DF

I think I had expected Mexico City to be more like Cairo however this potential was quickly dispelled when I saw people spraying the pavements down and sweeping up the litter. With barely a car horn to speak of and the pavements easily navigable, this could instead very easily be a large Spanish or Mediterranean city and the dominant European architecture assists the illusion.

Perhaps my initial impression of the town is coloured by the fact that today is a Saturday. Weekends are never very indicative of a city and the crowds queuing for mass, playing in the large parks and riding the rollercoasters in the city fairground are probably skewing my perception of the city. It all seems very civic orientated and amiable. But dull. I am always suspicious of capital cities which don’t anchor themselves by the coast or by a large river.

The Zocala, not to be confused with the Babylon 5 location, is the natural centre but, but… it is not a Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, Midan Tahrir or Champs Elysee. It all feels very anonymous, no sights which one immediately recognises or is drawn to. The city does sprawl but not in a way which tempts you to one part over after another. I think I need to get out of the central locations of the Zona Rosa, the Condessa and the Paseo de la Reforma and investigate the less salubrious areas which I passed on the way from the airport, but unlike Cairo, crime is an issue here so we shall see.

I think my attitude towards this city is being affected by the fact that I cannot find a copy of the Economist anywhere. There are news stands everywhere but they seem to specialise in car and lad mags and pornography. This seems to reflect a general lack of Anglophony on the street signs and even in the Museums. Not surprising when you have such a dominant Northern neighbour perhaps but it does seem rather petulant and self-defeating.

This is not a cosmopolitan city. I forget how much satisfaction I get from face watching in London and New York but other than the entropic European features of some, the dominant ethnicity seems fairly uniform. It was notable that amongst the trendy (and more expensive) cafes in Condessa, that the European features were more common among the clientele.

The weather, in contrast to New York and Miami, is wonderful. Tomorrow I shall investigate the subway I think.

Moderation

“The conflict between King and Parliament in the Civil War gave Englishmen, once for all, a love of compromise and moderation and a fear of pushing any theory to its logical conclusion, which has dominated them down to the present time.” pg 581, History of Western Philosophy, Russell.

Opinion

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geology ought only to observe and theorise: and I well remember someone saying that at this rate man might well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”

Charles Darwin to Henry Fawcett, 1861.

Damascus Addendum

With 30 minutes to go before leaving the city, I discovered, huddled next to the recently built luxury Four Seasons hotel, a cluster of Western coffee bars: Costa; Segafredo; etc. Protected behind a recessed wall, here were the Syrian youth: pretty, scantily clad and well-toned. Like moths drawn to a light, one feels encouraged to see that a double mochaccino with hazelnut syrup can tempt the young almost anywhere in the world.

Damascus

It would seem that the free speech restrictions in Syria extend to the passing of weather readings to the Met Office in the UK because it was bucketing it down when I arrived in Damascus, in contrast with the sunny forecast the BBC claimed. Evidently it must always be sunny in the last Baathist Republic.

My mute taxi driver to the airport didn’t seem to want to talk in either Arabic or French so I was left to stare at the depressing billboards advertising the usual prosaic conferences that seem to always be taking place in the Middle East. I don’t think I saw one advert for anything that didn’t exist in 1970. But you do get to a see an awful lot of signs for Beirut, reminding you that this country still doesn’t really consider that town to be in a different country. Despite the rain, the streets were still crowded once we got into the centre of town making it look similar to Cairo but the lack of cars and the fact that they actually stopped for red lights ended the superficial similarity.

The more modern parts of Arab towns all have a rather generic look and feel about them. I think it is a combination of the brutal, concrete and sand coloured buildings, the lack of eclecticism of the shop wares and the fact that everything is always dirty, everywhere.

After going to sleep in my 1930s hotel to the sound of a somewhat raucous wedding nearby, I woke up to near total silence. It was like the first line in The Day of the Triffids. Fridays in Cairo are marked by discordant shoutings coming from the local mosques and the streets remain as vibrant as ever but looking out of my window, it looked like there was hardly anyone about on the streets.

Syria is a nominally secular state, Baathism being an offshoot of socialism, but Friday here reminds me of Sundays in Spain. Everything is pretty much shut making Syria feel more religious than Cairo.

Walking down to the Old City, the difference in the facial features is immediate. Given the large Kurdish and Turkish genes floating around the population here, aside from the clothing, the people look different to Cairenes. Some could be mistaken for West Europeans whilst others look almost Slavic. If I donned a dirty, striped, long sleeved shirt, I could easily blend in here.

The first building of interest is the terminus for the now derelict Hejaz Railway. The Turks built this line down to Mecca intending to use it for transporting pilgrims during the Haj, but instead used it for transporting troops during the 1917 Arab uprising, causing T.E Lawrence & Co to target it repeatedly. I saw a brief piece of the line down South a few years ago when I was in Jordan, and it must have been an impressive imperial engineering project at the time, with a suitably rococo station to match. But the stations continuing disuse, along with the rest of the line, reminds you how absent even modern railways are in this part of the world.

The main tourist attraction in Damascus is the Old City. Like it’s Jerusalem counterpart, there are 4 main gates into the walled city. The West gate leads directly into a covered market where you can still see the bullet holes in the ceiling, left by the French planes in the 1920s as they tried to put down the Syrian uprising. The market ultimately leads you to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world which holds a shrine to John the Baptist, which allegedly contains his head, as well as the tomb of Saladin. The mosque was pretty busy as the lunchtime prayers approached but it was curious to see quite a few Iranian Shia pilgrims, noticeable from their distinctive turbans, wandering around as well. Shia shrines are almost non-existant in Cairo but Damacus has a larger shia population, including its leader who belongs to a heterodox offshoot, and so holds a few large, functioning Shia mosques.

One Shia in particular, Hibzullah’s leader Nasrallah, was very prominent. His photo seemed to be as common, if not more, than the obligatory posters of Hafez and Bashar Asad which adorn every shop. However, continuing past the mosque into the Christian and (formerly) Jewish Quarters of the Old City, the names on the shop doors change to noticeably non-Islamic names and the dictator aesthetic dropped off in favour of poverty. I was surprised to see the area referred to as the Jewish Quarter in the guidebook so I stopped to ask an old man what the name of the district was. He used lots of different names but none of them were “mintaqa yehud”. He asked me where I come from, a frequent question here. As they don’t think I look British, they always ask me where my father is from. I usually semi-lie and say Romania (do you know what a Romanian looks like?) but he insisted I must be an Arab.

Damascus, like its fellow isolated and time-locked socialist republic Cuba, has some wonderful 1960s era Western cars. huge Buicks and proper Mercedes. Oddly, my taking photos of a particularly beautiful model was the only time I got stopped by a police man who asked to see what I was taking photos of. Yet, some signs of modernity are peaking through here. My guidebook said that there were only 2 or 3 ATMs in the whole city, but there seems to have been an explosion in the 3 years since the book was written. The continuing invasion of the mobile phone doesn’t seem as advanced here as it does in Egypt but you can still see the buds here and there; poverty stricken street sellers arguing with someone on their 1997 era Nokias.

With the city now being covered in a sandstorm, making the sky the same colour as the buildings, I headed over to the National Museum. The entrance to the main building hosts a garden which is littered with Byzantine and pre-Byzantine relics. They are not protected from the elements in any way and even an archaeological no-nothing like myself was someone shocked to see how little attention was paid to them. The lack of care and attention continued into the building, with some of the rooms looking similar to the looted Iraqi Museum covered so frequently on TV back after the war in 2003, though to be fair some of the rooms did have a bit more effort and pride put into them. However, the real surprise was the best preserved and looked after room in the whole museum: a synagogue dating from 2 A.D containing frescos and murals of Moses, Jacob, Mordechai and Abraham. There really was strictly no photography in the darkened room as the guard explained to me the biblical scenes painted on the walls. Judaism, like Islam, isn’t keen on pictorial images of historical figures such as Abraham and Moses which made the scenes unlike any other synagogue I have seen. A large menorah was visible in one of the frames, somewhat in contrast to the modern paintings in the foyer entrance depicting Jews in a slightly different format.

On Saturday morning, the sandstorm having abated and the streets now being filled with people, I headed up to the Abu Rommaneh district, which is supposedly the upmarket part of town. Unlike the upmarket parts of Cairo which could have been transported from America, there were only a few stores which looked modern. Certainly no brand names or chain stores would one identify. The standard police state dictator posters are everywhere here. However, unlike nearby countries which usually just have a photo of the dear ruler, they all seem to carry slogans. My favourite was: “President Asad and the Syrian People bend to no one except God.” And a crippled isolated, economy one feels like adding.

Muscat and Dubai

Muscat is rather different to other capital cities in the Middle East. The city centre is remarkably clean, indeed you can be fined for having a dirty car, and the multicoloured water statues dotted around town look exceptionally well attended. Everything seems aesthetically remarkably well ordered. When you discover that the Sultan has no children and is not married, you may suspect that more than a few Barbara Streisand albums have found their way into the royal palace.

Greater Muscat encompasses a few nondescript strip malls blocks, which would not look out of place in some lower middle class American burg; the walled city of Old Muscat, where one of the Sultan’s palaces is located; and Mutrah, a sleepy coastal district which holds the souq and the nightlife. During the day, Mutrah is like a ghost town. There is the obligatory presence of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis tending their stalls but during the 40 degree day time heat, even they can’t be bothered to hassle you to buy anything. The only person who seemed to have the energy to interact with passing strangers was a large Rasta, perched conspicuously on the Corniche. Given that all Omanis, without exception, wear the white dishdasha with a rather modest fez-like hat, his Jamaica flag coloured beanie and his offers to sell weed made him an unlikely undercover officer for the Muscat police.

At night after the sun has gone down, the city lights come on and the giant incense burner overlooking Mutrah bathes in its multicoloured glory, like a candelabra on Liberace’s piano. The black robed women and the white clad men wonder around the coastal road looking like yin-yang signs, evidently not doing much other than sipping on Pepsi and enjoying not be baked to death by the overwhelming heat.

Indeed, there really isn’t much to do in Muscat in general. When the guide books recommend the French-Omani museum, you realise that really you should just learn to enjoy the sleepy ambience of the place, and reflect that not all capital cities have to feel like Manhattan, before slinking back to your five star hotel.

Whilst the city centre is the bastion of the subcontinentals, the western hotels are ultimately dependent on the Filipinos. Like the US without Mexicans, most of the Gulf relies on them to act as the interface between the Western tourists and the grubby act of providing service. The Filipinos seem to have an incredibly wide ethnic stock, which was confirmed by a fellow called Rail who gave me a Thai massage. He seemed rather surprised that I was bothering to interact with him, asking him questions about Tagalog and Filipino ethnic politics. I got the impression that most guests at the hotel only spoke to him in imperatives. True, it is rather hard to have a conversation whilst someone is digging their knees into your back whilst simultaneously pulling your arms out of their sockets but he did at least describe what it was like to live in Oman. Comfortable but dull was his description. He seemed to hope that he could one day transfer within the hotel group to a branch in Canada. Which is funny as comfortable but dull is how most people describe Canada.

Whilst the varied Filipino faces are entertainingly curious to look at, the identikit Omani dress code is creepy and oppressive, despite it looking superficially practical and comfortable. Without exception, they all dress the same and I have never seen such a chronic lack of individuality. Mao would surely approve but I would hate to be a dry cleaner sorting out different customers’ clothes.

Arriving at 2am, Dubai airport was still a scene of utter chaos. Outside the arrival gate, throngs of Subcontinentals waited for their families or new workers to arrive. Luckily Mel had arranged for a transfer to the hotel and so we were guided through the multicoloured sacks of clothing that pass for luggage outside the West, to a waiting Lincoln Town Car. An aptly decadent vehicle for Dubai, its epic leg room heralding the fact that if you have money, you need not suffer any inconvenience, least of all the annoyance of not being able to stretch your legs.

Like the airport, the streets were also still crowded with cars, but fairly soon we hit the iconic 2×7 lane highway that cuts through the skyscraper lined avenue that leads to the Jumeirah district. The strip feels like a mix between Las Vegas with its shiny neon and Flash Gordon with its futuristic rocket tipped skyscrapers. But when you realise that the buildings are only one street deep it begins to feel more like a Hollywood film set, where only the veneer of construction and activity needs to be passed off to be able to sustain the illusion of a city. The frequently described statistic that 25% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai seemed credible even at night, as white dotted lines apparently hovered in the middle of the air all around us. This turned into a Close Encounters style light display as we hit Jumeirah Beach proper. To say that the hotel was in the middle of a construction site does not convey the carnage of building work going on at 2am in the morning as we arrived at our hotel. It is not for nothing that all the hotels room are fitted with extensive double glazing, at no insignificant cost, to keep out the noise. Thank god it works.

In the light of the day, the extent of the work was even more extraordinary. An area the size of lower Manhattan seemed to be trying to will itself into existence in one go with about 100 cranes visible to the eye in any 90 degree view. The subcontinentals in their blue overalls were out in such numbers that one got a glimpse of what is must have been like to watch the pyramids built. As the posters says, it is amazing what you can achieve with an unlimited amount of cheap labour.

Taking up the national sport, the first thing we did was go shopping in one of the malls. The Mall of Emirates sticks out amongst the other buildings due to one noticeable architectural feature. It has a ski slope inside it. If the incongruity of seeing chador clad women queueing next to Russian girls wearing less clothing than a topless bather is a jarring image, then sitting in shorts and a t-shirt watching people shivering at the bottom of a ski slope on the other side of a window is perhaps more so.

If the ultra-Western environment of the new malls and hotels, where Muslim sensibility elides with Western tastes, represents what Dubai has become, then Deira, the old downtown, still shows what Dubai was. Countless dhows were still unloading their Asian products onto the wharf, only now they were mostly electronic goods, showing that a large amount of consumer goods still get moved around the world by sea. The creek that cuts through Deira, where the dhows are moored, is crossed by small boats called Abras, which act as water taxis ferrying 15 or people across the creek each time. Sitting on one, surrounded by mostly subcontinentals workers, you get a chance to see both sides of the creek, which in contrast to the new Downtown and Jumeirah area, is populated mostly by old, colonial era stone buildings and the souqs. With the late afternoon sun reflecting off the roofs and the only real noise being the glugging of the abra’s diesel engine, the relative tranquility of Deira is something that the Dubai marketing department seem to gloss over in its effects to focus attention on ever taller skyscrapers being built.

It is a cliche to say that people want to come back to Dubai in 2, 5 and 10 years to see what it looks like, but aside from the Sim City sensation, it is a fascinating experiment in building a new global city with all of the cultural and ethnic questions that it raises. Either the current soullessness of its new districts with their empty buildings will be occupied and a new city-state will spring into existence or it will prove to be a massive folly dreamt up by a tribal family in their attempts to gamble on a legacy o
nce the oil runs out.

Thought

“For [Tahtawi]. as for Islamic thinkers of the later Middle Ages, law was a negative restraining factor. It set the limits within which the ruler must act, not the principles in accordance with which he should act. Muhammad ‘Ali and Isma’il did not infringe those limits. They were benevolent autocrats of a type familiar to Islamic thought and posing no new problems. They issued no new statement of principles which might be , or seem to be, in contrast with those of the shari’a, and their innovations were mainly in the sphere of economic life and administration, about which the Shari’a says little, rather than in the basic administration of society or the realm of personal status, about which it says much.” pg 83

“Like other Muslim thinkers of his day, he was willing to accept the judgement on Christianity given by European free thought: it was unreasonable, it was the enemy of science and progress. But [al-Afghani] wished to show that these criticisms did not apply to Islam; on the contrary, Islam was in harmony with the principles discovered by scientific reason, was indeed the religion demanded by reason. Christianity had failed – he took Renan’s word for it; but Islam, being neither irrational not intolerant, could save the secular world from that revolutionary chaos, the memory of which haunted the French thinkers of his time.” pg 123

“In general, a certain definition of European civilisation was accepted: Europe was taken at the value it put upon itself – or more specifically, the value put upon it by the liberal thinkers of the nineteeth century. The bases of European civilisation , the ‘secret’ of its strength and prosperity, were taken to be such factors as these: the existence of the national community, ruling itself in the light of its own interests; the separation of religion and politics; the democratic system of government, that is to say, the prevalence of the general will as expressed by freely elected parliaments and ministries responsible to them; the respect for individual rights, particularly the right to speak and write freely; the strength of the political virtues, of loyalty to the community and willingness to make sacrifices for it; above all, the organisation of modern industry and the ‘scientific spirit’ which lay behind it.” pg 324

Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age.

Modern

“I say we have not become fully part of Western Civilisation because we have only taken from it what is in conformity with the traditions and customers of the various races which make up our state. This has caused both material and cultural harm.. For if we just copy Europeans, we will disavow our origins and acquire an antipathy towards our [past]. Instead, we should follow them as closely as possible in the way in which they protect their own race and homeland. We should strive to protect our noble language and ways just as they protect their languages and ways.” Fathallah Qastun, al-Sh’a’b, Aleppo, 1910 as quoted in Watenpaugh, 2006.

Faust

A useful review of where we are at with the Microsoft and Novell deal. The article links to a Lessig post positing an interesting theory around market separation. The debate going on around fundamental economic, political and philosophical ideas is utterly compelling, and the drama of each iteration in the argument is an intellectual drama worthy of earlier Enlightenment battles between Spinoza and Leibniz, yet the conflict rages unknown to the masses, yet it will affect their lives very directly.