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Great Migrations I Have Known (11 December)

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One cold November afternoon in the British Museum, a swarm of schoolchildren suddenly filled Room 41, the Sutton Hoo burial ship treasure and Europe 300-1100; the Great Migrations.  Kids in school plaids circled among the glass cases holding the ship’s treasures—swords and halberds, croziers and chalices, Byzantine silverware, golden brooches, and the famous iron helmet.ps269107_l

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Unlike most tribes sweeping through Roman Europe in those early centuries, the schoolchildren seemed peaceable and even modestly respectful of the cultural artifacts at hand.

The Sutton Hoo ship-burial dates from the early 600s, the era of Beowulf, that noble Anglo-Saxon saga read mainly in Sparknotes—at least until its luminous translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney came to dinner one night in Berkeley.  He was tall and solid,  chatting amiably in our crowded front parlor.  As it happened, he found himself standing back to back with one of the patrons of his Berkeley lecture chair, who was at that moment confiding to me that she simply couldn’t understand “one word” of his poetry.  With one eye on the poetic back, I asked what she was planning to read next.  After a pensive pause, she reminded me politely how much she had enjoyed my novel. Now, she guessed that she should read that new Harry Potter thing that everyone was talking about, written by some single mother on welfare.

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The Irish potato famine, and the shocking British government policy surrounding it, starved at least a million Irish and forced another million to emigrate. By 1900 New York City was 60% Irish. Seamus Heaney’s family stayed in County Derry and survived, and he himself wouldn’t be commuting to Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford until the 1970s.

Apposite quotes from Heaney’s Beowulf appear backlit above the Sutton Hoo treasures, in the handsome new display underwritten by the very attractive and extremely rich Sir Paul and Jill Ruddock. The Ruddocks’ funding, and the database of the new Google Cultural Institute, have made Room 41 accessible to anyone on foot in Bloomsbury or anyone anywhere with an internet connection.

These days, opportunities seldom arise to add splendid new works to the world’s great museums, so the new philanthropy often concentrates on rearranging what already exists.  And after all, the British Museum has more than 8 million objects, most from former British imperial colonies and territories on every continent and archipelago. International conventions now prohibit the wartime looting that has been common for millennia, as well as theft and resale of cultural artifacts, but those agreements don’t apply to items exported before national or global laws were in force.

A large literature and legal domain has developed around ownership of cultural property .  In the most outstanding example, the Parthenon marbles were removed (hacked off the temple) by Lord Elgin during Ottoman rule, decades before the existence of the beleaguered Greek state that now wants them back on their Acropolis._81489257_4980qfe1

 

The riches of the British museum do also serve to highlight Britain’s ongoing population of immigrants.  Julius Caesar in 55 A.D. arrived to spearhead, so to speak, four centuries of Roman rule, whose hegemony was eventually challenged in irregular bursts by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and others.

We don’t know much about the reception of migrants in the various Roman provinces. Presumably when the Saxons or Vikings or Avars or Normans had burned the crops, crushed the cities and raped the women, there was little talk of making them citizens. It’s only in recent history that the “Barbarian Invasions” have morphed into the sanitized “Migration Period”.

Now ISIS looting, its extent, intention, and execution, are much discussed.  From outside, it appears that they only destroy what cannot be carried off and sold, such as the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, which I was so lucky to see in October 2010, gilded by a sunset, while munching on dates picked from a roadside plantation by our driver.

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Abu Hani was a Palestinian exile who was able to make a life for himself and his family in Damascus.  I asked him once, rather idly, what Syrian city he liked best, and he said “Perhaps Homs”. Tonight I heard that Homs, or what is left of it, has been recaptured by government forces, but I haven’t known for four years the whereabouts of Abu Hani.

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The Syrians’ migration, and the others—economic, political, whatever, will continue whether or not various peace negotiations among Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. & Europe, and the (irreconcilable) Syrian factions are successful. These tens of  thousands of Syrians clearly have lost hope in raising their children and making a life for themselves on their arid land amid the contending powers.  Not many of them are likely to be welcomed in the United States of America, once known as “The Immigrant Nation.”

 

 

Syria, Now

Syrians marching from Budapest to Austria

Syrians marching from Budapest to Austria in September 2015

At the end of September 2015, in the fifth year of the relentlessly ruinous Syrian civil war, all the world has been forced to take account of some two million refugees from that conflict, along with those from other ruined countries, seeking asylum in Western Europe–or as close to the West as they can manage.  What did we expect?

In the spring of 2011, at the tail end of the Arab Uprisings, Syria suddenly began to implode. Bashar al-Assad’s regime reacted brutally, heavily documented by viral cellphone videos, against the localized rebellions. Very soon there were more rebel groups than could be sorted out.  Later, amid the widening conflict,  Barack Obama threatened retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It was a nasty confrontation, since the Syrian regime was backed by Iran and by Russia.

When the chaos began, the regime of Bashar, an English-educated opthalmologist and his pretty banker wife, with their ideas of social reform and their inherited autocracy, had been holding the fragmented country together– Sunni, Alawite, Shia,  Kurdish, Christian–for more than ten years, in conditions of severe drought with ongoing factional disputes.

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Chavez  & daughter, Assad and wife Asma, in  the monastery at Maloula

Naturally  this neo-colonial construct fell apart in an instant, the cities and archaeological sites collapsing in slow motion over the next four years. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, continued to support, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.

Now we’re waiting hopefully for the U.S. to acknowledge that peace in Syria can only be achieved by including the country’s only legitimate government, which is still Assad’s. It may not have been a perfectly democratic election, but whose is?  At this point, there should be meaningful negotiation with all parties agreeing to fight the common enemy, ISIS–and to stem the flow of refugees with massive foreign aid.  How long will it take?

Rebuilding Syria’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, will no doubt include reconstruction of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years.  Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. Much still remains of massive crusader castles and even of Roman Palmyra.  Mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.

 

Back Story: 

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque -- Bernard Gagnon

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque
— Bernard Gagnon

In October 2010 We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, when 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 then 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 Deraa.

Bosra, Roman theater -

Bosra, Roman theater

Daraa protests --globalpost

Daraa protests
–Globalpost

Deraa, 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 weeks after we passed through, some bored Deraa youngsters posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to demand their release, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones.  When one of the protesters died, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.

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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 2012 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.

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Deir ez Zor 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

Moon over the Euphrates.

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

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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.

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Aleppo Citadel —Memorino

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.

Inside Aleppo's citadel

Inside Aleppo’s 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.

St. Simeon Stylite's Pillar --Frances Starn

St. Simeon Stylites

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Olive Harvest near St. Simeon Stylites

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.

Sykes-Picot map

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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.

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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.

Apamea in 2011

Apamea in 2011

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 . (In 2015, Latakia is the site of a Russian military build-up of uncertain, probably exaggerated, extent.)

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.

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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 ran the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers was 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 church museum

Outside, at the gate, a door labeled “Museum Director” sported a poster of Bashar al-Assad.IMG_0280

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.

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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.

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 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.

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Homs 2013

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.

Krak des chevaliers

Krak des chevaliers

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.

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Maloula

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 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, probably with the Arab as well.

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 planned to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.

Azaz, 2012

Azaz, 2012

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.

Art Can’t Really Take You There

Ritually in August, Europeans repair to their mountains or beaches while tourists throng their cities. But by early July, the 2015 Venice Biennale, already darkly apocalyptic, was also featuring the 110-degree afternoons of global warming. Completely flattened, we fled to the Dolomites, whose snowy peaks are still visible from Venice on very clear days.

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The Dolomites are seen in the background of paintings by Venetian masters, and by northern painters whose horizons lacked mountains.

da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Da Vinci’s, Virgin and Child with St. Anne with Dolomites

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Asolo

Titian, raised in the Dolomites, painted a portrait of Catarina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus (and, some say, of Armenia). Catarina was forced to abdicate and cede her country to the Republic of Venice. She was allowed to keep her title and given a castled court in Asolo, safely removed from the circles of power. Titian decks her out in the Turkish-style brocade coat which complimented the generous curves of so many Venetian ladies. Any soprano in Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro would be likely to wear it, but since the opera was booed at its 1844 opening in Naples, it has seldom been staged.

Unfortunate placement near da Vinci's Virgin

Catarina Cornaro, Titian

A pair of smoky-skinned youths, toting racks of colored beads, took a table next to us in a café next to the bus stop in Corvara. Here we were, merely escaping a heat wave. How had they made their way so far up into these mountains?  Had it occurred to them that a resort town might have less competition and wealthier customers than a crowded city?  What to make of the lush green valleys and flowing waterfalls of this alpine paradise? Probably they were en route to Germany, more or less as the crow flies—or according to a Google map.

Germany we are told, expects to receive 800,000 refugees next year.

Meanwhile, the presidents of the Veneto and Lombardy had just ordered towns in their regions to stop accepting migrants altogether.  Six thousand refugees had been rescued from the Mediterranean in the previous weekend, and many thousands more waited to embark from Libya and Turkey.  Renzi and his government in Rome counseled Italians to be humane and accept the migrants across the board.

No way, said Luca Zaia, regional president of the Veneto.The situation “is like a bomb ready to go off.”  Roberto Maroni, president of Lombardy and former leader of the conservative Lega Nord,  threatened to cut the funding of any compassionate municipalities who encouraged refugees to settle.

One morning we took a local bus from Corvara that wound through the mountains toward a small town known as Ortisei in Italian, St. Ulrich in German, and Urtijei in Ladin, an ancient alpine survival of Latin, spoken by most of the townspeople.  (Place signs are in all three languages.)

Climbing the steep main street of Ortisei, we came upon a very large heap of white plaster bananas, not far from a cannon made of wood.  Public art, we noted shrewdly. The artists, we read on a placard, intended an ironic message about climate change with reference to the past winter in Ortisei, when the only snow available to skiers came from strategically placed “snow guns”

Further on, the street opened onto a large , quite affecting monument by Armin Grunt (umlaut u) depicting the miseries of migration.IMG_2167 (1).JPGMIGRANTS

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Woodworking was and remains the major art and craft in these forested mountains.  But tourism became the mainstay of their economy in the last century, increasing after the famous Winter Olympics of 1956 took place in Cortina d’Ampezzo.

This year, the 56th Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous art event, manages to condemn not only climate change, capitalist exploitation of labor and industrial pollution, but global starvation, planetary degradation, and the arms trade—in just two gulps, one at the Arsenale site and the other at the Giardini.

Actually, the Golden Lion prize for the best national exhibit went to Armenia, outliers on the monastery island of San Lazzaro, marking the centennial of their genocide and diaspora. We happened to go to the island on a Sunday afternoon, and found ourselves caught in a line moving relentlessly into the church for the Orthodox mass, nearly two hours long.

It is sometimes said that art  art can take you anywhere, and this year’s Biennale does compel you to visit unlikely places, from the assembly line of a cultivated pearl factory to gay brothels in Chile. Many of the heavily didactic exhibits are of videos and photos, with displays of significant documents, such as international agreements repeatedly dishonored, or newspaper clips with false information, or contracts you make with yourself.

The Australian Fiona Hall is more direct.

Fiona Hall

Fiona Hall

Her imaginative work fills the whole pavilion and includes a 3-D map of the southern Mediterranean scattered with tiny figures, indicating the migrants who drowned in one week between Africa and Italy.

Other artworks have related  messages.

The End of Carrying All

The End of Carrying All by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu

Although there is plenty of irony, subtlety and ambivalence are not qualities that many of these artists value.  They are desperately concerned for the future of their own countries and the world at large. Still, their Biennale appearances are financed by capitalist networks that certainly include artists’ galleries, and most of the work, in case you were wondering, is for sale.

Alongside the galleries in the Dolomites that show woodworking artists, are regional museums focusing on alpinism (mountaineering) and local history, including that of the so-called White War.

At almost eleven thousand feet, Marmolada is one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites.  During World War I, as one military front shifted into South Tyrol, Austrian troops tunneled into Marmolada’s northern glacier and the Italians into its rocky southern face. Somehow they made it possible–building roads, dormitories, and gun emplacements–f0r thousands of soldiers to exist, and to fight, in the brutal cold at altitudes where only mountaineers and shepherds had ever ventured.

Italian front, First World War, inside the glacier of Marmolada

1916, Italian front, First World War, inside the glacier of Marmolada

A hundred years later, in our warming world, the icy slopes are melting to reveal grim relics—soldiers’ corpses and rusted armaments.  Some 150,000 men died in the White War, only a third of them in battle, the majority from avalanches, frostbite, and other effects of the extreme cold.  Likely, in warmer decades to come, spring skiers will continue to make grisly discoveries in the Dolomites.

Partly as a result of the White War, in 1919 South Tyrol was given to Italy, and those 150,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers died in a struggle over national/imperial hegemony that their sons and grandsons have mostly disavowed. In the mountains, what they worry about now is climate change, whether they will have snow for the ski crowds, or whether they will have to depend on the snow cannons.  Down on the flatlands, they are worried about new waves of migrants, most of whom have paid their last thousand euros to find asylum or at least work and food in the West.

Few saw just how fragile and flammable the Middle East would prove,  how quickly the drying up of the Sahara, the continuation of brutal governments, the series of drought years, and the internal wars would displace millions. The tens of thousands of refugees spilling into Germany, Italy, and France from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are economic and sometimes political refugees.  Their lives and their families’ lives are on the line when the cost of passage on a leaky raft or rusty ship.  They’re fleeing, most often they know not where.

In America the flaming issue of next year’s presidential election has become immigration, from Mexico. In Hungary a far-right government constructs a fence to stop the influx of refugees arriving from Serbia, Macedonia, Greece. A Hungarian friend says that the brutally anti-migrant stance of his government is secretly admired by leaders of the European union.  Whatever the case, Germany is in ever in a bind to show that its past inhumanity was an aberration. But Germany by itself cannot absorb these millions.

A year ago I tried to chart some of the tragedy of Syria since the civil war began.  The latest chapters include demolition of another temple in Palmyra, and the changing route of Syrian refugees:  they are now travelling north to the Arctic Circle and heading for the Norwegian border, to the little town of Kirkenes, 2500 miles from Damascus.  Norway has nothing to prove about its humanitarian history, and welcomes them.

 

 

 

 

Dinner in a Time of Drought

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Given a bootless succession of balmy, deep blue evenings in drought-stricken California, we invited some friends for an al fresco dinner—two Italians, one Romanian, a Scot, a Moroccan, and three of their boys. The transcontinental jumble only occurred to me later, when I was lying awake, regretting my clumsy vinous Italian, and the surplus of food I usually prepare, especially when there are vegetarians.

S. and  I were in the kitchen sorting the berries she had brought. She said that her husband had just returned from a long stay in Fez, where he had to look after his sick mother and two eccentric sisters.  This reminded me of Abu Hani, our wise, kind driver in the months before Syria’s war; his wife and two unmarried daughters had seemed shielded and restricted in the Muslim manner. Since he had fled Safed in 1948 to settle in the Palestinian quarter of Damascus, now devastated, probably his family are now Syrian refugees.  There must be a term for repeat (recidivist?) refugees,  like the Armenians, just marking their first century of diaspora.

Nina Khatchadourian’s video, called, cunningly, “Armenities,” is a telling exploration of her parents’ layered languages learned in serial homelands. “Armenities” will be at the 2015 Venice Biennale—in the island monastery of San Lazzaro, where lepers were the original refugees.

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The bay fog had blown in while R was grilling sausages, and suddenly it was cold and damp, drought or not–the downside of our famous marine climate. Everyone helped shift all the food into the kitchen, filled their plates and reconfigured  at the dining table. Someone  sought common ground, so to speak, talking sports with the three boys.

That’s when I turned to our Moroccan friend.  F.  speaks softly with a heavy French-Moroccan accent, but I think that he told me that his father left school at age seven to help support the family, and eventually became a successful merchant who sent nine children to college—the middle one, our friend, to Harvard. Writers admired by F. include Borges, Calvino, and Marquez; he is now writing stories himself, based on centuries-old tales that he had found in the souk in Fez.  He has a shy flash of a smile, winsomely conspiratorial.

Early in this century, R and I flew to North Africa, after a conference in Florence, where R talked about the Laocoon (and I nursed a fractured wrist). We went to Morocco, which was for us entirely otherwhere.  There was a bright, almost hallucinogenic light across the sandy plain, not unlike the light we have now in drought-parched California.  Along the highway was a sparse strewing of people on foot and pieces of litter, mostly plastic. William Kentridge makes dark kinetic profiles of people who might have been moving along such a highway in South Africa.

In Rabat, after dining on a fine pastilla, with music, we wandered off in the moonlight toward a mysterious truncated tower sharing a site with hundreds of stubby marble columns. We didn’t find out what it was until the next day.

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Hassan Tower, minaret and mosque, columns left unfinished in 1199.

Sad to say, returning to our hotel, we lost our way and were maliciously re-directed in loops through the city.  Next morning, on the train to Fez we shared a compartment with a Moroccan lawyer who expressed confidence that the new boy monarch would be guided by his enlightened sister, within the limits of sharia law, of course.

When F. had mentioned the old story collections he had found in the souk, I had to tell him about our son’s graduate student, a Turkish Kurd, who was cashiered at the airport in Yerevan for stowing old books from the market in his baggage.  Our son had bought his first business suit and travelled to Armenia to spring his student.

After more wine, and the stealthy withdrawal of the kids into the living room with their pads and phones, new topics arose at the table. Nothing heavy:  for example, where had the motley couples first met?  One pair in Grenoble; another in London; another in L.A.; and (much earlier), R and I in Vienna.

Vienna in 1958 was still what you may remember as the shadowy postwar background of “The Third Man”.  I lived with the family of an impoverished old baron in a palace on a corner near the Opera.  Each morning, the baron’s young frau measured out very carefully the butter and jam for our breakfast kaiser rolls. My roommate, who befriended her, said that the frau’s true love had been killed in the war.  One day the baron called me quite literally on the carpet, in the dark, high-ceilinged hall, to scold me for blocking the street entrance late at night while necking with R.

Italy was also  grimly postwar when we first saw it.  On the other hand, our caro amico M. says that he doesn’t want to live in today’s Italy, which is not the country that he knew growing up. I lived in Florence during some of those years, but Italy seems to me still much like itself, each region colorful and/or and corrupt in its own way, Florence possibly less than most. (Matteo Renzi, the youngest prime minister ever, was mayor of Florence and advocates reforms that  alienate both the left and the right.) As for me, I am now immersed, so to speak, in Venice, where corruption is endemic and close to entertaining.

What M. loves is California. After a detour of a few years on the East Coast, he returned to California just in time for the drought. While the rest of us were saving shower water to dribble on our flowerbeds, M. planted exotic succulents in large pots–also a very good plan since he needs to spend a great deal of time elsewhere, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Reno, Nevada, for example.

M. had brought a big raspberry tart, which I put on the table, with S’s berries.  Having just finished one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I wondered what S. thought of her.  She didn’t know her work, which surprised me, although her own field is Middle Eastern culture. I thought that she had said earlier that she was from Rome, but when I brought out my copy of L’Amica Geniale, she pointed out, in the cover photograph of the bay of Naples, the very school she had attended as a girl.

Why isn’t S. considered a refugee, from Naples (or Rome)?   Is  M. a Tuscan exile?  It’s all in the element of choice, I suppose, which usually comes with education and a dependable income.

The Armenian genocide was the first of the twentieth century. In 1915  Dr. Clarence Ussher, a medical missionary.working in  the Van Province, bore witness to the massacres of the Ottoman Turks. Dr. Ussher was ancestor of a valued friend, the remarkable writer Nicholson Baker, a committed pacifist and author of the revisionist war history, Human Smoke.

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An important center of Armenian culture is the Venetian island of San Lazzaro, which was resettled in 1717 by a dozen Armenian Catholic monks who arrived in Venice from Morea in the Peloponnesus, following the Ottoman invasion. They renovated the church of St. Lazarus and constructed gardens, a seminary, and other buildings. Napoleon left them alone after he conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797.  Some say this was because of an important Armenian member of Napoleon’s staff.

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Little-known fact: Lord Byron lived on San Lazzaro from late 1816 to early 1817. In short order, he seems to have learned enough Armenian to translate passages from classical Armenian into English, and even to co-author grammars of English and Armenian.

Aside from tending their huge library, the Armenian monks produce 5,000 jars of rose petal jam per annum,  a number of them eaten by the monks themselves, and the others sold in the San Lazzaro gift shoppe.

In the world outside the island, the questions of Armenian genocide and property restitution continue fraught. Solutions have been suggested:  Armenian churches and monasteries currently used as storage facilities by the armed forces could be handed back to the Armenians. Beyond that, collective compensation might be modeled on German compensation to Jews. Turkey could also take in Armenian refugees from Syria and Iraq, could offer Turkish citizenship to Armenians who want it, could remove the names of perpetrators of the genocide from Turkish streets signs and places.

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, and by far the best known Armenian in the world, says, “I am saddened that still 100 years later not everyone has recognized that 1.5 million people were murdered.  But proud of the fact that I see change and am happy many people have started to recognize this genocide!”

Here she is with her husband, rapper Kanye West, one of Time‘s 100 most influential men in the world.

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In Syria as well, one of the main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites…”

Question:  shouldn’t Kardashian be coordinating with Angelina Jolie, who has been earnestly trying to raise international consciousness about the Syrian crisis for several years?

Some doubt that Kardashian could find Armenia or Syria on a map, but this is petty carping. How often can beauty could speak to power and be heard?  If only I had brought this question to the dinner table.

 

Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today

Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today

 

Acqua alta

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Arms and the Woman

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

California Drought, Further notes on.

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.

 

 

Syrian Hamster

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:

‘Sail forth–steer for the deep waters only.”imgres

 

The Best Time to Visit Syria

 

 

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?

 

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque -- Bernard Gagnon

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque
— Bernard Gagnon

 

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.

Bosra, Roman theater -

Bosra, Roman theater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daraa protests --globalpost

Daraa protests
–Globalpost

 

 

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.

 

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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.

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Deir ez Zor 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

Moon over the Euphrates.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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Aleppo Citadel —Memorino

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.

Inside Aleppo's citadel

Inside Aleppo’s 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.

 

St. Simeon Stylite's Pillar --Frances Starn

St. Simeon Stylites 

 

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Olive Harvest near St. Simeon Stylites

 

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.

Sykes-Picot map

 

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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.

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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.

Apamea in 2011

Apamea in 2011

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.

 

 

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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 church museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside, at the gate, a door labeled “Museum Director” sported a poster of Bashar al-Assad.IMG_0280

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.

 

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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.

 

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 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.

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Homs 2013

 

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.

Krak des chevaliers

Krak des chevaliers

 

 

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.

 

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Maloula

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Meeting at the monastery

 

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.

 

 

Azaz, 2012

Azaz, 2012

 

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.

 

 

 

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