Sunday, December 26, 2010
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Friday, February 26, 2010
The village was originally called Taranje, before the arrival of the Kurds who changed its name to Ghajar, or 'Gypsies' in Arabic. It is very possible that a tribe of the Romani ended up there, as they did in valleys and plains throughout the world. Under the Ottoman Empire, Alawites from northern Syria settled in Ghajar, as well as two other nearby villages in the Golan: Za'ura and Ayn Fit.
Once upon a simpler time, a bus line connected Marjayoun in Lebanon to Qunaytra in the Golan. Ghajar was a stop on that route - its only connection to the rest of the world. Today, the town finds itself in a strange seclusion, surrounded by fields of land-mines to the north (placed there by Israel during its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon), and a fence erected south of the village, similar to the electronic sensitivity grid Israelis have placed elsewhere to detect attempts to cross from Lebanon.
Today's Ghajarites are, however, well adapted to their context. They live in a large village with well-off homes, different in style and size from the poorer Lebanese villages to their north, or the tidy California-style spreads of Israel at Metulla and Kiryat Shemona to their southwest. Source of income of the village: unknown; "border enterpreneurs", if you wish.
The Ghajarites claim they are Syrian, descendants of a man who ran from trouble in the Alawite regions in the north-west of Syria, and who settled in this strange and barren corner. However, they also hold Israeli passports and speak Hebrew, with many of their children educated in Haifa at the Technion University or elsewhere - a function of their adaptation to Israeli rule since 1967. The Ghajarites claim allegiance to Syria, demand the fruits of citizenship in Israel, and want nothing at all to do with Lebanon, where half of them now technically belong.
They are victims of war, the march of history, modern cartography and the borders that have carved up the Middle East. During the rush to create a line of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the UN partitioned the village into two sovereignties. Indeed, it may be that the partition of the village was decided under the pressure to complete the Israeli line of withdrawal from Lebanon, and may not present the most accurate picture of history.
Maps depicting Ghajar, including those made prior to the Israeli invasion of 1967, are very inconsistent. The 2000 partition may have been based on historical and cartographic errors; Ghajar could have been part of any of the entities created at the end of the Ottoman Empire: Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine (1). Indeed, Ghajar is an example of a general problem, the lack of exact border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria. Here, however, the problem is exacerbated by the human dimension: nowhere else does the border apparently cut through a village.
At one point, Ghajar became a flashpoint between Israel and Lebanon/Hizballah. Because the town was a potential infiltration point into Israel from Lebanon, the Israelis took it upon themselves to occupy the northern two-thirds of the village. The Ghajarites have demonstrated actively against being divided, fenced in, and handed over to countries where they do not belong.
Ghajar speaks to a day when political identity mattered much less, and when states did not measure borders to the inch. Certainly, these villagers were once the victims of marauding armies, and, no doubt, they swayed with the prevailing political winds to survive and thrive. But, nobody had previously thought of bisecting their village and its surrounding fields in the name of a proper border. That act took the brilliance and exactitudes of modern diplomacy.
Like other unfortunate "political gypsies" of our time, including the Palestinian refugees, they belong nowhere, in a sense, at a time when everyone must belong somewhere, or suffer the consequences.
(1) This entry is based partly on the study by Asher Kaufman, "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: On Ghajar and other Anomalies in the Syria-Lebanon Tri-Border Region."
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Found along the office shelves, on its walls and in its corners are curiosities that speak to a succession of bygone eras of natural history: old topographical maps North Africa, prehistoric stone tools, alien-looking rocks and crystals, ancient tribal artifacts, colonial-era regalia, and dusty old journals and academic periodicals.
This veritable storehouse of treasures, flying stealthily below anybody’s radar, is the headquarters and personal sanctuary of Egypt’s youngest Saharan explorer, Mahmoud Marai.
For more than a decade, Marai, age 35, has been at the forefront of deep desert exploration in Egypt. His journeys have taken him to the furthest and most inaccessible corners of the country.
A high-school chemistry teacher by trade, he has spearheaded dozens of journeys to the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat regions of the Western Desert (also known as the Libyan Desert) – a still somewhat unexplored wasteland of over 700,000 square kilometers known for its cave paintings, prehistoric relics and concealed wadis.
“People say Egypt is ‘The Gift of the Nile’,” says Marai. “But Egypt is also the gift of the desert.”
Undaunted by his lack of experience or training, this self-taught adventurer started by making solo expeditions in a single vehicle between 1998 and 2003 – an almost unheard of (and some would argue foolhardy) - undertaking that nonetheless earned him the respect of other desert guides. After staking out his own claim to the Western Desert, he began work as a professional guide, desert outfitter and explorer-for-hire in 2004.
Unlike other guides, Marai has become known for his preferred method of doing trips into the desert, either largely - or entirely - on foot.
“You can’t find anything by car,” says Marai. It’s totally useless. Most people who travel into this area bypass a lot of rock art and artifacts because much of it needs to be seen on foot.”
During his short career, he has crossed the Great Sand Sea numerous times, has walked hundreds of kilometres overland to the Gilf Kebir, and has explored most of the hidden wadis of the majestic Jebel Uweinat.His experiences don’t end there. While at Karkur Talkh at Uweinat, he was abducted and held, along with two others, for weeks by a rogue North Darfur paramilitary organization operating along the porous Sudanese-Egyptian-Libyan frontier. The experience, which was life-threatening, shook Marai to the core. But he nevertheless, intrepidly, went back to explore the desert he loved.
In late 2007, Marai, along with Maltese adventurer Mark Borda, stumbled upon Neolithic cave paintings in the Uweinat Desert, some seven hundred kilometres west of the Nile Valley, near the twin massifs of Peter and Paul. Then, at another nearby location, the two surveyors found engravings on a large rock consisting of hieroglyphic writing: a Pharaonic cartouche, an image of a king and other ancient Egyptian iconography.
The implications of the discovery appeared to be significant. The consensus among Egyptologists up until then was that the ancient Egyptians did not penetrate the Western Desert any further than around 80km southwest of Dakhla Oasis – an area of sandstone hills containing hieroglyphs discovered by German explorer Carlo Bergmann. Marai and Borda’s discovery seemed to indicate that the Ancient Egyptians had in fact penetrated much, much, further into the desert than had previously been believed - all the way to the area near the Libyan border.
“The ancient Egyptians had the means, the methods and knowledge to undergo very long journeys in the desert,” says Marai.
Photos of the inscriptions, whose location has been a tightly held secret, were taken to the UK to be looked at by a hieroglyphics specialist. A preliminary translation determined that the hieroglyphs mention the name of a region where they may have been carved – the fabled Land of Yam: one of the most mysterious nations that the Ancient Egyptians traded with in Old Kingdom times.
Marai and Borda both believe that Yam, which has never been positively identified, lay somewhere in the area where they found the inscription.
Despite his best efforts to get the academic and Egyptology community as a whole to recognize his discovery, there has been relatively little interest in the Yam inscriptions. This due perhaps to a lack of willingness to budge an iota from the accepted historical narrative, which sits heavily in text books with the weight of dogma.
Because of the worldwide recession of the last few years, there has been far less of an appetite for internationally sponsored desert expeditions, and much less demand for Marai’s skills. He has since fallen back on teaching high-school chemistry.
But ever the dreamer, Marai looks ahead to the day when he can pick up where he left off and perhaps contribute in his own way to the story of history, which, he maintains, will continue to be re-written, despite of the intransigence of the “experts”.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
"Religion is a field unplanted except by those who accomplish an interest from it - return.
If it were not from fear of hell, none would worship any god;
And if not for the expected rewards, they would deny God."
Fortunately, and occasionally, some come to live another religious reality.
Rabia al-Adawiyya, a woman and a mystic from Basra of the late 8th century, is one such person. Her early and formative life was most difficult. She was orphaned as a child, kidnapped by slave traders, sold for six silver pieces and only freed her when her master was astounded by her saintly conduct.
Over time, and to free herself from all enslavement, Rabia pursued the most difficult of roads: the freedom to worship the Divine without temptation, distraction or ulterior motive. "I will not serve God like a labourer in expectation of wages," she said, and went on to transform herself from a suffering child of Basra to an ascetic, and then to most ardently seek her freedom through the Sufi way.
Asceticism is not encouraged in Islam, a religion that puts much more emphasis on being a normal member of society, and providing service to the development of humans. Yet, Rabia shirked the regular life. She had few belongings, carried a stick and wore an old patched mantle and worn sandals. She would spend the night praying on the rootops of her city, and denied herself motherhood and love for a man.
Even though she thwarted the normal life and embraced a more radical road, it may be that "the imbalance of the thoughtful is much better than the conservatism of one who takes no thought." (1)
Indeed, her extremism came from a noble and intense source: a wish to worship out of complete freedom, and out of her own (and not any other) choice.
What little we know of her life comes to us by way of Farid al-Din Attar, a major Muslim luminary who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. He devotes a chapter to Rabia in his Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memorial of the Saints) - a compilation of biographical anecdotes from the lives of Islamic mystics.
Ever since her death, Rabia has been revered among her own kind as one of the most realized of beings. She has come down through history as a beacon to all who suspect, or know, that there is a greater reality than the ironclad materialism and seductive ideologies that we often embrace. Rabia was also an exemplar to people, both now and at the time, that the path of knowledge was not just something restricted to men.
Today, she is most well known for her saying, that was sure to have inspired Gibran to his:
"My Lord, if I am worshiping you from fear of fire, burn me in the fires of hell;
and if I am worshiping you from desire for paradise, deny me paradise.
But, if I am worshiping you for yourself alone, then do not deny me the sight of your magnanimous face."
(1) Much of the material for this entry is drawn from the book, ¨First Among Sufis - The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya¨, by Widad El Sakkakini, 1982
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
In 1972, after 15 years of research, Dr. Anne Kilmer (professor of Assyriology at the University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley), transcribed one of the oldest known pieces of music notation in the world.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
- Our emotional brains date back to the earliest life forms on Earth and evolved to help ensure our survival.
- Extreme emotional arousal results in primitive thought patterns and triggers the fight-or-flight response, creating a mindset that sees the world in either/or, black and white, and good or bad terms.
- Being in a highly aroused emotional state prevents us from seeing subtle distinctions and shades of grey that are the mark of intelligent or evolved thought, and that more accurately depict reality.
- Too much continual emotional arousal creates a state of ignorance in people and makes individuals susceptible to indoctrination and brainwashing