Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Atarot Settlement

The latest in Israeli building:
"Government bodies have been promoting a preliminary plan over the past few weeks to build a neighborhood of 11,000 units for the ultra-Orthodox near the East Jerusalem airport. The plan also calls for the construction of a tunnel under a Palestinian neighborhood to connect the new quarter to one of the settlements in the Beit El area east of Ramallah...

"The new neighborhood is to be built close to the separation fence near the Qalandiyah road block, which separates the Palestinian neighborhoods of north Jerusalem from Ramallah. If approved, it would be the largest building project over the Green Line in Jerusalem since the 1967 Six-Day War.

"The neighborhood, which will apparently be built on state or Jewish National Fund land would sit in the heart of one of the most crowded urban Palestinian areas in the West Bank."

"Over the Green Line," of course, means in the West Bank, on land that is not internationally recognized as part of Israel, and that I don't think Israel even claims. I don't have a good sense of the geography of this particular proposal, but it seems to fit into a pattern of encircling Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods which cut it off from other Arab territories and bolster Israel's diplomatic case for keeping the entire city in eventual final status negotiations. You see the same thing with Har Homa near Bethlehem.

Here's some added fun with this particular development:
"The plan proposes connecting the new neighborhood to the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Kokhav Yaakov east of Ramallah, which is at present outside the planned route of the separation fence. To this end, a tunnel a few hundred meters long would be dug beneath the Palestinian village of Aqab and under the separation fence."

Get this? They're planning to dig a tunnel under the Palestinians. I suppose that's better than just appropriating a chunk of the village for a security corridor, but it tells you how things go. This is in the narrow center of the West Bank. Last week the sherut I took from the airport dropped someone off in Alon, which is almost over to Jericho, a trip which took us by Maale Adumim. You can see a whole belt of Israeli development cutting the West Bank in half, most of which can be spun as just outer suburbs of Jerusalem thanks to the general dimensions of this part of the world.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tartman's CV

Did Esterina Tartman lie about her educational background?
"Meanwhile, concerns were raised within Yisrael Beiteinu over allegations published Tuesday in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, which indicated that Tartman had lied about her educational background.

"In an interview this week to the Knesset television channel, Tartman stated that she held a master's degree in business administration.

"Yedioth noted that on the official Yisrael Beiteinu Web site, Tartman's biography listed her as having a 'Master's degree in economics and marketing from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.'

"In response to queries from the media, which found that her graduate education was limited to several courses in a college that does not grant advanced degrees, the site entry was changed to read 'Business administration Master's degree studies.'"

Meanwhile, she's also spelled out some of her views in more detail:
"In the Tuesday interview, Tartman was also asked about her stance with regard to Israeli Arabs. Earlier Tuesday, the Knesset Ethics Committee decided against taking any action against Tartman for a January statement in which she called the appointment of Muslim Arab MK Raleb Majadele to the post of minister as 'a lethal blow to Zionism,' and said 'we must destroy the affliction within us, with God's help, the Holy One blessed be He will help us.'

"Tartman said Tuesday that 'Any citizen who is not loyal to the idea of a Jewish state, his citizenship should be rescinded.'

"She said she opposed the idea of expelling citizens, whether Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews - who refuse to sign a loyalty declaration, rather 'to turn their status into one of a resident, without the right to vote or to run for office.'

"According to Tartman, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not perform IDF service would be required to do a form of national service."

Monday, February 26, 2007

El Al and the Haredi

A Haredi Jewish group called the "Council of Rabbis for the Holiness of the Shabbat" may call for a boycott of El Al after one of its flights landed two hours after the start of the Sabbath. There was a similar controversy last fall when El Al scheduled a few flights for the Sabbath to make up a backlog after an airport strike. The airline has an agreement under which Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar gets to decide whether passengers on the airline can fly, regardless of whether or not they are religious Jews. The Jerusalem Post's source said El Al has an obligation to meet the needs of its religious customers, which in Middle Eastern lingo means theologically conservative. Unfortunately, these needs often conflict with those of Israel's majority, which is one of the country's main sources of tension.

Travel Quote

"The true traveller is without goal, it is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveller."

-Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain)

Feet to the Fire

TPM Reader DM makes a nice catch:
"I think there's something critical and overlooked underlying this New York Times lead:

"'Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Pakistan on Monday to deliver what officials in Washington described as an unusually tough message Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda.'

"This is a tacit acknowledgement that the Democratic Congress is more serious about fighting Al Qaeda than the White House. He's essentially saying, 'look, we've let you slide on this, because, well, you know us...' Other things were more important."

On the other hand, Cheney likes to hunt whereas John Kerry prefers windsurfing, so Cheney must be the one who can keep us safe.

What al-Qaeda Wants

Josh Marshall reminds us of what al-Qaeda's goals were in the September 11 terrorist attacks (link firewalled):
"Documents captured after 9/11 showed that bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck would be Afghanistan.

"Bin Laden also hoped that such an entrapment would drain the United States financially. Many al-Qaeda documents refer to the importance of sapping American economic strength as a step toward reducing America’s ability to throw its weight around in the Middle East."

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Yisrael Beiteinu, perhaps Israel's creepiest political party with all its ethnocentrism and loyalty oath ideas, has just nominated Esterina Tartman as Minister of Tourism. Tartman was the Knesseteer who denounced Labor's nomination of Muslim Arab Raleb Majadele as Minister of Science, Culture, and Sports as "a lethal blow to Zionism," and according to today's Ha'aretz said: "We must destroy the affliction within us. With God's help, the Holy One blessed be He will help us." The "affliction within us" is probably Israeli Arabs. However, will an American media which routinely focuses on radical statements by Arab leaders pick up on this story and question what is becoming of the ideals which are an important component of its appeal to the West?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Women at the 'Azza

One thing I forgot to include in my Bahrain posts was the situation surrounding women who attended the 'azza mourning processions in Manama. Along some streets, you saw large, semi-opaque covers separating female spectators from the street. I initially assumed these were just more conservative areas, but it turned out that the group responsible for organizing the processions had tried to segregate the audience by gender.

The reasons for this have a foot in the present, and not just the past. According to Bahrainis I talked to, there have always been women at the processions. The difference now is the importation of Western-style dating culture, and young people increasingly using it as a flirtation ground, which in Bahraini culture is seen as disrespectful. In other words, the attempts at strict segregation came in response to this modern social development.

There's clearly a sexist element to this, in that it is the women and not the men who have to be behind screens and the one time I saw a man stop a procession to get angry at a mixed crowd he singled out the women and not the men. I suppose the other side of that argument would be that the processions are all male, and obviously can't be the ones hidden. However, this is clearly a situation in which social reality is more complicated than it first appears.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Peaceful Coexistence in Hebron

It's said that nowhere is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worse than in Hebron. However:
"Palestinian police officers on Friday returned a 3-year-old Israeli girl to the custody of her parents after she was found wandering on her own through the Palestinian part of town.

"The girl, whose family resides in city's Jewish Avraham Avinu neighborhood, had crossed the line separating the two parts of town unnoticed to play with local Palestinian children."

Maybe we should just let toddlers take over the region.

Islamic Quasicrystalline Patterns

I have no idea whether this is partially media hype, but if medieval Islamic civilization is going to make the front page of yahoo, then I'm going to link to it:
"Magnificently sophisticated geometric patterns in medieval Islamic architecture indicate their designers achieved a mathematical breakthrough 500 years earlier than Western scholars, scientists said on Thursday.

"By the 15th century, decorative tile patterns on these masterpieces of Islamic architecture reached such complexity that a small number boasted what seem to be 'quasicrystalline' designs, Harvard University's Peter Lu and Princeton University's Paul Steinhardt wrote in the journal Science.

"Only in the 1970s did British mathematician and cosmologist Roger Penrose become the first to describe these geometric designs in the West. Quasicrystalline patterns comprise a set of interlocking units whose pattern never repeats, even when extended infinitely in all directions, and possess a special form of symmetry."

Heathrow Airport Security

I've just returned from yet another trip overseas, and want to see if I properly understand the new security policies in London's Heathrow Airport. You are only allowed to take one carry-on and one personal item through security. That's standard pretty much everywhere. However, even though a laptop counts as a personal item, they count the laptop carrying case as a carry-on bag. What's more, seemingly recognizing the absurdity of this position, they say you can formally comply with regulations at the checkpoint by putting your laptop case into your carry-on and then take it out again once you're through the metal detector, and you can do this even right in front of the person overseeing the end of the conveyor belt despite the signs about how only one bag is allowed.

Did I miss anything?

Israeli Affairs

Today at American Footprints, I comment on news that the United States is strong-arming Israel into a diplomatic freeze with Syria. Meanwhile, on a related diplomatic front, EU President and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has reaffirmed that any new Palestinian government must recognize Israel. I understand Israel's position on this issue, as they don't want to be making deals with a political entity if a change in government therein can simply mean they're no longer relevant. During the late 1990's, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have tried to sabotage the Oslo Accords, but he publicly adhered to them. Hamas can try to find ways to take a stronger line on Israel, but they can't just ignore that has already been done. I think, however, that the Mecca compromise agreement should be seized as grounds to end most sanctions on the Palestinian territories so people there can, you know, eat and stuff.

Accusations Against Yemen's Zaydis

Yemen has decided to get in on the the game of blaming Iran for Shi'ite activism:
"Yemen has also sought to strengthen regional and international opinion against the Shabab by stoking fears of Iranian involvement in the conflict. The Shabab, which are known in the official press as the al-Houthi rebels—an insulting term that is derived from the name of the group's first leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed in September 2004—are comprised of Zaydi Muslims, a Shiite sect that has traditionally been closer to Sunni Islam than it has to the Twelver Shiism that is practiced in Iran.

"Yemen has made similar allegations in the past, but given the current mood of anti-Shiite feelings among the country's neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has stressed its claims much more during the past few weeks than it has in previous years. Part of this is a desire by Yemen to link its internal problems to regional issues in the hopes of securing financial aid."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Rabin Memorial

The English, Arabic, and presumably the Hebrew inscriptions read, "Here at this place, Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister and Minster of Defence, was murdered in the struggle for peace."


I'm hoping to swing another trip to the Gulf soon, this one in late March/early April aimed at Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, the Musandam Peninsula, and hopefully a bit of Oman proper. The problem with travel in the Gulf, of course, is cost. Needless to say, I won't be staying in in this hotel:
"Well, there is the Burj Al Arab option. The world's first seven-star hotel, in the shape of a giant billowing sail and covered in Teflon, the Burj features in-room marble staircases, an underwater restaurant reachable by submarine, and white Rolls Royce taxi service to the airport. If you book on, you might get a steal at $2,156 for a simple room. Or, you can go for the rack rate of $13,900 for a suite. Either way, you get to keep the Hermès goodie bag. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played an exhibition match on the hotel's helipad rooftop a couple of years ago. Apparently it was very nice."

It also sounds like Bahrain, with its largest candle and longest letter efforts, isn't the only Gulf state that likes trying for the record books:
"In fact, breaking records is a national pursuit here. Among those contested in Dubai this year were the world's largest gathering of people reading at one time, longest line of footprints, and largest buffet; also the world's biggest wallet, pillow, inflatable balloon, and spoon. Results were not yet in, but Hisham Nammour, owner of the feng shui stall at the Emirates mall was hopeful. 'We always win,' he said over a mug of hot chocolate at the après-ski bar. 'We excel at breaking records.'

"And indeed, last year, Dubai broke the record for the largest gathering of people sharing a name (2,500 Mohammads showed up) – leaving previous record-holder Spain (375 Marias) in the dust. Also Dubai put together the largest display of rice dumplings: 23,000 – trouncing dumpling doyen Singapore (13,192 in 1992). And, let's not forget to mention the 'Burj Dubai (u/c)' which aims to be the tallest skyscraper in the world. They had a little celebration here last month when the building hit the 100-floor mark – 67 more are apparently on the way."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Saudi Succession Rules

Back when Saudi Arabia proposed its new succession rules, I didn't understand what the big deal was. Apparently the "reform" is that it curtails the king's absolute power in that area. This might be true in a legal sense, but did the kings ever have practical power in absolute terms? I'm not sure, but I'd always been under the impression they had to be careful to balance the interests and ambitions of all the princes, many of whom have their own power bases. After all, even though Abdullah was the de facto ruler for several years before his formal accession there was still talk that he might not take the throne smoothly.

Bahrain: ...And Every Land Karbala

In ancient times, Bahrain was known as Dilmun, and was an important stop along the shipping routes between Sumer and the Indus Valley Civilization. The most common relics of that time are burial mounds, which cover 5% of the main island's surface area. It was still commercially important during the 1500's, when the Portugese arrived, and as part of their policy of trying to control Indian Ocean trade routes built the huge Ft. Bahrain on the north shore of the island, right next to what is believed to be the ruins of ancient Dilmun's capital - inside the fort is a recreation of the set of thatch structures where the Danish archaeological team which excavated the site during the 1950's stayed.

The Portugese did not last long, however, and during the 17th century the islands passed to the control of shaykhly families tied to Iran. This lasted until 1783, when they were seized by the Al Khalifa, a branch of the B. 'Utub whose namesake ancestor was the brother of the Sabah who is the ancestor of the Kuwaiti royal family. The Khalifas were merchants seeking control of the pearling trade, and under their rule it propered like never before, so that during the 19th century something like half of all the world's pearls were of Bahraini origin. Today in Manama there is a large "Pearl Monument" at one intersection, consisting of six curving white rods forming a base at the top on which rests a white stone pearl. What you don't learn from such monuments, however, is the human cost of pearling, dangerous work carried out mainly by divers indentured to the large merchant families who were the ones who truly profited from the trade.

Bahrain today, like the rest of the Gulf nations, has been developed with oil wealth, though in Bahrain's case the reserves have been depleted. Still, the visitor to the country will be greeted with skyscrapers and construction everywhere, as well as busy freeways shooting by the seemingly ubiquitous shopping malls and domed indoor food courts filled with Saudi men who have come across the 13-mile King Fahd Causeway looking for a good time away from Saudi Arabia's moral laws. These businesses are staffed mainly with the foreign guest workers, mainly of South and Southeast Asian origin, who make up half the islands' residents. It's true what they say about Gulf society having an international flavor: at one point I amused my companions while ordering at Costa Coffee, as they told me the staff probably didn't speak any Arabic. The lingua franca in this region is not the native language but English, desposited in the Gulf by the British during the 19th and 20th centuries, and of course commonly learned around the Indian Ocean littoral in what were once territories of the British Empire.

Despite the seeming prosperity, however, not all is well in Bahrain, and I heard bitter complaints about something or other from almost everyone I talked to. When in passing the white wall which surrounds the Ministry of the Interior one or two people start angrily muttering about how that's a place where people are taken and oppressed and tortured you might just call it par for the course, but when you start getting more than that it seems like a pattern. Many people accuse the Khalifas of running the country solely for the profit of themselves and their own cronies. The nation's long-time Prime Minister, Khalifa b. Salman Al Khalifa, is often called 50/50 after the percentage he demands in approving new business ventures. Often when people pointed out a skyscraper to me, they told me some story about how a certain prince was the one reaping all the profits from it. The imminent jewel on the crown of Manama's skyline is the World Trade Center, two towers each of which comes to a point at the top, so that the ultimate effect will be that they look like three-pointed sails recalling Bahrain's maritime heritage. To celebrate a certain milestone in its construction, workers were taken out on a boat trip, only to have the boat capsize, killing dozens. It's now known that the vessel was unsafe, but its owner is too influential to have paid any consequences.

Getting the short end of the stick of Bahraini prosperity are the country's Shi'ites. As in Iraq, Sunni/Shi'ite differences haven't historically been a big deal, though in the past few years discrimination and anti-sectarian rhetoric have sky-rocketed, which in itself is something people on the street comment on. As near as I can determine, the Sunni Khalifas are trying to pursue a divide-and-rule policy in the face of pressures for democratization. They're also playing the anti-foreigner card, not only against Iran, which gets rhetorically linked to the country's own Shi'ites, but against foreign investors. Last December, the governor of Muharraq, Salman b. al-Hindi, began touting plans to keep his state a pure Arab domain free of Indian and Pakistani influence in particular. From what I've been able to gather, this caused everyone in Bahrain to begin laughing uproariously, as his surname, "Ibn al-Hindi," is Arabic for "son of the Indian." It turned out he was serious, however, upping the level of tragic farce in Bahraini politics.

All of this was the political context for last month's Ashura commemorations, and here it should be noted that while Husayn's actions are often understood in metaphysical terms, it is not lost on anyone that it was a metaphysical battle in the face of political tyranny, and here and there political societies used the holiday to rally support for their own causes. In downtown Manama, for example, there was one banner for the "Committee for the Unemployed and the Underpaid," with a display that more or less expected people to assume that Husayn today would be standing up for their plight. More controversially in the eyes of much of the world, posters of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah were everywhere, and often had a quote from him at the bottom, "We are the sons of Muhammad and Ali and al-Hassan and al-Husayn," something he once said directed at Israel implying he and his people would never stop resisting what is perceived as Israeli tyranny and aggression.

There is, however, a more strictly Bahraini dimension to Ashura politics, as well. One night I was out in the villages with my former student Kamel and his friend Ayman, a published writer, unpublished poet, and English literature scholar whose voice, appearance, and mannerisms all made me think of NAQT needs list fireman Matt Bruce. Near the village of Bani Jamra was a cemetery where we stopped to pick our way past the graves on the flat gray ground occasionally broken by small stones and small shrublike plants to one grave, larger than the rest and covered with a lighted canopy. Here both Kamel and Ayman placed their hands on the grave and prayed silently; while we were there, a middle-aged man came from the other direction and did the same.

The grave was that of Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, a Shi'ite religious and political leader who died late last year. He preached in a nearby mosque, and was widely loved, not so much for his theological views as for his political activism. He spoke out strongly against the government and in favor of greater democracy, and on a personal level would often go to court with people who had fallen victim to unfair laws or random acts of oppression. A central event in his life was his arrest during a Shi'ite uprising in the mid-1990's, when several people died trying to defend him in what is known among Shi'ites as "Black Some-Day-Of-The-Week-I-Forget." His death was a palpable part of Ashura in Bahrain; one place we visited had dedicated their entire commemoration to him, and was working to write him the longest letter, with people stopping by to write continuations of praise and what he meant to them.

Among those working to fill his shoes is Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the Director of the officially banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights, commonly known in my circles as Abu Zainab after his fiery Beloiti blogger-daughter. I met him for tea one night in Manama, and we were each momentarily taken aback by the other's youth - he's 46, but looked more like 36, a short, moustached, Napoleon-like package of furious political energy. (Everyone, of course, always thinks I look young.) There were also posters in downtown Manama of people killed during the uprising, all of whom were descibed as "martyrs," and one night there appeared another poster next to them warning the government that the people were not afraid to give up more martyrs.

Some of this came to a head right after I left, when authorities arrested al-Khawaja and two other leading dissidents over speeches they had made during Ashura doing such vile things as calling into question Bahrain's system of government. They were not in custody for very long, however, for immediately people all over Bahrain took to the streets demanding their release, leading to a government crackdown with tear gas and helicopters, but also winning their release. The crackdown on free speech continues, however. I also met Mahmood al-Yousif, whom I knew mainly as a blogger, but whom is apparently famous in Bahrain, so that someone could say, "He's supposed to meet Mahmood al-Yousif" and everyone knew whom was meant. He was rich enough that his vehicle had a GPS system, and when we actually met for lunch, a secretary first set up the call which he then took. In any case, despite all this and his ability to work the system, he too is now charged with defaming a government minister by calling him "stupid" on his blog, and having to fight it in court.

Mahmood is a patriotic Bahraini with initiative. He's been spearheading a "Just Bahraini" campaign to spread paraphenalia everywhere supporting Sunni/Shi'ite unity throughout the country, the sort of thing many Bahrainis say was the way things were until recent years. Now, in response to this new threat to free expression, he's planning training sessions for people to criticize the government and get away with it in the new environment. People like him give me hope for Bahrain's future. It's a country with a rich tradition and in much better shape than a lot of others in the region. We can only hope, however, that the country can develop without unnecessary violence that serves only to destroy its potential.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Qarqar Coalition

Given the state of the world today, it is interesting that the same inscription provides us with both the earliest named Arab and the earliest naming of an Israeli king, chronicling events in which they were allies.

During the middle of the 9th century, the Assyrian ruler Shalmeneser III waged a campaign of expansion into what is now Syria. In 853 BCE, he crossed the Euphrates at Carchemish, then went to Aleppo, a territory he had already conquered, where he made sacrifices to the God Hadad.

His ultimate goal was the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon; however, a few decades earlier, those cities had formed alliances with inland military powers. Therefore, Shalmeneser first had to deal with them. He entered the lands of King Irluheni of Hamath (modern Hama). At the city of Qarqar, he met an alliance of Syro-Palestinian rulers, including King Ahab of Israel and one Jindibu the Arab.

Ahab's contribution was 2000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers, while Jindibu had 1000 camels. Shalmeneser claims he defeated them, though not everyone today is convinced. Jan Retso believes Jindibu's name is the same as the common Jundab, and that he came from what is now northeastern Jordan, perhaps near al-Azraq. King Ahab perhaps needs little introduction. However, his claim to epigraphic priority is a photo finish. The Mesha Stele, erected a couple of years after the Kurkh Monolith which records the Battle of Qarqar, mentions his father, Omri.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Why the Middle East is Dumb

The answer is contained in the two posts immediately below this.

In the Maghrebi Gate affair, Israel is planning to replace an unsafe bridge that secures access to the Haram ash-Sharif that contains al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Naturally, one end of this bridge is near the Dome of the Rock.

In the affair of the patriarchate, for example, Israel is apparently trying to strongarm an overwhelmingly Arab Christian church into letting it eventually acquire pieces of that church's land against the will of the church members.

Naturally, the first of these two has generated an international controversy and riots.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


According to Ha'aretz, Israel is demanding rights to first refusal when the Eastern Orthodox Church sells property:
"Israel is demanding that the Greek Orthodox patriarchy conduct a census of all church property in Israel and the Palestinian territories ahead of its sale or long-term lease, and to give Israel the first right of refusal on the property.

"Israel is also asking that the property purchased by Jewish organizations in the area of Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate will 'remain in the hands of the Israeli lessees,' according to a document obtained by Haaretz.

"The document bears the signature of attorney Renato Yarak, a former senior State Prosecution official. Yarak, the former head of High Court petitions in the State Prosecutor's Office, and another attorney, Rami Mugrabi, said cabinet minister Rafi Eitan gave them the document on January 18.

"Eitan is a member of the ministerial committee dealing with matters pertaining to the patriarchy.

"The two attorney's represent Theophilos, who was elected patriarch by the Greek Orthodox Synod about a year and a half ago, and who has since then been working to obtain Israel's recognition as patriarch."

I'm not a huge fan of modern countries claiming the right to approve of religious leaders. I'm even less of a fan when those countries attach conditions aimed at making a land grab, as the article goes on to suggest is happening in this case.

Lack of Posts

If anyone's wondering, I've been feeling sick lately, and have cut down on my blogging rather than dissertation work. During this period, however, I've discovered that Israeli physicians make house calls, though it resulted in my being given some truly vile light green stuff called Mucomed. I then had to go to East Jerusalem to find a pharmacy open on Saturday, where I discovered that Israeli security forces have erected an awe-inspiring number of barricades around the Old City, probably because of the ongoing Maghrebi Bridge fracas.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Manama Scene

Near the center of this shot is the mosque at the west end of the Sheikh Hamad Causeway, which is often a starting point for protests. Looming over it in the background are the still unfinished towers of Bahrain's World Trade Center, which will figure into my forthcoming post "Bahrain: ...And Every Land Karbala." To the left is a new playground for children in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Ras Rummaan.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

World's Largest Candle

I started writing my second Bahrain post today, but one sentence in a couple of other projects demanded my attention, and I never got back to it. I should have it up tomorrow or Friday, however. In the meantime, know that in February 2005, Bahrainis commemorated Ashura by lighting the world's largest candle:
"A 73-metre candle, believed to be the world’s biggest candle ever made, was lit last night in Manama, near the mosque in Ma’atem Al Orayeb, writes Titus Filio.

"Members of the Hussaini Drawing Society for Islamic Arts put up the candle to mark this year’s Ashura.

"'This candle is our message of love and unity to Bahrain and to the world,' said Riyad Al Dahaba, one of the founding members of the the society...

"The candle, weighing 1,410kg, is made up of 30 moulds and has 11,880 wicks.

"The society has officially put up the candle to be entered in the Guinness Book of Records.

"'As far as we know the biggest candle entered in the Guinness Book is around 80 feet. This one is some 240 feet,' Al Dahaba said."

The Arab Mind

I've had it in my head to read Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind for the purpose of seeing just what it is the American military personnel are taught in this supposedly essential reading. Matthew Yglesias, however posts a quote indicating it's worse than I thought. A Brian Whitaker article on the subject is also worth reading.

Temple Mount Excavations

If it weren't for my lingering cold, I'd wander down and see what all the fuss is about:
"The Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out the excavation work near an unused ramp leading up to the Mugrabi Gate, an entrance to the Temple Mount, which engineers have said is in danger of collapse. The dig precedes the planned construction of a new Mugrabi bridge, which is slated to replace a makeshift wooden bridge built above the ramp three years ago to connect the Old City's Dung Gate with the Mugrabi Gate.

"The wooden bridge has allowed tourists, security forces and Jewish visitors to enter the Temple Mount via the Mugrabi Gate, located next to the Western Wall. Police demanded its construction after part of the ramp buckled on a snowy night in February 2004.

"The excavation is taking place alongside a salvage dig in the nearby archeological park, in one of the most sensitive spots in Israel: at the foot of the southwest corner of a wall in the Temple Mount compound...

"Arab leaders have argued that Israel is trying to undermine the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to prepare the ground for the Third Temple. Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yuval Baruch and Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco dismissed the accusations, which have been publicized on Al-Jazeera and other media outlets.

"An Israeli security official said Islamic extremists are trying to fan the flames of conflict and build their status as protectors of Islam, regardless of the reality on the ground."

While there are Israeli militants who would love to build a third temple, the government keeps a tight rein on such stirrings, and the accusations from the Arab leaders mentioned sound ridiculous. It does, however, serve to get people stirred up, and the area is sensitive.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Pearling Ship

This replica of a pearling ship is on the beach of Bahrain's main island, right near the bridge connecting it to Muharraq. Bahrain's major industry was pearling for much of its history, and during the 19th century the islands accounted for some huge percentage of the world's pearl supply.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Palestinian Negotiations

From today's Ha'aretz:
"Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus, agreed Friday on an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but it was not immediately implemented and the fighting continued over the weekend.

"Abbas and Meshal are slated to meet in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to discuss the establishment of a national unity government. Senior officials in Hamas and Fatah said that despite the recent violence between the two groups, an agreement might be reached Tuesday that would leave Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in his post and would give three portfolios to members of neither organization. Fatah officials said they were worried that the violence would escalate if no agreement is reached Tuesday."

Can I just say it's a pathetic statement on the Palestinian condition that an unelected hard-liner who lives in Damascus and hasn't entered the Palestinian territories in decades has such a huge say in developing what political voice they have?

The Clouds of Bahrain

A lot of news organizations have apparently picked up a few facts from Reuters about the events surrounding the arrest and release of the three Bahraini human rights activists, but you can get a lot more information from Mahmood's comments section. Two important points are that protests and riot police were found at numerous locations around Bahrain, whereas Reuters seemed to imply there was just one protest, and that they were released with the intervention of al-Wefaq, which apparently made a deal to try and calm the protests.

Meanwhile, Silly Bahraini Girl raises the question of why they were arrested and then released. I think she's asking about official reasons, but I'm interested in the real ones. Mahmood highlights al-Khawaja's planned appearance at this AEI seminar. I suspect the Bahraini government does have concerns about one of its most vocal critics getting a platform at a conservative think tank with close ties to Bush administration neoconservatives, but that doesn't explain the other two. I suspect this stems in some way from the November elections, and that the government decided to wait until after Ashura to make the arrests because of that holiday's ability to rally people to political causes.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

UPDATE: Gulf News adds:
"Their lawyers said that the arrest was based on speeches delivered last week and coinciding with the marking of Ashura, the anniversary of the slaying of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

"The police said that the activists availed themselves of the religious occasion to 'spread ideas that provoked resentment and undermined stability and national unity.'

"In separate speeches, Meshema, 58, and Al Khawaja, 46, both Shiites, have allegedly attacked the regime and referred to a report prepared by Salah Al Bander, a Briton of Sudanese origin who worked as a consultant in Bahrain and who last September disseminated a 240-page report accusing a cell within the government of fomenting sectarian strife and conspiring against Shiites in Bahrain."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bahrain Prisoners Update

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has issued a press release:
"After a 7 hour wait and interrogation, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights Mr. Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, and Mr. Hassan Mushaima, the Secretary General of the Bahraini HAQ Democratic Movement as well as a third activist, Shaker Abdul-Hussein, were released on bail on Friday night. The charges against them are related to state security crimes including: an intention to change the governing system of the country, circulating false information, insulting the king and inciting hatred against the regime in accordance to articles 160, 165, 168, 172, 173 & 214 of the much criticized Bahraini Penal Code of 1976. If sentenced, the activist can face more than 10 years imprisonment.

"The release of the activists came following the eruption of demonstrations and intense clashes with security forces in several different parts of the country in reponse to the arrests this morning."

Here's Gulf News on the clashes:
"Their arrest triggered a protest in which riot police armed with tear gas clashed with about 200 Shiites.

"Some protesters said at least 10 people were wounded by rubber bullets that the riot police used."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Al-Khawaja Arrested

Via Mahmood, I learn that Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja has been arrested in Bahrain:
"The president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was arrested by Bahraini authorities this morning at 6am. The reason for the detention is not yet known.

"Mr. Alkhawaja was previously arrested in September 2004 after he gave a public lecture in which he criticized the Prime Minister of Bahrain.

"Mr. Alkhawaja was due to travel to the United States later this month to deliver a lecture about political reform in Bahrain, at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC.

"It is also being reported that Hassan Mushaima, the secretary general of the Haq Movement political society, has also been arrested."

Al-Khawaja's daughter Zainab was a student of mine at Beloit College. I had tea with him just six days ago. This is a major crisis for human rights in Bahrain.

Bahrain: For Every Day Is Ashura...

There are few things the media screws up more frequently than the Sunni/Shi'ite split. They look at the events, which involve conflicts over political leadership in the early caliphate, first between Ali and Mu'awiya, and later between their sons Hussein and Yazid. This makes Mu'awiya and Yazid into representatives of Sunnism, even though Sunnis recognize Ali as one of the four rightly guided caliphs and see Mu'awiya and Yazid as having perverted the caliphate into a kingdom. What is important is not the events, but the stories told of the events, and what people make of them.

The story of Shi'ite Ashura is the story of Imam Hussein and Karbala, and tellings of this story form an important part of Ashura commemorations. I heard an excellent telling as part of a sermon at the Islamic Awareness Centre in Manama, which serves the twin purposes of providing Ashura activities for Bahrain's community of English-speaking Shi'ites, which seemed to be mainly converts and guest workers, and allowing curious visitors the chance to see firsthand what the holiday was all about. While listening to the rising and falling, quickening and slowing, tones of a speaker, one Mahdi Ali, I glanced at a small pamphlet of quotes by and about Imam Husayn which I had been given, and saw one from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which said, "In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Hosein will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader." It is obviously not a happy story. On a short tour of Manama, I saw part of a play being performed by a local women's group about Hussein's sister Zainab receiving the news of his death. Most of the lines seemed to be weeping. On the tenth night of Ashura, people gather in groups segregated by gender to hear renditions of the story. The family of my former student Kamel Hubail kindly invited me into their ma'tam, a place for religious functions other than praying, perhaps somewhat analogous to the Christian church hall as opposed to sanctuary, where people from around the neighborhood also gathered. The proceedings had a delightful informality which reminded me of the way my own family marks Christmas Eve, with a designated reader flipping through a book looking up the relevant passages until about 7:30 p.m. asking if everyone was ready to start.

Shi'ites see generational parallelism in the rivalries of two clans, the B. Hashim of Muhammad and the B. Umayya. Abu Sufyan of the B. Umayya was an opponent of Muhammad in the Prophet's lifetime, and converted to Islam only when he felt no other choice to preserve his standing in the community. His son Mu'awiya was the opponent of Ali, the Prophet's nephew and son-in-law whom Shi'ites believe was supposed to lead the community as the first Imam, or living guide to the Qur'an's meaning. Mu'awiya then eliminated the early Muslim practice of consultation in determining leadership positions and forced everyone to accept his son Yazid as heir. Yazid, in the Shi'ite reckoning, and for that matter in most of the Sunni, is the tyrant extraordinaire who sought to destroy Islam and revive many of the pagan ways. Almost any vice you can think of, whether in terms of what we might today consider personal and public morality, is attirbuted to Yazid. Upon coming to power, Yazid sought to bolster his religious legitimacy by extracting an oath of loyalty from Hussein as Muhammad's grandson, an oath that would be to him personally rather than to his guardianship of the tenets of Islam. Those who refused were killed. Imam Hussein, rather than take such an oath, and left the vicinity of Mecca and Medina where he was based, leaving a letter with his brother which said, "I have not come out to stir emotions, to play with discontentment, to provoke dissension or to spread oppression. I wish to bring the Umma back to the path of Amr-bil-Ma'arouf and Nahyi Unil Munker. I wish to bring them back to the path of my grandfather the Messenger of Allah and of my father Ali b. Abi Talib."

The brief tour of Manama I referred to above was my first night, and organized by the Islamic Awareness Centre. There were only three or four of us that night, which was early during the commemorations. There were also some newspaper photographers, following us around, though I never got around to checking to see if we made the paper. In any case, Kamel, in explaining who I was, kept promoting me to a professor who had come to Bahrain to learn about Ashura, after which they began taking a special interest in me, photographing my every movement. We were also presented with many items, such as cardboard maquette of what I think is the shrine at Karbala. I was also presented with a giant poster of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. A running joke during my trip was that I would be able to run for public office in Bahrain; if that particular photo ever surfaces, Bahrain might be one of the few countries where I can =) In any case, the place where we stopped for the longest was at an art gallery where a group of mainly college-aged women were producing and displaying artistic interpretations of the Ashura events. Because I was apparently such a VIP, myself, Kamel, and an Indian guest worker associating with us were invited back into the studio section to ask questions of the artists as they prepared their works. I don't think I lived up to my billing, as I really had very few questions, though fortunately the Indian guy did. Sidling around the Bahraini paparazzi, I did talk to one girl who was painting Hussein's body being watched over by doves. The girl said that the dove was an Islamic symbol of peace, and they were with Hussein because he was a man of peace who fought only because he had to, ultimately in the service of peace against Yazid's tyranny.

When Hussein and his followers left Mecca, they headed toward Kufa, where a follower of Hussein named Muslim b. Aqil had gathered thousands of followers who claimed they would support him in an uprising against Yazid. Yazid therefore sent his governor of Basra, Ubaydallah b. Ziyad, to Kufa, with orders to bring the situation under control. Ubaydallah entered the city in disguise, and many hailed him, believing him to be Hussein. When he reached the citadel, however, he revealed himself and angrily swore to kill Muslim b. Aqil and any who remained with him. At this, many of Muslim's followers began melting away, until none were left for fear of Ubaydallah and Yazid. Ubaydallah then took Muslim, had him decapitated, and threw his head down from the citadel as a warning to the crowd. No one would be waiting for Imam Hussein in Kufa. Word of Muslim's death reached him through a detachment of Yazid's troops, who invited him to surrender. It may be that this is when he gave in reply these words before the multitudes: "This world has changed and its good has turned tail. Nothing has remained from it except a thing that is as scanty as the leftover of a cup and a mean life that is like a noxious grazing. Have you not noticed that the right is ignored and the evil is not forbidden? People are certainly the slaves of this world; religion is but a slaver on their tongues. They turn it wherever their livelihood demands. If they are tested by misfortunes, the truly religious ones will be but few." Being an imam, Hussein had known all along that there would be no military victory, and had discouraged many from following him. They did anyway, hoping for positions of prominence in the new regime. Like in the movies, Hussein now declared that anyone who wished could leave him. Unlike in the movies, all but a few dozen did.

Hussein's loyal companions each have their own story, and their names are remembered with honor by Shi'ites. One night we stopped at a small village in northern Bahrain, decorated much like Shi'ite neighborhoods in the city with black banners strung across the streets and large displays similar to nativity scenes showing scenes from Karbala. On the wall of a building along the main street was a list of all the companions, and someone directed my attention to one named Yahya (John), who was said to be a Christian, evidence that Hussein's call resonated across religious boundaries. Each night of Ashura, the first ten nights of the Islamic month of Muharram, are dedicated to an important companion. The ninth, for example, is for his nephew Qasim b. al-Hassan. Qasim was only 13, and Hussein kept insisting he was too young to accompany him on a suicide mission. Qasim, however, had a letter from his father, the late Imam Hassan, saying something along the lines that, "A day will come when my brother Hussein will be facing an enemy army of tens of thousands. That will be the day when Islam can only be saved by great sacrifice." That second sentence points to something important: Shi'ites believe that, even though he and all his followers were killed, Hussein won at Karbala, that the actions of Yazid and his followers shocked everyone out of their complacency and led them to recall truth and righteousness. One of the most common words describing Hussein's actions I saw on banners and in the newsletters and pamphlets I acquired is "thawra," or "revolution." Again, this was not only a revolution against Yazid, but in metaphysical terms the beginning of a revolution in human attitudes and behavior that continues to this very day. At the IAC, a young girl named Latifa was brought in to lead a prayer for the coming of the Mahdi, the Shi'ite messiah, and she was introduced as "a bright little soldier in Hussein's army." Children are often seen running around in green and black headbands and carrying banners with Ashura-related slogans.

Hussein and his followers continued until they reached a hot, desert spot along the Euphrates. The Imam asked its name, and when told the spot was called "Karbala," declared that this is where they should stop. There they were surrounded by Yazid's army, cut off from the water. More and more soldiers kept coming to the enemy ranks. Hussein and his followers were being tormented by Yazid's forces, mainly over the issue of food and water. Among the stories of this theme are that Hussein went to beg water for his six-month-old son Ali the Small, trapped with him in the camp. This was refused, and an enemy soldier, tired of the infant's cries, shot an arrow which pierced him in the neck, killing him. Another is that of Abu al-Fadl Abbas, Hussein's strongest warrior, who broke through the ranks enough to get some water, but refused to drink of it himself and tried to carry it back for the women and children. Naturally, it is said that Hussein's followers had been willing to share their supplies with Yazid's forces earlier.

One of the most important aspects of Bahraini Ashura commemorations in Bahrain is all the free food and drink. Many people set up stands where they offer a given food to anyone who wanders by, and every year the newspapers report on the vast sums of money spent for this purpose. It lends Ashura a strong community feel, as people feed not only their friends and neighbors, but people like the poor guest workers who head into the Shi'ite neighborhoods knowing they can get a good meal. When I wandered off the beaten path in Manama or stopped in a small village, I found people who thought it especially important to feed the foreigner, as well. The theory behind this is that all the food and drink is from Imam Hussein, though of course in practice you only learn that from the banners at a few of the feeding places or from little kids properly learning about their religion who give that reply when you thank them for handing you a cup of tea. I tried so many Bahraini dishes in this manner, but the one people seemed most impressed that I ate was Bacha, mainly small pieces of bread seasoned and spiced and served on a platter under some sheep part, with the head considered the most flavorful. The Hubails serve this every year, and this year acquired 220 sheep heads alone for the purpose. In addition to such "main dishes," there are people who specialize in snacks, such as felafel or somozas, the latter a popular import from the Indian guest workers now found throughout the islands.

The story of Karbala ends with the massacre of Hussein and all his companions on the 10th of Muharram, the actual day of Ashura. In some ways, however, that was only the beginning, as his sister Zainab was left alive, taken prisoner, and became a witness to all the lands of what had transpired. This is why Zainab is just as much a part of Ashura as Hussein. Among the cutest spectacles of the tenth night was two toddlers dressed up like Hussein and Zainab respectively. These were widely photographed standing next to each other by bystanders. She enjoyed the attention, but he was more interested in finding some food or maybe getting to ride one of the horses.

The most visible aspect of Ashura commemorations are, of course, the all-male 'azza processions which make their way through the streets mourning the death of Imam Hussein and his sacrifice for the world. The core elements are someone to recite the 'azza pronouncements and rows of men performing some form of rhythmic self-flagellation. Occasionally if the main reciter senses the procession's energy sagging, he'll get them involved in the chanting of key lines. Most people, such as those in the 'azza of Manama's Ras Rumman neighborhood that I was a part of, seem to just lightly hit their chest with an open palm. Others get more into it, though at the gritty intersection of religion and human nature you find plenty of young people who just want to show how tough they are. Others use a special kind of short chain struck over the shoulder. Officially there's some sort of schedule for all the 'azzas, but it never actually works out, and people wind up having to stop and wait for others to get out of their way at popular intersections. Once we were stuck forever, the occasion for the young man next to me to note that you always want to avoid being stuck behind the really long 'azzas. Then someone else had to wait on us; while they were shorter, they had a fancy banner and decorated coffin unlike our simple procession. The full variety of 'azzas started to become apparent one night when I just stood at a spot near the center of Manama and watched them all go by, featuring all manner of banners, sometimes horses with little kids riding on them, chants of all rhythms, and once even a marching band called "Lovers of Hussein" with white and black uniforms playing a mournful dirge. The longest, most elaborate 'azzas start after midnight and go until the wee hours of the morning; some of them seem almost professional based on the rhythms and patterns they achieve with their chanting and chains.

I've tried to keep a strict focus on religion and spirituality here, because so often people examining Islam start from a political perspective I thought it made sense to get grounded in the faith and culture before anything else. I do need to write a second post dealing with the political texture of events and Bahrain today. Some of this is straightforward religious politics, as there was a fight going on over control of the Ras Rumman ma'tam between followers of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i and another ayatollah named Sadiq al-Shirazi. I asked one middle-aged man what he thought about it, and he just grunted and said that this month was for Imam Hussein, not for ayatollahs. I tried to ask how many had his attitude, but it wasn't really a good question, as in truth everyone has a preferred religious stance and a limit to how far they'll go before they decide given practices or teachings are unacceptable and break with the community. What all Shi'ites can agree on, however, is the importance of Imam Hussein and Karbala. I did a bit of googling, and found lots of interesting quotes about him, particularly from India, which has a large Shi'ite population. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, once said that, "Imam Husayn's sacrifice is for all groups and communities an example of the path of righteousness." More decisively, Mahatma Gandhi claimed that, "I learnt from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed." This quote is well-known, seen on posters and banners around Bahrain, and through it, Shi'ites are willing to give Hussein grandfatherly credit for all those whom Gandhi himself inspired. Thus does the revolution continue.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Syrian Question

Joshua Landis posts notes from an Alon Liel presentation on the secret Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Here's the key nugget:
"Swiss diplomats checked every move in the process with senior regime officials in Damascus (unnamed). The Syrians were feeding into the negotiations with government approved ideas and suggestions.

"The Israeli government did not.

"The Americans vetoed any formalization of the track showing no interest in engaging the Syrians.

"Olmert’s rejection is just a parroting of the US position.

"The Syrians wanted to go up a notch with a Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, with an American official present in the room. The Israelis, according to Liel, were too scared even to ask the US. This happened 10 or 11 days into last summer’s war in Lebanon."

If Liel's perceptions are accurate, and I suspect they are, then American policy makes no sense, though since Dick Cheney was apparently in the loop of our involvement, that's to be expected. The war drums focus is clearly on Iran. I doubt the Bush administration could plan a major confrontation with Syria during its two remaining years in office. What, therefore, is the point of stymieing negotiations?

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Ayman's Syndrome

I've been feeling under the weather today with a constellation of symptoms that, in all good fun, I have decided to label Ayman's Syndrome after someone I met who had the same issues. Because of this, I've mostly been lying around today not doing much of anything. With all the focus on Iran's nuclear program, who knew that Bahrain was developing bacteriological weapons?