Thursday, 31 July 2008

Total Eclipse 1 August 2008

The partial eclipse can be seen tomorrow both in the Arctic and in the Middle East. I will be in an airplane (provided no strike of Lufthansa employees) heading to Oslo and then returning to Tromsø.

See the tiny area of the totality here.

Asian Workforce

The recent riots of Bagladeshi cleaners in Kuwait have been reported world-wide in the media. Teargas, batons, and the threat of deportation of 'troublemakers' (strikers) badly reflect on a state implementing laws which are not protecting those who are effectively running the country. The 250'000 or so Bangladeshis in Kuwait apparently belong to the lowest social class. But when they are cheated on their 40 Dinars salary (about € 100), when 18 Dinars per month in fact are left (€ 45), that should in fact be regarded as theft. And that is happening in one of the richest countries in the world!

I want to dedicate this posting to a secretary from the Philippines who I learned to know about five years ago. Her talents and capabilities, competencies and skills were so manifold that any of her superiors in FOD at Kuwait University and the whole staff immediately noticed that a job as a secretary would not really challenge her. So, her responsibilities were upgraded again and again, but her salary wasn't. When she finally became the chief receptionist she knew every telephone number of our students, of our patients, and of us, the teaching staff; every patient file number. She was running the reception almost beyond perfection. Even a recent bad blow of fate only released new vigors. She and her great two kids will take new challenges in life, that's for sure.

Without this kind of people Kuwait can never be smoothly operated. The success of a society of many of these nouveau-riche countries like Kuwait largely depends upon the highly committed people mainly from Asia who, that I've understood in the meantime, are priviledged to leave their home countries because of special skills and talents, endurance and patience, and responsibilities for their relatives who have been left behind and who urgently wait for their support. I hold many of them in the highest regard. The citizens of Kuwait have decided to live in a multicultural society (and that made it so attractive for me to work and live there for many years). But that also means a lot of further responsibilities. If not really integrated humans always demand at least decent lives.

Thank you, Ms Marlene Daroing for the nice and really effective time we were working together at FOD! And all the best for you and your kids in the future. May God bless you and your family!

The Climax

As in every year, temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) during the last week of July. The heat is then unbearable. This year, it happened Saturday and Sunday when Kuwait Airport recorded 50 degrees. There are no meteorological stations out in the desert which could indicate even higher temperatures. Those in the farm areas in Abdaly in the far north and Wafra in the far south sometimes record 51 or even 52 degrees.

One of my favorite places, on top of Jal Azzor, can only be visited later in the year (or in springtime). The peaceful watching of the setting sun while listening to the low sounds of the wind has always been a great pleasure. Contemplation and meditation in an otherwise extreme and most hostile environment may reduce one’s, at a time exaggerated, ego in a very healthy way. Maybe some people may even understand why the great monotheistic religions have their origins here, in the vast lonesomeness of the Middle Eastern deserts.

About 60 kilometers long Jal Azzor may be only as high as 70 meters or so, but since Kuwait is so remarkably flat, these cliffs north to Kuwait Bay and the huge plain extending further north up to the Iraqi border are quite impressive. In these days, end of July, this place must be a real oven. In addition to the heat, the northwestern scorching wind, the Shamal, is causing dramatic sandstorms which make any life virtually impossible. Because of little rainfall last winter little vegetation was seen in spring which usually keeps the sand and soil down. As a consequence, many sandstorms have plagued the tiny country this year.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Religious Festivals

It is absolutely true (but difficult to believe) when the Iranian President Ahmadinejad claimed on Monday in an interview with NBC that nuclear weapons belong to the 20th century. But what about female suicide bombings of pilgrims? Also on Monday this week at least 25 people died in three(!) suicide attacks against Shi'a pilgrims in Baghdad on the occasion of the Kadhimiya mourning. Three years ago, almost 1000 died in a stampede on a bridge across the river Tigris when rumors were suddenly spread that suicide bombers were among the pilgrims. This is clearly not 21st century but can be compared only with the darkest periods of the Middle Ages.

I have my deep problems with the faintest understanding for Iraqis still fighting Americans in their country instead of doing everything to overcome the obvious reasons why they are there after all. But what about sectarian fights between Sunni and Shi'a, urging women(!) to wearing dynamite under their loose-fitting robes in order not to be body-checked by male policemen but kill dozens of pilgrims? Completely sick.

When reading today that female suicide bombings have reached a record high, at least 27 this year as compared to eight in 2007, I wonder who are the (certainly male) criminals behind these dastard attacks? And what makes women participating in these devilish assassinations of innocent pilgrims? Where is the outcry in the whole Muslim world about these most cruel acts of inhumanity? This is really a shame.

Back to the festival Kadhimiya. It marks the anniversary of Musa al-Kazim’s martyrdom on the 25th of Rajab, 183 AH. The Seventh Imam had been imprisoned by the most famous Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun ar-Rashid, in 795 CE and had been poisoned four years later according to Shi’a belief. He was the father of Ali ar-Ridha, the famous Eighth Imam. His story and martyrdom has been told in this blog when I reported on my ‘pilgrimage’ to the Holy City of Mashhad in Khorasan, Eastern Iran, two years ago. In its vicinity, by the way, Haroun’s mausoleum can be visited, in the ancient city of Tus (or what has remained after Ghengis Khan’s conquest in the 13th century).

Monday, 28 July 2008

"Nuclear bombs belong to the 20th century"

The Iranian President in his interview with NBC today. That's absolutely true. But is it realistic to assume that they won't become a major issue in the 21st century, too? I doubt. That Mr. Ahmadinejad now personally addresses the American people but also all of us does not mean that the problems with Iran and its nuclear program are off the table.

I would appreciate a clearer statement that Iran does not threaten any other nation and in particular not Israel. I would really appreciate ensuring human rights in the Islamic Republic. Iran might consider itself meanwhile a regional superpower. In a way hubris. But problems, be it regional or even global, have to be dealt with in concerted actions. Mr. Ahmadinejad might understand that his unacceptable rhetoric has never been helpful but is in fact counterproductive.

Of course, there is a demand for independence, especially after extremely bad experiences with the UK and, in particular, the USA in the past 50 years. Operation Ajax is not forgotten. In 2000 former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called the CIA coup a setback for the democratic government in Iran, almost an apology. Maybe it is high time to apologize, too, for the 1979-1981 hostage crisis. It would be a welcome signal to the people of the US. And it could be a new beginning of diplomatic relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Thursday, 24 July 2008


Something else. In May I attended a workshop in Helsinki. It was Spring, exceptionally good weather, good discussions with my international colleagues and great hospitality of my dear friends in Turku. They took me together with other guests to the medieval capital of Estonia, Tallinn. Particularly amazing are the huge Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Catherdral, the medieval Town Hall, the City Wall, and St. Olav’s Church. Lots of amber shops (which cannot be found in Estonia but in the nearby Latvia and Lithuania), artisans, restaurants and pubs. And thousands of tourists.

Monday, 21 July 2008

New Jolfa

In several postings I have tried to trace the rather good relationship between Iranians and Jews during almost the entire history of ancient Iran. After the Arab conquest of Persia (633-656 CE) Jews were allowed to practice their religion. During Mongolian rule (1256-1318) there were periods of persecution, however. Later, when the Safavids proclaimed Shi’a Islam as the state religion, and in particular during the Qajar dynasty from 1794 onwards, things worsened dramatically. It is sad to say that the European antisemitism found its counterpart in Shi’a-ruled Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the majority of Jews left their home country for good. I do not entirely believe that the Persian Jews are directly threatened by the present regime with its hardliner President who consistently uses strong and unacceptable rhetoric with regard to the State of Israel. However, ‘Death to Israel’, 'Death to USA' shouting students on Quds Day (the last Friday in Ramadan) or on every November 4 anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (the picture was taken two years ago in Shiraz) are not really confidence-building. After all Jews are represented in the Majlis by one parliamentarian.

In an unexpected, 180 degrees turn after last Saturday's Geneva talks of 5+1 (members of the UN Security Council and Germany) with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili over Iran’s nuclear program, and the surprising (albeit silent) appearance of US Undersecretary of State William Burns, Iran’s Vice President (in charge of the country’s ailing tourism industry) Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close confidant of the President (his daughter had married Mr. Ahmadinejad’s son last year), described yesterday the US as “one of the best nations in the world.” “Today, Iran is friends with American and Israeli people. No nation in the world is our enemy, this is an honor.” To speak with J. W. von Goethe (Faust I): The message well I hear, my faith alone is weak.

In addition to Jews (~25’000 left) and Zoroastrians (~22’000), a further religious minority in Iran are Christians (~140’000). The Armenian Quarter, New Jolfa, at the southern banks of Esfahan's Zayandeh Rud has been founded under the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas I in the 17th century. Armenian Christians had been deported to Esfahan by force. Some had fled persecution by the Ottomans. The original Jolfa is, of course, located in Iran’s Azerbaijan province near Tabriz.

New Jolfa is a wonderfully relaxed district with twelve churches, the most important being Vank Cathedral with stunning paintings and gilded carvings all over the interior walls.

Of one religion in Iran I couldn't find any traces, the Bahá’í faith. According to a friend’s remarks, the members of the faith are presently persecuted in Iran similarly as Jews by Germans in Nazi-Deutschland. A particular disgrace and shame for the Iranian authorities, since the Bahá’í Faith was founded in Iran in the 19th century. Even if its very existence presents a challenge to the Islamic doctrine of Muhammad as the seal of all prophets, religious freedom is a universal human right.

I would rather appreciate the tolerance in what is called Medieval times in Persia, say, in Fariduddin Attar’s and Omar Khayyam’s Nishapur a couple of years before the Mongolians conquered the country, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace and mutual respect and knew the Holy Scripts of each other faith.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Before and After War

Steve Reich. Different Trains (1988)

Students (II)

Persian Carpets

I assume that only few Westerners who have lived for some time in the Middle East have not become addicted to oriental carpets. It is wonderful, handmade artwork. You’ll see the efforts, the vision, and talents of the artisan. A good carpet always tells a story. Interesting carpets may also have little anomalies in symmetry or irregularities in pattern which invite us to study them in greater detail. Sooner or later you will end up in counting the colors and checking the type of the knots: Is it Ghiordes (Turkish) or Senneh (Persian)? And you may also count the knots per square inch. The finer the better, but tribal carpets may have few and are charming anyway.

Persian carpets have been manufactured for thousands of years. The so far oldest fragment is the Pazyryk carpet which had been discovered in the Altai Mountains in Siberia in 1949. Although it was found in a tomb of Scythian prince, the pattern is Achaemenian. Amazing is the number of symmetrical knots per square inch: 232 (or 36 per square centimeter). Thus, it is a very fine carpet. Radio carbon methodology confirmed its age, about 2500 years.

You may spend a good amount of money once you have started collecting authentic, old pieces of different provenances. One reason is that the real stuff is expensive. You will only learn by making costly mistakes. And in addition (at least that is my experience), for each good piece you may buy another five not so good.

The best way to avoid buying carpets when in Iran is to visit the stunning carpet museum in Tehran first. When having seen the century-old masterpieces of Persian carpet weaving, just wonderful and room filling, you may be rather resistant to the intricate and savvy dealers in Tehran’s big bazaar. This is particularly true if you exactly know what you are looking for.

Whenever I was in Tehran, the Carpet Museum was a must. It is an amazing moment when you identify a certain motif or design in one of your own pieces. The carpet below is a pure silk tribal rug from Sarakhs at the Turkmenistan border in the northeastern corner of Iran while the original (see above) is a woolen carpet woven by members of the Bakhtiari tribe in the southwest of Iran. The cypress tree is surrounded by trees of life and various flowers. In my carpet, the borders are alternating blossoms and botehs.

If you ask a carpet dealer about the age of an old piece he usually knows. But based on what? A rather new carpet maybe worn if put in areas with heavy traffic. And you can imagine that the most precious pieces will be hanging only on the wall and never really exposed to feet or (even worse) shoes!

On rare occasions you may discover a woven date in the carpet. Once you have translated the Arabic numbers how can you interpret them? The piece below was 4 times as expensive as other Baluchi rugs which came with the same shipment. It is from Eastern Iran (compare, for example, S. Azadi and A. Besim: Carpets in the Baluch Tradition, Klinkhardt & Biermann, München 1986, plate 53). It says, on both sides, in the upper third of the central field ۱۳۲۹, so 1329. Since the year 2008 is 1429 AH (after hijra), one might assume that the carpet has been woven about 100 years ago. However, each year of the Islamic calendar is 11 days short of the year of the Gregorian calendar. So, you have to subtract about 3 years, giving 97. So, the carpet must have been woven in 1911, right? Not necessarily. In 1925, Iran adopted under the early Pahlavi dynasty the solar calendar with fixed numbers of days per month (31 in the first six months, 30 in the next five months and 29 in the last month (or 30 in leap years). The year starts on March 21 of the Gregorian calendar. Of course, counting started after hijra. Presently, we have the year 1387. So, is my carpet only 58 (1387 minus 1329) years old? It may be. Mr. Abbas Okhravi in Mashhad, who sold me the piece, was also a bit in doubt. He suggested the older date, of course.

Other features have to be considered. The carpet is worn, but not that much worn. Colors are most probably made from vegetables only, but that can be the case also in a younger piece. Quality of the wool is high although the number of knots per square inch is rather low. I suppose the price was okay.

See more information here.