Thursday, August 31, 2017

A notion of tribes

Harari on Tribes
I take umbrage with Professor Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)on his notion of what it is to be an Arab. In particular, his comment on page 217.
“Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century…”
I beg to differ with him, partly because I have travelled the length of Egypt and have spent time talking with them, and with other Egyptian ex-pats, some of whom I have worked with throughout the Gulf for the past twenty years.
One of the first lessons I learned travelling overland from Nairobi and following the Nile through the Sudan to Cairo was to assume that once I got into this part of North Africa that modern-day Egyptians considered themselves as Africans.
One chap in the souk quickly corrected my incorrect assumption and told me proudly, “No, I am Egyptian”.
Unless Egyptians have changed in the last while, I think Harari has fallen into the same trap.
For him to assume that Egyptians think of themselves as “Arabs” is a stretch.
I know for a fact, that my Egyptian Copt friend Murad, whom I worked alongside for seven years in Abu Dhabi, corrected a mistake I had made.
He spoke Arabic, lived in an Arabic-speaking country yet when I am asked, “Are you an Arab? He quickly corrected me and said, “No, I am Egyptian.”
This confusion on Harari’s part about Arabs brings me back to my first day in Professor Todd Lawson’s “Introduction to Islam” course at University of Toronto in 1990.
He asked our large class, consisting of many Muslims and interested Arabists such as myself, “What is an Arab?”
No one knew the answer or bothered to answer even though there were obviously students of Arabic origins in our class.
Naturally, I could not help myself, so I answered, “The Bedu, the Bedouins.”
This comment seemed to catch the professor off guard, and he asked why I said that.
I told him that is what I had read in Wilfred Thesiger’s legendary travel book, “Arabian Sands”.
Professor Lawson casually tossed off my suggestion and proceeded to tell us all that "an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic".
In retrospect, he was dead wrong because there are many nationalities who speak some form of Arabic, but they do not consider themselves as “Arabs”.
A few that come to mind are Moroccans, Tunisians, Mauritanians, Algerians, Somalis, Sudanese, Libyans maybe even Palestinians.
It is true that most of them have some Arab blood in them, but many have more African or Berber bloodlines.
I know for a fact that many in Southern Sudan speak Arabic, but that is the lingua franca there and they are for the most part either animist or Christian, and they prefer to call themselves by their tribal alliances: Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk…etc.
I also know from teaching in Kuwait, UAE, and now in Qatar, that if I were to call my female students "Arabs "that they might take that as an insult.
In my first year of teaching at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait, I had a mixed class of girls of various origins and ethnicity. Moreover, it is not unusual to have a class with the majority of students from the traditional Bedouin culture of Kuwait, usually with surnames Al Azmi, Al Ajmi, and Al Mutairi.
Perhaps some of them might be what are called “Bedoons”— ‘stateless Arabs’—those tribes never having citizenship because of their ancestors roaming from pasture to pasture in traditional Bedouin lifestyle between Kuwait, KSA and Jordan.
However, in my classes there might also be a smattering of Palestinian, Syrian, Qatari, Bahraini, Balochi, and Egyptians thrown into the mix.
Two of my better students were Palestinian, and in one class the subject of the “honour killings” came up. In particular, we were discussing the recent “honour killings” that had taken place in Jordan, and I knew the two girl’s families came from Amman. I also knew they were Palestinians, so I played the devil’s advocate and asked them if ‘honour killings’ were part of Palestinian culture.
They were abhorred, and one said —“Sir, that is the tribes that do that, not us.”
I wondered who ‘the tribes’ were that she was referring to, so I asked for clarification on that.
The one answered rather adamantly — “The Bedouin tribe’s sir. They are very tribal.”
I was rather taken aback by this and asked — “Aren’t the Palestinians tribal too?”
She seemed miffed by this as though I was insulting her and clicked her tongue at me which is a verbal sign of disdain or dislike in the Arab World.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps Professor Harari should re-think his notion that Arabic-speaking people think of themselves as Arabs—the Palestinians I know would not share that worldview.
In fact, the Palestinians have gotten screwed around not only by the Israelis, but their supposed “Arab brothers”.
Their "Arab brothers" have kept them in refugee camps spread all through the Levant since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent “Nakba”. The largest camp is north of Amman (with the Jordanian Army tank barrels pointed in their direction), and there are squalid camps in Lebanon, and Syria. I used to live in what was considered the Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait called “Nugra”.
King Hussein and his Jordanian Army battled with Arafat and the PLO and their ilk during “Black September” in 1970. Both the Kuwaitis and Saudis kicked many of Palestinians out of their countries when they unwisely supported Saddam before and during the Gulf Wars and Invasion of Kuwait.
In a sense, despite speaking Arabic, the Palestinians get shafted in the Middle East because, for lack of a better term, they are from the wrong tribe, but maybe, they are not from any tribe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Musings from Kuwait (2004)

“Apr├Ęs Moi le Deluge” or “The Flood”

We were busy studying the mandatory five-paragraph 'cause and effect' essay in class at Gulf University for Science & Technology in Kuwait when one of my students, Yousef Ibrahim, had written on the board about the effects of an earthquake.
One of the reasons he gave was—“the flood.”
As Yousef Ibrahim waltzed back to his seat, I muttered something at him that there was only one—“the Flood”.
He looked quizzically at me as if I were half-mad.
To be fair, many friends and family had wondered the same thing and why I was working at a new university in Kuwait, but that was another matter.
This writing of “the flood’ had also caught the attention of another student who blurted out—“shinu flood” (what flood?).
I said, “You know, the Great Flood…the flood before Islam, the mother of all floods?”
This was met by a wall of silence or maybe indifference, one can't be too sure over here in the Gulf.
I moseyed up to another sharp student, Ibrahim Khalwati, and nonchalantly asked him.
“You know, Noah”—or as the Arabs would say ‘No-ahh’ (sort of a soft, throat clearing sound), and just to prove my point, “Al-Nebi No-ahh” (the Prophet Noah).
This caught a light and a few of them nodded incomprehensibly as if they knew the historical figure from the Biblical story.
As is my wont, I went off on an historical tangent, waving my arms wildly and excitedly telling them about Gilgamesh.
Okay, let's try a different tack.
“You know the Epic of Gilgamesh?”
“Shinnu Gilgamesh, teacher?” (“What’s Gilgamesh”)
Muhammad al Bahar (a really bright student) lisped to me—“Who's Gilgamesh?”
Of course, my eyes rolled, and I realized that these guys didn't have a clue about Gilgamesh or any of the Epic of Gilgamesh or even the “Great Flood”.
They could, however, tell you everything about the new Nokia phone, or the new Hummer, but were useless on any real historical information—probably the result of brainwashing at the madrassa.
As the students mumbled amongst themselves, my mind drifted back to my fledgling university years where the Epic of Gilgamesh was pounded into me by Professor Celeste Peters at University of Calgary, then Professors R.W. Sweet and Kirk Grayson at University of Toronto.
My mind was reeling, but I had to come back to the present.
Then I prattled on about Diana.
“Who's she?” asked one student.
“Princess Diana,” some smart-ass guy piped up.
“No, she is the Goddess of the Harvest and Fertility”, I proclaimed with real religious fervour.
Now things were really getting odd as the guys thought I was a real loony.
I proceeded to tell them about Ishtar, the half-breed Enkidu, Gilgamesh the hero, and Lilith of the dark underworld, not Lilith from the dark TV sitcom Frazier.
Then a spark hit, and I thought they must know about Nebuchadnezzar, as that was the term Saddam (the impaler of the Kurds—those inhalers of gas) used as one of his monikers for the glory of modern-day Iraq.
Well that was a complete dud much like the SCUDs that Saddam tried to fire off during the Gulf War.
They were eyeless in Gaza, stateless in Ramallah, legless in Kandahar, and clueless in Kuwait!
The students had absolutely no idea of the history of this area just to the north of here in what was called Ancient Mesopotamia.
It's as if Arabs didn't exist before Muhammad and the coming of Islam.
I proceeded with caution—“What about the Assyrians?”
“Duh, sir you mean the Syrians?”
I could have cried.
“No! The Assyrians—you know Sargon the Great, Sennacherib…” the names just fell off my palate as the students almost fell off their chairs.
“What about Hammurabi—surely you must know the Code of Hammurabi?”
This too was lost on them and it reminded me of the scene from the recent movie, The Emperor’s Club, where Kevin Kline, playing an ancient history teacher at a prestigious boys private school, slags an ancient Elamite and Akkadian king for not being remembered.
The teacher points to some saying carving in wood above the class doorway attributed to some ancient king.
“Shutruk Nahunte”, the student answers.
“Can anyone tell me who he was?” asks the teacher, and added, “Texts are permissible.”
A few students hurriedly scan through their textbooks for the name.
But you will not find him there,” says the teacher. The teacher goes to the front of the classroom and pulls down the class map of the ancient Persian Empire.
Shutruk Nahunte, sovereign of the land of Elam! Behold, his name cannot be found anywhere! Why not? Because great conquest without contribution is without significance! Unlike the giants of history you are seeing among you today.”
He says pointing to alabaster busts close by of Caesar, Cicero, and Aristotle to name a few.
I suppose this  history teacher did not know that Shutruk Nahunte defeated the ferocious Akkadians and brought back the famous Stele of Naram-Sin to Elam as booty.
Such a slagging of poor old Shutruk Nahunte and in the same breath, besmirching the name of Naram-Sin, grandson of the legendary Akkadian ruler, Sargon the Great—“ruler of the four quarters of the world”.
Sometimes, I get the impression that modern-day Arabs are born-again in the sense that they have totally forgotten their pagan past and its rich legacy of Mesopotamia.
Alas, poor Hammurabi, I knew him well.
Alas, my poor students, they didn’t know him at all. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A trip to the Embassy

In the past, this would not be a big deal, but being post-9/11 and especially here in Kenya—who knew?

My first exposure to the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi was on my initial trip to Nairobi in March 1982. At that time, I had been instructed by my younger brother Harry and Kate (his girlfriend later wife) to rendezvous with him at Comcraft House in downtown Nairobi after their safari.

Not such a big deal since this was one of the first things I usually did as a Canadian travelling abroad—signing in. This was done so that the Feds could keep track of which Canadian national was in a foreign country.

Nowadays, I have an app with my i-Phone which lets the Canadian gov't, through a security agency, International SOS, keep the Feds apprised of my every movement thanks to GPS. Nevertheless, a groovy, yet scary thought a la 1984.

Undaunted, I left my second home away from home —the Nairobi Youth Hostel, where I spent considerable time on four of my African sojourns during the 1980s. A place, I might add, that my African globetrotting younger brother and then girlfriend Kate, would never stay in—too lowbrow for them and not accommodating for couples.

Nevertheless, our supposed meeting at the embassy had been planned a few months earlier whilst I was still in the barren cold of Alberta and my brother in the wilds of northern Nigeria where he and his girlfriend were at a Teacher's College in Manchok.

To go to a Canadian Embassy back then just meant walking in to a small room, signing in, or walking to a small glass cubicle, much like a bank teller's station, to see an embassy representative if need be. There was no security or showing of passport that I can remember--it was a safer time.

Zoom to the present, 2017.

The smallish consulate at Comcraft House has long gone, no longer a stuffy, pokey office in a downtown high-rise. The Canadian Embassy, like its counterpart the US Embassy, is out in the boonies of Nairobi. Now, a coned off, long entrance, no parking, huge concrete walls with razor wire, a force of about 10 GPS security guards, 24/7 CCTV cameras, tire traps, an elaborate security alarm, and retractable heavy metal gates with cylinders that rise and fall upon entry.
Oddly enough, unlike the US Embassy, here there were no M-16 gun toting bearded Blackwater security guys roaming the perimeter.

Before you even get to the first security pillbox, a guard asks for ID and your purpose. Next, your passport is passed onto to another guard who visually scans your passport then radios to someone inside the embassy. There are two other GPS security dudes we have to confer with.

The OK is given then Gracie and I walk down an ivy lined walled outdoor corridor to another security gate where we are asked for our passport and or in Gracie's case—her Kenyan ID. The heavy metal gate is open then we go to another concrete security building where we are directed to the x-ray area one by one.

First, we have to show passport and then given an ID pass. We surrender any metal, step counter and cell phones, but are instructed to switch them off first before putting them in a locker and given a key for it. I was carrying my leather brief case with all my documents and passed it through the x-ray machine. Then I was asked to open my case and was told to also remove my chargers. Then was asked if I had anything else, so had to go through another part of my case to remove flash drives and my key fob--who knew? Guess you can't be too careful these days.

After all that, then you finally retrieve whatever went through the x-ray machine and enter into the huge driveway entrance to the embassy pass gleaming pictures of Trudeau the Younger and his new set of cronies--beats the hell out of the former Turneresque portrait

The expanse of the lobby of the new embassy is larger than the whole former embassy downtown. This and the waiting room is all open. Open to the elements to some degree which makes it like waiting in a fridge to see someone. No need for a/c here.

A receptionist is behind what I think is bullet proof glass and one of those sliding trays where you put your passport in for further perusal. She instructs us to wait your turn in the freezing open foyer or warmer waiting room cum library.

Back in 1982, I have pictures that took of my brother and of me inside the embassy--that would be verboten these days. During my sojourns through Africa I would check in at different Canadian embassies to sign in and to check out the latest news in the Globe and Mail and other papers or magazines that the embassies often have. Today in Nairobi, there were no Canadian newspapers and the latest magazine, Harper's (no relation to ex-PM Stephen) was a 2013 issue.

Fact of the matter is, it is tougher getting into this embassy than going through airport security before boarding a flight to either Canada or America these days—a bit over the top if you ask me, but Kenya is now the land where those shifty Al-Shabab can strike anytime.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hashemite Empire or the new ISIS caliphate.

Hashemite Empire or the new ISIS caliphate.

The idea of a caliphate stretching from Iraq to the Levant is nothing new despite what Islamic State had proposed in recent years under its supposed new caliph—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, an earlier version in the 1920s, the Hashemite Empire under Sharif Hussein and encouraged by Lawrence of Arabia, would cover roughly what the “new” Islamic State Caliphate was trying to perpetuate recently.

It is curious or ironic that some countries have had to endure the recent scourge of the Middle East—namely the so-called Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria better known as ISIS.

The Islamic State wanted to impose their jihadi or Wahhabist form of Sunni Islam inside a make-believe state stretching from infidel Iran through ancient Mesopotamia, and all the way over to most western shores of the Levant. 

En route, the Islamic State would put to the sword or convert all those religious minorities who were considered blasphemers or infidels to the Wahhabi form of Sunnism by IS towards the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Ismailis, Christians, those Alawite rulers named Assad, Shia sects in Iraq and Iran, and those pesky Houthis in Yemen.

In particular, the Islamic State hoped to eventually overthrow those monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia that also stood in the way of their “new caliphate” with the new “caliph”, Ibrahim al-Badri or as he was called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as its head.

Truth be told, it was the British at the behest of Colonel Lawrence (AKA Lawrence of Arabia), who foresaw an Arab Kingdom during the Arab Revolt, but it was after the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1925, that created a different version.

After the defeat and breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the two winning nations; Britain and France carved up the old empire, installing their own choice of rulers at the helm into what we have today as the sovereign states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel.

Lawrence’s main Arab supporter in the Arab Revolt, Sharif Faisal Hussein, envisioned a Hashemite Kingdom or Independent Arab nation in those newly created countries with the support of the British.

These “new” Arab rulers would be from Sharif Hussein’s family, and they were the same ones who had served under T. E. Lawrence in the “Arab Revolt” of WWI.

After all, Sharif’s family could trace their lineage back to the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, Hashim ibn Abd Manaf. As such, they had a right to claim to be “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques”.

Unfortunately, these “new” Arab rulers would, for lack of a better term, be subservient to British and French rule.

As such, the Hashemite Empire would cover roughly what the ISIS Caliphate was trying to perpetuate in recent years under its supposed new caliph—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sharif Faisal Hussein of the Hejaz, had wanted all the Arabian Peninsula (Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria) as part of the “new” Arab Kingdom with his sons proclaimed as emirs or kings.

Prince Faisal I was initially installed as the King of Syria, and his brother Abdullah as the Emir of Trans-Jordan in 1925 (later King of Jordan in 1946) and the Palestine Mandate.

The Hashemites had been the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” sites since the tenth century. They assumed they would continue to do so in the future Arab Kingdom.

As the Turkish Caliphate collapsed in 1924, Sharif Hussein proclaimed himself as “Caliph”. This in addition to his earlier claims of being the “King of the Arab Lands” infuriated the Saud clan of Arabia who had other ideas.

In 1925, the Saud clan battled and forced Sharif Hussein and his Hashemites out of both Mecca and Medina northwards to Trans-Jordan.

The result was that the Saud clan formed the modern-day state which still bears their tribal name: Saudi Arabia. As a result, Sharif Hussein and his family could no longer claim the prestigious Islamic title as “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques”, a title that the Saudi clan still retain today.

However, following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain (1916), France declared that they wanted part of Greater Syria and thus claimed Lebanon and western part of Syria as their own.

It was only a matter of time before the French Army engaged those Arab troops loyal to Faisal I just east of Damascus in a lopsided victory for the French that ended Faisal I’s reign in Syria.

He escaped to Iraq and was soon crowned the new King of Iraq.

His son, Faisal II would later inherit the title, but in a series of events, he too would be toppled in a coup and assassinated in 1958 which would later lead to the takeover by Saddam Hussein, no relation.

Nevertheless, Emir Abdullah would remain King of Trans-Jordan and Palestine, but he too would be assassinated in 1951 on the steps of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem.

His son, Talal assumed kingship and ruled for only 13 months, but was unfortunately mentally incapable of continuing, so the Hashemite torch was passed onto a very young Hussein to take over the kingship which he ruled until his death in 1999.

In the end, what had been a grand plan by the British at the behest of Colonel Lawrence to set up the Hashemite Empire and the Arab Kingdom of Sharif Faisal Hussein had been whittled down over time to just the modern-day state of Jordan being the last remnant of the Hashemite Empire or Arab Kingdom with its present-ruler, Abdullah II, at its head.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sour Grapes in the Land of Bitter Lemons

                               Welcome to the Hotel Lavadhiotis (2001)
           Such a lovely place! The flight here was rather non-descript, lo and behold—there were no touts, hussies, taxi sheisters, hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin’ daddies waiting to pounce on me as I de-planed the plane. Quite a deserted airport here in Larnaka, Cyprus.

Emerson at Kourian ruins, 2001
The first building I saw as we touched down was a mosque located next to some salty marsh. Apparently, it is supposed to be the fourth most important Islamic religious site in the Middle East. It contains the tomb of the Prophet's (PBUH) Aunt Umm Haram who died here after she fell off a mule on a local journey. She was buried on the spot called Hala Sultan Tekkesi (tekke means Muslim shrine). This site has become something of a pilgrimage for Turkish citizens of Northern Cyprus and other Muslims in the Levant.
I actually had to bug someone to give me a lift to downtown Larnaka as the cabbies were all too busy watching TV and drinking cups of (dare I say)—'Greek coffee'.
The drive into town was in subdued light and I could barely make out the mosque which is set beside a salty marsh lake that was dotted with pink flamingos—the kind that Costco sells.
I finally got to the Lavadhiotis Hotel, which was right downtown on a busy side street. It looked quite posh and a buxom bleach blonde receptionist with a husky voice greeted me—“Kal mare!”
I answered—“No I’ve already eaten. Thank you”
She replied—“No, that is a Greek greeting”.
I said, “Oh. I thought that was fried squid”.
Yanee, she was probably thinking—what a wanker!
Her huge Ionian green eyes gazed deeply into mine and for a moment I was bewitched. Her husky voice broke the spell and she calmly told me that it was the 'low season' and it would be only 11 Cypriot pounds per night—so much for romantic notions as hard economy set in.
It was the 'low season' so I did indeed get a break on the price as there was hardly anyone staying at the hotel. Hardly anyone except for Sweden's version of Jellyroll Morton who was constantly trying to learn how to play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the saxophone. Naturally, I sang the melody in my best impression of Mel Torme despite knowing that it was “Old Blues Eyes” tune (George eat your heart out!).

The following morning, there was a French couple with a rather precocious daughter who went around staring at everyone during the buffet breakfast. That was until I did the kid’s routine of “see food”—that usually breaks them up, especially with bananas and bran!
The 'rooms' here are really self-contained apartments with TV, balcony with Ikea chairs, a 4-burner stove top, fridge, sink, plus dishes and cupboards. I settled in and decided to go for a wee walk.
              Larnaka is known for its impressive promenade that stretches the length of a long sandy beach. The boulevard is lined with palm trees, tavernas, pubs, McDonalds, bistros and yes, even a little kiosk that sells Dairy Queen ice cream—How could they?
             The beach is quite wide and there must be a brisk trade in beach umbrellas, chaises lounges and melanomas during the peak summer months. The sun was waning, so I headed over to some rocks to catch a bit of the sun. It felt nice on my face and I almost fell asleep, but the neighbouring cats that were prowling amongst the breakwater rocks kept me awake.

Next day at breakfast

            The ‘Continental breakfast’ at the hotel is quite substantial. For two Cypriot pounds, you get a huge smorgasbord of: Tang or a lemon drink (not bitter), a huge pot of tea or Nescrape, as much toast as you want, chocolate chip cookies, a mysterious blend of orange and peach conserve, blackened olives, corn flakes, hot boiled eggs, cheese and mortadella. Of course, I brought along my smallish jar of Marmite just to piss off the British patrons— “Sod off you lot and get your own jar!”
               There's an Armenian Christian gal having breakie behind me—she must have snuck off on her parents. She is quite the beguiling babe: a statuesque, olive-skinned beauty with long tresses of almond hair. She is chatting with some Greek boyfriend, but she is carrying the bulk of the conversation. I couldn’t help notice that she has an American or Canadian accent.
              Earlier I went for a bracing walk along the Corniche against the wind, but on the return portion, the sun warmed my face and body. There were lots of Euro-eccentrics on the beach.
              Some old geyser was running along the beach in his native raiment— a G-string whilst others were doing their part for the Larnaka lunatic chapter of the Polar Bear Club. Blimey, but it wasn't the slightest bit warm, rather chilly actually—talk about shrinkage!
              It's incontheivable to believe that I would be wearing long pants, covered shoes, Columbia Safari jacket and a Mountain Equipment Coop Gore-Tex wind shell to keep out the biting wind—the shame was too much to bear.
             It felt like a spring day in the Canadian Rockies: the kind where you burn your face, but freeze your arse off because of the cold wind howling off a nearby glacier which keeps you true to the season.
            At any rate, there's lots of Turkish influences here and there must be Muslims still living in the area as I saw a sign for Ismail Mohamed—Exporter.

 But, maybe they buggered off because the Turkish minority suffered so much at the hands of those Greek Cypriot gang's which was prior to the Turkish invasion in 1974. There's a huge mosque called—Imam Pasha's Mosque and it is presently undergoing renovations to prepare the minaret with huge ashlar blocks. God knows when they worship as I have not heard the call to prayer yet. However, I did hear church bells this morning that woke me up at 6:00am.
Lots of interesting looking old buildings, arches and the old Sultan's Hammam (Turkish bath) has been turned into (of all things)—a youth hostel!
I do not know if I could handle that lifestyle or way of travelling anymore—I have become too much of a softie and enjoy my creature comforts. Now I am just a frivolous raconteur, somewhat of a savant rather than the penniless vagabond of the 80s and 90s that most of you have come to love and cherish. During those halcyon years, I wouldn't have imagined staying anywhere posh, so I suppose that is why I could travel on the cheap and for so long. "We live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose those were the days, oh yes, those were the days—la, la, la"—ya, Lalaland.

'"I wanna go home, oh how I wanna go home"

            Today I had the brilliant idea that I would head up to see the Turkish side of Cyprus—a much-debated point around these parts. First, I had to run a few errands then I ordered a 'service taxi' that would take me to Nicosia/Lefkosa for 11:00am.
            With a mad Ahab at the wheel, we roared off to the appointed site in a Dodge Caravan amidst lots of Greek curses, hand waving and other rude gesticulations by our driver which didn't seem to alleviate matters, but blew off sufficient steam.
             Nevertheless, we were all a complete wreck by the time we got to our destination and individually we felt like throttling the driver. However, he did manage to take me to Checkpoint Charlie at Pafos Gate which was kind of him until I realized I owed him an additional two Cypriot pounds—rotten sod!
               And to further compound my agony, I found out that I had missed getting into the 'other side’ (the Turkish side that is) by a mere five minutes. No wonder the Gleek (plick) border guard had a smile on his face. He was probably just as happy that I wasn't going to give those damn Turks any business—HA!
              To say the least, I was just a tad pissed off with the Greek hotel hussy and the taxi driver as they must have known what time the border closed—it couldn't be that much of a secret could it? But, then on further peregrinations, I realized—Why on earth would a Greek Cypriot want to go to the 'dark side' of Northern Cyprus anyways? The Greek Cypriots don't even recognise the North nor the Turks who our living there. Furthermore, the Greeks are probably not welcome there.
              This became even more evident because if you were to cross in this 'no-man's land' and get a Turkish stamp, you would therefore, not be allowed to re-enter back into the Greek side. The plot thickens—thus, you would be obliged (nay forced) to seek departure from a northern port back to the Turkish motherland.
              On that matter, the Greek Cypriot maps I saw don’t pull any punches either with bold letters stating—“AREA INACCESSIBLE BECAUSE OF THE TURKISH OCCUPATION”.
              The Turkish side does their best to rub it in because upon arriving near the outskirts of Nicosia/Lefkosa, you and everyone else travelling on the road north have a visual prompt that reminds you of where you are and in particular—where the Turks are.
             There is a mountain range that acts as a backdrop to the lovely city of Nicosia and on this mountain, has been painted or carved out of rock a huge Turkish flag. Beside it, in equally imposing white letters set against the grey rock face is—KKTC (KUZEY KIBRIS TURK CUMHURIYETI) or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
             I smiled when I first saw this sign, but this was frowned upon by the scowling taxi driver who saw me in his rear mirror—too bad he didn't see everyone else he just about hit on the highway!
              So there I was, stuck at the Greek/Turkish border—what could I do?
              I was barred from entry into the beloved homeland of Ataturk and that modern Turkish-Cypriot born swine herder Dentkash. Apparently. Dentkash is the stick in the mud in recent negotiations between the Greek and Turkish communities who are trying to sort out the divided island.
             Apparently, the Euros have told both parties to get their shit together and get this island problem settled or neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turks will be accepted into EU. A rather daunting task given the intransigence of Dentkash’s position in spite of a mellowing from mainland Turks.  Nevertheless, there was lots of propaganda that were promoting the atrocities that had been committed by those Turkish imperialist forces under Ecevit.
              In particular, there were pictures of two martyrs to the cause—called the Deryneia Martyrs. Deryneia is a Greek Cypriot town that lies next to Famagusta on the Green Line that separates the Republic of Cyprus from Northern Cyprus.
              Tasos Isaak was part of a Greek Cypriot crowd of supporters who had gathered for the march for ‘unification’, which ultimately ended badly. In all the confusion and confrontation with the Turkish community, Tasos got separated from his mates and was set upon by a paramilitary group of Turkish nationals—none other than the Turkish variation of Nazis called—the “Grey Wolves". The 'Grey Wolves' beat the Greek guy into submission with iron bars and wooden beams right under the eyes of the Turkish police. Perhaps, this guy should have heeded a warning that a friend Tim Sawyer (who teaches in Stambool) told Mike Bowie and myself—"Don't get a Turk mad at you". Tall Tim (AKA ConstanTimople) should know about this as he had the boots put to him outside a Stambool bar by some young Turks a few years back.
The Turkish side of Lefkosa

At any rate, this martyr madness didn’t end here. Three days later at Tasos Isaac's funeral, a friend was so overcome with grief that he sought some sort of retribution for his friends untimely and unfortunate death.
Solomos Solomou decided to outrun both the UN security forces and Greek Cypriot police to pass through the border, shimmy up a Turkish flagpole and try to take down the Turkish flag.
What was the guy thinking—that the Turks would allow him to defile their ground and flag?
He was dropped by five bullets from a dozen Turkish sharpshooters. What the heck did this guy expect? Moreover, did the other Greek Cypriots expect that the passionate Turks would allow their flag to be pulled down—unbelievable? And pray, what would you expect to happen if it was an American, Israeli, British flag or anybody's flag and right in front of their armed troops—geez, it's not shocking is it? OK, maybe this guy's a martyr, but he's one stupid f*#%**g martyr if you ask me!
All of these atrocities were captured on film or video for posterity and act as a rallying cry for the Greek Cypriots. I’m sure that the Turkish Cypriots have their own ‘dark stories’ to tell of their incursion at the hands of the Greek Cypriots.
Enough of this blood wrenching martyrdom, I was starting to get hungry.
I sashayed past bombed out houses and hotels, shot out windows as most of the buildings were pock marked with bullet holes. Sandbags were propped up against walls and they looked like they weren’t going to be moved any day soon. I headed out through Pafos Gate, which isn’t a gate in the true sense, but rather, a huge thoroughfare into the UN sector.

I skirted the battlements of the old city walls that demarcated the Turkish from the Greek side—the Green Line. These ramparts are quite stunning in architectural terms and afford the Turks an excellent view of the 'other side'.
These are correctly referred to as –the “Venetian Ramparts” and they were originally built by the Venetians between 1567-1570 to rebuff the Ottoman Turk invaders to Lefkosa.
I looked up and saw a few lonely Turkish guys looking down from a chai stand high on the ramparts rather wistfully at the slender ladies in short skirts of the Greek persuasion. These lads and their glances of longing reminded me of one of my Syrian workers at the site of Tel ‘Atij in north-eastern Syria—Mohammed Ahmed. After work, Mohammed would get dressed up in his finest with sunglasses and peer from his nearby house over to our little encampment where us Canadian archaeologists called ‘home’.
He always looked like he was waiting for an invite from us in the hopes of sampling our ‘sundowners’. But, it was not to be. I figured that he just wanted to fit in with “the westerners”, but he would never be able to and that’s what these Turkish lads reminded me of.
They and Mohammed wanted no yearned for western liberalism and freedom, but I am not sure that they could have handled it. What we in ‘the west’ take for granted is actually “quite intoxicating” as my good friend George Evashuk so rightly pointed out to me on numerous occasions.
Nevertheless, I was looking a little wistfully myself, but at least, I was walking behind said babes.
I walked down a few side streets, but there were signs that warned of “Absolutely No Photography”, as this was a UN safety corridor between the two factions. I kept walking with the intention of keeping as close as I could to the “Green Line”.
I wanted to see how people lived and carried on under the oppression of a divided city.
There was one stretch of buildings that looked like an old market souk with lots of little arches and arcades. These were full mostly of carpenter shops, ironmongery, balcony builders and upholstery shops. There were Greek blue and white flags at certain intersections that were manned by Greek forces. I continued on until I came upon a small group of tourists with cameras at the ready. I thought-AHA! now I can take some pictures. It was, in fact, the only lookout where you could take pictures.
The Greek army guy guarding the “Green Line” observation post looked like Nik Kypreos’ (the hockey player) brother except he had traded a hockey stick for an M-16. Nik would have fit in here as the name “Kypreos” means Cyprus in Greek.
Nik Kypreos in Green Zone

I climbed the steps that led to a sheltered platform that afforded me a view across no-man’s land. To be truthful, I don’t know what all the fuss was about regarding photos, as there was absolutely nothing worth photographing. All that’s there is dirty old laundry that is strung up haphazardly, empty lots, deserted houses, shot out windows and some old moldy sandbags propped up on the Turkish side.
What could possibly be offensive about taking photos of a ghetto—there were no people to speak of?
I suppose this is what Beirut must have looked like after the Israelis, Amal Militia, Palestinians, US, Syrians, and Phalange armies all took a turn bombing the shite out of the place.
However, here, the Greeks have turned it into something of a national shrine with a renovated museum cum tourist information cum propaganda mongering centre. Also, the street that leads up to the gun post has been transformed into a boulevard lined with trees and tiny tavernas. There was quite a feeling of gaiety in spite of the severity of the situation.
Naturally, I was famished and I sought sustenance of a Cypriot variety. As per usual, the Krauts and the Pommies were all getting pissed on cheap beer and a high cholesterol diet of soggy, deep fried fare. Whilst the French and the leather clad tres-chic Italianos were trying to outshout each other in their own ‘special’ romance language.
I opted for boring instant soup and some prehistoric bread, which could have caused personal harm if loaded into a bazooka.
What was killing me was the music—“Oh, please release me”—I wish they would!
The taverna owners had gone out of their way to find the most annoying pap from the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe it was karaoke, but there was a cheap imitation of some Greek diva doing a poor take on Bette Midler's— “From a distance…”
Really, I wish I did hear this from a distance instead of right on top of me. And the band played on… “God is watching us.” and I thought of what my grandfather would have said— “…and Jesus wept…”
To temper all this unleashed passion was a sign that I kept seeing everywhere on the Greek side— “Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world.”
Funny, but I think the Israelis and the Palestinians might have something to say about that one.
The song that finally drove me out of there was when some truck driving, drug taking, tobacco chewing, son of a gun who started singing—“I wanna go home, oh, how I wanna go home.” I took that cue and started to head back to Larnaka.
I weaved around some streets and came upon a disused mosque called Arablar Mosque.
I poked my nose inside one of the shattered windows between the iron bars and the place was bereft of rugs, furniture except for a weathered old wooden minbar where the mullah would have led the faithful.
Further along, I hit upon a street called Ippokratous which is some sort of taverna mall that was strictly for pedestrian traffic. It was kind of neat and intimate with intimate coffee rooms and cozy little tables set up outside for late night of frivolity and enchantment.
Too bad the place was deserted as it was in between mealtime. Nevertheless, it was chock a block with taverna after taverna all set on cobblestone streets. In amongst all this were tiny little tourist shops selling everything from antiques, coins, maps, postcards and your usual brik-a-brat.
At one point in the bowels of this food area, I noticed that there were many Filipinos girls parading their stuff. I had been told that there were around 20,000 Tamil Nadus and Filipinas who were ‘domestics’ here, but these girls were too dolled-up and they looked beat- up to be ‘domestics’. Maybe there was a story there for someone. I moved on.
Further along, I spied some neat postcards, so I decided to buy some.
It was a pokey little shop that was more a kiosk than a shop. There were tattered paintings and old posters with a thick layer of dust on them.
I was soon busy talking to the Greek Cypriot stamp collector and his odd-looking girlfriend who I thought looked Russian. It turned out that she was indeed Russian and that she teaches Russian in Nicosia. Wouldn't have thought there would be much call for that language in this area.
When she found out that I was Canadian, she asked me if she could go to Canada as if I was an ambassador or immigration officer. Naturally, I pleaded ignorance.
The collector had some old postcards that I started to leaf through and eventually I picked a few of them. They were pre-invasion postcards depicting a carefree state of affairs in Kyrenia and the great beaches of Famagusta.
This storeowner asked me if I needed stamps and I said of course. He handed me a wad of stamps that he had pulled from a dusty binder under his desk. I never thought any more about it and dutifully pasted them onto my postcards that I would send to friends.
It wasn’t until I was later in Limassol that another store owner pointed out that I had, in fact, not only bought ‘antique’ postcards, but also, ‘antique’ stamps. “The stamps are not as old as the cards”, he said, but they were 1981 vintage.
I was a bit worried and wondered if the Post Office would accept them. At any rate, the coin collector gave me a tip in getting a ‘service taxi’ back to Larnaka as it was starting to get late. The taxi trip back to my hotel was just as hectic, but this time I was in the front seat beside the harried driver of a beat up old Mercedes stretch station wagon.
Later, that evening, I was part of an interesting conversation with a vivacious blonde night clerk at the Hotel Livadhiotus. Actually, it was a three-way discussion about the Turkish question in Cyprus. There was an older British couple who were part of the discussion too. The Greek beauty didn’t want any part of the Turkish population, she called them—“fucking Muslims…they destroyed everything, all the churches…”
Yes, the Turks have a bad record against Christians, especially the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia and the Kurdish populations according to Dalrymple the Younger's book--From the Holy Mountain.
The Greek gal maintained that Turkey invaded the island and I wondered why mainland Greece didn’t come to the rescue.
She was quite bitter about the whole experience. She said that Turkey would screw it up for Cyprus’ getting accepted into the EU. I asked her why she wanted to get into the EU when the Greek Cypriot’s were already European.
In Larnaka, there is absolutely everything you could ever want from Europe.
Cyprus is by no means backwards, and on the contrary, appears to be quite affluent. I guess that explains why they had ‘domestics’ shipped over from the Philippines or Sri Lanka after all.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nepal 1982

Bangkok 1982
So there I was sweating buckets at the old Bangkok Airport, standing in front of a photo counter in the duty-free zone that I hoped sold slide film. Earlier, I had checked my travel pack in, got my boarding pass and had passed through security and x-ray machines. I was getting ready for the trip of a lifetime to the mountain kingdom of Nepal, and had been counting on buying slide film at a duty-free shop.
Some experienced traveller I was.
I had been told earlier by more ‘learned’ Aussie traveller that I would be able to find Kodachrome 64 and 25 ASA film at the Duty Free shops. However, upon asking this shop keeper for any slide film, the blood drained from my face when he said he didn’t have any.
Now what to do?
Some professional photographer I was too!
Dreams of taking incredible shots of the Himalayan trek were dissolving.
What’s the point of going to Kathmandu and doing a trek if I don’t have any slide film?
I hummed and hawed for a few minutes as the reality of not having slide film weighed heavy on me—me a photographer no less.
I was reminded of something that my old Winnipeg Tribune photo editor told me just two years earlier: “You can run out of time on a photo shoot, but under no circumstances, come back here and tell me that you ran out of film—always carry extra” he said chomping on a stale stogie. Well I had flunked that one, hadn’t I.
I looked at the time of departure—Christ I still had two hours to boarding time and I already had my boarding pass. I had to make a quick decision.
Could I find slide film outside the airport?
I decided to go for it.
I had to show my passport and boarding card and plead with the Thai army security guys to let me go back out and try to find some film. After a bit of persuasion, Canadian style, they allowed me to go, but I had to leave my boarding pass with them.
I ran like hell out to the Arrivals area and crazily flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off some passengers. I jumped in the passenger seat and yelled at the guy— “I need to find a place where they sell film!”
Luckily he understood some English as Thailand had recently experienced a boom in tourists—this was 1982 after all.
I looked at my watch and realized I only had an hour to find a camera shop.
Just as we pulled away, I yelled at him, “If you get me back here in less than an hour, I’ll give you a $20 US tip on top of the fare,” I said waving a fresh $20 bill at him.
He seemed to like that, mind you twenty bucks was quite a nice chunk of change back then and a hard currency at that.
He drove like someone out of Mad Max, honking at everyone that blocked our path, careening all over the road. He took me to the first shop with a Kodak sign, but they only had colour negative film—no good for me. Then to another shop, but they only did printing.
You would think I would be a little more organized what with being on the road for eight months.
The clock was ticking. I got fed up and just asked the shop keeper where I could get slide film. He muttered something in Thai to my driver and off again we went and eventually came to another shop with a huge Fuji film sign. It was a professional camera and film shop. This time I was in luck as they had a few Kodachrome 64 (without mailers) but mostly Ektachrome slide film—the supposed professional film.
 At this point, I didn’t care anymore and was just happy to find any slide film. I bought all he had (15 rolls). The film wasn’t cheap either and I cursed that fellow traveller for leading me astray.
We had an equally scary ride at breakneck speed back to the airport and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie the meter rate and gave him the $20 dollar bill. I thanked him profusely. I hurried back through security, saw the security guys again and showed my passport and retrieved my boarding pass. I was all sweaty again but relieved to have film.

On to Nepal.
A few weeks later in Kathmandu, between myself and American fellow trekkers, Dan Callaway and Brian Stern, we had organized a 31-day Annapurna Circuit trek along with a host of Nepali guys from the Tamang tribe.  Our guide, Kalam Singh Tamang, had worked as a cook on larger Sherpa-led expeditions, but now he wanted to form his own trekking company employing his in-laws as porters.
Also, I didn’t want to be encumbered anymore with the finicky Nikon Nikonos camera I had bought in crazy Tokyo just eight months ago. I thought I was being smart buying an underwater camera that would be dust proof and water proof—silly me! It had knobs for guessing how far away someone was and another for the light meter, it was unlike my OM-1 and OM-2 that I had stupidly left back home.
I had checked out some camera shops in Kathmandu and had chatted up the Nepali Hindu guy at the counter to swap my underwater camera for a used Olympus OM-1 he had on sale. The picture quality on the Nikonos was good, but not as sharp as a 50 mm Zuiko lens on this old OM-1. I swapped, thinking I had got the better of the deal.
It wasn’t until I was riding on the top of our crowded Nepali bus to Pokhara and in trying to take a picture, that I realized that the light meter didn’t work. I checked to see if the battery had been put in wrongly, but then was horrified to find—no battery at all.
Good grief now what to do.
Neither Dan nor Brian had an extra battery—who would carry such a thing?
It just so happened that on our crowded bus also rode two fellow Canadians that I knew from Banff. Earlier, I had run into Booby and Roki Bernstein on Freak Street as they were stocking up on clothes, trinkets and whatnot for their groovy import shop called “The Source”.  I hadn’t seen them in almost a year and in chatting with them on the bus, I told them of my plight of not having a battery for the light meter. The camera still worked, but the light meter didn’t.
Before I could say anymore, Roki kindly offered me her battery from her camera, but when I tried it—no luck. So there I was, in a smoke filled bus, heading off to where we would start our trek, with my x-ray bag full of slide film, but with a camera that had no light meter—Geezuz!
Not a great way to begin the trek of a lifetime.
Despite the bus taking over an hour, we had only managed to go 50 kilometers from Kathmandu. I had to make a decision. Above the din of the bus, I talked with our guide Kalam, then with Brian and Dan again about me returning to Kathmandu in the hopes of finding a battery for my light meter.
As it turned out, Dan had picked up a stomach bug and was feeling proper poorly. It was agreed that our gang could hold up at Dumre just for today, pitch camp while Dan recovered, but would start off on our trek tomorrow morning bright and early—with or without me.
We were only half way to our starting point at Dumre and since it was midday, there was the likelihood that I might still be able to catch a bus returning to Kathmandu from Pokhara. At the next bus stop, I left my heavy Lowe Kinnikinnik travel pack with the guys and was lucky to catch a bus heading back to Kathmandu.
Once back in the Kathmandu bus terminal, I grabbed a taxi and off to Freak Street, back to the shop where I had swapped my camera.
Unfortunately, the guy did not have any batteries that were new or would fit my OM-1, nor did any other camera shop for that matter—bugger! What options did I have now? I decided I could guess at the exposures or ask someone else with a working light meter for their exposures. What a pain in the ass I would be on the trek now.
In the fading afternoon light, I hurried back to the bus station hoping to catch a bus back to Dumre. Unfortunately there was no overnight bus service to Pokhara, but there was a bus that was heading to Pokhara that would stop for the night along the way.
Luckily, I got the last seat on that bus.
One has to bear in mind that darkness sets in early here in the Himalayas and after an hour or so, we pulled into a guesthouse for the night. At a roadhouse in Mugling, I ate some tasty daal bhaat tarkari (rice, lentils and curried vegetables) by hurricane lamp then a Nepali police officer and myself were the only customers to go upstairs to sleep. Unfortunately, our sleeping area was nothing more than a row of army surplus cots in a huge dorm with a cheap tin corrugated roof which reverberated when a sudden downpour came. We were up around 4,000 feet so it was quite chilly and all I had to keep warm was my Helly-Hansen fleece and my Gore-Tex MEC jacket and some flea-ridden wool blankets. To add to this chilly encounter, there was a plague of rats that crawled on the roof and on us which made it quite a fitful night of sleeping.
The cacophonous bus horns woke us from our crappy slumbers and after a quick breakfast, we were herded back onto the bus and off again on the next part of my sub-continent adventure.
The Nepalis love their cheap cigarettes and I was soon feeling nauseous because no one opened their windows. At the next bus stop, I’d had enough and fought my way past the throngs on this crowded bus and climbed the outside rickety metal ladder that led to the roof. Once on top and with the cold Himalayan air buffeting me, I quickly donned my Gore-Tex jacket over top of my fleece as it was a tad nippy here in the mountain air. I had just come from balmy Bangkok after all.

The air was bracing and the mountain scenery unforgettable, but I had absolutely no idea what ranges and peaks I was looking at. One of the gigantic burlap bags I leaned against had broken open probably caused from the lads flinging them up to the roof. The bag was full of little sealed bags of bite-sized chevda—a spicy mix of peanuts and other tasty fried things—the Indian equivalent to our nuts and bolt, but with a little chili heat. I munched on a packet to pass the time of day. I was the only brave soul riding the roof and I felt like a pasha up here surveying all I controlled.
The bus eventually arrived at our starting point of Dumre in the early afternoon. Thankfully, Kalam had left one of the porters, Osman, behind, so we headed off at a fast pace in the hopes of catching up with everyone by dinner time. We had only walked a couple of kilometers when I heard some voices yelling at me up ahead. It was Dan and Brian who were sprawled out on blankets either writing in their journal or reading a book, but apparently waiting for lunch to be prepared.
Thankfully, I had made it here after all with or without a light meter.

The real trek would begin tomorrow.