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14 November 2019
This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna.
Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on embankments, of shopkeepers sweeping bilge off their doorsteps. The new mayor blames climate change, a new appearance at the head of the usual malefactors: the sirocco from Africa, full moon, tectonic subsidence, rampant corruption in the calamitous MOSE project to block high tides. The old mayor, arrested amid the MOSE corruption, was recently absolved, but MOSE is still inoperable.
Five years ago, in Cannaregio, I heard the siren sounding a bit before sunrise. . . a long, piercing alert, followed by a series of slowly articulated, musical ululations. Then the quiet slosh of the first vaporetto docking and departing as usual across the canal. I had been lying awake for a while, having seen the acqua alta warning the day before. Acqua alta, high water, refers to monster tides that cause flooding all around the northern Adriatic, but most famously in Venice. Between autumn and spring, the high tides can combine disastrously with the sirocco and the local “bora” winds and the oscillating waters of the long, narrow rectangle of the Adriatic Sea.
As the foundations of most Venetian buildings have been brining in the depths of the lagoon for centuries, the natives regularly take certain minimal precautionary measures. Passerelle planks are neatly stacked, ready to be laid out across flooded expanses in Piazza San Marco and other low-lying parts of the city. In our neighborhood, Cannaregio, ten metal supports for the passerelle were stolen, for what market it is hard to imagine. Tall rubber boots are ready by the door of our attic apartment, lent by our kind landlords, but they are too small for our big American feet.
The first real autumn rain brought only moderate acqua alta in Venice. But in Tuscany the deluge submerged Massa and Carrara, below those white-veined mountains where ancient Romans, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rich Americans and Arabs, have found an unending supply of white marble to bedeck their temples and mosques, mansions and museums.
Quarry labor was always hard and poorly paid, fueling rebellions among the workers. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was called the cradle of anarchism. These days the flooded residents seem to be demanding some responsible governmental action, no small order in 21st century Italy. A dear friend, an art historian who helped salvage Florentine art after the great flood of November 1966, observed sadly that Tuscans have never understood how to deal with water. The Venetians, too, were underwater in 1966; their efforts to curb the tides have a higher profile because Venice is more obviously fragile than stony Florence.
The huge MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is supposed to protect Venice and the lagoon against flooding. Note the acronym’s cunning allusion to the Hebrew patriarch who parted the Red Sea. MOSE consists of 78 mobile underwater barrier gates that rise during high tides to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Approved by the Comitatone (Big Committee) in 2003 with a budget of some 7 billion euros, MOSE has so far successfully tested only four of the gates.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, the mayor of Venice and 35 other “public servants” were charged with misuse of billions of the MOSE funds. The arrest of the mayor of Venice was international news, and even amid the flamboyant excesses of Italian politics, the level of corruption is spectacular.
The scandal provided local color following the opening of the 2014 Biennale of architecture, which was set partly in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyards, first mentioned in 1104. “Arsenale” comes from the Arabic “darsena” or workshop, and there were naval arsenals already in the seventh and eighth centuries along coasts from North Africa to Arab Sicily and the southern Mediterranean. But for some four centuries, the fleets built in the Venetian Arsenale ruled the waves in war and commerce.
Venice hasn’t been actively at war for some three hundred years. The grand buildings of the Arsenale now house a splendid naval museum as well as splashy international expositions like the architecture Biennale, part of which occupies the Corderie, a vast columned hall built in the 16th century, where miles of ropes were made for the ships in production.
The Biennale exhibits were remarkably free of military or imperial connections, except of course for those involving the guilt, implicit or acknowledged, of modern colonial powers. Silvio Berlusconi’s melodramatic apology to Libya for decades of Italian abuse is memorialized next to videos showing footage of the most recent exploitation of Libyan oil.
On the Arsenale embankment is a recumbent classical column that is connected with the Biennale’s Albanian exhibit. A documentary by Albanian exile artist Adrian Paci shows the quarrying of the marble block in China, its loading onto a freighter, and to cut costs, three Chinese carvers working the marble en route on the high seas. Paci thus addresses what we might call the downside of global trade and labor.
During the Second World War, the shipyards in Richmond, California, were the most efficient and productive of any in the country. Huge buildings, on the same scale as the Venetian Arsenale, enclosed the assembly lines which had been pioneered by early Venetian shipbuilders. In Venice the workers, the arsenalotti, were respected and paid well. The Richmond shipyards employed tens of thousands of unskilled laborers fleeing the depressed South. Rosie the Riveter was a familiar icon of the spunky female worker.
The docks and warehouses now house restaurants & theaters and light industry. An Italian restaurant, Salute e Vita, in a Cape Cod Victorian said to have been the Richmond harbormaster’s house, is now owned by a beautiful woman born Ethiopia and raised in Rome in a family of restaurateurs.
Menbe now dispenses Thanksgiving charity to the hoi polloi of the real city of Richmond, many of whose grandparents came from the depressed South to work in the wartime shipyards.
Richmond now has the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime of any city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Property values were so low that developers could profitably produce a town-house development along the waterfront and even offer some public amenities, little beaches and a smart interactive memorial to Rosie the Riveter.
In Venice, every year after 1177, the doge sailed out into the lagoon on a seriously over-decorated ship called the Bucintoro, and tossed a ring into the waves to symbolize Venice’s wedding with the sea. After Napoleon had carried off the Lion and Horses of St. Mark and the choicest artworks in the city, the French set the last Bucintoro afire where all in the city could see it burn, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And there the canny French sieved the ashes to save the gold.
Some years ago Colonel Giorgio Paterno proposed to recreate the festive Venetian Bucintoro that was destroyed in 1798. Colonel Paterno, the head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said in March 2008: “[We will] build it as fast as we can but we’re not in a hurry. It is intended that the project will make use of traditional shipbuilding techniques and original materials…and will reproduce the gold decorations.”
The foundation wrote to then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy to ask for a financial contribution as a goodwill gesture in view of the Napoleonic vandalism. Just this year, no thanks to Sarkozy, the French pledged to contribute six hundred oak trees from the forests of Aquitaine surrounding the city of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, alas, as Paterno said, “Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history.”
There is also the escalating risk that Venice will lose its historical and cultural identity not through tourism but under the invasive tides of the Adriatic. The earliest acqua alta, in 579, was reported two hundred years later by Paul the Deacon, a Benedictine monk-historian. The event, known onomatopoetically as the Rotta della Cucca, was a calamitous rupture of river banks in the Veneto. This collates with variously reported global climate changes in 536-538, confirmed by tree-ring chronology. The probable cause was a volcanic event that created a dust ring around the planet, darkening the sun and aborting harvests. The ensuing famines and civil unrest could explain many gloomy global developments, from the sudden decline of Teotihuacan to the Plague of Justinian, and the westward Mongol invasions. In fact, this catastrophe theory, advanced by journalist David Keys, was so expansively interesting that it was quickly discredited by qualified academics—but not before public television documentaries that you might have missed, as I did.
Catastrophe theories aside, it must be conceded that recent western technology, no matter how advanced in nuclear weaponry, domestic espionage, craft beer, and social networking, has not been able to resolve drought issues in Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, or California.
In October 2010, at the edge of the Assad reservoir in northern Syria, we shared a picnic—lots of mezze & pastries—provided by our genial driver. Abu Hani was a Palestinian refugee, a survivor, having lived alone for several years while teaching math in Saudi Arabian middle schools in order to finance his household in secular Damascus. His wife would not live in Saudi Arabia. We haven’t heard from Abu Hani for almost four years now.
This might be a place to share the information that in Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the noble fight against Islamic State barbarism, there were 79 public beheadings in 2013.
The Assad reservoir is near the town of Raqqa, now controlled by the Islamic State, which sometimes prefers to bill itself as the more historically resonant Islamic Caliphate. A recent account of the consumption habits of the Caliphate’s soldiers found western products such as Pringles, Snickers, and Red Bull absorbing much of their $3 daily food allowance. Not mentioned was their appreciation of American brands of machine guns and tanks that they have confiscated from various Syrian rebel groups, “vetted” or not.
Returning to Venice from Florence one day in November, I paged through an international paper. The top story was Obama in China. That night Italian TV showed Obama, lean and elegant in a mandarin jacket, coolly chewing a piece of gum as he strode across a stage to shake hands with President Xi.
Maybe it was later that same night that the Italian Marco Polo (played by the impressive Marco Paolini) appeared onscreen. In any case, all this tended to eclipse an interesting op-ed on the historic drought in Isfahan. The writer suggested that western help in dealing with the drought problem could improve relations with Iran, where, as (almost) everyone knows, Isfahan is located.
Isfahan, visited by Marco Polo in 1330, was a Persian capital known for its beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. But, way of the world, in 1722 it was sacked by Afghan invaders and the capital was moved to Tehran. Today Isfahan still produces carpets and textiles, but also steel. It has a major oil refinery and “experimental” nuclear reactors, as well as the largest shopping-mall-with-a-museum in the world (not to mention a top-notch chamber of commerce). But cosmopolitan twenty-first-century Isfahan is now suffering from an 80-year drought.
When Venice was a major commercial center, expediting goods along the route to Isfahan and other Silk Road depots, the Dogana da Mar, the Customs House of Venice, controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks.
In 2007 Japanese architect Tadao Ando began a wonderful renovation of the space for use as a museum. “This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future.” Since the extant building was actually built in 1677, one doesn’t feel that Ando’s creativity has been much hampered by his study of its history.
Meanwhile, the modest hydrographic station on the Punta della Dogana (the Doge’s Nose) still sends information to the Centro della Marea (Tide Center), which warns the citizens of coming inundations. .
One morning after our return to Berkeley, I looked out the window. The California drought was breaking in a big way and our street had become a flowing canal. There was a flash flood warning online, but a silent one.
Aunt Kate, who will be 100 on November 22, 2017, used to be a gambler. Not regularly, but often enough so the casinos and hotels used to send her special offers and discount coupons. Her older sister, my late mother, disapproved mightily and used it as another excuse not to send Kate much money on her birthday or Christmas. I think the casinos were mostly in nearby Reno, not Las Vegas. Probably they don’t have casinos in Reno like Mandalay Bay, although lots of people there do pack guns.
One day, clearing an upstairs closet, I decided to cart off the lapsed laptops and tangles of old phones and chargers to a recycling yard. This led naturally enough to reconsidering the problem of Aunt Kate’s pistol, which I had stowed deep in that same closet.
Sometimes I forgot that the gun was still there, in its padded camouflage-print case, tucked inside a white bag decorated with a flag and the logo “Proud to be an American,” the whole stuffed inside a larger blue bag advertising a Berkeley oral surgery clinic. When I did remember, I just couldn’t decide how best to get rid of it.
Aunt Kate had been living alone in the Sierras for twenty years when I had to help her move to a nursing home. By then she knew most of the neighbors on her road; summer people with boats and gas barbecues, and many year-round, like her, sometimes sharing snowplows, woodpiles, and apple harvests.
That sounds pleasantly communal, but in my experience mountain people are more often than not a bit off-kilter. Kate’s nearest neighbor, who had bought land from her original parcel, also had a share in her well and the spring, and he did not like the feckless way she watered the plants on her property, or the spewing fountain she had installed amid her daffodils. He put up a no-trespassing sign that she could see from her kitchen window, and a barbed wire fence with fiercely yapping dogs behind it. What this had to do with drought or riparian rights was unclear, but it definitely wasn’t friendly. A paunchy guy in a baseball cap, he liked to patrol his property line in a sort of souped-up golf cart. Kate did threaten to take action if he should ever emerge from behind the fence. I don’t think that she would have shot him, but she did have a hot temper, and she owned that gun.
Kate’s revolver, called the Rough Rider, was produced by the Heritage Manufacturing Company, whose mellow catalog notes point out that “Old World gun maker Pietta of Italy starts certain parts for us.” Furthermore, “The very image conjured up is of the rugged men led by Theodore Roosevelt and is almost the spitting image of the Single Action Army [revolver] still being carried by some troops during the Spanish-American War.”
About that time, I happened to watch Ken Burns’ Roosevelt epic. FDR and Eleanor were major icons in my family, but not so Teddy and his strenuous ways and words. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport in the world,” he said. The Spanish-American War of 1898, that “splendid little war,” only lasted ten weeks, but some have seen it as the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of the so-called American century. In any case, the image of Roosevelt charging up and down San Juan Hill on horseback (amid the foot soldiers) eventually got him to the White House.
Another such image comes to mind, of George W. Bush, in 2003, fully kitted out in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier flying the banner “Mission Accomplished,” and declaring the Iraq war over, a bit prematurely.
Barack Obama had too much dignity and good sense to have provided similar photo opportunities regarding the expanding U.S. military engagement in Syria and Iraq. (In fact it, in 2014 it didn’t even have a name yet, noted the Wall Street Journal. Does it now? The War Against Islamic State?)
Still, another kind of visual embarrassment attached to the bombing of a hitherto unknown terrorist menace in northwestern Syria. The defense department announced the assault, providing a colorful but vague map that was astutely deconstructed by Daniel Brownstein.
Looking at that map, you would never know that the cluster of eight bombings probably devastated the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, coincidentally eight in number, UNESCO sites with well-preserved remains of Byzantine and Christian settlements from the first to the seventh centuries.
Built of stone instead of wood, the remnants of these villages make the tarted-up ghost towns of the American Wild West seem fairly pathetic. The Sierras are full of Gold Rush ghost towns, and my aunt Kate used to like to visit the one nearest her, of which little was left but an old hotel with a mahogany bar and a big mirror adorned with antlers and a couple of fancy old rifles.
One summer night, warm for the Bay Area, a visiting friend was asleep in the upstairs room with the crowded closet described earlier—but long before I deposited Aunt Kate’s revolver there.
Sometime after midnight I heard a crash of shattering glass, and guessed that it was the neighbors recycling after a party. A bit later I heard some loud talk in the guest room, and then a peremptory knocking on our bedroom door. A very slender, very dark young man entered and said, improbably, “This is a stick-up!”
There was enough light to see him gesturing with what looked like the barrel of a gun in the pocket of his windbreaker. “Get up,” he said. He marched the three of us downstairs and out the front door. “Get moving,” he said, “and don’t look back.” We walked slowly down the block, turned the corner without hearing a shot, and went immediately to wake a neighbor to call the police. (The first neighbor could not be roused, but that’s another story.)
The police arrived and cordoned off our block with yellow tape and a row of squad cars. We were deposited at the police station, where we sat barefoot in our nightclothes, waiting to be told what was going on. The intruder had decided to dig in. He threw various items out the upstairs window onto the street—bags holding kitchen knives and fridge photos—and announced his demands to the police below: to be given possession of our house and the Toyota in the driveway, and to be admitted to the University of California.
This was 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and the Berkeley police were being very, very careful. Eventually, towards dawn, the intruder opened our front door, walked to the driveway with the car keys in his hand, and was immediately arrested and subdued. Later it emerged that he had taken a bath, donned some of our clothes, and believed that he was therefore invisible.
He was unarmed, had only been faking a gun barrel with an empty prescription medicine vial. His father flew out from Baltimore, where the son had gone off his medication, to take him home. We were grateful that nobody had been hurt and the house was more or less intact.
That was a long time ago. I managed finally to turn in Aunt Kate’s pistol at the Berkeley police station near City Hall. The young officer asked if I was willing to have the pistol used in police cadet target-shooting classes. I guessed that hey would have bought another if I had said no.
Aunt Kate’s revolver was probably manufactured sometime between 1986 and 2010, a period when U.S. small-arms production included over 98 million pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns—for domestic sale alone. Would this total include firearms promised and/or delivered by the U.S. to the “moderate” Syrian rebels, “vetted,” of course? Or perhaps they would have been incorporated in export figures. Possibly, arms shipments “secretly” authorized by Congress would not figure at all in production totals? What about drones? So many questions.
Some say that if the U.S. had armed the rebels in Deir ez-Zor, the town would not have fallen to ISIS. Some say that ISIS is using U.S. weaponry it has taken from rebels it has “pacified.” Whichever account is correct, the results are essentially the same.
We all know that statistics are fungible according to their source. But information from every source imaginable shows that the U.S. is far and away the largest producer of arms in the world. Domestically we have about nine guns for every ten citizens, a total of about 270 million. How many wars worldwide are being waged with U.S. weaponry (if not with U.S. boots on the ground)?
That folksy expression “boots on the ground” dates from General William Westmoreland and the United States’ misadventures in Vietnam, so painfully documented by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
On the other hand, military research has, rather famously, given the civilian world the Internet, and GPS. Current DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects include the mother of all recycling programs, re-use of retired satellite parts into new “on-orbit assets.” DARPA has in the past been known as ARPA, omitting the “Defense” for political expediency. One year its name was changed and changed back three times.
DARPA, through its MANTRA program (Materials with Novel Transport Properties) is also working on a portable desalinator that will allow troops in the field to transform salt water into fresh water.
A very small percenage of our planet’s water supply is drinkable freshwater, which can pose problems for a military which must deploy to the far corners of the earth when the president and/or Congress say so. These areas are often hot, sandy, and subject to drought. However, lack of fresh water in those far corners is in the long run more problematic for the local peoples than for U.S. troops, who eventually get to go home.
Might there be an algorithm connecting occasions for foreign military intervention with places where drought and poverty are endemic? Could DARPA (through MANTRA) produce larger, if somewhat more cumbersome desalinators, to make such sweeping improvements in a country’s standard of living that our troops—or any others—might not even be needed?
One of the earlier cases of military research directed to civilian uses must be Galileo’s early promotion of his telescope as a useful instrument for the notably martial Venetian Republic. The Venetian arsenal and naval museum testify further along these lines, and the richly detailed globes at the Correr Museum were very much imperial instruments as well. From the looks of their Syrian maps, the U.S. Defense Department couldn’t produce anything similar.
December 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza on a rampage through the school killed twenty children and six adults. Before heading for the school Adam Lanza killed his mother, a gun collector, in her bed.
For 15 -24 year olds, the ﬁrearm homicide rate in the United States more than 40 times higher than in other developed countries. How much is this due to the increased availability of guns across our fruited plains?
The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world – an average of 88 per 100 people. Yemen, at Number Two, has 54.8 per 100 people. Arms possession doesn’t seem to have improved the national welfare in Yemen either.
The nation watched the funeral for the Newtown dead and grieved, as it will watch the funerals after the Las Vegas slaughter. After Newtown, President Obama wept and vowed reform. But within a few months, the Assault Weapons Ban bill and the amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were both defeated in the Senate. It seems highly unlikely that the killings will cause President Trump to promise any gun reform, but he’s very sad about this manifestation of “pure evil” at Mandalay Bay, a casino with which he has no connection.
The Andrew Cuomo administration passed a strong gun control act a month after the Newtown tragedy. But soon thereafter, 52 of New York’s 62 counties passed official resolutions in direct opposition to control of assault weapons. Not only did the gun lobby defeat any gun law reforms, but they helped recall two Colorado lawmakers trying to firm up that state’s gun regulations. New laws now let people bring guns into bars, churches, and college campuses. Schools around the country have hired armed guards. There’s more security apparatus in public places, not just in airports but in shopping malls and football stadiums.
California’s senior senator Dianne Feinstein gave her all to get the Assault Weapons Ban passed in April 2014. When it failed, she said that it now fell to the states to take up the issue of gun reform. That month, another unbalanced youth killed six students and himself in Santa Barbara, California. This resulted in a successful campaign to strengthen California’s gun control laws, which have already been described as the strongest in the nation.
Aunt Kate’s Heritage little revolver probably came with a complementary one-year membership in the N.R.A. It’s a curious fact that the National Rifle Association was not founded to fight for so- called constitutional rights to own and use guns. The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Yankee Civil War veterans, including an ex-New York Times reporter, who felt that war dragged on because urban northerners could not shoot as well as rural southerners. Its original purview was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation,” the motto displayed in its national headquarters.
The NRA actually went on to help to write many of the federal laws restricting gun use in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA now opposes.
Only after a leadership coup in 1977 did the NRA become a powerful political force operating on the premise that more guns are the answer to society’s worst violence. The NRA advocated arming commercial airline pilots after 9/11 and teachers after Sandy Hook, while opposing new restrictions on gun usage.
Why am I fixated on Aunt Kate’s little pistol? (22LR & 22Magnum cartridges, genuine cocobolo grip). My own spouse still has, salted away somewhere, a few of the antique rifles that he collected as a boy. Of all the guns in the world, Aunt Kate’s is the only one I have been able to take out of circulation.
(For more on the history of gun control, see Adam Winkler, Gunfight: the Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.)
History repeats itself, it just does, as we have been told by everyone from Cicero to Santayana, not to mention Mark Twain. Even in my journal, emerging on an old computer:
12 Jan 09 …Meanwhile, 17th day of slaughter in Gaza. Drove across bay to Fillmore St. to see film Waltz with Bashir, which shows that some Israelis have doubts about wiping out Arabs.
27 December, 2008, Israeli strike called Operation Cast Lead, intended to halt Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza. Heavy bombardment of Hamas bases, camps, and offices, moving on to mosques, schools, medical facilities, and houses. Israeli officials said that the civilian buildings were used by combatants, and/or as weapons warehouses. Palestinian deaths estimated between 1,166 and 1,417; Israelis, 13 (4 from friendly fire). By March 2009, international donors had reportedly pledged $4.5 billion in aid for the Palestinians, mainly for rebuilding Gaza.
Fast Forward Five Years 8 July, 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The rocket fire had begun after an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. On 17 July, the Israeli military operation was expanded to a ground invasion directed toward destruction of the Gaza tunnel system. Seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, Palestinian rocket attacks, and ground fighting killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority of them Gazans, some 75% of them civilians. Casualty figures are fungible, but nobody would deny the massive disproportion of Palestinian to Israeli losses. But why, I have to wonder, is it never noted that ten times more Syrians have died in their recent civil war than Arabs and Jews in any Gazan conflict?
26 August, 2014, Hamas and Israel declared an open-ended cease-fire. In September, Palestinian children returned to school, many of them run by UNRWA, the United Nations refugee assistance program. Some $16 billion will be needed to rebuild the devastated region. It is alleged that Israeli contractors are favored to do the highly profitable reconstruction of what their efficient army has destroyed. Work delays are expected, due to elaborate precautions against using any of the tens of thousands of bags of cement to restore the Palestinian tunnel network.
But back to the last lines of my curiously germane (yes? yes?) journal entry of January 12, 2009: Sunday morning, call from [friends in Budapest] where the temperatures were below freezing because the Russians had decided to pull rank by closing the gas line through Ukraine. Later in January 2009, the prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine announced a settlement of the gas dispute that had drastically reduced supplies of Russian gas to Europe for nearly two weeks. Vladimir Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko (the one with the blonde braid) agreed that Ukraine would begin paying for Russian gas at the much higher European price from the following year. Russia in turn would pay more for the gas to travel through Ukraine. The EU had been receiving about one-fifth of its gas supplies through Ukraine, and many other people besides our dear Hungarian friends suffered in that winter’s below-zero temperatures as a result of the Russo-Ukraine gas stoppage. The more provident European nations, such as Germany and Norway, have since developed their own gas supply lines as well as alternative energy sources. The Hungarians for their part are cannily reinforcing “an increasingly positive business relationship with Moscow,” according to a “senior government official.” A case in point: Russia had just been awarded a 10-12 billion euro contract for updating and expanding Hungary’s only nuclear power plant. It might be noted that this project costs only somewhat less than that of rebuilding the whole of war-torn Gaza. The no-bid contract, however, is questionable under the EU bloc’s rules of competition. Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban does not play by the rules, or makes new ones. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis over territory, he made the ill-timed observation that Hungarians in Ukraine should have greater autonomy. Given the complex and conflicted history of the region, Hungary’s neighboring states have substantial Hungarian minorities, and Orban’s interest in their well-being appears to some as sinister. In much the same way as Putin has cracked down on the activities of non-governmental organizations in Russia, Orban has set up a parliamentary committee to monitor civil society organizations, NGOs, receiving funding from abroad; he views them as paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests in the name of preserving democracy. Russia and Ukraine were at odds well before Orban came on the scene. Ten years ago the Orange Revolution brought the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, to power. Moscow was not happy about his energetic push for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU. It’s a bit hard to keep straight, but Yushchenko was the one who was poisoned and survived with a horribly pitted face, not Viktor Yanukovych, who had to abandon his post in an unseemly hurry after virulent street protests against his rule. Just hours after Yanukovych departed, his opulent presidential retreat was opened to the public so that Ukrainians were able to see for themselves the gilded plumbing, the sauna and private zoo set in 345 acres of private gardens. Hundreds of documents were found in a nearby river, revealing lavish spending and alleged corruption. They were dried off in the presidential sauna for later consultation. Braided Yulia was Yushchenko’s sidekick, until she wasn’t; they were known for a while as Beauty and the Beast. (As I am half-Slav, I might reasonably be expected to be embarrassed by the colorful excesses of Yulia Tymoshenko and her cohorts, not to mention her marketers, who advised the blonde coronet for an image remake after her involvement as a brunette in some shady business deals. But, as print journalists used to say, she’s such good copy. ) In 2007 Yulia went to Washington, where she met with Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley, and—in a not entirely subtle affirmation of Ukraine versus Russia—had a photo op with the outgoing President. But after many other misadventures, long story short, Yulia was released from prison in 2014, just months before the latest Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted. “She [Yulia, quoted by her daughter Eugenia] said she was glad to be here in the new Ukraine made by the Ukrainian heroes, and she’s proud to be Ukrainian.” Although she didn’t do at all well in this June’s elections, surely we shall be hearing more from Yulia Tymoshenko.
But here’s the end of that shred of timely text from 2009:
…Restless warm northeast winds blustering through the weird assortment of trees along our driveway…rampant bamboo, scraggly oaks, single dessicated redwood next to parched lemon, across from confused birch and tree ferns. Mid-January, 79 degrees yesterday afternoon. California returning to the desert. Walked along East Bay trail in the hallucinatory midday brightness, low tide baring rough glass shingle next to the bone-dry grasses…
Gloss: The California drought of 2007-2009 was, broken by the very wet year of 2010, but reprised in 2011. For some surprising figures on agriculture and unemployment during the drought of 2007-2009, see the reliable report of the Pacific Institute available free: Impacts of the California Drought from 2007-2009). Spoiler alert: California’s agricultural output during that period was actually a bit above normal, due to the farmers’ recourse of pumping large amounts of ground water for irrigation. Moreover, the number of agricultural jobs actually grew 2% between 2003 and 2009, although all jobs in other sectors dropped dramatically due to the recession. The poverty rate in the southern San Joaquin Valley, consistently above 20% for a decade, clearly has very little to do with wet and dry years. (For a much less reliable perspective on the most recent California drought, see my post of 4 September 2014, which I keep meaning to update.) This is Lake Shasta, not a lake at all, but a huge, rather ugly man-made reservoir which we used to cross every summer en route to our family cabin in the Siskiyous–actually an old gold mining claim, now taken over by a hostile cousin, but that’s another story. The water level is about 37 % of normal for this time of year, and a wildfire has decimated the nearby town of Weed, California where we used to lay in groceries for our stay–beer, beef, chocolate, marshmallows, and corn, always lots of corn.
Finally we are getting serious about conserving water around here. If you see water dripping unattended from one of the hanging pots of pink and purple petunias installed by the Downtown Berkeley Association, there’s a number you can dial. Water running across a sidewalk from university landscaping can—and surely will–be reported by concerned citizens.
Local response to the drought emergency is merely the latest link in a long chain of responsible civic activism. For decades now, we have staunchly declared Berkeley, California a Nuclear-free Zone, ignoring the japes of those who point out that the atomic bomb was conceived, if not born, in our very city. Moreover, the brilliant composer, John Adams, of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera, still lives in our zipcode, or in one very near it.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab still sits on the slope above campus, on Cyclotron Road. Their recently published research includes the comforting news that Pacific coastal areas contain no dangerous radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of March 2011, despite various scare stories in the less responsible media. Research methods included collection by students of rainfall samples around the campus, and measurement of toxicity in the weeds of the principal investigator’s backyard. Nothing you would think would require a cyclotron, or that you would write an opera about.
The lab (LBNL) is also currently involved in a study of the impact of fracking on California land. Fracking could, according to more, or less, responsible media, result in pollution of ground water as well as seismic events such as earthquakes. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is hovering impatiently for a go-ahead so that they can begin to issue fracking permits to all the energy companies champing at the bit to get at the oil in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Less responsible media say that the BLM has become the tool of energy interests rather than the guardian of the public interest. But no opera there, I think.
The research into Fukushima’s radiation began as a result of the concern over the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s fallout in 1986, in the Ukraine. Drought also plays a role in the escalating conflict between eastern Ukraine and Russia. Given the prospect of world war in the region, international investors may very well hesitate to enter into new contracts for Ukrainian wheat. Still, dicey as the political and military situation is, the real concern for the new wheat crop in Ukraine and southern Russia, as in the U.S., drought.
In the California drought of 1977, we saved our gray water by opening all the drainpipes under basins and sinks and letting them empty into big pails that we lugged into the garden. A friend visiting from London looked around at our Edwardian wainscoting and hydraulic innovations. “How long do these wooden houses generally last?” she asked. Of course the English on their soggy green island cannot be expected to conceive of drought.
California has the world’s eighth largest economy and produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables, including 95 percent of the broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots, 92 percent of its lemons, and 99 percent of its artichokes, almonds, and walnuts. The drought will dry up thousands of agricultural jobs and will probably push U.S. food prices higher, as with the short-grained California rice preferred in some Japanese sushi and Korean dishes.
While California rules in lemon production, Florida accounts for about 70 percent of total U.S. production of oranges, and naturally Florida growers will happily fill in for California’s drought losses in all citrus categories. Although the California drought may not be Florida’s fault, let’s not forget which state’s votes helped elect the man who brought us Iraq, if not Syria. And what state his younger brother governed for eight years. And how their father single-handedly handicapped broccoli futures. Anyway, Florida runs more to hurricanes than droughts.
One of the more famous California droughts was the fictitious one in the 1974 film “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski (yes, still alive and living in France). The film evokes unforgettably the power of water to those who can manipulate its supply. A brilliant movie, it ends, of course, badly.
In Berkeley we fill empty Florida orange juice bottles with water and sink them in our toilet reservoirs to conserve a half gallon per flush. In 1977 we used bricks to displace water, but they produced undesirable sediment. Then and now, there remains the “mellow yellow” strategy of not flushing liquid waste at all; this makes some of us feel quite daring.
The California drought in 2014 looks far and away the worst on some of those comparative infographic maps. However, in Syria during the five years before 2011, when the country exploded into civil war, the worst drought in modern history struck more than 60 percent of the land. Not only was there no rainfall, but Assad’s government had been subsidizing water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and using antediluvian irrigation technology to boot. Perhaps Assad had spent too much time in England. In any case, farmers and herders in northeastern Syria lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere—in already blighted urban areas like Dara’a, where the civil war began.
So, Syrian pistachios, not to mention olives and dates, will probably become black market items. Other Syrian exports such as crude oil were not coming to the U.S. even before ISIS ruled the northeastern desert plains. An Al-Monitor news feature, fairly recent, described ISIS’s less violent pacification efforts, highlighting the efficient production and distribution of bread to hungry Syrians. This story has probably been withdrawn, along with Vogue magazine’s glamorous profile of Asma Assad.
A little-known export of the Syrian desert is the golden Syrian hamster (mesocricetus auratus) first identified scientifically in 1839. But already in 1774, Friedrich Gabriel Sulzer, a boon companion of Goethe, had penned a whole academic monograph on hamsters. In it he used the hamster to document the equal rights of all beings, including Homo sapiens. (Due to the daunting array of resources on mesocricetus auratus I have been unable to follow that link.)
In any event, one single brother-sister pairing of the Syrian hamster produced the entire population of pets and laboratory animals we know today. The incestuous forebears were captured and imported in 1930 from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by a zoologist from the University of Jerusalem. Decades later, Syrian hamsters have become one of the most popular pets and laboratory animals in the U.S.
Although hamsters and guinea pigs would seem similar in many ways, they should never share a cage. Hamsters are fiercer and more territorial. How else would they survive in the Syrian desert, especially during a drought? Our family had an amiable guinea pig named Toby who may have succumbed from dehydration in a California bedroom. Or it could have been old age: he was getting on.
In Peru, guinea pigs, plumper and more tractable than hamsters, are not pets but protein. Sixty-five million of them are consumed every year. In a pretty courtyard restaurant in Cuzco, I dutifully ordered cuy (coo-ee) which tasted (pace Toby) a bit like rabbit. A reproduction in a Cuzco church of da Vinci’s Last Supper shows Jesus and the twelve apostles sitting around a platter of cuy.
Peru, too, has water shortages. My son did field work years ago in an Andean village named Tunnel Six, named for the irrigation ditch that ran along the mountain above it. The family that he knew best in Tunnel Six was eventually able to move to a favela in a coastal city where running water and some education could be had. My son’s godson, born in Tunnel Six but schooled in Piura, recently friended me on Facebook.
Peru has had many water wars. Five thousand acres of asparagus require more water than is usually available without a pipeline to the Amazon. Nations go to war over water less often than they do over oil and gas supplies. Where water is the issue, they are more likely to cooperate, however reluctantly, on some plan.
Hungary and Slovakia were getting fairly shirty over damming the Danube some years ago, but they left judgment to the International Court of Justice. Some fifteen years later, the court finally ruled, but the real result was based on attrition. Slovakia completed their part of the Gabickova waterworks because it was in their interest, while Hungary has thus far successfully delayed building their part downstream for the same reason.
Berkeley citizens confronting the California drought with little more than their wits and an empty bottle of Florida orange juice, might, as so often happens, take a leaf from Walt Whitman:
Before the drought, I was beginning to think of planting vegetables again, and maybe digging a pond for trout. Our friend Martin wrote from Prague that trout require running water and we would do better with carp. He has a cottage in southern Bohemia, where there are 7,600 fishponds. Many of them date back to the sixteenth century and probably helped Czech farmers survive endless invasions. What starving soldier would think of stealing fish—least of all carp—from a muddy pond?
Carp are bony, and their flesh is not as delicate and tasty as other bottom feeders, such as crab. In this country most fishermen regard them as junk fish, even dangerously invasive. However, Asian carp are the fish most consumed worldwide. In Eastern Europe, for example, carp have always been considered quite palatable. This I read in a book by a Hungarian specialist in aquaculture, which surprised me a little because Hungarian food is so good. Now, with the forint devalued by half, fewer Hungarians are eating well, and pensioners often eat next to nothing.
Once I had carp for Christmas dinner in an Austrian hospital, where I was confined with a minor ski injury. The carp was swathed in a viscous white sauce, presumably to help the small bones slip more easily past the windpipe. In the course of time I learned that carp (generally fried) is the favored yuletide dish among Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, and even most Hungarians, many of whom share traumatic memories of a holiday carp, live but doomed, in the family bathtub.
Could we be looking at a historic role for carp in slowing the fragmentation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? What about a conference on the subject in, say, Salzburg? Has any music ever been composed relating to carp? A carp quartet? No, but research has shown that certain individual carp can discriminate polyphonic music and melodic patterns, and can even classify music by artistic genre. This finding supports my view that researchers can prove pretty much anything they choose.
My namesake, by the way, was the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph, who had many trying years, ruling over so many fractious would-be nations. The emperor was named in part for his great-grandfather, Joseph II, a famous reformer—which Franz Joseph was distinctly not, although he did speak all the main languages of his empire. My Moravian grandfather, Franz Josef Pozar on his U.S. entry document, was the youngest son of a kulak family. After their parents died, his eldest brother kept him at hard labor on projects such as hollowing lengths of tree trunks to channel water to the fields—and quite likely to a carp pond as well. In any event, he escaped to the imperial army, and later to California. He had only daughters, and my mother was named Frances for him. Then I in turn was named for her when she almost died at my birth.
When I was last in Eastern Europe, I spent time with beloved old friends in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy, who variously described their present regimes as criminal and entrenched, and the future of Europe as gloomy. (This was shortly before the Arab Spring dwarfed any European complaints.) Italian friends admitted that the Hungarians were in worse shape politically, but the Czechs wanted it to be clear that their own government was hopelessly corrupt. Before, during, and after sharing our political and economic complaints, we ate and drank most heartily and discussed our absent friends, wayward children, and the strange weather.
When I arrived in Florence, it was the end of the hottest September in recorded history. I stayed with an old friend in a converted convent with a garden and terrace. She is well prepared for survival under most conditions, assuming that she could ever bring herself to replace all of her geraniums, marigolds, oleander, petunias, et cetera, with useful vegetables. I did not even mention a carp pond because she will not eat fish except at the seashore. Even a rising sea full of melting icebergs would not make it as far inland as Florence. And when did anyone ever see carp on a Tuscan menu?
Between Florence and Budapest I traveled on a sleeper train. In the morning the technicolor shores of Lake Balaton and its summer cottages and parks rolled past my window for a long time. Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and full of fish, including thirty-pound carp. The cheery rows of painted cottages and huts lining the lake could have been lifted from Jean de Brunhoff’s elephant utopia. Nonetheless, my Budapest friends, already fully occupied with good works, were making time to march in protest against the hijacking of their democratic republic.
In China fishponds have been identified as early as 451 B.C. Presumably archaeologists sifted significant piles of little bones like those concealed in that Austrian béchamel. The Chinese developed the main varieties of Asian carp, as well as the bright-colored koi. In California, where I live, Chinese cleared the rocks and built the roads to Gold Mountain. And later, their great-grandchildren were the best students and colonized the University of California—even before China came to own a large part of the American economy. All of my doctors and also my dentist are Asian. I like to pretend that this was my initiative.
In California the Japanese too were thriving, until they were sent to camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. My husband’s uncle, a Jew, drove a car that had been confiscated from a local Japanese family. He said that he was “saving” it for their return. This was credible only because his closest lifelong friends were Japanese and Filipino. As to carp, the Japanese have developed mainly the ornamental koi, which are thought to bring luck, but this may have changed since the Fukushima disaster; what matters most now is whether or not a fish is radioactive.
We raised our children in California, but neither of them has married an Asian. The anthropologist once remarked, no doubt sincerely, that he felt a little guilty for not having mated exogenously. Our daughter’s two older children have dual citizenship, thanks to their father, a Canadian Jew, who said that it might be helpful sometime, given the way things are going in this country and the rest of the world.
A spawning female carp may produce a million or more eggs. A posse of males, swimming alongside her, fertilizes the eggs as they drift off. In case of high population density, adult carp will eat the eggs, perhaps to enhance survival of the fewer remaining, or because the adults are hungry.
Hungarian visitors once brought us a small aloe plant that they had dug from the sand in Death Valley. It is now huge and looks rather peculiar in a big pot under the redwoods, which also look rather strange, agreed, next to the stand of bamboo planted during Prohibition to hide the wet bar on our terrace. The bar is long gone, though there is still plenty of drinking there. We put the aloe on the terrace whenever our Hungarian friends are in town and may stop by.
Some of our Jewish friends in Eastern Europe are buying property in the west just in case—but not as far west as California. Odd how one’s feeling of safety can depend on being able to go somewhere else, far from home. These friends liked California years ago, they said, because there was no high culture, only beaches and redwoods, vineyards and crab. ( No carp.)
In those years, as we were making room to plant something—artichokes?—in the back garden, the hole began slowly to fill with water. At first we were afraid that we had broken into a water main, but then it seemed more likely a sort of hernia from the creek that moves underground diagonally across our block, at least on a map. Although ours is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, the occasional family of racoons or skunks appears in our driveway, doubtless because of the creek. We filled the hole, but I’m imagining that water will bubble right up again when we excavate the pond. And the racoons, if not the skunks, will surely be a threat to our carp population.
Half a block from us, at the corner of the park, there used to be a water pump and drinking fountain marking the underground passage of the creek. Of course the pump was vandalized and eventually replaced with some straggling succulents. In fact the park had originally displaced several blocks of old houses that had been demolished or moved to make space for it. At the same time, only two blocks away, at the more famous People’s Park, Berkeley students and street people were protesting against the Vietnam war by ripping up the blacktop and planting flowers. Decades before Ferguson, Reagan sent in the National Guard. Meanwhile, the sedate citizens’ committee at “our” park wanted to make a more positive statement, but couldn’t agree on a plan. So they simply rolled out a few acres of turf, later planted some trees, and much later built a playground. It was called Willard Park, after Frances Willard, the temperance and suffrage leader, a more interesting woman than you might think.
A homeless woman has settled with her black plastic bags in the corner of the park nearest us. She has long curtain of brown hair, graying, and a sad, sweet face. She seems to sit all day on a low stone wall in the shadow of clustered redwoods. Maybe she sleeps there in the bushes. Once, in the rain, I approached her and asked if she could use some help, or if she preferred to be left alone. She looked frightened, and nodded at the left-alone part, so I stumbled away. If I’d been thinking, I would at least have left my umbrella for her. Thanks to the Chinese (again), umbrellas are easy-come, easy-go. Not that we need them in 2014.
Unless the drought has drained it, the underground creek could prove to be a problem when we excavate the pond. We wouldn’t want the whole back garden to turn into a giant sinkhole. Martin promised to send a book on pond construction. I didn’t ask him from what century, but wouldn’t you think the principles would be the same?—and after all, the Bohemian pond system has lasted five hundred years. Now that I think of it, Martin’s cottage, near an old Schwarzenberg castle, sits right above a small pond. They could stock it! But right now he and his wife are finally feeling prosperous and cosmopolitan, and seldom eat unhealthy Czech food such as fried carp. They have a new Japanese son-in-law who is a good cook.
According to the Hungarian fish professor, our pond will only need to be about 1.5 meters deep. Probably it would be good to mound and pack the soil around the edge as we dig the hole. Actually, we should consult with our son-in-law, a hydraulic engineer, and have the work done by professionals—soon, while we have the money, but before we really need it.
And who knows how much time we have? The Bay Area is notoriously prey to all kinds of natural disasters—not just drought but earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, and wildfires, not to mention unnatural phenomena such as suicide bombers, intercontinental missiles, and bioterrorism. One granddaughter, gifted and also providential, has taken it upon herself to assemble a survival kit. I tell her that we can’t be ready for everything. But in fact, we can take certain measures, including constructing that carp pond to ensure a continuing protein supply.
Doubtless there are city guidelines that we’ll need to follow. Given that Berkeley is a “nuclear-free zone” and areas around Berkeley schools are “drug-free zones,” a whole code of restrictions must govern any body of water in a residential zone.
I have been looking into vegetables that thrive near water. Rice fields are probably better on a larger scale. Also, it would be better to have vegetables that can be eaten raw, since we won’t be able to count on power. Watercress? Might be eaten by fish. The grass carp is said to eat greenery like a lawn mower.
Occasionally I wonder how soon we will be pushing wheelbarrows full of money to pay the butcher, the baker, or the dentist, as they did in Weimar Germany. Not too hard to imagine cash soon being worth, pound for pound, as little as books. Sometimes there are aquariums in medical offices, maybe because the motions of the fish are interesting, or at least soothing, to watch. I’m guessing that the water in our particular pond may be too muddy to see the fish.
In a Department of Natural Resources sting in Midland, Michigan, a man selling two live grass carp to undercover agents was arrested and charged with ten counts of possession and two counts of sale of illegal species. The man, who was driving a pond-cleaning company truck, was out of state—from Arkansas. He could be fined $20,000 on each count and serve up to two years in jail. A local editorial warns that the time to stop the Asian carp invasion is now. The idea is: if we can’t keep Asian products from our markets and homes, we can at least keep their silver and bighead carp out of our waterways. Already the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified carp DNA more than once in Wisconsin waters. Not a great leap to imagine a Fox News trailer showing a Berkeley couple raising invasive Asian carp in their backyard.
In June 2014 , in the fourth year of a devastating civil war with no end in sight, Syria’s minister of tourism blithely announced that his country is now welcoming visitors, that “Syria Shines Once Again.”
Yes, Syria has six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years. Yes, Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. But in this 21st century civil war, nobody wins; some 200,000 Syrians have died, and 2 million more have fled their country. Amid the human carnage, Roman temples and crusader castles, mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.
Most recently, the incursions of ISIS, the new Islamic State, both bloody and benign, are foiling any attempt at normalization by the survivor regime of Bashar al-Assad. ISIS offers bread as well as weapons. Their latest attacks are close to the Iraqi-Syrian northeastern border, impinging on Iraqi Kurdistan.
The proxy war also continues, with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supplying arms and fighters for Assad’s army. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, are supporting, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.
Where does it all end, and where can one usefully bear witness?
We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, not long before the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring. Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped in October 2010 would soon be ravaged by the rising fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.
That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.
On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus. That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.
A few months after we passed through, some bored Daraa children posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to demand the release of the children, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general. But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
In a 2014 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves. There the land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share. Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition. They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost, and free to the poor.
In the far north, Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions. When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed. We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.
North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below. A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below. Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees. Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest. Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.
Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests. Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate. The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted by the newly-formed Islamic State.
Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman. On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque. In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows. The girls, of course, were in another school.
Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.
In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them. The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted. More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium. Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.
The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold. A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design. Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.
The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes. There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.
As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served refreshments by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.
Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 .
Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners. Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards. He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.
A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion. We stopped in the little port of Tartus.
Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited. I had never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus). Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.
Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Yet reportedly only four men run the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers is inoperative because of storm damage.
From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.
Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias. Both Alawites and Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of the new Islamic State.
From the coast, we turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road. From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls. On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us. But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.
At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.
Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.
In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place. We stayed for only a day in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms. In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.
We stood on the edge of the Homs tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city. A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.
Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.
We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.
In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver, tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference. In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed. Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass. Nobody tried to sell us anything.
Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.
To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.
Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way. The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.
After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.
During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel, past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry. In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle. The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.
On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains. Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.
To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd. Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.
The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his elegant wife Asma. With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us. Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus.
Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya. Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist, is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.
In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III. This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. More and more this was becoming a proxy war. By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad plans to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.
This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks. A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war, it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces. We didn’t see Azaz in 2010; this is a file photo.
*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.