Friday, December 28, 2007

London Sojourn

This December when Eid and our Christmas holiday came close in time,  I took a week to visit my good and long-term friends in London.  While we visited the central city on a couple occasions, most of our time was spent in the countryside, visiting a number of historic sites. Such a contrast - the green hills and valleys of Great Britain compared to the flat brown desert of Qatar - and yet such similarities due to the British influence in the region - my Doha hair dryer worked in England, roundabouts, of course, and signs that indicate Deep Excavation.  But how nice to sit in a pub and have a pork sausage and a beer...  And of course the temperature differences - high 60s/low 70s farenheit in Qatar, twenties, thirties and forties England... one morning with a beautiful blanket of frost on the fields.
I have attached separate blogs for the individual day trips we took.  Enjoy the brief descriptions and photographs.  Although not Qatar, they exist because I have been in Qatar and find the change refreshing. While in London, I reflected on the fact that much of the discomfort I feel in Doha is caused by the fact tha I cannot truly explore this city on foot. Hours, days I have spent roaming Boston when a teen-ager, Rome, Venice, London,and, of course, New York City. Doha is not a city for walkers and I feel hampered in my ability to get to know the city.

London Sojourn: Standen

Standen was built between 1892 and 1894 for the London solicitor James Beale, by an architect who was a close friend of William Morris, Phillip Webb.  The guidebook tells us that in early 1856, "Phillp Webb met the 22-year old William Morris for the first time: 'we understood one another at once,' Morris said later.  From that understanding grew William Morris & Co., which was to transform the standard of interios design in Britain and to play a central role n the Arts and Crafts movement."
As the guidebook, published by the National Trust, indicates, the house enjoys the best views to the south but does not dominate the prospect.  Web paid equal attention to the needs of the family and their staff, creating light filled roms with plain panelling that was combined with Morris wall papers and fabrics.  The house remained used by the family through to 1972 when the last surviving Beal died and Arthur and Helen Grogan took a long term lease, unertook extensive restoration and then transferred the house and grounds to the National Trust.   
I've attached some photos taken the day of my visit when a heavy frost coaed the fields and hedges; Rosemary and I had a Christmas dinner in the barn.

London Sojourn: Rochester

Based on a comment from a friend of mine, "to be in Dickens country at Christmas time certainly has its appeal. God bless us, every one!" Rosemary and I decided to visit Rochester, the town very closely associated with him and in which he grew up and died.

According to the Medway tourist site, "Medway is known for its rich heritage. The Romans and Normans each left their mark and the area has a long seafaring tradition. Rochester Castle and Cathedral and the Historic Dockyard in Chatham are just some of the great landmarks.

Charles Dickens moved to the area when he was five years old and spent the happiest years of his childhood around Chatham. He returned to the area for the last 13 years of his life, living at Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester. Many of his books featured places and buildings in and around Rochester. Satis House in Great Expectations was based on the impressive red brick Restoration House in Crow Lane, Rochester and Eastgate House, also in Rochester, was referred to as Westgate House in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers and as the Nun's House in his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

Rochester is also home to the second oldest Norman castle whose size humbled Dickens causing him to write, in Household Words, "I surveyed the massive ruin from the Bridge, and thought what a brief little practical joke I seemed to be, in comparison with the solidarity, stature, strength and length of life." While the photographs reproduced do show its massive size, they also illustrate the ruinous state it is in, although well maintained by English Heritage. (The photo on the left is from the tourist web site, clearly taken on a warm and sunny day; on the right is mine.) The city, the guidebook explains, was "built within the walls of a Roman town, sited where the Roman Watling Street crosses the Medway [river] on its route from London to Canterbury and Dover." The first castle was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) and the existing keep was added in 1127 during the reign of Henry I. "The existence of documentation to enable these earliest building phases of the castle to be positively dated is especially fortunate; the remainder of its architectural development in the medieval period is also very well recorded, as is its dramatic military history which witnessed three major sieges within two centuries of its foundation. Viewing the castle today, it takes a small act of imagination (aided by the models available in the chapel room of the keep), to think of the workshops and houses crowed next to the base of the wall in the moat, the ivy covering the tower and the waters of the Medway at the base of the walls.

During the second siege of 1215, King John devised and implemented the plan to creating a mine under the southeast angle of the keep. Forty of the fattest pigs were requested to be sent by the King's justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, so as to bring fire beneath the tower. In an age before fire powder, "the pig fat was required to fire the pit props shoring up the undermined foundations … John's mine was successful, a whole section of the great tower came down, and to this day there is at Rochester a monument to these forty pigs in the cylindrical southeast angle of the keep, rebuilt in Poitevin fashion after the war was over."

The model in the chapel illustrates "this considerable achievement of siege-craft and military engineering", illuminating the location of the mine with a reproduction of the miners and the pit props with a user switch-on light.

The cathedral dates from 604 and today still has a 12 th century Romanesque façade, the only such high Romanesque front surviving in England. The original stone steps (now covered with wooden ones) were worn away by medieval pilgrims visiting the shrine of William of Perth, a Scottish baker who was murdered nearby in the 13 th century. Although no trace of the shrine remains today, miracles were reported to take place there.

Toward the end of the 12 th century there was a great fire (1179) which destroyed much of the cathedral; lack of funds stymied attempts to rebuild it so the original Norman nave has survived. According to our guide to Dickens' footsteps, the cathedral "features in the Pickwick Papers and takes centre-stage in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with the plot revolving around the ancient church and the people who worked there."

Finally, we visited the museums in the Guildhall, seen here. This structure was also used as a magistrate's court in Dickens time. "It was here that Pip was brought by Mr. Pumblechook in Great Expectations , to be bound over as an apprentice to Joe Gargery." In addition to a museum devoted to Charles Dickens, there is a reconstruction of a prison ship and and displays illustrating the long history of man in the area.

London Sojourn: Wakehurst Place

Wakehurst Place, the country botanical garden of Key Gardens was a delight on the chilly but partially sunny December day we visited. I can only imagine how it looks in bloom. People have lived on these grounds since as early as the Iron Age; the name is Norman, derived from its first record owner who arrived with William the Conqueror.

As with so much in England, there are records to tell us much of which transpired from the first purchase of the original acreage through today. The mansion that stands today was built in 1590 by Sir Edward Culpepper, coincidentally a distant relative of Nicholas, the famous herbalist. The family was forced to sell the estate in 1694 to satisfy debts, and over time it passed through numerous hands.

The last two owners are of especial interest to its current place as part of Key Gardens. Gerald Loder, later Lord of Wakehurst, purchased it in 1902 and started to develop the gardens. The guidebook describes him as “a passionate plantsman [who] helped sponsor many collecting expeditions at the turn of the century, particularly east Asia.” Sir Henry Price bought the property on Loder’s death; he bequeathed the property, with a sizable endowment, to the National Trust from whom Kew Gardens leases it.

The property today is 465 acres of which 180 acres is the gardens and woodland, 149 acres the Loder Valley Nature Reserve and 136 acres is outlying parkland and woodland. The Mansion, the Gardens and the Millennium Seed Bank are the main attractions. A few pictures of the first two are part of this blog. Some comments on the Millennium Seed Bank form a separate blog.

As usual I urge you the review the official web site for more information and professional photographs.

London Sojourn: One day of winter and spring

On a couple occasions we visited London Center and on my last full day, we visited again the Winter Wonderland Fair which had opened in Hyde Park for the holidays. There were some booths but few and the main attractions were a skating rink and many rides aimed at younger children. There was also an area in which kids could bungy jump and bounce up and down until they presumably exhausted themselves. We elected to ride the ferris wheel of which I show two photos

and a view from the wheel of the skaters.

We left the 'winter' and walked across more of the parks and found signs of spring, a wonderfully flowering cherry tree in St. James Park,

pelicans and ducks in the water also in St. James Park,

and the sun gleaming off the golden gates situated at the entry to Green Park, on the side of Buckhingham Palace.
From there we walked to Trafalgar Square to see the Christmas tree and have a final lunch together in a pub close by.

Endangered Species: Fauna at Al Wabra

The saving of endangered species whether flora or fauna seems to be part of my recent expeditions. Here I discuss a recent visit to the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation. Discussion of the effort to save endangered floral specimens as well as preserve seeds of all floral specimens is the effort of the millennium seed bank which I also visited recently and describe elsewhere.

A small and fortunate number of QNHG members was given the opportunity of visiting the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP) in the last month. The preserve is not open to the public although guests are not unwelcome. The current director of AWWP, Dr. Sven Hammer, and his wife, Catrin, Curator of Mammals, have prepared an introduction to the preserve for Zoo News. The two are instrumental in moving the family farm and game preserve, situated in the heart of Qatar from an unsupervised collection of common wildlife species, into the professional wildlife preservation it is today, and all in approximately 7 years. The AWWP’s web site also displays more information ranging from their conservation and breeding programs, to digitized publications and some excellent photographs. Some of my own photos are presented on this blog but they cannot match the professional photographs shown on the web site.

As the introduction cited above relates, in the late 1990s,
“the current owner, Sheikh Saoud Al Thani, the youngest son, took over, and from this time onwards things have changed. He started not only to improve the existing facilities, but also to built up new, bigger and better-arranged enclosures for his animals. These improvements are still in progress. Five years ago, he employed the first Europeans to organise animal care. Since August 2000 an international team of two veterinarians, two curators, two biologists and 35 animal keepers have run the place (the number is steadily increasing).”

The Director arranged an excellent ½ day for us. We had a 35-40 minute powerpoint presentation of the history accompanied by excellent photos, followed by a tour of the facilities of the main building only recently completed and still not fully occupied or functioning. There are no other facilities or resources in the country so everything they need they have to provide themselves, from diagnosis to surgery to blood work to DNA analysis. After the facilities tour, we split into two groups for tours of approximately 1 hour each – mammals and birds. I was far more intrigued by the birds although a couple mammals were worth seeing. A bit more on that later.

For now, a description of the facilities from introduction:

“The area is about 2.5 km2. The heart of Al Wabra is like an oasis, a green place with palms, alfalfa fields, many different fruit trees, etc. In this area are kept the more delicate animals, such as all the different bird species, cheetahs, smaller cats and some ungulates. The greater part of Al Wabra consists of ordinary desert land; in this area the huge enclosures for most of the gazelles and antelopes are situated. Currently we keep around 2,000 animals of 103 species … There is an ongoing effort to improve the design and layout of enclosures by creating conditions more appropriate for the various species and more conducive to the proper organisation of the collection. This is resulting in much-reduced levels of stress, fighting and injuries due to herd panic, as well as more successful breeding. The cruel individual holding of two great apes in isolation, for instance, was ended a year ago. The gorilla was sent to Prague Zoo, where he has become part of the EEP, and the chimpanzee has gone to a chimpanzee orphanage in Zambia.”

My first tour was the birds described in the introduction as follows:
“For heat-sensitive birds, like birds of paradise, macaws, cockatoos, umbrella birds and pheasants, there are huge aviaries with air-conditioned indoor rooms and computer-controlled irrigation systems, connected to a fresh-water osmosis unit. Recently a large walk-through free-flight aviary (75 m ´ 30 m ´ 7 m) has been finished. In its rainforest atmosphere, the aviary accommodates bird of paradise males, Somali starlings, pheasant pigeons, turacos and cranes. Another similar aviary is still under construction, where it is planned to keep flamingos, scarlet ibis and macaws.”

The curator of birds, Richard Switzer, had spoken at the December monthly meeting of the QNHG and the following day a report on this was published in the local newspaper by Fran Gillespie: “Brilliantly coloured Birds of Paradise fly from tree to tree in a vast aviary, their iridescent plumage glittering in the sunlight. Below them, pink flamingoes and white spoonbills stalk the shallow waters of a pool, and the silence is broken by the harsh cries of Red-tailed cockatoos.” The curator, in answer to my question in the aviary, indicated there were at least 60 birds representing a dozen species in the aviary. The five photos below are from mine and, yes, the top one of them is not a bird but one of two monkeys that reside in the aviary.

Part of the breeding program at Al Wabra includes the spix’s macaw, now extinct in its native Brazil. “Its story is a sad one,” the article indicates, “typical of the fate of so many parrots and macaws that have suffered from widespread trapping for the exotic pet trade. The introduction of the aggressive Africanised bee, which competed for nest sites, stinging and killing breeding birds on their nests, also contributed to its decline. The last wild male disappeared in October 2000. Fewer than a hundred Spix’s macaws were in captivity world-wide, but the owner of Al Wabra set about buying a number from private collections in the Philippines and Switzerland, and a breeding programme to save the bird from total extinction was begun. Now, some 50 birds, representing 75% of the entire known population of Spix’s macaws, are at Al Wabra. ‘It was not all plain sailing,’ said Switzer. ‘Many of the birds we acquired were diseased, and these had to be treated. Every 12 months a vet comes over from Germany to conduct a thorough check on our birds. But more serious is the fact that because all the birds in captivity are probably descended from a few individuals, there are inbreeding problems. There is the occasional misshapen egg, chicks sometimes fail to hatch, and there are behavioural problems.’ Despite these teething problems, the future of the bird now seems assured, and their devoted curator dreams of one day seeing them reintroduced to the wild. In 2006, 12 eggs were laid, and removed to incubators for hatching. Seven chicks survived. In 2007, 32 eggs have been laid, and a higher percentage of chicks was successfully reared. Birds of Paradise are particularly difficult to keep in captivity, said Switzer, and at Al Wabra they are proud to number no fewer than six species in the collection. Each of the breeding pairs have to be given an aviary to themselves, as the birds are aggressive and a male bird will not tolerate the presence of another male. Carefully planted rainforest foliage, maintained by frequent misting with water, provides display perches for the males, and nesting sites."

The Lear’s Macaws at AWWP are on loan from the Brazilian government as part of a breeding program. Three chicks were recently born and are being hand reared by experienced staff since unfortunately the breeding pair that produced the eggs have not yet developed sound incubation skills. This bird has rarely been bred in captivity and until AWWP produced these first chicks they hadn’t been officially bred in captivity in 22 years. As the introduction in Zoo News indicates, “Al Wabra has been successful in both natural breeding and rearing and also hand-rearing of valuable and endangered species: greater and king birds of paradise, green-naped pheasant pigeon, chestnut-bellied sand grouse, beira antelope, Speke's, red-fronted and Pelzeln's gazelles, gerenuk, sand cat and leopard tortoise, as well as other common zoo mammals and birds. In the important, but still young, collection of parrots, the first pairs have just laid their first eggs.”

The tour of the mammals followed. I was most intrigued by the Somali Wild Ass, a subspecies of the African wild ass found from the Southern Red Sea region of Eritrea , the Afar region of Ethiopia, and Somalia. Its legs, as my photo and all photos show, are horizontally striped with black. This critically endangered animal prefers hilly and stony deserts, arid to semi-arid bushlands and grasslands. They may be small, but they're fast: African wild asses have been clocked at 30 miles per hour. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought domesticated African wild asses to the southwestern United States. The descendants of those animals -- best known as burros -- still roam through the Southwest.

Again from the introduction in ZooNews:
“Most of the ungulates are well adapted to the Qatari climate, but for the sensitive and very famous beira antelope, stables with air-conditioned rooms are essential. The other species are either housed in large holding pens or in smaller breeding enclosures. Because there has been less and less demand for surplus ungulate males, two bachelor pens were established a year ago, one of approximately 90,000 m2 in area and the other of around 70,000 m2. These are important genetic pools and are also attractive for visitors.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dislocation in Doha

Some thoughts as I prepare to leave Doha for London for the Christmas holidays.

I watch the NBC and ABC nightly news at 5:00 and 5:30 am the following day.

Our workweek is Sunday through Thursday and I have found that on Wednesday I’ll think 'well Wednesday is the western Thursday and Thursday is our last day of the week so tomorrow I’m off.' I thought only I overcompensated for the dislocation but have found others doing it in the same way.

Despite the fact that Arabic is read right to left, the car license plates, which carry both Arabic and western numerals, read to left to right for both versions. (Sitting in traffic leads to such profound observations.)

On at least two occasions, the cost of something (gas and a sandwich) was quoted backwards: that is, 13 became thirty-one and 42 became twenty-four causing me to question the change I received. (The change was correct.)

Finally, West Bay is off my front balcony but it is in the north direction. So why not North Bay? I assume because most maps of Doha are printed with east at the top, which on normal maps is north. Given that, the part of Doha on the left side of the map has become West Bay.

Whoever said this was going to be easy?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Arabian or Persian Gulf: the GCC

The newspapers in the States occasionally refer to the GCC or the Gulf Cooperative Council. Just recently (Dec. 3-4, 2007), the GCC met in Doha for their 28th meeting and our papers were full of news. Much perhaps should reach a wider audience although I have seen little in the American press. Some background first: officially the GCC is the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and includes as members Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The organization was established in 1981 to promote stability and economic cooperation among Persian or Arabian Gulf nations. While all members are on the gulf, not all states on the gulf are members, most notably Iran and Iraq. In 2003 GCC members eliminated tariffs on trade between member nations and established common external tariffs. They have agreed to establish a broader economic union (including a single market and currency) by 2010, and this is one subject of discussion in the current meeting.

On the 2nd, Iran's foreign ministry confirmed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would attend the summit of the GCC, the first such visit by an Iranian leader, as the Associated Press reported.

The six member group of Arab states located on the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf was formed in 1980 in part to confront expansionist fears of Iran after its Islamic revolution. "The president will attend the summit based on the invitation by Qatar's Emir," spokesman of the ministry, Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters. "This is the first time that an Iranian president is to attend the summit."

From regional newspapers we can gather some interesting perspectives, and better understand the possibilities of the organization in the region.

Lebanon’s Daily Star editorializes that

The gathering presents a chance to revamp projects like the GCC common market, as well as to improve coordination aimed at the eventual creation of a single currency. In addition, additional harmony in fiscal matters, more sensitive planning in economic ones, and carefully crafted labor policies can help all of the council's members to both reap greater rewards from their energy reserves and accelerate diversification efforts required to prepare for the day when the wells run dry. For good measure, there is also the potential to institutionalize the encouraging environmental steps taken recently by several GCC states so that the next stage of development sees the Gulf setting an example for rising industrial powers like China and India.

Arab Times Online reported early on the 4th that despite the UAE’s interest in removing the currency pegs to the U.S. dollar, Saudia Arabia was adamantly opposed, although Kuwait initiated de-pegging its currency in July of this year.

UAE Central Bank Governor Sultan Nasser al-Suweidi had raised expectations the summit could signal a shift in foreign exchange policy when he called last month for Gulf states to sever pegs to the tumbling dollar and track a currency basket. Bids on the Saudi riyal slipped off 21-year highs to as low as 3.7182 per dollar after Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf ruled out dropping his country’s peg to the dollar. “We will not drop it. That’s it,” Assaf told reporters in Doha where he and other finance ministers prepared the agenda for the rulers’ talks.

Arab Times Online also reported on Ahmadinejad’s presentation, following the opening address of the Emir of Qatar, to the Council on Dec. 3rd, when he warned the Gulf leaders that any security problem in one state would affect all countries.

“Any security problem that could happen in one country will have a negative effect on the security of all countries,” he said in the televised speech, in which he referred to the region as the Persian, not Arabian, Gulf. GCC members Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar share Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and some have maritime border disputes with the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad made no mention of his country’s nuclear plans, or a Saudi proposal last month to defuse the standoff with the West by supplying Iran with enriched uranium. However, in a bid to increase ties with the Gulf, Ahmadinejad offered to share Iran’s expertise in a range of fields, including “energy and the new technologies”. Iran has in the past offered to help the Gulf with nuclear knowhow.

It is interesting to note the sparring over the name of the gulf which the GCC refers to as Arabian Gulf and Iran insists is the Persian Gulf. In May 2006 there was a small, polite skirmish between the Emir of Qatar and Ahmadinejad. As reported by the Associated Press in May 2006

Attempting diplomatic niceties as he was saying goodbye, the emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, congratulated his host on Iran’s fine soccer team and said he hoped it would bring pride to all the “Arab Persian Gulf” region during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Not missing a beat, Ahmadinejad shot back:
“I believe you called it the Persian Gulf when you studied in school,” he said in a pointed reference to the emir’s education at Sandhurst Military Academy in England, once the colonial ruler of much of the Arab world.
Seemingly unfazed, the emir fired Monday’s final volley: “By the way, the gulf belongs to all.”
Since Ahmadinejad’s election last summer, Tehran’s relations have significantly cooled with its oil- and gas-rich neighbors, and are far chillier than in the days of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who promoted dialogue and close ties with Arab neighbors.

At the end of this summit, asked about the use of the term "Persian Gulf" by Ahmedinejad in his speech at the summit, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim said, "This is a problematic term though we cannot describe it as disputed. Historically this region is called the Persian Gulf but we call it the Arabian Gulf. However, this is not the most important issue in our relations with Iran."

Returning to December 2007, the Emir H H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani addressed the opening summit of the 28th meeting with a discussion of security in the region, a key area of concern for the GCC member states, indicating that the United Nations should be the place to resolve regional disputes. As reported in the Peninsula, he said that

“While we realise that the mounting crises in the region have their reasons and backgrounds, and many of them are clear to us, we hope that all those who are concerned with the regional and international issues reconsider their positions before it is too late.”

He returned to a favorite theme of his, scientific development and the future of economic prosperity in the region, saying that

“The field of scientific research in particular remains in need of further attention and care because it is one of the main basics not only of sustainable development, but also of progress in its comprehensive sense.”

At the end of the two-day session, a number of interesting developments were reported. First and perhaps foremost was the decision to table any discussion of de-pegging the GCC currencies from the U.S. dollar, with the exception of Kuwait which did this in July 2007. Then there was the announcement that in January 2008 there would be a common market in the GCC. The move to a common currency is still on plan and will be discussed at the next summit in Muscat.

GCC Secretary-General H E Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Attiyah, said: “This fraternal meeting emphasised once again the deep keenness of all leaders of the Council member states on strengthening the ties of fraternity and solidarity among our states and the promotion and upgrading of our Council's march for the good and advancement of our peoples.” ... Later Al Attiyah told a conference that all member states had agreed on the principles of a Gulf common market which stipulates that all GCC citizens will be treated equally in all economic fields in any of the six-member states. ... GCC citizens can undertake economic activities in any of the member-countries without hindrance which also applies for investments and services, practising a profession, dealing in shares in the stock markets, employment in private and public sectors, social security and pension, real estate ownership, transfer of capital, free movement and residency, education and health services. ... "The Gulf common market is aimed thus to establish one market which would benefit all GCC citizens that Gulf economies provide and would also open up more opportunities for investments between Gulf countries,” Al Attiyah said. The GCC Secretary-General also said that the summit recommended that all necessary steps be taken to establish monetary union by 2010 and also to exert efforts to integrate services, like a common electricity grid and linking water distribution network as well as a railway link between the GCC member-states all of which will be included in the recommendations to be submitted at the summit in Muscat.

It is noteworthy that this conference, with little or no press in the U.S. and to which the Iranian President was invited for the first time, played out at the same time that the United States N.I.E. announced that their intelligence showed that Iran had abandoned its nuclear project in 2003.
The Peninsula On-Line reports that when asked about US intelligence reports that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, the Prime Minister said, "We have no information about this, apart from what we have understood from our brothers in Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We believe Iran will use its nuclear capability for peaceful purposes." Yet, in the Peninsula Times of Dec. 7, we read that
speaking in Iran on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad was quoted by the state news agency saying that the US report was a “final blow” to Iran’s critics and was a clear message “that the Iranian people were on the right course. Today, Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact”.

I remain disappointed that the U.S. press did not report on this summit out of which came the commitment to a GCC common market in January 2008, less than one month away, and continuation of the plan for a common currency in the GCC by 2010. The inclusion of Iran as an invited guest provides a foretaste of the future in this region; and all three of these items are more than of passing interest to the U.S. and its allies.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Sharks' teeth expedition

This past Friday was the QNHG promised trip to look for sharks’ teeth. No not recent ones, but those millions of years old. Organized by Jacques LaBlanc (see below for web site) for the Qatar Natural History Group, those interested gathered in the parking lot of the Carrefours Mall. We broke into three groups, or convoys, with the following instructions:

“We will take Salwa Road west for about 50/60 minutes, make a U-turn, take Salwa road back East for 10km and then turn south on the Sauda Natheel road towards Saudi Arabia. We will drive about 28 kms on the Sauda Natheel road and then turn left (East) in an unmarked trail across the desert. On this trail we will drive for about 10 kms and reach a depression (Jaow Al Hamar) in which the Middle Eocene Midra Shale outcrops (the shale in which the shark teeth are found).”

Please see the google map of the area linked to the blog (Al Salwa).
All those without 4-wheel drive were separated and joined to those who had such vehicles and space. I was traveling in my 4-wheel with a faculty colleague and we added a couple, he teaching at Carnegie Mellon in Education City, and his wife currently with Rand. The trip was reasonably uneventful, although we stopped for seemingly inexplicable reasons in the middle of traffic. Once we hit the unmarked track, I was glad for the 4–wheel as we bounced freely over rocks and debris along some previous car tracks. Aside from danger to the undercarriage of the jeep, the real danger occurred when we hit the sand. Impossible to miss, it was an amazing experience. I made it through the 1+ km of very soft sand, always looking for the hard edge. Evenutally we came to the depression, Jaow Al Hamar. We parked in various places and many gathered to hear a brief discussion of the location and age of the spot.

From the supplied literature, I quote
“As explained in the text below, in addition to shark teeth, other fossils can also be found in Jaow Al Hamar. These fossils include gastropods, echinoderm spines, oyster shells, nummulites, pycnodont teeth and dugong bones. The participants to this field trip can collect and keep all the fossils they find, however, any dugong bone material found must be handed over to the Trip Leaders. It is only just recently that Middle Eocene dugong bones (48,000,000 years) were identified in Qatar (the first ever in the Arabian Peninsula) and these are still under study by the University of Qatar in collaboration with the University of Michigan.”

I urge anyone interested to consult the web site of Jacques LeBlanc, as he writes: “More pictures of Qatar fossils (and other countries) can be found on one of the trip leader’s website at . A more extensive guide to the Tertiary fossils of Qatar will also be available soon (February-March 2008) for free download.”

What did we see follows in a few pictures of the day as well as one of what we found. No, my group did not find a shark’s tooth, although some of those on the trip did. I found the four nummulites illustrated,

ferricrete, echinoderm spines and nautilus pits and pieces as well as some of the oyster shells, which to my eye practiced in finding pot sherds (very often rounded) I easily saw. Adults and children wandered the terrain, hunched over looking for fossils. Many objects were taken to the team leaders who discussed or dismissed what was acquired. We munched on lunch (for me tuna fish sandwich and diet pepsi, for my colleagues, cheese and bread and yogurt). A dog insisted that he must have some of our food – with two tags and a handsome collar he clearly came with one of the cars.

Around 2:00 my small group decided to leave and we caravanned with two other cars. I seemed to lead the group and got stuck in the sand. One car passed by and stopped on the hard packed sand. The one behind got horribly mired. I turned the driving over to my colleague who had far more experience with 4-wheel drive (mine goes back 40 years) and he got us out. We then went to help the other car flagging cars now leaving the site to go around the sand trap. Soon another land cruiser decided to stop and help and sooner than we could bear to watch, he too was mired. As we searched for large flat rocks in the area, my colleague found a wonderful large (7-8” high) well-preserved nautilus fossil, well worth the getting stuck to locate. With shovels and winch but no sand ladders, they were still working at the two cars
(illustrated) as we left. We negotiated the rest of the treacherous sand and finally got back on the very rocky ‘track’, passing a dead camel (illustrated) and a camel farm, and some glorious dunes (also illustrated).

We became convinced that the camel farm was cleverly located to assist all the non-natives who got stuck in the sand since camels could clearly pull vehicles out.

I arrived home with a car covered in sand, nose, ears and eyes filled with sand and some good photos and fine thoughts about the bonding we all had - although it was a bit unnerving thinking of spending the night with little water etc near the Saudi border. Reconnoitering the next day we hoped the cars had in fact been released from the sand …

Finally, technical details from the supplied literature:
“Jaow Al Hamar is located at 24° 39’ 06”N , 51° 09’ 05.8”E. The Arabic word 'jaow' is the local
term used to refer to an "elongated depression". These depressions are common in Qatar and are formed as a result of erosion of the surface ground layer of the limestone layer that constitutes a major part of Qatar's soil structure. A variety of plants grow in these depressions and were there more considered good feeding grounds for animals. The other constituent of the name is the word 'hamar'; a term referring to the colour "red". Therefore, the area consists of a depression whose red-coloured sand provides the area with its geographic name Jaow Al Hamar. …

The Middle Eocene (37,000,000 to 49,000,000 years) in Qatar is represented by the Dammam
Formation. It is underlain by the Rus Formation and overlain by the Dam Formation. The
Dammam is broken into four members … The Rus and all the Members of the Dammam Formation can be observed in the Jaow Al Hamar locality except for the Abarug member which occurs only around the Bay of Zekrit, more to the north. … The base of the Dammam represents an open-marine environment, whereas the upper part indicates a shallow-marine environment and a siliciclastic influence from the west. The Dammam contains nummulites and has been dated as upper Ypresian to Priabonian … from its foraminiferal content. (Ziegler 2001). …

The Midra Shale (called “Midra & Saila Shales” in Saudi Arabia) at the base of the Dammam
Formation consists of pale yellow-orange to yellow-green shale and clay and very pale orange marl and dolomite. The shales are finely fissile (papyraceous) and contain clays, dolomite, and gypsum. The dolomitic marl is laminated and contains some pellet ghosts called ferricrete; it consists of dolomite, clay minerals and minor quartz, feldspar, and gypsum. The Midra Shale Member contains dolomitized benthonic foraminifera, mollusks, and fish remains in some horizons. (M. Namik Cagatay, 1990)

Iron oxides pseudomorphosing pyrite cubes in the Midra Shale are clear evidence that reducing
conditions existed in the basin and the water level was much higher than in the underlying Rus
Formation (subtidal/dysaerobic). On the other hand, layers near the top of the Midra Shale abundant in gypsum bear witness of strong evaporation and attest to oxidizing conditions in parts of the basin (shallow marine to supratidal (?)). The MFS … is the key element during the Eocene. It was defined based on a strong influx of an open marine fauna in the Midra Shales. This MFS was assigned an early Eocene age by Sharland et al. (200l), based on studies carried out at the reference section of the Midra Shales in Saudi Arabia. In Qatar, however, the MFS Pg 20 is in the lower half of the Midra Shale, where the argillaceous rocks rich in marine fossils such as shark teeth and abundant in allogenic palygorskite are found. The MFS Pg 20 is the most prominent surface for correlation. According to the above data this MFS Pg 20 should have been assigned an early Lutetian rather than Ypresian age.”

References cited in our supplied literature, for those interested:
• Al-Murshid: For Qatar Geographic Names. The Centre for GIS, Doha, Qatar
DAMMAM DOME, SAUDI ARABIA. Clays and Clay Minerals, Vol. 38, No. 3, 299-307
• Casier, Edgard (1971) : Sur un materiel ichthyologique des Midra (and Saila) shales du Qatar -
Golfe Persique. Bull. Inst. R. Sci. Nat. de Belgique.
• Cavelier Claude, Salatt Abdullah, Heuze Yves (1970); Geological description of the Qatar
Peninsula (explanation of the 1/100,000 geological maps of Qatar). Bureau de recherches
geologiques et minieres, Government of Qatar, Department of Petroleum Affairs. 46 pages et
• Dixon, Dougal; Cox Barry; Savage R.J.G.; Gardiner, Brian (1988): The MacMillan Illustrated
encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and prehistoric animals: a visual who's who of prehistoric life.
• Nasir, S , Hamad Al-Saad, Abdul Razak Al-Sayigh , Abdul Rahman Al-Harthy ? (2003).
Ferricretes of the Early Tertiary Dammam Formation in the Dukhan Area, Western Qatar:
mineralogy, geochemistry and environment of deposition Qatar J. Science, 23, 55-70.
• Roman, J. 1976. Echinides éocènes et miocènes du Qatar (Golfe Persique). Ann. Paleont.
Invertebr., 62, 49–85.
• Sharland Peter R., Casey David M., Davies Roger B., Simmons Michael D., Sutcliffe Owen E.
(2004). Arabian Plate Sequence stratigraphy – revisions to SP2. GeoArabia Volume 9, No. 1
• Ziegler, Martin A. (2001). Late Permian to Holocene Paleofacies Evolution of the Arabian
Plate and its Hydrocarbon Occurrences. GeoArabia, Vol 6, No. 3 (60 pages).

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Balcony sitting

Yesterday, I chose to spend much of the wonderful afternoon reading a book on the balcony watching the sailboat races in front of me, just in front of the developing Pearl resort/living complex. Today I saw the news of nasty winter storm in Chicago, headed for New England. Hmm...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A tale of twin cities

After 10 weeks here in Doha, I had an opportunity to go back to NYC on business. In addition to meet face to face with people with whom I regularly correspond over business, the trip was a treat since it gave me the opportunity to bring back things I should have packed (e.g., binoculars), see friends and former colleagues and have Thanksgiving dinner with friends. It also afforded me the opportunity to see how much I have bonded with Qatar/Doha/Weill Cornell. And, frankly, leaving November rain in NY to land in 70/80 degree Doha was a treat. With the balcony door open and soft breezes blowing across the bay, I found myself on return quite happy if a bit jet-lagged.

Just before I left for NYC I saw an article in the NYT (Nov. 13) that discussed the amount of ongoing construction in NYC.

“Artists, architects and designers have reimagined three of the pedestrian obstructions that can make travel through downtown downright disagreeable, if not close to impossible: Jersey barriers, chain-link construction fences and sidewalk scaffolds. If you can’t get rid of them, the theory goes, at least make them look better.
In the $100,000 pilot program called
“Re: Construction,” sponsored by the Alliance for Downtown New York and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, barriers on Broadway have been stenciled with zebra striping, a fence along Fulton Street has been garlanded in a tartan pattern and — most ambitiously — sidewalk scaffolding on John Street has been turned into an entirely new architectural environment, with strikingly angled struts and a ceiling that rises as pedestrians approach Broadway from Nassau Street.”

Once back in New York City, I was struck by the lack of construction compared to Doha. Surrounding the Twin Towers I live in is a major construction site with 3-4 high-rise buildings in progress alone, the sand sifting area across from our building, and along the majority of the roadways I travel to work long and wide sections of roads are torn up and bear signs proclaiming ‘Deep Excavation.’ Back hoes lift dirt, swinging perilously close to the cars inching along and vying for space. The one open lane is pushed into two as the breakdown lane becomes a travel lane and then three as the dirt roadside becomes a completely illegal lane, and one for which you can get a 400 QR fine (just over $100) for driving in it. That doesn’t stop many folks who count on not getting caught, so the land cruisers rush long the dirt kicking of clouds of dust in their wake. Hundreds of laborers in blue or red suits dash back and forth across the roads, ducking under cloth strip barriers to get into or out of the deep excavation, and further complicating the travel. Since these projects move at lightening speed, I am uncertain if there is time to contemplate, let alone implement, any form of softening arts project but maybe this should be suggested.