Saturday, 30 September 2017

What would Gertrude make of the Kurdish referendum?

With the current situation in Northern Iraq simmering since the Kurdish referendum, its perhaps a moment to reflect on a much forgotten and neglected historical figure and her role in this important moment.

It is a little known fact that Iraq's existing borders, including within it Iraqi Kurdistan, were drawn up by an Oxford educated British woman adventurer.  Gertrude Bell was one of the most extraordinary and influential women of the time.  Described by some as a female Lawrence of Arabia and by him as a "wonderful person, not very like a woman", she was by all accounts considered far more accomplished and deserving of more recognition than she ever received.

She had a passion for archaeology and fell in love with the Middle East, travelling all over the region as a woman alone, throughout Syria, Arabia, Persia and what was known then as Mesopotamia - now Iraq, southern Turkey, Kuwait and eastern Syria.  During the time of the power struggle for the region between British, French and Ottoman Empires, she travelled extensively across deserts and through tribal lands, quickly building an affinity with the Arabs and befriending local Sheikhs.

She was a risk taker who held no fear of harsh environments and though small in physical stature, refused to be intimidated by people or situations.  She found herself an accidental expert in Arabic culture and became a 'go-to' specialist for the British Government, fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German and a natural sociability, trusted by bedouin tribes and noble Sheikhs alike.

She quickly developed the Arabic epithet "al-Khatun" - which can be translated to mean 'lady of the court who keeps her eyes and ears open for the benefit of the State' and her view that Arabs were more than capable of managing their own affairs without the interference of colonnial powers, was at odds with the prevailing winds of the West.

But her belief in Arab self-determination won out when she was instrumental in installing King Faisal as the new post Ottoman ruler of Iraq.  Gertrude had known Faisal when he was King of Syria, before being deposed by the French.

He had an interesting lineage which she believed made him a good choice as leader of Iraq - the combination of him being a Sunni which would appeal to the Kurds in the North, whilst having direct lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, which would appeal to the Shia population, would provide the balance required for peaceful co-existence.

However, her friend TE Lawrence didn't agree on the position of the borders , saying "Bell should never have acquiesced in the inclusion of the Kurdish dominated province of Mosul in Iraq".  And perhaps he was right.  The Kurds are the largest ethnic population in the world without their own homeland - somewhere between 30 & 40 million.

After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, an independent Kurdistan was considered within the borders proposed above.  But it was oil that helped tip the balance to include them within Iraq's borders - the Kurdish region holding 40% of Iraq's oil.  The British Government decided to include this particular region, now known as Iraqi Kurdistan, as part of a 'stable' centrally governed Iraq, so they could keep their interest in the oil.  So of course this is also the reason that Baghdad wont let it go now.

I watch this huge moment in Iraq's history wondering what Gertrude would make of it.  Being largely responsible for the shaping of modern Iraq, and somewhat uncomfortably representing the British Government, her heart was still Arabian.  Indeed she had quite a disdain for colonialism, observing "we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme...... wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed."  In that, history has proven her right.

Ironically, for one so passionate about the right to self-determination,  it was Gertrude who ultimately allowed the sacrifice of an independent Kurdistan for a larger prize of Iraq.   Perhaps its time for the British Government to stand up, accept their role in depriving the Kurds of their own land and support them in their quest for independence.

As for Gertrude, she remained in Baghdad until her death in 1926 at the age of 57, having never been married and lost both loves of her life in tragic circumstances.  Ultimately, it was the Arabs who held her in the highest affection, her funeral procession observed from his window by King Faisal himself.  She is buried on the eastern banks of the Tigris river.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Has the smartphone stolen the beauty of delayed gratification?

Qatar's recent Guinness World record for the longest selfie stick is another very small notch in the belt of this 'bantamweight' of a Gulf State.  It was a record set by a Qatar youth program called 'Sky Climbers' during their graduation ceremony on 19th September.

Although not averse to taking the odd selfie here and there (a necessity for a solo traveller), I do however, shudder at the scourge of the selfie stick.  Lets put it this way..... you may be a narcissist, but why advertise it?  When you see a grown man puckering up to his digital camera on a stick, while his wife is sitting right there, it does make one question where all this is going.

There is something about the instant nature of all things these days which leads to a growing sense of frustration, lack of patience and an endless search for perfection - if we dont like the selfie, we can keep taking it until we feel satisfied with the image.

I never thought I would reach the age when I started to 'remember the old days' with affection.  But i have to say, I feel fortunate to be of the generation who knew what it was like to take their roll of film to the photographic developers and wait for an envelope of photographs to be printed.  The word 'instant' in this context at that time usually meant anything between 1 and 5 days.

They eventually sped up the process and if you could afford the additional charge (yes kids, you had to pay for it!).... you might be able to get their premium 1 hour service!!  But dont forget, you had to finish the whole roll of .... 24 or 36 photos.  Yes, thats right.... you only had 24 exposures in each roll of film!  Imagine that?!

But I now mourn the loss of a time when we had to wait for stuff.   We had to wait for the News to come on the TV or radio to find out what was going on in the world (pre-Twitter).

We had to wait in a queue outside a public telephone booth to make a phone call when we were out of the house (pre-mobile phones).

We had to wait in a queue at the cinema for tickets for the latest blockbuster movie.... I remember doing just that to see Star Wars for the first time in 1977 (pre-internet).

We had to wait for letters from friends to arrive in the post (pre-email).

When I travelled around America and Canada on Greyhound buses in 1989 when I was 20 years old, the only way I could communicate with my family was by letters sent through the post and a very occasional telephone call in a public phone box using coins, spending the whole conversation dreading the onset of the 'pips' which would indicate that your time was up.

Now I hear the cries of "whats so great about all that?"

One word...... ANTICIPATION!  There is a great joy to be had in the delayed gratification of all things.  Waiting, anticipating and then when you get that thing, valuing it completely.  Who values the ability to communicate these days?  Whatsapp, facebook, twitter, instant messenger, skype are all useful tools and have made the ability to communicate across borders, timezones and miles much easier and who would deny that?

But this instant everything society is one in which the post internet generation expect it all NOW! NOW! NOW!, get a medal for coming last and waiting for anything will just not do!

 But Im sad that this generation will never know the delightful anticipation of delayed gratification.  The pleasure of waiting itself that makes the event so much more worth the wait.  The nervous excitement when waiting for your batch of photos from your recent holiday.  And the beautiful reliving of the memories when you finally open the envelope and get 24 little 6x4 surprises.

In addition to our 24 snapshots, we used our minds to build a memory bank of internal photos and movies of events in our lives which remain with us to this day, without having to swipe through our photostream.  I wonder if any studies are being done to discover the affect of smartphones on our ability to remember.

The problem being that so many people now witness events through their smartphone screens.  One colleague of mine recently recounted an event where he saw a woman recording the first half of a performance through her smartphone and then she proceeded to watch that during the second half !!

We no longer experience things 'live' at all.  Even when we are there..... we are not really there.  I see people sitting together in cafes in the Souq here in Qatar, and I observe them for a while..... no conversation, no eye contact, no acknowledgement that they are together at all.  Life literally passing by with no engagement whatsoever.  All attention on the little screen, giving instant access to the latest news,  latest trends, latest updates on what friends are doing...... while their friend who sits beside them is ignored and is doing the same thing.

There seems to be no way to put this genie back in the bottle.  Smartphones, email, whatsapp, Amazon - we all use them and they are a fact of life..... here I am blogging, so I know the value of the technology.  But we need to find a balance where we use the technology for good rather than allowing it to control our behaviour. And we somehow need to find a way back to valuing what's important, sometimes leaving our phones at home and being present in mind as well as body.

As for the selfie stick?   Why not instead, talk to a real person and ask if they wouldn't mind taking your photo - thats what we used to do.  You never know who you might get talking to.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Qataris enjoy Eid despite the crisis

There has been a quiet resilience to the Qatari response to the unprecedented actions of their neighbours over the last two months,  and the Eid holiday saw many Qataris staying at home and enjoying the celebrations with friends and family.

Certainly, the hotel that I call home was fully booked, despite no holiday makers from Saudi, UAE or Bahrain who usually flock to Doha for their Eid vacation.  Most of those staying were Qataris or expats coming to stay in a hotel with a pool and a beach for a 'holiday at home' !

This made for a few crazy days of kids running up and down the corridors, babies screaming and crying until the early hours, chaos at the pool as fights broke out over sunbeds and teenage boys eating Pringles in the jacuzzi.  But hey, what is Eid all about after all?

Ah yes, this is Eid Al-Adha - otherwise known as the 'feast of the sacrifice'.  It is the holier of the two Eids and marks the moment when God asked Ibrahim to sacrifice his son.  To show his love of God, Ibrahim accepted and was about to kill his son, when God gave him a goat to sacrifice instead.

 Muslim families now traditionally sacrifice a sheep or a goat for their Eid feast, with boys often expected to participate in the killing of the animal.  This festival is preceded by 10 days of optional fasting, unlike the obligatory month of fasting during Ramadan.

Not to be left out, I went for my own Eid feast of the Yemeni variety.  Having Fasha - a meat stew and Masoob - the most breathtakingly delicious desert ever conceived, which I first ate during my trip to Yemen in 2014.   Masoob is a wet bread pudding with mashed bananas, cream and honey.

Easy to make, you just need a few over-ripe bananas which you combine with flatbread chopped into breadcrumbs, and chopped up dates or raisins if you like, then top it with cream, loads of honey and grated cheese - which adds an interesting salty balance to the crazy sweetness.  Basically this is diabetes in a bowl but gorgeous!

In addition to the feast, elders give money to children, new clothes are worn and families go out to shop, eat and share the celebrations together.  In Qatar there were some events, including fireworks - although due to the searing heat (39 plus humidity making it feel like 55 and above), most events were held inside marquees or shopping Malls.

From the crowds at the Mall of Qatar, it seemed pretty clear that a large number of citizens and residents had chosen to stay at home this year, especially with travel to neighbouring countries banned, and flying to other locations now a little more difficult.  The Saudi Foreign Minister is apparently quoted as saying that there is "no harm if the crisis lasts for two years", so it seems there will be much more 'staycationing' ahead!