INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Travel

عبر زقاق القرصان : من اليمن إلى الصومال بسفينة — Across Pirate Alley : From Yemen to Somaliland by Boat

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A story and some travel tips for that trip you’ve always been talking about.

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راب الحب من رام الله — A Rap of Love from Ramallah

All photographs by Morten Berthelsen.

From the streets of downtown Ramallah, rapper Karam Tarawa rhymes about love and heartbreak. (“Adam”= me or Eve’s beau; “Morten”= fellow traveler, photojournalist.)

Lyrics (transcription) and translation after the jump. English / Arabic

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Iran’s Dead Sea — البحر الميت لإيران

New video after the jump.

For $15 an hour, any taxi driver will take you the length of this Long Island and back (about an hour and a half between the furthest points). Whether you’re stuck or just visiting or visiting and stuck — return flights are often delayed by twelve hours or a day — there are at least two full days worth of informed wandering. The otherworldly caves and mangroves and beaches of Qeshm are exceptional and untrodden, and without parallel on the more visitable coasts of the Persian Gulf.

Our driver balked when the paved road turned to dirt, making a machine gun sign with his hands and charading I don’t think you are supposed to go here with worried eyebrows. We had heard half-formed rumors about gunfire in the empty areas towards the south, potentially the army (or someone’s army) in training, but we coaxed him onwards and never had to duck and cover. We never saw anything remotely unsafe.

If the island were a dolphin — it is shaped a bit like one — the magnificent mangrove forests would be just behind its dorsal fin. The tangled roots of mangroves work to solidify the coastline, holding the mud in place and extending out into open water that covers the roots completely at high tide. A mangrove forest looks like a Venetian neighborhood. Greenery lines more than ten miles of the northern coast, stretching across the narrow Straight of Khuran almost to the shores of southern Iran. A sign points to the Jengel Hara (a.k.a. the Hara Protected Area, established 1972).

Geshm’s particular mangroves are home to the hara tree, lushous green with yellow flowers and an almond-like fruit in the summer. For twenty-five dollars a boatman singing old songs in Arabic motored us out through the shallow channels, past blue and white herons and flat-billed birds flaunting their mandibles from higher ground. When the spot looked right, we hopped off the side into the mud.

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لحم القرش وودي ألن والعلاقات الإيرانية العربية — Shark Meat, Woody Allen, and Iran-Arab Relations

After dark, we found lots of young people at Nemat’s Ice Cream, offering fifty-some flavors from hazelnut to melon to something that tasted like spray paint (beware the four scoop minimum). Our hands oily from plates of tomshi, like crispy Persian crepes, that was where Maral took us first. Maral was from Shiraz, one of the island’s four CouchSurfers, and an immensely eager and delighted tour guide. She was studying physical therapy at a Shahid Beheshti Medical University.

There wasn’t a whole lot, but what there was in Qeshm was relaxed and (sometimes) lively. And it did beat the Hotel Diplomat. Maral’s friends and the other young women around Nemat’s were unveiled, wearing bright, patterned scarves that left much of their hair showing — but it wasn’t like Shiraz, Maral said, where she would hardly readjust her headscarf if it fell. If I had expected (the image of) Saudi Arabia in Iran, I was mistaken. Foreign is welcome: Maral was an avid downloader of Gray’s Anatomy. On her Facebook, she lists Woody Allen as a favorite artist.

She took us by taxi (twenty thousand dinar, a buck-fifty, for anywhere in town) to the Portuguese Fort built in 1507 and destroyed a century later by Persian “liberators.” On the northern tip of the island, the fort is surrounded by one of the poorer neighborhoods of Qeshm locals (as opposed to mainland workers or students). Maral classified the locals as ethnically Arab. “I ask if they celebrate Eid-al Fitr or Nowruz,” the Persian New Year on March 21. “They say, ‘We celebrate Eid al-Fitr… that’s what we’ve always done.’”

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Iran’s Long Island — جزيرة الطويلة لإيران


Qeshm Island lays 75 miles along Iran’s southern coast at the mouth of the Straight of Hormuz. Every day, more than 15 million barrels of oil are squeezed through the tightly regulated waters. For many tourists, especially Americans, the beauty of Shiraz and the history of Persepolis are all but off limits — “One percent chance,” the man at the embassy told me on getting approved by the Ministry of the Interior. He was laughing. But for all the mainland’s regulations, this Iranian island has a different policy: visitors welcome.

A thirty-four minute hop from Dubai in a Yakolev Yak-42 and you’ll be there, landing over the shocking desert moonscape: sharp-sided mesas snapped like Lego pieces onto completely flat ground, fire burning over the oil refineries. That is, of course, if you can get on the plane.

Our journey to Dubai’s Terminal 2 for Forsaken Airlines began early in the morning on an empty bus that would get a flat tire somewhere on the emptier stretches of desert highway from Abu Dhabi. The driver, who had been in an accident a week earlier, was attempting to wind the car jack without using a protracted index finger the size and shape of a large carrot. At the airport, the flight was unlisted. The airline had no counter. We waved our paper tickets collected (as they must be) from a travel agency and representatives at the Miscellaneous Desk directed us to a back office where we paid a fifteen dollar “airport fee” and tried to confirm that the island still existed. (“You fly in here,” said the agent, pointing to the one of Qeshm’s two airports that was abandoned years ago.) We waited by the gate, though it never appeared on the Departures screen. After hours without announcement, other passengers assembled as if secretly in tune, and we filed in behind them onto the bus to the plane, underneath the sign that read “Basra.”

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The Temple on Lane 253: Bahrain’s Synagogue

As rumor had it, the one synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula was in Bahrain. It seemed like an easy find — a sore thumb somewhere in two mile-wide downtown Manama. Earlier in the day the address I had plucked from an online forum, “Sasa’ah street,” seemed to get vague grunts of recognition from taxi drivers: near the souq, maybe. I decided not to make the trip to the desert to see the “Tree of Life”, a large mesquite that seems to spring miraculously from arid ground; instead, buzzing and sleepy from a long, bacony brunch, I went in search of the country’s Jewish roots.

A friend dropped me at the arched gate of the Manama Souq, a mostly pedestrian criss-cross of simple stands and boutiques. I forgot my phone (GPS and all, though unlikely to be helpful) — this quest would depend entirely upon the knowledge and forthrightness of passersby and standers around.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had no idea where I was walking. After a few blocks, the bustling lights of the central shopping district gave way to construction and inauspicious quiet. I figured I’d ask around. I didn’t know how people would feel about any past or present Jewish structures, but I was leaving the country in a few hours and I had a better shot playing honest than sneaky. I greeted two older men chatting in the street beneath the pointed dome of a beautifully ornate blue and green Shia mosque. “Do you know where the Jewish synagogue is?”

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The Poster-Makers — صناع الملصقات

The martyr's grip.


Taher flipped a perfectly browned panacake onto my plate. “Perfetto!” He propped up his iPad on its stand so I could see and flipped through the morning’s Facebook photos. His friends had posted second-story shots of a narrow street crowded with protestors and Bahraini flags, typical for a Friday morning but charged today with the power of a new and tragic martyr: Seventy year-old Ali Hasen al-Dehi was brutally attacked by police on Wednesday night; hours later, he was found dead in his home. The Ministry of Health announced that he “died of natural causes.”

It would have been just the latest entry in the history of police killings that number around 40 since the uprising began on the 14th of February (in late March, the Interior Minister confirmed 24 deaths; in April, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported 31.) But Ali was in name and symbol more than an innocent participant — he was the father of Hussein al-Dehi, vice chairman of Bahrain’s largest political party, a Shi’ite organization. The protestors on Taher’s iPad had found a way around the road blocks to join together and scream against injustice.

Taher explained this to me rather matter-of-factly. In eight months, the pre-emptive crackdowns and the demonstrations and the resulting crackdowns had become a weekend standard — one that left some locals numb, expats mildly frustrated, and the rest of us tingling with faint hope, sadness, and guilty excitement.

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New Sense

“I can’t talk Arabic when I’m drunk,” said Yasser, a Bahraini born and bred. Alcohol and the official language of a religion that forbids it, I thought — something about this dissonance was too much. Plus, he told me with a light flick of his cigarette, we think everything western is better.

It felt honest, that Bahrain was a country that had handed over the reigns to someone else. On the weekends, SUV-loads of shop-and-drink-deprived Saudis drive the 16 mile-long bridge from Dammam to use the tiny island nation as their playground — the kind of playground teachers let the older kids supervise while they have their cigarette break somewhere far away.

I had spent the night on the sofa of a friendly local host who answered my CouchSurfing request. When I woke up, he was making banana pancakes.

Perfetto!” Taher was pleased. His other guest, a young Swiss woman looking for work in town, seemed used to the treatment. Taher, 36, had started a contracting business to become his own boss and to leave more time for travel — a month earlier, he was touring Southeast Asia; before that, Europe. “No one even knows anyone that has done what I’ve done,” he said, unaffected. For a country that pulls so much in, it seems to send very little out.

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Cool off the Press: Breakfast with the Taliban

For the original, from the Daily Outlook Afghanistan in Kabul: click here.

One Saturday in June, traffic was light on the road from Kabul to the town of Bamyan, nestled deep in a high valley lined with sandstone cliffs 240 kilometers to the northwest. But for all the paving efforts that have made it among the smoothest in the country, this route from the Afghan capital through the 10,000-foot-high Shibar pass is less than perfect. One week earlier, head of Bamiyan’s provincial council Jawad Zahak had been targeted and dragged from his convoy by the Taliban. Four days ago, they told me in the car, he was beheaded. Hussein pointed: “Right… wait — there.”

I had found a tour company online and guessed an email address from a mush of pixels. Success came in the confirmation of a car that would deliver me from outside the dead-bolted orange gates of my hotel in Kabul to their lodge in Bamiyan. At six a.m., I was late. The hubcap-less white sedan drew a stark contrast to the polished and armored SUVs that take westerners to get mango milkshakes. And there were four men inside. Open the mind’s floodgates: this seems infinitely more kidnappy.
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Cool off the Press: Mixed Blessings — سلم مشكلة

For the original, from the Sunday Magazine of The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan: click here.


I wanted to peek through the locked gates, to look into the sanctuary and enter the house of the dead. I read the engraving by the walkway — UNEQUAL IN LIFE, ALL LIE EQUAL IN DEATH — while birds flitted about the cornice. I wasn’t sure if I smelled something, faint, pungent, unrecognisable. But it was time to go. Sacred Zoroastrian Towers of Silence were not built to be ogled.

There are two such structures in central Karachi, dating back to over a hundred years ago. The small Tower known as the “Ghadialy Dokhma,” along a ridge studded with green trees, was consecrated in 1847 and the bigger Tower, known as the “Anjuman Dokhma” was consecrated in 1875. The Tower of Silence or dokhma is a perfectly white cylinder with a flat top but for a rounded lip that juts up above the entrance. Inside, bodies are laid out under the open roof to decompose by the powers of nature.

Bones fall through a grate into a well below. “People don’t like to build houses here.” A Parsi friend indicated the barren plot below the ridge. “The smell.”

Until 1999, there were vultures on the Indian subcontinent. But in the next ten years, as a result of feeding on cattle treated with a particular chemical called diclofenac, they were nearly completely annihilated. In India, some form of solar contraption is now used to “evaporate the body,” as our guide said — some reports say they are mirrors that focus the sunlight, others whisper of something more complex. No one is allowed inside the Towers of Silence but those trusted with its upkeep, so there’s no way of knowing what lies beyond those raised white walls. The birds, it seems, are there just to look.

The term ‘Parsi’ is today used interchangeably with “Zoroastrian”, though it traces its roots to the Fars or Pars Province in south-west Iran but today only those who fled to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh and eight centuries are referred to as Parsis. Numbering only in the low thousands, the Parsi community is nonetheless thriving and prominent, distinctly less affected by extremist attacks than other religious minorities in Pakistan.

In Karachi, Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian are all within striking distance — er, short drives — of each other. Though its inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim, Karachi’s demography reflects the gravitation of myriad immigrant populations to this Sindhi city by the sea, now one of the world’s top five most populous. This genealogy extends back through nations and empires, including the country’s own provinces, that existed long before Pakistan — and it is by no means forgotten. In one corner of a house, the cook speaks Sindhi to the maid. Downstairs, the driver jokes with a guard in Pashto. An obstacle to Pakistani unity, then — though by no means to its heart and spirit — is perhaps that too much is remembered.

The monumental mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi looks out over Clifton beach from its hilltop on Khayaban-e-Firdousi street. Crowned by two solid green flags, the exterior is entirely navy-blue tile and patterns of thick, white zigzags. In 2010, a double suicide bombing claimed several lives. Still, all day and night, past the defunct metal detector and cursory pat-downs, crowds leave their shoes below and climb to the shrine to pray to the eighth century mystic saint, under whose aegis, many believe, tropical disasters have spared Karachi for more than a millennium. My friend, a born and raised Karachiite, seemed nervous. “Don’t tell my dad we went here.”

One Hindu mandir, hides quietly down a small street near Jail Roundabout, albeit marked with colorful paint and a white dome peeking up over the mute blue walls. The gatekeeper wrenched open the latch and followed us with watchful eyes as we shuffled in. We took off our shoes and walked past the glittery, foil swastikas on the walls into a small shrine, dim and crowded with the stems and smells of leftover offerings.

Twenty minutes away through the city’s infamous traffic are the gates to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A catholic man with a dark, happy face guarded the entrance with a dog that looked delighted to nap with its head on its paws. The man’s name was Diego Rodriguez and he welcomed us onto the impressive grounds of the gothic church, in front of which rise the stately staircases of a white marble monument. We couldn’t go in, though — the church is closed except for Sunday mass because of two recent attacks. “It is sad,” said Diego.

Rumours were that a synagogue would be near the Bhimpura Old Town, but we never found it. Wikipedia says it may have survived until the 1980s. Diversity, too, has its bounds.

I remembered the plaque that stood at the foot of the newest Tower of Silence. Unequal in life. There is a kind of inequality stitched to the heart of this city, a hand extended to some, and withdrawn from the grasp of others. But there was more written on that marble slab, in letters accented with black ink: NO SPECIAL PLACE FOR ANYONE. NO MINE, NO THINE, NO HIS, NO HERS, ALL INSEPARABLE AND INDISTINGUISHABLE, SLEEP SIDE BY SIDE, PARTNERS AND EQUALS. Sure, these words honoured the idyll of death, but men in Karachi also stand side by side.

We walked back onto the street, a Jewish tourist and his Muslim host. We nodded to pedestrians in passing, Baloch, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. At least, they might have been — I had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t either.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Pictures from Pakistan here.

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