Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gnomons, Exonyms and air rage

Al Idrisi World Map (Early 12th Cent, Sicily)
Detail of Arabian Pennisula

While travelling back from Australia recently with Etihad Airways I took the opportunity to stop off in Dubai for three days. The United Arab Emirates, and the Emirate of Dubai specifically, were not places I had been to before in my middle-eastern travels and I was genuinely quite curious to experience this modern version of an El Dorado (or perhaps Al Dorado to be culturally sensitive!).

Given the recent property implosion in Dubai the sequence of finished and unfinished, occupied and unoccupied skyscrapers stretching from the Creek at Deira to New Dubai has an uneasy resemblance to a House of Cards that in time will topple in the wind and be swallowed up by the desert sands. But in the meantime what cards they are! Architects have been given the license to push the parameters of steel, concrete and glass to the very edge of their envelopes.

Interior of Burj al Arab

Two memories stand out in particular. The Burj Khalifa tower is quite fantastic. The first night I was there the world’s tallest building stretched towards the three-quarter moon above like a celestial bridge. So alien and yet so belonging! During sunlight hours on the other hand it is a gnomon to the Dubai day. I could not keep my eyes off it even when the synchronized fountain display in the plaza in front of the tower was spurting in all its splendour.

The Burj Khalifa

The second building that amazed was the iconic Burj al Arab. Staring up at the blue, green and golden balcony folds of the interior atrium from the lobby floor was mesmerizing. For me it bore an uncanny resemblance to the roof of the Sultan’s private chambers in the (almost!) incomparable Yesil Cami or Green Mosque in Bursa in Turkey; its blueness, the glittering gold paint, the arabesques and muqarnas vaulting.

Both are places where you just want to lie down flat on your back and look up at the stars. Like a desert night. Quite wonderful.

Anyway to Exonyms and air rage! 

While wandering around the atrium of the Burj al Arab I picked up an English version of the Gulf News newspaper and was immediately struck by an article describing Iran’s demand that any airline flying in Iranian airspace must refer to the body of water between Iran and Arabia as the Persian Gulf. Failure to do so would result in exclusion from their airspace. Reading on I was then appraised of the intensity of feeling over what this body of water is called, a row that continues to simmer. The Arab countries since about 1950 have referred to it as the Arabian Gulf, the BBC call it the Gulf but the Iranians insist on referring to the entire body of water in its historical cartographic attribution as the Persian Gulf.

Now I like old maps and always I have understood the Arabian Gulf to be the old name for the Red Sea (see a 1540 Honter map from my own collection below) and the body of water to the east of Arabia to be the Persian Gulf.

Ibn Khaldun (d1406 CE/808 AH) the Arab polymath (not that beloved it must be said by modern pan-Arab nationalists) called the Persian Gulf the Green Gulf in his famous work the Muqaddimah, the first book of his universal history.

The naming of any geographical territory, which is not directly under a country’s political control is known as Exonymy. I was not aware until following up on this article on getting home that the United Nations has an entire sub-organization entirely dedicated to the Standardization of Geographical names, which meets in conference every five years. Iran has been consistent in pushing the agenda that the entire body of water should continue to be known in the future as the Persian Gulf and they appear to have been successful in this as the most recent UN Secretary-General’s Report on the Oceans and Laws of the Sea maintains the Persian Gulf as a descriptive exonym. (page 32, UN Doc A/64/61/Add 1, 25 November 2009).

I know that there are concerns about global warming and the seas rising but extending the Persian Gulf to 40,000 feet seems a little bit excessive.

Air rage or umbrage? Who knows the mind of a shrimp or seagull?

Further Info:

Reports of the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names

Alphabetic Philosoup – F

Foucault’s forensic foresight freed fragile Freudian fault
from Faustian facility for fiendish fantasia.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


A rare Cat indeed!

Tropical cyclone Ului is drawing ever closer to the Queensland shore and the driving, centrifugal rain is forcing me indoors and somewhat introspectively again.

Cenosilicaphobia is a fear of an empty glass and a word that caught my eye while tasting a bottle of The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sargantino Cinsault when visiting the d'Arenberg winery in McClaren Vale, South Australia recently. Although close to Adelaide where we lived in the late '80s I had not been there before and I enjoyed the lunch we had in the attached d'Arrys Verandah restaurant.It was very enjoyable indeed.

Coming to the end of our meal a retired colleague of our host/driver-guide for the day came over to say hello. Asked how retirement was suiting him he replied, 'Great mate. Every Tuesday lunch here. What more could a person need? Life is a glass half-full.'

And this is true. Yes there is enormous luck and privilege in being able to reach retirement in good health and consider life being a glass half-full. For many it is a glass half-empty and invokes an enormous fear.

Inspired by d'Arry's cat I have (I think?) derived a new word (or two new words) to describe that fear of a life half-lived. The first is cenomesozoiphobia (ceno-empty, meso-half, zoi-life or spirit) It is one I hope never to experience, or at least in the dark moments experience it as a very temporary event before tilting the glass of being back in my favour. Equally extending the half-glass metaphor for life a little further it could also be cenomesosilicaphobia.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Crapuccino and Civil Civets

A Civet at The Lodge

Caught in a cloudburst from the leading edge of tropical cyclone Ului on Australia's Gold Coast there is a little time available to me to reflect on Australia and the changes evident since we lived here twenty years ago.
The economy unlike in Ireland and Europe is booming. Unemployment somewhere about 5.8%, house prices soaring, job vacancies across all sectors occupying oceans of newsprint and ... expensive for the visitor. The Australian dollar is strong and it reflects a vast mineral wealth and the concerted effort, twenty to thirty years ago, to swing Australia's economic orientation away from west to east.
Some things don't change however. In particular the very Australian way of using descriptive nouns.
In every day language and print but particularly within the political sphere their use falls somewhere between disdain and defammatory.
Take for example the recent visit of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Australia.
Apart from waiting until desert during the State Banquet to gleefully announce the very recent killing "execution" of a wanted terrorist ( Australia in recent days has just passed legislation banning for ever in all terrotories capital punishment and torture) Yudhoyono brought as a present to Prime Minister Rudd (apart from the metaphorical head of the Bali bomber who had been trailed by police for sometime but 'conveniently' was only killed to coincide with the visit of SBY to Australia) a gift of rare luwak coffee.
Now kopi luwak coffee is made from the extracted beans found in the excrement of Asian civets. The political commentators could not contain themselves. Laurie Oaks however, in the best of 'keatingesque' barbs, was to announce the gift as 'A new treat at the Lodge: crapuccino!'
Brilliant! Hubris mud-slinging and froth in one mouthful.
Ah the rain has stopped. Time to move again.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Israel – Ambiguity of Reason in the Assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabouth

The Assassination of Mussolini

I thought that I would not get around to blogging for a while but with time to ‘kill’ while waiting for my plane I could not but try and respond to the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s avoidance of acknowledging Mossad’s role in the assassination of the Hamas official al-Mabouth by saying Israel had a ‘policy of ambiguity’ on intelligence matters.

There is always a knee-jerk reaction from Israel when anybody criticises the workings of its’ State apparatus that any criticisim directed towards it somehow carries an anti-semitic slant or agenda and as a result all the weight of a Holocaust memory is brought to bear on that criticism. Despite this puerile reaction it must be acknowledged even by the most orthodox that not all Jews are Israeli citizens, and more importantly not all Israeli citizens, as is obvious from the State’s apartheid documents of identity, are Jews. Any criticism of Israel’s dysfunctional state is exactly that: a criticism of the State not of any particular member or branch of the family of Shem.

A policy of strategic or deliberate ambiguity has long been a policy of Israel where its nuclear weapons or intelligence and security matters have come up for discussion or debate. Israel has also had a long-term policy of political assassination and qualified those actions on the basis of ‘pre-emptive’ self-defence citing Article 51 of the United Nations Charter:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Although required by the Charter it is most unlikely that Israel will be rushing to inform the Security Council as exactly what was Mossad’s role in the assassination of al-Mabouth, yet it is something they resort to when they are attacked:

Identical letters dated 1 December 2009 from the Permanent
Representative of Israel to the United Nations addressed to the
Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council

I write this letter of complaint regarding a series of attacks emanating from the
Gaza Strip which is controlled by the Hamas terrorist organization.

On 13 November 2009, a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip, and
between 18 November 2009 and 24 November 2009 four additional rockets were
fired from the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, on 16 November 2009, two mortar shells
were fired from Gaza. All of these rockets and mortars landed in the Western Negev
region of Israel adjacent to many small cities. While such attacks intentionally target
Israeli civilians, no serious casualties or damage was sustained.

I wish to reiterate that in response to these armed attacks, and in exercise of its
inherent right to self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations,
Israel will take all necessary measures to protect its citizens from the threat of

I should be grateful if you would have the present letter distributed as a
document of the Security Council.

(Signed) Gabriela Shalev
Permanent Representative

Although a signatory of the Rome Statute of the ICC in December 2000 Israel has taken the decision not to ratify its provisions. Article 8 2.B(xi) of ICC Rome Statute under the War Crimes section declares that a war crime is the:

Killing or wounding treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.

It is interesting that in 2000 Israel attached the following note to its’ signature on the Rome Statute:

“Nevertheless, as a democratic society, Israel has been conducting ongoing political, and academic debates concerning the ICC and its significance in the context of international law and the international community. The Court’s essentiality - as a vital means of ensuring that criminals who commit genuinely heinous crimes will be duly brought to justice, while other potential offenders of the fundamental principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience will be properly deterred - has never seized to guide us. Israel’s signature of the Rome Statute will, therefore, enable it to morally identify with this basic idea, underlying the establishment of the Court.”

By 2002 however Israel had decided not to ratify the Statute. It said in a note to the Secretary General of the UN:

" connection with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted on 17 July 1998, [...] Israel does not intend to become a party to the treaty. Accordingly, Israel has no legal obligations arising from its signature on 31 December 2000. Israel requests that its intention not to become a party, as expressed in this letter, be reflected in the depositary’s status lists relating to this treaty."

This ambiguity of both purpose and intent can be best explained by the fact that since 2001 Israel has considered itself at war with Hamas and that ‘law-enforcement’ legal constraints with regard to assassinations no longer apply … if they ever did.

In 1981 Ronald Regan’s Executive Order 12333 banned all US conducted assassinations however it is obvious that in the ‘War on Terror’ many have been US sanctioned and condoned. There is equal ambiguity in the US response to al-Mabouth’s death.

In March of 2009 I visited Alamut Castle (see picture below) in Iran, the near-impregnable castle of the Federation of Assassins founded by Hassan i-Sabah in the 11th Century. The asymmetrical tactics and procedures developed by Hassan are no less evident today in the activities of Mossad.

Further Reading:

Michael L. Gross, Fighting by Other Means in the Mideast: a Critical Analysis of Israel’s
Assassination Policy. At: