The Zeyrek District – The timelessness of intolerance and hypocrisy

When the Roman Emperor Justinian I presided over the dedication of Hagia Sophia, the great church he had ordered rebuilt in Constantinople, he is reputed to have said, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’ Justinian ruled the Empire from 527 to 565 CE, and is referred to by some as ‘The Great’, for his efforts to reconquer western territories and restore the imperial glory lost to ‘barbarians’ a century before. His reign may also mark the beginning of the confusion over this part of the world that has bedevilled Western minds for a thousand years.

Remains of St Polyeuctus - You may not want to linger

Remains of St Polyeuctus – You may not want to linger

Justinian is said by some to have been the last ‘Roman’ emperor, and to have been the last to speak Latin as his first language. Others prefer to call him a ‘Byzantine’, and to focus on Hagia Sophia’s long history as the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. Roman or Byzantine, the Emperor was justly proud of his new cathedral, completed in 537. So proud was he, indeed, that he compared his achievement with that of the Hebrew King Solomon, whose legendary temple in ancient Jerusalem continues to serve as a powerful symbol of . . . certain things that we needn’t discuss here.

Having heard this tale often repeated, I was surprised to learn just the other day that the great Justinian may have had a more immediate and pressing reason for making his proud boast. With this story we will begin our stroll around the UNESCO-listed historic quarter of Zeyrek.

If you walk from Aksaray towards the Golden Horn, before passing under the great aqueduct of the 4th century Emperor Valens, you will see on your left, or perhaps smell, a large fenced-off area, somewhat overgrown, with the ruins of obviously ancient masonry below the level of the street. What you are seeing is all that remains of the 6th century church built and dedicated to St Polyeuctus by the fabulously wealthy Roman Imperial Princess Anicia Juliana. Possibly because of her Roman connection, this lady may have harboured some resentment towards the Constantinopolitan line, and wished to make a point with the church she endowed.

Büryan Kebap - Vegetarians may prefer to eat elsewhere

Büryan Kebap – Vegetarians may prefer to eat elsewhere

Whatever her motive, the good princess funded the construction of the largest basilica church in town just as our man Justinian was ascending the throne. Little remains of the great edifice apart from vaulted foundations and scattered fragments of marble columns and capitals – but in its day it was apparently spectacular in its ostentatious display of wealth. What may have particularly got Justinian’s goat was Juliana’s claim, expressed in a self-glorifying inscription, that her new temple had been specifically designed to rival or overshadow that of Solomon. What self-respecting emperor could stand for that?

Hagia Sophia is one of modern Istanbul’s major tourist attractions. St Polyeuctus, sad to say, is now little more than a home for the homeless – which accounts for the aroma assailing our nostrils as we pass by. Both churches, however, had lapsed into hard times long before the city fell to its Ottoman conquerors in the 15th century. Juliana’s grand project had fallen into ruin by the 11th century, and much of its gorgeous decoration had been reused in other buildings. Siege and conquest of Constantinople by crusading Christians from the West in 1204 saw Hagia Sophia itself converted to a Roman Catholic church – and many of the city’s treasures carried off to Venice, Vienna and Barcelona. Spare a thought for the passing of once-mighty empires as you pass by.

Molla Zeyrek Mosque - or the monastery church of Christ Pantokrator

Molla Zeyrek Mosque – or the monastery church of Christ Pantokrator

We have some walking ahead of us, so I suggest a hearty meal to build up your reserves of energy. A year or two ago The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled the 10 Best Meat Restaurants in Istanbul. Continue down the main road and just before arriving at the aqueduct, veer left into an open square featuring the statue of an Ottoman warrior mounted on a stallion leaping over the heads of several surprisingly calm-looking gentlemen in robes. The horseman is Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople and namesake of the district, Fatih, where we now find ourselves. Ahead you will see a side road passing under one of the arches of the ancient aqueduct which will lead you into another world of street-vendors, halal butchers, and on the right, our next port of call: Siirt Şeref Kebap Restaurant. Don’t waste time studying the menu – what you want (with apologies to vegetarians) is a dish of Büryan Kebap, small pieces of barbecued lamb served on Turkish bread, and maybe perde pilavı, a miniature castle of rice, chicken, walnuts, currants enshrined in a thin pastry shell. If you have room for dessert, the house speciality is dondurmalı irmik helvası, a baked semolina-based sweet with a heart of ice cream and topped with a squirt of chocolate sauce. What more can I say?

Take your time strolling down the street, enjoy the ambience, buy some honey or dried fruit and nuts if you can carry them. After the shops end and the road narrows, you will arrive at a small, newly renovated but evidently historic building labeled as the tomb of Zembilli Ali Efendi, Şeyhülislam (chief religious authority) at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Efendi was apparently such a venerated character that people were afraid to seek his advice face to face. The preferred method was to place written questions in a basket (zembil) lowered from an upper storey window for delivery to the great man above. Answers would be delivered by the same means to supplicants waiting respectfully on the street below. Some present-day Turks living in upper-storey flats preserve this custom when dealing with their local grocer.

The 11th century church of Christ Pantepoptes

The 11th century church of Christ Pantepoptes

Preliminaries over, we are now ready to visit the main attraction in the Zeyrek quarter which did, in fact, give its name to the entire neighbourhood. Major restoration work is currently in progress, so getting inside is more difficult than formerly – but even from the outside the structure is impressive. The building that Molla Zeyrek took over after the Ottoman Conquest as a madrasah, an educational complex, had been built in the early 12th century as a monastery dedicated to Christ Pantokrator. After Hagia Sophia, it is the second largest Byzantine religious edifice still standing. What remains consists of two churches on either side of a smaller chapel, and the mortal remains of numerous Byzantine dignitaries, including several emperors and empresses are buried here.

You won’t be hungry yet, I’m sure, but it will be worth your while to order a coffee in the Zeyrekhane Restaurant next door. The view over the old city, the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and newer suburbs on the European and Asian shores is not to be missed, and the price of a coffee will also buy you a photo op. If you have an Internet connection you may like to visit Byzantium 1200, a remarkable website showcasing computer reconstructions of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments.

The Zeyrek district is notorious as a labyrinth of narrow tortuous streets and steep stairways, so I’m not going to attempt directions. I came here once by taxi with friends from New Zealand, and the driver had no idea where he was or how to get where he were going. Follow your nose and ask your way to Haydar Caddesi (Avenue). The locals are sure to be helpful.

At least one Ottoman Sultan had a softer side

At least one Ottoman Sultan had a softer side

Not far beyond Zeyrek Mosque is another former Byzantine church, now known as Eski İmaret Camii (Mosque). There is some scholarly debate, but the majority opinion seems to be that this church was part of the monastery complex of Christ Pantepoptes, built around the end of the 11th century by Anna Dalassena, mother of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Few visitors find their way to this secluded corner of the old city. Getting inside the building isn’t a problem, though little survives of the interior decoration other than a marble doorframe or two. It was converted to a mosque immediately after the Ottoman Conquest and its Muslim name refers to the fact that it was the location of a soup kitchen (İmaret) for feeding the poor. Sources tell me that the church stands atop another of ancient Constantinople’s numerous cisterns – though access is sadly not yet available. This must be one of the few mosques in the Islamic world without a minaret – the one it had collapsed in 1955 and has never been rebuilt – in fact, sixty years on they haven’t even cleared away the rubble.

Find your way back to Haydar Avenue and wander slowly down the hill. You will pass the ruins of an old hamam (Turkish bath) built by the architect Sinan to the order of Haydar Pasha, a 16th century Ottoman general whose name is more famously preserved in the great railway station at Kadıköy.

Elaborately decorated nalin clogs

Elaborately decorated nalin clogs

In fact we are now leaving the Zeyrek quarter and entering Cibali, which runs down to the coast of the Golden Horn. On the way we will come to the 16th century mosque of Atık Paşa (1272-1333) a Sufi mystic, poet and contemporary of Orhan Gazi, son of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty, Sultan Osman. The mosque was erected to the memory of Atık Paşa by a descendant, Sheikh Mehmet Ağa, and the tombs of several other religious luminaries of the time are located nearby. Most interesting to me, however, was a small octagonal stone structure across the road on whose iron gate a modest sign announced that it housed the sacred remains of Asüde Hatun, wet nurse of Sultan Beyazid II. Beyazid, who reigned from 1481 to 1512, is my favourite Ottoman Sultan, and this touching gesture placed him higher again in my estimation. He is better known for opening the gates of hospitality to Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain – thereby, as he is reputed to have said, impoverishing the Spaniards and enriching his own empire at the same time.

A little further on you will arrive at the back wall of the Kadir Has University campus, formerly the state tobacco factory. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially for its small museum, but you need to approach it from the coast road, so it is not on our itinerary today. The street we are now in, however, is of some interest. A sign in Turkish and English informs us that Nalıncı Kasım Street is named after a gentleman who was master of an art peculiar to the Ottoman Empire, the making of a particular species of clog or shoe (nalin) worn by women when walking in rough or muddy roads. The nalin consists of a wooden platform sole mounted on two high blocks, held in place by a leather strap. What made it special was the elaborate design of mother-of-pearl or worked silver with which it was decorated. Needless to say, the level of materials and artistry reflected the wealth of the wearer. The sign mentioned above quotes a saying from Ottoman times: ‘Batılı, Osmanlının nalını bulsa, gerdanlık diye, boynuna takar’ – ‘A Westerner, finding a nalin on the ground, would wear it around his/her neck as a pendant’ – perhaps a condescending comment on the Orientalist passion of Europeans for all things ‘Turkish’.

St Polyeuctus, exemplary Christian - and a hard act to follow

St Polyeuctus, exemplary Christian – and a hard act to follow

St Polyeuctus, to whom that church was dedicated, was apparently a wealthy officer in the army in the 3rd century who became a Christian at a time when doing so was not altogether the done thing in polite Roman circles. With the zeal of a new convert, not content with observing his new-found religion in the privacy of his own home, Polyeuctus made a public statement by forcibly interfering with what he considered a pagan procession carrying idols authorised by the Emperor Decius. Adhering strictly to the words of St Luke (14:26-27), he maintained his stand despite the pleas of his wife and children – and was, predictably, tortured as a prelude to execution by beheading.

I’m not altogether sure what message we should take from the example of St P. It’s pretty clear, though, that, leaving earthquakes aside, much of the destruction of ‘pagan’ art and architecture was carried out by those early Christians once they gained the upper hand. That being so, we may be grateful that the Muslim Ottomans showed a less hostile attitude, such that at least some of the works of their Byzantine predecessors can be visited and appreciated today.

War on Terror Creates More Terrorists?

I’m passing on here a post I came across on Sovereign Life Freedom Blog. I can’t help feeling the writer makes some valid points. What do you think?

"When will they/we ever learn?"

“When will they/we ever learn?”

“One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And if that is true, then it’s clear our political leaders are “insane”.

After 9/11 the USA declared a “war on terror” – something that was a bogus concept right from the start, because you cannot have a war on a “tactic” of war. For that’s what terrorism is, a tactic of war.

But never mind the semantics, our leaders were oblivious to the sheer impossibility of winning such a war – then and now.

So here we are, 13 years later, and the threat of terrorism has grown. It has certainly not been defeated. In fact, one could easily posit that all the “war on terror” has achieved so far is to create more terrorists. Worse still, to create smarter terrorists.”

Read more.

The big news in Turkey, meanwhile, is that the 49 hostages taken from the Turkish Consulate by ISID forces when they captured the Iraq city of Mosul have been released after more than three months of captivity. International news media seem to be implying that the whole thing was a set-up by the Turkish Government! Who knows? If so, it was a remarkably well-organised hoax. I wonder where they hid those 49 people for all that time? In the end, whatever the Turkish Government does to keep out of that ill-advised war is ok with me.

The Vefa District – Centre of three world empires

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Stay in Istanbul for some time, mix with Turks, and one of them will very likely offer you a drink of boza. In fact the beverage is found throughout in the Balkan countries and Central Asia, though the recipe seems to vary from place to place. Essentially it is made from fermented wheat or millet and has a low alcohol content of around 1% – so don’t bother trying to get drunk on it. The boza you are most likely to come across in Istanbul is Vefa Boza – found in most supermarkets but produced by one of Turkey’s oldest companies (founded 1876) whose only authentic outlet is a small unpretentious shop in a back street of the old city not far from the campus of Istanbul University.

The establishment is still operated as a family business from the premises founded by two brothers from Albania, Hacı İbrahim and Hacı Sadık, and their light-coloured, millet-based beverage served with cinnamon quickly became the standard tipple in Istanbul. If you find your way to Vefa Bozacısı, the leblebeci across the road will sell you a portion of roasted chickpeas to complete your libatory experience.

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

Contrary to common belief, the area you are now in was not named after the boza shop. In fact, the opposite is true. The area had long been known as Vefa and its roots go back at least 400 years prior to the business venture of our two Albanian immigrants. Sheikh Ebu’l Vefa el-Konevi was a Sufi master of the Sühreverdi Sect, born in Konya but brought to Istanbul at the command of Sultan Mehmet II after his conquest of the city in 1453. The once-great metropolis of Constantinople, even before the Ottoman victory, was a shadow of its former glory, much of it in ruins, and its population reduced to perhaps 50,000. One imagines the lengthy siege and final capture did not improve matters, and the young sultan was faced with a daunting project in turning Istanbul into a capital worthy of his expanding empire. Although only 21 years of age, Sultan Mehmet recognized that the city would need spiritual guidance as well as major building construction and repopulation, and Sheikh Vefa was one given the task of educating its future leaders.

A külliye was built as a base for the Sheikh’s activities – not just a mosque but a complex containing a school, a bath house, drinking fountain, alms house for the poor and accommodation for teachers and students. Not much remains of the original buildings, apart from an ancient cemetery, but the local council has recently rebuilt the mosque in recognition of the importance of the site.

Interestingly, across the road from the Vefa Mosque and up a side street, but visible from Vefa Caddesi (Avenue) itself is an even more venerable structure that did manage to survive the ravages of time. My guidebook, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’, in both English and Turkish versions, refers to it as the Vefa Church Mosque, a rather oxymoronic title, and signs on the building itself call it the Mosque of Molla Gürani. It is immediately obvious from the exterior architecture, however, that the building was once a Byzantine church, and this is confirmed when you enter and see Roman marble columns and ornate capitals supporting the domes. Carpets in the main sanctum are also a giveaway, their diagonal lines showing that the direction of prayer had to be re-oriented after the building was transformed into a mosque. Surprisingly after such a conversion, the authorities evidently allowed the cleaning and revelation of Christian mosaics and frescoes. The name of the original church has not been clearly determined, but it may have been dedicated to St Theodore (Hagios Theodoros), and was probably constructed in the 10th or 11th century.

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani himself seems to have been an interesting character. Some sources claim he was Kurdish, though this, of course, is subject to some debate – but he was the tutor of Sultan Mehmet II (mentioned above) and became the first Müfti of Istanbul after the Conquest, so the building may have been a mosque for longer than it was a church.

If you want to tour yourself around these lesser-known sights of Istanbul, you will probably want to start from the Süleimaniye Mosque, the grand four-minaretted edifice on the ridge overlooking the Golden Horn and the Eminönü district. I won’t go into detail here because any basic guidebook will give all the information you need. Suffice to say it is more worthy of a visit than the better-known Blue Mosque of Sultanahmet. First, it is a masterpiece of the incomparable 16th century architect Sinan. Second, its garden is an oasis of green peace with a magnificent view of the city; and finally, the restaurants nearby provide delicious traditional Turkish food at very reasonable prices. The barbunya beans on rice (kuru fasulye) are not to be missed!

With a full stomach you can strike out from the western corner of the mosque precinct following a street of old wooden houses renovated as restaurants, Internet cafes and hostels mostly serving the university community. You will pass under an arch of the Aqueduct of Valens, built in the 4th century CE and, for more than a thousand years, a lifeline of the city bringing water from distant springs to fill its reservoirs and supply its fountains and public baths. At this point the aqueduct is somewhat neglected, but restoration is taking place, and it continues for almost a kilometre, one of Istanbul’s more prominent landmarks as it crosses Atatürk Boulevard. You may actually see people walking on top of the aqueduct. As far as I am aware, there is no official access, and city authorities may take a dim view – but, as Turks themselves are often heard to say, ‘This is Turkey’.

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

A short detour to the right will bring you to another sacred pile of some antiquity, the Kalenderhane Mosque. Again, the brick exterior architecture clearly distinguishes it from most post-Conquest mosques. It is believed to have been the Byzantine Church of Theotokis Kyriotissa, which I am told means ‘The Most Holy Mother of God Enthroned’. Historians and archeologists find the site particularly fascinating as it seems to have been in continuous use since its original construction as a bathhouse in the late Roman period. In the 6th century a church was built, subsequently enlarged and modified, briefly taken over by invading Crusaders in 1204 and converted to a Roman Catholic monastery until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. After the Ottoman Conquest there was another switch of religion when Sultan Mehmet gave it to the Kalenderi Dervish sect, from where it gets its present day name. Of special note are beautiful coloured marble panels on the interior walls dating from the building’s glory days as a church. Frescoes and mosaics uncovered during restoration are on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.

From here you can follow GPS directions on your iPhone ;-) to find Vefa Caddesi for a taste of boza and, for the more adventurous, a visit to the church/mosque mentioned above. After leaving the boza café take a left and a right and you will emerge on Şehzadebaşı Caddesi next to the monumental mosque after which the avenue is named. This is one of the early works of the Architect Sinan, commissioned by Sultan Suleiman (known in English as ‘The Magnificent’) in memory of his beloved son Mehmet who seems to have met a violent end in 1543 at the tender age of 22.

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

Ottoman rulers endeavoured to avoid the difficulties experienced by King Henry VIII in England by keeping a bevy of women on hand for procreative purposes. This expedient, of course, sometimes led to the converse situation wherein there was a surfeit of potential male heirs. Şehzade (Prince) Mustafa was Suleiman’s oldest son and therefore first in line to succeed on the death of his father. Apparently, however, Suleiman preferred the younger Mehmed, whose mother, Hürrem (Roxelana) he had actually married. It is not 100% certain that the lady Mahidevran, Mustafa’s mother, had Prince Mehmed murdered – but it seems not unlikely. Sadly for Mahidrevan and her son, Mustafa didn’t live to take his rightful place on the throne, murdered in turn, by strangling with a bowstring, on the orders of Suleiman as a result of a plot hatched by Sultana Hürrem, her daughter Mihrimah and loyal son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha.

The tomb of Şehzade Mehmed in the garden of the mosque is beautifully decorated with 16th century Iznik tiles. Next to it is a stone column, said to mark the geometrical centre of old Istanbul as calculated by Sinan. According to my guidebook, the column used to revolve – but no longer does.

You may be ready for some refreshments after your voyage of discovery, but I recommend one last quick stopover on the way. Cross the main road to Gençtürk Caddesi and a short distance along you will come to a mosque of far more modest dimensions – which nevertheless is said to have the longest name of all the multitudinous mosques in Istanbul: Kadı Hüsameddin Çamaşırcı Hacı Mustafa Efendi 18 Sekbanlar Camii. This Mustafa seems to have been a man of many parts, a laundryman who became a judge in the religious courts and also completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attractively landscaped garden alongside is a small cemetery housing the mortal remains of eighteen soldiers killed in Sultan Mehmet’s siege of Constantinople back in 1453. The Sekban were originally masters of the royal hunt, later incorporated into the Ottoman military as a company of the much-feared Janissary regiment – the name apparently coming from a Persian word meaning ‘keeper of the [hunting] dogs’.

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

It is now a very short stroll to the Taşhan, a renovated inn or caravansaray built in the 18th century as part of the Laleli Mosque complex. The building’s interior architecture is a little masked by displays of leather jackets and erotic underwear for sale to Russian (and more recently Arab) visitors – but at its centre is an open-air courtyard where you can lie back on cushions and sip tea or Turkish coffee to the restful burbling of water in a small fountain. Active smokers may complete their day by ordering a nargile (water pipe) fuelled by a cake of aromatic tobacco flavoured with the fruit of their choice. Their passive companions may actually find the second-hand fumes not unpleasant. Followers of the Turkish soap ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’ will remember Taş Han as the place where Adnan Bey closed some of his business deals.

Standing Up for World Peace – At home and abroad

World leaders from about sixty countries (according to a Washington Post report) have been congregating in the city of Newport in Wales for a summit meeting of the NATO alliance. There are, in fact, only twenty-eight member states, so clearly there were a few hangers-on availing themselves of Welsh hospitality. These meetings are not a regular event – the last one was held in May 2012 – and this one, it seems, was convened in response to perceived threats to world peace. As we might expect, the focus was on current goings-on in Ukraine and Iraq.

Are you listening, guys?

Are you listening, guys?

In one statement, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO ‘will create a new military force based in eastern Europe designed to mobilise quickly in the event of a hostile incursion into the region.’ Apparently this force will consist of thousands of troops, and is fairly obviously a sabre-rattling exercise directed at Russia and president Vladimir Putin. The other issue was clearly too important to be left to an underling, so it was US Secretary of State John Kerry who ‘pressed representatives [including Turkey] . . . to lend military and financial support in the fight against the Islamic State of Greater Iraq and Syria (ISIS).’

Well, I’m a big supporter of world peace myself – and I have no sympathy for large and powerful countries invading the space of sovereign states. Nor do I in any way condone murder or terrorism. However, I confess I don’t find the issues as clear cut as Messrs Rasmussen and Kerry appear to. I don’t intend to discuss Ukraine and Crimea in any depth, but it does seem to me that the gnomes of Brussels have been almost indecent in their haste to welcome former Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union fold – while continuing to hold long-term loyal ally Turkey at arm’s length. For Russia, access to the Black Sea has been a crucial foreign policy objective for more than two centuries, and, rightly or wrongly, there is no way they are going to readily accept the Western alliance interfering with that. And whatever the rhetoric, I doubt if Europeans are very enthusiastic about a war with Russia, even with American support.

The chicken? or the egg?

The chicken? or the egg?

Far more dangerous is the threat of another major Western military invasion of the Middle East – and not only for those of us who live in Turkey. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that the more governments try to suppress a religion or ideology (such as nationalism) the more determined its proponents become, and the more people of previously moderate views are forced into an extremist position. How many militant Islamist organizations are causing trouble in how many countries around the world these days? Suddenly the activities of ISIS are in all the media. Where did they come from? Boko Haram are kidnapping Christian girls in Nigeria, and achieving some success against government forces – as if the poor Nigerians didn’t have enough problems already. Hamas insurgents are lobbing rockets into Israel from mosques and schools in Gaza – admittedly without doing much damage. United States drones (there’s a word we didn’t use to hear much of) are firing rockets into Somalia to terminate the leaders of a group calling themselves al-Shabab. Dammit! They’re like those plants you cut into pieces, and every little piece takes root and grows into a new plant.

Nevertheless, bombs and missiles seem to be what we do best. According to Newsweek, the US has been spending $7.5 million a day bombing those ISIS guys in Iraq – not so much if you compare it with the $1.3 billion a week they spend in Afghanistan (yep, they’re still there trying to sort out the Taliban!) – but not an insignificant amount when you think they’ve been doing it since mid-June, and now they’re considering extending bombing operations into Syria.

Syrian refugees in Urfa, Turkey

Syrian refugees in Urfa, Turkey

Well, who knows? Maybe it’ll work this time. Hope springs eternal in breasts at the Pentagon and in the boardrooms of US arms manufacturing corporations. On the other hand, just think what that money could do if even a small portion of it was directed towards rebuilding the economies of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is saying, “The Syria crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them.” Imagine what $7.5 million a day, a month, or even a year, could achieve – and how many Muslim hearts and minds might be won over in the process.

But it doesn’t seem likely. I came across an article back in February in which the writer was discussing the impending collapse of the ‘Arab State system’. Itamar Rabinovich, ‘a Distinguished Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings’, noting the wars and chaos spreading across the Middle East, quoted a US military expert’s opinion that the Syrian conflict could become ‘an engine of jihad that spews forth attackers bent on bombing western embassies and cities or disrupting Persian Gulf oil markets long before the fire burns out’ – and both seem to be suggesting that the United States and Israel need to play a more active role (read ‘more bombs’).

Rabinovich rightly refers to the boundaries drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 as establishing the political geography of the modern Middle East. He fails to mention, however, that this was a secret agreement between Great Britain and France aimed at ensuring their control of the region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. He also manages to write a 5,000-word analysis of current problems in the region without mentioning the role played by the creation of the modern state of Israel and the determination of successive United States administrations to support the Israeli government’s actions no matter what they do.

Well, we shouldn’t be surprised. Itamar Rabinovich is the president of the Israel Institute (Washington and Jerusalem). He was Israel’s Ambassador to the United States in the 1990s and former chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996, and the former president of Tel Aviv University where he is currently professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History. The Brookings Institution is a US think tank based in Washington DC educating the world on ‘economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, and global economy and development’. According to TTCSP, it is ranked the most influential think tank in the world.

Palestinian families fleeing Israeli air strikes in Gaza

Palestinian families fleeing Israeli air strikes in Gaza

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, I guess. Why shouldn’t the US government take Mr Rabinovich’s opinions into consideration? On the other hand, take a look at another news item that appeared just last week. A report in the LA Times announced that the Israeli government had appropriated 990 acres (nearly 400 hectares) in the Palestinian area of the West Bank with a view to expanding Israeli settlement. Israeli leaders said the action was revenge for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the area, and was ‘an appropriate Zionist response to attacks against Israel.’

In case you didn’t know, the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, is the largest piece of territory allocated to Palestinian Arabs by international agreement after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In defiance of international agreements, there are around half a million Jewish Israelis (20% of the population) living in settlements in the area. What would you do if you were a Palestinian Arab? Secretary of State John Kerry himself was widely quoted as saying that Israel was in danger of becoming ‘an apartheid state’ – words which he apparently later regretted.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. For example, I’ve always thought of Denmark as being a very modern, democratic, egalitarian, peace-loving country. All the Danes I’ve met have been intelligent, educated sensitive people. But there’s that Danish guy, Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general, a neo-conservative, neo-liberal proponent of tax cuts for the rich, reduced immigration and George Dubya Bush’s invasion of Iraq – and seemingly in favour of war with Russia and Muslims in the Middle East. I really want to believe that our guys are the good guys, but . . .

Getting back to Newport, Wales, that was an interesting place to choose as a venue for the NATO summit. It was, some say, the site of the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain (I guess if you discount the Irish Rebellion – probably they mean ‘unsuccessful’ armed rebellion). Back in 1839 a large crowd of several thousand Chartists, angered by Parliament’s rejection of their proposals and the imprisonment of some of their number, were fired on and dispersed by the British military. The leaders were convicted of high treason and initially condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered though the sentences were later commuted to transportation for life. That particularly creative punishment was still on the books in Britain until the 1870s, though this was the last time it was actually invoked as a sentence.

And what was Chartism all about? It focused on a People’s Charter calling for:

  • Giving the vote to men over the age of 21
  • Secret ballot for parliamentary elections
  • No property qualifications for members of parliament
  • Payment for members of parliament
  • Equal constituencies
  • Annual elections
Dealing with the rebels after the Monmouth Rebellion

Dealing with the rebels after the Monmouth Rebellion

Pretty insidious stuff, huh! But then the West Country had a reputation for causing trouble. Back in 1685 a much larger armed rebellion occurred when opponents of the Catholic King James II rose behind the monarch’s illegitimate nephew, the Duke of Monmouth. The uprising was put down and there were mass grisly executions as an aftermath, handed down by Judge Jeffries at his infamous ‘Bloody Assizes’. One of the more famous victims was a woman, Alice Lyle, originally sentenced to be burned alive – but later more mercifully executed by beheading in the market place of Winchester.

Interestingly, however, just three years later, that same King James was ousted by a ‘Bloodless Revolution’ orchestrated by Parliament itself – and Judge Jeffries died a prisoner in the Tower of London. It took a little longer, but five of those six items on the People’s Charter eventually became law – crucial elements in modern constitutional democracy.

I can’t say whether any of those NATO visitors to Newport took an interest in the town’s colourful history – or if they did, whether they thought there might be a lesson applicable to themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps there’s a message of hope. Bob Marley said it pretty well back in the day.

I’m Pretty Near Appalled Out!

Neuro-scientists at Sultan Vahdettin University in Turkey have identified a chemical that produces the ‘shock/horror’ response in humans. The occipital lobe at the rear of the brain responsible for vision and perception receives inputs from the retina that pass through a “way station” in the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. In this intermediate step between seeing and understanding, chemicals produced in other parts of the brain modify the information received before projecting it on to the cortex. To a certain extent this validates the old Chinese proverb ‘Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes’.

Diagram of human brain showing location of occipital lobe

Diagram of human brain showing location of occipital lobe

The newly identified chemical, or neurotransmitter, has been tentatively named appalomine. Studies so far suggest that over-stimulation of the lateral geniculate nucleus by excessive exposure to horrifying imagery can have the effect of inhibiting the production of appalomine required to transmit sensory messages to the cortex, resulting in a reduced ability to be appalled. Furthermore constant stimulation over a prolonged period of time can exhaust the brain’s natural stores of appalomine to such an extent that sufferers may actually reach a state where they can no longer be appalled by anything at all. An analogy can be made with the bored shepherd boy in Aesop’s fable who cried ‘Wolf!’ several times as a practical joke to bring the men of the village running. When a wolf eventually did attack the boy’s flock, his cries for help went unanswered.

So it’s not my fault, you see. I know some readers felt that my failure to respond in what they consider an appropriate manner to the widely viewed ‘execution’ of American photojournalist James Foley indicated a lack of sensitivity, even heartlessness on my part. The fact is, like the wolf-hunting men folk of Aesop’s fabulous village, my supplies of appalomine have been run down by excessive demands on their neurotransmissive powers. To cut a long story short, I’ve been appalled too many times. To give you a few examples:

Working for world peace at Guantanamo

Working for world peace at Guantanamo

  • I was appalled at the images of jailers in the United States’ detention facility at Guantanamo ill-treating prisoners; and that hundreds of people have been detained there over a 12-year period without ever being brought to trial. I was appalled when I learnt that Guantanamo Prison is located in Cuba, in the grounds of the US naval base – the United States has a NAVAL BASE? In CUBA? And they located the prison there because George W Bush was told it was outside US legal jurisdiction, so one assumes they thought they could interrogate and torture prisoners without the normal humanitarian restrictions. I am appalled that President Obama promised prior to his election that he would close the facility – but seven years later he has not done so, and there are still 149 prisoners there.
  • I was appalled at the astronomical government payouts by the US government to banks considered too big to fail. Economists have been telling us for some time that the US recession is over and profits are returning to normal. The wealth, however, is stubbornly refusing to trickle down. In fact the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is continuing to grow. A report from the US Census Bureau stated that the median net worth of the richest households rose 11% between 2000 and 2011, to $630,754, but the median household net worth for the country overall declined about 7% to $68,828. The bottom 20% actually had a negative net worth of $6,029, up from $905 a decade before. The median net worth for whites, overall, rose between 2000 and 2011, but fell for black and Hispanic Americans – suggesting that those people in Ferguson, Missouri may have more than one valid grievance. So I was further appalled at the militarized police response to civilian protests after an unarmed black boy was shot by a policeman. Especially when I remember how much bad press Turkey got last June over the so-called Gezi park protests.
  • I was appalled when a British scientist David Kelly who had been working as a United Nations inspector in Iraq was hounded to death by Tony Blair’s government. Kelly was suspected of leaking information to the BBC suggesting that Blair knew Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction when he committed the British military to supporting GW Bush’s invasion.
  • I was appalled some years ago when I learnt that the British Government had used an area in Central Australia called Maralinga for the testing of nuclear weapons. I am appalled that many UK and Australian citizens still don’t know this.

    British nuclear bomb testing in Australia

    British nuclear bomb testing in Australia

  • I was also appalled to learn, more recently, that the United States had up to five military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear-armed missiles aimed at targets within the Soviet Union. I also learned that President JF Kennedy, at the time of the Cuba Missile Crisis in 1962, had a secret meeting with his USSR counterpart, Nikita Krushchev, at which he agreed to remove some of them in exchange for the Russian’s removing theirs in Cuba. I am appalled that many US citizens still don’t know this, and continue to believe that it was JFK’s macho threats that forced Krushchev to back down.
  • I continue to be appalled at the treatment meted out to Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange over the Wikileaks revelations.Manning was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment; Snowden had his US passport revoked while out of the country, and the Russian Government has recently granted him a residence permit for three years; Assange was given asylum by the Ecuadorean Government and has been virtually imprisoned in their London Embassy, under threat of extradition if he comes out. In July this year the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights made a public statement saying that the USA should abandon its efforts to prosecute Snowden since his leaks were in the public interest. At no stage, as far as I am aware, have US authorities actually denied anything that Wikileaks disclosed.

    Palestinian child injured in Israeli bombing strike

    Palestinian child injured in Israeli bombing strike

  • I am appalled at the Israeli Government’s continued defiance of UN requests to withdraw from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to cease building Jewish settlements there. I am appalled that Israel is playing the injured party and indiscriminately bombing residents of Gaza while hiding behind a virtually impregnable shield largely financed by the United States Government.
  • I am appalled that there are now 1.3 million refugees in Turkey who have fled the violence in neighbouring Syria, and the rich nations of the world show no interest in helping to alleviate their wretched plight. I am beyond appalled that the United States Government seems to be now seriously considering extending its bombing program from Iraq into Syria.

And these are only some of the international incidents. I can’t even begin to list the small-scale horrifying events taking place in the world around me on a daily basis that appal me. So please forgive me, people – my appalomine stocks are pretty low these days.

The Entire World is Appalled? So who are we bombing?

‘The entire world is appalled’ by the killing in Iraq of US journalist James Foley. President Obama was quoted by a number of news agencies, so I guess it’s probably true – that he said it, I mean. According to reports, the President was ‘visibly angry’ – and I can understand that. I haven’t watched the video of the ‘execution’ but beheading someone with a knife, filming it and posting the video online is pretty nasty. But then there’s a lot of pretty nasty stuff circulating on the web these days, so probably we shouldn’t be awfully surprised. I have a suspicion that what is making Mr Obama especially angry, in addition to the murder of one of his citizens, of course, is the fact that the killing was an act of defiance against the United States Government and its Chief Executive Officer. The guys responsible apparently made it clear that it was in revenge for the US’s bombing of their people.

The man's got a point

The man’s got a point

Of course two wrongs don’t make a right. But you need to understand, in that part of the world the blood feud is an important aspect of traditional culture. Retaliation for a perceived wrong is intimately tied up with family honour and masculine self-concept. I know the USA is more civilised these days, but it’s not so long ago that George W Bush was justifying his destruction of Iraq by saying ‘This is the guy [Saddam Hussein] who tried to kill my dad.’ As far as I’m aware, no Islamic extremists tried to kill Barack Obama’s dad, but still, the man was angry, so it’s understandable that, in the heat of the moment, he may have been carried away by his own rhetoric.

Take a look at that statement again. ‘The entire world is appalled.’ It’s hard to get an exact count because at the moment of writing, the net increase today has been around 150 thousand, but according to worldometers.info, there are 7,255,485,065 people in the world. The twenty largest countries by population (in descending order) are China, India, The United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan, Mexico, The Philippines, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Egypt, Germany, Iran, Turkey, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and France, among them accounting for seventy percent of the total. Now I want to ask you, in all honesty, how many of those people do you think care deeply enough about American news media to be appalled by this incident? How many of them have even heard of James Foley? I suspect most of them are too busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from; how they will feed the kids; or maybe dying from some dreadful disease caused by lack of access to clean drinking water.

I have in front of me an article from BBC News dated 5 June 2014 reporting that Israel has advanced plans for 1,460 new homes in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank’. The West Bank, as you probably know, is a small land-locked territory established by international agreement as a kind of reservation for Palestinian Arabs after the creation of Israel in 1949. According to Wikipedia, ‘the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, illegal under international law.’ In spite of this, the United States Government provides moral support, financial backing, military hardware and technical know-how to support the Israeli Government as it carries out a virtual genocide of Palestinians in Gaza for their effrontery in standing up for their rights. I wouldn’t presume to claim that the entire world is appalled by that, but quite a lot of educated, intelligent, sensitive people are – and I have to tell Mr Obama that his actions are not endearing America to the Muslim world, whose people make up around twenty-five percent of the global total.

I'll tell you what we're gonna do, people. We're gonna bomb those mothers!

I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do, people. We’re gonna bomb those mothers!

A lot of people were actually appalled that the United States military bombed the living bejabers out of Iraq so that they could kill Saddam Hussein. They were appalled that the US did this on the pretext that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world because he had stocks of WMDs – nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Quite a few people were appalled that the United Kingdom went in with them – and it turned out to be a big lie! And what’s more, those guys knew all along it was a big lie! According to what I heard, a fair number of citizens of the USA and the UK were subsequently appalled when they learnt the truth.

Now the US Government is back in Iraq again bombing people, and many of the world’s citizens are appalled again. For quite some time they have been appalled that the US President can murder anyone anywhere on the planet using unpiloted drones and guided missiles. He can invade and bomb the sovereign territories of other people without even declaring war on them – and without getting the go-ahead from his own people. Maybe some of those people are a little appalled too.

Much of the world is appalled that US spies have been using advanced technology to listen in on the conversations of leaders of allied countries – though Angela Merkel is not as appalled as she at first made out, since it seems she has been doing the same thing. Some people have doubts about the morality of President Obama’s offering $10 million reward for four Pakistani guys he doesn’t like. Apparently they are leading lights in yet another Islamic ‘extremist’ group (the Haqqani family) who have been organising strikes against American military personnel going about their lawful business in Afghanistan.

Like me, you may have been surprised when you heard that the US military was back in Iraq carrying out bombing attacks. Didn’t they pull their forces out at the end of 2011? Of course, as a friend rightly told me, we have a responsibility to interfere when innocent women and children are being murdered, wherever it’s happening. Unfortunately, such issues are rarely so black and white. Northern Iraq holds a large share of the country’s oil reserves and a majority Kurdish population, many of whom are adherents of the Yazidi religion. The United States Government, in a spirit of brotherly love (or whatever) has been supporting the Peshmerga (Kurdish freedom fighters) with military training and hardware for years. Their assistance is said to have been crucial in the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Some non-Kurdish Iraqis are apparently not happy with all this, and their forces, lumped together under the latest bogey term IS, ISIL, ISID or whatever, are the ones who have been besieging Yazidis on mountain tops, capturing dams etc, thereby attracting the bombs of US airplanes.

Listen to the children

Listen to the children

So who’s right and who’s wrong? America’s population, large though it be, is less than a half of one percent of the world’s total. And probably some of them have more on their mind than the fate of a photojournalist in Iraq. I’m not sure, for example, how high it would rank in the concerns of the good people of Ferguson, Missouri. And the world’s glitterati, though not large in number, seem more interested in pouring buckets of iced water over themselves and each other. I know he’s not a US citizen, but he did buy the most expensive house in America for his daughter a year or two back. World Formula One Grand Prix mogul Bernie Ecclestone just bought off the courts in Germany with a $100 million payout to avoid being tried in court for bribing a senior officer of Bayern LB (Bavarian State Bank) back in 2006 – and I suspect most of the transnational world citizens in Bernie’s income bracket are more concerned with making money for themselves than with who’s killing who in the Middle East, as long as the oil keeps flowing.

I was interested to read that James Foley had previously been captured by supporters of the late Muammar Gaddafi in Libya back in 2011. Apparently Foley is a good Catholic and he attributed his release after forty-four days in captivity to the prayers of folks back home in Milwaukee. So what happened this time? Possibly God and the people of Milwaukee felt that Foley was putting the Almighty to an unfair test by heading into the middle of the Syrian civil war. Anyway, it seems that Barack Obama is planning to give Divine Justice a little assistance in case it’s not up to the job. ‘No just God,’ he said in the same angry speech, ‘would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day.’ So we’re bombing them again. Wouldn’t you think it’s about time the most powerful and inventive nation on Earth came up with a more creative (and maybe less appalling) solution to the planet’s problems?

On Muslims, Blacks and Poor People in General

I came across this opinion piece on Time’s website today. The writer is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the NBA’s all-time greatest basketball players. He wasn’t born with that name, of course, but took it as a result of a wish to identify with his forebears stolen from their homeland and sold into slavery to help make Great Britain and the United States great back in the day. Wikipedia informs me that, in January 2012, Hillary Clinton had him appointed as a cultural ambassador for the United States. I’m not sure if that makes him an official spokesman for the Obama government ;-) Here he is writing about the wider ramifications of what’s going on in that previously little known Missouri town:

“Ferguson is not just about systemic racism — it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back, says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Mrs Clinton looks like she's a biiig fan!

Mrs Clinton looks like she’s a biiig fan!

“This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

“The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

“One way to keep these 50 million fractured is through disinformation. PunditFact’s recent scorecard on network news concluded that at Fox and Fox News Channel, 60 percent of claims are false. At NBC and MSNBC, 46 percent of claims were deemed false. That’s the “news,” folks! During the Ferguson riots, Fox News ran a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the bold caption: “Forgetting MLK’s Message/Protestors in Missouri Turn to Violence.” Did they run such a caption when either Presidents Bush invaded Iraq: “Forgetting Jesus Christ’s Message/U.S. Forgets to Turn Cheek and Kills Thousands”?

“How can viewers make reasonable choices in a democracy if their sources of information are corrupted? They can’t, which is exactly how the One Percent controls the fate of the Ninety-Nine Percent.” Read more