Friday, June 25, 2010


Grandson Leon and me

The eyes captured the moment
A gossamer instance
When all was possible,
And the past,
And our future,

The hands enveloped the moment
A gossamer instance
When we were one
And the power
And our glory

The light suffused the moment
A gossamer instance
When we had no horizon
And the love
And our hopes

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lithium and Lapis Lazuli

Old and New in Afghanistan

Ur: Lapis Lazuli inlay

On June 13, 2010 the New York Times reported that the United States Geological Survey working with the Pentagon (and presumably their drone aircraft) had near-completed a massive geological survey of the mineral riches of Afghanistan and had discovered huge untapped deposits of rare but highly valuable minerals particularly lithium.

The USGS Survey

Despite General Stanley McChrystal’s Paton-like pushing of a Rolling Stone self-destruct button in his criticism of the American civil administration, that administration is determined to win the war, then win the peace and then exploit Afghanistan for any of the riches it might contain.
I find this utterly fascinating.

It is now likely that the progressive development of the primary form of future communication in our world (iPhone 4’s and their ilk) between people, communities, combatants, peacekeepers, terrorists, politicians, charlatans and exploiters will depend on power provided by the lithium ions of Afghanistan.
This ‘New’ style of communication, this new pervasion of an ‘Indo-European’ lithium-powered techno-language, is however just another evolutionary stage of the ‘Proto-Indo-European’ language of our distant ancestors that was first enabled by another Afghan rare mineral: lapis lazuli.
When the last glacial stage of the last small ice age retreated from the Hindu Kush plateau about 10,000 years ago it allowed people from the lowlands to move up along the rivers to hunt in high valleys such as the Kokcha Valley in North-Eastern Afghanistan. The glacial retreat also exposed in the steep valley walls intense blue rock formations know known as lapis lazuli. The small Kokcha River is the eastern tributary of the River Oxus which Marco Polo traversed and wrote: “There is a mountain in that region where the finest azure in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.”
The hunters, let us call them the Nuristani people, found that instead of hunting animals for their pelts the blue rock if prised, polished and brought to the lowlands was considered more valuable and tradable. Intensive mining for lapis lazuli began in the Kokcha Valley about 8,000 years ago and has continued to this day.
The extraordinary aspect of this mining is that from 6,000 BCE there were well established trade routes bringing the lapis lazuli into the Indus Valley Civilization sites and into Sumer, where as a precious stone it features highly in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It also appears further afield in the pre-dynastic tombs of 3,500 BCE Egypt and after a lacunae (presumably caused by Mesopotamian control of all the mining output) in the Ist to IVth Pharonic dynasties becomes a very important part of Egyptian jewellery design from about 2500 BCE on.

Lapis Lazuli in Egyptian Jewel

There other intriguing aspect of the development of a specific communication network for the trading of lapis lazuli is that there would have to have been a parallel development in the language of that trading. I have long felt that the true origin of the ‘mother’ proto-indo-european language, that has given us Tocharian, Greek, Latin, Irish, English etc (and more recently ‘texting’ or techno-language) was also amongst the original Nuristani miners in the high Kokcha valley of Afghanistan.
Later lapis lazuli was also to become, when ground, a pigment called Ultramarine, and was used in the production of some of the greatest of the early medieval illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.

Lapis Lazuli Ultramarine Blue in Book of Kells

Yeats much later again wrote one of his greatest poems:

Lapis Lazuli

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The poem recounts the rise and fall of civilizations and is an overly optimistic view of the triumph of art over the tragedy of war and destruction. Written in March 1938, just after the Nanjing genocide, the Lapis Lazuli Chinamen in question was a stone carving given to Yeats by the poet and mad eccentric Henry Talbot deVere Clifton in 1935.

I just wonder whether it is the language of trading rather than the language of art that overcomes all – and endangers all?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Rihla (Journey 15): Lahinch, Co. Clare, Ireland – iMachination.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This Rihla is about Lahinch, Co.Clare, Ireland.

The BMW Z3, Mu, and Me

A Gumption-Trap and my Z3

‘The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s nothing exotic.’
Robert M. Pirsig,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Chapter 26

I drive a 13 year-old BMW Z3. Built in February 1997 in Spartanburg, South Carolina I took delivery of it in April of the same year. It has a 1.9L M44B19 straight-four cylinder BMW engine and approximately 110, 000 miles on the clock. Beyond that bit of mechanical insight I, like John Sutherland and his 'Romantic' approach to the mechanics of his BMW bike in Pirsig’s book, have left its maintenance to a wonderful car mechanic called Lars Walsh (and his father Larry before him) and it has served me well. Lars, a man of few words, always refers to my car as 'tight'. I think this is a mechanic's compliment, a bit like calling a good looking girl 'fit', there is always a hint of uncertainty as to how that compliment should be received. Driving the car has always been a pleasure and I have often equated the Z of its Z3 moniker with a Zen origin rather than the more prosaic, and more classical, BMW allusion to Zukunft, the German for future.

Last weekend I experienced, for the first time that I can sincerely recall, on a really beautiful day, the (or is it a?) sensation while driving the car of absolute calm, absolute stillness, a muted (and here I mean the Japanese Mu where man and machine unask questions of each other) on the journey from Galway to Lahinch to play golf.

Looking down to Galway Bay from Corker Hill

That particular Saturday morning after leaving the main Kinvarra-Ballyvaughan road at the Corranroo crossroads I climbed up Corker Hill to the Burren escarpment between Abbey Hill and Greim Chaili. It was early in the day and for some reason, just after Turlough, I turned off the CD player, and let the car do what it does best. It was almost as if the Z3 was built for this particular road, this particular journey, and like a surfer on a wave it was as if I was on the outside looking in, peripheral to the volition as the car decelerated into corners, hugging the ditches and then accelerated out spewing loose gravel behind. There was a complete transfer of trust to the car’s mechanics, to its imachination.

In a completely unexplainable way, despite the fact the roof was down, I felt a quietness envelop me. The purpose of movement through the landscape became meaningless. The questions became unasked.

Pirsig and Hofstader

I thought not of the road, the speed, the much-anticipated golf game. None of this! Instead I thought later of Douglas R. Hofstader and Robert M. Pirsig.

A number of years ago Hofstadter wrote a book called Le Ton beau de Marot, a book written in Praise of the Music of Language. On page 69 he asked the reader to find a suitable French translation for the title of Pamela McCondrick’s book on the early development of Artificial Intelligence called Machines Who Think. He wanted the suggestion to convey the personality of the machine and not the mechanical ability. I wrote back suggesting a single word ‘Machination’.

Hofstadter replied by e-mail,

‘I like your answer very much, but I think I can do even a little better. I would slightly tweak it, adding one letter at the beginning, to give “Imachination” ( which in French sounds almost identical to “imagination”, the only differnence being the voicedness, or lack thereof, of the second consonant). What one thereby gets, in just one word, is, on the one hand, a clear suggestion of machinery and mechanicalness, and on the other hand, a strong whiff of the living creativity of the human spirit. What more could one want from a title?
Best wishes,
Douglas Hofstadter.’

And then there was Pirsig. I had read his famous book Zen and the Art of Mortorcycle Maintenance for the first time back in 1979 during a summer in San Francisco earning my university fees laying water pipe in Stinson’s Beach and sewage pipe near Candlestick Park and preparing for a road trip we intended (and subsequently made from California to New York via New Orleans.) However along with other books that summer such as Catcher in Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird the impact was sidelined (undermined even!) somewhat by many of the other real life experiences we had and it was only about 15 years ago I took the opportunity to re-the book. In no small measure it encouraged me to understand that philosophy, as with all scientific investigation, can only ever aspire to an approximation of the ‘Truth’ and as a consequence there is no one ‘Truth’.

And there I was on a road in North Clare. In a Pirsig amalgam. Just Me, Mu and the Z3. There are limitations though. From the perspective of now it can neither be captured or fully re-created. Like a speck of dust in your eye, the experience floats away to the side when you try to focus on it. Soren Kierkegaard said once,

I believe that I can see myself quite vividly as a little boy running about… But alas, I have grown older and cannot catch up with myself.

Moi aussi!

Anyway past Carran, left at Shessymore, right at Lemenagh Castle and into Kilfenora I surfed the Z3’s imachination, and perhaps mine. To either side of the road are multiple remnants of both early iron-age Celtic inhabitations of the clan of Corcu Modruad. and also of the 10th century Dalcassian (Dal gCais) O’Briens. Hard copy testimonies to more difficult journeys than mine.

Kilfenora (City of the Crosses) is the smallest diocese in Ireland and the Bishop of Kilfenora is no other than Pope Benedict ( the diocese is administered on his behalf by the Bishop of Galway). This thought and a slowly moving tractor forced me out of my trance to take full control of my Z3’s ambition. As an aside I have ‘issues’ with the current pope. He has taken a very hard line with the Irish Bishops over the sex abuse scandals, implying a collective responsibility, (rightly!) while ignoring the facts pointing to his own complicity and also the ‘ironic’ fact that he himself is an ‘Irish’ bishop. Yet another approximation of the ‘Truth’.

From Kilfenora on to Ennistymon and Lahinch time returned and reality.

The 8th hole at Lahinch

The golf? There are moments on a summer’s day in Lahinch when all is possible, and all is forgiven. Sports psychologists call it the zone. Clarity and purpose become as one. In my case though I had left it in the car. But what a day! What a day!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

An Israeli Morality Tale

A Conversation in Paradise between
David Ben-Gurion and Ahmed Khatib (aged 12)

The Warsaw Ghetto Wall 1940

The boy was sitting on the ground drawing a heart-shape with his finger when a shadow appeared over him. He looked up and recognised the man.

‘Come Ahmed, there is someone I want you to meet.’ The tall man with large shoulders and dressed in white linen spoke softly as he held out his hand, his very large hand.

Ahmed took the man’s hand as he stood up and together they began walking towards the horizon.

After some time the horizon did not seem any closer. There were no trees, no mountains, no rivers. Sky and earth were as one, two sides of the sameness. He finally asked, ‘Where are we going Jabrail?’

‘I want you to meet someone.’

‘Who?’ Ahmed looked all around him. ‘There is nothing out here. Who would live here?’

‘Be patient child. Even in a desert there is abundance. The man likes it out here.”At that moment Ahmed could make out another figure walking towards them. Closer and closer he came. An old man with a squashed face, a large forehead and white hair that flowed back in waves over his ears and temples. He carried a waterskin and walked in short steps slightly stooped. He drew up near and offered the waterskin. ‘Take some water. It is good.’

Ahmed hesitated but with Jibrail’s encouragement accepted the skin and tipping it back took a draught of the cool sweet water. ‘Thank you,’ he said handing it back. There was a silence, absolute silence.

Jibrail broke it. ‘David. This is Ahmed Khatib. Ahmed. This is David Ben-Gurion. You have much to talk about.’

The old man and young boy looked at each other and then to where Jibrail had stood. He was gone.

‘Shall we sit?’ Ben-Gurion asked.

‘Sure,’ Ahmed replied. And they sat.

‘Do you know who I am?’ Ben-Gurion asked.

‘I think so.’ Ahmed replied. ‘My father mentioned your name often and said you were the cause of all the troubles for the Palestinian arabs and were directly responsible for the fact that our family had to live in Jenin.’

‘You are from Jenin?’

‘Yes. From near the camp. But originally we came from a village much further north. The village was shelled by the Israelis and we fled.’

‘Why or how are you here? Why not still in Jenin.’ Ben-Gurion asked.

‘The army shot me in the head and bottom. I came here.’


‘Because I led a good life I suppose. I used bring my mother tea every morning and said my prayers.’

‘No I meant why did they shoot you?’

‘I was with my friends pointing toy guns at their jeeps when they were attacking the camp.’

There was silence again. This time the boy broke it. ‘Why do you hate us so much that you feel the need to kill us like I used to kill rats.’

‘I do not hate you.’

‘You do not admire us. You think we are mice and without intellect.’

‘That is true. When I fought so hard to establish the State of Israel I knew that the presence of so many Arabs in such a small and young state would forever cause problems. I spent considerable effort and time justifying any possible means of trying to get all Arabs to leave, to flee. That was my solution. I thought it moral.’

‘And now you have placed us in a ghetto. With the Wall? Just like with the Nazis in Warsaw.’

‘Different time, different solution to the same problem.’

‘Starvation, denial of medical services, free speech, right of assembly, restriction of travel, the murder of foreigners trying to help us both in the West Bank and in Gaza. Like in Warsaw creating a gradual constriction.’ Ahmed stopped and looked around at the vast nothingness around them. He continued without looking at Ben-Gurion. ‘You are a Pole. Surely you must understand the effect and consequence of trying to put people in a ghetto. Are you like the Nazis? Have you a ‘final solution’ in mind for us Arabs as well?’

‘That is not for me to say.’ Ben-Gurion stood up and turned to leave.

Ahmed stayed sitting. ‘You are dead so!’

Ben-Gurion smirked. ‘Of course I am dead, child. As you are.’

‘No I meant in your soul. My soul is not dead whereas your’s is.’

‘What do you mean?’ Ben-Gurion asked.

‘When the soldiers shot me and I was taken to Haifa, my family gave my organs to Jews, so that they might live, that they might see there is a better way.’

‘I do not believe you.’

‘My heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Druze girl, my lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and my liver divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. One of my kidneys went to a three-year-old Jewish girl and the other to a five-year-old Bedouin Arab. My heart, my soul lives on.’

On the horizon, eight or nine more figures were coming towards them. Jibrail was with them.

‘Who are they? I don’t see so good.’ Ben-Gurion said.

Ahmed stood up to walk towards them. He stopped beside Ben-Gurion and looked at his eyes.

‘You have never seen, have you? They are people from the boat that the Israeli commandos murdered in open seas. They were trying to help us also. Good people. Good hearts, good souls. They will keep coming you know.’

The Palestinian Wall 2009