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

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sadness in Sa’ada

Sana'a, Yemen, March 2006
Looking northwest over the Sana'a rooftops, and President
Ali Abdullah Saleh's partially-constructed new mosque, towards the
mountainous strongholds of the Zaydi clans.

There is a real humanitarian crisis in Yemen at present resulting from the influx of external refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia but of more importance from the internal displacement of hundreds-of-thousands of villagers as a result of the Government efforts to eradicate Zaydi insurgents in the north, in Sa’ada, Hajjah and ‘Amran governates.

"The Sa'ada region has been largely sealed off to the outside world by Yemeni
forces since the current upsurge in fighting between government troops and
armed Zaydi Shi'a militants began last August, but it is clear that civilians are
bearing the brunt of the conflict,"
said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East
and North Africa Programme. 18 September 2009

The al-Zaidiya are a Shi’a sect named after Zaid b. Ali b.Husain b.Ali b.Abi Talib who rose up against the Umaiyads and was killed in street fighting in Kufa in 122 A.H./740C.E. The Yemeni branch was founded in the 9th century by al-Hadi ila ‘l-Hakk Yahya and has always been based in the mountainous area of north-west of the country.

In previous centuries the Zaydis were in constant conflict with the Ottomans and now a branch known as the al-Houthi are in a constant secessionist conflict with the central government in Sana'a. Although a Zaydi himself Ali Abdullah Saleh, the 67 year-old long-serving president of Yemen (President of North Yemen since 1978 and of Reunified Yemen since 1990) has unleashed the dogs of war to eradicate the insurgent clans.

And this is the rub!

Refugees from the fighting are unlikely to find optimal sanctuary in neighboring Saudi Arabia either. For two reasons! Firstly Saudi Arabia has never signed up to the UN 1954 Refugee Convention (or its 1967 Protocol) and thus sees no obligation in providing official relief. Secondly and probably more importantly the areas of south-west Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen and governed from Najran are the homelands of Saudi Arabia’s minority Ishmaili community particularly the al-Yam clan. In addition to ongoing objections by the Ishmaili of central Saudi government settlement of Sunni Yemeni in the Najran area, and the imprisonment of Ishmaili leaders for their temerity (, historically the Zaydi and Ishmali are are also implacable enemies as a result of Da’i ‘Abdullah al-Hamdani’s enthusiastic support for the Ottoman campaign – designed to destroy the Zaydi imanate power – dispatched from Egypt in 1569 under Sinan Pasha.

Before the battle for Khadid castle in June 1569 Da’i Abdullah said ‘I shall unsheathe my sword from its scabbard after its long rest till tribe after tribe (of Zaydi) is slain.’

And to today.

There is still no safe place for those caught up in the fighting. A resolution must be found but in the meantime as much help as can be mustered should be directed to the UNHCR program in Yemen.

Further Information:
Further Reading:
Clive K. Smith, Lightening over Yemen – A History of the Ottoman Campaign 1569-71 (I.B.Tauris, London, UK 2002)