The World Is Squared: Episode 4 – In Hot Places

by Daniel on November 18, 2014

And the travelogue continues – this chapter covers my family’s visits to Jordan and to Sri Lanka. The next episode will take us to a seaside cottage in Bali …

1. Jordan motorways by night

So, out on the road in a Group B Mazda, the first car we’ve hired so far that has enough room in the boot for all our luggage. And the first culture shock is achieved. There is something really strangely terrifying about rolling down the road and not being able to read any of the signs, not even phonetically, not even to recognise them as writing or tell if you’re seeing the same ones one time after another. This turns a simple set of directions (“leave the airport and get onto the motorway”) into a cryptic ordeal. Added to that is the fact that the road signs are themselves referring to driving practices somewhat different from those we were used to. So a sort of squiggly arrow which certainly looked like it said “carry straight on and allow yourself to be led into a clover-leaf type loop to bring you into a left turn onto the motorway” actually meant “drift into the left hand lane, then do a U-turn on the motorway and drive back to the right turn, because on this particular stretch of road, the left lane is not just the high speed and overtaking lane, it doubles as the slip road for anyone wanting to do a U-turn, this sounds like it might be terrifying and nonsensical, and it is”.

This might have been more fun if it wasn’t all happening in the pitch dark, but I doubt it. We also had something like a tenth of a tank of gas in the hire car, which meant that we actually needed to do one of these suicidal U-ies ourselves, in order to reach a filling station – you might think that in a middle eastern state they would be everywhere, but they’re not. A nice helpful fellow motorist set us right; it turned out that it wasn’t a creeping paranoia that was giving me the dreadful sense we had lost all bearings and were going diametrically the wrong way, it was my sense of direction. So, with a slight turn from the local road onto the motorway, we reasoned that we had only wasted half an hour, and things could be worse. And that was when things did indeed begin to get worse.

For some reason we had convinced ourselves that Jordan was a super-rich Gulf state (this belief was surprisingly resistant to all other knowledge of either economics or geography), and that consequently the roads would be beautiful and flat and efficient. This was really very very not the case. “It must be a motorway, it’s got a concrete divider” was basically the state of play; I was reminded of a particularly hellish 36 hour bus trip I once took on a suspiciously cheap holiday to Poland in the early 1990s, where the switch from capitalist to Communist road surfaces happened at just the point in the trip when you were hoping to get some sleep. The French construction giant Lafarge had their logo up on a few of the bridges that crossed this road – I don’t know if this means that the state of it was their fault, but either way if I was them, I’d send a gang to get it taken down immediately, as it certainly created a material amount of badwill towards them in this traveller.

Speedbumps on the motorway. There is simply no other way to put it. That’s what they had. Speedbumps on the motorway. I don’t know what anyone could have been thinking. In so far as I can reconstruct the thought process, it must have been something like … there are stretches of the motorway (ie, the main arterial highway of Jordan, route 15), where it goes past towns. In these stretches, the land must in some way be zoned as a built-up area – specifically, a whacking great motorway, with a strip of coffee shops and fruit markets on the edge of it. Since it’s a built up area, it ought to have speed limits suited to that status, and the best way to enforce those speed limits would be to have great thumping brick policemen sticking out of the motorway surface, with a few desultory cats-eyes a couple of yards in front of them to give a token warning to drivers. Some of the speedbumps are signposted – some of them, not so signposted. I took to yelling “yeee-ha”, Dukes of Hazzard style as we went over them, and to looking out for sudden movements in the brake lights of cars in front. God only knows how long the suspension on these rental cars might last.

The “motorway traffic calming measures” really weren’t doing much for the safety of the lorry drivers who parked up on the hard-shoulder to buy coffee and fruit, chat, pick up hitchhikers and settle their vehicle infringements with the Jordanian highway police (a long suffering bunch). Nor was the quite widespread practice of advertising your roadside coffee shop by putting a massive bright flashing blue-and-red light on the top of it. Yes, one that exactly resembles the light on top of a police car. It took us a few tens of miles to get wise to this one. By the end of the journey, I saw something on a hilltop and couldn’t work out if it was a low flying plane, a radio mast or a particularly ambitious coffee shop.

The actual drivers didn’t seem to me to be particularly bad by global standards. White Mercedes taxis are a nightmare the world over, and although one guy I saw was definitely going to die young – tailgating at 110 kmh in your eighteen-wheel lorry full of building supplies on a two-lane stretch of bumpy highway is pretty special – in general the lorry drivers didn’t seem to be doing much that was different from what you see on British roads. The vehicles they were doing it in seemed quite frighteningly old and shabby though, and the general auto industry convention that red bulbs go on the back and white bulbs on the front seems to be taken more as a fashion statement in the local trade.

Three and a bit hours, total, from Amman airport to Petra. My family has a slightly unusual division of labour – by and large, unless something unusual has happened, Tess doesn’t cook and I don’t drive. Usually it’s fine because we both do what we like. This time round, her nerves were close to shot by the half way point – by the end of the journey, when the traffic calmed down, she seemed to be hallucinating that we had left the motorway and were driving in blank space. We wobbled out of the car at half past ten. I think she deserves a medal.

2. Jordan motorways by day

I was in two minds about whether to include the big “Jordanian motorways by night” section. I have never been a fan of the kind of travel writing where people go “I went to this foreign country and it was all foreign and scary, why isn’t everything nice like it is back home”. But I decided to let it stay in, for a few reasons. First, it’s an accurate record of what it felt like – I wrote it about half an hour after we’d reached our hotel, as an email to my mum. Second, I know that nobody really wants to read big thoughts about the world economy or little paragraphs about how much you love the exotic climes – they want to hear about the disasters. “World’s Most Terrible Journeys” is a book people want to read, “World’s Loveliest Holidays” is an advertising feature.

And third, there is actually quite a bit of economic significance to the state of the roads. The trouble is that it’s a self reinforcing system. The way that the trucks drive breaks the roads up, and the state that the roads are in breaks the trucks up. Jordan has two big highways – the King’s Highway and the Desert Highway – and it does its best to preserve them. In the daytime, we see that there are compulsory weighbridges at intervals along the motorways, and plenty of checkpoints and police controls, trying to stop the drivers carrying too heavy loads, and this is what all the traffic stops were about – combined with the fact that Jordan has about half a dozen “Duty Free Zones” in odd locations about the country where foreigners can buy booze, and so it needs to have quite a few internal customs stations. It seems like a pretty Sispyhean task to be regulating a weighbridge in Jordan though, given that the traffic is generally transporting very low value-density cargoes of building materials and bulk chemicals. The state of the trucks seems pretty terrible to me, and I would guess that it is only going to get worse, as Mercedes, Volvo and MAN all try to improve fuel efficiency for their core market, who will be driving along European motorways and want to cut out weight.

3. LTTE and card fraud

Monkeys sit by the roadside in Sri Lanka, presumably waiting for someone to chuck away something edible. They seem pretty friendly, or at least, reasonably scared of humans, but I try to warn my children away from them out of some half-remembered idea that they might bite. Someone tells me that they can be trained to open windows and steal from hotel rooms, which I can just about believe, but when she goes on to suggest that monkeys have also been trained to look over your shoulder and memorise your PIN number at cashpoints, my credulousness reaches its limits. It is true that Sri Lanka is one of the world hotspots for identity theft and card fraud – I have a couple of good-natured phone conversations about this subject with the security team from my bank, while trying to get my card unblocked. But this isn’t very much to do with the skills of the trained primates, it has more to do with the fact that card fraud used to be a quite important means of fund raising for the LTTE. In the cards industry, there was a famous case where it turned out that a single petrol station on the outskirts of Hull was one of the Tamil Tigers’ most important financial backers, due to some staff members who were skimming the numbers of a huge amount of cards and handing them over to be exploited in Sri Lanka.

More or less everyone with any degree of prominence of wealth and Tamil ethnicity seems to have been suspected at some point or other of raising funds for LTTE. Raj Rajnataram, the founder of Galleon Capital, was definitely suspected of it before going to jail for insider trading. As far as anyone can tell, though, he wasn’t guilty – he was just keeping all the crooked proceeds for himself.

4.Zalatimo Brothers

One thing you tend to notice about countries that don’t drink alcohol is that they tend to eat a hell of a lot of sweets and biscuits (and to drink very sugary drinks). If you were to go by the contents of roadside shops, you would guess that the staple diet of the Arabic world was Fanta Orange and biscuits. Up and down the Jordanian highways, the billboards are ubiquitous – “Zalatimo Brothers, For Sweets, since 1860”; I also checked out their flagship shop in Queen Alia Airport, and the Zalatimo Brothers seem to be doing pretty well, slaking the sweet tooth of their customers. And doing so since 1860! I have a huge amount of regard for these companies which have just dug in and kept on doing their thing as history happens all around them. Think what successive generations of that family firm must have seen – the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the arrival and departure of the British Mandate, TE Lawrence, the State of Israel, the Six Day War, the first and second Gulf Wars, all of that. And while all this went on, the Zalatimo Brothers continued to boil sugar, chop walnuts and add rosewater to cornflour. Good on them, I say. While I was in Greece, I noticed that FIX Hellenic Breweries were also celebrating their 150th anniversary, having been founded in 1864. Good luck to them too.

5.In the pharmacy

I don’t know what this says about the relative stability and functionality of their respective political and cultural systems, but it’s something I couldn’t help noticing after two weeks in which we went from Jordan to Sri Lanka, having popped into a couple of pharmacies in both while looking for eye drops, headache pills and the like. In Sri Lankan pharmacies I went into, there is one massive thundering absence – there isn’t any massive wall-length display of skin-lightening and hair-bleaching proprietary products. This was particularly notable since the Jordanian pharmacies seemed to be chock full of them.

6. Lawrence and the Sons of the Desert

It seems absurdly arch and patronising to refer to the Bedouin as the “sons of the desert”, but this is indeed how they refer to themselves – it’s up in big proud letters on the front of the secondary school project in the village at the entrance to the Wadi Rum national park. We toured the desert, seeing “Lawrence’s Spring”, “Lawrence’s House”, “Lawrence Canyon” and many others – Wadi Rum is where the Seven Pillars are located, and where the film version was made. The Bedouin guides were pretty clear on the fact that all of these things were actually ancient desert landmarks dating back to the time of the Nabateans (edit: as comments below show, I had originally written “Naxalites” here and elsewhere, presumably having Maoist rebels on the brain as I was writing it while in LTTE country), and that the TE Lawrence branding had simply been added to them for purposes of the tourist industry. When, toward the end of the trip, one of them pointed to an old Mercedes up on bricks and said “look! Lawrence’s car!”, I got the distinct impression that the sons of the desert did not actually revere TE Lawrence in the way that the guidebooks suggested they might, and indeed that they might not have completely taken at face value the official story that he was their tireless advocate and was entirely stitched up by the dastardly Sykes and Picot.

As far as I could tell, the inhabitants of the Wadi Rum national park have a sort of semi-nomadic life – all of them seem to have some sort of base in the village, but they also have family camps, which might or might not double as tourism businesses. At any one time there will be some family members in the house and some in the desert. And they still have a real affection for the nomadic lifestyle; they seemed to talk about the desert environment in the same way that I think about the Welsh mountains, albeit that I would put a stronger bet on the Bedouin to survive for a month in Snowdonia than on myself to last four hours in Wadi Rum. I was also introduced to one of the great sensual pleasures of the Middle East, an experience called “Not Riding On A Camel”. I realise that most readers will be having the experience of “not riding on a camel” practically every hour of most of their days, but believe me, you don’t really appreciate it until you’ve tried the alternative for contrast. I must have been doing something wrong, as it later transpired that no other family members were suffering from wearing away great saucer-sized bleeding blisters on their arse, but it wasn’t even that which was the worst of it. It was the strangest kind of muscular ache, and it was extraordinary. After two hours on the traditional camel saddle, I found myself choosing to walk ninety minutes across the desert in the middle of the day, and profusely thanking the guy who allowed me to do it.

7. In flight magazines, slight return

In the grandest tradition of globetrotting punditry, I get half of my views about any given country from the inflight magazine of its national airline. And it has to be said, as a provider of hooks for chin-stroking think pieces, Royal Jordanian did me proud. I was thinking about the fairly unique position of the Hashemite Kingdom Of Jordan in the region, as a state which is allied to the forces of modernity, but where the head of state’s claim to his position is based on his status the 42nd generation descendant of the Prophet. On the one hand, particularly as it can’t smooth over these contradictions with oil money, Jordan is inextricably linked to the secular West and constant liberalisation. On the other hand, it’s a Muslim country and can’t get away from that fact either. And then staring up at me from the inflight magazine, there it was.

The lead feature in the issue I read was a travel piece extolling one of its recently opened routes, and selling its readers on the joys of a trip to … Munich …in September. Apparently, this is a festival celebrating Bavarian culture, music and art, during which it is possible to see plenty of the locals dressed in their charming local costumes, in large tents which have been erected for the purpose of celebrating Bavarian culture. You can also get a really great meal in the traditional local restaurants, which offer excellent vegetarian alternatives. Yep, someone at the Royal Jordanian inflight mag had taken on the job of writing 2000 words about Oktoberfest, but doing so without mentioning either beer or sausage. Fair do’s, they rose to the challenge. As a triumph of papering over some fairly fundamental differences in outlook and ignoring the elephant in the room, you couldn’t beat it.

The inflight magazine of Qatar Airways had an article on rural development by one of the country’s most prominent surgeons. It was accompanied by a uniquely uninformative byline picture of the author in her burqa, but I leave heavy-handed metaphors like that to less talented pundits.

8. After life of brands

Brands that you half remember from childhood sometimes have a strange sort of afterlife in the developing world, which gives you a bit of deja vu when you come across them. Barbican, for example. This was a non-alcoholic lager developed by Bass in the eighties, at around the time when the drink-driving laws were considerably tightened. It was never much of a substitute for beer and when Guinness launched Kaliber, it didn’t even necessarily have top dog status in a category which was already failing to go anywhere. So it more or less disappeared from the UK market. It’s still alive and kicking in the Islamic world, though, and prominently displayed in fridges at petrol stations. I would guess that nothing has survived of the original product though – the selling point of Barbican was meant to be that it was brewed like a normal lager and then de-alcoholised, and although my knowledge of Islamic dietary restrictions is meagre, I’d guess this would have made the original Bass version haram.

Similarly, British Leyland is long dead and gone, taking its unenviable reputation for quality control and toxic industrial relations with it. At some point in its history, however, it must have concluded a joint venture called Ashok Leyland Lanka, and when BL went off to leak oil into the great car park in the sky, the joint venture carried on. It still seems to have the largest market share of buses and light trucks there, although Hyundai are making inroads.

Sri Lanka drives on the left hand side of the road, a legacy of old colonial days, but one which presumably keeps going because it means that the country has access to the world’s largest second-hand car market (Japan). Second hand cars are a big part of developing world economics – Fiji actualy switched from driving on the right to the left for exactly this reason. The jeep which carried us around the desert in Wadi Rum had started life in Bern, according to its registration plates. I also, via casual survey, put together a generalisation about the use of off-road vehicles, which basically seems to be that dilettantes drive Land Rovers, professionals drive Toyotas and locals drive Mitsubishis.

9. Petra

Petra is one of those things that has to be experienced – you can see the main landmarks and the most impressive buildings (the “Treasury” and the “Monastery”) in any number of photographs, but the place itself is pretty amazing, even if you do pretty inevitably end up with half your party sloping around with the beginnings of sunstroke. The thing that photographs can’t communicate though is the scale – this was a real city, built around the same time as ancient Rome, about the time that my own ancestors still thought that balancing one horizontal stone on top of two vertical stones was pretty amazing stuff.

And it’s perfectly preserved, not by being buried in volcanic ash or anything, but just because of the fact that things don’t tend to rot in the desert, and because once the original residents (the Nabateans) had decided to abandon it, nobody else moved in or even bothered to visit the place for hundreds of years on end. Its actual existence had been forgotten about – being located in a depression at the end of a canyon, it’s easy to overlook – for more than a thousand years. And it wasn’t a small or insignificant place; you can see from the architecture and the infrastructure that it was a propserous and populous city, and it was the capital of a powerful trading empire. In modern terms, it would be like all the residents deciding to leave Frankfurt, and over time everyone just forgetting that there was any such place.

When a civilisation disappears so completely and suddenly, you want to believe that there was some big or catastrophic event which caused it. This doesn’t seem to be the case for the Nabateans, who seem to have just disbanded and joined other empires without too much fuss. There were a couple of earthquakes, but not huge ones, and visibly, not ones which did so much damage to Petra as to render the place uninhabitable. There were the usual scuffles, but no big military disaster. All that happened is that the trade patterns changed, and Petra wasn’t on the way from everywhere to everywhere in the way that it had been before. Then, presumably, the city was faced with the cost of maintaining its infrastructure (particularly the system of channels which brought its water), and decided it couldn’t pay. So they all got together and left. It’s a strangely dignified end to a once glorious civilisation; they just made a sensible and unsentimental economic decision. I wonder what the Nabateans would have said about the sunk-cost fallacy, because heaven knows, there are some majestic sunk costs there.

The whole country of Jordan, by the way, has about a hundred years’ more water left in its aquifers at current rates of usage. I wonder if they will end up having to make the same sort of unpleasant decision as the Nabateans one day.

10. Airports and the things that happen in them

I was originally planning on titling this episode “Airports and other man made environments”, because we had a lot of travel time in this month, and I was anticipating having a lot more to say about the big statement-architecture airports of Qatar and Jordan than I actually did. There you go. Colombo Airport had some of the most comprehensive security measures I’ve ever seen – they’re not up in your face with questions like at Tel Aviv, but you have to go through four or five X-ray machines – one at each stage of the process – and there are armed guards everywhere. Of course, the reason is that this has historically been, literally, the suicide bombing capital of the world. Even to this day, something like half the suicide bombers that there have ever been were Tamil Tigers.

11. Potash City Limits

A grim geographical joke has made Jordan, a land almost entirely made up of desert, into one of the world’s bigger producers and exporters of potash, a bulk chemical mainly used in the manufacture of agricultural fertilisers. Potash can be manufactured, as ammonium nitrate is these days, but when you’ve got massive deposits of the stuff, like the ones around the Dead Sea, it’s cheaper to dig it out of the ground. The United Arab Potash Company has a massive mining facility not far from the Dead Sea resorts, including a mining town which is indeed listed on the maps as “Potash City”. The children grew quickly tired of our singing its name to the tune of “Nutbush City Limits”.

12. Salt in the foundations

You couldn’t ask for two more contrasting environments than Jordan and Sri Lanka. In the desert, there’s a real sense that the air is driving the life out of everything. In ten days driving up and down the country, I saw precisely one green field, which was next to a large irrigation scheme. Tough little thorn bushes grow out of the sand, and that’s about it. Nothing larger than a lizard seems to be able to exist outside the towns, and if you happen to wander a hundred yards from your water supply, you get a fairly immediate sense of having done something that wasn’t very clever.

In a jungle environment, on the other hand, the sense is exactly the opposite. Everything is alive, the air is moist and the place keeps on thrusting life at you – mosquitoes, flies, green plants growing everywhere and the most astoundingly coloured and camouflaged insects. For the first few days, I kept noticing a sort of reddish colour to the soil and wondering if Sri Lanka had large iron ore deposits; it took me that long to realise that this wasn’t the native soil at all. The reddish colour I kept seeing by the sides of roads and in people’s yards was rocksalt. As far as I can tell, more or less everything that’s built in Sri Lanka seems to have a healthy layer of rocksalt in the foundations. Presumably, it’s the only way that you can keep the plant life at bay and stop your macadam roads and concrete slabs being immediately punctured by roots and grasses.

The Sri Lankan road network seems to function though – as we drove around the country, I noticed that there was a “Central Fish Processing Facility” located pretty near the geographical centre of the island, which is surely something you’d only build if you were reasonably confident in your ability to get the fish there from the coast in reasonable time. All sorts of odd little government facilities seemed to have there offices by the side of the major highways – milk quality monitoring stations, fertiliser testers, all the things that an agricultural economy needs, but which developed world countries tend to tuck away at the other end of their road networks, and which really poor countries don’t have at all.

13. Red Sea at Eid-al-Abha

After the desert, we found ourselves wanting to run for the coast, and so we ended up in the resort town of Ayuba, on the last day of the Eid holidays – we were lucky to get a hotel room. The beach was boisterous and crowded, but the sea was cool and beautiful. There were five public beaches, all of which had different modesty codes for female bathing. Weirdly, they were set up so that things got more Western and secular as you got closer to the Saudi border, at which point they presumably reset with a crunch. We were on Public Beach Number 5, which wasn’t that much different from a Mediterranean one. I was interested to see that a large number of UNHCR tents had apparently found their way down to the beach, where they were being used to shelter from the sun and smoke hookah pipes in. Not entirely sure what was going on there – Jordan does have a huge refugee community, something like 40% of the population, but most of them are Palestinians, who are not clients of the UNHCR as they have their own agency, the UNRWA. I’d guess that at some point in the past, Jordan might have had more refugees (possibly as a result of the Iraq war) than it does now, and that at the end of the conflict someone at UNHCR decided that tents were bulky and cheap, and so it was less trouble to let them go cheap onto the Jordanian market than to pack them up to use somewhere else. Alternatively, it’s possible that we were just seeing some UNHCR employees who were having a holiday from looking after Syrian refugees and had liberated some spare tents.

I got talking to a guy in our hotel whose kids were playing with mine, and he was very specific in telling me that he was a Palestinian. I suppose this must be how things are; the refugee camps have been around for so long that they’ve developed infrastructure, including quite a lot of decent middle-class jobs working with the United Nations, of the sort that would provide a week’s holiday by the sea over the holidays. All that you see on TV of the Palestinians is the angry face of the inhabitants of the world’s largest open air prisons, but this is the iceberg below the surface; a pleasant, polite office worker with a United Nations NGO who has an overpowering sense of awareness that he is in the wrong place and that some past manouvering in the last stages of the big European empires has separated his family from their wells and their olive trees.

The Jordanian economy, given their lack of oil, is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which is poured into the country via the refugee camps. Although really, I think it’s wrong to think of this part of the budget as “aid”, given the way that things are arranged. I’d be more inclined to say that Jordan’s main exportable resource is its people’s hospitality to destitute travellers, and its willingness to bear and mitigate the tragic human consequences of the Great Powers’ continued and repeated appalling foreign policy decisions over the last fifty years. There’s always an ongoing discussion, usually a quite controversial one for obvious moral reasons, as to whether it might or might not be a good idea for geographically large and economically poor African countries to make an export industry out of accepting and processing toxic waste from industrial countries.

Without anyone necessarily intending this as a consequence, Jordan’s economy has shaped itself around an equivalent business model for human beings. As far as I can tell, they do their best, but a refugee camp is always going to be a horrible place, and it’s a place where traumatised children learn to have a very bad relationship with violence. There is an old proverb to the effect that “a scholar is a library’s way of reproducing another library”. I’ve always thought in similar terms, that a refugee camp is an atrocity’s way of producing a future atrocity.

14. Political styles of dress

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is, quite rarely in the world, a Democratic Socialist Republic in which all three words can be taken to have their usual dictionary meaning, more or less. Local politicians have a taste, pretty common in the developing world, for sticking big posters of themselves up everywhere, dressed according to the image that they want to project. You have three basic styles, as far as I can see – there’s “Western business suit”, and there’s “traditional or religious robes”. These two old favourites have now, probably as a result of Chinese influence, been supplemented by “open shirt collar and Harrington style bomber jacket”. This last one is apparently meant to signify a hard-working man of the people who spends more of his time chatting in factories and on farms than doing dodgy deals, but gives the curious impression that some regions of the country are governed by mods.

I didn’t get any insight into Sri Lankan politics despite occasionally trying to raise the issue with drivers; the conversations tended to start and stop with a general remark about how awful the civil war was and a firm statement that this was now all over. Which it is, kind of sort of – we stayed in a village in a Tamil stronghold which had been incredibly dangerous as recently as ten years ago, and there was almost no sign of this ever having been the case. There was an army base a couple of kilometres from the cottage we were staying in, where a smiling sergeant major asked me what I was up to when I was taking a walk, but other than that, the country seemed largely free of one of my least favourite sights in the developing world – that of young soldiers sitting around doing nothing but carrying their guns in a vaguely intimidating way.

The determination to not talk or think about the civil war probably means that the Trincomalee massacre, which happened about eighty kilometres from the beach resort where we stayed, is never going to be satisfactorily investigated. The Amnesty International report on Sri Lanka, frankly, doesn’t make very attractive reading, by the way. I suppose one could argue that the truth-and-reconciliation approach isn’t the only way of dealing with the legacy of past conflicts, and that Sri Lanka is entitled to put continued development and stability ahead of justice for the victims of the past. But it’s clear that the police force have not unlearned any of the bad habits they picked up during the civil war; torture and extrajudicial killings are still common.

15. Attack of the rubber ducks

We checked in to a big resort hotel next to the Dead Sea for one night – this seemed like the easiest way to see it, although as we drove down from Potash City we kind of wished we’d made our own way and stopped at one of the beaches where the locals went. The hotel was fine, although it was pretty hard to escape the nagging sensation that this was a bloody big swimming pool to be found in a country that was slowly running out of water. The Dead Sea itself was …considerably weirder than I had expected it to be. The least surprising thing about it is the bouyancy. If you just float about on your back like the signs tell you to, you quickly forget that there’s anything particularly odd about the fact that you’re floating higher in the water than you might otherwise. If you try to swim it gets quickly weirder, as the immediate effect is an overpowering sensation that your arse is taking flight. But the strangest thing, to my mind anyway, is to just look closely at the stuff you’re floating in. It really doesn’t look like water any more – it’s all full of greasy swirls and whorls, and feels more like a kind of oil than anything else.

We walked along the beach a little to get away from the crowds, merrily ignoring the big signs saying “Jordanian Army, do not enter”. Nothing happened to us as a result, but in an unrelated incident, the Army did show up while we were there, in a big jeep with a mounting on the back of it where a machine gun would go (presumably the ordnance had been removed at the insistence of the local tourist industry, telling them “come on, you can’t go around with machine guns when there are tourists on the beach”). A detail of soldiers was sent out to comb the beach in the opposite direction, and came back in the company of a visibly embarrassed hotel employee, carrying a yellow inflatable rubber duck. I couldn’t tell – as I never saw it float in and don’t speak Arabic – whether it was suspected of being a Muslim fundamentalist duck planted by ISIS or a Zionist rubber duck sent over from Eilat. All I can say is that, although obviously they have to treat all incidents as serious, and it would be just like the terrorists to plant a bomb in something innocuous looking, it really isn’t possible to maintain one’s dignity while walking along a beach in camo gear, mirrored sunglasses, slung rifle and carrying a yellow inflatable rubber ducky.

16. Land title required

As we took the taxi to the airport from the north-east coast of Sri Lanka, I saw the surest sign that somebody believes that the Tamil conflict is over. A big billboard, with the name of a developer in all three of the local languages. The English version read “Will Buy Beachfront Property With Valid Title”. The last three words could form the basis for a whole term of development economics. Land title systems are one of the banes of trying to get anything done in the developing world – although Hernando DeSoto’s book on “The Miracle of Capital” was rather hijacked by lot of quasi-libertarian types, he is dead right that the absence of a formal system of land title is one of the big forces keeping peasant farmers poor and facilitating their exploitation. Sri Lanka has a more or less functional land registry, and that might be why it’s the only country in South Asia which gets a good rating on the UN HDI.



heckblazer 11.18.14 at 6:29 am

Petra is pretty amazing; it’s hard to eat turning the corner of the Siq and suddenly seeing the Kazneh. I would note that the city was built by the Nabateans. I have no idea who the Naxalites may have been.


Zamfir 11.18.14 at 6:42 am



bad Jim 11.18.14 at 7:02 am

It’s the act of a loving father to yell “yeee-hah!” as you hit the speed bumps. It inclines the kids to enjoy an experience they might not otherwise.


Daniel 11.18.14 at 7:30 am

Christ, what a mistake! Corrected, thanks.


reason 11.18.14 at 8:47 am

a little aside ” where the switch from capitalist to Communist road surfaces ” – they are all Communist road surfaces.


reason 11.18.14 at 8:48 am

(The difference is between a society with clearly divided realms of responsibility and a totalitarian one. That is not the difference between capitalism and communism.)


Tom Womack 11.18.14 at 9:44 am

I suspect that UNHCR regards its tents as consumables; around the Ferghana Valley end of Kyrgyzstan, where there had been a nasty refugee crisis in 2010, I saw a number of Kyrgyz families who had gone up into the mountains for the summer and set up a UNHCR tent next to their yurt.

I would guess that there’s quite a time lag between the end of the crisis phase and the re-establishment of enough of a shipping industry to get ten thousand second-hand tents back from Central Asia or Sri Lanka to where UNHCR stores them, and by then they’ve lost interest.

Also entirely possible that there’s a gap between UNHCR’s perception of ‘this tent is sufficiently badly damaged not to ship it out for reuse’ and a locals’ perception of ‘look, a free tent if only we patch up the holes, replace the burned bit, and clean out the vomit’.

Not sure how to test this hypothesis as a tourist; the local guide didn’t want to talk about it.


Phil 11.18.14 at 9:59 am

I’m afraid Fix Hellenic (which gets its name from its founder, a German brewer called Fuchs) went bust in 1982; somebody else picked up the brand and revived it in 2006.


Paul C 11.18.14 at 10:03 am

There’s a large secondary market in UNHCR tarps, which are decent, hard-wearing and versatile. They’re also dirt cheap, and the costs of collecting, grading and re-shipping them isn’t worth it financially. If refugees / IDPs want to take them when they leave a camp, then it’s just the same as when they take their kitchen sets with them, and they can do what they choose with those materials.


Phil 11.18.14 at 10:44 am

I heard a very downbeat assessment of the Indonesia/Timor peace process from someone who was peripherally involved: they carried out all the procedures for Truth & Reconciliation, including “restorative justice”-type sessions enabling victims to confront perpetrators, and at the end of it there was neither truth nor reconciliation – the two communities still hated each other and atrocity stories were still circulating. But they weren’t actually fighting, so you could say it sort of worked. If Sri Lanka goes down that route it won’t be the worst possible outcome.


ZM 11.18.14 at 11:09 am

“If Sri Lanka goes down that route it won’t be the worst possible outcome.”

At the moment young male Tamils are still being picked up and tortured. This is worrying because our Government in Australia sends Tamil asylum seekers back saying Sri Lanka is now at peace. AN account I recently heard was of a young man who went back to Sri Lanka temporarily from Melbourne to help out at a family restaurant because his uncle was sick or dying. He was picked up and tied up and tortured with hot irons and sexually assaulted by military. HE survived but is very traumatised and can no longer work .

The UN is currently getting accounts of war atrocities against Tamils , particulalrly during the cease-fire and afterwards I think. There is a book on the topic called Sir Lanka’s Secrets: How the Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away with Murder, by Trevor Grant with a foreword by Geoffrey Robertson QC.


Roger 11.18.14 at 11:13 am

Speedbumps in the motorway. We have them in Nigeria. Settlements just naturally develop along the roads, a vehicle kills someone one day, maybe more than one incident, and the residents will have a speedbump. The authorities – mostly useless anyway – be damned.


Alex 11.18.14 at 12:48 pm

On the UNHCR tents subthread, the opposite of this phenomenon is a Toyota main dealer in Gibraltar who specialises in providing white-painted Land Cruiser pickups to humanitarian agencies – they rent a big area of hard standing in the naval dockyard to park the stock, which is enormous. Gib is kind of on the way to most places humanitarian NGOs get called out to, so it gives you a couple of weeks’ start in shipping them in any direction.

Your UKIP-supporting relative probably whines about brand new white Land Cruisers, don’t they all, but then not many people can find you 500 vehicles that you know will work, free on board Gibraltar, within a week. (Actually, they’re usually reconditioned ex-corporate fleet stock, so cheaper than Uncle UKIP makes out.)

I don’t know if they buy back the used stock and put them back through the overhaul line.


mw 11.18.14 at 3:04 pm

“drift into the left hand lane, then do a U-turn on the motorway and drive back to the right turn, because on this particular stretch of road, the left lane is not just the high speed and overtaking lane, it doubles as the slip road for anyone wanting to do a U-turn, this sounds like it might be terrifying and nonsensical, and it is”.

That sounds like a ‘Michigan Left’:

I’d never realized it was both exotic and terrifying.


Tom 11.18.14 at 4:28 pm

Life for Tamils under Sri Lanka’s current regime is far worse than this otherwise lyrically written (at least as far as I can tell) piece lets on.


Ronan(rf) 11.18.14 at 4:31 pm

The UNHCR runs the Zaatari camp, doesn’t it ? I don’t know where Ayuba is so don’t know how close, but could be leftovers from when the camp was getting set up (my understanding is that’s it’s more permanent now – less tents more buildings, of sorts) – could be sold, stolen, or kept, what have you


P O'Neill 11.18.14 at 4:48 pm


A typo: that religious festival you caught the end of is Eid al-Adha.

There are various write-ups around of the relationships between Jordan’s “East Bankers” and the later waves of Palestinians (1948+), many of whom are naturalized at this point. But the naturalization came with a tacit agreement that the Palestinians wouldn’t look for public sector jobs. And other than a couple of big family trading companies that eventually got big enough for the government to care about, the Palestinian private sector doesn’t expect a whole lot from the government either, and vice versa. So you get this very large informal sector (nighttime lorry drivers, businesses popping up in odd places) while the Bedouins stick to the public sector track, which in turn is riddled with work disincentives.

Also, for a big project like a road improvement, they’re going to take the bill to the Gulf, but the Gulfies like to keep them guessing slightly when they’ll pay, so the motorways tend to get done in stages as the haggling goes on in the background.


Ronan(rf) 11.18.14 at 5:22 pm

” I’d guess that at some point in the past, Jordan might have had more refugees (possibly as a result of the Iraq war)”

Deborah Amos wrote a decent book (Eclipse of the Sunnis) about Iraqi refugees in the region. IIRC most (perhaps none?) didnt go to camps but went to cities (either to their own accommodation or to friends,relatives, refugee ghettos etc) This seems a clear rundown

That’s true of the Syrians aswell I think. Most don’t go to camps, but if they can meet certain criteria (in link below) theyre resettled in cities.


Ze Kraggash 11.18.14 at 5:36 pm

“…odd locations about the country where foreigners can buy booze”

Huh. I stayed in Amman for a few days once (the 7th circle, was it?), and I believe beer, at least (because that’s what we drank), was sold at every corner store. Didn’t realize they sell booze at special locations.


Ronan(rf) 11.18.14 at 7:55 pm

This would seem to be the story of Jordan’s first microbrewery


TACJ 11.18.14 at 8:02 pm

* “The Mystery of Capital” rather than “The Miracle of Capital”.


JakeB 11.18.14 at 10:25 pm

That would have been worth reading just for “a hard-working man of the people who spends more of his time chatting in factories and on farms than doing dodgy deals, but gives the curious impression that some regions of the country are governed by mods.”


Greg 11.19.14 at 2:06 am

Weird. I just got off the humanitarian / refugee roadshow, last stops were Jerusalem and Colombo. Jerusalem for the whole Palestinian ultra-slow-motion crisis, and before that Sri Lanka for post-tsunami and then the bloodbath at the end of the civil war.

Too much to say for a comment, except: Rajapakse and his henchmen are disgusting human beings.


Grant 11.19.14 at 4:06 am

I felt a special modern and remote kind of sadness when I googled “Trincomalee massacre” and found it has a disambiguation page.


ZM 11.19.14 at 4:19 am

Notes Toward a Supreme Costing:
Being a Brief Account of Some Costs as Felt in Sri Lanka but Caused by Europe (Especially Great Britain)

To Wallace Stevens the commenter
(with profuse apologies to his namesake)

And for who — except for you — do I make this costing?
Should I press the sorry costs found through quick
glances at internet pages, close to me, hidden in me day and night?
Or as a favour to you should I share them – as if you, only this very morning,
accosted me at my gate and asked me to accept this commission for ten pence?
“Mr Stevens, In the uncertain light of multiple, certain costs,
and if all things are considered equal, I can inform you that
Sri Lanka is owed significantly more than ten pence by Europe,
being accosted for more than a century rather than just once upon a single morning,
and for more than oranges.” But the wiles of men who construct costing
methods are ever changeable, and costings thus never seem to be fixed.
Oh Wallace Stevens, the commenter, I did so hope to see your comment
here, scorning Daniel’s post, as you did Belle’s, for not including
social costs. It must be that his prose stylings have left you so enraptured
you have found yourself unable to make even the barest
comment grumbling about unmentioned costs. And, so — for you:


Begin, O Phoebe, by perceiving the world before it was re-made
by European actors’ inventions and interventions on distant places.
Perceive the inconceivability to those world-makers that one of London or Lisbon
or Amsterdam or Paris was not made to be the Sun that all else gravitate around.

O Phoebe become thou ignorant again,
and see world making with such an ignorant eye that
Thou become so dismayed at everything that was done,
you shall count up the costs as they spiral and multiply.

Think first of Portugal, which finding seven kingdoms in what is now Sri Lanka,
built a great Fort by the seashore, causing the Sinhalese to move their capital
inland to Kandy. Note the sunk costs lost by this undesired move,
and note the taxes charged by foreign kings in Europe, and so begin to tally them.

Some say culture is intangible, but I have seen
cost benefit analyses done for cultural affairs. So, now
count the cost of the Portuguese forcing conversions to Catholicism,
and persecuting moors, and tally these too.

When the Dutch arrived they were welcomed as the Buddhists thought they might
ward off Portugal, until the Dutch too attacked. Count everything lost
in those attacks that lasted decades, and count again those poor converts
to Catholicism, who were persecuted once more for not being Protestant.
During this time began a reliance on importing rice — the costs of this being felt
over many generations — and of course the taxes paid to Holland too need be tallied.

Then comes to Europe Napoleon, and this so rouses English fears
of Sri Lanka being won by France, ruining its grand strategy, that in 1796
Great Britain occupied the coast, and called it Ceylon. By 1815 the English had
conquered all. Tally up the bloody costs, Phoebe.

It is written that “the absence of a formal system of land title is
one of the big forces keeping peasant farmers poor and facilitating
their exploitation. Sri Lanka has a more or less functional
land registry” — but how came this to be? Ready your pen for the tallying:

I seek and find an old cost left unmentioned — although familiar sounding —
the Wastelands Act, whereby the British Parliament enclosed common lands
and left the peasantry landless as well as destitute —
you’ll have to tally it.

Initially European land holding,
outside Colombo, was prohibited, but pressure
from Maitland and others succeeded in 1812 in gaining permission
for European foreigners to own parcels of land up to 4000 acres.
The amount thus taken needs be tallied.

The English claimed to despise rajakariya
— compulsory service for the King — but instituting neo-rajakariya —
which did not mention the King or Gods — Maitland built roads
for trading among other things. All castes were affected, but not equally
— the salagamas suffered the most due to
the trade of cinnamon. Tally it.

The British Government monopolised the cinnamon trade, and regulations
inherited from the Dutch encouraged cinnamon production
while depressing land value and discouraging other crops.
But competition still demanded salagamas be treated worse and worse
— some were lucky and escaped by deserting, but others died of fever
caught in peeling cinnamon. Tally up the dead, and everything else.

Another British government monopoly was salt production,
which turned out poorly for those that lived in fishing villages,
while other costs were incurred when — to trade in something other than monopolised cinnamon — “wasteland” was converted to plantations
of coffee, then tea and some rubber — mainly for export trade —
plantations becoming owned by consolidated companies based in
London. Tally the losses.

The OP mentions Tamils but neglects to say
that the British “imported” Tamil “coolies” from South India
to work as indentured labourers, eventually they made up
10% of the population, but tens of thousands died on the journey,
and many more afterwards in the plantations. Tally all this too.

In the 1830s Whitehall decided strategy was all well and good,
but the Sri Lankan colonial endeavour needed to be
financially solvent as well, and the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission
began to establish the superstructure of the laissez-faire state, more
far-reaching than reforms in India, and having implications
for the Cinnamon Department — salagamas petitioned London that the new laws
reduced them to the same low status as natives of other castes —

British superiority in the region was dented by an attack in Penang
by the German cruiser Emden — even now mothers scare their children
with tales of ‘Emden’ the bogeyman — and the losses to Asian Turks at Gallipoli.
A riot in Colombo was followed by harsh martial law — the British administration
broke the Buddhist Dharmapala’s legs, and shot commander Pedris for mutiny,
among vast imprisonments and other things. All should be tallied.

Then comes The Battle Of The Flowers —
school children were forced to buy poppies
to support British ex-servicemen but not their own,
so young men and women sold Suriya — or Portia tree — flowers on
Armistice day, rallying against imperialism. The British tried to
regulate rebellion away with the Street Collection Regulation Ordinance.

Suriya Mal movement figures volunteered in the 1934 malaria epidemic and floods , finding resistance to disease being impeded by terrible malnutrition, and
seeing that “[t]he poverty was incredible, the overcrowding even more so,
fifteen, twenty or more people crammed into tiny huts, dying like flies.
This was what colonial exploitation meant: worse than the worst that
prevailed in England when Marx and Engels analyzed
the conditions of the working classes. This was what had to be fought”

Then to World War 2, where Sri Lanka became a front-line British base
against the Japanese. Colombo was bombed before the fall of Singapore,
and the British in Sri Lanka panicked —
one day a large turtle wandered ashore and was reported as a Japanese submarine…
Some Sri Lankan Garrison in Ceylon thought they may as well hand Sri Lanka over
to the Japanese, could they be any worse than the British? But this was suppressed
and three men executed for mutiny.

Sri Lankans no longer were trusted by the British in the war,
but fortunately — since the country held the vast stores of British rubber —
at least this meant they got rationing and were therefore
better fed than Indians.

War time repression had maintained some order – but
in the aftermath popular anger erupted into strikes in tramways
and the harbour. Then a bus workers strike, and then protesting
of orders that rice be purchased by the government for low prices.

Then independence came, and civil war. But the greatest threat
to Sri Lanka in the next 55 years will be climate change.
Of greenhouse gasses it has historically contributed far less
than countries early to industrialise, and those now with advanced economies,
and high consumption, and lots of aeroplanes.
But Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise
and weather related disasters, not to mention loss of its high biodiversity.

Now surely those well versed in figures
and in how to nominate and number costs, should be able to look at all this
and weigh these events and and tally them up to States who are debtors in social costs.
If truth and reconciliation is agreed to be an aim worth pursuing,
why not apply this to colonising and imperialist States’ current accounts
even now bloated on blood and plunder?


reason 11.19.14 at 8:07 am

“Sri Lanka has a more or less functional land registry, and that might be why it’s the only country in South Asia which gets a good rating on the UN HDI.”

I went to Sri Lanka and Nepal in the 80s and what struck me was that the difference was something that GDP statistics probably wouldn’t capture. Sri Lanka as you point out is incredibly fertile, even every tree in the forest seems to produce heaps of edible fruit. And it is warm. (And wet – I don’t know if it is still true, but when I was there I reckoned that Sri Lanka was the only country in the world with more umbrellas than shoes.) So the amount of effort involved in being comfortable there is much less. And apart from ethnic strife, that makes the country much more relaxed. Then there is the fact that it is a well situated island (close to major trade routes) and so the colonial powers provided it with good basic infrastructure, and the English colonial heritage was not all negative – they learnt English (useful internationally), value schooling, and because of Englands relatively liberal immigration policy (at least as it was) have a significant diaspora.


Val 11.19.14 at 11:27 am

Wow ZM, that was amazing.


david 11.19.14 at 12:06 pm

The prodigious tropical fertility of Sri Lanka is largely constrained to the high-rainfall southwest, and the price of that fertility is a population of 20m mostly shoved into that area. In the meanwhile it still has a tropical disease burden, heat, humidity, seasonal monsoon etc. that combine to inhibit industrialization.


Tom Womack 11.19.14 at 2:21 pm

‘Even every tree in the forest seems to produce heaps of edible fruit’ was something that struck me in Bali, and the guide’s reaction was ‘of course they do: that’s why we planted them’. I don’t think I’ve ever been in unambiguously-natural jungle – the cover that’s grown back over the Mayan archaeological sites is the nearest, and I’d be open to an argument that that was self-seeded from stands of trees deliberately planted by Mayans in their big cities.

Of course the 1491 argument is that quite a lot of even the Brazilian rain forest is successor to successor to things mostly planted by Man.


James Wimberley 11.19.14 at 7:23 pm

You don’t need Google Maps and an expensive roaming data connection (or baffling local SIM card) to get navigation on your smartphone. Download an open-source map from OsmAnd (don’t ask me to explain the name). If your phone has GPS and a working SIM card, it will get its location at no cost from the cellphone masts, and you are in business.

Inflight magazines can give you a nice surprise. Flying with TAM in Brazil, the magazine had a good article about women in management in the company. The boss, it appeared, is a woman, who inherited a controlling stake from her husband in the usual dynastic way. But she learnt the business, stepped into his shoes, and used her power to advance women – not only her relatives. The chief IT officer is an unrelated woman. It’s a better airline than most there.


Neil Levy 11.20.14 at 6:02 am

James Wimberley,
Is there an equivalent for IOS?


Neil 11.20.14 at 8:56 am

James Wimberley,

Is there an IOS equivalent to OsmAnd? Some googling throws up some claimed equivalents, but they’re silent on data usage.


JohnD 11.20.14 at 10:38 am

Gosh, so many good things in here I hardly know what to comment on!
But I did want to agree with you on Petra – I came to it via the small ravine leading up to the Great Treasury – and the moment when I realised just how big and old and awesome a building was suddenly in front of me might still be the most spectacular of my life.
You comments about refugee camps and atrocities seems very right too.
The Middle East sweets instead of booze thought is interesting – certainly when I was in the UAE people seemed to talk about an epidemic of diabetes among young people (which they, probably incorrectly, attributed to overindulgence on sweets) in the same way that alcohol abuse by the young is discussed in the UK.


christian_h 11.20.14 at 3:45 pm

Thanks ZM for 25. Amazing comment.


robotslave 11.20.14 at 11:22 pm

Petra in its heyday was not just a stop on a route from one place to another, but was itself a place. And trade routes do not simply wander away from a thriving city.

You might have noticed the ruins of Nabatean farms— stone-terraced hillsides with no soil in the terraces.

Terracing is a late phase of agriculture; people don’t go to all that trouble unless they have no choice. There’s a popular misconception that the Nabateans turned a barren land into a lush garden overnight with wizard irrigation and lots of rock hauling on hillsides, but the archeological record tells a different story.

The land around Petra when the Nabateans arrived (or descended from people already there) was far more fertile than it is today, and had supported continuous human habitation for 9000 years, back to the Neolithic. What the Nabateans brought to the table was intensive agriculture and irrigation– and the erosion that goes with it. Which they eventually mitigated, for a while, by terracing the hillsides (typically the last remaining source of virgin soil).

It’s been suggested that increasing raids by local unfriendlies made maintaining the terraces impossible, and the soil washed away. It’s also possible the farms were simply abandoned due to eventual soil exhaustion, perhaps with help from a few year’s drought.

Either way, it was the extinction of Petra’s apron of productive soil (and the subsequent prospect of famine) that led to the abandonment of the city, not the disappearance of trade.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery


Burgher 11.21.14 at 1:17 am


Yeah, those damn Euros! Wonder when the Sinhalese are gonna pony up for their genocide of the Veddas??


Belle Waring 11.21.14 at 3:01 am

ZM: marry me, oh, wait, no thanks for that amazing comment!


Belle Waring 11.21.14 at 3:12 am

JohnD: the connection in SE Asia is strong too; there are loads of sickly sweet Malay desserts vs. Chinese ones which are very slightly sweetened by contrast. Fanta and F&N Grape are very popular in Singapore among Malay people, and with me, since they are exactly like Orange and Grape Nehi, respectively. If F&N would only make F&N Peach all would be well. My Singaporean Chinese business partner finds them all revolting and buys them for me in a thoughtful spirit of horror. Of course, Indian sweets in general are some next-level shit where they turned to look at baklava, stepped on it like it was Shiva and they were Kali, created something approximately four times as sweet as an actual sugar cube, dyed it pink, and then put silver leaf on it, because, fuck it, that’s how Indian culture rolls. The Buddha was tempted by some heavenly beauties before he reached enlightenment under the bodhi tree? No, he was tempted by ten billion of them. Our terrible fallen world will soon be riven asunder by the Resurrection of Christ, right, after only 2K years? The Kali Yuga we now sadly inhabit is going to last like 470,000 years. Indian people think big.


Belle Waring 11.21.14 at 3:16 am

One thing very relevant to the land sales is that unlike any other country in the region, Sri Lanka allows outright foreign ownership of land. Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India itself (I’m 99% on that)–all these countries either only allow foreigners to buy condos or they allow freehold purchase with a local straw buyer. However, Sri Lanka’s tax the last I checked (since I was looking into it) is 100%. So, the land will cost twice what it’s listed for, but you will own it free and clear with no troubles. As someone who is flying to Indonesia to talk to lawyers Monday I see the appeal.


Joshua W. Burton 11.21.14 at 4:35 pm

Lord Dunsany has a story somewhere (citation would be very welcome) in which the immortal muses are trying to settle a bet about the absolute minimum unit of poetic inspiration that might confer laurels in the afterlife on a mortal poet. Would one really brilliant epic cycle in an otherwise forgettable career do it? How about a single sonnet? A quatrain? A perfect couplet?

One of the immortals brings forward John Burgon’s Petra as the perfect test case: could a crank, a troglodyte and a complete hack be redeemed even by a single line as evocative as “a rose-red city half as old as Time”? Alas, in the end it turns out that Burgon, besides being embarrassingly literal (half of the young-earth six millennia), had in fact cribbed that last bit from some classical source — again here, I wish I had the Dunsany vignette in front of me; he tells it well. And, of course, “a rose-red city” by itself doesn’t quite make the cut.


Joshua W. Burton 11.21.14 at 5:29 pm

Also, what is “Ayuba” — is that the resort city called Aqaba when it’s at home? The whole Jordanian segment of the coast is pretty short — the hotels toward the Saudi border call that stretch “Tala Bay”, but I don’t think there are any actual named towns on the Aqaba coast other than Aqaba itself. From the Eilat side, it looks cheerful and white against the red mountains of Edom, and somehow authentic and tasteful in contrast with the industrial-port-meets-Miami-Beach vibe next door.

Re UNHCR: I assume the refugee officers you saw were something to do with Syria, whose fourth largest city is now in the Jordanian desert. (The al-Za’atari camp was split by Google satellite images until a few weeks ago: you could see bare desert in one square, melding discontinuously into a city of half a million — looking a lot like San Luis Rio Colorado, minus the warehouses and interstate highway on the Arizona side — a year later.) It’s not quite true that “Palestinians” have UNRWA instead of UNHCR; the Palestinians who are refugees in the conventional worldwide sense are under UNHCR, while the Palestinians who are refugees pending the conclusion of two-state negotiations with Israel are under UNRWA. The point is that the High Commission has a mandate not only to succor but to resettle in cooperation with host nations: with respect to Palestinian national aspirations, this would amount to explicitly taking sides. No one would be happier than I to see UNRWA disbanded and their overseas offices in New York and Brussels demolished and ritually sown with salt before being repurposed as toxic waste storage, but I do see the cruel logic of keeping UNHCR out of I/P, even while leaning on its good works for S/P.


js. 11.22.14 at 8:37 pm

Monkeys sit by the roadside in Sri Lanka, presumably waiting for someone to chuck away something edible. They seem pretty friendly

Yay, monkeys! (No seriously, I have a bit of history with them, they’ve stolen food I was eating on multiple occasions, but I kinda love them.) Anyway, I was curious about this because I was Simla (and traveling around Himachal) a couple of years ago, and there were signs all over the place warning tourists not to give monkeys food or otherwise engage with them. I saw at least one that said something like, “Do not make eye contact with the monkeys”! I never really saw any being aggressive (at least against humans — there was a crazy-sounding monkey fight on the balcony of our hotel room in Simla, the first day we were there). But my sense is that they can get pretty vicious if provoked. Also too, though, these monkeys did not seem appropriately scared of humans, so maybe they’re somewhat different down in Sri Lanka.

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