Sunday, April 29, 2007

UAE: Heritage

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born the son of a British diplomat in Ethiopia, educated at Eton and Oxford, then returned to Ethiopia to attend the coronation of Emperor Haile Selasse and explore eastern Africa, becoming at 23 the first European to enter the Afar Sultanate, a predecessor of modern Eritrea. He fought in Ethiopia and North Africa during World War II, and eventually settled in Kenya, where he became part of a Samburu family. Finally, in 1994, poor health forced his return to Britain to live in a retirement home in Surrey, where he finally died in August 2003 at the age of 93. This death was widely remarked because of a single book he wrote called Arabian Sands, which chronicles his journey across the Empty Quarter from Hadhramawt to Abu Dhabi. I've never read it, but it has been ranked as the greatest travel account ever written, and much as with works like Moby-Dick and Gone with the Wind, I feel like I've read it vicariously just from hearing so much about it. Today, too, it perhaps serves as a primary source for history, as nothing like the world Thesiger crossed is left today.

Wilfred Thesiger does, however, have a place in the modern UAE, in virtually every bookstore in the entire country, where there are special stands of books by him, books about him, and books about his books. Much of the UAE's past exists in this form. Society has changed, but people remember, and strive to preserve those memories. Thesiger's books are one example, as is a keen interest in Bedouin poetry, with many contemporary Emirati poets writing in classical styles, or in some cases combining them with new. Another is in the government's intense encouragement of archaeology, which partly serves to establish the antiquity of civilization in the country in a would where everyone likes to be ancient, but also fits a broader pattern of displaying heritage and culture that leaps out at the visitor as surely as the modern glitz and glamor. Even the dozens of crumbling towers which dot the countryside of an emirate like Ras al-Khaimah have been carefully catalogued in a joint project of the government, Emirates Bank International, and the Society for Arabian Studies.

The most frequently visited heritage site in the UAE may be Dubai's museum in the city's old fort overlooking the Khor Dubai. The fort looks much like many others, with plain brown walls, towers on each corner, and a fairly modest size. The immediate area is filled with restored traditional mud-brick architecture, though mainly tourists jam the streets of what once was an upscale residential neighborhood now filled by travel agents, financial specialists of different kinds, and an interesting number of cloth wholesalers. The courtyard contains either models or artifacts of old bits of life in the area, such as an elevated outside bed for sleeping on hot nights, while the inside has interpretive displays of pre-oil life in Dubai, ending with a multimedia presentation of scenes and sounds from the city's development. This heritage is multi-cultural; there is no Salman b. al-Hindi here preaching against the evils of non-Arab impurities. Text displays often mention people from other regions who lived in the Gulf, and there is even an account of how parts of a Bedouin war dance were learned from East Africans.

Such heritage sites dot all the emirates. As I hinted at in "Tales Told of Houses Made of Palms," Sharjah's fort has been reconstructed as it was in the early 20th century, and is next to a heritage village with museums and reconstructions set around wide open spaces where South Asian guest workers get together for evening cricket matches of their own while talking about the 2007 World Cup. Somehere near Dubai is a place called "Hatta Heritage Village" which I didn't go to, but which recreates a traditional mountain village in the region. Every emirate's fort has been revived as a museum except that of Ras al-Khaimah, which was a museum before the emir decided he wanted to live there, and Ajman, where they apparently didn't have a fort and so had to put their museum in an old police station. In Fujairah, where I decided to cut short my visit because it was just too hot, they have a full guide to historic buildings around the emirate, though they seem to have left out those of Dibba, which thanks to the abstract expressionist political geography which characterizes the Musandam Peninsula is divided between Fujairah, Sharjah, and Oman.

Not all the heritage is architectural, and the UAE seems to rival Jordan in the extent of its park and nature reserve system. In al-Ain, home to the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History, is an oasis preserve where you can wander through an oasis maintained much as it was before the oil age, albeit with the addition of paved walkways and palm-built "Oasis Restaurant and Cafe." The many date palms along the Wadi al-Ain of what used to be Tuwwam are still tended by farmers and irrigated with stone falaj channels spread out in a maze of pathways among them, lending a quiet trickle of water to the silence before the call to prayer rises from the several small, mud-built mosques around the oasis.

Shaykh Zayed, considered the Father of the UAE, was among other things an environmentalist who in the 1970's publicly gave up hunting to encourage wildlife conservation. The UAE seems to have higher environmental standards than any other country I've been to with the possible exception of Canada. Cars all have alarms that go off when you reach 120 km/hr, and aside from the desert road to Liwa people seem to respect the speed limits - one taxi driver told me that there's a lot of electronic and aerial monitoring. Several times when I stopped to consider it I looked around and realized there was no litter in sight, though a few other times there was. Cities are being designed with lots of open spaces for trees, and there are parks around some of the khors, though emirs also like to commandeer a lot of that property for palaces.

Perhaps most emblematic of the country's commitment to nature is the Sharjah Desert Park, home to a wildlife center that houses specimens of dozens of frequently rare or endangered species that used to populate the desert. It isn't just a tourist attraction - zoologists there are working to breed many of these animals and have the dream of one day restoring species to the wild. I have forgotten too many of the individual details, but it is enthralling just to recall the open spaces where tiny desert birds fly overhead while lizards scurry around the rocks and streams, or where magnificient gazelles, similar to deer but smaller, somehow more majestic in their coloring, and swift when they want to get moving, stand near a cluster of seemingly plodding oryxes, as well as famlies of baboons sitting together under a shady ledge. Many of the animals have very clear adaptations for desert life: There was a whole section of them that are nocturnal, rodents and some wildcats with oversized eyes and ears so sensitive they can hear the worms borrowing underground.

Being a historian, I even involved myself in a bit of heritage-seeking of my own. One of my goals was to see for myself a tell called Kush, a likely candidate for the medieval port of Julfar, located in the area of a village north of Ras al-Khaimah. It's not exactly a big tourist draw, so LP didn't even mention it's existence, but I hoped it would be easy to find since "Kush" was apparently the local name for it. I snagged a taxi and when, since the driver knew the village, just had him go there where I began asking around. Even in a small village there were lots of guest workers, though they were able to point me to one guy (out of about 12) who was "a local" and would know. He did, even though he seemed to find it strange that I was asking. To avoid misunderstanding I asked him to feed directions straight to the taxi driver who, as we turned off the paved road and across a field seemed to wonder what he'd gotten into. At a certain point I asked him to stop, got out, and paid him, as he drove off giving me a look like I was crazy.

I explored the field a bit, which was mostly small dark rocks and reddish soil, until finally I found a fence with an old rusty sign about how it was some sort of site of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and visitors should keep out. The gate was open, though, and the mound was in sight where about ten years ago now the archaeological team from Durham had found the remains of a tower dating from the late Sassanid period and which, at a later layer, happened to also yield the oldest known coffee beans. Today it was again inhabited, but instead of Persian soldiers it was a group of junior high-age kids who mapped well onto Disney's "Mighty Ducks." Seeing a stranger they called me on up, and with them I took in the view through the clear, sunny sky of the black-and-brown Hajar Mountains to the north and east, with the village off to the west. It was perhaps the first time I derived some sort of direct research benefit from one of my trips, as if I'm ever in a discussion over whether this was in fact Julfar, I'll at least have a halfway educated opinion.

At least one of the two people who travelled with Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter is still alive and living in the UAE today, though he hates the people who occasionally come by to ask about the journey. He is leading a comfortable life, and is glad for the changes that have come about. Thesiger, however, felt that modern technology was ruining humanity, beginning with the automobile, which he considered an "abomination." He also felt that the UAE of today had betrayed their Bedouin Arab heritage by accepting oil wealth and leaving behind their traditional lives of hardship in the desert. Yet there's an oddness to his personal place in history. I forget exactly who he worked for, but his official purpose for making his journey was to map the region; in particular he charted a path to Liwa, undoubtedly suggesting that future travellers to that oasis might want to start at Abu Dhabi rather than in Yemen. He hated the changes that have come to the Gulf, but he himself was a herald and enabler of those changes. Perhaps he knows that were it not him it would be another, and so he might as well have grabbed onto the opportunity to experience the old desert while it remained. I wonder, then, without having read him, if what he wished to explore was not space, but time, a time in some sort of evolutionary scheme of history he saw in his own past and wanted flee to because it made him in some ways more comfortable than the technological world he found in England during his adolescence. Like the exploration of space, however, the exploration of time can move in more than one direction, and while they remember and honor their own past, the people of the United Arab Emirates and boldly and optimistically charting a course into an unknown future where they hope all dreams can be fulfilled.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bishara Affair Meta-Blogging

Imshin posts a strident critique of the concerns I raised yesterday about the potential fall-out of the Bishara Affair for Israeli politics and society. There are three specific points I want to address:

1.) "Brian Ulrich predicts that the Bshara affair will be Israel’s Dreyfus Affair. He thinks 'there are grounds for concern that his potential arrest and trial could become one of those events that both highlights and consolidates existing social differences between racial, ethnic, and/or religious communities'."

This is a minor point, but saying there are grounds for concern about a particular outcome isn't the same as predicting that outcome.

2.) "You are forgetting the October 2000 riots, Brian dear. If anything highlighted and consolidated anything, it was that, not some two-bit shneck of a politician, who turned out not to be as bright as we gave him credit for. And corrupt to boot."

I'll concede Bishara fall-out could be just one of a series of such events, though over the past few months I've seen a lot of polling data which suggests Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are at a low ebb.

3.) "Brian admits he hasn’t seen 'any reaction yet from the Arab sector'. It seems strange to me that a student of Islam currently residing in Jerusalem, hasn’t been reading any of the local Arab rags. What a waste. I’d love to be able to read them.

"Actually, it was an Arab Israeli newspaper, apparently hostile to Bshara and his way of doing things, that first publicized this affair. From what I understand, whole portions of the Arab sector in Israel are, in fact, very aware of exactly how damaging Bshara has been for them. However, the Arab sector is not made up of one opinion, or they’d have long ago made good use of their electoral power, instead of splintering up into lots of little parties, and in doing so allowing a loudmouthed toxic character like Bshara to act as their official mouthpiece."

Here again, she's right, and when I say I haven't seen any reaction, that doesn't imply a thorough search. This is even less my day job than it is for bloggers like Marc Lynch who deal with modern Arab politics. I did notice yesterday that al-Jazeera is going with an "Arabs rally around the persecuted Arab narrative, but I didn't see any mention of Israeli Arabs, which was my main focus. I'm not familiar with the Israeli Arab media, so I wouldn't know what to make of any particular bit of coverage I did read.

That said, I'm not sure the rest of Imshin's post really serves as a rebuttal of my own. It is a perfectly logical, mainstream Jewish Israeli perspective which makes the case that the position of Israeli Arabs is pretty good overall and that Bishara is an obnoxious and scheming twit. I suspect, however, that many Arabs within Israel may see things differently. This includes many who may not like Bishara, but perhaps feel sympathetic to parts of his agenda and believe he is being persecuted for political reasons. Reactionaries like Caroline Glick, who have used Bishara to critique "a culture of treason that has come to dominate Israeli Arab society" will fuel this process, much like extreme voices in the Arab sector.

That said, I'm starting to think he isn't coming back, which would limit the story's headline life and hence its ability to do damage. We'll also find out more of the actual allegations when the gag order is lifted in a few days.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Fighting Islamic Resurgence

Authorities in Tajikistan have raided some home-based Muslim religious classes, citing among other things fears that the children were being abused. The article, however, links it to the government's concern over Islamic extremism. I think it's easy to say that the Rahmon regime doesn't want to see the development of potential opposition networks, and that fears of IMU-like organizations make a good cover. However, I also suspect there's a cultural conflict involved.

Under the last sub-heading, a young woman named Muhayo reacts angrily against a CD encouraging women to wear headscarves, which is a fairly common thing for Muslim women to do, regardless of their political views or activities. I don't know as much about the cultural effects of the Soviet period in Central Asia as I probably should, but I do know that during that period, Islam was scorned even more than communism. Most people who grew up under Soviet rule probably had an education that promoted secularism and portrayed many aspects of Islam as backwards. Now that there is a religious revival in the post-Soviet period, many are probably reacting against it based on both their Soviet education (or the trailings thereof, among the younger generation) and what they get from the news which deals with the danger of Islamic extremism in the context of terrorism issues.


Bishara, Dreyfus, Simpson

When history writes the story of Azmi Bishara, the focus may not be on what he did or didn't do, but rather on the effects his case had on Israeli politics and society.

Predicting what might happen can be a dangerous game, and for all we know now the former Balad MK might just remain in exile forever. I think, however, that there are grounds for concern that his potential arrest and trial could become one of those events that both highlights and consolidates existing social differences between racial, ethnic, and/or religious communities. The title to this post mentioned Alfred Dreyfus and O.J. Simpson, two very different figures whose cases had exactly that effect. The Dreyfus Affair, of course, has the added importance of stimulating the growth of a political movement - Zionism, as fate would have it - since it was while observing it that Theodor Herzl and perhaps others concluded that they needed a Jewish homeland.

Because of his opinions on what Israeli politics should look like and his relations with enemies of Israel such as Hizbullah and Syria. I suspect this post by Imshin, in which the conditional "if these allegations turn out to be true" seems like a formality, is the attitude taken by lots of Israelis. When you step back and look at the whole of Israeli society, one which has made the anti-Arab Yisrael Beineinu the fifth largest party in the Knesset, you can see the prospect of Bishara becoming a symbol of prejudice against Palestinian-Israelis. It would give Esterina Tartman something to do, even if most Israelis, such as Imshin, focused just on Bishara.

I haven't seen any reaction yet from the Arab sector, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of them saw these charges as simply a state response to his politics and contacts, and not from any actual wrongdoing. Didn't Prime Minister Olmert's office recently tell Balad that Shin Bet would act against even legal threats to "Israel's Jewish and democratic character?" Arabs in Israel wouldn't need to support Bishara politically to feel he is being wronged legally, and in any case I've always felt it must be weird for them to be expected to display loyalty to the idea that they will be a minority and a "demographic threat" in perpetuity. Their support for a man Jewish Israelis are convinced is a traitor would only lead to greater aggregate levels of conviction among Jewish Israelis that they are a potential fifth column and a strategic danger.

This, I think, is the danger people should be aware of regardless of the facts in this case, and it may in fairness be the answer to Imshin's musing about why he was allowed to leave, though this militates agains that. Again, I have no idea what to make of the charges, but fear his trial and and potential imprisonment could do more damage to Israeli democracy than any betrayed military secrets ever could.

UPDATE: Ha'aretz has a strong editorial questioning, among other things, what national security secrets Bishara could possibly have known.

UPDATE: Richard Silverstein is also worth reading.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

GOSI Report

The General Organization of Social Insurance has released some new data on Bahrain's guest workers:
"The study prepared by the General Organisation of Social Insurance (GOSI), the pension fund covering the private sector, said 50,330 expatriates in 2005 were getting less than 50 dinars a month, and that their number had increased by four per cent over 2004.

"About 112,000, half of the expatriates registered with GOSI, get less than 99 dinars a month, the report said.

"'This is a disgrace and such low salaries give a bad name to our human rights organisations and societies abroad. It is not at all acceptable to have people live on less than $3 a day in Bahrain, especially with the rising cost of living,' Al Durazi said.

"According to the report, 26 workers died in work-related accidents, an average of one every two weeks. The fatal accidents peaked in July and August and occurred mainly between 1pm and 2pm, when workers felt the full force of the scorching sun."


Accusations Against Bishara

I haven't commented on the strange case of recently resigned MK Azmi Bishara of the Balad Party because I really haven't known what to say. Today, however, we finally learned what the charges were:
"Former MK Azmi Bishara is suspected of acting against the security of the State of Israel during the Second Lebanon War, according to details of the investigation against him released Wednesday after a court partially lifted a gag order on the probe.

"The suspicions include aiding Israel's enemies during wartime, passing intelligence to the enemy, contacts with foreign agents, some of which allegedly took place during the Second Lebanon War.

"Bishara is also suspected of breaking the law against money laundering, by allegedly personally receiving large amounts of money from abroad, some of which was transferred during the war last year."

That still seems pretty shadowy, but is all we have to go on for now. Bishara is a controversial figure in Israel largely because of his opposition to its identity as a Jewish state and sympathy for groups such as Hizbullah. A few years ago, some members of the Israeli radical right tried to pull an Iran and disqualify him from seeking office on those grounds, though the Supreme Court reinstated him. With this background, I want to learn more about what was actually going on before I get too critical.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Independence Day

Israelis celebrate Independence Day at Jerusalem's Zion Square


Monday, April 23, 2007

Killing the Immoral

Iran's Supreme Court has upheld the principle that people can be killed for moral corruption:
"ran's Supreme Court this month issued a ruling that upholds the idea that people may be killed with impunity if they are deemed to be immoral. The case confirms Iranians' suspicions that some people in Iran can get away with murder: religious fundamentalists, individuals associated with shadowy 'pressure groups,' or those linked to hard-line clerics.

"The court on April 14 confirmed the acquittal of six Iranian militiamen who admitted killing five people in the southeastern city of Kerman in 2002-03. The six men justified the killings by saying the victims were 'morally corrupt' according to religious laws, accusing them of selling drugs and engaging in extramarital sex.

"The last two victims were a married couple the militiamen killed for supposedly having 'illegitimate' relations as lovers, the daily 'Etemad' reported on April 15.

"The six defendants -- all of whom admitted to the killings -- are reportedly members of the local Basij militia, a nationwide force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps."


Moving Iran's Elections

Iran's Presidential elections are likely to be moved up to this fall:
"Iran's parliament voted on April 22 to hold the next presidential and parliamentary elections together, later this year, thus extending parliament's current term by seventh months and shortening the government's term, Iranian media reported. The decision -- which some politicians say is unconstitutional -- must be ratified by the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists. The council rejected as unconstitutional a previous parliamentary proposal to hold the elections concurrently, but parliament has apparently voted to reconfirm its earlier proposal. This could lead to a stand-off that might have to be resolved by the Expediency Council, a political arbitrating body. The constitution has set the length of parliamentary and presidential terms at four years. The April 22 vote foresees simultaneous elections for the eighth parliament and ninth president since Iran's 1979 revolution in late October to early November 2007, 'Aftab-i Yazd' reported on April 23."

With support in Iran's conservative Parliament this solid, I suspect the changes will go through one way or the other. This is also not the result of opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has been under discussion for awhile. However, given his current popularity problems, he would have a tough time winning new elections this soon.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Sunday, April 22, 2007

UAE: The Big City's Blinding Lights

It's a cliche to say that the territory of the United Arab Emirates has been transformed by oil wealth, but it got to be a cliche because it's true. It is strange today to think that in 1955, when Saudi Arabia tried to annex the Buraimi/al-Ain/Tuwwam oasis, the region had no know oil reserves, and none would be discovered for another three years. There was no road connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi - to get from one to the other by land you had to make a rough journey over the coastal salt flats known in Arabic as Sabkha. In the late 1960's, J.C. Wilkinson, one of my more relevant intellectual predecessors, wrote that in Liwa, considered the "last oasis before the Empty Quarter," there were no permanent dwellings, and much of the population lived there only part of the year. The country may have been one of the world's least developed, dependent ever for its education system on aid from Kuwait and Nasser's Egypt.

That was before the UAE was the UAE, just seven small coastal city-states dependent on the British. The modern United Arab Emirates as a country is largely the life's work of one man, Emir Shaykh Zayed b. Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966-2004. Shaykh Zayed was one of the great traditional Bedouin leaders, perhaps the last of them to lead as a son of the desert rather than a modern statesman, though he learned the latter art as well. When oil was discovered in his emirate, he did not act simply to enrich himself, but distributed the wealth among the other emirates of the coast, gaining a reputation for generosity to go with his existing status as a local mediator. When the British announced they were pulling out and the rulers panicked with fear of their more powerful neighbors, Zayed took a stand in favor of federation, perhaps the only option, but one which took years to finally hammer out. When the UAE officially came into being in 1971, Shaykh Zayed was chosen by the other emirs as its first President, and he was the only one it had until his death.

Shaykh Zayed was no believer in democracy, and during his lifetime the UAE was the only Middle Eastern country not to have even token elections. Most people didn't care, however, as aided by the oil windfall, the country was prospering. Many of the country's leaders feared becoming too dependent on oil, so they put much of the wealth into building agricultural and industrial infrastructure. The former is not a pipe dream, as due to the large aquifers on which it sits, the UAE is the only country of the Arabian Peninsula that has the potential to meet all its own water needs. A favorable tax climate has made the country and important business hub, and Dubai has also become one of the world's great conference cities. Needless to say, you can now travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in an air-conditioned bus along a sometimes busy eight-lane highway in under two hours, and you have at least four lanes much of the way to Liwa, now home to several prospering villages with their own local public transportation system and a couple of desert resorts.

Arriving in Dubai is crazy. I got in at about 1 a.m., and after taxiing past craft from a greater variety of airlines than I've ever imagined, wound up in an airport of science fiction ambiance. It took an hour to get through passport control, not because of any hassles, but because it was so busy, with 24 lines of about 50 people each. A travel provider meeting a couple on vacation told them it was worse during the day. When you get past that, unlike other airports where taxi drivers are constantly after people trying to find business, at Dubai the passengers have to line up until a taxi is ready to go, and the drivers, carrying your luggage at a quick jog, complaining about how busy they are. I was really lucky in that the day before I had decided to book a room for the night. Places were so booked up I couldn't find anything for less than $60, and even that backed me up into Sharjah in the next emirate, though today part of the same sprawling metropolitan area. My driver said if I hadn't done that I might have been in trouble because lodging was really tight that weekend, thanks mainly to some huge gathering of Iranians which had taken the bulk of the rooms in the city of over one million. Traffic still seemed steady even though it was then the solid middle of the night. It was, I must say, memorably wild =)

Skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the Emirates' largest cities, and countless more are under construction. It is said that half of all the construction cranes in the world are in Dubai. Going down the main highways is a bit like passing through a small ravine. Still, it is this construction that starts pointing to the country's dark underside, its foreign guest workers. I say "dark underside" because of how exploited they often are, though because I know of people that have been visited by UAE security officials for asking too many questions, I didn't try to probe that firsthand. Still, in the modern UAE, the Arabs are really just an elite ruling class that reminds me a bit of the role they played in the Umayyad caliphate. The guest workers are the real population, even if many seem to plan to only work there for a few years to support their families back home. Newspaper stands have not just English and Arabic, but a variety of South and Southeast Asian languages, as well. In the evenings, Sharjah's Rolla Square is filled with chatting South Asians, by far the cheapest places to eat are cafeterias frequented by workers on their lunch breaks where you can get an ample Indian meal and something to drink for $1.

In the big cities, these guest workers tend to congregate by ethnicity, and you see signs posted for people seeking a flatmate specifically from somewhere like Kerala or a Tamil-speaker. Major projects and jobs also seem to fall to people of one background where that company recruits, as well. All taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi Emirate are Pakistani Pashtuns, and I spent lots of time being driven around by guys with a really long series of names one of which was inevitably "Khan." All of them talk really fast, and were extremely friendly - if I spoke Pashtun, I would know lots of stuff about them and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, most had picked up only a seemingly rudimentary colloquial to go with their Pashtun and at least enough Urdu to watch the Pakistani news, which made communication difficult, even at the level of, "Stop here!" (I later talked to an Omani guy, and learned that this set of observations is quite common. Everyone rides around Abu Dhabi with Pashtun taxi drivers with really long names including "Khan" who are really friendly, but no one ever understands what they're saying.) Hospitality, incidentally, is just as common among the guest workers as among the Arabs. When in Liwa, I wandered into the nearest village, where like everywhere else there were lots of guest workers. I wound up eating in a small restaurant where I had chicken biryani and tea; the owner refused to accept payment for the tea part, saying that was on him.

There are, of course, som actual Emiratis floating around. The men stand out with their white dishdashas and usually black headbands, but there are also women around, as Shaykh Zayed was a feminist who pushed for formal legal equality in the country's laws. The major hang-outs for young people are the malls, which are all over the major cities and where food courts where you can get goodies hard to find in Jerusalem, such as sausage and pepperoni pizza. In Dubai, I even had a quesidilla, surrounded by mall-goers watching the Cricket World Cup on a big-screen TV. It's striking, though, when you think about how much as changed in the lives of the older people. I mean, in Liwa, you go from tents to air-conditioned busses and a little ways away, multi-lane freeways. On my last day in the country, I was along the corniche of Ajman, the smallest emirate, having some sort of caffeinated beverage and watching a steady line of ships in the distance making their way to the Strait of Hormuz when I started overheading/eaves-dropping on a conversation nearby in which a couple from Europe was talking to an Emirati guy. He was actually talking about the changes in the country, and about how he'd changed with it. "Until I get to 70," he said. "At 70, I stop." I guess everybody has a limit.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Right of Return

Chayyei Sarah has an article in the April 2007 Hadassah about Egyptian-Israeli Jews. It's worth reading in its own right as an important window into social change and historical memory in an Arab Jewish community, but I want flag this bit:
"The final blow came in 1956 with the Sinai campaign; that year, the government ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish community, declaring that 'all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.' By the time the Camp David peace accords were signed in 1978, only a few hundred Jews remained in Egypt to benefit from the agreement. Today, about 80 to 100 Jews remain, most elderly women who have outlived their husbands and whose children have moved on to more welcoming countries.

"'I remember as a child during Passover with my family waiting to see the first star appear in the sky so we could start the Haggada together, and pray and sing,' said Joseph Abdel Wahed, who was born in Cairo and left Egypt in the 1950’s. 'These were magical moments for me and my family...because we celebrated our liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But little did we know that, in a few years, we would celebrate our second exodus, which was our liberation from Nasser. If you know your Bible, it says, ‘There arose a king in Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ That was Nasser. He was very brutal.'"

Every Arab country was different, but several governments did turn on their Jewish minorities both shortly before and after Israel's declaration of independence. In Iraq, for example, Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa'id threatened to expel all Iraqi Jews as a bargaining chip on the Palestinian issue and use their property to compensate Palestinian refugees. Ultimately, with government encouragement, all but a few Iraqi Jews did emigrate, and the Iraqi government got most of their property, but I never saw where it was used for Palestinian refugees.

This is what makes the Palestinian demands for a right of return to Israel seem so tendentious. The real issue, in my mind, has nothing to do with Israeli desires for a Jewish majority or who did what during the War of Independence. From what I've been able to gather on a subject covered over in polemic, many Palestinians in Israel fled just like lots of people do in a war zone, while others were forced out of what the Israeli military deemed sensitive strategic areas, especially in the central part of the country. For cold-blooded political reasons, Ben Gurion's government never had any intention of letting them back in, though they did initially intend to pay compensation in exchange for recognition.

Taking the region as a whole, however, it's clear that any Israeli bad behavior was matched by the Arab states, and perhaps surpassed as the latter have preferred to use the Palestinians to bolster their own Arab nationalist credentials rather than prepare groundwork for moving on and integrate them the way Israel was able, with great economic difficulty, to integrate the influx of Arab Jews. While today one still hears comments that Israeli Jews should "go back to where they came from," it's not clear the commenting ones are fully cognizant of the full demographic picture, one where at a certain point Arabs constituted a thin majority of Israeli Jews, though I suspect the Soviet Aliya tilted that balance toward Europeans. In any case, thanks to intermarriage, it's clear the distinction will be meaningless before long.

In short, while the Israelis were seldom great humanitarians in their treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, the story is one of generally ugly behavior all around, especially since the Arab Jews weren't even Zionist originally, a legacy of the historic lack of anti-Semitism in the Muslim Middle East. Lots of people got unwillingly uprooted through the projects of Zionism and Arab nationalism. Ultimately, the Israelis dealt with this, while most Arab states didn't, meaning that the Palestinians are still "refugees" decades later. I am often sharply critical of Israeli policies towards the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and support a full withdrawal from these territories, as well as the Golan Heights, or whatever else might arise from negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states. However, the "right of return" is a fantasy, the carrot you dangle in front of the donkey to keep in plodding in the direction you want it to go. It's time to start dropping it.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Protests Broken

The anti-Bakiyev protests in Kyrgyzstan have come to an end, apparently through the use of government-hired thugs who provoked violence which was then blamed on the opposition.


More Tajik Authoritarianism

There are signs that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is becoming increasingly authoritarian in his new term. One is the attempt to ban the opposition Social Democratic Party:
"Tajik authorities are seeking a six-month ban on the opposition Social Democratic Party over accusations that it has 'undermined laws and regulations.'

"The prohibition could become permanent unless the party's leadership supplies more information about its activities.

"Social Democrats are accusing officials of the kind of authoritarianism that has long dominated politics in neighboring Uzbekistan -- where opposition groups are harassed and pro-government parties fill the landscape.

"Social Democrats have long been critical of President Emomali Rahmon's administration. Most recently, the Social Democrats were among several parties that dismissed as illegitimate the presidential election in November that handed Rahmon a new seven-year term.

"Now the Justice Ministry accuses the party of failing to provide an obligatory annual report and has asked the Supreme Court to ban its activities for half a year."

Tajikistan's dictatorship has generally been more veiled than that in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, perhaps as a legacy of the 1990's civil war which left the government weaker than in any of its neighbors. However, an outright ban on a major opposition party seems to take things to a new level.

The other issue is the government crackdown on illegal preaching in mosques:
"Kabiri’s views were reinforced by another senior IRP figure, Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, who said, 'There are people in the higher echelons of power who regard Islam - and religion in general – as their enemy.'

"The authorities argue that they are simply upholding the law, but they may not have helped to win this argument when they decided to send police into a number of Dushanbe mosques in mid-March to catch children who should have been at school.

"One such police raid, at Dushanbe’s main mosque on March 16, ended in scuffles as angry members of the congregation tried to stop police taking away children who had come to attend the midday Friday prayers. Eyewitnesses said the confrontation began to turn nasty as police brought in reinforcements and the crowd swelled to 1,000 to defy them. In the chaos, the children managed to break free and the crowd turned into an impromptu demonstration."

The excuse for this is a failure to comply with registration laws buffeted by fears of Salafi jihadism found throughout Central Asia, but I suspect the government also wants to bring religious institutions in general under its control so as to remove a possible source of popular mobilization against it.


Mauritanian Democracy

Jonathan Edelstein was the go-to blog for analysis of Mauritania's Presidential elections, but CEIP sums things up:
"The resulting presidential election was distinguished by heated competition between ideologically distinct political forces as well as many independents, revealing the richness of the Mauritanian political arena. The elections also laid bare the division between two major camps nearly evenly dividing the political sphere. The first is that of the former regime, which supported President-elect Abdullahi, and the second consists of the former opposition forces, which stood behind the runner-up Ahmed Ould Dadah, an economist and brother of a former president. The first round's electoral results failed to give any of the nineteen candidates a winning majority, while the second round showdown between Abdullahi and Ahmed Ould Dadah ended with Abdullahi winning with 53 percent of the vote. Curiously, women did not play as prominent a role in the elections as they do in normal Mauritanian political life; two parties are headed by women and there are three female ministers in the current government.

"Perhaps most encouraging was the high voter turnout: nearly 71 percent in the first round and 66 percent in the second, reflecting Mauritanians' confidence in the electoral process. Mauritanian and European observers gave the elections high marks for fairness. The African Union, which had suspended Mauritania's membership after the 2005 coup, readmitted the country on April 12."

It's easy to allow free elections when you're pretty sure you're going to win them, but this is still a great development. I would be interested in seeing a democratic nation get a voice within the Arab League, even one as far-off as Mauritania.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Harmony, or a Show?

Writing for Gulf News, Miriam al-Hakeem claims Sunni-Shi'ite relations are improving in Saudi Arabia. Her evidence is that the governor of Onaida province invited a Shi'ite leader to a heritage and cultural festival, and the Shi'ite leader expressed a desire for reciprocation. Such shows of tolerance and unity are part of King Abdullah's agenda, so it doesn't surprise me things like this would happen on an official level, though the headline seems overblown.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Freedom in Bahrain

Via Mahmood, I see that the campaign to suppress dissent in Bahrain is proceeding full steam ahead:
"The head of the Central Governorate’s Public Prosecution, Nawaf Abdullah Hamza, yesterday started a probe into a case filed by the Ministry of Electricity and Water against Central Municipal councillor Sadiq Rabea for issuing statements to local newspaper accusing the ministry of corruption."

Mahmood, who as many of you know has been facing his own issues, now thinks it's part of a pattern.

Meanwhile, the government of Muharraq is trying its hand at Islamism:
"Days after it banned the sale of lottery tickets, the municipality of Muharraq has launched a campaign to remove all posters and pictures, mainly from video shops, that it deemed provocative and offensive to public morals.

"The latest decision is regarded as a consolidation of the rising power of Islamists in Bahrain's second largest city and which was for decades the bastion of pan-Arabism.

"'We want to make sure that the bans are fully implemented to ensure compliance with the decisions to eliminate disguised gambling and remove posters and illustrations that flout our morals and ethics,' Mohammad Hamada, mayor of Muharraq, said on Tuesday as he toured the city to monitor the situation."

Given Bahrain's size, this isn't that big a deal so far. I presume you can still buy lottery tickets across the bridge in Manama. However, the trend is clear, and is exactly what many feared given the results of recent elections.


Akiyev and Bakiyev

According to Erica Marat, Kurmanbek Bakiyev's supporters in Parliament are all followers of ousted President Askar Akiyev:
"More than one-third of the parliament is supporting the president and prefers to postpone any constitutional reform. They refuse to consider restructuring as long as the opposition demonstrations last. The increasing divides between pro-presidential and opposition MPs led to a fistfight among some legislators on April 16. Most pro-presidential MPs are opportunists who have demonstrated that they are concerned more with their mandates than with political principles. In the contentious February-March 2005 parliamentary elections, they won their seats thanks to their membership in the Alga Kyrgyzstan political party led by Bermet Akayeva, daughter of former president Askar Akayev. In effect, these parliamentarians are the core political force that still openly supports Bakiyev. According to Bely parohod, some of the pro-presidential MPs have already lost the support of their constituents."

In other words, the people who followed the guy who got turned out in the Tulip Revolution are the main support for the current regime. I do wonder if there's a bit more to it, as I thought most of the Parliament was elected in March 2005, and that Akiyev's block got a majority at that time, though I could be wrong. In either case, this is clearly a situation in which democratic reform is (hopefully) produced through self-interested manipulations of the system by competing factions rather than a broad idealism among the country's most influential figures.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Child Abuse

An official government study shows a whopping 45% of children in Saudi Arabia are abuse victims:
"About 45 per cent of Saudi children suffer from some kind of abuse, according to a recent official study.

"Psychological abuse is the most common the children suffer constituting 36 per cent, followed by physical abuse 26 per cent, the study said.

"The study, conducted by the Anti-crime Centre at the Saudi Ministry of Interior, noted that primary school children are the ones mostly subject to psychological abuse, followed by those in secondary schools and then intermediate school students...

"Princess Muneera noted that the most common case of abuse is related to children belonging to low-income families, followed by the ones from broken-up families and then children of a man who is married to more than one wife.

"She added that abuse cases were also reported among children of parents of poor education, families where violence is common place, and in families where one of the members is an alcohol or drug addict."


Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech and Iraq

There's something very creepy about random spree killers. Political terrorists at least have some cause they fight for, but most school shooters are simply deranged in some manner, and so the horror of murder is compounded by a void of meaninglessness. This is why something like what happened today at Virginia Tech can hit me in the gut in a way that the daily carnage I read about in war zones seldom can. However, it's also worth keeping this in mind:
"Let's total the score: at least 65 Iraqis dead in four attacks vs. 22 Americans shot at Virginia Tech. Whoops, forgot the 20 kidnapped policemen. Can you imagine?

"The next time you hear Dick Cheney or George Bush blame the public attitude regarding Iraq on the media's failure to report 'good news', examine carefully our reaction to the shooting at Viginia Tech. Look at our collective shock. Our horrified reaction. The public sorrow. Yet, in truth, this is an exceptional, unusual day in America. It is not our common experience. But we cannot say the same about Iraq."

I see a lot of al-Jazeera coverage of people being killed in Iraq. There are reasons.

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Morals of the Young

With his "-ov" newly shorn, Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon's government has begun tackling the most crucial issue facing Tajik society, women who wear headscarves and/or miniskirts to school:
"Mamlakat Safarova is a student at Tajik National University who wears a head scarf. She tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that she was surprised to see Education Minister Rahmonov visiting her university in person to see whether students were complying with his order.

"'I didn't know that the minister was standing right behind me,' Sararova says, '[but] he tapped me on the back and said, "What kind of face and figure is that?" I felt insulted, of course. It was quite a blow.'

"Davlatmoh Safarova is a student at Dushanbe's primary languages university who says she's been prevented from even entering the building because of her head scarf. She claims the university is looking for any pretext to expel female students who choose to cover their heads."

This follows a Presidential decree banning students from using cell phones, driving their own cars, and having graduation parties. Except for the headscarf, this sounds like the sort of "public morals" campaign I've occasionally read about in the former Soviet Union, though the Minister of Education, who developed the sudden interest in women's clothing, may be using it as cover to go after people perceived as easily recruited by Islamist movements in the region.


Yom HaShoah

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a non-Israeli, the thing you notice most is the 10 a.m. siren which calls everyone to a moment of silence. The newspaper had pictures of people on busy streets standing outside their cars with their heads bowed. In the post office where I was, however, one old guy in a kippah came in and dramatically tried to be served after cutting straight to the front of the line, while some clique in the back kept up an animated conversation resisting until near the end of the moment attempts from others in the line to shush them. I guess for some people, nothing is sacred.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

UAE: Tales Told of Houses Made of Palms

It is said that long ago, during the days of the Jahiliyya before Islam, Sama b. Lu'ayy lived in the Hejaz, near Mecca, and he was Sama b. Lu'ayy b. Ghalib of the Banu Kinana. It is said that one day he killed Uday b. 'Amir b. Lu'ayy, the son of his brother, but others say that no, he gouged out one of the eyes of his brother, Ka'b b. Lu'ayy. Sama then feared that he would be punished, and so left Mecca, and with him was his son, al-Harith b. Sama, and his daughter, Hind bt. Sama. With them, Sama fled until he reached a valley by the side of the sea. There, he married Najiya bt. Hazm b. Riyan of the Banu Quda'a.

Najiya bt. Hazm was the same as Hind bt. Hazm; she is called Najiya bt. Hazm because of what happened she travelled further with Sama bt. Lu'ayy, who wished to reach the country of Oman. They made their journey across the great sand desert that is called the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. At one point, she became thirsty, and asked for a drink, but Sama insisted water was right in front of her, because he was seeing a mirage. Servants, however, carried her until they came to the oasis of Tuwwam, which is today the cities of Buraymi and al-Ain, on the border of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. They came with her to water, and there she drank, and so was saved (najiyat). Someone then said to her, "Go, for you are saved!" This was how she came to be called Najiya, and her descendants are the B. Najiya.

To the south of this oasis of Tuwwam, there is a mountain, called Mt. Hafeet. In those days, there were more animals in the region than there are now, and falcons and hawks would have made their nests on its slopes. Even with their keen sight, however, when they looked down upon the country they would now have seen Najiya and her servants, nor Sama and the rest of the party coming behind her. Indeed except for the green of the oasis in the distance, nothing but endless shades of brown greet the eye, from the limestone crags of the mountain to the ever shifting sands and hard earth of the desert floor. Yes, Sama and Najiya, coming from the south would have been lost, less than specks on the burning land which extended to the farthest horizons.

Sama b. Lu'ayy, too, however came to the oasis of Tuwwam. Now when he was in the region of Mecca and preparing to set out, several of the leading men from his people had come to him and expressed their displeasure with his departure. And he had said to them, "What are you afraid of for me?" And they had replied, "We are afraid that you will enter into a servile condition or make a lowly marriage alliance." And he had said, "Trust me." Now when he arrived in Tuwwam, it was the home of Himmam b. Abd b. Rafid of the Banu Malik b. Malik b. Fahm, and the leading men of the Banu Azd took refuge with him, or with those of the Nizar such as the Abd al-Qays who were in Tuwwam also. With all these Sama b. Lu'ayy made peace, but when they sought the hand of his daughter Hind bt. Sama, he refused until the coming of 'Imran b. 'Amr b. 'Amir. The Azd leaders knew him through his kinsmen in the Hijaz, and so Sama agreed that Hind should be married to his son al-Asd, and she bore to him a son, whose name was al-'Atik b. al-Asd b. 'Imran.

This al-'Atik was the ancestor of al-Muhallab b. Abi Sufra, for whom was named that district of Dibba which is within the territory of the emirate of Fujairah. Of his deeds and the deeds of the Al Muhallab who came after him, it would take many volumes to tell all. Of Dibba, however, it is said that when Islam was made manifest, it was the greatest market of the markets of the Arabs in that country, and the chief of its people was Laqit b. Malik al-Atiki. Now when the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, passed away, Laqit renounced Islam, and began preaching after the manner of a Prophet. He invaded Oman, and forced Abd and Jayfar, the sons of Julanda of Azd, to the mountains and the sea. And against Laqit b. Malik, Abu Bakr the Caliph sent armies led by Hudhayfah b. Mihsan al-Ghalfani and Arfaja al-Bariqi of al-Azd, who joined the Julandas in Suhar, the chief city of Oman. From there, they began preaching to the tribes that had gathered at Dibba, until enough had left that they felt Laqit was weak. Then they attacked the apostate, but he withstood them until the coming of the B. Najiya under al-Khirrit b. Rashid and a group of Abd al-Qays. Then there was great slaughter, and the people of Dibba returned to Islam.

Now it came to pass in later times that Oman became the land of the Ibadhis, who were led by their imams. In the days when the Imamate had passed to al-Muhanna b. Jayfar al-Fajhi al-Yahmadi, al-Mughira b. Rusan al-Julanda'i and his followers from the Banu Julanda rebelled, and went to Tuwwam, and killed its governor, Abu Waddah. When word of this reached Abu Marwan, the governor of Suhar, he set forth to Tuwwam with many of his people, and with the general al-Matar al-Hindi and many of his followers from the people of India. And they came to Tuwwam and destroyed the Banu Julanda, with some being killed and others fleeing. Then al-Matar al-Hindi and a group of his soldiers went to the dwellings of the Banu Julanda, and set them ablaze. It is said that one man from the party wet his body and clothes from the stone irrigation channels, and then went through the flames to where the cows were tied and cut the ropes which bound them and allowed them to save themselves. Altogether 70 rooms were burned that day, though others say only 50.

Centuries later, when the ships of the British appeared in the Gulf, the peoples of the coast pursued their ships, and captured many, and took what they found therein, and became wealthy, until one day when the British went and destroyed all the towers of the coast. The shaykhs of the coast then signed an agreement with the British, and agreed that they would build no fortresses in that region. This was in the days when Sultan b. Saqr b. Rashid al-Qasimi ruled in Sharjah, which he near to Dubai. Now Sultan b. Saqr feared the Bedouin, who were in the desert, and would often raid Sharjah, so he built a new fort all of white stone, and although near to the shores of the Khor Khalid, its defenses faced toward the land, and so did not threaten those who controlled the sea.

Some time later, during the rule of Sultan's grandson Saqr b. Khalid b. Sultan, there lived along the coast near the city a blind old man from the people of India named Basidoh. Now each day this Basidoh would catch and grill a fish. One evening, there came a strong wind, and the wind carried the flames to the palm fronds which made up his house, and set them ablaze. And the flames spread, and went down into the city, and even into the harbor, where were docked the fishing boats and the ships of the traders and a great ship called Bin Madkur Jalbout. And when Saqr b. Khalid heard of this, he entered the city on his white horse, and beheld all the destruction that had been done to the houses and the ships, but that part of the mast of the Bin Madkur Jalbout remained intact. This he commanded be cut down, and placed in front of the fort. And whenever a pearl diver would be unable to dive deep enough to find the pearls or a thief be caught, he would be tied to this post and whipped, and so it was called the Wood of Repentence.

Years later, Saqr's grandson, Sultan b. Muhammad b. Saqr, was in Cairo, when word reached him that this fort was being destroyed, and that new buildings were to be put in its place. At this he became distraught, for he loved it, and so that very night took a plane back to Sharjah, where he found all had been demolished save its towers. And when the workers came that morning, he commanded them to stop, and caused the pieces of the fort to be collected and put into storage. Then when Sultan hismelf became the new emir, he set about the task of rebuilding it, and of setting near to it a place like a village along the shores of the Khor Khalid. And he caused that the village and the fort would be open to all, that they might remember the stories and ways of what had gone before.

I have looked at these things, and what I have said herein is what I have seen written on their plaques, and what I have read in the books of the learned. God knows what is true.


Saturday, April 14, 2007


This is Machaerus, near Madaba, Jordan, site of the execution of John the Baptist. If you can't quite make out the ruins on top, click here.


Jordan: Redemption

If you're surprised I didn't spend Easter in Jerusalem, so am I. However, job interviews persuaded me I absolutely had to hit the Gulf more at some point, and it made sense to do that during Passover Break here in Israel. The fact that both the western and eastern dates for Easter coincided this year, and the fact that date happened to fall during Passover, was just an unfortunate circumstance, though since I'll definitely be back here next year, I didn't care that much.

So instead, while, waiting for the Israeli border to open again after it was closed for the holiday, I chilled for a few days in Madaba, Jordan, a city I first visited almost six years ago. Modern Madaba, a small city of about 60,00 people, was settled in the late 19th century by a group of Christian families from the south, but the site was also a city during the Byzanite period, and the modern inhabitants are quick to claim that heritage. Madaba is called the "City of Mosaics" because of all the mosaics preserved amidst the remains of its Byzantine churches. The most famous, found in St. George Church, is a religious-themed mosaic map of the region from the 6th century, which is actually used by scholars studying Jerusalem's Byzantine topography. Many establishments in the city, such as the hotel I stayed at and a coffeehouse I went to a couple of times, are named after a Queen Ayola who came from Madaba. I've unsuccessfully tried to dig up information on her using google, but she almost has to be the same as Aelia Ariadne, the wife of Emperor Zeno who after his death married and thus elevated to the throne Anastasius I, who during his 27-year reign unsuccessfully tried to steer a moderate course in the empire's theological conflicts.

Jordan actually has a fairly old Christian heritage. During the 3rd century, Arabs from this region played a significant role in spreading Christianity within the Roman Empire. They themselves were usually converted as tribes by holy men who went into the desert to live as hermits and wound up serving as blessers, healers, and mediators for people in the region who came to follow them. One of them, a man named Moses, became close to a woman named Mavia, presumably a Latinized form of the Arabic Mawiyya. After her husband's death, she became Queen of Tanukh, and led a revolt against the Roman Emperor Valens who tried to appoint an Arian bishop for the region, whereas she would settle only for the Orthodox Moses. She won, and went on to fight on Valens's behalf against the Goths. This revolt became widely celebrated in Arabic poetry, though unfortunately today none of this has survived and we know what we do only through Byzantine sources.

This region actually has a long tradition of such eremitic holy men, whether Christian hermits, Sufis within Islam, or people the ancient Hebrews would regard as Prophets, and there are lots of caves in the western Jordan ready for their use. One of the most famous to pass through this area was the Old Testament's Elijah, who according to 1 Kings after a confrontation with King Ahab in which he predicted a famine fled east of the Jordan river to a seasonal stream called Cherith, where he found water and was fed by ravens until summer came and the stream dried up. Also in this area, very close to the Jordan, you find a small hill, almost the exact same elevation as the surrounding land but separated from it by a series of short ravines filled with green shrubbery. This is Tell Elias, where they say that same Elijah, known as Elyas in the Qur'an, rode a chariot of fire which was taken by a whirlwind into heaven.

Centuries later, following a verse in Malachi, people came to believe that Elijah would return, perhaps as a precursor to the Messiah. I've read that this belief has become so strong in modern Judaism that many Jews leave an extra chair at Passover just in case he decides to put in an appearance. In any case, it was probably natural that when another seemingly eccentric holy figure preaching repentence and reconcilation to divine laws while wearing garments made of hair began operating right in the vicinity of Tell Elias, people began asking if it was him. In the Gospel of John this man claimed he wasn't Elijah returned, though in Matthew Jesus says he was. Everyone, however, can agree that he was John the Baptist, known in the Qur'an as Yahya, seen by the Mandeans of Iraq as the final Prophet and by Christians as the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

One of the main holy sites in Jordan is Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, known in Arabic as al-Maghtas, or "Baptism site." This is where John did his preaching and baptizing, and is widely visited by Christians. Because it's right on the border with the West Bank, getting there involves passing through a military checkpoint and then taking a mandatory guided tour. The site itself is divided into two parts, as the course of the Jordan has changed, and the actual "baptism site," at one time apparently a small pool by a bend in the river, is now completely dry. You can, however, see a small wooden structure above a stone ledge thought to be the actual place of baptism. Stone steps go down to it, suggesting that when there was still water here early Christians - or somebody - still used it for baptisms.

The remains of three Byzantine churches separate this site from the modern river, where there is a small wooden deck with a side open for baptisms in the river today. Nearby is a golden-domed Russian Orthodox Church built for the many Russians who come to this site for baptisms, as well as a stone baptismal font filled with water from the Jordan for infant baptisms. The river itself is very narrow, and would be little more than a large creek in the American midwest. It used to be larger, but the level has been going down due to overpumping from the Sea of Galilee further north, especially by Israel, which seems to have absurdly good water pressure for a supposed desert country.

John the Baptist made quite a stir in his day, and the great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus has far more to say about him than he does the currently more famous Jesus. John's popularity, in fact, came to be seen as a threat to the Tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas had him taken prisoner and brought to his palace at Machaerus. The ruins of this palace can still be seen today, with a few columns and the remains of some internal walls sitting at atop magnificient peak near the Jordanian village of Mukawir near Madaba. The site is marked with a white-on-blue sign: "Memorial of the Prophet Yahya - Saint John the Baptist" in both English and Arabic, and while I was there a church minivan had stopped there for an extremely well-sited Easter picnic. The road ends at a scenic overview on the next hill, from which it is a mainly uphill 15-minute hike to the ruins where John was killed, according to one of the gospels as a gift for the dancing of Salome. The execution was seen as an act of tyranny, and according to Josephus, when Herod subsequently face a military disaster in a war against Aretas IV, King of the Nabataeans who ruled from the stone-carved city of Petra, people said it was because of what he had done to John.

Easter Sunday, I wandered into the nearest church to attend a service, which turned out, appropriately enough, to be St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. The people were, of course, friendly. Madaba has some of the friendliest people I've found anywhere, and I think between my two visits an outright majority of the taxi drivers I've had have tried to invite me home for tea and refreshment. The service was the same as what you might see among Catholics in the United States, except for the prominent display of Orthodox-style icons and the absence of some of the Holy Spirit blessings you're starting to see in American Catholic churches influenced by the charismatic movement. There were also two distinct lines for communion, one mostly male, and the other exclusively female, and some women wore headscarves into the church as was done in ancient times. I could follow most of what went on, though when its Easter Sunday and the gospel reader begins, "And on Sunday Mary Magdalene and Mary went to see the tomb," you can completely zone out and still pass a quiz on the rest. The somewhat shubby priest gave Stock Easter Homily #34795 about the importance of remembering the meaning of Easter throughout the year, though unfortunately thanks to my zoning out I don't know what the exact spin beyond that was.

As I did trek back from the ruins of Machaerus, however, I did have some thoughts of my own, thoughts about the relationship of eternal life and redemption which are at the heart of Easter Sunday. In the sort of Substitution Theology common among western Christians, it is argued that Jesus took on humanity's punishment for sins, namely death, and that being redeemed from our sins, we now have the option of eternal life in heaven. There is, perhaps, another angle, however, and that is that when the fear of death is removed, our fate in this world becomes meaningless. Elijah and John the Baptist both preached fearlessly, and the latter died for it. Normal people fear death, or the other things that can happen to them. In the idea that death has been overcome, however, you can find the implication that we are now free to act righteously, to do what in Islam would be called "commanding the good and forbidding the evil." In that sense, perhaps there is a more concrete dimension to the idea of "salvation" than is often thought, another layer in a complex theological subject.


Friday, April 13, 2007


This is Liwa in the United Arab Emirates, the last oasis before the Empty Quarter.


Kulov's Brigades

In Kyrgyzstan, an opposition front founded by former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov has brought thousands of protestors out to demand the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev:
"A crowd estimated to number more than 10,000 people is rallying on Bishkek's central Alatoo Square to demand the resignation of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

"Other protesters are marching toward the square from various parts of the city. Organizers of the protest say Bakiev has not fulfilled promises he made when campaigning for the presidency two years ago and that he appears unwilling or unable to make good on his pledges.

"The opposition United Front For A Worthy Future For Kyrgyzstan and the For Reforms movement says 50,000 people will take to the streets of the Kyrgyz capital.

"Protesters started their march from Jengish (Victory) Square toward Alatoo (Freedom) Square chanting as they walked, 'Bakiev Go! Bakiev Must Go!'"

This follows Bakiev's successful thwarting of last fall's constitutional reform and the continued centralization of power in his own hands. A cynic, of course, might suggest that Kulov's love for democratic reforms manifests itself mainly when he is out of power. You can follow these developments through a correspondent on the ground in Bishkek over at Registan.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

North African al-Qaeda

Sammy Ketz of Middle East Online sees a growing threat from al-Qaeda in North Africa:
"Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College echoed Darif's fears.

"He said that after the authorities in Morocco and Algeria seemed to have 'broken the back of the islamist terrorist networks' it now seems that 'these two fronts have been re-energized, revitalized.'

"Part of the explanation could be, he said, 'the severity of the crackdowns. That is what we are seeing today essentially: a sort of reaction to these offensives.'

"Darif sees the hand of The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) the main extremist outfit fighting in Algeria's long running Islamist rebellion.

"Last September, the GSPC pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, changed its name and vowed to pursue jihad in Algeria.

"'The GSPC has taken its time to spread its cells throughout north Africa and once it felt confident enough, it took the name of Al-Qaeda Maghreb, grouping all the salafists in the region,' Darif said, referring to the adherents of Salafism, a rigid Islamic movement based on a literal interpretation of the Koran."

After yesterday's events in Morocco and Algeria, this is an easy analysis to produce. You can read more from me and Nadezhda at American Footprints, Matthew Chebatoris and Michael Scheuer for the Jamestown Foundation, and Jill Carroll writing in the Christian Science Monitor (1,2, 3).

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Darfur Refugees on the Kibbutz

Lisa Goldman posts about an interview with Darfur refugees who have found sanctuary at Kibbutz Maagan Michael. I'm surprised Israel treats refugees from "enemy countries" so harshly. Wouldn't people who flee from those governments to Israel make natural potential friends in the Arab world? Also, is someone from Sudan really more likely to be a terrorist than, say, a Palestinian living in friendly neighboring Jordan?

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The Hebron House

While I was away, the dispute over the settler occupation of a house in Hebron between the Kiryat Arba settlement and the Cave of the Patriarchs stopped being about settlers and Palestinians and became about Israeli politics. Amir Peretz, who lags behind rivals Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak in polls regarding the May 28 Labor leadership primary, wants to evacuate the building immediately, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won't let him. In fact, Olmert and the Kadima party seem to feel the occupation is necessary for the security of Kiryat Arba in their master plan for the West Bank. I missed whatever information emerged about the circumstances under which the house was purchased, though if a Hebron Palestinian sold it voluntarily I hope he got away safely.

I can't help wondering if these discussions are related to an agreement recently made to begin evacuating 24 other West Bank settlements established since 2001. I bet Peretz and Labor would yield on Kiryat Arba if they could get action on those. Olmert is citing American pressure, which I suspect is becoming the all-purpose excuse of a weak Prime Minister who has to please everyone from Labor to the YB and Kadima's right to keep his government intact.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Algiers Bombing

The North African branch of al-Qaeda, formerly known as the GSPC, has claimed responsibility for today's twin bombings in Algeria. One of the blasts damaged the headquarters of the Algerian Prime Minister, while another targeted Interpol. The Ha'aretz article says this fits into a pattern of increasing violence since the GSPC hooked up with al-Qaeda in January. I honestly know nothing about Algeria, but suspect it remains the least stable country in North Africa, so this bears watching.


Back in Jerusalem

I'm back in Jerusalem, though too busy to blog much. I do, however, recommend reading this.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Your results:
You are Derrial Book (Shepherd)

Derrial Book (Shepherd)
Dr. Simon Tam (Ship Medic)
Malcolm Reynolds (Captain)
Zoe Washburne (Second-in-command)
Inara Serra (Companion)
Kaylee Frye (Ship Mechanic)
River (Stowaway)
Wash (Ship Pilot)
Jayne Cobb (Mercenary)
A Reaver (Cannibal)
Even though you are holy
you have a mysterious past.

Click here to take the Serenity Personality Quiz

(Via Tim Burke)


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Executive Power