Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries


A Tale of Two Villages: Bahrain, 22nd April 2008
April 22, 2008, 10:23 pm
Filed under: Persian Gulf

This evening, I met Mhmd. X, one of the more prominent of Bahrain’s ten or so visible human rights activists. He took me in his car for a tour of the villages surrounding the capital, that I might see the difference between the accommodations of the shia, and the palaces of the sunni. Mhmd himself is of the former category, but well enough off. We drove out past the race track, where the richest sport in the world comes to Bahrain once every twelve months, to the village of Karzakan.

Karzakan is an untidy jumble of concrete houses, uneven streets and some fairly erratic-looking plumbing. It’s not actively unpleasant, at least in the warm evening when the people are socialising in the streets under the banners of their beloved religious dead. It even feels vaguely cosmopolitan– there’s a South Asian element certainly on main street. But, Karzakan is a Shia village, and outright, it is poor. It doesn’t look like there are going to be any fantastic investment opportunities opening up here anytime soon. They only happen 20km down the road, in Manama, in its phallicly banal “Financial Harbour” or the dusty-but-high-rise Seef district. Continue reading



The Ballot Box and the Wormhole: Cairo, 1st April 2008
April 1, 2008, 8:47 am
Filed under: Egypt

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Next week, there’s going to be an election in Egypt. It will be another opportunity for the Great Egyptian Public to voice their freely-held preferences, in a vote that will fairly elect 52,000 local councillors around the country.

The only difficulty will be finding someone to mind your place in the bread-queue whilst you go off to get your thumb inked at the local school.

Or, perhaps, in some other reality. Continue reading



Comings, Goings and the Left Behind: Aden, 21st March 2008
March 21, 2008, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Yemen

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Once Aden was the happiest of places. Or so thought the Greeks, who had the luxury of being able to pass by. They called it Eudaemon, supposing it and its environs to be endowed with all that life requires.

In the late classical era, Aden was the main rival to Alexandria as the trading entrepôt between the Mediterranean and India. Diodorus Siculus wrote in the 1st century BC of Eudaemon being visited by “sailors from every port of the world, and especially from Potana, the city which Alexander the Great founded on the Indus river.”

However, by the time of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which was written in the first century AD, the city seemed to have fallen on hard times – the result of a good sacking by the Romans. The Periplus was the Greek maritime way of knowing how to get around, where to harbour, where to re-supply. Or where not to. The first kind of travel guide, in a way. It records Eudaemon thus:

Eudaemon Arabia was once a fully-fledged city, when vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those of Egypt did not dare sail to places further on, but came only this far.

In the middle, then, of a convenient trader’s hiatus. Reason enough for a city; to be the chandlers, store-men, bookkeepers and postmen for generations of transient seafarers. Fortunes made notching up commissions on goods bound for some other place. In this case, spices moving westwards to Europe, and later, manufactures eastward to Asia. But everyone in some way a passer-by, on their way to somewhere else.
Continue reading



Grievously Maltreated: en route to Aden, 19th March 2008
March 19, 2008, 7:06 pm
Filed under: Yemen

I’ve been digging around in the informational jumble sale that is the interweb, for some nuggets on Aden, a deep-water port that was once one of the British Empire’s most useful possessions. All good colonial jaunts begin with a sense of righteous grievance – after all, one can’t just wade in and take over. Not the done thing. Hence:

In 1837 a ship under British colors was wrecked near Aden, and
the crew and passengers grievously maltreated by the Arabs. An
explanation of the outrage being demanded by the Bombay
government, the sultan undertook to make compensation for the
plunder of the vessel, and also agreed to sell his town and port
to the English. Captain Haines of the Indian navy was sent to
complete these arrangements, but the sultan’s son refused to
fulfil the promises that his father had made. A combined naval
and miltary force was thereupon despatched, and the place was
captured and annexed to British India on the 16th of January
1839.

From the very helpful and fittingly outdated britishempire.co.uk



Dar al-Makhtoutat: Sanaa, 17th March 2008
March 17, 2008, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Yemen

Over the past week or so, I have been attempting to dispel at least some of my ignorance of what the Sanaa collection of manuscripts contains. I haven’t been very successful.

On the off-chance that it might be open, on Sunday I walked down past the Great Mosque, past the beggars and the kids not at school, to the House of Manuscripts. The gates were solidly locked and closed, but after a few mumblings from the security I was admitted through a side door, and ushered into the entrance hall. There, a harassed-looking man surrounded by a group of people was counting a sheaf of 500-Riyal notes. He was obviously paying the staff of Dar al-Makhtoutat, who, it being nearly midday, were anxious to be off home with their gains. A small, even more harassed-looking man who had plainly not received his wage yet, spotted me and asked what I wanted. Continue reading



Knives Out: Wadi Dhahr, 14th March 2008
March 14, 2008, 9:13 pm
Filed under: Yemen

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When you are fourteen, you get the Jambia – a fearsome-looking weapon. There was a time when it wasn’t safe to go out without one. Things aren’t so bad now. But when your cousin or brother gets married, you unsheath the blade. And then you dance with it.



An Embarassment of Riches: Sanaa, 13th March 2008
March 13, 2008, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Yemen

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Orientalists have a lot to answer for. They theorised, justified and organised the projection of European power in the Middle East for centuries, starting with Napoleon. They’re not finished yet–although these days, they are more apologetic about the power bit.

One of the side effects of the business of Orientalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was the transportation of large amounts of art and artefacts back to Europe, to tantalise world-hungry and wistful westerners for generations to come.

I have been one of those wistful types. The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin contains Europe’s finest private collection of Quranic manuscripts (which may even rival that of the Louvre). It was the first place that I encountered the marvel of Islam’s early religious art. An example contained there, by 11th Century Baghdad scribe Ibn al-Bawwab, was a treasure. Before I learned to read Arabic, as an undergraduate I remember pressing my nose against the display cases wondering what all those carefully inscribed lines and marks actually meant.

Consequently, from a personal point of view, the discovery this week that Sanaa holds an astonishingly large collection of early Quranic manuscripts was a delight. However, from the point of view of the Yemeni government, muslim believers, and just about everyone else, this fact is something of a headache. Continue reading




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