Tag Archives: middle east

Blog #29 – New stories in Red Pepper and New Internationalist

26 Nov

In the upcoming issue of Red Pepper you’ll find my interview with Filipino eco-socialist Red Constantino, who talks about his electric jeepney initiative, green reform versus green revolution and the challenges facing the Philippine Left. My report on the struggles of working people in Oman, a country I visited a little after the Arab Spring, will be in January’s edition of New Internationalist.

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Beyond the Veil (originally published in Wings of Oman)

8 Dec

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In contrast to the no-looking-back modernity of Dubai and Kuwait City, Muscat is strongly in touch with its past. The Sultan himself takes a personal interest in heritage and laws exist to stop the building of skyscrapers lest they ruin the city’s historical character.

Enclosed by 400-year-old fortifications and a steep mountainside, the Old Muscat district is like a basket into which many of Oman’s finest heritage attractions have been placed. Whether you want to learn about the country’s role in the 19th century arms trade, its Bedouin handicraft traditions or how its citizens lived aeons ago, Old Muscat’s museums, military buildings and restored houses have all the answers.

The standout museum is Bait Al Zabair, a complex of elegant and angular cultural houses detailing the history of Omani arts, crafts, architecture, industry, fashion, agriculture and cartography.

Starting life in 1914 as the sumptuous home of statesman Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali, two-storey Bait Al Bagh (House of Gardens) boasts gleaming khanjar (ceremonial daggers), muskets and fine examples of traditional dishdasha (men’s gowns), sirwal (women’s gowns) and lihaf (headdresses). The elaborate silver and gold al-hirz (necklaces) were designed to carry small copies of the Qu’ran. The hand motifs symbolise Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. The original furniture in Bait Al Bagh – tea trays, gramophones, pearl-handled chests of drawers – bespeaks 1930s England, although the beautifully carved al-sandouq (chests) blend Persian, South Asian and North African styles, while the flat, high-legged bed is distinctly Arabian.

A faraj (ancient irrigation channel) snakes through the garden towards the ultimate tribal scene: a barasti (hut made from palm fronds lashed together with rope) containing Bedouin rugs handwoven from goat hair. Next to this is a fascinating scale diorama of Old Muscat as it would have appeared in the 18th century. Little model soldiers roam the fortifications and fisherwomen kneel beside the pond-simulated sea.

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Bait Al Nahdhah (House of the Renaissance) is a tribute to the Omani cultural renaissance that began in 1970. Its collection of art works – the largest in the country – range from modernistic portraits to traditional etchings, conceptual sculptures to Muhammed Al-Zabair’s series of celebratory photographs, ‘My Beautiful Country’.

Bait Al Oud (Grand House) is done out in 19th century Islamic style and is remarkable for its dozens of early – and often inaccurate – European maps of the Arabian Peninsular, black and white photos of Muscat and antique Arabian coins. The model ships with curved prows are based on the sambuq (pearling ships) originally built in Sur and likely derived from Portuguese caravels.

Given the insight Old Muscat offers into military history, it’s apt that there’s a martial feel to its streets. Road barriers, gold spikes jutting from walls and zigzag patterns on the curbs surround the robust Muscat Gate on Al-Sadiya Street, used from medieval times until the 1970s to repel land-based invaders.

The Muscat Gate Museum makes a panoramic sweep across civic history from Neolithic times to the present, taking in the development of the city’s mosques, forts, souks (markets) and distinctive neighbourhoods.

Looming from a rocky headland on the harbour are the mustard-coloured turrets of the Al-Jalali fort, erected by the Portuguese in 1587 to defend against Persian naval attacks. Over the following centuries, the fort was modified and strengthened by successive Sultans. The only publicly-accessible section of it today is a small museum containing cannons, matchlock rifles, incense burners and a priceless old map showing Portugal’s colonial presence in Oman.

Al-Jalali comes to life during royal ceremonies when bagpipers fill the battlements and fireworks are let off overhead.

On the opposite western headland is Al-Mirani Fort, built at the same time as Al-Jalali. Legend has it that, in 1649, an Indian trader tricked the Portuguese in charge – who had fallen in love with the trader’s daughter – into removing all weapons and gunpowder from Al-Mirani. The local imam, Sultan bin Saif, promptly sacked the fort and this marked the end of Portuguese influence in the region.

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The Omani-French Museum is housed in the handsome white former French consulate on Qasr Al Alam Street. Its archive of treaties and proclamations, pictures of the first French diplomats to visit Oman and assortment of clothes and jewellery tell the story of the long-standing relationship between these two nations.

The crowning glory of Old Muscat is Al-Alam Royal Palace, the official residence of the Sultan of Oman. Although the public can’t go further than the gates, the view from here of the vaulted arches and the umbrellas-blown-backward cupolas is magnificent. Outside the palace walls are orderly beds of Burmese grass and delightful avenues of palm trees. During the era of the Arab Slave Trade, a flagstone stood on the site of the modern palace. It was believed that any slave who kissed the stone would be granted freedom.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman, October 2012)

Serene Sharqiyah (originally published in Wings of Oman)

20 Nov

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Meditation. Sobriety. Peace. Al-raha (relaxation). These are the words you’ll hear about the Sharqiyah Sands. After enjoying the urban pleasures of Muscat – its coffee shops and souks, malls and boutique hotels – step down a gear and get ready for the desert.

Start by boarding a bus at Ruwi Station for Al-Mintirib, a town on the edge of the Sands. You leave the city fast, black rock mountains and desiccated trees suddenly visible through the window. Nearer the highway, goats scurry around mini pyramids of bright earth.

The landscape stays like this for two hours. You might worry that this is as desert-like as the desert gets, especially if you’ve been imagining a Lawrence of Arabia scene of dramatic dunes and roving camels.

But then slashes of khaki start to appear between the black rocks. The terrain flattens out and the trees, plants and stones grow thinner. Everything is drying out into sand, a whole world of sand that’s twice the size of Devon or Delaware.

The best way to experience this remarkable environment is at one of the many desert camps in the region. Al-Raha camp offers a pick-up service from Al-Mintirib. You’ll typically be met by a large man in a dishdasha and wraparound shades. As soon as you’re inside his 4WD you off-road it at 120 mph, gouging and wheelspinning through the sand. Your trail looks harsh compared to the light paw- and hoof-prints all around you. If you see what looks like an oil spill up ahead, don’t worry about getting wet – it’s just a mirage.

Al-Raha has a military feel to it: barbed wire fences, camouflage jeeps and satellite phones. But the huts are done out in authentic Bedouin style, their barasti (palm frond) walls like a giant brush.

The tall dune beside the camp is too bright to look at without sunglasses. At its highest point wild camels sniff at branches turned almost to charcoal by the heat. Climbing the dune is hard work. Like some anxiety dream, every step you take you sink deeper into the sand. You can take off your shoes but that hardly helps. Three quarters of the way up, the sand gets even looser. By the time you reach the top, you’re drenched in sweat and hyperventilating.

Look out across the mysterious contours and sublime cambers of the Sharqiyah Sands. The silence is unbreakable. You go into a trance.

You snap out of it when you hear the rumble of vehicles. 4WDs are thumping toward the camp, delivering more guests. Children zip about on quad bikes, pursued by clouds of dust. Nearer to you, black Mazdas skid and slide all over the dunes, their passengers hooting with laughter. This is called ‘dune-bashing’ and any climbers in the vicinity should watch out.

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It soon becomes clear that the desert is both beautiful and dangerous, like an Oriental temptress from colonial literature. She’ll seduce you with her warmth, her curves, her smooth complexion. Then she’ll kill you. The desert has many ways to kill you, from thirst to quicksand, snake bites to crazy driving.

Back at the camp, refresh yourself with halwa and strong coffee. When dusk comes the temperature cools to perfection and the air is at its freshest. A perfect crescent moon forms in the darkening sky.

After a make-your-own shawarma dinner, you’ll probably be ready for bed. But the staff will insist you come over to a roaring camp fire surrounded by bean bags and sheesha pipes. A musician sits cross-legged, singing and strumming the rebab, a sonorous string instrument.

His friends start dancing in an oddly camp way. They cannot stop laughing. Two of them place towels over their heads, link hands and blow kisses at one another. Another wiggles his bottom. The dancers try to persuade tourists to join them. A short Omani kneels down and limbo dances under the volunteer’s legs. The laughter amplifies, bounces across the dunes.

The music and the dancing goes on till past midnight.

By the time you go to bed, smoke from the camp fire and the sheesha pipes has obscured the crescent moon.

In the desert, relaxation means one thing in the day and another at night.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman September 2012)

Penghubung pelbagai budaya (Malay translation; originally published in Going Places)

9 Sep

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Ruwi, sebuah daerah di Muscat, yang mesti
dilawati kerana ia adalah tempat pertemuan
budaya Arab dan India.

Selain kubah dan gerbang yang melambangkan
keislaman, beberapa restoran yang mewakili
seluruh benua kecil boleh didapati di sini –
Makanan Istimewa Lahore, Bombay Falooda,
Lanka Snaxdan Punjabi Lassi. Di mana saja anda
pergi, anda pasti terhidu bau pelbagai aroma: Teh
berperisa buah pelaga, pewangi safron, bunga lawang yang
digoreng dengan minyak sapi dan setanggi. Di luar pula, sebuah
souk akan memainkan muzik liwa, juga kelihatan seorang
Bangladesh di dalam kemeja Oxford sedang membantu
surirumah Oman membeli-belah. Lebih 650,000 orang dari
Selatan Asia kini menetap di Oman, mewakili 20 peratus
daripada keseluruhan jumlah penduduk. Kebanyakannya tinggal
di Ruwi, yang juga diberi nama Little India.

Singgah sebentar di Muzium Negara di Jalan An-Noor, dan
anda akan menyaksikan yang kehidupan dengan kepelbagaian
budaya di Ruwi bukanlah sesuatu yang baru. Pameran tentang
dhow (bot tradisional tiga segi) menunjukkan orang telah
berulang-alik di antara Oman dengan benua kecil ini sejak
ribuan tahun yang lalu. Terdapat beberapa model dhowsyang
cukup menarik: Kapal perang dengan balu arti dan meriam,
sejenis sampan untuk menyelam dan kapal dagang dengan
penunjuk haluan yang berupa paruh burung kakak tua. Sebuah peta 3D pula menunjukkan ilustrasi hubungan perdagangan
di antara Oman dengan kota lama Madras, Calicut, Daibul
dan Mangalore. Pada masa lalu, kemenyan terbaik adalah dari
Dhofar dan ia juga merupakan eksport utama bagi wilayah
tersebut. Barangan import yang berharga pula ialah perak
kerana ia diperlukan oleh tukang ukir Oman untuk membuat
khanjar (pisau belati tradisional)
Barangan perak Rajasthani adalah berkualiti tinggi dan ia
menjadi daya penarik yang menyebabkan laluan di Ruwi begitu
sibuk dengan kereta, kedai dan tempat makan seperti di India
Utara, cuma ia lebih kemas dan kurang sesak. Semasa anda
melalui air pancut yang cantik, anda pasti terpijak kulit pistachio,
dan di sini kelihatan lelaki yang bermisai tebal menghisap rokok
dan berkongsi cerita. Jika cuaca menjadi panas, singgah di
kafe yang dibina seakan-akan di dalam lubang dinding. Sajian
masala chai adalah minuman yang cukup sempurna, ia adalah
campuran ia adalah teh berperisa campura halia dengan kulit
kayu manis dan rasanya sangat manis.
Membeli-belah di Muscat memang mahal tetapi tidak di
Ruwi. Apa saja cenderahati yang ada di Gold Souk, pasti terdapat di sini dan jauh lebih murah. Tiada barang di pasar
hadiah Al Ain yang melebihi 1 riyal, sama ada bendera Oman,
ornamen Islam, patung unta atau sebotol minyak wangi. Di
luar kedai pula ada dijual manisan, rempah ratus, kopi dan
halwa yang cukup murah jika dibandingkan dengan harga di
lapangan terbang, hotel ataupun gedung beli-belah. Cuma
yang terkecuali ialah madu Yaman kerana harganya adalah
50 riyal untuk sebotol. Kata pengurus kedai, ini adalah madu
yang terbaik di dunia, rasanya sedap dan mempesonakan.
Bagi pengunjung yang gemarkan kamera, komputer, jam dan
telefon juga pasti teruja kerana di sini terdapat pelbagai jenama
serantau dan global.

Pada waktu makan tengah hari, Restoran Al Waseem
menyajikan makanan terbaik dari dua wilayah serantau tersebut.
Pesanlah makanan India dan anda akan mendapat salad segar
serta rangup dari Arab sebagai pembuka selera. Buah zaitunnya
cukup hebat. Di dapur, seorang lelaki sedang menyepit kaki
ayam untuk mengeluarkannya dari ketuhar yang berbentuk
mangkuk tandoori untuk mencipta makanan istimewa restoran tersebut iaitu briyani. Sebaik saja nasi goreng, kuah ataupun
lapisan roti anda yang disajikan bersama briyani berkurangan,
pelayan akan cepat-cepat mengisi semula pinggan anda. Ia
hampir mustahil untuk menghabiskan makanan anda!
Pada dinding restoran tersebut kelihatan gambar kanak-kanak
sedang merenung kota Mekah yang sesak, dan anda hanya
perlu melintas jalan untuk ke Masjid Ruwi. Masjid itu diindahkan
lagi dengan kubah yang diperbuat daripada kobalt dan menara
sembahyang berupa roket, menjadikan masjid tersebut menarik
dan sering digunakan sebagai mercu tanda untuk memulakan
perjalanan. Ini penting kerana jalan di Ruwi agak mengelirukan
iaitu sama ada jalannya tidak bernama ataupun hanya dikenali
dengan nombor – contohnya Way 1547. Ke Timur pula,
terdapat Menara Jam. Dari jauh ia seperti sebuah jam batu yang
amat besar. Bila dilihat dari dekat, anda akan nampak laluan
gerbang dengan motif Islam dan ukiran dhow.
Di penghujung bahagian Utara Jalan Soq Ruwi terdapat
bangunan lama yang dijadikan panggung wayang. Inilah
tempat yang dikatakan menjadi lokasi kepelbagaian budaya
di Ruwi. Kebanyakan pelanggan di sini adalah pasangan dari
Oman, sementara kakitangannya pula berketurunan Pakistan.
Anda boleh menonton filem aksi terbaru Arab dan filem hebat
Bollywood, semuanya mempunyai sari kata bahasa Inggeris.
Dari kaunter snek, anda boleh membeli samosa ala Selatan Asia,
minuman berbusa Barat dan sandwic Oman.
Sebaik saja mentari tenggelam, kehidupan Ruwi juga
berubah. Kedai, restoran, Menara Jam dan masjid semuanya
diterangi cahaya lampu. Pekerja binaan yang kebanyakannya
orang Bangladesh yang memakai penutup kepala warna oren
dan berbaju ungu berkumpul di sekeliling air pancut, kemudian
beramai-ramai ke stesen bas ONTC. Dan, pada masa yang
sama kelihatan sebuah keluarga Oman di dalam kereta Humvee
memberhentikan kenderaan mereka di luar laluan sesak Ruwi
untuk membantu pelancong Turki yang sesat. Kanak-kanak
India pula kelihatan bermain di atas tempat penyimpanan keluli
yang dilitupi timbunan bata dan tayar hidraulik. Tenaga dan
kepelbagaian Ruwi tidak berhenti pada malam hari – ia adalah
fenomena 24 jam.

Review of ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ by Dervla Murphy (originally published in the London Magazine)

21 Aug

When the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was asked about his hopes for justice for his people, he paraphrased Antonio Gramsci: ‘I’m a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the spirit.’ While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the shattered landscapes and tragic encounters of Dervla Murphy’s remarkable new book about Gaza, there are reasons to be optimistic too.

Arriving in the shadow of Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) killed at least 700 civilians at the cost of 13 Israeli lives, Murphy’s worst fears about the plight of Gazans are confirmed. Wherever she turns are bombed-out ruins, shanty towns, desiccated lands, and malnourished and wheelchair-bound children. Shatti Refugee Camp has the worst human living conditions she has seen in seven decades of world travel. Everywhere on the Strip, the tap water is so contaminated that it can penetrate egg shells. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has made ghost towns of once lively business districts.

The blockade is just one reason why Murphy comes to view Gaza as a prison, more literally than figuratively. Israeli soldiers make for sadistic wardens, brutalising and humiliating the inmates on the pretext of ‘collective punishment’. Farmers risk being shot by snipers from watchtowers as they walk through a free-fire zone to tend the crops their communities rely upon for survival. The enforced isolation of Gaza from the rest of the world has compelled its people to build a network of tunnels for the importation of essential food, medicine and equipment. Weapons are smuggled through “Tunnelopolis” too, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated or numerous as those at the IDF’s disposal.

Near the Israeli border, Murphy visits one particular family who personify this condition of national captivity. They are living a nightmare of perpetual harassment by jeeps, helicopter gunships, warning shots from snipers and taunts through megaphones. Seemingly for the IDF, it is not punishment enough that two of this family’s children have already been seriously injured by shelling.
A Month by the Sea skilfully segues between eyewitness travelogue and external analysis of the social, cultural and political complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Murphy eloquently deflates the myths of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its ‘confusing misinformation that makes outsiders feel that they can’t really understand what’s going on – so they lose interest’ (37). While the United States and much of the rest of the world accepts Israel’s disingenuous casus belli – that its very existence is threatened by Palestinian terrorism – the reality on the ground, as Murphy sees, is exactly the opposite: ‘For decades they [the Israelis] have been attacking defenceless populations through curfews, closures, sieges, house demolitions, olive-grove bulldozing, well poisonings, shootings, bombings, torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial’ (162).

In considering the international response, she accuses ‘the duplicitous Tony Blair’ (107) – now Official Envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the UN, US, EU and Russia) – of personally enriching himself by brokering business deals between the Israeli government and the ‘quisling’ Palestinian Authority, whose collaboration with Zionism has driven so many Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and even more extreme factions. The Quartet is nominally committed to a two-state peace process but, so Murphy argues, this is in fact a smokescreen behind which Israeli settlers continue to steal land from the Palestinians.

While Murphy records the testimonies of many Gazans – including the erudite Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar – it would have been interesting to have heard the opposing view in a close encounter with, say, a leading Zionist. All the same, she is even-handed enough to criticise those tendencies within Gazan society that inflame the conflict and inhibit international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For Murphy, Hamas’s rule has a ‘flavour of dictatorship’ about it, buoyed by strong currents of Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism that have been flowing since the secular Egyptian occupation ended in 1967. However, such immoderation appears to be stoked by Israeli false flag operations intended to divide and rule the Palestinians. When an extremist Syrian imam blew himself up in a Gazan mosque in 2009, the police found Israeli-made explosive vests in the rubble.

Murphy is also concerned about the rights of local women, a quarter of whom are reported to be victims of physical violence. One of the most poignant encounters in the book is with Yara, a twenty-six-year-old who has suffered public ignominy after escaping from a forced marriage and losing custody of her children. One comes away with the sense that, for many Gazan women, there are other kinds of prisons within the prison.

It is a testament to Murphy’s character that she remains brave and upbeat in the face of all this danger and misery. This eighty-year-old grandmother has no qualms about accompanying a group of protestors into a free-fire zone because she has been told that, for PR reasons, the Israelis are less likely to open fire when they see a Western face. Her positivity is more than matched by that of the Gazans themselves, whose philosophy of samoud is a ‘quality not understood by the Zionists, comprised of courage, obstinacy and a calm sort of pride’ (52). The bright young activists whom Murphy meets on Gaza Port’s breakwater believe that a combination of samoud, binationalism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (in the mould of the global campaign against South African Apartheid) will finally achieve freedom and justice for all Palestinians.

(Originally published in the London Magazine)

Missive #2

11 Apr

My trip to Oman last January may have seemed like a jolly to some people, but I’m pleased to announce that my article ‘Ruwi – A Vibrant Meeting Place’ will be appearing in the May edition of Wings of Oman, Oman Air’s in-flight magazine. More info about this esteemed publication here: http://www.omanair.com/wy/information-services/on-board/wings-oman