looked more like a Hollywood movie. How could that be broadcast to the World? While we were sitting here in a totally dark, blacked-out Kuwait!

I really can tell, I was shocked and awed. We had spent the last days before the outbreak of war with shopping of the special kind, hoarding meat, tuna fish and vegetables in cans, getting large amounts of rice and noodles, buying candles.

Our former Faculty Dean had briefed the brave of us, who were about to stay, in one of the then rare Faculty meetings: There might be curfews in Kuwait. The Americans troops will be in Baghdad within 72 hours. University will be closed for a week or so. Life will go on. But the women were free to leave Kuwait for some time, of course.

A couple of days earlier, a Scandinavian colleague had proudly presented his gas mask which the German Embassy had lent him. Scandinavians do not have their own Embassies in Kuwait. When making a telephone call to the Embassy, the most helpful Ms Lorenz there, who had served the quickly changing German Ambassadors for 30 years or so, calmed me down. But maybe taping of the windows would be a good idea.

I had arrived from a scientific meeting in San Antonio already on the 12th of March 2003. I had made my final decision of coming back to Kuwait only at the airport in Frankfurt, when I had met our Vice Dean and another chairman of our Faculty. The three of us had the same thoughts but didn’t tell: Okay, these guys are also going back to Middle East!

The flight from Frankfurt to Kuwait City was horrible, a nightmare. The airspace was already closed over Iraq. Instead of taking the direct route from the Balkans, Turkey, Iraq to Kuwait, we had to fly over Jeddah at the eastern coastline of the Red Sea, then cross the whole Arabian Peninsula and Rhub Al Khali, then towards Bahrain, and then back to Kuwait. The plane was shaken by an enormous sandstorm between the tiny island in the Gulf and Kuwait and I almost had to say my final prayers. It was the first in a series of nearly weekly sandstorms which hit Kuwait later until May.

In Kuwait, it turned out that I had lost my luggage, and I had it back only after several weeks. Lufthansa had stopped flying to the Middle East, no way to go there during the war operations. I was promised, it would be safer in Frankfurt.

For one week we were advised not to drive in Kuwait by car, to stay at home and listen to any alerts. There were 20 or so, and one missile hit in fact the sea close to the Sultan Center in Souq Sharq. No casualties, fortunately. No poison gas either. Were there any shelters? We were at least not informed. Indeed, University was closed only for a week or so, and then life went on. The numerous, weekly sandstorms were most probably caused by military operations in the North. Embedded journalists (with questionable professional ethics) reported from what seems to be a big adventure every day. People in Basrah did not welcome the British troops, but when Baghdad was taken, we saw pictures of delighted inhabitants waving and dancing in the streets. An ugly statue of Saddam in Firdos Square was toppled already in early April. But Bush’s declaration of the end of military action on May 1, 2003 on aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (“Mission accomplished”) turned out to be an illusion. Abu Ghuraib, only one year later, changed everything. The emerging civil war in Iraq led millions of people flee to neighboring countries, if they could. Some said that about 1 million civilians have died in the meantime, but figures may have been overestimated. The Iraqi body count may be found here.

In the meantime, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Admiral William “Fox” (another desert fox) Fallon, has resigned after having given the Esquire an interview (which will appear next month). There were heavy disputes, of course, with the Commander-in-Chief on Iraq and Iran policies, and even with his General Petraeus, who had reported (and is about to report again) on the successful ‘surge’, gated communities in Baghdad, and a general better life in Baghdad and Iraq. Right now, presidential candidate John McCain visits the site, and soon Vice President Dick Cheney will arrive for respective celebrations.

What to say five years after the U.S.-led invasion to end years of dictatorship? We wish the Iraqi people a better future, honestly. And, the last the world could afford is another military conflict in the region.

Further information here.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Travel Permit

On my first day I woke up early. The muezzin was calling very noisily for the morning prayers. It was not even 5 o’clock. The very rhythmic, very decided, and clear call came from a tall minaret just opposite of my hotel. Different from what I was used to in Kuwait, where uninspired muezzins most probably from Bangladesh had been hired (Kuwaitis are even for that little task, calling for morning prayers, not well-motivated). The following days in Arabia Felix it happened that I would wait for ‘my call’ (I didn’t follow) every morning.

No way to get a breakfast that early. So, I decided to have an early walk through the old city of Sana’a. Most of the multi-storey houses (five, six or even more floors) were definitely old. Sana’a rightly belongs to UNESCO’s World Heritage. Some newer buildings were also tower houses. The limestone of many houses was carefully carved especially around the small windows with colorful stained glass. The lanes in the old city are lined by mud walls with beautiful views into orchards. Tree-large Bougainvilleas everywhere. Cobblestone pavements have replaced the previous stomped adobe.

It seemed as if Mohammed had waited for me that early in the morning. Most probably he addressed any easy-to-identify tourist strolling through Sana’a. He wanted to talk, and then asked me whether I would mind visiting his house and have a tea and a little chat. I agreed and we walked through the labyrinthine alleys to the gate of an old building. He warned his wife (a foreigner!) before he found the keys in a niche above the wooden door and asked me in. It turned out that he was an engineer and had worked for some time in Czechoslovakia, in the 1980s when the southern part of Yemen declared itself the first Marxist state in Arabia, and collaboration with other Warsaw Pact states was close. It was a strange experiment, ending in a civil war and re-unification of the country (among others) in 1990. We drunk several cups of tea and Mohammed showed me his excellent professional references and admitted that he would like to live in Europe again. He introduced me also to his 18 years old son who could drive us to some interesting places in the vicinity of Sana’a.

Next day, a Friday, we met as early as before and had a trip to Wadi Dhar. About 15 km northwest of Sana’a, the fertile valley is best overlooked from a famous lookout point where many people, mostly young couples had a picnic already. Springtime has broken out and most of the fruit trees were blooming in the wadi. The famous Dar al-Hajar could be identified and other small villages with more multi-storey houses. Dar al-Hajar has a spectacular location on a spire of a large rock. It is the impregnable summer residence of one of Yemen’s imams in the 18th century. Many European tourists visited with us the castle-like five-storey building, and Mohammed addressed most of them, introduced himself, waited for their response. We saw a bridal couple, and men, apparently belonging to the wedding party, round dancing and daringly waving their Jambiyahs.

To get out of Sana’a was quite difficult. Mohammed took me the next day to the Ministry of Tourism (which had changed its location, so we had to ask many people in different areas of the modern city of Sana’a). Due to recent kidnapping (even killing) of western tourists, the government has established several checkpoints around Sana’a. Without official permission it won’t be possible to travel around. We had to fill-in many papers which we finally got, but Mohammed later apologized for not being able driving me to Kawkaban, which is located at an altitude of about 3000 meters. His wife, he told me, was much concerned about her family car, an older Pajero. So, he referred me with my papers to the hotel’s tourist office.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Arabia Felix

What a name for a hotel in the old city of Sana’a! Funduq al-‘Arabiya as-Sai’da, literally Arabia Felix! And it was dead-easy to get there. I'd sent an email to the address I found in the Lonely Planet travel guide of the Arabian Peninsula and received a response after only 3 hours. I was most welcome. The hotel was run by an Egyptian and somebody would be at the airport for picking me up. “Don’t forget passport pictures for the visa!”

A crazy trip. End of February expats are well-advised better leaving Kuwait. Let them celebrate their National and Liberation Days alone. Yemen was the last travel destination on my long list while living in the Middle East. Some tourists had been kidnapped and even killed in the past few years. But Yemenis have a good reputation in Arabia. Very honest, traditional, friendly.

I arrived in the evening and queued with other Kuwaitis and few, mostly American, tourists at the visa counter. No problems to get the stamps. After I had picked up my luggage, I left the arrivals building of Sana’a’s airport and was already received by the young man from the hotel. He didn’t speak too much English. It was already dark and some of the strange multi-storey tall buildings were nicely illuminated. Temperatures and air were very pleasant. Sana’a is located only 15 degrees north of the equator but lies at an altitude of 2200 meters!

The hotel was more or less occupied by Europeans. Sana’a seems to become a touristic hub in the Middle East. There were shared bathrooms and very small but nice and clean rooms. In a small garden, a breakfast with bread, cheese, and large amounts of the world-famous honey of the Hadramawt was served with tea and Nescafé.

Strolling through the old city was incredible. It was difficult to see any women other than old widows, completely covered by their abayas. Men look, in general, like Ali Baba. They inevitably wear a curved dagger attached to their belts, the jambiya. In the plenty of souqs in Sana’a vegetables, fruit, meat, silver, mats and carpets, perfume, clothes are sold and you might easily get lost there. The old city is surrounded by the city wall made of clay, with its impressive main gate, Bab al-Yaman. New and old daggers with their wide belts are sold everywhere. Pictures of Saddam Hussein and Sheikh Nusrallah hanging in the shops, both individuals obviously being revered at the same time. Yemen had some problems with the Bush Administration after 9/11 for its support of Saddam’s Iraq!

The Grand Mosque was off-limits, of course. This seems to be one of the oldest in Islam. In the early 1970s, German archeologists recognized that the almost rotten pieces of paper which had been found there when renovating the site were in fact what is now considered one of the oldest manuscripts of the Holy Qur’an ever found. The slightly different verses have in a way changed our views about the early days of Islam. Whether the State of Yemen was completely informed about the research by Gerd R. Puin and others on these manuscripts is not so clear. It is a delicate issue.