Monday, 29 September 2008

Eid Mubarak!

Mahmoud Farshchian - The Fifth Day of Creation (1990)

I was a hidden treasure, and I wished to be known, so I created the world
Hadith Qudsi

A blessed and joyful Eid ul-Fitr to all of you! And Thank you very much! for your nice greetings and responses, Daniyal, Adel, Maryam, Mervi, Ulvi & Ebru, Yunus & Amera, Ridwaan & Nazreen, Neda, Athbi, Asma’a & Muna, Faraj, Saad, Mdme Al-Mutawa, Abdulaziz, Ehsan, Mona, Qasem, Muawia, Shirin, Mehdi & Kami, Abbas, and Sirous.

Ha det bra,
Take care!

Friday, 26 September 2008

Beautiful from Space Only

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released today a satellite image of southern Iraq taken September 14, 2008. It shows an enormous sand storm which apparently did not affect Kuwait, as I checked right now. Weather Underground (my favorite weather forecast site) had reported weather and 45 centigrades maximum temperature that very day. Still rather hot, I suppose.

Kuwait had been plagued by a large number of sandstorms this year. I remember 2003 when military activity in the north of the tiny Gulf state was made responsible for numerous sandstorms which occurred from April through June. They usually develop when large amounts of cold air moves across dry ground, which is covered by loose sand or salt. They inevitably impair quality of air and may cause asthma attacks or even bronchitis and conjunctivitis. Even the immune defense might be affected.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Kasra Naji's Book about the Iranian President

There is an urgent need for an unbiased and more detailed analysis of the origins of this son of a blacksmith from Aradan. And, a personality profile might in fact explain his incredible rise, from humble homes to the centers of power in Tehran. Fast, determined, scary to much of the rest of the world. Paralyzing, even nullifying, the already initiated little progress under former ‘reformist’ President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.

Who is this man who has almost become a hero, even a kind of pop star, of the underdogs in Muslim societies; those (incredibly poor) who are sitting beneath the table of the rich? And those who are related in one or the other way to what has been called by George W. Bush as the axis of evil? Read the rest of this book review »

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Autumn Colors

The last few days we experienced exceptionally good and stable weather here with an explosion of autumn colors at the end of the short Arctic summer. Friends had brought their car from Finland to Nord Norge. So, last weekend, we did a trip to Ullstinden and what is called Blåmannsneset (literally blue man’s nose) where we had, after a short climb to the top of the hill, magnificent views to the open Barents Sea. We had a barbecue with too many sausages and some white vine and met a German couple working in Norway also for one year.

On the way back we picked plenty of blueberries and mulberries and saw plenty of other not eatable ones. No mushrooms there.

I got the last sunburn for a long time to come. After tomorrow, days are getting shorter rapidly, and after November 21, sun won’t rise over the horizon for two long months to come.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Hussain and Ali

I have recently mentioned these two guys in another posting mainly featuring my friends Seyed and Mirwuis from Afghanistan. All of them are dedicated and honest carpet dealers with profound knowledge, selling high quality pieces from their home country, from Iran and Central Asia. I don’t know how carpet business is right now in Kuwait for Ali and Hussain. It all depends on the Westerners, I suppose. Kuwaitis go for different pieces, I was told in the Persian Carpet Exhibition in Salmiya.

I had mentioned them in relation to a photo which I have carried for some time even in my wallet. It shows both, Ali and Hussain and a little Afghan girl weaving a carpet. Hussain, the lad on the right, proudly smiles into the camera. Ali, his older brother, seems to be more quiet but very self-confident. The girl doesn’t smile. In fact, you can feel even an atmosphere of embarrassment emanating from the girl. She might not be older than, say, seven or eight. Let’s call her Fatima.

The photo is a kind of a business card of the shop owners in the vicinity of Kuwait’s Mubarakia Heritage Souq downtown Kuwait. When you turn it, a map is drawn telling you also some contact information.

We liked to go to the souq in the evenings. We enjoyed chatting with the shop keepers, introduced our guests who every now and then visited us and even persuaded them to buy a nice piece, maybe a Turkoman carpet or Balouchi rug. Afghan war rugs were, after 9-11, especially sought-after. Unfortunately, I have given them away to friends and relatives, now much more aware of their emotional value. I always got the best discount because I dragged many new customers to my friends from Afghanistan.

But the main reason for this posting is in fact Fatima. Hussain, who had great charisma, liked to tell us heartrending stories about the young girls involved in the manufacturing of the rugs. They would take the nicest pieces for their dowry, of course, but how come that the nicest pieces were displayed in Hussain and Ali’s shop in Kuwait?

A picture is worth a thousand words. This one tells us so much about the society these three people are living in and/or coming from. The principle of master and servant, which I despised so much when living in Kuwait. But, on the other hand, I enjoyed it also a lot. Child labor, even child marriage comes to my mind.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not criticize. I only watch, as usual. For me it is very clear that changing the circumstances is not possible in a ‘war against terrorism’. It will take more than a generation to implement standards of human rights the so-called West has only adopted during the last 200 years or so. Afghanistan is a country which is now continuously inflicted in war for almost 30 years. It has been a playing field of super powers which really didn’t care about the human beings whose home country it is and was.

Hussain and Ali and their cousin Firous, who has a small shop in the nearby souq, are, as I understood them, Shi’a which had to suffer especially under the terrible Taliban regime. Some of them were even refugees now located in Khorasan in northeastern Iran. All of them have a hard life, incomparable with ours. We are or have been so privileged to learn about a foreign culture in a socially settled and financially safe situation.

I want to wish all three people on the picture a better future and satisfaction in life. In particular, as Ramadan is coming to an end soon and this time of the year demands good deeds and thoughts. And, Hussain (if and when this posting will ever reach you), if you have a nice war rug from Afghanistan, let me know!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

No Mercy

I know that I was always very privileged when living in the country. My Ramadans were usually nice times full of interesting discussions about religious matters and in general plenty of opportunities for widening my horizon.

However, the easy-going times of Ramadan are now definitely over. Since last year (when I had left the Middle East for good already) the Holy Month is moving into the summer months and will be observed for about 12 years during the scorching heat. A full circle of the Gregorian-Hijra calendar is 33 years, an entire generation. Since in Muslim countries the population is very young, few people have experienced the harsh conditions of fasting during the long, extremely hot and, what makes it even worse, humid days.

I have noticed that the weather conditions were very uncomfortable in Kuwait the last days. When living in Kuwait, I had expressed my concerns many times and usually was told by the older Kuwaiti colleagues that people were used to it. I doubt. Most people are anyway working indoors. My compassion and sympathy is especially with Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian construction workers who have to bear the brutal heat and humidity in full which is in fact unbearable when it comes to 40+ degrees and close to 100% humidity. I remember only one time that this condition had hit me. In my first September in Kuwait, it was very similar: water running outside the windows.

I was also wondering how it was in Makkah, for example, when the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (PBUH). According to tradition, he’s got the first revelation in a cave of Hira on August 10, 610 CE when he was fasting in the month of Ramadan (I think that it was at the end of Ramadan, the last few days are still observed by the faithful as Laylat al-Qadr). On that very day this year Makkah reported 42 degrees maximum temperature and rather humid conditions.

So, people at that time were in fact kind of used to it. By Hijra of the Muslims in 622, Ramadan had moved 132 days ahead, i.e., end of April, which still seems not to be very comfortable in Makkah (37 degrees, very humid this year).

Madinah may in fact be a bit different. It is also at a higher altitude, >600 meters above sea level.

In the old days in Kuwait without any air condition people would not have worked too much but used the long hours for contemplation and prayers. Badgirs, or wind towers, dominated the village, not skyscrapers as today (see Sharq Market as an example; they are found all over and on both sides of the Persian Gulf). The need for physical activity was at a very low level, I suppose.

Today’s greed and hyperactivity makes life so difficult during Ramadan in the summer. There might be a chance right now for a change in the society. Since I would expect even casualties this summer and in the coming years, authorities have to do something about it. Not only there but also in the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, even Saudi Arabia.

Before I left Kuwait, working hours during Ramadan had been shifted already to the early morning hours. Construction workers woke me up, not the muezzin. But then Ramadan was still in October, which may be nice in Kuwait, especially at the end of the month.

Saturday, 13 September 2008


Kuwait’s Arab Times had attracted my attention to Esfahan’s gorgeous Great Mosque in an article in 2003. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find so far a webpage of the article which praised the wonders of Iran’s largest mosque and one of the most significant and finest buildings of the Islamic world.

I visited the site the first time at my second trip to Esfahan in late spring of 2004. I took some pictures in the vast courtyard, soaked the peaceful atmosphere there, and watched the few visitors from Iran and elsewhere. I had forgotten about the many details of the article and faintly had read some of the notes in my travel guide.

My second visit in late 2007 was driven by scientific interest. I had recently posted (at Freelance) my rather amateurish studies and thoughts about a suggested ‘conceptual breakthrough’ in Islamic architecture and art in the late 15th century, i.e., quasi-crystalline tessellations, which had led to world-wide attention due to its publication in the Science magazine by Lu and Steinhardt in February 2007. That article was in fact one of my main reasons for visiting Iran again. But in order to get a visa for traveling in the country, which is still threatened by war, I had to push myself into a professional conference in Tehran, including personal invitation by the more than hospitable organizers.

With a copy of the Science article in my hands I tried, first in vain, to find the hidden Darb-e Emam shrine in the Dardasht Quarter of Old Esfahan and explored the relics of the Seljuq period when Esfahan was the capital of the Great Seljuq Empire. Strolling through the labyrinthine alleys took me immediately back to the 11th century when Omar Khayyam (d. 1131) was living here and Nizam al-Mulk (assassinated 1092) was vizier of the Seljuk ruler Malik Shah (d. 1092).

Since I couldn’t find the Darb-e Emam shrine my interest turned to Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jomeh. Here I took, again as a tourist, many pictures. Although quasi-crystalline tiling patterns were described there, too, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking for and where to find it. The mosque features tilings from three important periods, Seljuq, Timurid, and Safavid. The overall construction with its four iwans was first implemented here in Esfahan and might have its origin in (pre-islamic) Sassanid vaults. The article mentions a northwestern iwan, but in other publications northern and western iwans were described. I stayed not longer inside the complex than, say, for one hour. That was a big mistake which I only noticed later.

I eventually detected Darb-e Emam a couple of days later. I could identify it and many other hidden sights which I have described elsewhere on a tourist map which I got in the famous Abbasi Hotel. I had still to ask several people. An Afghan refugee finally guided me to the site where I took several pictures of the described nonperiodic tessellations and of more conventional artwork close-by. You may find pictures of this rather small complex here.

Later, at home, discovering important pieces of decoration on the four iwans of the Friday Mosque on the pictures was cumbersome but inspired me to special thoughts about time and genius.

The question which mainly absorbs me is: When? Also how, and why? Quasi-crystalline patterns are only found on the western iwan (see below), at the inner sides of the portal. On a huge area, much larger than those few on Darb-e Emam. But this western iwan displays, in contrast to, for example, the southern main iwan a very austere decoration with a rather simple geometric decoration and squared kufic calligraphy. It is definitely from the Seljuq period. Typical newer tile decoration, whether late Timurid or early Safavid, can in fact better be marveled at the southern iwan with its floral patterns, vases, vine scrolls and spirals, and thuluth calligraphy. See, for example, in the picture above, how richly the kind of swastika was decorated in this later period. According to theory, the manufacture of non-periodic tiling is a later conceptual breakthrough (late Timurid in 15th century). But when quasi-crystalline pattern are found, say 50 cm distant to more conventional swastikas and kufic inscriptions dating back to the more austere Seljuq period (see the pictures below), is it possible that what we now call ‘Penrose’ patterns, in fact has been been created earlier?

It is, of course, about terms, as well. We are creating images which are contemporary. And we do not know how, and if, it was called one thousand years ago. So far, no written documents have been found describing decagonal symmetry but an anonymous paper from the 13th century (as a comment to much older work by Abu'l Wafa' al Buzjani, a well-known mathematician living in Baghdad between 945 and 987) describing the construction of a pentagonal seal (which can be seen in the Abbasid Palace in Baghdad, dated 1180-1230) employing the Golden Triangle (which has a close relationship to Penrose's kite and dart tiles) has been described by Wasma'a K. Chorbachi and Arthur L. Loeb (in Istvan Gargittai. Fivefold Symmetry. World Scientific, Singapore 1992).

What is amazing me, too, is that Iranians all the time during their millennia-long history had forced the invaders of their country to adopt local customs, art und science, religion. Starting in historical times with Alexander’s short-lived Hellenization under the Seleucids. Then Arabic Islam; Seljuq’s, Mongolian’s, Timurid’s nomadic culture: all of which certainly existed but was profoundly modified and inspired, all was Persianized; in the meaning of change according to the culture of the people that had been ‘conquered’.

Thursday, 11 September 2008


Where had I been 7 years ago? Well, I had been busy the whole day. It was 10 days before my intended significant translocation. In FOD, Kuwait, my new colleagues were waiting for me. I had read a book about the small country’s recent history with the title “A New Beginning,” and I had got a feeling that this might even apply to my upcoming move. I had bought a copy of the Holy Qur’an as well and already tried to read in it.

I arrived at my flat at 7 pm, with cardboard boxes for shipping my personal effects later that week. When I had switched on my TV, I first thought that I was in the wrong movie. The Twin Towers in New York were burning? The news anchor’s voice had a shrill tone. America had been attacked by Islamic terrorists.

Well, I cannot exactly tell what I was thinking, but already half an hour later I got the first telephone call from a friend telling me that I will go to Kuwait and not change my mind! It would be safe whatever is going to happen in the next days.

When bidding farewell that week in September 2001, my friends were in fact disbelieving that I had not revised my decision. And nobody in Kuwait honestly expected me to come anymore. Later I heard from another expat who had lived many years in Riyadh that he and his wife left Saudi Arabia after 9-11 because of hostilities emerging against westerners and Americans, in particular. Fortunately, I’d never experienced any hostilities while living in the Middle East. Even three years later, when the US and allies toppled Saddam Hussein, I felt rather safe (despite a gas mask in my closet, which I had borrowed from my Embassy, and taped windows in my flat).

My immediate feeling that the later declared war on terrorism will inevitably change the world became reality in the meantime. I have left the Middle East last year for mainly professional reasons. But I became also more and more concerned about possible new military attacks in the near future, another war about oil and gas in the region. And this time Iran is going to be threatened. It doesn't bear thinking about!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

After Gustav now Hanna, Ike, Josephine ...

Now, after Gustav had not hit New Orleans as badly as Katrina three years ago, oil prices are dropping, the Dollar is soaring, and US Republicans can eventually celebrate Senator John McCain. At least Gustav prevented President G. W. Bush effectively from attending the nomination convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

But new clouds are seen at the horizon (and it is not McCain's more and more questionable running mate in his election campaign). After Gustav, Hanna is already the next hurricane, this time threatening the Sunshine State. And Ike and Josephine are already forming on the Atlantic Ocean. Another terrible hurricane season. It's again, after 2005, kind of gigantic pool billiard.

Gustav has killed about 15 people in the US. Of course, this is mainly due to the wise decision of its mayor and authorities to evacuate the city. But is anybody thinking of almost a hundred people who had lost their lifes in the Caribbean? Or of the hundreds of thousand stranded people in flooded northeastern India who are desperately waiting for help after the disaster of a burst of the Kosi River in Bihar? And don't know where to go?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Students (V)

Ahmed Shafiq Abdulkareem Al Tameemi (not in the picture), presently 4th-year student at Kuwait University FOD and Chief Editor of the Kuwaiti Dental Students Society (KDSS) Magazine wrote:

“Finally, one of the biggest hurdles in my dental education has been passed, literally passed. Next year, I’m off to fourth year, seeking higher education, which, according to the Monthly Dose (all rights reserved) leads to a faster mental decline. Well I’m willing to take the risk. What ever happened in the last three years of my “higher education” already did its damage. What happened exactly that led to my “mental decline”?

First of all, entering this University a year earlier started it all. I should have taken that extra course of physics in my school. Then maybe I would have gotten a C+ instead of a D+. Or maybe it was the fact that I really never had anything as hard as a college course. In school, all we had to do is answer all the past papers from 1988 to 2004 and you can guarantee yourself a B. However, attempt this here, no higher than 59% meaning you won’t pass. Another thing that helped was in the second stages of the exam (AS levels), an 80% was an A, but in our college, an 80% is a B-.

Next point, late night studying up to midnight, and two in the morning for physiology increased the amounts of antioxidants within me as I was awake (and when you’re awake you breathe at a faster rate, using more oxygen, producing more reducing equivalents, transporting them through the electron transport chain, releasing more oxygen radicals). Without the proper nutrients, the process of removing these antioxidants is impaired, and no-one during exams ever receives the proper dosage of vitamin C and E as they are low in Burger King’s burgers, Instanbuli’s sandwiches, Batriq’s meals, Starbucks’ mocha frappuccinos, BaskinRobins’ milkshakes and Snicker bars.

Due to the excessive late night studying, this decreased the available time to go out and have a little fun. Hence, the level of relaxation decreased, also decreasing the time available for the body to relax. This impairs the body’s immune system, which increases the risk of infection, which increases the stress and decreases relaxation time, which leads to an impaired immune system. It’s what’s known as the “Vicious Cycle of the Ill”. The only time when I actually go to have some fun is when my friends from Canada, Ireland, and America come to Kuwait, which always ends up being near my exams, or on my exams, or even worse, on the day of my finals. So I take a day to “relax” but truth is told, I’m thinking about what I just did. I took a day off from studying subject X, to have some fun to clear my mind… of what I just studied. Hence, having “fun” during your study-leave actually leads to forgetfulness. That’s why I only manage to get a C+ in subject X.

Note that the previous “activities” I mentioned I was obliged to do in order to pass third year. Other activities I decided to undertake were working for KDSS. Such activities decreased time for relaxation and if you go back to the previous paragraph, you’ll know what will happen, so no need to repeat myself, because if I do, I will be wasting time and energy which I can use to do something useful like have some “fun”.

Well, I’ve almost finished dentistry, almost going to specialize, and almost going to have some fun until I realize I’m a 24-year-old graduate who looks like he is in his mid 40’s.”

Great article, Ahmed. I definitely know that dental students in Kuwait are most diligent and eager but also have a lot of fun. I have seen students from many countries, but those from the Middle East are among the best!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Ramadan Kareem!

Ramadan had always amazed me when I was living in the Middle East. The whole society voluntarily synchronized, and for days before the beginning of the month preparations took place in order to store enough food at home for the upcoming days of fasting during daylight. I remember one Thursday morning, the last day of the month Sha’aban, when, as usual on weekends, I drove my car to the huge industrial areas of Shuwaikh in order to do my weekend shopping. Besides the Sultan Center’s wholesale grocery store there, I loved to visit the two Al Mirah Markets close-by. It was unfortunately too late when I realized that tens of thousands of Kuwaitis in their huge four-wheel-drives had exactly the same idea of shopping food. I was standing for several hours in the car queues with stop and go.

During Ramadan it was, of course, tolerated that we Westerners did not strictly follow the religious rules. Many of us had, at least in their closed offices, a sandwich for lunch. Our Bangladeshi coffee boy Qasem even served us coffee. I always found that very inappropriate and it was rather a pleasure for me to join my Kuwaiti colleagues in fasting from dawn to dusk. My otherwise not so religious friend Ehsan from Esfahan once wrote me in an email that even simple food tastes incredibly well after long hours of fasting, and I fully agree. I loved to break ‘my’ fasting also with the very tasteful dates, in particular those from Saudi Arabia which were said to be the best in the world.

Another pleasant experience was emptiness of the roads after sunset. It was incredible. Usually, traffic is enormous in Kuwait. But during Ramadan, between 5 and 9 pm or so, you are the king of the roads. While driving just before sunset might be pretty dangerous since people are heading home almost fainting because of hunger, a little later, all of them have safely arrived and are engaged in religious practices and preparing food for extensive feasts before planning to go out. Shops and restaurants will open again until early in the next morning, traffic revives, and people enjoy this very special time of the year. There are also certain nights to be observed, especially in the end of the month when the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City is very crowded by the faithful. One of them is Laylat al-Qadr (لیلة القدر, in Farsi Shab-e Qadr) when the first verses of the Holy Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (saw).

Determination of the beginning and end of a month is especially important in case of Ramadan when it would be a great sin not to fast on its first day and a similar sin to continue fasting on the 1st of Shawwal, on which occasion Eid ul-Fitr is celebrated. But detecting the crescent of the new moon is not an easy task. The very peaceful place where I went many times the day before Ramadan has been featured in this blog elsewhere. It is located north of the Al Mutla’a ridge and you have to climb the cliffs of Jal Azzor just before the fenced National Park. Provided clear skies, the setting and disappearance of the sun below the horizon may be watched from here. I am afraid that continuous construction works and even vast barriers are nowadays preventing any approach to the plains, which extend far north up to and beyond the Iraqi border.

With regard to the crescent, I have to admit I never discovered it. I took pictures with a high-resolution camera and tried to blow them up on my laptop later, but there did never anything resemble the sickle of the new moon. One can get an impression of what we are talking about when looking at the crescents of the new moon on the interesting webpage

This year, Ramadan 1 will inevitably fall on September 1, because the crescent will not be visible before then. The month of Sha'aban started with a solar eclipse and the re-occurrence of a lunar eclipse on August 16 means that the final day of Sha'aban will coincide with August 31. There will be efforts, however, to see the New moon on Shaba'an 29, of course.

The State of Kuwait follows by and large Saudi Arabian authorities in defining the beginning of a new month. But there are differences. In Iran, Ramazan usually starts one day later. And so will Eyd-e Fetr. I visited the country several times on the occasion of the Holiday of Breaking the Fast when it was still Ramazan in Iran. I remember a trip through Central Iran in 2005. I arrived in Qom in the late afternoon. I had chosen the very simple Aria-Hotel close to the Hazrat-e Masumeh with its Holy Shrine. It was okay, but I did not expect to get a breakfast the next morning. So, after sunset, I strolled through the small bazaar and searched for dates, chocolate, and some bread. But they served breakfast in the morning! All guests were, after all, travelers, and hence no fasting was demanded. Unthinkable in the much more conservative Kuwait! But times will change even there, I suppose.

So, Ramadan Kareem! And have a blessed and most spiritual time, wherever you are!