Saturday, 30 August 2008

The Ikaros of the Persian Gulf

This is (almost) the title of a wonderful production of Tareq Rajab Museum, written by Mr. Rajab’s wife Sehan in 1999. When I had moved to Kuwait in 2001, the island, about 20 km east of the shores, mesmerized me from the beginning. Interested in the archaeology of the region, the at least two archeological sites there, one from the Bronze Age and a small Greek Temple dating to Alexander the Great, immediately attracted my attention. Amazingly, none of my new colleagues had visited the island and very few others I asked had ever been there. It was said that it was no longer inhabited since the Iraqi invasion and expulsion in 1991. I was told that there was a ferry boat from Ras Salmiya every now and then. So, I decided to make a trip on the first Eid holidays after I had settled in Kuwait.

The Island was first mentioned by Greek geographer Strabo (d. 25 CE). The Greek, who had built an outpost on the island during Alexander’s conquest of Asia (336-323 BCE), called it Ikaros since its shape resembles that of Ikaria, an island in the Aegean Sea with just a similar shape, which is named after Ikaros, who, according to legend, fell upon it when the wax with which his wings had been fastened melted in the sun.

In the 1960s, a Danish team of archeologists began investigations on the island. They had been conducting excavations in near-by Bahrain where they had discovered the Bronze Age Dilmun Kingdom (which can even be traced to the Gilgamesh Epos). It turned out that the Bronze Age settlement on Failaka belonged to Dilmun.

On my second visit two years later, we found the two main sites, that from the Bronze Age and the Hellenistic Temple, now lying in a fenced area. A guard had first to be found and asked for permission to enter. Exploring the ruins is worthwhile in any case. Another story may be the still rather depressing remnants of the Second Gulf War. Bullet-holed abandoned buildings, many desolate chalets, and rather dirty beaches do not invite visitors to stay there, say, overnight. The ferry usually departs at 3 pm already, so one has to hurry to see what can be seen.

Jehan Rajab writes that unfortunately, “[n]ow Failaka Island is going through one of its periods of desertion, as its population of 5000 people was brutally thrown off the island in 1990 at the beginning of the invasion by the Iraqis. Hopefully the population will one day have the opportunity of returning and the island will once more come to life and thrive as it did before. Hopefully too, it will become possible to go ahead with more excavations, for it is obvious that much still remains to be discovered. An overall picture of interesting Kuwaiti and Gulf history can then continue to develop as missing oieces of a jigsaw come together and a clearer picture is revealed.”

There are new excavations, now involving a Slovakian team. A main focus is again the Bronze Age settlement at Al Khidr, north of Al Zour, Failaka’s tiny port. Since July 2007, another Greek team further investigates the Hellenistic past of Failaka Island.

As regard to repopulation, Jehan Rajab had repeatedly pointed to the great dangers of the Kuwaiti Government’s plans of building a tourist center on the small island. The delicate environment there including natural wells with fresh water, which has been completely destroyed during the short time of Iraqi occupation, can most probably not be restored. Due to double moral standards so commonly found among Arabs even alcoholic beverages might be served there, i.e., offshore, in order to attract both Westerners and locals. I read this in newspapers before leaving the Middle East. Friends have already visited a new hotel which has been built in the meantime on the island.

Saturday, 23 August 2008


The almost four-decade-old territorial dispute about the Persian Gulf islands Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs again culminated this week when the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdulrahman AlـAttiyah, compared Iran with Israel occupying Arab land, as Kuwait’s Al Watan reported on Thursday this week, quoting the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

The statement reveals, if not simply stupidity, exorbitance in arguments and the usual striking double standard of Arab leaders and authorities whenever dealing with US interests and issues regarding Israel.

Here are some facts about the islands. Greater (Tonb-e Bozorg) and Lesser Tunb (Tonb-e Kuchak) are two tiny islands about 20 km south of the larger Qeshm Island. The Greater Tunb (about 10 km2) might be inhabited by a few dozens of people. The Lesser Tunb (about 2 km2) is uninhabited. The islands are lying in the middle of the main sea lanes of the Persian Gulf making them strategically important.

As regards to Abu Musa, oil comes into play. The 12 km2 large island is located more centrally in the Persian Gulf and inhabited by several hundred people, Iranians and Arabs. The island harbors a rich supply of untapped oil deposits. Currently, oil is being extracted from a filed close to the shores of Abu Musa.

The UEA, in claiming these islands, which are close to the main sea lanes near the Strait of Hormuz, may indeed be under misapprehension. The issue has quite a long history and may be seen under different perspectives, much depending on how former allies of the US are seen today. Iran has more or less controlled Abu Musa since 1971 when Britain ended its protectorate of the region, which included also Bahrain and Qatar. When the small Emirate Sharjah signed an agreement with Iran accepting Iranian presence on the island with neither side yielding its claim of total sovereignty, Ras Al Khaymah refused and Iran occupied the Tunbs. The Iranian take-over was acquiesced by the US and Britain since the pro-western Shah-regime was considered more reliable in providing stability in a by and large uncertain region. Thus, the Shah’s control over traffic through the Strait of Hormuz was welcomed as the by far better solution.

In 1992, one year after Kuwait had been freed from Saddam Hussein’s occupation, the UAE claimed that Iran had annexed also Abu Musa and Arab inhabitants even expelled from the Island, a frank violation of the agreement with Sharjah. Iran never acknowledged that claim. In a series of military exercises in the Gulf Iran had also sent its message of not accepting any US hegemony in the region.

The again shrill tone by the Emiratis may well be seen as a prelude to new threats imposed on Iran. While the preparations for a naval blockade of the country (most probably in accordance with House Resolution 362) have been denied last week by Strategic Studies Think Tank (Stratfor) it might still be one option of the outgoing Bush Administration ‘on the table’. Tehran had, in the meantime, openly announced a possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz in order to protect its sovereignty.

The anew dispute about the Gulf islands may indicate how leaders of UAE are under pressure of the US. The possible obstruction of the world's most important lifeline is the main obstacle for a more diplomatic approach.

First published at Freelance.

Monday, 18 August 2008


Everything is connected. Exactly 100 years ago, in May 1908, the first oil in the Middle East was discovered in a huge oil field near Masjed-e Soleiman in the Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran. It was William Knox D’Arcy, a British millionaire, who negotiated an oil concession with Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, the ruler of Persia. He got the exclusive rights to prospect for oil for the next 60 years in a territory including most of Iran. The British government paid ₤2 million for the controlling interest in the field.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was founded and became the British Petroleum Company (BP) after the 1953 CIA coup d’état when the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, who had nationalized the oil industry, and his cabinet were overthrown and the extremely unpopular Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlevi re-installed.

One has to question whether Great Britain ever gave the Iranians a fair deal when exploiting the country’s wealth, still about 5% of the world’s oil production.

In fact this is a key reason for the deep suspicions in all of Iran’s dealings with the outside world. The striving for independence from the West is obvious. It is also mirrored by the fact that Iran managed last week to launch a dummy satellite into space by its Safir 1 rocket. Iran has definitely the aspiration to become a regional (super)power. Further isolating the country will rather lead to acceleration of its more uncontrolled technological developments.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Students (IV)

Students are different but, in a way, they are similar to handle. I have seen and educated dental students from many countries in the world and I always noticed a great enthusiasm, curiosity, keenness and wholeheartedness. And becoming older, I more and more admire their broad spectrum of interests and capacities of achieving different aims at the same time.

Tromsø University is a multicultural place with students from about one hundred nations. The Dental School is brand new and was officially opened in August last year with a rather sober ceremonial act, not really comparable with the colorful inauguration of my previous Dental School or graduation ceremonies at Kuwait University.

The students’ clinic is the most modern in the world. Students are in fact online and can solve any problems in real-time evidence-based. Thus, there might be soon a revolution in dental education.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Main Slaughterhouse in Shuwaikh

When Kuwait University Dental School was established there was soon a demand for a special animal teaching model for oral surgical methods. Dental students throughout the world are frequently trained in different flap designs and suturing techniques by using mandibles of freshly slaughtered pigs. But they were, of course, not available in an Islamic country.

What is available and can be seen hanging on hooks in the numerous butcheries in Kuwait are sheep. Arabs love eating mutton and lamb. I quickly learned that the animals were not slaughtered in these places. Early in the morning the butchers are supplied with the slaughtered sheep by the local slaughterhouses. But where are those? Not being able of reading Arabic signs, I was too new in Kuwait, as to be able to find easily every place in the vast industrial areas where I assumed the slaughterhouses to be.

Somebody had told me that the main slaughterhouse of the State of Kuwait is located in Shuwaikh, close to the main fire station of that area. But where was that? When I finally found it in the bustling industrial area between the Fourth Ring Road and what they call Canada Dry Street, the guard who I asked had never had heard about a near-by slaughterhouse.

It actually turned out that it was the neighboring plot of land. I identified the guard commander in the derelict office building, and a few glasses of tea later Dr. Refat, who had been called by mobile phone, arrived. He was the veterinarian on duty that day and I told my problem.

Dr. Refat was an exceptionally friendly, polite, and serious Egyptian colleague. He showed me the facilities of the huge area where the animals were slaughtered. There was a smaller slaughterhouse where, for example, family fathers delivered a single sheep. There was also a bigger complex where, as Dr. Refat explained to me, every night several thousands of sheep were killed. I noticed a certain smell of blood in the air which I still can vividly recall when thinking of it.

Dr. Refat had to learn which part of a sheep’s head I needed and so we agreed upon a new appointment at one of the next nights when I had to watch the slaughtering and wait until all the dead animals were hanging on hooks and the Bangladeshi butchers could do their job and cut up the meat according to my demands.

I arrived at 5 pm. Dr. Refat and his veterinarian colleagues had a rather strange shift: 24 hours on duty, two days off. Regardless of holidays or weekends, sheep had to be slaughtered on every day. I met them in a small dwelling on the ground. Each doctor had his own bed and there was a living room with a TV and a small kitchen. We had a dinner with rice and lamb and then Dr. Refat showed me the animals which were waiting for being slaughtered at night. They had to rest, he explained to me. The long traveling had exhausted them. The flocks with different breeds of sheep, Australian, Somalian, etc. were penned up in fenced areas. I realized that Kuwait as all other Gulf States import living animals some of which are transported around half of the world. I remembered a decomposing corpse on the beach and suddenly understood that the animals which had died on the long way were thrown overboard.

Slaughtering would start after 11 pm, so there was plenty of time for discussing the deeper meaning of this. Dr. Refat talked about the right way to slaughter the animals. In order to be halal, the blood had to leave the body while the animal is still alive. So, the heart had to pump it out of the body. Benumbing the animal by electric current as is practiced, for example, in slaughterhouses in the West, would not be acceptable, nor is the use of a captive bolt stunner. The animal would have died before the blood could leave the body.

I was attentively listening to Dr. Refat’s narrations. I intuitively understood the necessity of getting rid of any blood before eating in a country where meat addles quickly in the scorching heat. It became very clear that it had been the Apostle Paul who had changed these customs. Jews and Muslims are slaughtering alike. There is also a strong element of traditional rites in Jewish and Muslim slaughtering. It may prevent humans from unthoughtful killing of innocent animals.

But when it started, these thoughts immediately disappeared. Three thousand sheep (five thousand during the month of Ramadan) were instantly ready to die, in incredible number. The animals approached their executioners, Bangladeshis in red overalls, in rows of twenty. Their throats were cut with expert movement of a sharp knife, and after a couple of minutes the next row was allowed to enter the area. The mortal agony of the animals took several minutes. Currents of blood were drained into sinks. We were overlooking the ongoing carnage from an office above with large glass windows. Before Dr. Refat had come to Kuwait he had been working in a slaughterhouse in Brazil. There, everything was almost clinically clean, stainless steel everywhere. All of the animals was utilized, the blood, the hide, the bones. Not only the meat as here in the Middle East.

In the middle of the killing the first dead sheep were hung on hooks. Through small cuts in the fur, compressed air was blown beneath the skin. So blown-up, it was easy to ‘undress’ them, i.e., to remove the hide. In rubber boots I followed Dr. Refat through lakes of blood to the site of action. The head of a sheep was cut off and I had to tell the Bangladeshi butcher in his red overall which parts of the mandible I needed for my purpose. With a few expert cuts he managed and I took the sample out. It was 2 o’clock in the morning. I left the slaughterhouse and drove my car home.

I was dreaming of splatter movies, of course. In the following weeks, one of my students and I went to the quite horrible place again and again. The model had to be developed and, given the enormous efforts of getting the samples, published. It took some time until we were able to conduct the first practical sessions with our students. They were curious and had, in general, a positive attitude. They actually couldn’t believe my explanations. According to Islamic rules, animals should not watch other animals being slaughtered. Go there and see for yourself, I recommended. I later read more about the cruelty of shipping living animals from Australia to the Middle East only for the purpose of slaughtering them halal.

Do you still eat meat? I asked Dr. Refat. A little, he told me.

First published at Freelance.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Back to Reality

The realities in international chess-playing Iran are analyzed today by Bernard Avishai and Reza Aslan for the Washington Post.

While the notorious Bush Administration seems to be less willing in its last days to launch an attack on nuclear facilities in Iran, Israel still tackles the pros and cons. The arguments again and again circulate around the Iranian President and his unacceptable rhetoric. But that wiping-off-the-map ado has long been debunked as an intentionally wrong translation of a president’s not really diplomatic show-off who is not really the leader of the country. As Avishai and Aslan correctly state, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who alone commands Iran’s military and dictates foreign policy, has adopted a much softer tone with regard to nuclear negotiations with the West. Through his Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close confidant of the President, the US was described recently 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.” I had reported on that surprising turn in the Iranian Government recently elsewhere. So, Mr. Ahmadinejad is definitely not the strong leader as he would like to be seen. When recently asked in an interview by NBC, who leads Iran, his foreseeable answer was elusive.

Avishai and Aslan go even further. It may be clear in the meantime that the ‘fundamentalist’ caricature of the Mullah regime seeking, via the return of the Mahdi, the doomsday, the apocalypse, suicide and whatsoever is a ridiculous invention of interested circles in the West for preparing the public for possible military actions. The regime in Tehran desperately wants to survive. And moreover, why should they risk a co-destruction of the Palestinian territories by ‘wiping-off the map’ Israel by atomic bombs? But Tehran’s nuclear program (let’s assume it is not only for peaceful purposes) is far more modest than its leaders like to admit.

Avishai and Aslan list further arguments why it is, in their view, unlikely that Iran is or would be a threat for Israel or other countries in the region. Of course, knowing all that will not stop Mr. Ahmadinejad blustering. But who cares? The only way out of the dilemma is diplomacy.

First published at Freelance.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Al Azhar Park

In the very heart of Cairo’s noisy and heavily polluted center, an unexpected oasis has been created, as is featured in this month’s issue of Saudi Aramco World, a daring green experiment linked to Cairo’s past. It is located on the site of a vast rubbish dump where for more than five hundred years residents had tossed away their garbage. The park is a marvelous gem, an Islamic garden, and Cairo’s green lung. The Aga Khan, Imam of the Ismaili muslims with family ties to Cairo’s Fatimid Dynasty of the 10th century, has been a main sponsor of the project. Work commenced in 1997, and in 2004 the park received its first visitors.

It is amazing to read what the team of Egyptian, French, Italian, and American architects, engineers, and landscape specialists and horticulturalists uncovered when digging in the thirty meters of rubble.

By This River

Brian Eno. Before and after Science. EG Records 1977

Friday, 8 August 2008

Congratulations China!

Wondering how THIS will look in Tromsø in 2018 .

Credible Diplomatic Approaches

In its recent report the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) discourages Israel of planning and conducting an air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz and Esfahan similar to that of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in June 1981 and the Al Kibar site in Syria last September. The two main reasons are Iran’s largely dispersed, advanced gas centrifuge facilities and profound lack of knowledge of what Iran can presently master in its uranium enrichment program. The report clearly states that any strike, unlikely to entirely destroy any facilities, would only prompt Iran to hasten its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. In that case, Iran would certainly withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and expel the IAEA inspectors. The report also speculates that Iran may clandestinely have removed key centrifuge components, equipment and materials from Natanz and the uranium conversion facilities in Esfahan already to other hidden places for example in the nearby mountains. The report states that even the IAEA does not have sufficient information with regard to where the gas centrifuge components for P1, IR-1 and IR-2 are manufactured.

The crux with Iran here is that it has halted its voluntary adherence to the Additional Protocol of the NPT in early 2006 limiting the access to its nuclear facilities. So, the IAEA would again only be informed about a new nuclear facility about six months before nuclear material is produced. Hence, the suspiciousness of Israel, the US and other Western powers may in fact be justified.

Included in the ISIS report are satellite images of possible target sites of facilities involved in the manufacture of centrifuges in Tehran, Esfahan and near Mashhad. According to the report, some of them are very small companies or workshops with not more than 10 employees, or even father and son enterprises.

The report concludes that “Iran is understandably concerned that more transparency on its part could lead to the US and Israeli militaries getting better targeting (!) information.” It is self-evident that Iran has to adhere again as soon as possible to the Additional Protocol of the NPT in order to make claims credible that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. On the other site, discussions about possible military attacks (“all options”) must come to an end.

“It is time to set aside the military option and concentrate instead on credible diplomatic approaches to end Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities.”

First published at Freelance.


It seems so as if summer has happened this year early in May. At least, I haven’t got it. Krokelva is a very short mountain torrent, maybe two km long. There are several swamps and little ponds in its vicinity. Right now, spring, summer, and autumn flowers give their best. They know that end of the month the first flurries might come with the northern winds.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Not Pushing Iran into a Corner

There is a lot of talk about a missed deadline these days when it comes to Iran’s nuclear issue. On July 19, the 5+1 talks with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili took place with a surprise appearance of William J. Burns, America’s new Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Unfortunately, he was not supposed to take part in the discussions. But anyhow, the mere fact that he listened to the Iranian standpoints was quite a sensation after almost 30 years of the American-Iranian ice age. The talks had been characterized as very constructive by both parties although the 5+1 did not get a definite answer with regard to their rather generous offer in case of freezing the uranium enrichment by the Iranians. According to Reuters, Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili agreed upon further telephone contacts within the next two weeks or so. There was no deadline set or mentioned.

A self-fulfilling prophecy: that is what most observers expected when Burns had been sent to Geneva. Let him be witness in useless talks and then give a green light for an air strike. It was absolutely clear from the beginning that no immediate decision upon the freeze for freeze offer of 5+1 could be expected. In fact, immediately after the talks, Jalili ruled out further discussions with regard to a freeze of the enrichment program. The June 16 offer is, by the way, a modification of the 2006 package of incentives for suspending uranium enrichment. After decades of betrayal and mutual mistrust, one must understand that Iran won’t accept any solution which would make it dependent on Western technology. The Iranian position here is very clear. It would be helpful in further discussions when the West understands that the red line, i.e., abandonment of uranium enrichment, cannot be crossed. On the other hand, Iran has to make clear that it does not threaten any country, not even Israel.

Of course, there is obviously much propaganda here but when the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the nuclear plant in Natanz in April this year and inspected the new centrifuges, he left the mark of a curious child which had got somehow lost in the deep forest. That doesn’t make him more sympathetic, of course. But a transparent enrichment program safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would not threaten anybody. That Agency under Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has to be strengthened, its indispensable work supported not sabotaged as was the case when Israel bombed an alleged nuclear site in Syria last September.

First published at Freelance.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Five Thousand Years Of History in Less Than Two Minutes

Al Mutla'a

A red-backed Shrike at Al Mutla'a is watching residential areas of Kuwait.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

An Unusual Baluchi Seh Mihraba Rug

Seh Mihraba prayer rug
Baluch, Afganistan, 135 cm x 87 cm, old (first half of 20th century)

Warp: W, Z2S ivory
Weft: W, Z2, dark brown
Pile: W, Z2
Knots: as1
Density: 60 x 40, ca. 2400 knots per sq dm (about 150 kpsi)
Height of pile: 3 mm
Handle: like velvet, somewhat grainy
Upper end: ca. 7 cm kilim, the cut warp ends are knotted together
Lower end: ca. 8 cm kilim
Sides: ca. 0.5 cm wide W Shirasi in dark brown, additional threads
Colors: ca. 7: dark red, red, dark blue, dark beige, brown, dark green, pink.

Seh Mihraba literally means three mihrabs, or prayer niches. While the asymmetrical composition and overall design of this Afghan Baluchi prayer rug is very typical for rugs from the Shindand market area south of Herat, the very dark colors and especially the extensive usage of dark green on this rug are not.

The dark blue central area with its spandrel features a red tree-of-life pattern. It is flanked by two dark green columns and four boxes each at the top and the bottom. While the top boxes contain stepped rhombi composed of pink, green, red and blue rectangles, those at the bottom display remarkable red hexagrams (Najmat Dawuud).

The border system consists of several stripes. The central field is surrounded by pink on blue diamonds. The main border with bird heads design is flanked by two reciprocal spiral vine stripes in dark blue on dark red.

The rug has obviously been manufactured using different wool quality and colors when approaching the lower two thirds, as seen in explicit abrash. A few moth damages. See the story about the rug here.

The shiny wool especially in the bottom part precludes taking more realistic photographs of the very dark rug.

Comments are very much welcome.