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Democracy in Iran 12.VI.2009 11:54
Iran is a strange beast. Over the past weeks, it's seen expressions of political dissent that would be unthinkable in any of the various dictatorships - American-sponsored or otherwise - that dot the Arab world, including the one I'm writing from. On the other hand, it's not exactly a democracy either; hundreds upon hundreds of names were dismissed from the electoral rolls, and every candidate here has ties to the revolutionary establishment of the 1980s - except Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, Iran's Guardian Council issues edicts at whim, but on the other the Islamic Republic has a species of checks and balances, which have meant that never in its history has it really been able to speak in one voice, much as the three branches of the American government can rarely be said to do so. The elections aren't exactly free, but they aren't exactly undemocratic. In short, the Islamic Republic has an unelected government - but every few years, the people have the chance to elect an opposition.

In spite of the censorship and random jailings, of all the countries I've visited Iranians were freest with their political opinions - it would sometimes take me seconds for a taxi driver to tell me what he hates about the current government. Iran is, above all, a proud and cultured nation - its poets form a major part of the national psyche, and the Persian Empire is a source of pride, rather than being dismissed as an irrelevance of the jahiliyya, the 'time of ignorance' before the advent of Islam. Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric once tapped into this strong nationalistic current - as did Khomeini's thirty years ago - but now that he is seen as an embarrassment, the proud of the country are turning their backs on him.

Much like the recent Lebanese election, the Western media is viewing this one through a Western prism - as some sort of referendum of isolationism and Islamism vs. internationalism and secularism. One thing I never read about - and one that was extremely prominent during my visit to the country - was the rural/urban divide, for which one of the best parallels is the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Ahmadinejad has followed much the same path, positioning himself as a champion of poor against the corrupt urban elite which has been at or near the centres of power since the revolution. His religious views have little impact in the countryside, where most women wear the hijab anyway, and his alleged mismanagement of the economy hasn't negatively affected those who wer shut out from prosperity in the first place.

I was in Iran on al-Quds day - the last Friday of Ramadan, devoted by Imam Khomeini to the liberation of Jerusalem - and found myself caught in a demonstration of thousands in Isfahan's gorgeous Naksh-e-Jahan, shouting marg bar Amrika! marg bar Israil! - Death to America, Death to Israel. Except this was anything but an expression of the popular will; the government forced anyone in a union to attend or be fired, but I did speak to many genuine Ahmadinejad supporters there - invariably, it turned out, bused in from the countryside by the regime because the more educated, less conservative urbanites are embarrassed by such a spectacle. And, like many pluralistic societies, Iranian political opinion doesn't lend itself to easy categorisation; two girls we met were very conservative; they supported the Ayatollahs and criticised girls wearing bad hijab or holding their boyfriend's hands in public. But they didn't support Ahmadinejad - because when Iranians see him, they see what the rest of the word sees: that he's an embarrassing populist simpleton.

And in here comes another difference - in Yemen, no woman would ever spontaneously come up to a strange man to talk to him, let alone about Politics, and this holds true to a greater and lesser extent in the Arab world. Iran is famed as a bastion of women's oppression, and it is hardly innocent on the subject - volunteer militiamen go around on Thursday nights harassing and humiliating women behaving 'immodestly' (why Thursdays? Because while no one knows when the 12th Imam, awaited by all Shi'a since his occultation, will return to earth, it's known that it will be on a Friday, and the Islamic Republic neds to be ready). Nevertheless, women in Iran are more independent, better educated, and more politically active than in any Arab country I've visited; 60% of university graduates are women, their literacy is high, and they form an active part of the workforce. All it takes is to look at the attendance of either side's political rallies - men are the majority, but they don't overwhelm. And for all the talk of Iran's oppressive conservatism, there's no shortage of female Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is because Ahmadinejad's support has many sources. In addition to the rural/urban divide, there's one issue that Western commentators consistently overlook: corruption. Outside of Ahmadinejad, most of the ruling elite have been part of the establishment since the Shah's downfall, and it was they who benefited from the economic opening under Rafsanjani in the 1990's. I know from life in Poland and Yemen that there are few things more repressive than the daily humiliations of a corrupt government; faced years ago with a slate of establishment candidates and one, Ahmadinejad, who was nothing if not honest, it's not that surprising that they voted for him, and that many will do so now. It's one of the major issues Palestinians mentioned when they said they supported Hamas, and it's definitely one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys so much popularity over Mubarak's clique in Egypt. And Ahmadinejad is honest; he says what he means, even when what he means makes little to no sense or is outright offensive.

There's also an illusion that anyone who votes against Ahmadinejad is somehow pro-American, but the Republic isn't about to stop being Islamic, nor is it about to given up it's nuclear programme. Why? Because nuclear deterrent is seen as the only way to stop an American invasion. This often gets referred to as 'paranoid', but its anything but when you consider that the United States engineered a coup against a popular prime minister in 1953, put a brutal dictator in his place - for the incredible extent of this brutality, read Kapuscinski's excellent Shahanshah - supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran even while he openly used chemical weapons, shot down an Iranian passenger plane and then claimed it was a suicide bombing, and invaded its immediate neighbour on what can only be described as the flimsiest of pretexts and now has thousands of troops stationed just across the border. North Korea - a far greater danger to everyone than Iraq was - doesn't even get considered for 'military action' because it has nuclear weapons, which shows itself to be the only effective deterrent. Americans have short memories, and think that now that Bush is gone people should 'just trust them', but a part of the world where many major streets are named for past dates doesn't work that way.

The elections today aren't free - the government has denied Mousavi screen time, and tried to block the sites like Facebook that his supporters use - but they are far from the farces of Mubarak's Egypt. This kind of semi-democratic, pluralistic cacophony is, in fact, what Khomeini envisioned - with himself the arbiter between the various factions. In fact, it was only Khamenei who started using the Guardian Council to vet election candidates he didn't like. Just after the revolution, contrary to Western perceptions, the most Islamic faction was also the one that was the most democratic - they felt that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy naturally stemmed from the people who, if given the opportunity, would choose just such a government - much like the logic that drives Americans to believe that any genuinely free elections will choose an American-like society, and leaves the bewildered when it doesn't, as in Palestine. These pro-democratic radicals were, in fact, the Imam Khomeini's most fervent supporters, and Mir Hossein Mousavi was one of them; after their marginalisation by Khamenei after his accession, they re-emerged as the 'reformers', softening their religious policies but not losing their belief that democracy is the source of legitimacy. It is Mousavi that many, including myself, are hoping will win today's election, but even if he fails to, recent events in Iran should serve to dispel any simplistic charicatures about this complex and fascinating country.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 07.V.2009 14:15
'I'm glad I learned about Islam before I learned about Muslims.' These were the words of a European convert on his first journey to his new religion's homelands, and they expose a question that we often ignore, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar: what defines a religion, its precepts or the people who practise it? Out of what amounts to intellectual laziness, we gloss over the differences as if they don't matter or don't exist; people who claim that Islam is an 'inherently violent' religion point to the suras glorifying the slaughter of infidels and preaching jihad, and defenders of its record on, say, women's rights, point to those that protect women's property rights, and that state (quite categorically) that men and women are equal, and treating the latter with respect is a fundamental duty. The Bible, of course, contains such verses as well. The problem is this: reading these tells us nothing about the status of violence or women's rights among communities of that religion.

One of the most illuminating moments of my recent trip came at my hotel in Cairo. A few of us and one of the hotel employees were discussing the status of women in Egypt, and the Egyptian declared that he would never, under any circumstances, allow his wife to work. He'd rather work three jobs, because for him to fail to be the provider for his household would be an ultimate shame. If she wanted to find a job, he'd stop her from doing so by any means necessary. Why? Because it's so written in the Qur'an - it is a man's, and only a man's, duty to provide: he would be a bad Muslim if he allowed her to work. However, there was a Pakistani woman staying there as well, on her way home from time spent working in Palestine, and she quickly contradicted him - 'it doesn't say that anywhere in the Qur'an.' It is in the Hadith then - the collection of direct accounts of the prophet's life that are the second important source of Muslim law. It was not there either, she insisted. This was the first time - but very much not the last - I heard a Muslim insist that the lives of most Muslims were incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

And the woman was right: famously, Muhammad's wife Khadijah owned her own business. Unlike most, if not all, religions of the time, the Muslim laws support a woman's right to hold property separate from that of her husband. The way one man explained it to me was this - women are actually better off in Islam, because a man has a duty to bring money and use it to support his family, but a woman taking a job can keep the money for herself. The upshot of this is still incompatible with women's rights, but it's not what we're used to hearing. The problem is, most Muslims aren't like Muhammad - they're like the Egyptian, and women living in their society consequently suffer greatly. Nor, as we would be inclined to expect, is the status of women proportional to the conventional symbols of 'female oppression', such as headscarves and veils - women in Iran, so famous for its religious laws, were more independent, more assertive, and better educated than in any Arab country, while Egypt, whose women are nominally free, is one of the most misogynistic places I've been to. This disconnect arises over a whole range of issues. Muhammad famously sheltered a Jew in his home, whereas the Arab world is beset by a very real anti-Semitism that sympathetic commentators often ignore. Similarly, many Westerners react in understandable horror at the treatment of animals especially dogs, in these countries - even though it is written that Muhammad said a woman who had let her cat starve would not go to paradise.

My personal favourite example, however, of disconnect between a religion and its foundational text comes from Christiani\ty. In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,' a statement well in keeping with Jesus' broader philosophy, that it is incumbent for a man of wealth to distribute it to the poor. Of course, now that Christianity is no longer poor and repressed but the faith of the richest countries in the world, there are many people like Rush Limbaugh who may be Christians but have no intention of giving away much of their vast wealth, and in fact actively oppose it reaching poor people by railing against Obama's supposed tax hikes. Christianity has solved this problem by one of the most ridicuolous sleights-of-hand in religious history - by claiming that the 'eye of the needle' was a nickname for a gate entering Jerusalem, through which a camel could just barely fit. Now, there is absolutely no evidence for this, and its patently ludicrous on its face - ludicrous, that is, to anyone without a vested interest in finding a loophole out of the requirements of his own religion. Of course most Christians, like most Muslims, don't actually know the precepts of their religion - they take them to be the norms of the religious culture they grew up in. That's why the Egyptian man could claim so confidently that no good Muslim would allow his wife to hold a job, and why conservatives claim that liberals aren't real Christians for ignoring a variety of sex-related propositions - and liberals claim the converse for ignoring Jesus' fundamental message of tolerance.

Such cognitive dissonance is par for the course in religious life. Leviticus commands us to stone those wearing materials of mixed cloth (I'm wearing 40% cotton - bring it on, Christians!), as well as a whole host of other rules that AJ Jacobs found out in his Year of Living Biblically; the title of this post comes from Psalm 137. The recently popular idea of Islamic Banking is almost as ridiculous as the 'eye of the needle' trick - Islam prohibits charging interest, but loans would never be made with out it, so a few bits of legalese and the sin of usury is neatly avoided. No religion could be more specifically against violence than Buddhism, yet Sri Lanka's Buddhism even now are wreaking havoc on the majority-Hindu Tamils on its little island. Native American religions, as white liberal guilt has made famous, preached harmony with the natural environment - but many of these societies overexploited their environments, going extinct when there wasn't any other place to exploit. Hinduism may be the only religion to escape this charge - precisely because it is so amorphous and heterogenous that one would be hard pressed to figure out what its stated precepts are.

We ignore these problems, though, because, as the Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real timesaver - we want nice, clear statements that we can generalise and then argue about, and Holy Books, because of their definitiveness, are the best places to provide this. 'Islam is an inherently violent religion' is one of the more popular Qur'an-defended assertions, and the only truth to it is one that applies equally to Christianity - these are proselytising religions, and among missionary arguments, 'convert or I'll kill you' is among the most powerful. Broadly, however, if you read only the Qur'an or the Bible, and then tried to predict what a society of its believers would look like, you wouldn't be close. Even if you got it right for the modern age, you'd be wrong for the situation a thousand years ago, when Islam was the centre of worldwide science and education, and Christianity had plunged Europe into what are justifiably known as the 'Dark Ages.' In our images of Islam as hostile to external thought, it is easy to forget that the only reason we retain knowledge of the Greek philosophers is because Christians captured their texts, in Arabic translation, during the reconquista of Spain - Christians had destoryed such pagan texts in Europe long ago. Now the situation is reversed - the Arab world has a far less educated populace, and the global centres of learning are uniformly in the Christian West, though some bits of Christianity are slipping into a shocking anti-intellectualism. The point is that none of these developments are based on an inherent 'pro-science' or 'anti-science' aspect in any of these religions.

Ultimately, I think, religion is more an expression of identity than an expression of truth - we may root our behavious in the Bible or the Qur'an, but we go on behaving in the same ways that everyone else in the world behaves. We pursue our desires and we protect our families; we love and we hate. More often than not, religion doesn't drive these behavious, but is rather a tool for rationalising them - that's why, as culture changed, parts of the Bible suddenly became 'metaphorical,' like the seven day account of creation, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to believe until the advent of modern science. So, except for a few fundamentalists, instead of making our beliefs fit our religion, we made our religion fit our beliefs - because these new 'beliefs' were actually knowledge rather than revealed truth. Of course, modern Western society has diverged so much from its roots that the only recourse among liberals has been to a sort of preceptless non-religion for which I have no respect; basically, anything in the Bible you don't like is 'metaphor' or 'irrelevant,' but you're still, somehow, a Christian. But that's okay - because the actions of these liberals, especially in areas such as tolerance of homosexuals or the support of the rights of women, are far more praiseworthy than the contrary stances in their holy books. Similarly, although the Qur'an has, by and large, an even more peaceful and tolerant message than the Bible does, the Arab world utterly fails to reflect such precepts, and is justly criticised for its lack of human rights and, ultimately, backwardness in social policy. When we talk about Islam, or Christianity, we often quote the Qur'an and the Bible - but then we fall into the same trap as so many sociologists, talking about who people say they are rather than who they actually are, which, ultimately, impedes any progress towards understanding these cultures.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Adventures in prehistory 21.II.2009 08:29
I stand before a mountainside dotted with pictures of men and of animals that represent the very beginnings of human symbolic thought. Herds of cattle and men at prayer, crudely but beautifully rendered, some of the first instances of self-representation, truly representing the origins of humanity as we know it. I am at Laas Gaal, one of the least-visited historical sites in the world, and one of its most impressive collections of neolithic paintings: unvisited because it is in Somaliland, in the picturesque plains of the countryside north of Hargeisa. The story of my how I arrived here, however, is almost as interesting as the place itself. It is the one place in this country which I desperately wanted to visit, so you can imagine my despair at being told that it would cost $170 - you needed an armed escort, a guide, and a 4x4 to travel there; an approach by public transit is - and all sources are unanimous on this - impossible. But I was determined; 'Impossible is nothing,' I thought, the traveller's spirit within me stirring - or perhaps it was an Adidas commercial. Regardless, I set myself a goal and wasn't going to leave without accomplishing it.

The first step was getting permission to travel on the roads at all. Because of an isolated incident some six years ago, when aid workers were kidnapped by Somali militants, the government here is paranoid about tourists travelling alone, and requires a second car and armed escort to accompany them outside of Hargeisa. So, on the advice of my friends Arne and Yoshi, I decided to seek out the one man who could grant this permission: the general of the police. Getting to police headquarters is a touch tricky - you have to cross a riverbed under a bridge being built, and you wind up in what are really the outskirts of town. Arriving at police headquarters, I was greeted by a man speaking perfect English - not just perfect but subtle and refined, a kind of English that has died out completely among my generation and can only be the product of the colonial era. I am informed that the general will see me shortly; he is a kindly old man, small-framed, bearded and bespectacled, not at all the imposing African strongman I was expecting to see at the head of such an organisation - though his voice carries an obvious authority that befits his station. He greets me, and asks where I am going. 'To Berbera,' I say, half-lying - the road to Berbera takes me past Laas Gaal, and this is no problem; I get my permission within 15 minutes, with a nice official stamp and the general's signature. I'm on my way.

Unfortunately, because everyone's agreed that getting to Laas Gaal by public transport is impossible, and there is genuinely no transport directly to the site itself, there was not even any information about how to approach it - so I went to the best source of information in town, Mr. Saidi at the Oriental Hotel, who informed me that I needed to go to the village of Dhubato, on the road to Berbera and about five kilometres from the site. He was sceptical of the whole endeavour, especially since it was already 11AM and I would need to hitchhike back - he said I'd have to do this at night, but I didn't believe him - I had a full eight hours until sunset, after all. So I headed down to the shared taxi station and booked the $5 seat to Berbera; after this, we needed to wait for the car to fill; there were six people and the car needed ten. 'An hour or two,' I thought to myself, Berbera being the country's second city. Alas, there was a truth about Africa that my mind, in its enthusiasm, had ignored: you will wait. You will wait a long time, and then your car will go, drive 300m, and then you will wait again. The continent simply cannot conceptualise the idea of being in a hurry, and the concept of scheduling is completely absent; it's a kind of fatalism really: things take as long as they take, period. People you thought were part of your care were really just the driver's friends having a chat; so despite having begun at 11:15, it was already 3PM when I left. Time was short, and I couldn't help but think I'd made a mistake not waiting until the next day.

This impression was strongly reinforced by the confusion that erupted at the police checkpoint when I gave them the general's letter. In the many hours of waiting, I had told my fellow travellers - or at least, those who spoke English - that I was going to Laas Gaal, and of course they felt that they should be the one's to explain things to the police, not me. The locals always believe this, that because they speak the language and you're a helpless tourist you need to just stand aside and let them sort it out for you, but it really doesn't work - they are very afraid of authority here, and besides, sometimes the comprehension gap leads the officer to just get frustrated and wave you through. So, as soon as they said the words 'Laas Gaal,' I had the letter shoved back at me with a dismissing wave of the hand: I wasn't going anywhere. I had to go back. I was getting ready to start hinting about bribes, but this didn't seem like a place they'd be receptive, so I tried a different tack: I started shouting (over everyone that was speaking for me) that I was just going to Dhubato, and that I had sorted out my escort there (untrue). This wasn't really what the letter gave me permission either, but after some back-and-forth between the soldiers and policemen and security men - all these checkpoints are staffed by men in various uniforms and some without who have no leader among them - I was finally let through. Another hurdle cleared.

We arrived in Dhubato, and I must say, I expected the place to be a bit bigger - it can't have had more than a hundred or so people, in a few houses that stretched along the road. Here, again, the locals insisted they knew best, and before I had a choice they snatched my letter and went right to the local police with it - the one thing I had wanted not to do. 'He'll go alone,' they said, 'he says it's no problem,' somehow not realising that I was not the one who would have a problem with that. Instantly, I was told it was impossible - 'there are nomads,' I was told, nomadic being a byword in many parts of the Arab world. I thought I was done, but someone called the chief of the local police to come, and he rolled up in a 4x4 and, after some confusion and a bit of negotiating over price, he would allow me to go with a guide but without a soldier. The price wound up being $30, which is very expensive, and I think I could have got it down to $20, but it was getting late and I was a bit ecstatic at the idea of accomplishing my mission at all, so I decided to take it.

I'm glad I did, because the site is truly amazing. It's a six kilometre walk from the village, which is quite long, and I realised I'd be walking back at sunset - Mr. Saidi had been right in saying I should wait until the morning. The mountain rises from what is an otherwise flat plane, and it is no mystery that the locals chose it as the place of their mystical paintings. The guide led me up to an alcove, and I was greeted by an amazing site - dozens of figures, of men and of cows and of the moon and stars painted across the wall, in shades of red and black. These, not partial skeletons like Lucy at the Addis Ababa museum, are the true origins of man, the marks of homo sapiens, not merely erectus and habilis but creans and sciens and locutus. These are the beginnings of thought, the first creations of what Aristotle would have called our rational mind, the one that distinguishes us from all the other creatures of the land, air and sea. It is also, in a sense, one of mankind's first stabs at permanence, at immortality: a representation of themselves that would survive the flesh that made it. It is these small, crudely-drawn men, arms raised in worship, that impressed me the most, for they represent the eye turned inward, drawing not what you see but what others might, and leaving it for the sight of others. The artwork is genuinely beautiful in and of itself, but it is this feeling of contact with nascent human thought that is truly awe-inspiring.

The view from here is amazing too, the African plains stretching for miles interrupted only by a few other mountains rising in the distance, islands in a desert sea. It was getting, dark though, and my guide was getting impatient, so we began the long trek back. At one point, we see a man walking down, wearing the usual attire of the nomads - a skirt-like garment around his legs and an AK-47 across his shoulder, and I am glad I didn't go alone. My guide spoke no English and only a little Arabic, and I never could determine whether the nomad was sent by someone to meet us, or might have robbed us given half the chance - my guide seemed tense and would not look him in the eye, though he was a gruff old man who might have talked that way to everyone. A few miles on we encountered a soldier as well, and meeting a series of armed men as darkness encroaches, when you are still a half-hours walk from the nearest settlement, is a bit nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, my guide talked to him a little, not breaking his stride, and we pressed on back to Dhubato.

Although humanity has made great strides since the neolithic era, we remain at the mercy of our fragile bodies, afraid when alone because we could be felled so easily by a club or, now, a bullet. I was reminded of my lack of control in another way, when my body decided, in the middle of the field, that its bowels needed to be emptied immediately. I considered trying to press on, but that could only have ended in disaster, so I gestured to my stomach, looked at my guide and said 'ana marid' - I'm sick. He smiled slightly, but understood, and so there I was, with only a few semi-tall shrubs to use as a bathroom. Unfortunately, this was one of only two or three times during the trip when I had not had the chance to replenish the supply of that most important travel essential, toilet paper, and my choice came down to my photocopy of a Lonely Planet, and the leaves of some mysterious plant. Evolution being what it is, however, the plant's leaves were designed to retain water at all costs in this arid landscape, and I was forced to use the former. Oh well, I wasn't going to Burcao or Sheex anyway.

We made it back to Dhubato, and I didn't even have to hitch a ride - the police commander had a car going back to Hargeisa at 8PM and I could get that, though when we got there they tried to charge me $10, of course. I paid $5, so in the end the entire excursion cost me $40, which isn't bad for a site of Laas Gaal's remoteness and magnificence; I'm very glad I did it, and it was much less than the $170 I had been quoted. My Somali adventures weren't over yet though: there still remained the matter of getting out of the country, a long trek by a rough road to the Djibouti border. I arranged this through the Oriental Hotel, partly because they had already helped me a lot and I hadn't given the any money, and I wasn't even a guessed - I was staying in a the Geed Debre Hotel, which was only 10,000 shillings - $1.60! - a night and therefore far more inside my budget, though if you can spare $15 the Oriental is a great value. So at two the next afternoon, the hotel cook took me down to the meeting point for cars to Djibouti, which I'd been told leave around four - they always drive overnight because in the summer, when temperatures near the coast routinely pass the 40°C mark, daytime driving would be torture. So, this being Africa, we began to wait.

The wait turned out, unsurprisingly, to be five hours long, and the only thing that made it bearable was the semi-narcotic plant that the whole region was addicted to qat. Qat, in addition to being a powerful force on the Scrabble board, is a stimulant, ingested by chewing the leaves and squeezing out the juice. This is an activity that all men (and some women) from Yemen to Ethiopia practice, and when I say all, I mean all: the cities pretty much shut down between noon and four as everyone goes to chew the weed. It's a scourge on productivity, and reading about it, I never understood how a stimulant could lower that, but I do now: for the principle effect of qat is to make nothing bearable. In addition to making your mind more active, it produces a state of mild euphoria, so although my eyes were darting around and there was an edge to my voice, I was never annoyed or frustrated or bored; for five hours, as I sat chewing, everything seemed perfectly fine and I wasn't particularly bothered about when the car would arrive. I had tried it twice before, with no effect, but then I had been in the middle of trips when my mind would have been quite active anyway; it would be like drinking a cup of coffee when you're already very busy, no discernible effect. Waiting, though, normally makes me incredibly impatient, to the point where I hate even putting in the effort to talk to people whose English isn't great, but this time everything was no problem. It saved me on the rough sixteen hours through the mountains and desert to Djibouti too - sleep was impossible because you would be woken up within minutes by your head hitting the ceiling or dashboard, depending on your position. Thanks to qat, though, sleep wasn't a problem, and I arrived without incident the next morning.

Et quelle surprise - Djibouti, c'est vraiment un pays francophone. Ici, c'est pas comme les colonies angliases, où l'anglais et une langue connue seulement par l'élite - ici, tout le monde parle français. Le problème, c'est que mon français et très pauvre, et il y a beaucoup des mots que je ne connais pas ou j'ai oublié, alors c'est très difficile pour moi comprendre les gens - je dois vraiment habiter en France pour apprendre ce langue. Aussi, Djibouti et très, très cher; dans la Ville de Djibouti, un chambre dans un hôtel coût au moins €20! Alors, je suis venu à la petit village Ali Sabieh, presque de la frontière Éthiopienne, et c'est mieux ici. La vie et les prix, c'est plus comme à Somalie ou à l'Éthiopie - mon chambre coût seulement 1500Fr, ou €6. Je veux partir demain, inchallah par bâteau mais peut-être par avion, à Yemen, et après ça ma voyage et finie et je dois travailler, presque certainement à Caïre. Mais pour aujourd'hui je vais rélaxer, boire de la thé et pratiquer mon français avec les Djiboutiens. À bientôt!

Ali Sabieh, Djibouti Dj

Ethiopian cultural blog post 14.II.2009 07:57
In many countries, certain English phrases take root and spread throughout the population to become ubiquitous. In Ethiopia, in addition to the inadvertantly rude greeting 'you!' and the perplexingly incorrect question 'where are you go?', one word that has done so is 'cultural'. Anything even remotely Ethiopian gets pointed out to you. At a restaurant, your fellow patrons will proudly point out that you are eating Ethiopian cultural food, drinking Ethiopian cultural beer, and listening to Ethiopian cultural music - in fact, I have a picture of three adjacent shops all of which are signed 'Ethiopian cultural clothes shop,' with no other name to distinguish them. Ethiopians are proud of their heritage, and have preserved it against western influence better than almost any country I've seen - the youth here embrace more traditional culture than, say, their Tibetan counterparts; the constant repetition of the phrase, however, leaves one yearning for synonyms.

The main problem, though, is with how shallow a concept of culture the visitor is presented. Everyone's description of what they are so proud of in Ethiopia comes down to food, drink, music, language, clothes and dancing - especially dancing, which you will be pressured into trying, and, since its foundation is a fiendishly difficult movement of the shoulders, you will make a fool of yourself. Whenever I've asked about the differences between regions, after the standard religious answer I've often just got a description of the clothes - 'oh, we are in Wollo now; here people wear all white on Sundays,' or a comment about the cuisine. It's not that the culture isn't rich and deep as any other, of course - it is, after all, a millennia-old civilisation - but these things you have to discover for yourself by making the effort to establish deeper, perhaps longer-term connections with the locals.

Except in the cases of a few people I've got to know well, my conversations with English-speaking Ethiopians have been phenomenally shallow and tediously repetitive. They ask you if you've seen Gonder, Aksum, Lalibela and Bahir Dar, and they tell you some simple facts, and a few rote-learned boasts about their country - 85 tribes, 54 (or lately, more) languages, 2000 years of history. When I was there on Timkat, I was told that this was an 'Ethiopian cultural festival' dozens of times, but rarely more than that - only when we spent the day with the priests in Shehedi did we learn more. I thought perhaps it would change in Harar, which is supposed to be radically different from the rest of the country, but it really is the same. It takes a fair bit of foreplay to get the conversation to a level where you're getting information beyond the kind that any even minimally informed tourist would have.

I think, however, that I know the reason for this: most tourists here aren't even minimally informed. They come in their 4x4s and their truck-mounted hotels (seriously: it's called a Rotel, or Rolling Hotel) and keep themselves completely isolated from the culture or its people. Even most independent travellers stick to whatever facts and sights happen to be mentioned in the Lonely Planet - the 'faranji Bible,' as one of the Hararis perceptively called it. Of course, even reading the guidebooks gives more information than most of my conversations have, so it's not a bad start, but I think the middle-aged package tourists, out on 'adventures' with their water packs and massive Hummers are the kind of people the guides are looking for; they'll listen and nod happily along, and go back to England and tell their friends how amazing this tribe is - they wear plates in their lips! Of course, the tribes, not being idiots, play up to these impulses so that more tourists come to visit - a friend of mine who had studied the Dogon in Mali said that everything that used to be part of the culture has been turned into a part of the tourist industry, and several friends have complained of how ostentatious and artificial the Omo valley tribes seem, because the culture on display isn't the true rich and deep one but one rooted entirely in shallow trappings and shibboleths like robes and chants and dishes, at root from the same mentality as Homer Simpson's on his first taste of Indian cinema: 'It's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes!'

Another interesting, but disparate part of Ethiopian culture, and one which I've never actually heard a native Ethiopian discuss, are the Rastafarians, who believe Emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari) is an incarnation of God and who have therefore come to his homeland as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Ethiopians seem to be partly mystified and partly appalled by this, and no Rastafari immigrant has yet been given Ethiopian citizenship, nor have their children, even if they were born here. The rastas claim they have the right to smoke marijuana legally, and they try to sell you some at every opportunity, with one guy in Addis bothering me constantly and in the end hating me for not buying any. It's strange, though, how isolated they still seem from mainstream Ethiopia, and it's not really a wonder: imagine if suddenly thousands of people started coming from, say, Papua New Guinea, proclaiming Prince Charles to be the messiah come to Earth; a genuine Christian (or monarchist) wouldn't know how to react.

Another aspect that the rastas have brought over the Atlantic is the famous Caribbean homophobia, of which I was somewhat unexpectedly, almost a victim on an Addis street. After six months of travelling my hair has grown pretty long, and although I'd like to cut it I'm reluctant to do so in a country where every single man has curly hair; I should have done it in Cairo. Moreover, I don't really care about dressing in a way that tries oh-so-hard to live up to some ideal of masculinity. So a fairly drunk guy comes up to me on the street and just out of nowhere yells, 'why do you act like a girl? In Ethiopia, you have to act like a man!' which is just the beginning of a fairly long tirade which just left me staring at him bemused. His friend took me aside and apologised, but explained that when I am in another country I need to respect its culture. How did I disrespect it? By not wearing low-slung jeans, having long hair, and generally not trying to look like a gangster. That, to him, was the culture, just the same way as the shallowest of people oppose school uniforms because it would rob them of their individuality, as if that amounted only to what one was wearing. I don't really put much effort into seeming straight or gay and honestly, the stereotypes associated with gay men are generally more positive than those of heterosexuals, but having grown up in Canada I never though I'd be at any kind of risk because some idiot on the street thought I was a faggot. And this was just from seeing me on the street - I can't imagine what he'd have done if he'd known I like poetry and Kylie Minogue.

Though, I've been quite negative about Ethiopian 'culture' here, I don't mean to disparage it, but only the way the locals describe it to outsiders. It is, of course, rich in subtlety, and the art is quite beautiful in addition to being old; one just wishes that the Ethiopians didn't focus so much on trumped-up and dubious claims about their country - the same goes for their government, whose incredibly propagandistic tourist information pamphlets just come across as laughable. Ras Dashen is emphatically not the fourth-highest peak in Africa, and the true Ark of the Covenant isn't behind some curtain at a church in Aksum, guarded by blind men and not allowed to be seen. I've enjoyed some aspects of Ethiopia, but it's been a struggle to see past the greedy guides and the presentation of the country as if everything about it could be captured in a ten-page tourist pamphlet. Now I head for Jijiga, in Ethiopia's Wild East frontier, but after that it's out and away from this interesting, but sometimes frustrating, Ethiopian cultural land.

Harar, Ethiopia Et

The land is the blood 07.II.2009 07:16
Travelling in Ethiopia, you will never cease to be reminded of the country's cultural diversity - '85 languages,' anyone who speaks even a bit of English will tell you, 'more than 90 ethnic groups.' Underlying this, however, is a preoccupation with heritage that's quite prominent in both Africa and the Middle East, a belief that a person's ancestors an define him in a way that is quite at odds with modern Western individualism. I hae mentioned before my Turkish friend Omer from Cairo, who would never be Egyptian despite his family's having lived there for generation; they always marry within the community, and so the blood is kept both pure and separate from the society in which they live, never to be accepted by it. One people learn that I was born in Poland, and that my parents are Polish, I'm never really Canadian to them - my heritage precludes it. Although I've felt this feeling many times before - harrassed by children in Shiraz, I was told, 'they're Afghans, of course' - it had never been put into such sharp focus as it has in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

Since the mid-nineties, Ethiopia has been divided into regions based on ethnicity; there is a region for the Amhara, who have traditionally ruled and whose language is the country's official one, despite not being the most numerous; there is a region for the Oromo, who are the most numerous ethnic group but have never held power; there is a region for the 'Southern Tribal Peoples,' a catch-all for the largely animist or Protestant tribes of southern Ethiopia and who now perform roughly the same role as zoo animals would for passing tourists; and so on for the Tigray, the Afar, the Somali, etc. Of course, the words 'Africa' and 'tribalism' are so closely associated in our minds that there hardly seems need to prove the point, but Ethiopia has delineated tribal divisions so openly that it can't be ignored, and although it offends my liberal Western instincts, I can't decide whether it really is a good policy or not, regional identity being quite strong in the population - though the national unity posters in celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium, proclaiming the brotherhood of all tribes, remind me strongly of China's attempts to proclaim the glory of Tibet (the Autonomous Region) and the artificial creation that is Qinghai province.

In Ethiopia, though, the ethnic identity often mixes with history; the emperors have traditionally been Amhara, as were the communist dissidents who would take Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, imprisno, and kill him, and who would become the monstrous Derg regime which held Ethopia in an iron grip for two decades. They were in turn overthrown by those who make up the current, less (though not un-) oppressive government - but these men were not Amhara, but Tigrayan, and had their roots in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which ends in the two words so common when reading about political change in Africa. Travelling through the Tigray region after having spent a week and a half in the Amhara one, one can't help but notice that the lights were a bit brighter, the roads smoother, and the power outages rarer, as though, for some unknown reason, a little bit more government funding came to these parts than others. Ethiopians I've talked to seem to be ambivalent about their government - some proclaim that there is no freedom and no work, which is true, but others say Ethiopia is making progress, and are extremely proud that the African Union summit is currently being held here. I couldn't help but notice, though, that the complaints I heard came in the Amhara and Oromo regions - never in the Tigray.

Human identity, though, defines itself most often in terms of whom it excludes and the Habesha, as the Ethiopians call themselves, Amhara and Tigray alike, consider themselves superior to other sub-Saharan Africans, even as they feel a kinship with them. 'The only imperial power in Black Africa,' the information pamphlet on Aksum proudly proclaims, so presumably the rulers of Songhay and Zimbabwe were merely glorified chieftains. Ge'ez, the Ethiopians' native script, is often cited as the only native African writing system, when it is in fact adapted from the Sabaean of Arabia. When you ask Ethiopians what distinguishes their country in Africa, the most common answer is an abstract, spoken as though capitalised - 'Culture' or 'Civilisation.' Moreover, Ethiopia was the only place left uncolonised during the 19th-century 'Scramble for Africa,' a fact of which Ethiopians are extremely proud - despite several years of occupation by Mussolini which have left a simultaneous hatred and reverence for the occupiers' culture typical of post-colonial countries, which is why the country is full of piazzas and macchiatos, and an old man on the street greeted me with buongiorno, as he must have seen his parents do to foreigners when he was young.

Identity works in concentric circles, radiating out from the self into more diffuse and inclusive self-designations until it becomes all-inclusive and therefore meaningless, as light radiates out into the black vaccuum of space until there is nothing in the emptiness to illuminate. First, we identify with our family, then with our ethnicity or clan, then with our country, then with our civilisation (in the Huntingtonian sense), and only then, potentially, with all of humanity, though this is rare if not wholly non-existent. You can see this in the way we stereotype people locally - people from Mississauga are boring suburbanites, people from Queen West are pretentious dicks, etc. - and group unfamiliar people into larger groups - all Muslims are violent. This is because our identity as, say, an Annex resident is defined against other neighbourhoods, and ours as a Westerner against the other worlds that we instictively perceive as homogenous - in fact, we reduce our own civilisation to a kind of homogeneity when we assert our identity as part of it, as I did when I referred to my 'liberal Western instincts' a few paragraphs ago. In Ethiopia, both riven by and united despite divisions into regions and sub-regions and clans, the nature of identity is easily visible. When I was involved in a dispute with several of the 'guides' over their payment, they tried to make me angry, and they thought they had an infallible strategy - 'I thought Canadians were good people,' they said, 'but I see they are greedy, just like Americans.' They simply could not imagine that an insult on my country would not be deeply personal - especially drawing in the country against which Canadians define themselves, showing a bit of astuteness on their part - because a similar comment about Ethiopians would have been very insulting, which is why I took care to contrast their behaviour to others' I'd met. They assume that this instinct prevails in all people - to defend their identity groups in the face of others, and to take generalisations about them as statements about themselves. This is, of course, patriotism, exactly the same kind displayed in so many political speeches, from the United States to Iraq to North Korea, a feeling taken for granted as a virtue by people all over the world.

In my opinion, however, patriotism is one of the worst things in existence. It is the adaptation of tribalism to the age of the city-state, and like its mother philosophy it comes down to this: that when two lives are weighed in the balance, the scale is tipped by considerations of geography. It is the belief that a place is superior simply because you were born there - proved to be my grandmother with her constant assertions that Polish yoghurts and meats are much better than Western ones, and by a policeman in Poland who told my father to 'go back to Canada and your plastic ham!' on being given an Ontario driver's license. It's easy to understand why patriotism exists from an evolutionary perspective - in social animals, gene survive most often with groups as well as with individuals, and groups which helped one another against other groups were more thus more likely to survive. Such behaviour reaches its apotheosis among certain tribes of Papua New Guinea, who kill anyone they encounter unless he is a recognised member of their in-group, but the modern manifestations of this are everywhere. I'm far from free of them myself - I still feel a strong pride whenever Toronto achieves something or is in the news, and I feel the classic tribal feeling when watching the Leafs or TFC, because sports is, of course, war transposed onto the more civilised plane of the ice rink or the football pitch. Nevertheless, I would never work to the detriment of other human beings simply because they did not share my ethnicity, and I am now travelling in a land where this is not just common but assumed as inevitable - as it probably is the world over.

It is certainly the case in the United States, where the prominence of 'American interests,' and the President's serving of them, is taken as a given. This is particularly interesting considering the excitement Barack Obama has inspired among Africans - I've eaten at the Obama Restaurant in Bahir Dar and used the internet at the Obama Business Centre in Mekelle, and Kenya declared the day of his inauguration a national holiday. There are 'Yes We Can' t-shirts everywhere here, bilingual in English and Amharic, and every Ethiopian to whom I've spoken on the subject thinks he's 'a good man' who will definitely be 'good for Africa.' Why? Because he's African - he has African blood. The fact that Obama himself identifies as African-American with a heavy emphasis on the latter does not enter their calculations: he will help Africans more than others because he shares their blood more than others', just as the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in trying to raise Ethiopia raises Tigray just a little bit more. This is human nature, instinctual and irrevocable, and I have no doubt that even if Barack Obama is a great president he will be a huge disappointment for Africa.

Ultimately, the jins, the Arabic word for tribe, remains one of the primary units of self-identity in Africa, though it is not as bad in Ethiopia as in some places whose 'national identity' exists only in the football stadium. That is why people here have such trouble comprehending the nature of my dual citizenships - they cannot believe that I could betray my blood so wholly and serve that of another nation; I don't serve Canada in any meaningful sense, of course, but that's another issue. Similarly, a nationalist Russian I met in a Beirut hostel insisted on talking to me in his native language, straining my grasp of it to the breaking point, asserting that Westerners, though they acted like my friends, could never really be because they did not have Slavic blood like he and I did. The notion of bloodlines, of fate and nature determined by birthright is inescapable here, and there is quite a strong undercurrent of it even among the secular humanists of the Western world. I hope such a feeling might lessen as the march of civilisation, if it exists, moves forward, but I fear that the survival instincts honed by evolution in the African savannah and beyond, will be insuperable.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Et