Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year!

While 2011 comes to an end, New Year's pledges are hard to formulate. Generally, predictions are unreliable, and what had happened this year hardly anybody had envisaged one year ago. So, there might be some hope for 2012.

The year started promising, millions of North Africans eventually lost patience after realizing that nothing had to be expected in the aftermath of President Obama's historical speech in Cairo of June 4, 2009, just one week before Iran's disputed presidential election. Whether WikiLeak's diplomatic cables ignited what is now known as Arab Spring is not clear, but they certainly contributed to it. The world won't be the same after the brave publication of the cables. If there had been trust in U.S. foreign policy, it has vanished. If anybody had kept faith with Obama's integrity his hypocrisy must have come as a shock.

Ongoing perplexity of world leaders on how to deal with the aggravating global financial crisis, or catastrophic effects of global warming; Obama's need for being re-elected, and Iran's suffocating encirclement and ruined economy; two lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and beacons of hope Julian Assange and Bradley Manning arrested. Well, the future will tell what the future will be.

We spent Christmas this year again in the Middle East. Oman's comparably broad-minded and western music loving Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said had made his dream come true and bestowed peaceful and friendly Omanis and everybody else a, well, opera house. It is said that the Royal Opera House Muscat was one of the most expensive opera houses so far (more expensive than Sultan Qaboos' Grand Mosque with its second largest hand-woven carpet and chandelier). We attended Pjotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake given by the world class Mariinsky Ballet, an unforgettable experience.

To all my readers Happy New Year 2012!

First published at Freelance.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Lost Decade

Please see the video here.

Where have I been ten years ago? Well, I don’t know. Ten years ago, Ahmad Shah Masoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, had been assassinated by Al Qaeda, but I have learned about that critical event long time after the killing. I suppose I have written about my whereabouts two days later already. It was one of these significant emotional events in life you won’t ever forget (and no one in the world did). I had actually been filling packing boxes all day looking forward to a critical move, to the Middle East. I had got a job offer at Kuwait University. My new colleagues were awaiting me (but, honestly, after the Twin Towers and Pentagon had been hit and hit again, not anymore). The first TV commentators mentioned the world wouldn’t be the same after the assault. They had been right, of course.

When having arrived in Kuwait, I and my colleagues (who were surprised that I had made it) were eagerly or skeptically awaiting the retaliation strikes which then started on October 7.

Contrary to immediate fears, life turned out to be easy in Kuwait, and I got a premier seat for observing what was going on in Afghanistan (and later in Iraq) and developed new sensitivities of an expat, who happened to experience hospitality in an allegedly “hostile” environment. So, I caught up, developed, learned and matured.

Not so the U.S. That the 9-11 attacks had not come out of the blue, Americans never understood. “Why do they hate us?” was the naïve question which was heard everywhere. Americans did never understand that the attacks had something to do with the decade-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the presence of, as regards intercultural competence, ignorant, well infidel, agents and soldiers in Saudi Arabia, with failed Middle Eastern politics under Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton and now incredible Bush junior, who seemingly wanted to top previous attempts of patronizing in the sensitive region.

No wonder that the Abu Ghuraib scandal and personal circumstances when I heard about it first were another significant emotional event considerably changed the attitude of most upright men and women in the world. Then Guantanamo. Iraq body count, the Granai airstrike, the similar one of Kunduz. Iran’s nuclear program and how the U.S., together with its western allies, imposed rounds of painful sanctions on the country which seemed to copy those one decade earlier on Iraq (I don’t want to write about the apparent coup attempt after the disputed Iranian presidential election of 2009). This war (including the events after WikiLeaks had published the "Collateral Murder" video, the Iraqi and Afghanistan War Logs and the Diplomatic Cables) andwhich appeared to be directed not only towards terror or terrorism but the Islamic world at large, goes on and on. Obama’s speeches had been turned out more or less hollow. This year’s Arab awakening did not occur due to his nice words but in spite of Obama. The NATO bombarding of Libya in order to oust Qadafi the western ally has always had a fishy smell. What comes next there? In Egypt? Tunisia?

Well, Al Qaeda has not been the winner of this war either, definitely not. The network declines for some time, not only after Osma bin Laden's killing, and loses influence among Muslims (which has always been very small). But hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and displaced people in Iraq and Afghanistan must in a way be balanced with the couple of thousands of innocent victims on September 11, 2001. Has it been worth it?

When reviewing the past ten years, I've got the impression that some of the real terrorists had been sitting on Wall Street.

Here's something else.

First published at Freelance.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Once Upon a Time in the East

Thanks to Intlxpatr, who loved to live there too, I came across this beautiful little piece. Kuwait changed sometimes during two-month summer vacations much. After four years, it has beautified so much. Amazing. I used to live close to Salmiya's wonderful corniche. Miss it much.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Cairo, April 2011

We just returned from a short trip to Cairo. We spoke with a few people about the revolution. There is certainly hope but  not really the spirit of change. Egyptians have listened to President Obama's historical speech on June 4, 2009 in Cairo but also have noted that his words on America's support of democracy all over the world were not meant very seriously.

That the revolution in Egypt is now irreversible may be an over-opimistic conclusion by Mohamed ElBaradei who might run for presidency in September but without any real chance. See his interview with Charlie Rose while promoting his new book The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times here.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Mabrouk Kuwait!

These days, Kuwaiti citizens celebrate their “Golden Independence Anniversary” and 20 years of liberation from Saddam Hussein’s hordes. And HH Amir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah is five years in power, of course. 50-20-5. The city is beautifully illuminated and each citizen has got 1000 dinars ($3500) already. Panem et circensis. Uproars in North Africa and even Bahrain seem not to affect the Kuwaitis, although last week has seen some protests of bedouns, or stateless people.

I remember similar celebrations when one of the current Amir’s predecessors, HH Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (“Baba Jaber”), returned in 2002 from treatment in the United States after having recovered from a mild stroke. We got stuck in the traffic deadlock on our way back to Salwa, we had to walk. Young people were enthusiastically dancing on the cars. Kuwaitis love their Amirs.

When once asking one of my bright Kuwaiti student what exactly they were celebrating on February 25/26, she responded, “Oh, we became independent (in 1961).” “But honestly,” she added, “we had never been dependent!” I liked that. Of course it isn’t true and never was. Kuwait wouldn’t even exist (apart from a small village of fishermen and pearl divers, and some Bedouins living in tents, without the oil which had been discovered in the late 1930s. It would not exist without the Britons and later the U.S.

Anyway, congratulations! Mabrouk to all brave Kuwaitis!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Strong Women (and Men)

On my numerous visits to Iran during the last decade I have rarely come across nomads. Once, when being on trips from the southern city of Shiraz to Pasargadae and the Margoon waterfalls in the Zagros mountains, my young companion pointed to migrating ‘gypsies’ as the Qashqa’i people were sometimes called by ordinary Iranians. They were on the move north to escape from the scorching heat during the summer months, I was told. It wasn’t clear whether he wanted to express his respect for the free will of the free people in a theocratic dictatorship who won’t be in need for the accomplishments of modern civilization; or rather a slight contempt.

What I came across of, however, were their beautiful products, textiles and rugs, which frequently added to my growing collection of tribal art of the Middle East. In retrospect, one had to concede that my craving for high quality pieces only intensified when returns to the Middle East became more difficult. And, as I was told recently, those pieces won’t be found anymore in Persia these days. Nomadic life in the Islamic Republic of Iran of the 21st century may not have a future, though the tide of events (conquests, wars, famine and plagues) has only proved the resilience of strong people living in harmony and peace with Nature.

I have recently written about the frontier nomads of the Shahsevan in Azerbaijan and their beautiful soumakh weavings used for mafrashs and khorjins, larger and smaller bags and cradles, a sort of furniture of people on the move. People who hardly exist anymore. Their colorful and ornamental, painstaking weavings is the art of their womenfolk. They are rare nowadays and highly sought-after collectibles since they are pretty small and often wonderfully composed of geometric and/or highly symbolic designs which may or may not be open to endless interpretations about their meanings.

Richard Tapper, an emeritus professor of Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, is an expert of the Shahsavan and has written a political and social history of these frontier nomads in the northwestern corner of Iran. He and Jon Thomson, a visiting fellow at St. Cross College, University of Oxford, and Director of the Beattie Archive in the Department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, have collected a large number of essays of the different nomadic tribes in Iran which are supplemented with wonderful photographs of the people by Nasrollah Kasraian. They were ‘taken’ as Thompson explains in the preface, during the 1980s, a time when Iran was in a murderous war with arch foe Saddam Hussein, then dictator in Iraq.

“We speak of ‘taking’ a photograph, and faced by a camera, many people intuitively sense that the photographer is taking something which in essence is for his own use. Even though a promise may be made to send prints – a promise often broken – the feeling remains that there is a predatory aspect to his work. This is especially the case when pictures are taken without a person’s permission or knowledge. The situation becomes abundantly clear to anyone foolish enough to use a Polaroid camera in the field. As soon as the subjects discover that they can get hold of the image and keep it for themselves, and furthermore they can control the image they present, all resistance vanishes and the clamour to be photographed is unending.”

The pictures are indeed breathtaking. My first impression was that they mainly portray old, middle-aged and young women with their children and grandchildren, not men: beautiful women with striking features. It is mentioned in the book and crystal clear when watching the pictures: “[they] are visibly tougher and freer than their settled sisters, yet their life consists of back-breaking work fetching huge loads of fuel and water and long hours at the loom.” One may instantly feel a desire to get to know them personally, talk with them and share so different experiences in life.

In his political and social study Richard Tapper documents also some voices of the Shahsevan. He recorded a few stories of elders of the Geyikli tribe in 1966. Here comes an example:

̉Emran Imani of Geykili on Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli
In the time of Naser ad-Din Shah, the Shah summons Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli to Tehran to account for his misdeed. In those days there were no government representatives in Azarbaijan, though there were in Araq. People say to Nurollah Bey, ‘The Shah may have summoned you to Tehran, but don’t go, he’ll kill you; he wants you to account for your misdeeds.’ ‘Even if the Shah has summoned Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli to Tehran to die’, he tells them, ‘Nurollah Bey will not pay any attention to your warnings; I am going.’
So he takes one servant and sets off from Moghan for Tehran. In those days there were no cars nor even proper roads, so they go by horse; and it takes them twenty days or a month to get there. He arrives in Tehran and rests for a little, then after a couple of days he has a letter written to the Shah, as follows: ‘God save Your Majesty! Nurollah Bey Qoja-Beyli, whom you sent for is here, come to your feet, ready, at your service.’
Taking the letter, he approaches the inner court and says to the sentry, ‘May I have permission to deliver a letter to the Shah?’ The sentry tells him, ‘I’m afraid I can’t give you permission, but if you’ll hand me the letter I’ll take it and deliver it to His Majesty myself.’ But it seems that the Shah has heard this conversation, since he immediately orders the sentry to let Nurollah Bey come in.
He passes through the courtyard door and enters the inner court. The Shah comes out onto the balcony, and Nurollah Bey finds himself in the royal presence. He takes out the letter and presents it to the Shah, who reads it and sees that this is indeed the Nurollah Bey whom he had summoned on such-and-such a date and at such-and-such a time.
‘Nurollah Bey’, he says, ‘Weren’t you frightened of coming here to see me?’
‘No’, replies he, ‘God save Your Majesty, I wasn’t frightened.’
The Shah is most surprised at this boldness, and goes on: ‘Nurollah Bey, I’m going to ask you three questions; if your answers are satisfactory, I shan’t harm you; but if not, I shall have one of your wrists cut of and one of your eyes put out.’
Well, if a man gets such an order from the Shah, he must be very bold indeed to remain unafraid! Nurollah Bey says, ‘God save Your Majesty, go ahead.’
‘Nurollah Bey’, says the Shah, ‘Where is strength?’
‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Strength is in gun-powder!’
‘Bravo, Nurollah Bey!’ cries the Shah. ‘Nurollah Bey’, he goes on.
‘Sire?’ replies Nurollah Bey.
‘Nurollah Bey, where is pleasure?’
‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Pleasure is in meat!’
‘Bravo, Nurollah Bey!’ cries the Shah. ‘Splendid! Nurollah Bey’, he continues, ‘which are prettier, your women or ours?’
‘Sire’, replies Nurollah Bey, ‘Our women are prettier!’
‘Eh?!’ cries the Shah.
‘Yes’, says Nurollah Bey.
‘How’s that?’ asks the Shah.
‘Because, Sire’, explains Nurollah Bey, ‘If it rained cats and dogs for twenty-four hours and we put all those women out in the rain, then the rain would wash the rouge and powder off your women, and the dirt off ours, and then you’d see which of them were prettier!’
‘Bravo, bravo!’ cries the Shah. ‘Nurollah Bey, I shall grant you a boon, just ask me whatever you like.’
At first Nurollah Bey – who was very smart, a really cunning fellow – says, ‘Sire, all I want is good health for Your Majesty.’
‘No, Nurollah Bey, you must ask me for something.’
‘Sire’, says Nurollah Bey, ‘Since you’re so kind as to grant me this boon, give me all the land between Taulan and Lakiwan for my horses to graze.’ (This was Taulan on the Dara-Yort, and as far as Arshaq.)
So the Shah writes him out a Royal Farman, and gives it to him, saying, ‘Nurollah Bey, take your leave if you want to, it’s up to you; if you like, you may stay here.’
Nurollah Bey takes another few days’ rest, then comes back to see the Shah and ask permission to leave. He enters the Royal Presence once more and says, ‘Sire, your servant requests permission to take his leave.’
The Shah replies, ‘You're very welcome, Nurollah Bey, have a good journey and come again.’
At the time Nurollah Bey was paramount chief of all the Shahsevan, the Shahsevan delegate, as it were. The thirty villages he acquired are still in the hands of his descendants; the Shah had no idea where ‘the land between Taulan and Lakiwan’ was, he thought it must be one village, or something like that. Nurollah Bey was a very clever chap, and scored quite a triumph there, getting the Shah to write him a Farman for all that land.”

First published at Freelance.