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I was  in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.  

Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.


Social media will soon feature these scenes of the conflagration from scores of phones, in a technique pioneered in the Arab revolutions.

Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur  invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.

Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS.  Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified:  there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.  

In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels.  The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.)  Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.

Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria.  Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…)   Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.

Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times. 

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”

While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.  

Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week.  When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.

Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.  In October 2010, we Americans were 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.

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

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.

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Note:  Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands:  Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.

Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee.  Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.

Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.

A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.    

The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000.  But no more.  Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.  

In any event, this is no time for comedy.  Or is it?



From Raqqa to Istanbul, and counting

Suleymaniye mosque photo by Winstanza

Suleymaniye mosque
photo by Winstanza


How long would it take an Islamic State purification patrol to reach Istanbul?  From Raqqa, Syria, the current Daesh capital, it’s only 870 miles, a fifteen-hour drive northwest through Aleppo and Adana, with possible traffic delays around Ankara.  However, road conditions on the Syrian leg may have deteriorated recently, and then you can’t always trust Google maps.

Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire, worked in Istanbul for the better part of the sixteenth century, more or less like Michelangelo in Rome.  Sinan, too, was born a Christian, probably an Armenian Christian.  Some speculate that he was Albanian, as others have claimed that Barack Obama is Hawaiian—but the operative word here is Christian.  Later, after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, he converted to Islam in order to become a Janissary soldier in the service of the sultan.

During a winter visit to the Topkapi Palace, while Bush 43 was still in office, I was waylaid by one of the many A Janissary  actually Roumanian)Janissary guards.  He advanced, with turban, staff, and mustache, across a vast hall, giving me plenty of time to reflect on my possible infractions, before I saw that he was grinning.  He pointed to my broad-brimmed felt hat.  “Texas?” he asked. His own headgear was much more remarkable than mine, and it was frigid just then, next to the Bosphorus, but I blushed and stuffed the hat into my bag.







Although Sinan had worked with his father, a stonemason, he learned more about architecture and structural engineering by destroying bridges and fortresses in various military campaigns from Baghdad

Interior, Suleyman mosque

Interior, Suleyman mosque

to Apulia.  Eventually, when he had risen to the rank of Architect of the Empire, he could delegate the extensive military construction and maintenance projects.  He could focus on the building of splendid mosques, baths, madrasas, mausoleums, and even soup kitchens, sometimes in  combination, like that built for Sultan Suleyman the Magnifcent atop the third of Istanbul’s seven hills (Rome again.)  In his buildings, the surfaces of domes, half domes, minarets, arches, and walls, of stone, marble, ivory, brick—still glisten with vividly colored, gold-enriched mosaics and tiles.



Selimiye mosque

Selimiye mosque

Sinan saw the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, with its four needle minarets, as his masterpiece, and he designed its dome to surpass any the Turks had seen for a thousand years—even that of the Hagia Sofia. Originally an Eastern Orthodox basilica-cathedral, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The brilliant, idolatrous Christian mosaics were blanketed with plaster until 1931, when Kamal Ataturk secularized the cathedral/mosque and proclaimed it a museum.  Many, not all, of the glorious mosaics were uncovered, revealing scenes of the Christian messiah, his mother, and the doctors of the church. (Off in the upstairs gallery, the personal favorite of some visitors, including my young grandson:  a fragment of the melancholy face of the Virgin Mary, and a bit more of John the Baptist, together beseech Jesus to save the wicked world.)

Mosaic detail, Jesus with Mary and John the Baptist

Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist mosaic



Sinan reigns as the greatest figure in classical Ottoman architecture, the counterpart of Michelangelo in the western Renaissance. But what was happening in the Renaissance was not unknown in Istanbul.  Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were invited to submit plans for a bridge across the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus. Michelangelo declined, probably ungraciously, but Leonardo, as was his wont, offered a grand project that would never be built.



Bridges were important in the watery surround of Istanbul, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. The famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) was in 1566 the oldest elliptical-arch span in the world, tied with Ponte Santa Trinita’ in Florence, completed three years later. According to a 17th century traveller,the Stari Most was “a wonder in its own time, thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.” After 427 years it was destroyed by the Croats during the Bosnia-Hercegovina War in 1993. Sarajevo newspapers reported that it took more than 60 shells to demolish the bridge. Reconstruction in 2004 recycled some of the original stones found in the river below.  Sustainable destruction?




Ponte Santa Trinita

Ponte Santa Trinita

The most elegant of Florentine bridges is the Ponte Santa Trinita’, designed by one Bartolomeo Ammannati, perhaps with Michelangelo’ s emendations.  Poor Ammannati was the subject of a spiteful Florentine couplet still found even in 21st century guidebooks.  “Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato,” referring  not to the bridge but to his oddly goofy statue of Neptune in the fountain on Piazza Signoria.In August 1944, all the Florentine bridges were blown up by retreating German troops, except for Hitler’s personal favorite, the Ponte Vecchio.  The three elliptical arches of the Ponte Santa Trinita’ were reconstructed in 1958 with stones recovered from the river and from the old quarry, like the Stari Most over the Drina River. More “sustainable destruction.”


No bodies of water obstruct passage from Aleppo to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which would take about twelve hours, given good toll roads all the way from the Turkish border.  A cultural cleansing patrol might want to make a detour to level Sinan’s mosque in Aleppo, a work of his youth, although the minaret was already taken down by the rebels or the regime, or both, last summer.  At the border crossing there might be a bit of a fuss if IS/Daesh tanks are involved.

Also located near the border between Syria and Turkey is the settlement of Dabiq, site of a major battle in 1516. The Islamic State cites a Prophetic narration that foretells yet another portentous battle at Dabiq, against an enemy identified in the prophecy as the “Army of Rome.” What “Rome” is now, since the good Papa Francesco has no army, remains a matter for conjecture. Some suggest that it means the Christians, but could mean any infidel army, certainly not excluding the Americans.

Dabiq village

Dabiq village

After winning the battle of Dabiq, some prophesy that the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul, and perhaps move beyond.  Eventually the victors will witness the descent and return of Jesus, and here it gets a little confusing.  One should perhaps remember that Jesus is the second-favorite prophet in the Qu’ran. Which is also a bit confusing. In any event, Dabiq was chosen for obvious reasons as the title of the official magazine of the Islamic State, very glossy. The latest issue begins with a declaration of war against Japan. You can browse through the seven issues online.



Disciples of Sinan went far and wide, some, it is said, to work on the Taj Mahal.  From Raqqa–or Mosul, to the Taj Mahal is quite a stretch.  To Tokyo, it’s 8,585 kilometers, or 5,334 miles.

Doomsday Clock and Related Last Things

January 2015

January 2015


The Doomsday Clock, a simplistic concept created by a posse of guilt-riddled scientists, now allows just three minutes until midnight and the end of the world as we know it.

The apocalyptic clock first appeared on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established by men who regretted their role in the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   With catastrophic climate change and the current conflict in Ukraine, the Last Midnight looms.

A ray of hope penetrates the gloom, if you close one eye and squint slightly:  the Doomsday Clock was designed by Martyl Langdorf, an artist married to one of the remorseful physicists of the Manhattan Project–a sort of conjugal alliance of art and science. Martyl (her professional name) lived to be 96.  In her spirited oral history at the Chicago Art Institute, she comments tartly on the ineptness and waste of the so-called intelligence community’s awkward efforts to keep track of her lengthy career as a left-leaning artist. Here empathy served me.  Having friends in Eastern Europe and a Berkeley zip code, I found my phone tapped primitively, as in an old Czech movie.

Communism, I hope that I can now safely observe,  lacks monitory images of spiritual apocalypse.  The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, feature a Last Judgement at the end of the world.  In Islam, the road to salvation is rocky unless one dies in a holy war. In Christianity and Judaism, sinners have at least a fighting chance, so to speak, at redemption.

Estimating the numbers slaughtered through the ages in the service of these three great monotheistic faiths is truly daunting.  Not to mention the butcheries among their competing subgroups…Catholics versus Protestants, Protestants versus other Protestants, Shi’ia versus Sunni…  Historians are inclined to give the most numbers to the Christians, especially if the count includes the Second World War and the Holocaust.

But the Apocalypse does play well.  The Catholic Church in its wisdom programs illustrations of The Last Judgement for the exit walls of churches and chapels.  In the basilica on the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon is a transfixing twelfth-century mosaic.

Torcello  Hell

(Follow your contemplation of the Torcello mosaics with an al fresco lunch at the Ponte al Diavolo.)


Detail Last Judgement

Detail Last Judgement



In neighboring Padua,  Giotto was hired for a large sum to create a magnificent Last Judgement that would better position the Scrovegni family of usurers (bankers) for possible salvation, despite Dante’s condemnation.


Interesting that Giotto himself was said to have exacted an outrageous fee for use of his looms by poor Florentine weavers.


A mere two centuries later came Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel. A Resurrection scene had first been proposed for this wall, but it seemed to Paul III in 1530 that the times demanded a stronger statement.


In the 1990s a major restoration effort transformed the Sistine Chapel. At one point I was lucky enough to find myself on the scaffolding watching workers uncovering the vivid colors under the grime of centuries of candle smoke.  I saw a master restorer swabbing at the wall with one hand, the other holding a smoking cigarette. Alas, no photo is available.


Armageddon also echoes in music.  In 1984, as the atomic scientists’ clock was closing in on midnight, Stephen Sondheim was shaping our high anxiety and fear of doomsday into the angry giantess of “Into the Woods.”  The musical opened in 1986 in San Diego, not on Broadway. Bernadette Peters’ thrilling announcement of “The Last Midnight” came later.


Is it significant that a scientist also presented the 2015 Doomsday Clock there in San Diego, where the catastrophic California drought is still hovering? I suppose not.

“Into the Woods” has recently, like “Porgy and Bess”, slipped into the opera category. Almost thirty years after its premiere, “Into the Woods” has a lovely revival in Manhattan by a small repertory group, the Fiasco Theater, some Brown MFAs who got together to do what they wanted to do.



A full scale nuclear-powered opera, “Dr. Atomic” premiered in San Francisco, California in 2005, with the collaboration of John Adams and Peter Sellars– and Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller as the troubled scientists.

Probably there is a category for apocalyptic musical works?  Faust, Don Giovanni, the Ring, for starters.  Surely someone is working on an opera about Edward Snowden, and maybe his proud mother as well.  Peter Sellars also has a lovely, proud mother.


In the Qur’an, Allah asks Jesus whether or not he claimed that he and his mother were two gods besides Allah, to which Jesus replies that he would never have said such a thing (5:115-117).  Emphasis on the “said”.









In any event, we mustn’t forget the Rapture, still to come, last trumpeted  for May of 2011.  At some future time, not too distant, at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, believers will be raised from the earth to meet Him in midair.

However, some believe that a select group will remain behind on earth for an extended tribulation period that might be confused—by me at least—with Purgatory.  But Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians view the Rapture as an all-inclusive final resurrection, when Christ returns–and does not leave us slackers and skeptics behind.







Acqua alta


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. Menbere-Aklilu

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.  ochina

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.   Stazioneidro.

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.


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