Saturday, December 12, 2009

Yultide Greetings

To Madeleine in Australia, Fateme and Amir in Iran, Michael and Penny in Bangladesh, Tom in Denmark, Mary in Paris, Peter in Abaco, Karen in Galway, Brian in Cork, Maureen in Tipperary, to all readers everywhere of the blog, I want to thank you for your interest and your comments over the year and would like to wish you and your families peace and, in this season of re-birth, every best wish for 2010.

I am not a religious person. Faith-neutral is probably the best description, with neither an avowal nor denial of any particular belief or non-belief agenda. That said the Christmas periods of my childhood were happy ones and although suffused with the religious environment that prevailed in Ireland in the late 50’s and early 60’s, for some reason the time of year, then and now, had and has a cadence rooted in a seasonal rebirth and nature.

It has always been cause for celebration, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The Grianstad an Gheimhridh or midwinter solstice of our Proto-Celtic ancestors, the Shab-e Yalda of Mithraic Persia, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, of the Romans – all originally dated for December 25 in the old Julian calendar (Julius Caesar circa 42 BCE, but shifted backwards to December 21 by four days with the newer and more astronomically accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE) – the Christmas Day of early Christianity in the Western Rite (9 months from the more agreed upon conception day, and a date rather than a day maintained by the Gregorian adjustment), and for me the fascination of the Teutonic Jul or Yuletide.

My childhood nightmares and dreams fuelled by Viking sagas, the Brothers Grimm, of deep forests and elves, and giants and dwarfs … and my mother’s Yultide log (Christbrand, Tréfoir).

Every year about this time three small logs of Yew (the bark thick and tactile) would be delivered to the house, would then be wrapped in ivy, layered on top with a snow of icing sugar (or Plaster of Paris), and studded with berried Holly. Into the centre of the log would be placed a candle and the logs positioned carefully in the centre of the two fire mantelpieces in the house (one was always given away as a traditional present). It would be lit on Christmas Eve.

Yew, Ivy and Holly the very evergreen, very pre-Christian plants.

When Iseult (Esyllt) the Irish princess won the right to be with Tristan, her Cornish lover, she sang:

Three trees are good in nature:

the holly, the ivy, and the yew, 

which keep their leaves throughout their lives:

I am Trystan's as long as he lives!

May all that is good in nature watch over all of you and your families in the days ahead and the coming year.

Further Information:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Goodbye Rory

Shortly after posting my last blog about the death of Ramin Pourandarjani I received a text informing me that a friend, Dr Rory O'Connor had passed away peacefully, in the care of his family, in the early hours of the morning. Rory tragically succumbed to a rapidly progressive neurological disease. I called over to see Rory last weekend. Although he was unable to articulate properly we still managed to have a conversation, by way of exclusion tactics and the use of his eyelids. He had borne the ravages of his illness with both fortitude and bravery and my thoughts at this time are with his wife and two young children.

Rory was one of of life's gentlemen, a good colleague and a good man. He will be sorely missed.

Safe onward journey, Rory.

Month’s Mind – The Torture and Death of an Iranian Doctor

Dr Ramin Pourandarjani and a torture sculpture by
Ahad Hossein in the Azerbayjan Museum
of his home city of Tabriz, Iran.

In your thoughts please remember the life and death of Ramin Pourandarjani, and for his grieving family.

On November 10, 2009 Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani, a 26 year-old junior doctor from Tabriz, died in mysterious circumstances in the health unit attached to Tehran’s central prison. The authorities first said the causation was a heart attack, then they said poison and then finally suicide. Ramin was coming to the end of his compulsory military service and was about to emigrate to Germany to take up a fellowship in his chosen speciality. He had everything to live for and yet the authorities claimed he had committed suicide.

Ramin Pourandarjani’s life had been in dire jeopardy. In an earlier posting at the notorious Kahrizak prison facility he had looked after the detainees who had been moved there after being arrested during the street disturbances which followed the very disputed Iran elections in June 2009. Mohsen Ruholami Najafabadi was one of those beaten to death in the prison by the guards and the young Dr. Pourandarjani was brave enough, despite threats to his life, to issue a death certificate to that effect.

He later gave verbal and documentary evidence confirming this report to the Iranian parliamentary committee investigating the deaths in custody in Kahrizak prison and information coming out Tehran say that prior to giving that evidence he had been detained and threatened by Acting Chief of Tehran Police Brigadier Gen Ahmed Reza Radan, the man responsible for the Kahrizak facility. Radan was to call the torture and deaths at Kahrizak a ‘minor incident’.

A ‘minor incident’! The characteristic diminutive dismissal by someone who is pathologically evil. History teaches us nothing. Time and time again, in every society, in every era, sociopathic monsters are initially given power because of their ‘unique’ talents and willingness to suppress dissent to that society. That gift of power then reinforces the messianic pathology that courses through their veins. In years to come, when he is brought before the International Criminal court, Radan will protest as all monsters protest: ‘Who me? Just doing my duty judge. I rather be ringing chicken necks and doting on my grandchildren.’

Radan will be the reason the Islamic Republic of Iran will fail. Too late for the very courageous doctor-poet Ramin Pourandarjani! Please remember him.

Brig Gen Ahmed Reza Radan and a torture sculpture by
Ahad Hossein in the Azerbayjan Museum, Tabriz, Iran.

On a more positive note the Censorship Research Centre in San Francisco, USA (and I hope to God they are as genuine as they seem and not a CIA-fronted organisation) is developing specifically for Iran an internet communication tool that can bypass the blockade the Iranian authorities presently exert. The below is taken directly from the home page of their website:

Haystack is a new program designed to provide unfiltered internet access to the people of Iran. The software package is compatible with Windows, Mac and Unix systems, and specifically targets the Iranian government’s web filtering mechanisms.

Haystack is not an ordinary proxy system. It employs a sophisticated mathematical formula to hide users’ real Internet traffic inside a continuous stream of innocuous-looking requests. In addition to providing anonymity, Haystack uses strong cryptography, ensuring that even if users’ traffic is detected, it cannot be read. Trying to find and decipher our users’ traffic amidst all the other traffic on the web really is like trying to find a needle in the proverbial Haystack.

Once installed Haystack will provide completely uncensored access to the internet from Iran while simultaneously protecting the user’s identity. No more Facebook blocks, no more government warning pages when you try to load Twitter or access news sites -- just unfiltered Internet.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Trucial Troubles – The Sheikhs are Sitting

Dubai Creek 1946 and 2006.
The Wind Towers of yore replaced by the Air-conditioned towers of now.

John, my neighbour, committed suicide earlier this year, driven to despair by the failure of his property investment in Dubai, it was a tragic portent of the now general implosion of the ‘fantasia’ that exists there with both Dubai World and the private investment arm of the ruling al-Maktoum’s family seeking delay on the repayment of 40-70 billion dollars worth of debt.

When Wilfred Thesiger travelled throughout the southern Arabian peninsula in the 1940’s he was a guest of Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahyan the future iconic ruler of Abu Dhabi and from 1971 of the United Arab Emirates, at the oasis town of Al Ain/Buraimi. In the mornings a servant would come and inform Thesiger that Sheikh Zayid was ‘sitting’ or in audience, receiving visitors and resolving disputes. At the time the disputes centered mainly around the camel stealing activities of the tribe of the Bani Kitab, and indeed much time was spent adjudicating on the relative merits of the batina, banat farha, or banat al hamra breeds of camels as to whether they were worth stealing back or not.

Times, if not the economic importance of appropriate decision making, have changed on the Trucial Coast. The Sheikhs of the Emirates are now going to have to decide how or whether they will, or can, bail out the enormous debt that Dubai World and the Al Maktouum ruling family investment vehicles have wracked up. Abu Dhabi controls most of the oil wealth and given disputes between the al-falasi – to which the al Maktoums of Dubai belong – and the al-falahi – to which the al-Nahayn of Abu Dhabi belong – sections of the Bani Yas tribe that resulted in a war in 1947 and continued after the amalgamation in 1971 it is uncertain whether Abu Dhabi will be rushing into help. I suspect ‘sitting’ will be the only action we will see, until any settlement extracted fully satisfies an al-falahi sense of superiority.

The UAE is a federation of seven states that has its origin in the General Peace Treaty that Great Britain entered into with 12 signatory sheikhs in January 1820 in order to suppress piracy on this part of the Arabian penninsula that was then known as the Pirate Coast. The initial treaty was further supplemented by the Maritime Truce of 1835 and the Perpetual Maritime Truce of 1853, when additional efforts were made to suppress slavery, and finally the 1892 treaty. After the United Kingdom withdrew its protectorate status in 1971 Bahrain and Qatar went their separate ways and six of the emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah) formed the UAE in December 1971 (to be joined later by Ras al-Khaimah – the pirate state that originally precipitated the Royal Navy reprisals and the 1820 Treaty – in 1972)

Of interest in the original treaty Great Britain insisted that the signatory sheikhdoms should include in their maritime flags the colour white to show that they were allies:

"In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate! Praise be to God, who hath ordained peace to be a blessing to his creatures! There is established a lasting peace between the British Government and the Arab tribes, who are parties to the contract, on the following conditions:

Art. 3. The friendly Arabs shall carry, by land and by sea, a red flag, with or without letters in it, at their option; and this shall be in a border of white, the breadth of the white in the border being equal to the breadth of the red, as represented in the margin, the whole forming the flag known in the British Navy by the title of 'White pierced Red'; and this shall be the flag of the friendly Arabs, and they shall use it, and no other."

All of the current individual emirati flags as well as the federation flag still include the ‘white’ demand.

John, my neighbour’s tragic involvement was not the first from the west of Ireland. Indeed the history of the transition from a camel-stealing, and pirate-raiding based economy to the excess of now was precipitated in the main by the oil and gas exploration licences granted to the D’Arcy Exploration Company by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi in 1931. William Knox D’Arcy was the son of an Irish solicitor from the D’Arcy family of Gorteen, Co. Mayo. He made his first fortune in Austalian gold and then nearly exhausted this fortune exploring for oil in Persia. The D’Arcy Exploration Company on its last financial legs found oil just in time in May 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil company was formed with D’Arcy Exploration and was then later incorporated into what became British Petroleum. Knox D’Arcy had made his second fortune and died in 1917, not that well liked. His first wife Ella, whom he had divorced, contributed, with Kipling, Conan Doyle and others, a short story called Irremediable to an 1893 book called Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages.

D’Arcy Exploration went on however. In March 1955, D'Arcy Exploration Limited building on the 1931 concessions was granted "the sole and exclusive right to explore for, drill for, develop, product, transport and dispose of oil within an area of the seabed and subsoil lying beneath the high seas of the Arabian Gulf contiguous to the territorial waters of Abu Dhabi, and which had been proclaimed on the 10th of June 1949 to fall within the jurisdiction of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi". The total area of the Concession was 30,370 square kilometers and had a validity of 65 years. The first large offshore oil field was found at Umm Shaif in 1959.

Trucial Oil and the Original UAE Emirs

Oil and gas began to flow, and in the slipstream, fantastic prosperity, development and air-conditioned and desalinated greed. The hopes of individuals and investors destroyed, lured by the bright-light ‘opportunities’ that we as a society are continuously attracted to. And now in the UAE there is an enormous economic vacuum and in that dangerous vacuum will flower a resurgence of angry anti-western Islamic al-Qaeda fundamentalist opposition.

The Sheikhs are not sitting they are sh**ing!

Proposed Ethiad Building in Dubai
Will the sun rise again?

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Syntactic Musings

I am reading at present the very accessible and very thought provoking book A History of Language by Stephen Roger Fischer. In describing the evolutionary path of human communication he points to the development of syntax as being the most important attribute of that development. Yes, he points out, animals, birds, and insects do have a lexicon of ‘words’ which are communicated in different ways i.e. phermones, wing-rubs, sonar pulses etc. but as he describes it ‘choreography does not replace articulation’. Language development in humans, he attests, is a product of an evolutionary ‘cerebral sense of belonging’ of words being together. And yet in our modern world the historical development of syntax-rich ‘daughter languages’ to a dominant language (English in the main at present) appears to have foundered in the very abbreviated and very accelerated world that Twitter and Texting language have brought us to.

Perhaps if language was to be analysed from the listener’s perspective – or sense – rather than the more usual articulator’s perspective then perhaps we should divide the ‘cerebral sense’ of synthetic (rather than syntactic) Rap, Twitter, Techno and Text language into the categories of Ab-sence, Non-sense, Sense-less, Sens-ual, and Sens-ible of their various constructions.

This brings me to a new word to perhaps describe its constrained development: Imposense.

Well not quite a new word. In Googleworld there is an avatar or wandering web-soul using the name and some years ago a blogging French poet called Mysteriuse entitled one of her poems l’imposense. I have quoted it below because I really like the poem. She is no longer blogging so I have not been able to get permission for this but I did try to track the source. I hope she will understand.

Mysterieuse's Musings

Imposense for me implies the notion of an imposed sense of understanding – a Foucaultian gridding – on the receiver of the language, which is dictated by the ‘rhythm’ rather than ‘rhyme’ of the communication, the tyranny rather than the freedom, the time constraints rather than the timeless words, and in a reversal of language evolution the choreography rather than the articulation. Equally at a quick glance the word somehow evokes confusion with Impotence and a failure to satisfy. Perhaps the impotence involved is the fault of the listener or receiver … or perhaps it is just me.

My imposense!

Am I making any sense? I like the notion of belonging that an apostrophe or dialect brings. Is language better for their loss? Does a sequence of nouns serve a more useful function than adjectival attachment? Will simplification and brevity reflect the reality of modern life (and the dominance of English) thereby allowing quicker communication in the now rather than having to deal with a complex communication from the past? The future will take care of itself? I am not so sure.

In the future, Fischer concludes, and I agree, the loss of language will result in a loss of identity, of protest, of diversity, and will result in alienation rather than universal brotherhood.

C u there! Ggg…goog….google …ga

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Peating of My Heart

The Peating of My Heart

It’s a lonely thing,
The sudden silence.
Birth waters still; settling.
But, listen to the resonance
In the furrowing,
Where the whispering dead-wood
And deep-shadow crawling
To the peating of my heart.

(For Michael's recently deceased mother, and mine, 21st May 2001)

From Beneath the Faery Dew

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Executions – Gibbets, Guillotines and Henry Gillettes

Thierry Henry hiding behind a beard.

I love the notion, indeed the expectation, of any genuine sporting contest. It does not matter what the sport is as long as there is a genuine willingness to play fairly to the best of one’s ability. A naïve aspiration no doubt but I’ll hang in there. The soccer World Cup second-leg qualification play-off match between France and Ireland last Wednesday has left a bitter-sweet taste in many spectators mouths. Not the match per say, as it was the best soccer match I have watched Ireland being involved in for many years, but the nature of its conclusion. Thierry Henry pulling behind Ireland’s last defender, who to be fair should have done better to cover the run, controlled the ball twice with his left hand to prevent it going out of play and then with a flick of his right foot crossed for William Gallas to head home the goal from a short distance. An instant in time but in that instant Henry has achieved an infamy and it is a moment he will always be remembered for.

All sportsmen cheat, whether a little or a lot, to gain an advantage. Some call it bending the rules, gamesmanship, taking advantage of lax officialdom whatever. The pressure on professional sportsmen in particular is enormous (the French team were on a reported €400,000 bonus to qualify for South Africa) and also on referees. I was a rugby referee for 25 years and although serious and usually repetitive ‘cheaters’ were found out many, many players are coached from a young age to creatively ‘explore’ the margins of what it is possible ‘to get away with’. Indeed for many this marginal behaviour is admired. In most professional sports however modern technology has allowed the development of oversight techniques, which are called into use when a ‘critical incident’ would have a bearing on the outcome of a contest or an event. FIFA, the world governing body, will now have to seriously consider television official replays for any incident within the penalty box that leads to or denies a score.

On a tangential note, I also believe we have found a new type of French execution to replace Madame Guillotine: the Monsieur Henry Gillette; being a double-tap drop movement of the executioner’s arm. I also wonder as a result whether the Gillette company (part of Proctor&Gamble) will ease Thierry Henry from its ad campaigns for razors from the company of two acknowledged ‘true’ sportsmen in Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Almost certainly his sleight of hand will result in some sort of ‘guillotine’ motion at the next company AGM!

The Tarot card for the Thief

The Guillotine of French Revolution fame, named after the Professor of Anatomy in Paris who was on the commissioning committee, was a direct descendant of the Halifax Gibbet in use in Halifax, Yorkshire from as early as the 12th Century. Gibbets were primarily structures used for hanging dead bodies (sometimes in cages) for public display. The Halifax Gibbet was much more pro-active than this. Statutes going back to the time of King Philip and Queen Mary state:

“That if a felon be taken within their liberty, with goods stolen out or within the liberty or precincts of the said forest, either Hand-habend, Back-berand, or confess and cloth, or any other commodity of the value of thirteen-pence half penny, that they shall, after three markets, or meeting days, within the town of Halifax, next after such his apprehension, and being condemned, he shall be taken to the Gibbet, and there have his head cut off his body.”

Hand-habend is an archaic way of describing a suspect “having his hand in, or being caught in the very act of stealing” aka Monsieur Thierry Henry.

Russian Constitutional Court

On a more positive note the Russian Constitutional Court, the morning after the match, upheld an indefinite moratorium on the re-introduction of the death penalty which was due to run out next January when Chechnya becomes the final republic to introduce jury trials; the universal availability/absence of jury trials being the legal reason for the moratoriums introduction in the first place in 1999. That just leaves Belarus as the last country in Europe where the death penalty is still available as a sanction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Teddy Bears’ Picnic


A short whimsical blog. I suited up this morning (papoosed ) to take young grandson Leon and our dog across the tidal flats to the woods on the far side of the inlet that we live on. I know that aging has various effects, young Leon is quite light, but the presence of a papoose on my chest began to exercise muscles – and memories – of days gone by.

On the physical side alone one change those years have wrought is that there is now a reliance on needing to see where you place your feet, particularly when descending (where once rhythm and an innate ability to regain balance existed, and I am not just talking about dancing), and the papoose makes this impossible. Making my way down to the seashore on a slippery decline that is negotiated weekly without too much concern suddenly became a major hazard to the health of young Leon, and thoughts of having to explain any injuries to his parents rattled in my brain.

Young Leon and the Bears

On the mental side, the woods when reached also brought home the other changes of aging: being unable to recall the exact words of the nursery rhymes you had heard as a child and also sang (frightened!) to your own children. On a beautiful late Autumnal day I launched into Leon’s right ear Teddy Bears’ Picnic but for the life of me could not remember the fourth and fifth lines. The poor child is now probably scarred for life by the incoherent rendering.

The Words

Teddys’ Bear picnic, composed originally as instrumental music by John Walter Batton achieved its greatest fame when lyrics were written by Northern Ireland songwriter Jimmy Kennedy (of Red Sails in the Sunset fame) in 1932 and sung by Val Rosling.

I have always loved the song, even if the bears escape me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rihla (Journey 10): Australia – Nostalgia, Bitumen and Avoidance-Language

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) 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 Wilpena Pound, Australia.

The 25th November is the anniversary of the birth of John Flynn in Moliagul, Victoria, Australia. John who? The Rev John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister was the founder of the A.I.M Aerial Medical Service in 1928, which subsequently evolved into the Australian Aerial Medical Service in 1934, the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and ultimately the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955. John Flynn died of cancer in 1950.

The first aerial medical service took off from Cloncurry, Queensland in a fabric De Havilland bi-plane on the 15th May 1928 to be greeted by 100 people 85 miles away in Julia Creek. In the year up to the 30 June 2009 the RFDS flew 24,000,000 km, serviced approximately 247,000 patients and conducted nearly 37,000 medical emergency evacuations or about 100 evacuations a day across Australia.

With the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1989
(That's me in the shorts like any good colonial)

This is where my nostalgia comes in. Between 1989 and January 1991 I was based in Adelaide, South Australia in the Queen Victoria Hospital (sadly no more) and was one of the on call-obstetrician/neonatologists for the evacuation of maternity and neonatal patients to Adelaide from places as far away as Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Broken Hill in Victoria. The on-call air service rotated between the St John’s Ambulance air wing and the RFDS and the calls could come at any time, day or night. Night evacuations in particular were an extremely nerve racking experience as you dropped out of a perfectly beautiful, star-filled sky to land on uneven packed earth airstrip in an Aboriginal homeland. I always feared that one of the many feral camels that roam in central Australia would choose that particular moment to cross the strip and I admired greatly the skill of the pilots and their sang-froid.

Australia is a beautiful country inhabited by probably the most hospitable and welcoming people on this planet. It is however a coastal strip of sunshine development and opportunity surrounding an inner land and islands where some 400 Aboriginal peoples (2.6% of Australia’s population) often live in dire poverty and neglect. I had never medically encountered syphilis or leprosy or terminal T.B. until flying into some of these homelands with the RFDS and some of the encounters still haunt.

Many Aboriginal groups have a well-developed Avoidance-Language when in the company of taboo relatives. It often struck me when I was there that there was an even greater use of Avoidance-Language on the part of white (of settler and convict origin) Australian officialdom when confronted with the taboo subject of Aboriginal rights. Things have significantly improved in the last 20 years but there is still some way to go.

In any event the RFDS is a service to be admired and supported. On the 16 November tickets go on sale for one of the most spectacular charity events (far better than the Rose Ball in Monte Carlo) you are ever likely to attend. It takes place in Wilpena Pound in February 2010 in aid of the RFDS. The Pound is a natural amphitheatre in the Flinder’s Range at the end of the ‘bitumen’ (sealed road) 429 kilometers from Adelaide. The black tie event with dinner and starlight and music and dance announced by the sunset is to….is to know you breathe.

An Abandoned Homestead near Wilpena Pound, South Australia.

And in the sky somewhere that night an RFDS team is evacuating and saving a life, a family, a community beyond the bitumen.

Further Information:

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Revolutions, Game Theory and the Bottom Line

An Old Door in Yazd, Iran showing old-style communication.
A genderised communication with differing shaped knockers giving a
different sound to announce a male or female visitor.

On the 27th September 2009 the Iranian Government sold a majority stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) to a consortium comprising Tose’e Etemad (46%), Shahriar Mahestan (8%) and Mobin Electronic Development Company (46%) for $7.9billion (20% immediately and the remaining 80% over 8 years with interest). There has been some disquiet expressed about the nature of the bidding process (Mobin is a private joint stock company one of whose directors, Younes Bakhshmandi was deputy chairman of TCI) but also accusations of collusion between the consortium and the Sepāh e Pāsdārān e Enqelāb e Eslāmi or the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRG or IRGC).

A spice-bowel in the market in Yazd, Iran.
The many layers of Iranian society

The IRGC dominates the huge military-economic nexus that now exists in Iran and has established multiple commercial companies to exert and maintain this control at a boardroom level, a strangulation if differing in tactics does not differ in intent from the brutal strong-arm thuggery employed by the IRGCcompany workers’ against protesting citizen ‘dissident stakeholders’ on the streets of Iran in recent times. The IRGC is currently commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, originally from Yazd.

I find the IRGC’s cynical pragmatism both fascinating and depressing. It is one of Iran’s main contentions that the rapacious greed and interests of the large players are driving American involvement in the Middle East and points to the USA’s military-economic nexus political involvement in companies such as Halliburton (Dick Cheney was CEO from 1995 to 2000). There is some truth in this and President Ahmadinejad has been vociferous in his condemnation of these interests and predicted the demise of their influence. He stated in 2008 in a speech the UN that:

"The American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders."

And yet Iran is supporting a similar development of a powerful military-economic self-interest block. Is this of concern?

I am not, nor do I pretend to be, a political analyst but obviously, to any sane observer, control of the major telecommunication delivery networks allows inherent suppression and censorship but equally facilitates the transfer of political power, or the taking of it. And with this latest acquisition this is a distinct possibility in Iran. If the analysts are right and the successful consortium is linked to the Jafari-controlled IRGC then it is just a question of time. The theocracy is waning, its lifeblood, a dependence on popular support for its religion-based policies and a distaste for the demands of Mammon, spilling. And in the wings is an electronically savvy Mammon dressed in Kevlar patiently waiting to take control. And a return to a military dictatorship. And the days of the Shah?

The Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Yazd, Iran
A redundant history?

I am not alone in this assessment. Recently I heard a radio interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He is the arch proponent of 'game theory' when applied to political developments and it was quite depressing to listen to him. He has no time for the conscious impact, for what I would have imagined to be important such as informative past historical input i.e. previous civilizations and regimes’ mistakes, successes, achievements etc. In de Mesquita’s assessment and game theory application past history is entirely redundant and really serves only to act as a validation of his predictions. Those predictions are entirely based on the self-interest of the ‘now’, the ‘players’ involved having no past just a present and a future. He has predicted that over the next four years, the theocracy and Ahmadinejad will be marginalized and that Jafari’s IRGC is the future, and will become along with the Bonyads (charitable trusts that control 20% of Iran's GDP) the major players in Iranian politics.

de Mesquita's 'game theory' prediction for regime change in Iran

Don’t call us, we’ll call you when the next revolution comes. And we’ll use your telephone credits to boot! And boot we will!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rihla (Journey 9): Bahamas – Abaco Beyond and Bones

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) 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 one is about Abaco Island, Bahamas.

My First Bonefish
(Caught and released)

Things to do before you…. whatever! I recently had the precious opportunity of being able to satisfy my curiosity about two of these undone things – fly fishing (my brother Paul is an expert fly fisherman but I had never got around to it) and a visit to the Caribbean and the Bahamas in particular. I had always wanted to visit the small Bahamian island of San Salvador where Columbus landed first, or Eleuthera where one of the greatest travellers of them all, Rosita Forbes – my other great traveller heroine is Freya Stark – resided, or the capital Nassau on New Providence Island which was the hotbed home of the pirate heroes and heroines of my childhood: Blackbeard, Vane, Anne Bonny etc.

In the end I did not get to San Salvador or Eleuthera (another time if given half a chance) but did make it to Abaco where a friend of mine Peter Mantle has recently opened a fishing lodge dedicated to fly fishing, what are considered to be the best sports fish in the world, the bonefish.

The lodge, called Delphi-Bahamas at Rolling Harbour on the Southern coast of Abaco, is truly beautiful, and an oasis of elegance and charm that separates it spiritually and physically from all that is disheartening about modern beachside development in Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, the Caribbean, everywhere. I am acutely aware of the privilege afforded me but that said it is a place where even if you are not a fisherperson you will find respite and a place to replenish your soul.

Abaco (Ha-Bo-Ko-Wa in the Taino language of the original Lucayans meaning ‘large outer outlier' (island)) has an interesting if very recent history. It was colonised first between 500 and 800 C.E. by the Lucayan peoples, a branch of the Taino-speaking Arawak tribes of the Orinoco River delta. These gentle people who had first left their Orinoco home about 2100 B.C.E had been pushed ever northwards to island-hop by the more aggressive Carib tribes pressing behind. This gentleness was to cost them dear after the coming of the Spaniards in 1492 as most of the Bahamian islands were depopulated to provide slave labour for the development of Hispaniola and Cuba where they were to exterminated by disease and mal-treatment.

Abaco was then ignored for 100 years until the French tried to establish a colony there in 1595 (routed by the Spanish) and again in 1633 when the title of Baron des Bahamas was granted to Guilliame de Caen, a French Huguenot on condition he did not settle any of his fellow Huguenots there. It was the English however who were to establish permanent colonies, as a result of migration away from religious or political persecution, a dissent that was to always mark the islands future development. In 1647, seventy English settlers arrived on nearby Eleuthera from Bermuda and a second wave established on New Providence in 1650. By 1713 upwards of 1000 pirates (Teach, Vane, Bonney etc. were operating out of Nassau and the nearby islands such as Abaco until suppressed by the English navy and government under Woodes Rogers in 1718.

In 1783, following the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of American War of Independence, 1458 loyalists and freed African-Americans from New York left to establish colonies in Abaco. The black migration of ‘freed men’ was undermined somewhat in that they were paired or indentured to a white migrant. By 1788 (the year of a black revolt against the indenture system) only 400 of these white settlers had remained on the island but were supplemented later by inward migration from Harbour Island nearby. This core group of white and black settlers were to remain intensely, if misguidedly, loyal to England to the extent that when the Bahamas was granted its independence in 1973 Abaco petitioned (unsuccessfully) the House of Lords in the UK to remain a crown protectorate. The island’s white people, particularly those associated with fishing and boat building still speak with a quaint early settler accent and pronunciation and derive much pleasure but little satisfaction in bemoaning the shortcomings of the central Bahamian government in Nassau.

Modern Abaco is laid back, a mixture of deep poverty in the shantytowns of recent Haitian migrants, and local pockets of prosperity bought about by the huge amount of money made and retained in the 1970’s when Abaco was a major staging post for South American cocaine transport to the US as well as the tourist infrastructural development. The people are polite and welcoming but the taxis are exorbitant. The only other place that comes close to the cost of taxis in proportion to the per capita income would be another island, Sicily. It reflects the enormous historical power the Taxi unions in the Bahamas wield because of their 1958 strike, which precipitated the beginning and ultimate achievement of Bahamian independence.

And back to Anne Bonny and the gynaecological connection! As I settled in the swing chair, waiting (pleading!) for dinner, I stared southwest towards Nassau and thought of her. Supposingly from my home county of Cork she became the mistress of a notorious pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, the designer of the ‘Jolly Roger’ flag of popular renown, until captured with another female pirate Mary Read with Rackham off Jamaica in 1720. Tried and found guilty they were both sentenced to be hung with the remainder of the crew until at that point of sentencing they suddenly pleaded with their bellies’ i.e that they were both pregnant. Under common law, following an inspection by matrons, if proven this allowed a reprieve of the intended sentence until the pregnancy was over. Mary Reed died in prison but Ann Bonny disappeared or was ransomed by her wealthy father never to be a pirate again.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

(The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that "Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from jail and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackham's second child. On December 21, 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty-two and was buried on April 25, 1782.")

In 1931 the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 was enacted. Pregnant women were no longer to be hanged after giving birth and were given penal servitude instead. (Mary Ann Cotton became the last to suffer at Durham Castle on the 24th of March 1873, her baby being taken from her before execution).

Looking Southwest towards Nassau from 'the Chair'

Get to Abaco before you expire. Plead with your belly if you have to!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rihla (Journey 8): Ani, Turkey – On My Mind

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) 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 one is about Ani, capital of old Armenian Kingdom, Eastern Turkey.

On the 12 October 2009, in Zurich, Turkey and Armenia signed a series of protocols aimed at normalising relations between the two nations. Two of the most important facets of this agreement was firstly an undertaking to open the common border to travellers and commercial traffic within two months after the entry into force of the protocols and secondly the establishment of a joint commission to conduct an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives relating to contentious issues. Although not spelt out specifically this commission is expected to primarily examine the ‘Armenian Genocide’.

The incarceration, extermination and deportation (the systematic nature of which has been recognized as genocide by about twenty countries and the European Parliament) of somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 people of Armenian ethnicity between 1915 and 1918 is a highly emotive issue for citizens of both countries and something that I first encountered when visiting Armenia in 2002. Whether walking up the main street in Yerevan towards the very stark and somber genocide monument or waking up each morning and staring south-west towards Mount Ararat knowing that you could not reach the mountain from within Armenia or talking to people for whom the genocide was a fact of life and that the lack of acknowledgement or apology by Turkey, for this stain on its modern history, rankled most.

There was also, from my perspective, a medical connection as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the political party that came to power in Turkey in 1908, had been founded by four medical students in 1889 and which later as it took control, mainly through the actions of the Teskilat-I Mahsusa under the direction of another physician Behaddin Shakir, bore ultimate responsibility for many of the atrocities committed.

In an uncomfortable way since then the moral, economic, legal and geographic vacuum the genocide created has continually informed my travels in the area. For example while visiting the Vank Cathedral Museum in the New Jolfa district of Isfahan in Iran in March of this year the imagery and memorabilia from the genocide period displayed in the museum were numbing in their impact. Even more so when I remembered back to earlier travels in south-eastern Turkey in October 2007.

I was based in Kars, in a beautifully restored hotel that had once been a Russian mansion (at the time of the genocide Kars and this part of Turkey was in Russian hands and indeed one of the main reasons for Turkish establishment of concentration camps to detain Armenians was their supposed collusion with the Russians), and walking in the city I came across a closed museum dedicated to the genocide. A day or so later while driving near Igdir I noticed another sign in English for a genocide museum and thought this most enlightened. It was only later that I found out that both museums were in fact dedicated to the ‘genocide’ of Turks by Armenians!

That trip in particular brought home to me, in addition to this very obvious moral vacuum, the enormous geographic and legal vacuum the genocide has perpetuated. Returning northwards from driving half-way up Agri Dagi (Mt Ararat) to the fort of Koran Kilesi, with its guns pointed at Armenia, I encountered convoy after convoy of Turkish military hardware and manpower rushing the opposite direction into this south-eastern corner of Turkey. Why? Eradicating and deporting the Armenians from their lands, farms and homesteads had allowed Kurdish clans to move in and occupy the deserted spaces.

And now the ‘modern’ State of Turkey, which has been absolved in the main of responsibility for their Ottoman predecessors’ genocide of the Armenians, has a ‘Kurdish’ separatist problem. The sins of the grandfathers have come back to haunt and in an equally moral and secret vacuum the ‘modern’ Turkish State has over the past 20 years tried to militarily and governmentally eradicate the 'Kurdish problem'.

And so to Ani. And to vacuums.

Ani is about 50km from Kars, right on the Armenian border. Ani was a frontier fortress as early as the 4th century. It became capital of the Armenian Kingdom under King Ashot III in 961 and the residence of the Armenian Cathilicos in 992. At one point 100-200, 000 people were thought to have inhabited the city. It came into Byzantine overlordship in 1045, fell to the Seljuks in 1064, to the Georgians in 1199, and was nearly completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1319 at which time it began its terminal decline. The Catholicosate left in 1441 for Yerevan and the place was fully abandoned by the mid-1700’s.

The day I was there it was equally deserted but between the ruins of impressive fortifications, numerous churches, a Seljuq mosque, a Zorastrian fire temple and two deep gorges framing the plateau it was probably one of the most impressive archeological and historical sites I have ever visited. And yet the desertion, the empty spaces and fallen walls, lent themselves only to silence. I got no sense of previous reverberations or existence. No laughter, no chaste incantations, no call to arms. Just a vacuum! All memories extinguished by the repeated violence of men.

Perhaps this part of the world has always been a vacuum, and nothing can ever fill it. Certainly not love, fellowship, or co-existence.

Further Reading:

Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey,

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Rhythm of Life and Sweet Vibrations

A shopfront in Innishannon, Co. Cork, Ireland.

With global warming and the gradual northerly shift in the warming Gulf Stream seasonal change in Ireland is becoming less obvious. However Galway is a university city and come the start of the academic year in mid-September the bedsits and flats around the town fill up with returning and first-time students and the vibrations begin again.

The first term has its’ own very peculiar and very amplified rhythm. Next summer’s exams are but a Star Wars futuristic concept. There is money from summer work or grants, hormones are raging, life-long friendships are forged on the backhanded flip of a beer-mat and logged in beer-soaked mobile phones. First time refugees from the restrictions of home exult in a freedom of opportunity, of exploration, … of mayhem. University cities have always learnt to adapt and deal with this expected seasonal disruption but nowadays I get the sense that there is far less understanding on the real streets of the ‘Game Boy’ generation of boyos. For many permanent residents it has become a decibelic chaos and the confrontations more bitter.

A friend of mine, well known for her pithy and acerbic wit, lives on a narrow cul-de-sac next to a student house and was determined to be pro-active in confronting the potential problems. She decided to introduce herself to the poor unsuspecting students next door with the following:

‘Hi, I am your neighbour, and I wanted to introduce myself. I am a menopausal woman who has had a breast removed for cancer and also part of my bowel. Generally I am pretty angry and pissed off at my bad-luck. That said I don’t care whether you self-harm, harm each other, shoot yourselves up in the back garden, remembering of course to tidy up the needles ... or blow your heads with crack … nothing, I don’t care!

The students were still looking at her in amazement as she turned to leave. She stopped and in her most threatening voice called back at them, ‘Just don’t do any of the aforementioned to music!’

Young Leon creating his own rhythm