Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I wanted to see Mar Mattai, the ancient monastery of St. Matthew. Now I asked my new friend and driver, as well as the hotel manager, as well as the small gaggle of curious Kurds who had by now gathered around me in the hotel lobby, whether it was safe to visit Mar Mattai at this juncture. After all, it lay only a short distance outside of Mosul.
No, the panel concluded, shaking their heads. It was now occupied by Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, a primarily Shiite group of militias, after the Peshmerga left the area recently following pressure from the U.S. and the Baghdad government.
I went down my list of things I wanted to see for them to vote on. One by one they rejected them as potentially unsafe. Then I got to Saddam Hussein’s palace in the Gara Mountains. “Qasr Saddam,” the manager nodded, using the Arabic word for “castle.” “Yes,” she said, “he can take you. It is near Duhok.”
“Kurdistan is one hundred percent safe,” said my driver, Lawin, as we sped down the smoothly paved road from the airport into Erbil. “The problem is,” he went on, “people see the stuff on TV, and they think that everywhere in Iraq is like that. But it’s not. This is Kurdistan, not Baghdad. Don’t go to Baghdad. Don’t go to Mosul, or Kirkuk. But here in Erbil, in Sulaymaniah, you are one hundred percent safe.”
Lawin was the driver that my hotel had sent to pick me up. It was 3:30 in the morning. Lawin looked to be forty-something. He told me that he had lived in Britain for ten years starting in 2000 and took British citizenship before returning to Iraqi Kurdistan only a few years ago.
And he undoubtedly had a point. Most people don’t know that Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds instead of Arabs are the majority, is semiautonomous. The Kurds, a people spread among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, have no country of their own. But they have a distinct culture and language, which is a close sibling of Farsi and unrelated to Arabic. Kurdistan has its own military, the highly effective Peshmerga, which has done much of the heavy-lifting in the war against ISIS, or DAESH, as it’s called around these parts. Indeed, the Kurds have managed to keep the conflagrations of recent years away from their portion of Iraq.
My childhood hero was Richard Feynman, Nobel physics laureate and trickster god for science students everywhere. Feynman read at some point about a distant country called Tuva and decided that he absolutely had to go there.
Tuva was a part of the Soviet Union, nestled between northwestern Mongolia and Russia. And during the Cold War, the difficulties for an American scientist of Feynman’s stature to travel there were all but insurmountable. The Soviets would hardly grant him a visa, and the Americans would hardly let him go.
But Feynman was determined. He spent a decade trying to obtain the necessary papers even as he grew ill with cancer. His friend Ralph Leighton, who was supposed to accompany him, later wrote a book, Tuva or Bust!, chronicling their quest.
You might say that Feynman felt fernweh for Tuva.
In 1947, a young Norwegian and five fellow Scandinavians whom he recruited went down to Peru. There they built a raft with balsa wood using traditional Native American techniques. Then they set sail on the raft for French Polynesia. One hundred and one days and eight thousand kilometers later, they reached their destination, demonstrating at least the plausibility of the young Norwegian’s theory that Polynesians originally came from the Americas.
His name was Thor Heyerdahl, and the name of the raft was the Kon-Tiki. The voyage made him a legendary adventurer, even if it didn’t quite prove his ethnological theory.
Decades later, Heyerdahl came up with another theory. This one had to do with his native Norway and the country of Azerbaijan.
It was only a layover the other day at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, but it still made me tense.
It didn’t help that the uniformed Russian officer immediately began demanding to know the purpose of my trip, never mind that I was clearly not entering Russia and was therefore not his concern. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I vowed years ago never to return to his country until and unless I obtained diplomatic immunity.
More or less on a whim, and as though I didn’t spend enough time in the classroom over the regular college semesters, I decided to spend the summer of 2002 studying Russian, a language entirely new to me. After a few weeks Stateside learning the rudiments, the cohort of us relocated to St. Petersburg for a few more weeks of immersion. When that finished at the end of July, I picked up my backpack and bought a train ticket to Moscow, hoping to see more of Russia and eventually to catch the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Not all of Chisinau (pronounced key-she-now), the capital of Moldova, screams former Soviet provincial city. But its central bus station surely does.
It’s not properly a station, and at the same time it doubles as a market. Dozens of minivans (marshrutky, to use the Russian word in the plural form) are parked along several intersecting streets. Signs are displayed behind the windshields stating the destinations in the Latin alphabet of Romanian or the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, or both.
Due to its complicated history, Moldova, one of the least visited countries in Europe (and once alleged to be the least happy), is bilingual. The principality of Moldavia was historically in the Romanian orbit, and the eastern section of modern Romania is still called Moldavia. But the Russian empire annexed eastern Moldavia in the early 19th century after the Russo-Turkish War and renamed it Bessarabia. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, Bessarabia or Moldova reunited with Romania, only to be ceded back to the Soviet Union in 1940 in the wake of rapprochement between the USSR and Nazi Germany. So even now, after independence in light of the collapse of the USSR, Moldovans almost all speak both Russian and Romanian fluently.
Every city in Lebanon can rightfully claim to be one of the oldest in the world. Tyre is no exception.
Consider this: The name “Tyre” is of ancient Greek origin, which is old enough. But that’s actually the new name for the city. In Arabic it is still called “Sour,” which comes from the original Phoenician name.
According to Herodotus, Tyre was founded around 2750 B.C. A city that ancient overflows with stories, more stories than I can learn, let alone tell.
The woman at the tourist information office in Larnaca was not encouraging.
I had asked her about crossing the “green line” or UN buffer zone in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. She was not amused. “If you go across,” she said, “you go at your own risk.”
“As my own risk?” I was a little taken aback. “There’s not any actual risk, is there?”
“It’s an illegal government up there,” she said sternly. “It’s occupied territory. There are no embassies, no consulates. If you have any problems, no one can help you.”
I have wanted to visit Baalbek since high school. And it wasn’t even because of the alien spaceships.
Mr. Hamel, my classics and art history teacher back in New Zealand, showed us photos of Baalbek as an example of Roman temple architecture. Mr. Hamel’s lessons, including on Baalbek, form a cornerstone of my education.
And now I have finally seen it for myself.
One thing my late professor of art and architecture Vincent Scully taught me is this: Just as music is the silence between the notes, so architecture is the dialogue among the buildings and the landscape.
Professor Scully’s deeper scholarship is beyond my ability to engage with intelligently. But being in Budapest makes me mindful of a more obvious level of dialogue among buildings and monuments, the representation of a nation’s history.
Much of Hungary’s difficult modern history is told along a 700-meter stretch of Budapest from Szabadsag ter (Liberty Square) to the parliament building. At the center of the semi-circular northern portion of Liberty Square stands a obelisk-like monument with a Cyrillic inscription dedicated to “Soviet heroes” who liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. It is a testament to Hungarians’ historical memory that they chose not to demolish this monument after the Cold War.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."