Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Finding accommodation and more in Nairobi, August 2012
Lights out, no power, again!
Welcome to Kenya!
For the past two weeks we have had a mad scramble to find a new place to live in Nairobi. Our quest had been dampened by the recent rains, not the short rains, just what I would call “rains”. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a glut of 2BDR and 3BDR places available but at an increased price. This might be attributed to the burgeoning middle class in post-modern, post independence former British colony and protectorate called Kenya. It would appear that most of these nouveau riche are buying flats either as an investment or as an abode.
Despite this apparent new-found wealth for some Kenyans, i.e. certain tribes, Indians and politicians—there is also a glut of poor people. Recent statistics reported on BBC claim that South Africa has the greatest divide between rich and poor people, but Kenya must surely be at the top of that ranking or those damn statistics are lying. We had noticed this growing class distinction or ranking where we were presently living. Those tenants, who had bought their flat outright, looked down their noses at us and let us (mixed couple) know we were only ‘renters’. I  pitied them as the apartments and the compound were crap: insufficient parking, no place for kids to play except in between parked cars and those trying to park or leave, frequent power cuts, extra charge for storage water, no backup power, ill-fitting cupboards, very small rooms, and way too many screaming kids. We could not get out of there fast enough!
Naturally, we enlisted the services of some real estate agents along with our old trusty handyman, Titus. He would help us in our quest. In Nairobi, as it might be anywhere, you are not allowed to view potential flats without prior consent or without having an agent with you. But there are other places where you can just drive up to and see if they have the “To Let” sign on their gate. All places that we looked at also had security gates, guards, barbed wire, electric warning systems, a peek though hole for security guys to look you up and down before allowing access.
There are your ubiquitous “NO HOOTING” signs posted everywhere near the entrances. At first look, I thought Kenyans had something against owls but then realized they use the British term ‘hooting’ which means ‘honking horns’ where I come from. The problem is, the guards are usually washing someone’s car or listening to their radios which necessitates hooting to get them to come for a look see.
Oddly enough, a few places that we were initially interested in were not for us. That is even before we set foot on their property. These places had names like Taj Apartments, Raj Palace, Khina Place and other Indian names but the agent just told us that we could not get in.
‘Should we apply there?’ I asked innocently.
‘No,’ he said quickly, ‘they only want vegetarians.’
I started laughing—‘Vegetarians?’
‘Yes, they only want Indians.’
‘How do they know who is a vegetarian.’
No answer as if I was talking to myself.
‘Do you have to take a stool sample?’
My wife started to laugh as did the agent.
‘Do you have to have a certificate?’ I said. ‘I was a vegetarian for 20 years…’
This comment elicited more laughter including Jessy and Mary who always joined us for most of our excursions.
‘What if you said you were vegetarian,’ I added, ‘and didn’t eat meat for two weeks and then had a BBQ?’
The laughing had not subsided.
‘Sah,’ said the agent between laughs, ‘they only want Indians.’
‘But all Indians are not vegetarians!’ I protested.
Silence now as the agent and the others wondered what I was on about.
‘Sikhs, your Kala Singhs, Ismaili or Muslim Indians are not vegetarians.’
“Oh,’ said my wife and the agent.
‘Where do you think Chicken Tikka or Tandori Chicken comes from?’
‘Yah you are right,’ said the agent.
‘They only want Hindus,’ I said finally.
“Yes, they only want Indians,’ he added.
My protests fell on deaf ears as my companions did not appreciate the subtleties of peoples of the Indian subcontinent. I reckoned that the landlord/landlady at these ‘vegetarian’ apartments had to be Indian. This ‘new’ discrimination for potential tenants only came about after I caught my wife and agent laughing out loud.
Our handyman friend Titus, he of the Kamba tribe, was also searching out places on our behalf particularly around our old digs in the Kileleshwa suburb. He had access to compounds through other handyman or watchmen that he knew. Maybe this would give us an edge in finding a new place. We spent days looking at new buildings, old maisonettes, ill-kept villas from an older era, fancy flats with the Jacuzzis, and two new buildings with Indian-made elevators, complete with Kirloscar Indian pumps and back-up generators. A couple of other compounds were located next to noisy, dusty construction of a new by-pass and we could envision the increased traffic and steady drone of excavation equipment. Our requirements were larger rooms with attached bathrooms, a quite compound,  back-up generator or solar, close access to the matatu (mini-van) route, a servant’s quarters with separate entrance and if we were lucky—a pool. We were running out of time but had seen three potentially good flats.
One day we went to look at a couple of self-contained villas in a quiet neighbourhood. The first one was in desperate need of repair. It looked like there hadn’t been occupants here since Kenya’s independence. The fireplace was blackened, the rooms were built for wee people, the bathrooms quite grotty, the parquet flooring was up heaving but they did have a nice small garden but overall it was dark and foreboding. The servant’s quarters were lacking—the whole place needed a lot of work. Next door was a funkier villa with two separate servant’s quarters, a driveway, a garden, still very small rooms, a bigger kitchen but the villa had been maintained. Our only problem with this one and the previous was that there was no barbed wire, close circuit TV—no security! We would have to pay out of pocket for a security guy. However at this place, beside the gate and driveway was a small booth and adjoining washroom that an askari (guard) could use and stay in.
‘What about security?’
‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.’ Said the agent casually.
‘Why not?’
‘This neighbourhood is full of police and ex-police officers.’
Oh, that definitely gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.
Just a day or so before we would have to make a decision we got an early morning call from Titus instructing us to hurry over and pick him up as he had a hot tip. Mary, Gracie, Jessy and I picked Titus up and drove off. Titus told Gracie that he knew of someone that was moving this very day. We hurried on to the compound, after a quick word with the security gal; we drove into the small compound where two huge moving lorries were being loaded. In talking with the askari, we wouldn’t be able to view that flat, but he sweet-talked another tenant into letting us see how big the rooms were and the general layout of a flat. The rooms were large, two of them had en suite bathrooms (Mary’s favourite), the servant’s quarters had a separate entrance (Gracie’s favourite), the reading room (living room) was spacious, a good sized dining room, huge kitchen with sliding door, double sink (my favourite), and a guarded pool (Jessy’s favourite). We could not believe our luck especially at the last moment.
We immediately wanted to get in touch with the agent responsible for renting. The askari (security guard) contacted him and he talked briefly with Titus. Now comes the part that my wife found humourous, in an African sense. Apparently the agent had initially asked Titus what tribe we belonged to. I guess Titus asked him why that mattered to which the agent responded.
‘The landlord has placed some stipulations on new tenants.’
‘What’s that?’
‘He doesn’t want Kikuyus, Chinese, Sudanese or Somalis.’
The Kikuyus are the largest tribe in Kenya, the Sudanese are those from Southern Sudan and he was referring to Somali-Kenyans. Titus hedged his bets.
‘They are mzungu (whitey).’
And with that we got the approval to be considered as possible tenants.
I only found this out after the fact when Gracie told me. I was curious why such a list.
‘Why the Chinese?’
‘Don’t know. Maybe they are noisy or are cheap.’
 ‘Why the Somalis?’
‘Because they are too noisy.’
I was thinking of the Somali compound next to where we are living and the racket that comes from there when the kids are playing. No more noisy, mind you, than at the front of our place where our Kenyan neighbour’s kids are playing.
‘Why pick on the Sudanese?’ I said, meaning the Southern Sudanese.
‘Because they won’t pay or they will try to have two families staying not one.’
I found it odd that the Sudanese were included in this group. There had been a Sudanese family staying at our compound who were quite friendly, respectable and no more noisy than anyone else. Someone said they are ‘troublemakers’ in Kenya and in further conversations with one mother, she proved quite bitter about what happened between the southerners and the Islamic Northern Sudanese. When I posted this information on my Facebook account, an Egyptian friend pointed out that this was a racist comment but, in fact, it is tribalism.
Kenya’s recent problems include allowing some of its supposedly friendly neighbours, i.e. Somalia and Southern Sudan, to run rough-shod over the border and internal security in recent months. Prior to this, Kenya had provided a sanctuary for John Garang and Riek Machar of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the 1980s and 1990s. Plus Kenya brokered the Machakos Protocol in 2002 which set in motion self-determination for the southern Sudanese and eventual their independence from the north in 2011. However, just last week, the Kenyan news reported that the Southern Sudanese were again claiming the Illemi Triangle which is in north-western Kenya just touching Lake Turkana. This wouldn’t mean much except that last year, oil reserves were found in this area so this long withstanding border dispute has re-emerged despite Kenya’s jurisdiction over this area since 1950.
The world's and Kenya's media have been covering the recent death of an Islamic cleric who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Mombasa. Aboud Rogo was Mswahili born in Siyu near the northern archipelago of Lamu. He was on a US wanted list accused of raising money to support the Al-Shebab gang in Somalia. The cleric was killed even though, he preached from the safety of a mosque in Bamburi, a suburb of Mombasa.
Through the years, Kenya has allowed the Somalis to set up provisional governments from the safety of Mombasa. Also, Kenya has provided Somalis with a safe refuge to flee from their internecine fighting that has raged in Somali since the abdication of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. For this, the thanks that both Sudan and Somalia have given their Kenyan host is an increased security presence on both borders. In Somalia’s case, the Kenyan Army was invited in by the provisional government to round up elements of the Al-Shebab. This was precipitated by Al-Shebab, who, snuck into Kenya illegally, and had kidnapped tourists from Manda Island on the coast and also other ‘westerners’ representing relief agencies from the largest refugee camp in the world in northern Kenya.
The Somalis record as guests in neighbouring East African countries has been somewhat tarnished over the years. Uganda had offered them sanctuary with open arms but this brotherly love was sorely tested when Al-Shebab were responsible for a spate of bombings of nightclubs in Kampala last year. Uganda had allowed Somalis relatively free access to Uganda with free visas but the bombings changed that.
In Kenya, the recent bombings in the predominately Somalian suburb of Eastleigh, churches in the north, places in Mombasa, and just down the road from our restaurant in Nairobi have put Kenya on its back foot with regards to its internal security. Over the past year, security measures in an otherwise carefree Nairobi have been stepped up as witnessed by the presence of AK-47 toting G4S guards. Other security staff also check through women’s bags, or run a magic wand over men upon entering the various high-end shopping malls. Many security gates require that you open the boot of your car whilst another security guy passes a mirror under your vehicle looking for hidden bombs. I found this all bit trifling.
‘Why don’t they just check Somali-Kenyans?’
‘Why not get them [Kenyan-Somalis] to pay for this security?’
Back to finding a flat. Our momentarily euphoria was dampened in talking with the agent in that we would have to pay three months damage deposit plus one month rent. My head was spinning with numbers and wondering where we would get that money from. Gracie just said we would have to tough it out. This was the best apartment we had seen so we were committed. I think the agent was keen to seal the deal so he was there in 30 minutes.
‘So it is three months deposit and one month rent.’ Said Gracie.
‘No, one month deposit and three month’s rent.’ He said.
My ears pricked up, this was better news.
‘Only one month deposit?’ I queried.
‘Yes,’ he reassured me, ‘your next rent will be due in early December.’
Gracie and I both breathed a breath of relief. This was too good to be true.
This was the first time I had heard of this type of payment as most places we had visited wanted two month’s deposit and one month’s rent. According to Gracie, she believed that this agent was trained in the US and that may account for why the landlord and agent preferred to have mzungus (westerners) as clients. This theory gained some credence when I saw a mzungu drive by and out the gate.
Then we got permission to see the flat we would take over. We were introduced to the Kenyan couple who were in the process of vacating.
‘We just got back from Botswana,’ she said.
‘What were you doing there?’ I asked ever the nosey one.
‘My husband’s a doctor,’ she said, ‘and I work for an aid agency.’
She gave us the lowdown on the flat and they had been quite happy with it. They had just kept this flat for when they came back to Kenya from their jobs during holidays.
‘We didn’t want to stay with relatives,’ she said, ‘we just keep this flat for ourselves.’
I spied a leather ottoman cushion in the corner of one room.
‘That looks like a leather cushion from Nigeria.’ I said being reminded of one that my brother brought back from Nigeria for me in 1982.
‘No, it’s from Ghana,’ she said, ‘we worked there for two years.’
Jessy was happy with the pool and had already made friends with the security gal. Mary also was happy with the pool and a larger room to share with the maids, Jeremy and Jessy. They would have their own washroom. Gracie and I were just happy to get out of our old cramped, noisy place and into a bigger place.
The agent went back to his office to write up the lease while we drove to the bank to withdraw funds to pay for the rent and deposit.
‘Is the agent Kikuyu?’
‘No he is ee Kisii,’ said Titus.
‘So are the couple who were moving out,’ added Gracie.
So that explained why there was a preference list of who should be the new tenants. We soon arrived at the agent’s office to sign the lease. Upon signing I paused momentarily to catch the landlord’s name. It was Shafie. The only guy I had met with this name was a Somali-Kenyan guy I work with back in UAE. Once outside, I mentioned this to Gracie.
‘I think the landlord is Somali-Kenyan.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Because the landlord’s name is Shafie,’ I said, ‘and I worked with a guy called Shafie at ADNOC.’
‘Why would he be against having fellow Somalis as tenants?’
‘I don’t know.’
The longer I am in Kenya; the more convoluted it gets. I wonder what will happen during the next presidential election in March 2013. Two of the presidential aspirants (Ruto & Kenyatta) are to appear at the World Court in The Hague sometime soon for “crimes against humanity” which stems from the earlier post-election violence of 2007-2008. Time will tell.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Malta 2002

Malta 2002

I landed in Malta from Tunis with a group of swarthy types that included Tunisiennes, 
Maltese and other whiteys. I had to laugh as the cheeky Tunisiennes bristled by in the hopes of butting in ahead of me in the customs queue. Okay, ever the good Canadian, I let the vulgar 
lot by me. I soon found I was in the wrong line-up as they were giving these Mahgrebis a hard time. I went into another line-up and was trumpeted past Maltese customs without so much 
as a look-see—just a stamp which was good for 3 months.

I looked back and the Maltese officials were still grilling the poor Tunisienne family and asking another guy 
Harbour, Valletta
to provide credit cards and all manner of money for his intended stay. Bear in mind, this was before the great exodus from Libya and North Africa by Africans after the Arab Spring and fall of Gadhafi. One Tunisienne chap who didn't have enough money was sent over to see the Maltese police. That seemed rather strict, but I guess Malta gets a lot of freeloaders from the continent that come here in search of 
work and the hard currency. The Tunisian dinar isn't worth 'jack shit' once you are out of the country despite its inflated worth inside Tunisia. This trip had been very fortunate for me, as I never needed a visa for UAE, Cyprus, Tunisia or Malta. 

Road rage

First of all, a very persuasive entrepreneur talked me into renting a car at the Malta International Airport. Not a bad deal either: $150 US/ week driving all-inclusive. So I went 
for it not knowing a bloody thing about Valletta or even where I'd be staying for the night. Okay, so it's a smallish Peugeot, but it had lots of get up and go. Yes, there was a stick shift 
that I would have to deal with.  So, I started out and soon realised (to my horror) that I can't tell the difference between clutch and accelerator or more correctly—my big feet can't. Now I have the potential problem of shifting gears plus I'm on the wrong side and this car is a standard—crikey!

I head off to somewhere as the roads aren't that clearly marked and I'm driving all over hell's half acres. Barging into roundabouts because I haven't shifted down properly as I have my huge shoe on both the accelerator and clutch at the same time (problem that).  What I didn't understand is why the locals don't recognise that when I have the windshield wipers on that I am indicating that I am going to make a 'left turn'? Seems perfectly obvious to me, as that is where the left-hand indicators should be-especially when I have the wipers on and it isn't raining! Is it a wonder that the Maltese drivers give me a warm welcome with one finger (Well, Trudeau offered the same greeting to Canadians a few years back!)

After a few near misses, I finally got out of the 'car rental parking lot' at the airport and careened off into the flow of traffic. Next, after driving around a couple of roundabouts 3 or 4 times I finally figured out where Valletta was and headed off that way.
Okay, where am I going again—ah yes, the Hotel British (wherever that is?).  I finally got into what I believed was the city of Valletta and stopped at to the top of a street, but it's more like an abyss. More to the point—where's the bloody bottom to this street? The streets are dark and forbidding, never mind that they are lined with parked cars and you can barely nudge your way past them. I was reminded of the scene from Planes, Trains and AutomobilesYou’re going the wrong way!

I jerked forward towards the edge and I likened myself as Steve McQueen in the movie Bullit except I have a peppy Peugeot and not the snazzy Mustang. I point the beast downhill and 
roar off in first gear. The street goes straight down with a flat bottom, plus the streets are all one way.

I try looking at the map but realise I haven't the foggiest of where I am or where I am going.
 I realise that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. What was that I read about the bus system being pretty good in Malta? Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea after all. After driving around for the umpteenth time I finally stopped a woman and asked her where the Blickish Hotel was, but she pointed back whence I had descended into Grand Canyon and my heart sunk. I did roar around everywhere, be it in first gear, and somehow managed to arrive back
 to the same place every time.

I figured that maybe the car rental wasn't such a good idea after all. Great! Now I have to get the car back to the airport and to the shyster who talked me into renting it in the first place. The only problem was—WHERE THE HELL IS THE BLOODY AIRPORT!

I followed some cars around and got beeped at for being in neutral or trying to merge into 
the left lane with my window wiper left hand indicator signals. After some consternation, 
both on my part and fellow Maltese drivers—I pulled into a gas station. I was still in neutral with the accelerator down as I drifted by the gas attendant asking him a question ‘on the run’.
Where’s the airport?
Just out of earshot, I heard something about “follow the cars over there” as he pointed far away. So I followed a car and saw a sign saying ‘Port’ and then I thought that the stupid sod mistakenly heard me say ‘Port’ when I really wanted “Airport”. I cursed and went along and sure enough there was another sign announcing the way to the "Airport". Between neutral, clutch and gas—I scratched my way back to the airport. I drove around it a few times just to make sure I was at the right one (there's only one!) and to find the “Rental car area”.

Road Rage redux

Unfortunately, in my excitement, I had overshot the rental area turnoff and I had to unceremoniously reverse (after much grinding of gears) back up the free parking lane to the parking area for rental cars. I then roared the beast into reverse and parked where I had picked up the beast an hour earlier—PHEW!

I stormed into the airport but everyone had left. I went to drop off my keys but the nearby 
taxi vultures told me I would be better off leaving my keys at my hotel's reception. I hastened a cabbie and finally set off for the elusive Hotel British in Valletta. I got there much quicker than it had taken me as the cabbie wanted to get home and drove at Mach 1. I walked in the door and explained my plight to the sympathetic receptionist—David Montebello. It was sorted out and the chap who rented me the car showed up a little while later to retrieve the keys for the car. I would have to pay some fees for taxes and whatnot but was relieved of not having to drive in Malta for this time.
Malta- 1st day

Door knocker, Valletta.
I've never been in a place where there are so many geriatric travellers like there are here in Valletta. Right now, I'm in the Malta Labour Party restaurant/bar, which is a bit much. There are all sorts of old coots here including myself! What's really a bit much is having to endure the voice of Jim Reeve's singing Christmas songs ad nauseum—the nauseum being on my part. I can't believe the wanker really truly believes in what he is singing—“…the carpet I kneel on was made by his own hand…”come on, cut the crap buddy boy “...because God made my cathedral for me...

Nevertheless, it's quite Christmassy here at the commie club restaurant cum stand up bar 
with twinkling lights decorating the bar to give a festive mood to this sleepy joint. The only thing that breaks up this monotony is when the young Malteaser girl switches on some reggae and I hear Rudeboy's favourite—“Please Mister Talyban, hand over bin Laden.

Last night, you could have fired a cannon down the main street and in fact, someone was 
firing off some kind of explosives across the way, which provided excellent background music for my reading of the erudite Robert Fisk’s blow-by-blow description of the bombing of 
Beirut in 1982 in his Pity the Nation book.

Later my perfect little world here atop the Hotel British in my parapet (so to speak) has just come tumbling down. My brief world of Tuscan colours over the ancient city of burnt umber, ambers, shades of rusty sandstone, silver copulas and bleached rock has been abruptly changed. Mother Nature's has unleashed her anger in the snap and crackle of an offshore thunderstorm that came out of nowhere. I fear for the ship that was anchored just off the last bit of headland of Vittoiosa.

The light transformed from warm muted tones of golden shafts of sunshine to rather bleak shades of a greyscale card. It's about 18% grey light right now with no hint of anything warm just cool tones. All the wonderful soft fortresses of St. Angelo of Vittorisa and the walled balustrades and crenellated machicolations of the Safe Haven Gardens of Senglea have disappeared into the grey fastness. It's so bad that I have had to enlist the help of my Maglite to assist me in writing—which is how poor the lighting has become in just the past 15 minutes. 
The light here reminds me of Venice or Florence and so do the women here, but that is a different matter for more experienced voices than my ‘virginal’ one.

I am now sipping Cabernet-Sauvignon 1999 on my petite balcony at the Hotel British[1] watching the world, wind, ships and tourists go by below my parapet. I get a bird's eye view 
of the protected harbour that lies stretched out before me called the Grand Harbour.

The Mediterranean Sea just lies beyond my far left past that sliver of last headland called Ricasoli Point. Whilst this bombast was going on, I went up to the roof to catch some setting sun shots across the harbour. I heard and then saw the encroaching storm roaring in from the open sea. A huge rainbow formed and it seemed to pass right in front of me then was obliterated by the heavy rain that followed.

Now nightfall has really set in and all the fluorescent and mercury oxide lights come on. I say bird's eye view because there are pair of cooing pigeons that are tucked in nicely on a ledge next to my balcony. The whole town will be shut down until panic sets in tomorrow when the hastily set up flea market roars into business. There's all sorts of brik-a-brat to buy including revolting Christmas tunes by immoral artists long since past, i.e. “Who needs another silly Xmas song.

Seen and passing

Well for a place that was supposed to be shut down for the Immaculate Conception holiday—
it sure is doing a roaring business, but it is before Xmas so what the heck! Doesn't look like Sept. 11th has affected anyone here.

Valleta is a bustling little city with all the trappings of a quaint tourist town. Must be a zoo here in the “high season” although I am told that this is a “shoulder season”. Lots of Brits here possibly long term as well as the former “Axis Nations”—Germany and Italy. (Not to be confused with Bush’s “Axis of Evil” nations of which Israel isn’t included?) Added to this is the newest tourist group to the island from another far off island—the Japanese.

Nevertheless, there is a preponderance of bra/panty lingerie shops with the latest sultry fashions from neighbouring Milano. I would say there are more lingerie shops here than anything else I have been. The women here have just as striking features as the Tunisienne femmes I saw in chic Tunis and just as wildly beautiful too. There is an abundance of Roman noses and aquiline promontories.

Despite being a small island nation so close to North Africa, blonde and curly black tresses proliferate here noting a clear influence of the Italians and Arab stock with the odd Crusader gene thrown into the Maltese pool.

Carmelite Church in Valletta.
The light here is often sombre and muted as the silver domes of various Christian denominations, in particular, the Carmelite sect, dominates the horizon. The bulbous Carmelite church domes dominate the skyline here in Valletta. There are walls and fortresses everywhere you walk and most of these are credited to the medieval Knights Hospitaller. These stout fellows controlled the area and repulsed numerous Turkish attacks over the centuries. Undoubtedly, they must have dallied with the local damsels in between defending the place back then.

The Maltese language is a polyglot: a combination of Arabic, interspersed with Italian and held together with odd bits of English. It is the only Semitic language that is written with Latinate characters--fancy that. Nevertheless, their flagrant use of X's and K's in the alphabet is a bit off-putting to native speakers of English.

There's this strange, but exotic woman who sometimes haunts the film reviews for TV Ontario. She was also in the movie Highway 41. I could never figure out where she was from even though she is Canadian. Her last name threw me—Buhagiar. Well, now I know she is from Malta because every second shop here is run by someone with her surname—Buhagiar.

Sunday 9th

A hell of a storm blew in here last night and the wind kept up all night. It made a proper old blustery evening that only mad dogs and Malteasers would go out in. The temperature plummeted and I was forced to put on my inversion pot heater to thwart the cold damp air that blew in under the porous outside balcony doors.

Despite the bombast, I did manage to somehow walk along Triq Pinto besides Lascias Bastions and Upper Baraka Gardens. As I fought my way along the open seafront I tried to scale the adjoining battlements and succeeded in finding an old beaten path that switch backed to a concrete path that led me through an industrial site. From there, I emerged out onto a piazza with a cathedral. This was the archway called “Portes des Bombes” which is an ornamental gateway dating to 1697-1720 built as part of the fortification for the city of Floriana.

From there I headed up Triq Sant'Anna to a rather busy bus depot that had been turned into 
a very busy flea market. The market was selling the kind of useless items that no one in their right mind would ever want. On through the main gates of Valletta whence I found Cafe 
The backdrop is the Turkish prison from the Midnight Express.
Royale—for a latte and some cheesy comestibles. After that brief repast, I made for Hastings Gardens and walked around St. Johns bastion, then abandoned any further exploration as the wind had made walking impossible.

This morning I followed the road in the direction of Fort St. Elmo. I tried to walk along the water's edge but this became treacherous because of the crashing waves against the path. At St. Elmo, the Maltese suffered a great defeat after a long siege to the Turks in 1565. It had been built to protect the Sceberras Peninsula.

The Maltese did repulse an Italian attack during WW2. More importantly, the lower part of the fort was used as a set for the Turkish prison scenes in—Midnight Express. From the ramparts you could get an excellent view of the Carmelite Church, the NW corner of Valletta, as well as, Ta'xbiex, Manoel Island and Sliema. From here I walked to the church and then back to my favourite haunt--Cafe Royale on Triq Ordinanza where I ogled at beautiful Maltese women and slurped cappuccino noisily through a straw.

                                                          The silent city: Mdina

I went upcountry to Mdina/Rabat today, but that was like going to the North Pole, as the weather was quite nippy. However, it was an enjoyable yet cheap bus ride all for 15 cents—in spite of what the rental car guy had earlier said. There is nothing in this tiny island that is more than a half-hour away by bus. I got off with the rest of the tourists—mostly German folk who nattered away in their Teutonic tongue and another couple who got off in the middle of nowhere.

They call Mdina “the silent city” and it sure is—you could have heard a cat drop. Today there are only German and Chinese tourists, a few mangy cats and costumed Maltese. It's a bit 
hokey and reminds me of an exhibit at Disney World—well, it's off season so what can you expect. I trotted on though the main gate, past the outer wall of bastions and almost got 
blown over the battlements. I can't imagine a more miserable place to wage a war. You could still see the Mediterranean, but god knows where Valletta disappeared.

I could make out a huge brownish dome on the horizon, which may be the Carmelite Church near the Hotel British. There was, however, a huge dome across the way, which looked like an unfinished mausoleum. If I were anywhere else I would have thought it was a mosque. I headed off from this cursed place and came upon an artist putting a fresh face of whitewash on some huge sculptures of angels. After this ,I had the brainwave of going below the ramparts of Mdina for a better vantage point of the redoubt. This was a mistake. It soon became obvious that in order to get the photo I wanted would entail trucking into some farmer’s field.

I headed across some freshly ploughed field ever on the lookout for a farmer's dog and carried a sufficient rock to clock him with. It turned out that this brilliant idea was incredibly stupid, as I had forgotten about the previous evening’s deluge. My spiffy new Rockport shoes were now like 'Moonboots' as I had 2-inch platforms of mud on the soles. My legs felt like I was walking on the bottom of the ocean.

Nevertheless, the pruned fruit trees had delicate pink flowers, which contrasted against the dun coloured background. I crouched down to take a picture of a bit of sunshine that briefly 
Mdina, the Silent City.
lit the redoubt. After this, I stumbled down an embankment to a green terrace and the muddy field below. As I traversed to a metalled road, I was ever mindful that some pariah dogs would set upon me especially now being lead footed. I continued on skirting 
the ploughed field and I came upon an odd chicken coop/dog pen? It was an old wreck 
of a car or bread van that was ringed by sandstone bricks and bits of chicken wire. I don’t know what they are growing in these fields, but the soil is very clayey.

I then noticed the farmer tilling in his field and his brutish hundt making towards me, but luckily I was nearly off the fields. I came down over a scratchy barbwire fence and beetled along the tarmac in hopes of catching a bus back to Valletta. A young Italian couple in stylish black leathers walked towards me and then disappeared. I hailed a No. 80 bus and headed back to town and to Cafe Royale for another well-deserved nosh, as this exercise had made me quite peckish.

[1] The hotel’s facade and surrounding area was used during a number of movies: Munich and
   The Devil’s Double.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Martyr's Mural--Iran.

The Martyrs’ Mural

After breakfast, this day’s ‘programme’ was a visit to the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh (the Tomb of the King of the Lamp), and later to the oldest mosque in Iran. A short drive brought us to the entrance to the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh.  Despite the glorious blue-tiles entrance into the mosque complex, there are a few barricades before you enter but the exterior walls on the right-hand side are deteriorating concrete walls. The first thing I noticed as we approached the main entrance or iwan was a mural, up high on the right-hand side on the concrete wall. It was a hand-painted quadtych (four panel mural), with each panel portraying an important event in the Shia religion.

This panel illustrates the great schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shias, a classic theme in Shiite art. It connects a solemn modern-day Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been dead for a decade, to the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Imam Hussein who refused to recognize the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I. This ultimately led to the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD and Hussein’s subsequent martyrdom. Khomeini is shown in profile, standing with bowed head and hands outstretched in prayer. He faces a white, wind-blown tent where women in chadors are grieving at Hussein’s rider less white horse stained with blood. Perhaps Khomeini is still lamenting the way in which the “imposed war” with Iraq ended when he said:
               "Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom.
Happy are those who have lost their lives in this convoy
of light. Unhappy am I that I still survive and have drunk
the poisoned chalice..."

The second panel shows a stoic mother in black chador fastening around the head of her grimly determined son, a red bandanna that has Koranic verse written on it—he is a Basiji. [4] Her son is seeking martyrdom against the Iraqi aggressors in the “imposed war”. In this panel, they appear to be half-emerged from the earth in a landscape that is a wasteland. The Basiji could be grown men or even teen-age boys who volunteered to walk through landmines, to clear a path and spurring on waves of Iranian troops.

As a result, two generations of Iranian women cannot find husbands. Our Frozan was an example. According to one source, there were six women to every man during the early 1990s immediately after the Iraq-Iran War which ended in 1988 without a victory on either side. Be that as it may, Iran has one of the youngest male populations under the age of thirty in the entire Middle East region.

The third panel depicts four lightly-armed Basiji heading off to a fierce battle in the distance with the Iraqis. Nearby on the ground and next to an empty water bottle and a discarded helmet is the blood of a martyr seeping into the ground. There are palm trees in each scene but they are bereft of their tops no doubt symbolizing the futility of the “imposed war”.

The fourth panel shows a mosque floating on a sea of blood punctuated with stark silhouettes of dead palm trees. I interpreted it as the promised home in heaven for those who sacrificed their lives for the war.

All of the quadtych’s panels represent the “imposed war” with Iraq. This mural was a dedication to the martyrs: those who fought with bare-hands with fanatical strength against well-armed, well-trained Iraqi troops. It was difficult for us to comprehend how so many civilian volunteers, armed only with religious zeal, could walk into certain death. Mothers, daughter and children—all left behind.

This was a heavy beginning to the day, and throughout our trip, we came across many such posters, wall murals, and even shrines depicting in graphic detail the blood of the Basiji martyrs. For instance, when we were entering Isfahan airport, we came across a glass shrine dedicated to the Basiji, and we wondered if those Iranians flying had forgotten the sacrifice that many had made during the war. One display case showed the prosthetic leg of one famous martyr along with fragments of his army fatigues, bits of shrapnel and land mines. The idea in Iran of martyrdom, a central tenet of Shi’a religion, and its impact on society had astounded us western teachers as we had never seen anything like this before. (

The most famous martyr of the war was a thirteen-year-old boy, Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh, who was the first suicide bomber in the Iran-Iraq War. He volunteered to fight with the Iranian soldiers in the Battle of Khorramshahr on August 30, 1980. The Iranian troops were suffering a heavy defeat as Iraqi tanks rained bombs down on them. Fahmideh watched as fellow Iranians were cut down and in desperation, grabbed a grenade from a fallen comrade, and threw himself under an advancing Iraqi tank. The grenade damaged the tank and the tank brigade thought they were in an area that was heavily mined, so they quickly pulled back from this advance. It was a minor victory for the Iranians but it cost Fahmideh his life.

News spread quickly of his valour in the face of unbeatable odds and he became a national hero. Imam Khomeini often referred to Mohammed Fatmideh in his speeches to rally the nation against the Iraqis during the war. A translation of Khomeini’s tribute to the boy can be found on a marker in Teheran‘s Martyr Cemetery:
I am not the leader. The leader is that boy of thirteen who,
with his little heart which was worth more than a hundred
pens [his faith that is, was more valuable than any amount of
writing], threw himself with a bomb under the tank and destroyed
the tank, and drank the martyr’s glass and died.”

²            ³            ²

While I was photographing this compelling mural, a helicopter overhead was dropping what at first I thought were yellow flower petals. But they were leaflets and people were scurrying around grabbing them. I picked one up too, but of course it was in Farsi. We thought it was a strange way for a government to communicate with its citizens, especially on a national holiday. I wanted to get it translated. However, at this point, Reza and Frozan showed up and herded us into the confines of the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh—finally!

              ²            ³            ²
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on a 1999 trip to Iran with George Evashuk and Brian Rose called Iran--Full of the Empty.
You can also read my other stories on the Way Beyond Borders site <>