Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From ‘Baghdad without a map. And other misadventures in Arabia’ by Tony Horwitz

I never saw a fat man in the desert
-          Richard Burton, nineteenth-century English explorer

“Cairo,” a long suffering correspondent once declared, “is the biggest upturned ashtray in the world.”

YEMEN ………..

A habit peculiar to the Yemenis is the chewing of a mildly narcotic leaf called qat, mainly throughout the afternoon. Parties are held at which business may be settled, and a foreigner honoured with an invitation should accept …..Addiction to the taste need not be feared.
-          The British Bank of the Middle East, Business Profile Series

“He who blows into fire makes either flames or is covered by ash,” read the proverb on page one of my Traveller’s Guide to Yemen…….. another “A lasting little is better than an ending lot.”
It was either the worst tour book ever written or the worst translation.
…. “You may stretch your feet only to the length of your mattress,” began a chapter titled “General Description of Yemen.” The guide ended with this bewildering message: “Don’t teach the bear how to throw stones.”

….I had noticed another odd thing about Yemen: the natives treated foreigners with total indifference. In Cairo, complete strangers would often demand, “Where are you from? Is this wife?.....” or peer into your shopping bag on the street ….In Yemen, apart from a few merchants and peddlars, most people were either too proud or too stoned to even look a visiting Westerner in the eye.

The toilet didn’t flush, however, and judging from its contents, hadn’t for some time.

I awoke later the next morning to the sound of automatic gunfire ….. Rushing to the window, I located the gunslingers just below. A boy of about ten was tearing pages from a magazine and pinning them to the mud wall….. Then he and a middle-aged man took turns pumping lead into the pages with a huge automatic pistol. It was a touching scene, in a Yemeni sort of way; father and son, on a bright Sunday morning, out for target practice in Saada. The father seemed particularly pleased with a series of head shots drilled into what looked like the photograph of the Yemeni president.

It was the first gathering of three or more Yemenis I’d seen that showed no evidence of either qat or jambiyas.

PERSIAN GULF: The Strait of Hoummos ……
“When the chips are down, there is only one real place in the entire area – Egypt,” a Cairo diplomat once declared. “All the rest – forgive me – are tribes with flags.”

Kochrekar allowed himself the first smile of the long boat ride. “You must let no current move you from the path you have chosen,” he said, taking the wheel. Even his simplest statements seemed lifted from the Upanishads.

There were also captains from Korea, the Philippines and Pakistan. It was the same as on shore; everyone but Arabs was doing the Arabs’ business.

CAIRO DAYS: Ozymandias Slept Here ….
In Arab homes, as in Jewish ones, overeating is an obligatory expression of love.

Cairo was also the first city I’d seen where policemen stood at intersections simply to enforce the traffic lights.

….Egyptian also are fond of driving at night without headlights, keeping them in reserve to use as a spare horn when a simple honk won’t do. Honk-honk-flash-flash-honk-flash-flash-flash; they burrow like moles through the night.
Nor surprisingly, Egyptian drivers are the most homicidal in the world, killing themselves and others at a rate twenty-tive times that of drivers in America (and without the aid of alcohol). Motorists in other Arab countries are almost as driving-impaired. The only insight I ever gained into this suicidal abandon came from a speeding Kurdish driver, after he’d recklessly run over a bird.
“Allah wanted it dead,” he said. The same fatalism applied to passengers.

The first thing you notice, coming to Israel from the Arab world, is that you have left the most courteous region of the globe and entered the rudest. The difference is so profound that you’re left wondering when the mutation in Semitic blood occurred, as though God parted the Red Sea and said: “Okay, you rude ones, keep wandering toward the Promised Land. The rest of you can stay here and rot in the desert, saying ‘welcome, most welcome’ and drowning each other in tea until the end of time.”

The second striking thing about Israel, arriving from the Arab world, is how much the two cultures have in common. Hebrew and Arabic are closer to each other than to any other third tongue. …..Religious fanaticism has also bred a certain kinship. Bowing their beaver hats and sidelocks at the Wailing Wall, the ultra-Orthodox Chasidim reminded me of nothing so much as the bearded, skullcapped fundamentalists in Cairo, bowing toward Mecca. ….Both see God’s hand in everything they do, and godlessness in everything done by anyone else

We arrived at Tripoli’s airport ….. The airport was unadorned, except for the bewildering messages scrawled on the walls. The prohibition of English apparently didn’t extend to the pronouncements of Colonel Qaddafi.  Not that this made them any easier to understand.
The slogans were the first clue to the wackiness of Libya – or rather, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Great Jamahiriya. Jamahiriya was a word coined by Qaddafi, meaning, roughly, “republic of the masses.” He had added the “Great” after the U.S. bombing of Tripoli in 1986, an event which, in the inverted logic of Libyan propaganda, constituted a glorious victory.

American diplomats in Khartoum received a twenty-five percent pay boost, as a hardship bonus. Even Egyptians regarded their southern neighbor with distaste. Sudan was filthy and poor, they observed without irony, and the Sudanese were lazy. This from a country where a government survey once concluded that the average Egyptian worked twenty-six minutes a day. A country that made Cairo look industrious and orderly by comparison was something that I had to see for myself.

According to the Sudan Tourism Guide, “Currency exchange rates are, from time to time, announced by the Bank of Sudan.” Taxi rates were set “according to an official tariff announced from time to time.” From time to time, a new government also announced itself, usually over the radio waves, at odd hours, with an accompanying score of gunfire. Civil war raged in the south, as it had, from time to time, for twenty-one years. “Yet the people,” the tourism guide assured me, “are peace-loving and friendly.”

The telephone system was so bad that many phones in Khartoum hadn’t rung for years.

At Sudan’s Natural History Museum, the Living Collection was mostly dead.

I found ….the museum’s curator, in a dusty office beside a bank of seven phones. They, too, were dead. “This one rang last year,” he said, pointing at the nearest phone. “It was a wrong number.”
……The museum suffered from the same problem as every other institution in Sudan. Its budget had remained stable for the past five years. Unfortunately, the Sudanese pound hadn’t, nor had inflation; the museum’s meager allotment was now worth five percent of what it had been five years before.

…..Sudan’s key economic indicators ……….
1. A foreign debt of $14 billion, on which Sudan paid nothing and which now accounted for a third of all overdue payments to the International Monetary Fund.
2. Inflation rate of 100 percent a year.
3. Factories running at 5 percent of capacity. ……..

There is no fun in Islam.
-          Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Home-cooked food in Iran was the best I’d yet sampled in the Middle East.

Khomeini, for all his fanaticism, hadn’t abused power to enrich himself or advance his family.

Iranians, like Arabs, eat late and don’t linger long once the dinner is done.

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