Monday, November 12, 2007

sandburg in the mid-east

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Le pain quotidien

In Manhattan, when I head to my hair dresser’s located on the east side, I subway to 72nd street (west side) and walk across the park, almost regardless of weather. As I walk east on W 72nd I pass by Le pain quotidian, one of a well-known number of restaurants meeting our daily needs. While here in Qatar, I may contemplate the proximity to Iran but daily life goes on, a very routine existence albeit in a different culture. North American friends routinely ask about eating here, what restaurants, what food selections. Earlier I commented on foodstuffs available in the supermarkets, choices and prices varying. Although Pepsi, for example, costs the same regardless of store as does most packaged foods. No joy in shopping around something for which I am pleased – releases me from comparison shopping.

Lunch during work days is generally in the college faculty cafeteria where I get an opportunity to chat with faculty and others. The menu is the same – each day of the week has a couple choices, from chicken or turkey or beef buryani (meat and rice) to many forms of grilled chicken, occasional meatloaf slices and fish. Potatoes and pasta as well as a number of salad and a dessert are also available. Depending on my choices (sometime two pieces of chicken, never dessert, always a diet pepsi), I’m charged between 7 and 12 QR. Since each QR is currently pegged at 3.41 to the US dollar, lunch is cheap. I actually make it my largest meal of the day: it’s healthier and I can eat lightly with far less effort at dinner. Breakfast – now on the balcony – consists of orange juice, an apple and a bowl of bran flakes and raisins and low fat milk, by far the healthiest meal of the day.

Occasionally some friends come by for diner bringing things they have picked up– I’m still researching which restaurants will deliver to this apartment building (see below re furniture delivery). Last week they went to Turkey Central, on a block just near cholesteral corner where the fast food places gather, and brought excellent chicken korma, breads and variety of dips (hummus, baba, and things I have no names for, some of which were far too spicy for my taste). I have been eating the leftovers all week-end. I made a cucumber/yogurt dish – easy: 6” cucumbers, 1” thick, sliced and covered in a mixture of Laban and Labneh, thin and thick yogurt, with chopped garlic and left to marinate for an hour.

A colleague will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her American friends – she is actually getting a deep-fried turkey from a local restaurant and providing extras. It reminds me of the Thanksgiving I spent at the American Academy a couple years ago, 80 people strong with roast turkey, homemade pies, wines and cranberry sauce flown in the U.S. Cranberry bogs are not an Italian feature. Entertainment that day included a wonderful reading of a recent obituary from the New York Times, of the inventor of stovetop stuffing: “Ruth M. Siems, a retired home economist whose best-known innovation will make its appearance, welcome or otherwise, in millions of homes tomorrow, died on Nov. 13 at her home in Newburgh, Ind. Ms. Siems, an inventor of Stove Top stuffing, was 74.” I urge you to read the full obituary, link provided above, which ends: “As a mark of just how deeply inscribed on the American palate Ms. Siems's stuffing has become, there are several recipes, available on the Internet, that promise to reproduce the taste of Stove Top from scratch, using fresh ingredients.”

I had mentioned recently that I bought outdoor furniture for my balcony and have displayed an image of the balcony with furniture here.
The furniture was to be delivered on a Tuesday evening; that morning I received a call indicating that they were about to deliver and that is was short one piece. I would have to go to the store and prepare paperwork to claim my refund. I waited through the evening and finally called the store. Eventually a manager returned my call and said it was company policy not to deliver if the order wasn’t complete. The next day after work I returned to the store and spent an hour getting the refund and preparing for delivery. A great deal of time was spent waiting for a woman (western but also spoke Arabic) who went into melt-down and when she realized that the manager attending me was competent, took him over. The furniture was scheduled for ca. 8:00 pm. Around 7:30 I started getting phone calls, never completed. Then shortly after 8:00 I heard from the two Indian drivers – they were close by (at City Center) and couldn’t find their way. They kept trying to deliver to another tower (Bilal). Despite my directions (follow the road to the right of Bilal and turn left at the water), after 1 ½ hours I called the manager who talked them through. The furniture arrived around 9:30, still in boxes, despite the promises I had had that it would be ‘fixed’ – their term for assembled, although I kept thinking of an animal, spayed.

A day later I opened the boxes and put the legs on the table and the pads on the chairs. Only the day after that, sitting at the table for breakfast, did I notice that of the four chairs, only three had arms. One was delivered without. Somehow I wasn’t about to argue this since the furniture, displayed only 10 days ago in the stores, was no longer available. We speak often of ‘Doha time’, an agreement for time which is met within a few hours. So this is ‘Doha delivery.’ And so it goes …

A final daily occurrence is my review of the construction between the road in front of the Twin Towers and the bay – promises of a park seem the best use of land yet, as pictures attest, there is enormous movement of dirt to no apparent purpose. Just this past week-end, I watched as a major machine moved dirt around, picking up and transporting and sometimes sifting the material. See the image where the scoop drops debris onto a mesh – reminded me of the years of archaeological excavation where we used old bed springs (or so they appeared) to drop our excavated material though so we could catch items of certain size. An image from Tufariello suggests the close association of the excavation 9 floors below my building (with dirt mounds, large volume sieves and earth movers, heavy duty trucks vs people with shovels) to the excavation in the early 1970s in southern Italy, absent the plastic toddler’s bike.

As the sequence of pictures from my current ‘front yard’ show, dirt is moved around, a mound is built, into which water (2 truckloads) is sprayed and then the water seeps through over night. To what end? Why? I assume all will be revealed eventually. Stay tuned – it is my morning and evening window on the mysteries of building in Qatar.

I am returning this week to NYC for a business trip which also allows me time to connect with good friends, either in person or by phone. I expect that the dislocation will be interesting. Shortly after I return will be a QNHG day looking for sharks’ teeth which I anticipate joining (end November). Some weeks back I had an email from a young technical person here in Qatar (French nationality) who had seen the blog and wanted more info on the QNHG – he is especially interested in sharks’ teeth and may join that group. Of course, more on that later.

Monday, November 5, 2007

from the local Qatar news

Today’s issue of the Qatar Tribune (Nov. 5, 2007) had a few stories of interest to me although I don’t expect them to appear in the New York Times. Interestingly the first probably should. It is an interview conducted by editor-in-chief of the paper, Dr. Hassan Mohammed al Ansari, with Crocker Ryan, current US ambassador to Iraq, who was in Doha just a week ago. You may recall that as a young diplomat he spend some years in the 1970s in Qatar, then a very different place. He replied, when asked what brought him back,
“to talk about Iraq. We’re seeing some significant positive changes in the country. I’m here to give my evaluation, seek Qatar’s perspective and consider how we, Qatar and other regional states might cooperate to encourage progress. Qatar is an important country. It has been a good partner of the US over the years. Our consultation would certainly benefit me in my mission, and perhaps be of use to the government of Qatar as well. What happens in Iraq is extremely important – not just to the Iragis, but also to Qatar, the region and the US. … My assessment is that it is possible to conduct diplomatic activity in Baghdad in reasonable security. Also, this is the time to do it. I have found that our Arab friends are very concerned about what is going on. Qatar has a special role to play in this. The GCC [Gulf Cooperative Council] summit in Doha next month might be an occasion for these countries to take another look at Iraq – not just in bilateral terms but collectively as the GCC.”
Further questions and answers in the interview concerned the likelihood of war in Iran, something the editor says the region fears. Crocker responded that the US is not seeking a military action, that they have gone to the UN Security Council for two resolutions and working with others in the region to change Iran’s behavour with respect to Iraq, its nuclear programme and supporting terrorists.

Another piece in the same paper announced that Qatar is ready to fund and manage Yemen’s archaeological projects, a project of personal interest to me. At a two-day international conference on Qatar International Archaeology Project in Yemen (QIAPY), sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the effort to explore the rich history of Yemen and its ancient kingdoms was discussed. The project was initiated during a visit of the Emir His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to Yemen. The conference in Doha was attended by a large number of international archaeologists, historians and geologists. In response to the question of why the conference is in Doha but the project in Yemen, the vice president of the QMA said that the plans for exploration in Yemen were one of a number; others are in process for Syria and Sudan.
“The Qatari programme in Yemen aims at discovering and preserving the important archaeological sights in Yemen and the social and economic development of Yemen by boosting opportunities for tourism. The programme includes the excavation of archaeological sights that have the potential to fetch Yemen a considerable amount of foreign reserves. The ancient kingdoms of Yemen were the first ancient civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula. … The focus of the experts is not only discovering the rich ancient cultural heritage of Yemen but also preserving it from irreversible loss.”

Finally, I cite two more obscure, but not less important, initiatives reported in the same paper: Qatar, Belgium sign farm agreement, reports that both countries seek to enhance technical and economic collaborations in the field of agriculture, livestock and municipal affairs. This, they report, “includes supervision programs of nutrition materials and countering the threat of pest.” And Rwanda seeks Qatar’s help for charitable activities, reported a meeting between the Chairperson for the Qatar Authority for Charitable Activities, Adhmad bin Mohamed al Muraikhi, and Sheikh Saleh Habib Habimana, the Mufti of Rwanda. They discussed how to reinforce cooperation between the two countries. The Mufti acknowledged Qatar’s role in extending humanitarian assistance to the country and said that Islam had set its foot in Rwanda in the late 19th century, with the first mosque built in 1913.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Sittin' on the dock of the bay

The weather has turned quite lovely as we move into November and this week-end has some wonderful refreshing breezes. The forecast of good breezes encouraged a colleague to spend much of the week-end kite surfing. And the new more temperate weather is signaled as well by the arrival in stores of outdoor furniture. I have purchased tables and chairs for my balcony so I can enjoy the weather and contemplate the bay. The weather is also a harbinger of what can be rather chilly months in winter and, on the advice of another colleague, I purchased a portable heater, just now appearing in the stores. By January apparently they run out and with no heating (only cooling) in the apartment building the heater plays a critical role for a short time.

Last week an excursion around Qatar took us north and west to view remains of forts that dot the landscape. The forts we visited were in ruins or reconstructed but they serve to remind us of the history of the island and presence of pirates in this part of the world.

Pirates figure large beginning in ancient society where it was considered a ‘profession’ much as farming. In the 18th-19th centuries, the whole southern stretch of the Gulf region including Qatar was known as the pirate coast. The forts on Qatar built of sun-dried mud brick and faroush (sea rock quarried locally) although strung along the northwest and northern coast could not have withstood much attack nor can they be considered part of a defense system. They were symbols of power as well as places of refuge and had features in common, such as a base wall (maybe up to 2 meters) of faroush, capped by mud brick and covered with a coating of mud. They had a combination of towers, some round, some square and some rectangular, with no apparent reason for the choice or number. The British first became involved with Qatar over pirates in the late 18th century when, as the British Empire website reports,

“the Al-Khalifa family left Qatar for Bahrain in 1783 [leaving] something of a power vacuum that led to a whole series of minor sheikhs claiming suzerainty of the area. The most famous of these transitory sheikhs was Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, whom the British regarded as little more than a pirate and directed considerable Naval effort to curbing his, and rival pirates, excesses.”

You can read more about this pirate in the Pirate’s Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers, edited by Charle Elms, with a new version published by the Maritime Research Society now available through

Today the only pirates in Qatar are software pirates. According to a 1999 report, “at 63 percent, the Middle East and Africa region had the second highest regional piracy rate in the world. South Africa, Israel and Turkey represent 55 percent ($213 million) of the total dollar losses in the region. The countries with the highest piracy rates in the region are Lebanon (93 percent), Oman (93 percent), Bahrain (89 percent), and Qatar (87 percent).”

But pirates are tame compared to current gulf threats. Although the recent rhetoric of George Bush and Dick Cheney regarding Iran is a continuation of rhetoric over the last few years (as a simple google search reveals), it underscores for me my postion as I look out over the bay in Doha, east to the United Emirates, and watch ships heading north in the direction of Iran. Last week’s trip around Qatar with a stop at the lovely port of Al Ruwais on the north tip had us looking directly across the water at Iran. Within the last few weeks Cheney, as reported by CNN, once again re-iterated his intentions.

"Our country, and the entire international community, cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its grandest ambitions," Cheney said in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. He said Iran's efforts to pursue technology that would allow them to build a nuclear weapon are obvious and that "the regime continues to practice delay and deceit in an obvious effort to buy time." If Iran continues on its current course, Cheney said the U.S. and other nations are "prepared to impose serious consequences." The vice president made no specific reference to military action. "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," he said.
Cheney's words seemed to only escalate the U.S. rhetoric against Iran over the past several days, including President Bush's warning that a nuclear Iran could lead to World War III.

And in a recent issue of Time, Scott MacLeod, reporting from Doha, coincidently underscoring my awareness of proximity to Iran, wrote

The prospect of war with Iran is beginning to look real. The hardening of positions in both Tehran and Washington over the past week has brought relations to their lowest point since the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. Both sides insist that they seek no military conflict, but tensions on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to influence in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process is turning their differences into all-out regional power struggle. Last week, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice criticized Iran's "emboldened foreign policy" and "hegemonic aspirations," while asserting that the U.S. will continue to be engaged on economic, political and security issues in the Middle East. "We are there to stay," she declared. …
Cheney, like Bush and Rice, stopped short of advocating a new U.S. policy to aggressively pursue regime change, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Vice President pointed the Administration in that direction. He castigated "the nature of the regime"; said that Iranians have a "right to be free from and oppression, from economic deprivation and tyranny"; and declared that "America looks forward to the day when Iranians reclaim their destiny." Cheney's indictment of Iran's regime as one that deserves to be eliminated could be read as another point of U.S. pressure, designed to entice Iranian leaders to accept the U.S. offer to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis. But such rhetoric, instead, may prove the point of Iran's hard-liners, that there is really nothing for the U.S. and Iran to talk about.

Particularly chilling is Pat Buchanan’s comment, noted on Hardball and repeated in Maureen Dowd’s column:

“Cheney and Bush are laying down markers for themselves which they’re going to have to meet. I don’t see how ... Bush and Cheney can avoid attacking Iran and retaining their credibility going out of office.”

The prospect of Bush/Cheney unleashing another attack and one they believe can be and must be handled by bombing alone is frightening. As Paul Krugman recently wrote,

Meanwhile, the idea that bombing will bring the Iranian regime to its knees — and bombing is the only option, since we’ve run out of troops — is pure wishful thinking. Last year Israel tried to cripple Hezbollah with an air campaign, and ended up strengthening it instead. There’s every reason to believe that an attack on Iran would produce the same result, with the added effects of endangering U.S. forces in Iraq and driving oil prices well into triple digits.

Countering the rhetoric quoted here, is the news from DeepJournal and other sites, that Chuck Hagel has sent a letter to the President. The letter, which was disclosed by Steven Clemons, director of the national strategy program at the New America Foundation, on his influential blog, comes amid increased speculation over the likelihood of a US military attack against Iran next year.

"Unless there is a strategic shift," according to Hagel's letter, which was also sent to other top administration officials, including Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "I believe we will find ourselves in a dangerous and increasingly isolated position in the coming months." "Now is the time for the United States to actively consider when and how to offer direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran," it went on, adding that such a move should be combined with continued efforts with US allies to press Iran through economic sanctions, including a third United Nations Security Council resolution. "An approach such as this would strengthen our ability across the board to deal with Iran," it went on. "Our friends and allies would be more confident to stand with us if we seek to increase pressure, including tougher sanctions, on Iran. It could create a historic new dynamic in US-Iran relations, in part by forcing the Iranians to react to the possibility of better relations with the West."

As we move closer to the 2008 elections, I will find it hard to keep Buchanan’s comment from my mind, much as I hope that the request of Chuck Hagel to enter into talks with Iran will prevail. Just as Samuel Johnson related that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully," so my proximity to Iran concentrates my mind wonderfully.