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A Muslim voice for peace and human rights

Samuel Shropshire, founder of Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation, addresses human rights and peace activists on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

Samuel Shropshire, founder of Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation, addresses human rights and peace activists on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

MVPR announced in Washington, DC

Sam presents Diane Randall, executive director of the Friends National Legislative Committee with a copy of the newly published photo history The Heart of Mekkah by renowned photographer Khalid Khidr. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Sam presents Diane Randall, executive director of the Friends National Legislative Committee with a copy of the newly published  anthology The Heart of Makkah by renowned photographer Khalid Khidr. (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation (MVPR) made its debut on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, at a luncheon on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. “This was the public announcement of our human rights work,” says Samuel Shropshire, MVPR founder. “I am grateful for the advice and encouragement of all who attended.”

Shropshire was accompanied to Washington by Suhaib Mallisho of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Present at this important meeting were leaders from numerous humanitarian non-government organizations that are already advocating for human rights and world peace in the US capital.

Among attendees of the MVPR-sponsored luncheon, were Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation; Lisa Sams, Middle East Sub-Committee/Global Missions Committee of St. Albans Episcopal Church; Richard Parkins, Friends of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan; Stephanie Kinney, former diplomat with the US Department of State; Thomas Johnson, Companion Diocese of Jerusalem; Nate Hosler, Office of Public Witness, Church of the Brethren; Sayyid Syeed, Islamic Society of North America; Ambassador Warren Clark, Churches for Middle East Peace; and Raed Jarrad, Policy Impact, American Friends Service Committee.

Shropshire and Marina Buhler-Miko, acting MVPR chief operations officer, presided over the meeting.

“Washington, DC, is an important city. MVPR advocacy has found a lot of friends here,” Shropshire said.

Sam with Marina Buhler-Miko. Marina has agreed to serve as MVPR chief operating officer.

Sam with Marina Buhler-Miko at the Washington National Cathedral. Marina has agreed to serve as MVPR chief operating officer.

Shropshire says, MVPR will do its best to let the American people know that Islam cares about human rights and all peoples facing oppression and injustice. He says, “MVPR will collaborate with Jewish, Christian and other religious and secular groups that seek to relieve the world of human misery.”

“We are Muslim men and women who care about others, regardless of their faith tradition,” he said. “And in that capacity we will seek to ally with others who have the same mission to change the world for the better.”

Shropshire also met with Patty Johnson, Canon Missioner for Outreach of the Washington National Cathedral, and Grace Said, Chair of the Cathedral’s Palestine-Israel Advocacy Group.

Shropshire said MVPR is seeking to provide leadership in peacemaking and human rights, especially in the Middle East. He emphasized that political and religious reconciliation is of utmost importance since, today, many faiths have been divided and hijacked by radical elements.

Shropshire has been living in the Mecca Region of Saudi Arabia for the past three years. He believes that the Abrahamic faiths, working in solidarity, hold the key to solving many of the world’s problems.

“One thing is certain,” he says. “No one will gain from a violent war that seeks to pit Muslims, Christians and Jews against each other. Working together we can end the conflicts and find a better way.”

The history of human rights

There are more refugees in the world today as a result of war and repression than at any time since World War II.

There are more refugees in the world today as a result of war and repression than at any time since World War II.

Shropshire points out that today is an age that is striking in its unprecedented technological sophistication and many advances. “But unfortunately, the prejudices and inequities that have plagued the human race for millennia continue to exist, and are responsible in our day for untold human suffering.”

Throughout history, especially in the Middle East, there have been individuals who have stood up for the rights of others.

Shropshire insisted, “We must ensure that these God-ordained rights are guaranteed to all the world’s citizens? There can be no exceptions.”

Shropshire says there is a firm foundation that has been established for all mankind–beginning in the Middle East with Cyrus the Great’s cylinder and the Prophet Mohammad’s Constitution of Medina, followed by the British Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights as enshrined within the United States Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the eventual Geneva Convention that laid the groundwork for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here is some detail about each of these human rights documents in the order of their appearance:

Cyrus the Great and his Akkadian language cylinder 

The decrees Cyrus the Grreat made on human rights were inscribed in the Akkadian language on a baked-clay cylinder. It is the first known attempt to innumerate the rights and privileges of peoples.

The decrees Cyrus the Grreat made on human rights were inscribed in the Akkadian language on a baked-clay cylinder. It is the first known attempt to innumerate the rights and privileges of peoples.

In 539 BC, the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. But it was his next actions that marked a major advance for all humankind. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script.

Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It has been translated into all six official languages of the United Nations, and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

From Babylon, the idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. In Rome the concept of “natural law” arose, in observation of the fact that people tended to follow certain unwritten laws during the course of life, and Roman law was based on rational ideas derived from the nature of things.

Islam, human rights and the Constitution of Medina

The Constitution of Medina, also known at the Medina Charter, was created by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 622 CE, it was the first written constitution in the Islamic world.

The Constitution of Medina, also known at the Medina Charter, was created by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 622 CE, it was the first written constitution in the Islamic world.

To the surprise of many, another early attempt at formally enumerating human rights is the Charter of Medina, also known as the Constitution of Medina. It was drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad (pbuh) shortly after his arrival at Medina in 622 AD, following the Hijra (immigration of Muslims) from Mecca to Medina.

The charter constituted an agreement between the various native Muslims of Medina (the Ansar), the Muslim immigrants from Mecca (the Muhajarun), Jewish believers, Christian groups in Medina and even pagans, declaring them to constitute ummah wāḥidah (“one nation”). The Constitution formed the basis of a multi-religious Islamic state in Medina.

The Constitution of Medina was created to end the bitter inter-tribal fighting between the rival clans of Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj in Medina, and to maintain peace and cooperation among all Medinan groups for fashioning them into a cohesive society. It ensured freedom of religious beliefs and practices for all citizens. It assured that representatives of all parties, Muslim or non-Muslim, should be present when consultation occurs or in cases of negotiation with foreign states, and that no one should go to war before consulting the Prophet. It also established the security of women, a tax system for supporting the community in times of conflict, and a judicial system for resolving disputes. It declared the role of Medina as a ḥaram (“sacred place”), where “no weapons can be carried and no blood spilled.”

The Constitution of Medina serves as an example of finding resolve in a dispute where peace and pluralism were achieved, not through military successes or ulterior motives, but rather through an agreed upon mutual respect, acceptance, and denunciation of war – aspects that reflect some of the basic tenets of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) own faith and commitment to God. These guiding principles of early Islam brought peace and stability to Medina. Religious pluralism and friendship and mutual respect were the law of the land!

A careful study of this document could help avoid many of the divisions and misunderstandings plaguing the world today. The principles embodied in the Constitution of Medina could easily be used to unite Muslims, Christians, Jews and peoples of other faiths.

The Constitution of Medina not only guaranteed the equal rights and protections of all citizens (Muslims, Christians and Jews), it spelled out the only conditions of what could be considered legal defensive just wars and the proper military conduct during the conduct of defensive war. (Offensive war was considered illegal and un-Islamic.)

Islam’s early contribution to human rights is best appreciated when viewed against the backdrop of world history as well as the realities of modern times.

As in all times, greed, prejudice and hate drive nations to war and conflict. Economic and social disparities have resulted in the oppression of poorer populations; racial prejudices have been the cause of subjugation and enslavement of people with darker skin; women have been weighed down by chauvinistic attitudes, and pervasive attitudes of religious superiority have led to widespread persecution of people with different beliefs.

“However, when considering the question of human rights and Islam,” declares Shropshire, “it is important to distinguish the divinely prescribed rights promoted by Islam from potential misinterpretation and misapplication by imperfect human beings.”

“Just as Western societies still fight against racism and discrimination, many Muslim societies continue to struggle to fully implement human rights as outlined in Islam,” he says.

The English Magna Carter

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in history. This document was signed in June 1215 between the barons of medieval England and King John.

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in history. This document was signed in June 1215 by the barons of medieval England and King John.

Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’, is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.

Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. However, buried within them were a number of fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries.

Most famously, the 39th clause gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of the Magna Carta’s core principles were written into in the United States constitution in the form of the Bill of Rights and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights was ratified in 1787.

The United States Constitution with its Bill of Rights was ratified in 1787. It is the oldest constitution still in use.

The American democracy and its constitution is a foundation stone for a long tradition of human rights and personal freedoms.

Written during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the Constitution of the United States of America is the fundamental law of the US federal system of government and a landmark document of the Western world. It is the oldest written national constitution still in use and defines the principal organs of the US government, describing the balance of powers of the legislative government (President, Congress and the Supreme Court), outlining their jurisdictions and the basic rights of American citizens.

The early establishment of American human rights laws was in no way perfect as slavery and discrimination against African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities would persist for decades, but the US Constitution would lay the groundwork for an evolving, more humane nation.

The Bill of Rights were incorporated as an important part of the US Constitution, protecting the basic freedoms of all American citizens.

These human rights came into effect on December 15, 1791, limiting the powers of the federal government of the United States and protecting the rights of all citizens, residents and visitors within American territory.

The Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, outlines the right to keep and bear arms, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition the government. It also prohibits unreasonable search and seizure on private premises.  “Cruel and unusual punishment” was strictly forbidden, and it outlawed compelled self-incrimination.

The Bill of Rights prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and prohibits the federal government “from depriving any person of life, liberty or property” without due process of law. In federal criminal cases it requires indictment by a grand jury for any capital offense, or infamous crime, guarantees a speedy public trial with an impartial jury in the district in which the crime occurred and prohibits double jeopardy.

France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, is a major human rights document resulting from the French Revolution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, is a major human rights document resulting from the French Revolution.

The inspiration and content of this document emerged largely from the ideals of the American Revolution. The key drafts were prepared by the Marquis de Lafayette, working at times with his close friend Thomas Jefferson. In August 1789, Honoré Mirabeau played a central role in conceptualizing and drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The last article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted on 26 August 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly, towards the end of the French Revolution. It was the first step toward writing a constitution for France. Inspired by the Enlightenment, the original version of the declaration was discussed by the representatives on the basis of a 24 article draft.

The draft was later modified during the debates. A second and lengthier declaration, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793, was written in 1793 but never formally adopted.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt reviews the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt reviews the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that international conflict to ever happen again.

World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of all peoples. The document they considered, and which would later become known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was taken up at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946. The Assembly reviewed this draft Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms and transmitted it to the Economic and Social Council “for reference to the Commission on Human Rights for consideration.

The Commission, at its first session early in 1947, authorized its members to formulate what it termed “a preliminary draft International Bill of Human Rights”. Later the work was taken over by a formal drafting committee, consisting of members of the Commission from eight States, selected with due regard for geographical distribution.

The Commission on Human Rights was made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting committee. With her were René Cassin of France, who composed the first draft of the Declaration, the Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon, Vice Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, director of the UN’s Human Rights Division and preparer of the declaration’s blueprint. Eleanor Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force behind the declaration’s eventual adoption.

The final draft, presented by Cassin, was handed to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947, which was being held in Geneva.

The entire text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was composed in less than two years. At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on several points proved to be a colossal task.

The unfinished work of championing peace and human rights

During the 20th century a number of great individuals have made their mark on human rights. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton crusaded for women’s suffrage in the United States. Mahatma Gandhi in India was most effective in gaining India’s independence and championing the rights of Indian citizens. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, brought an end to segregation in the United States and Nelson Mandela was greatly used to dismantle apartheid in South Africa,

Many other men and women have stood up at various times, against all odds, to champion world peace and human rights. And, today, 21st century activists are answering the call.

Take a few minutes to learn more. Watch this short United Nations video about the incredible history of human rights:

Sources: United Nations, Encyclopaedia Britannica, wikipedia.org, US Library of Congress, A History of England, Oxford Bibliographies, Notes in History, humanrights.com, Youth for Human Rights

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July 7, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Islam, Mecca, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Heavy metal, Middle Eastern band of brothers!

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace?  But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain.  They come from different countries.  They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace? But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain. They come from different countries. They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

We’re constantly bombarded by implicit and explicit images of the relationship that Jews and Muslims supposedly have in today’s world. We are bombarded with the cliched reminder that we “used to get along” but recently have become enemies.

We’ve almost become used to it, accepted it as some sort of reality.

And, ironically, all these “interfaith” events can often cause us to feel even more disconnected. They just don’t seem as genuine as a true connection. It would seem the only people you would need to show such “unity” with is people you don’t get along with.

Which is why we need to look deeper. We need to look wider. We need to see that “unity” doesn’t mean press. It doesn’t mean “shows of support”. It means genuine connection and giving.

And the truth is that the world is scattered with that. The truth is that the press likes to say just one side of the story, likes to focus on conflict. But there is unity. There is connection.

All we need to do is look!

Listen as the tour leaders speak of their unity and message:

Sources: Sky News, PopChassid, metalinjection.net, The Guardian, alarabiya.net, cnn.com

March 26, 2015 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

My interest and travel to Myanmar

Sam Shropshire discussed Rohingya persecution with Myanmar Buddhist leaders.

Samuel Shropshire recently discussed Rohingya persecution with Buddhist leaders inside Myanmar. (Click photos to enlarge.)

It was through my close friend Shafik Zubir, the mu’adhin (“caller to prayer”) at Taqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that I gained a strong interest in the fate of the millions of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shafik’s parents immigrated from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Shafik and his family have shared with me the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. Now I find myself travelling to Myanmar to personally investigate the horrific genocide that has been committed against these noble people during the past century.

Approximately 1.5 millions Rohingya men, women and children remain in Myanmar. More than 2 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, on foot or by boat, and from there have sought refuge in other nations. The death toll of those fleeing this modern-day holocaust is unknown, but it is, no doubt, in the hundreds of thousands.

Greater than 300 thousand Rohingyas now reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been my privilege to meet and speak with many of them.

A history of totalitarianism

Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until World War II, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne.

Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.

The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.

British colonialism

The British governor, left , and Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation's flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

The British governor, left, and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation’s flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice.

Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.

World War II and early independence

During World War II, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.

Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.

Ne Win’s coup d’etat

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a coup d'état. He became head of state as Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister. The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature.

Since 1962, when the Ne Win government seized power in a military coup, Myanmar has been under the vice like grip of successive regimes that have ruled the country through oppression and fear.

In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government.

By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period.

Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.

The 1989 election

The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.

While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the SLORC grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi: house arrest, release and election

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002.

She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar remained strong.

In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state

However after nearly 50 years of military rule, the apparatus of the state is entrenched in the fabric of Burmese society and as the pogrom continues in Arakan state, the back story provides unnerving evidence that systematic official behavior has lead to the current crisis.

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

What has occurred in western Burma has been described as a sectarian conflict between two communities who simply hate each other. This prognosis is demonstrably false, and a look at the situation in Arakan provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

One element of this picture is the improbability of a “sectarian conflict.” Arakan (Rakhine) state has a population of almost 4 million, making the Muslim or Rohingya population less than quarter of the inhabitants, thus making a two-sided conflict highly illogical.

Further, the minority population has been controlled by the state to the extent that they are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.

The control of this population has long been perpetuated not just by uniformed military or Nasaka (border guard) personnel but also by quasi-civilian militias, as has been the case in much of the country. Indeed in Burma the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

This organisation had perhaps its most notorious hour in 2003, when it attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in central Burma. The authorities naturally tried to portray it as a clash between two rival political groups. However, only one side, the National League for Democracy (NLD), suffered 70 deaths and only one side’s supporters were arrested – also the NLD.

In the wake of the Depayin massacre, the US embassy dispatched a cable back to Washington entitled: “MOSQUE RAZED, PARAMILITARIES TRAINED.”

In the cable, one of the militia’s discussed was, “the USDP-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia” that was receiving “rudimentary riot-control and military training.” One of its other jobs was to hold up the Americans in case of an invasion, while the government was “training a paramilitary ‘Peoples Militia’ in Arakan state to assist in putting down any general uprising.”

“Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution”

According to the cable, “Local officials on July 22 (2003) reportedly tore down a mosque in Sittwe, 70 miles SE of the Bangladeshi border, and arrested seven Muslims, one of whom subsequently died in custody.”

The dispatch goes on to explain that the mosque was demolished because the worshippers “made unauthorized improvements to the structure, resulting in the decision by local authorities to tear down the whole building.”

The embassy concludes that, “We frequently hear stories of pro-SPDC ‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

Muslims around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Muslims and human rights organizations around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is now on the commission to investigate June’s violence in Arakan state, also notes this type of tactic being used. In 2008, he wrote in a US legal journal that:

“Before former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests. In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

He concludes that: “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Given the uncanny resemblance of this case and the details surrounding late May’s ‘spark incident’, one must ask questions about the current government and the legitimacy of the reform process.

Khin Nyunt was not only adept at preventing anti-government actions, he was also good at neutralising ethnic insurgent groups and casually referred to the entire nation of India as “kalars” – a pejorative term used in Burma to describe Muslims and individuals of South Asian descent.

Government policy then was described as “pervasive and sometimes aggressive religious discrimination that favours Burma’s Buddhist majority.”

The world watches practically in silence

Obama called Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

In November 2014 US President Barack Obama called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

While the US embassy noted in a cable in 2005 that the UNHCR head at the time Jean-François Durieux described “the situation in northern Arakan as ‘shocking,’ with the GOB [government of Burma] in constant denial of the true situation. Although Muslims have some religious freedom in Rangoon, the GOB has a policy of ‘complete repression’ of Rohingyas in northern Arakan. He noted that Buddhist temples are ‘springing up everywhere,’ although he estimates the Buddhist population as only one percent of the population [in northern Arakan].”

If there is any doubt that there is systematic repression against the population, the US embassy noted that, “The military has effectively sealed the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare subsistence level – it is an internment camp.” They further correctly forecasted that, “We should not assume that any future democratic government will accord these people their basic human rights.”

Needless to say, however, despite this and the accumulated evidence, the US government has lifted punitive measures against the Myanmar government.

The lack of civil rights is overshadowed, moreover, by the basic human indicators that have been thrust on the population by the government, as the US embassy noted: “Infant mortality is four times the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children under five are chronically malnourished, and stunted growth is common.” Infant mortality then is roughly equivalent to that of Ethiopia, which is chronically affected by drought, and 80% of the population is illiterate with one teacher for every 79 students.

If this were not systematic, the discrepancies with other regions of the country would not be so severe. The government has been more than able to prevent freedom of movement for the roughly 850,000 Rohingya still in existence in the area, it would then seem that with one of the largest armed forces in Asia controlling the movement of mobs would be easy.

According to jurist Guy Horton writing in 2005, “the Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution designed to destroy them through exclusion, rather than assimilation.”

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given that Thein Sein has attempted to off load the entire population onto the UNHCR, it is evident that he too is in favour of removing the population. With the well-documented government abuses against the population, there is not much of a case to suggest that what is occurring now in Arakan state is anything less than genocide.

Take a few minutes to watch this Press TV documentary account of the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples:

Sources: Joseph Alchin on DVB, Associated Press, VOA, wikipedia.org, BBC, presstv.com, New York Times, Al Jazeera News, Time Magazine, A History of Asia

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Islam, Terrorism, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A very close look at Korea’s Demilitarized Zone

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarize Zone and North Korea.

Scores of South Koreans wait their turn to get a glimpse of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea. The two nations have been in a state of war since 1951. Hope remains that one day the two nations will be reunited.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

A map showing the Deimilitarized Zone separating North Korea from South Korea. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Brief Korean War history

The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was a war between North and South Korea, in which a United Nations force led by the United States was fighting alongside the South, and China, assisted by the Soviet Union, was fighting alongside the North. The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards.

The Korean Armistice Agreement is the treaty which ended hostilities between North Korea and South Korea. It was signed by U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korean General Nam Il representing the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army.  The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  So far, no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved.

During the three years of war, South Korea had suffered 217,000 military casualties and more than 1 million citizens had died. North Korea had suffered 406,000 military casualties and an estimated 600,000 of its citizens had been killed. According to the US Department of Defense, more than 30,000 US troops died and another 103,284 were wounded. Thousands of troops are still classified as POWs or MIAs.

If we could push a button and end war on planet Earth we would no doubt do it. Such statistics as mentioned above are grim reminders that war is never a good response to disagreements and conflicts.  We must find far better ways to negotiate a just and lasting peace.

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone

Sam with Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

Sam with his friends Dr. Sadig Malki and Bernard van Maele at the DMZ.

At the end of the World Peace Summit in Seoul, my colleagues, Dr. Sadig Malki from Saudi Arabia, and Bernard van Maele from Belgium, and I grabbed a taxi from in front of the Seoul Renaissance Hotel and took off for the Korean Dimilitarized Zone (DMZ) some 50 kilometers to the north. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide.

The name “Demilitarized Zone” is actually an oxymoron. It is in reality one of the most heavily militarized strips of land in the world. Occasional skirmishes and shelling still take place.

The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953.

Our taxi attempted to drive directly to the Dora Observatory, but UN forces waved us away. We were told we had to go to a nearby location and transfer to a tour bus. The Dora Observatory is a large outpost overlooking the DMZ and North Korea. From the observatory, visitors can get an excellent view of the DMZ and North Korean towns and the mountains that lay beyond. This observation post was first opened to the public in January 1987.

Hundreds of South Koreans crowded around telescopes as they sought to get a glimpse of life in North Korea. Looking through a telescope, I didn’t see any sign of movement or life. I didn’t see any people walking around or any traffic on the streets.

It reminded me of my first visit to Berlin, Germany, in 1967. I was just 18 years old. I had walked along the Berlin Wall. On one side of the wall I saw the bustling businesses and tall skyscrapers of West Berlin. On the East Berlin communist side there was little evidence of economic growth or activity. It was as though I was peering into a time warp. Many buildings still lay in ruins from World War II.

Sam and friend take the tram through one of the access tunnels.

Sam and Korean friend Lee take the tram through one of the access channels to Tunnel Two.

DMZ invasion tunnels

At our first stop, Bernard, Sadig and I walked through a DMZ museum where we learned about the possibility of visiting a network of tunnels that had been dug by the North Korean military. We were told they are “invasion tunnels” that were meant to send infiltrating forces into South Korea.

According to one declassified intelligence report I read, it is believed that North Korea began digging the tunnels after then president Kim Il-sung issued the September 25, 1971, Combat Readiness Order.  In that directive, Kim stressed the need to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, saying that “one tunnel would be more effective than 10 atomic bombs” and would thus be the best means of overwhelming the heavily fortified South Korean army.

Tunnel One was discovered in November 1974 in the Western Sector of the DMZ near Gorang-po.  At an estimated length of 3.5 kilometers, it extends one kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides the DMZ. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel, 1.2 meters high and nearly a meter wide, are reinforced with concrete slabs.  It has the capacity to move an entire regiment through it. The tunnel was lit with lamps connected to 220-volt power lines.  Equipped with a narrow-gauge railway, rail cars and drainage devices were also found inside. This tunnel is located only 65 kilometers north of South Korea’s capital Seoul.

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Tunnel Two winds through several kilometers of granite rock beneath the surface of the DMZ.

Twice as wide as Tunnel One, Tunnel Two was discovered in March 1975 in the Central Sector of the DMZ, about 13 kilometers north of the town of Cheorwon.  Measuring two meters high and just over 2 meters wide, the arch-shaped tunnel is large enough to move heavy weapons like tanks, field artillery, and armored personnel carriers.  More than 30,000 troops per hour could be moved through the tunnel into the South.  It was bored through 3.5 kilometers of bedrock at a depth of 50-160 meters below ground. A spacious troop assembly area was carved out inside the tunnel. There were three exits from the assembly area leading to the surface.

Tunnel Four, which is located along one of the most strategic routes in the Eastern Sector, was discovered in March 1990 only 26 kilometers northeast of Yanggu.  This tunnel is buried at an average depth of 145 meters below ground and measures two meters high and two meters wide.

Almost identical with Tunnel Two and Tunnel Three in size and structure, Tunnel Four goes just over 1 kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line and is designed to infiltrate massive forces into the Sohwa-Wontong corridor, the major access route to the Yeongdong Expressway.

Down, down we go

Donning hard hats to prevent head injuries from hanging rocks, we boarded a small passenger tram, travelling some two kilometers and far beneath the surface into Tunnel 2. The tram had been built by South Korea to provide its citizens with a vivid account of the invasion tunnels that threatened the South.

The South Korean Defense Ministry still officially looks for tunnels as it believes there may be as many as 20 of these military corridors, but we are told the budget is small and tunnel hunters believe it is merely a token effort. As we move deeper beneath the DMZ a speaker system explains that North Korea has said the tunnels were not for invasion, but part of its “mining industry.”

North Korea officially declared Tunnel Two to be a coal mine. Comically black “coal” was painted on the walls by retreating North Korean soldiers to help prove this. There is no geological likelihood of coal being in the area, we’re told. “The walls are noticeably granite,” we’re told. “It is highly unlikely that coal would ever be found in such geological conditions.”

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An access channel built by the South Koreans as a conduit to North Korea’s Tunnel Four. This is the two-kilometer upgrade Sam faced when returning to the bus.

My great adventure—Tunnel Four!

We eventually surfaced from that tunnel, and I thought I was following Sadig and Bernard into an access channel leading to the much longer Tunnel Four.

Wondering how they had gotten so far ahead of me, I kept moving down the steep grade. There was no tram to ride in Tunnel Four. I kept on moving down, down the steep incline into the ground, walking about 2 kilometers. All the time I’m thinking, “Good grief! I’ll never make it back up this tunnel!”

Towards the end, I realized Bernard and Sadig were not ahead of me, and I was alone in this man-made cavern. I also realized there was no easy way out–not tram or elevator could be found. There I was some 120 meters beneath the middle of the DMZ! I eventually found myself peering through a hole in a door. There was a sign “Restricted Area!” That door, I was told later, led directly into North Korea!

I began walking back in the opposite direction, and after about 30 minutes I finally found my way back to that steep passage way leading to the exit. As I began moving slowly back up the steep two-kilometer incline, I heard a message blaring over the PA system: “Meester Sam. If you in tunnel back to bus! Go fast please! Bus leaving!”

I began running up that corridor, huffing and puffing and stopping now and then to lean on the rail to catch my breath. What a tremendous workout! I was wondering how many older men like me had died of heart-attacks alone down there!

When I finally made it out I was soaking wet from sweat. I practically crawled into the bus. Bernard and Sadig were relieved to see me while another 30 Korean tourists seemed a bit annoyed with an American who was holding up the bus. I apologized to all, bowing profusely. They in turn smiled kindly as Koreans do. And I thought to myself, “What an incredible adventure!”

DMZ–a wildlife refuge

Despite the posturing and the insults hurled across this narrow strip of land, the DMZ has become a haven for wildlife and plants in the region. “It’s kind of the irony of war,” said Hall Healy, chairman of the board of the International Crane Foundation, which has worked with researchers and locals near the DMZ on red-crowned crane conservation.

Species that have dwindled or disappeared in some parts of Asia have found refuge in the DMZ. Sightings of rare birds, such as red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, are not unusual. Black bears, musk deer, and Amur gorals—a goat relative that lives in the mountains—also inhabit this heavily fortified area.

No videoing of the invasion tunnels is permitted, and in places no photos are permitted. I did find the following short video of one of the invasion tunnels on YouTube. It accurately portrays what we saw:

Sources: History Magazine, wikipedia.org, Republic of South Korea Ministry of Tourism, US Department of Defense, historylearningsite.co.uk, korea.net

October 11, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My recent visit to the Slovak Republic

Spisska Sabota

The historic village of Spišská Sabota, Slovakia, located at the near the High Tatra Mountains National Park in northern Slovakia.

Family

Sam with Jana and Janulik in Spišská Sabota. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Time with my family

Jana, Janulik and I enjoyed a couple of weeks together in Spišská Sobota, Slovakia, near the High Tatras National Park which borders southern Poland.

It was a welcomed relief for me from the hot humidity of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our time together was wonderful, as we had not seen each other in more than a year. We enjoyed outings in the national park and visiting with family members in Košice and Poprad.

“Kenny” (our Schnauzer), Janulik and I enjoyed throwing the frisbee in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast lodging. Kenny is absolutely wild about chasing a frisbee. He never got tired of chasing his flying disc. Just mention the word, and he goes into a frenzy. He was constantly begging for his red frisbee, which he wore out while I was in Slovakia. He would sit beneath the rack holding the frisbee, whimpering and begging for it.

I have read that chasing and catching frisbees is an exciting and physically demanding activity that “tests a dog’s intelligence, fitness and endurance.” It is apparently a natural extension of a dog’s “prey drive,” and many hunting and working dogs, like Schnauzers, pick up the sport with very little effort. “Kenny” is one of them.

In additiona, “Kenny” is a great companion for Janulik. He faithfully walks Janulik four times everyday!

A lot of changes!

Spišská Sobota and the nearby city of Poprad have changed so much since I was first here as a teenager in 1968. The dark days of totalitarian communism have given way to bustling commercial centers of shopping malls, restaurants and hype-supermarkets. The old, gray, cold hotels and buildings are now painted vibrant, cheerful colors. Historic villages and castles are now busy with tourists wandering about. By night the streets are brightly lit with flashing LED signage.

Janulik and "Kenny" play frisbee!

Janulik and “Kenny” in their daily frisbee routine. It is a challenging workout for both of them!

Some changes here have been rather shocking–like the price of gasoline. It costs over 100 euros (US $126) to say “Fill ‘er up!” Cars are driven as infrequently as possible. While the rise in salaries here in Slovakia has slowly increased, the overall cost of living has mushroomed. But there is one bargain still available to tourists, if you have the right connections. We found a modern, well-equipped bed-and-breakfast for just $10.00 a night!

Our favorite time everyday, was to walk through this historic village where the bed-and-breakfast was located–Spišská Sobota. Especially, around dinner time!

There are a lot of not-too-expensive, excellent cafes and restaurants. You can have a nice meal in one place, and easily walk across the street to a bakery or coffee shop for a great dessert.

My favorite dessert, as my family knows, is makovnik. It’s a large rolled pastry filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. My father-in-law, Miloslav, presented me with two very large makovniks while I was there!

The Slovak King of Madagascar

As we were walking down the main street of the ancient town of Spišská Sobota I noticed a historic marker on one of the old houses. It read “Home of Zuzana Benyovska, wife of Count Maurice Benyovsky.” The dates pointed to the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then included Slovakia.

Loving history, I began to wonder, who was this married couple? As I began to ask questions, it didn’t take long to get my answer, as my Slovak family and friends were very proud to tell the story.

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky, the King of Madagascar!

Count Maurice Benyovsky was considered a great representative of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. He was a leading figure during the development of transportation and world trade.  He was an explorer of unknown regions, and a “Slovak-French colonel.” He would be known as the “King of Madagascar” and the first Slovak author of a best-selling travelogue, having been involved in the history of various nations.

After being captured while fighting for the independence of Poland, Benyovsky was deported by the Russians to the Siberian region of Kamchatka. There he organized his escape, commandeering a Russian sailing vessel. His voyage would take him to Macao. His was the first known voyage from the northeast to the southeast shores of Asia.

The King of France would eventually entrust him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he made friendships with the various warlords, uniting a major part of the island. Benyovsky, beloved by the local tribes, was conferred affectionately with the title of “king.”

Upon his return to France, he attempted to build a fleet of ships for overseas trade, but business was not his gift. Having failed at commerce, this man of adventure and travel never gave up.

While in France he had developed a close friendship with the US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin who in turn introduced Benyovsky to US General George Washington. Benyovsky became a general himself in the American revolutionary army. He fought in major sea battles during the American war for independence. In 1796 he would be killed in battle alongside the French. His travel memoirs were published in London in 1790.

Benovsky’s wife Zuzana later, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, returned to her home in Spišská Sobota.

Jana excited displays the tag from Sam's new suit  marked "Samuel."

Jana excitedly displays the tag from Sam’s new suit marked “Samuel.”

Slovak cuisine and the “miracle suit”

Slovakia is known for its excellent cuisine. Svíečková with potato dumplings (knedliky) is a one of my favorite Slovak dishes and one of the most popular Slovak meals. It is sirloin beef prepared with vegetables, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme and boiled with thick double cream. Pour that over the knedlíky, and you have a scrumptious meal fit for a king!

Being in Slovakia for just a couple of weeks, and knowing time was of the essence, I tended to eat as much as I could! But then, all of this delicious food presented a big problem. My business suit “shrank”!

Seeing I was having difficulty buttoning my suit, my wonderful Jana insisted on helping me find a new suit. We looked all over the nearby city of Poprad, going from one shopping mall to another, in and out of men’s apparel shops. Nothing fit me properly. Top too small. Pants too long. And there was no time for alterations. I told Jana, “It’s impossible to find a nice suit in Slovakia. Just forget it.”

But Jana never gave up. I got a phone call from her one morning. She was so excited. “You have to come try on this suit! It has your name on it! And it’s 50% off!”

She picked me up, and we were off to the Prior department store. That suit did, indeed, have my name on it! It bore the factory tag marked “Samuel.” Apparently this Slovak clothing factory assigns a name to every suit they make.

And, of course, when I tried it on that suit was a perfect fit!

Sad goodbyes

Goodbyes are always difficult. Jana and Janulik work and live in Slovakia. I am working in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t the best arrangement, but I hope to return to Slovakia in just 4 months. We spend time together, almost daily, on Skype and via the internet, sharing the latest news and asking questions. I hope to never be away so long from Slovakia again.

Jana, Janulik and “Kenny”!
The memories of you
Are engraved within my heart.
Nothing in this world
Can ever tear us apart! ~ Daddy

Here’s a great, short video showing the beauty and splendor of the Slovak Republic–a little nation of great faith, history and castles, high mountains, culture and very hospitable people. Take a few minutes to watch it!

Sources: BBC History Magazine, wikipedia.org, historyorb.com, slovakiopedia.com, youtube.com, discdogg.com

September 30, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Sea Coral Reefs–Amazing!

RS hi rez

The Red Sea’s colorful coral reefs are home to some of the world’s most amazing species of aquatic life.

Snorkeling south of Jeddah

Sam joined Saudi firends on a snorkeling trip along the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.) Sam joined Saudi friends on a snorkeling trip off the coast of the Red Sea south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Sam and Saudi friends at the Red Sea coral reefs south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of accompanying some Saudi friends on a snorkeling adventure into the Red Sea, about 90 kilometers south of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  My previous experience of exploring coral reefs had been in snorkeling around Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and scuba diving off the Gulf coasts of Belize and Mexico. However, what I witnessed beneath the waters of the Red Sea was equally incredible.

The Red Sea coral reefs are among the most beautiful of all the world’s marine habitats. This vast inlet of the Indian Ocean provides ideal conditions for corals and other countless forms of aquatic life. There are about 200 species of “stony corals” along the coast.

Most corals are reef builders. Each of these sea polyps builds a skeleton and the animal sits in a calcareous cup that it has secreted. The polyps are connected to each other by an extension of the body above the level of the skeleton. Thus the colony sits on the surface of the skeleton, feeding on algae and particles of food drifting along in the water.

The Red Sea coral reefs form an ecological environment in which creatures can take refuge from predators. Crustaceans, eels, starfish, turtles and thousands of varieties of fish–all benefit from this beautiful ecosystem. Fish that are found in these reefs include some very colorful species. One will find brilliant orange coral groupers, enormous gorgonian fan fish, moray eels and elaborate lionfish and majestic, swooping giant manta rays.  We even saw “Nemo” who was made famous by the film “Saving Nemo.”

In deeper waters there are such species as hammerhead sharks and barracudas and various varieties of jellyfishes which look attractive but can deliver their unpleasant stings.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Red Sea Hawksbill turtles are on the decline due to degradation of nesting habitats.

Jacques Cousteau and these coral reefs

I am told that Jacques Cousteau chose this celebrated Red Sea reef system to first introduce the world to undersea life, and by the same token it is not by chance that so many people become diving and snorkeling fanatics during their visits to Saudi Arabia.

The exceptional richness of marine life in the Red Sea is due to an unusual combination of environmental factors. First, the Red Sea is comparatively sheltered and calm: its currents are gentle and regular, its tides almost non-existent, and its temperature warm and steady. While its waters run quite deep, they are warmed by volcanic heat emanating from the sea bed. The result of all these factors is an environment ideally suited to the complex and delicate ecosystem of coral reefs.

Considering all the world’s most celebrated reef systems, these of the Red Sea stand out for their unusual wealth of specific kinds of marine life–most notably, coral itself. The sheer abundance of corals, many of exceptional size and color, makes diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea an experience of almost magical intensity.

Today, one-third of shallow water, reef-building species are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most endangered animal groups on the planet. These reefs are suffering from many environmental impacts, including the effects of climate change, pollution, over-fishing of animals that live on the reefs, and removal of the reefs for use as home décor objects and curio and aquarium trade.

Watch this video produced by Saudi Aramco to learn more about the wonders of the seas bordering both sides of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

 

Sources: Scuba Travel Guide, redsea-online.com, wikipedia.com, youtube.com, Red Sea Reef Guide, Saudi Aramco

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amsterdam and Paris on my mind

Sam's reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Sam’s reflection in the window of the Thalys high-speed train he took from The Netherlands to France.

Always enjoyed seeing the world

As a high school student at Bob Jones Academy and later as a student at Shelton College, I had worked in Europe for four summers with the Evangelical Reformed Church and other Christian groups. So it was at the age of 18 I found myself bagging groceries, waiting tables in restaurants and scrubbing dormitory toilets in what would be an ongoing effort at getting airline tickets to Europe. As a young student of history, at the end of each summer of work I would take off on my own–travelling to see different parts of Europe. I got around by a Eurail Pass for trains or just hitchhiking on the German autobahns.

I have, on occasion through the years, returned to Europe, and it has been interesting to see changes gradually taking place throughout—especially Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

Now I was invited by a businessman from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to accompany him on a brief 8-day business trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and I got to have some time off in both cities to explore sights I had first seen some 48 years ago!

Amsterdam canal

Sam stands over one of Amsterdam’s many canals. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

A few days in The Netherlands

Amsterdam is considered the “greatest planned city of northern Europe.” It has always been a well-known name in world history and played a central role in the history of the Netherlands. In the 17th century Amsterdam was the center of world economy, and nowadays the city is known for its more tolerant character.

The period 1813-1940 is marked by economic recovery and, from 1870 onwards, by expansion. The increasing wealth brought about a rapid population growth. This development was primarily the result of the Industrial Revolution which triggered off a New Golden Age. The city now ventured into the area beyond the Singelgracht. Large poorly built working-class neighbourhoods were built. The period 1920-1940 was a time of economic recession. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that the so-called Ring 20-40 compares favourably to the 19th century jerry-building. This was also the period of large-scale damage to the historical city centre; canals were filled in and new traffic breakthroughs were realised.

After concluding business in the Netherlands, I boarded the hi-speed Thalys train from The Netherlands to Paris, France. The train ride, at nearly 300 kilometers per hour, would take a mere two-and-a-half hours compared to the 10 hours it used to take to get from Amsterdam to Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Sam stood behind Notre Dame Cathedral some 48 years after he first visited Paris!

Vive la France!

The history of ParisFrance, spans more than 10,000 years! During that time the city grew from a small mesolithic settlement to the France’s largest city and capital. Through the centuries Paris developed into a center of government, art, medicine, science, fashion, tourism, high culture and high finance, becoming one of the world’s most influential global cities.

Today, Paris is one of the major capitals of the world.  While many world capitals feed off the energy of modernity, Paris is loved because it represents an escape from it. So when most people visit the city, their agenda involves visiting monuments like the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral. The “baby” of this grand group  is the Eiffel Tower, built in 1887.

Certainly, no visit to the “City of Lights” can be completed without visiting the Eiffel Tower time and time again. It was constructed as the focal point of the 1889 Paris Exhibition which highlighted the science and engineering achievements of the 19th century. Soaring 300m / 984 ft. (320.75m / 1,052 ft. including antenna) and weighing 7000 tons, the structure consists of two visibly distinct parts: a base composed of a platform resting on four separate supports (called pylons or bents) and, above this, a slender tower created by the latticework tapering upward.

It was almost torn down in 1909 at the expiration of its 20-year lease, but was saved because of its antenna — used for telegraphy at that time. Beginning in 1910 it became part of the International Time Service. French radio (since 1918), and French television (since 1957) have also made use of its stature. In the 1960s, it was the subject of a wonderful study by semiologist Roland Barthes. This unprecedented work, the tallest structure in the world until the Empire State Building was built about 40 years later.  It has earned its right as a major symbol of Paris. (For a tour of the Eiffel Tower watch the video at the end of this post.)

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade ("le Parvis"), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area's tallest high-rises.

Around its Grande Arche and esplanade (“le Parvis”), La Défense contains many of the Paris urban area’s tallest high-rises.

Contemporary Paris

Paris might very well be one of the most well-preserved cities in the world – but it still has a lot of contemporary ‘features’ to offer. This comes in the form of hip and modern buildings, museums and other architectural wonders which will give you an idea about what contemporary Paris is all about.

The prime example of contemporary Prisian architecture is La Défense.  It is actually considered as an urban project for the 20th century which is made up of 30 high-rise towers standing in a vast square.  If you’re in the mood to seeing a film at one an IMAX theater which has one of the biggest screens in the world, this is definitely the place for you.,

Among the more notable modern buildings of La Défense is the famed square, hollow Grande Arche. La Defense is also home to Pompidou Center’s Piano and Rogers Building, considered one of the emblematic buildings of the 20th Century. Sometimes compared by critics to an oil refinery, the building which houses modern art was the subject of huge controversy throughout the 1970s, but now has won the hearts of Parisians.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to visit these nations once again. Enjoy this video history and tour of Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower.

Sources: Paris by Day, A Short History of Paris, wikipedia.com, simplyparis.org, centrepompidou.fr

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Geography, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Saudi Arabian falconry–an amazing UN World Heritage Sport

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Falconry has a long history stretching from ancient Mongolia to Europe and the Middle East.

Sam is introduced to "Sushan," a Bedouin hunting falcon.

Sam is introduced to “Shuja,” a Bedouin hunting falcon.

“Shuja” pays me a visit

Abdulla Al Ghamdi and two of my Saudi Bedouin military friends, brothers Majed and Fahad Olayan, dropped by my office a couple of days ago for a surprise visit with their Saker falcon “Shuja” (Arabic for courageous or brave).  “Shuja” is being trained for hunting rabbits in the nearby deserts.

The falcon, among birds known as “raptors” or “birds of prey,” has amazingly acute vision and can identify prey at a distance of several kilometres. It can fly at speeds of over 100 km per hour, approaching 200 km per hour during dives.

The art of falconry is a big deal here in Saudi Arabia, with well-trained birds selling for thousands of dollars.

Hunting with birds of prey

Falconry has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years by many cultures.  Some specialists place falconry’s origins somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the plains of Mongolia. Other historians believe that the practice could be much older, with its beginnings in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly here on the Arabian Peninsula.

Wherever it began, falconry, which was originally used for subsistence and not sport, was well established in both Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, and gradually made its way westward to Greece, Italy and eventually to Medieval Europe.

European falconry

Beginning in the early 6th century and extending through the Middle Ages, the popularity of falconry (or “hawking”) surged in Europe. It was the sport of royalty for centuries. The possession of falcons and other birds of prey was considered a status symbol.

And talking about regulation, get this! By the 17th century in England, falconry came to be governed by a strict set of customs called the Laws of Ownership, which dictated the birds of prey that were permitted to be flown by citizens of various social ranks. For example, a king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke, a rock falcon; an earl, a peregrine; a yeoman, a goshawk; and a servant, a kestrel.

During the reign of Edward III, 1327-77, stealing a trained raptor was punishable by death.

Falconry is believed by many to have been a part of Arabian Bedouin life for thousands of years. These ancient birds of prey are still used for hunting rabbits and desert quail.

Saudi falconry today

Once the pastime of the rich, falconry now continues as a highly structured sport that demands a lot of time and serious commitment. For some Bedouins it remains a primary method of hunting rabbits and other desert animals.

Saudi birds are generally bred in captivity and when hunting, often have a small radio transmitter attached under the tail for tracking.

Training a falcon is time-consuming and requires enormous patience since the falconer must carry the bird on his arm for several hours each day. That might be possible for the Bedouin, but try fitting that into a regular 21st century work schedule!

The falcon hunting season here in Saudi Arabia is from October to March. The two most popular falcons are the Saker and the Peregrine. The Saker is valued both for its outstanding beauty and for its ability to withstand adverse weather conditions. Because the Saker completes its annual moult early, it can start hunting in October, while the Peregrine may not have sufficient feathers until January.

Nothing compares to God’s falcon

In the Old Testament (Torah) book of Job there is a reference to the keen sight of this wondrous raptor, “No bird of prey knows that hidden path, no falcon’s eye has seen it.”

The celebrated 13th-century Persian Muslim poet, in his work “Mathnawi,” wrote, “The falcon made the king’s hand his joy, and became indifferent to the search for carrion. All animals from the gnat to the elephant are of the family of God and depend on Him for sustenance. What a sustainer is God!”

The motion picture industry has championed films like The Maltese Falcon and Day of the Falcon. And in America we have our Atlanta Falcons football team. Oregon has it’s Falcon Cove. The US Air Force has its Falcon F-16 and Raptor F-22 fighter jets. But certainly no man-made imaginary compares to God’s incredible creation of this eagle-eyed, warp-speed hunter of the Arabian Peninsula.

The United Nations has proclaimed falconry a World Heritage Sport. Watch this short video I found on YouTube about this popular Saudi sport:

November 13, 2012 Posted by | Animal Rights, Arabian Desert, Geography, Jeddah History, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sam’s adopted Arabian camels!

Sam has been a lover of camels since he was a child. He enjoys visiting his camel friends here in Saudi Arabia.

Samuel Shropshire has been a lover of camels since he was a child. He enjoys visiting his camel friends here in Saudi Arabia.

Updated 6 June 2015… 

Sam with his adopted camel "Leila" in the Arabian desert near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sam with his adopted camel “Leila” in the Arabian desert near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

My adopted friends!

When my Saudi friend, Ra’id Baty, heard that I was interested in camels, he invited me to go to his family’s farm, about 30 miles outside Jeddah. I’ve always been interested in legends and stories about camels—as told in the Bible or in historical narratives about Marco Polo and the famous Silk Road. When I was a child, my mother would read to me from The Adventures of Marco Polo.  I remember being enamored by the colorful pictures of camel caravans. I began collecting camel toys and figures–big and small, plastic, wooden, leather, etc.

Camel facts–“ships of the desert”

   The camel has a single hump;
     The dromedary, two.
   Or else, the other way around.
     I’m never sure. Are you?    (“The Camel” by Ogden Nash)

Well, it is the other way round! There are two kinds of camels: (1) the Arabian camel, also called dromedary, which has one hump, and (2) the Bactrian camel, which has two humps. In the past, hybrids (crossbreeds) of the two species were used widely in Asia. These hybrid camels had one extra-long hump and were larger and stronger than either of their parents.

Camels have been domesticated for thousands of years. The dromedaries may once have lived wild in Arabia, but none of them live in the wild today. There are several million Arabian camels, and today most of them live with the desert people of Africa and Asia. A well-bred Arabian can sell for millions of dollars! Known as “the ship of the desert,” the camel has in past centuries caravanned heavy burdens for thousands of miles along African and Asian trade routes. You can easily argue that international trade was founded on the backs of camels.

Number one “green animal”

Sam with camels in South Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sam with camels in South Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo / John Elliot)

The Qur’an asks Muslims to consider the camel as symbolic of God’s wonders in creation. Surah (chapter) 88, verse 17 says, “Do they not look at camels and how they are made?” Yes, God indeed came up with an incredible design for the camel! It’s a marvelous creature. It is the foremost “green animal” in the world. It recycles practically all its liquids in a very unique fashion.

The camel’s nostrils are designed to trap large amounts of water vapor as it exhales—returning the water to its body fluids. Its kidneys have a remarkable ability to recycle water. When it urinates, it produces a thick syrupy material which is said to have homeopathic abilities. (Now think of that the next time you pay $10 for a tiny tube of triple-antibiotic ointment! Maybe there’s a market for camel urine?)

When this beast of burden defecates, its dung is dry! It can be used for building fires, cooking and keeping warm, very much like those Duraflame fire logs we use in our fireplaces! And the camel’s milk is not only nutritious, it is also said to have curative powers. Its red blood cells are not designed as other mammals. They are oval, not round, and thus they are able to swell, and not burst, when the camel takes in large amounts of water.

A full-grown camel can drink 35 to 40 gallons of water at a time and not need to drink again for months. Its hump doesn’t store water (a common myth), but it contains nutritiously rich, fatty deposits. Because this fat is concentrated in the hump it shields the camel’s body from the desert sun. For camels, everything is adapted for life in the desert. Their feet are broadened to walk on sand. The huge feet of camels help them to walk on sand without sinking into it. A camel’s foot can be as big as a large plate.The camel’s long legs also prevent the animal’s main torso from being terribly affected by the reflected heat of the desert sands.

Muhammad and the “crying camel”

Islam, contrary to the beliefs of some, is a religion that greatly respects life in all its forms. The prophet Muhammad told his companions many stories encouraging kindness to animals. He spoke kind-heartedly about camels as “God’s beings.” He taught that camels, along with all animals, must be treated with gentleness and care. (In Islam, this respect for life, extends to plants as well:  “Even looking after plants and trees is an act of virtue.”)

We should note that King Solomon in the Old Testament Proverbs expressed similarly, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). Muhammad is said to have voiced his concern for a “crying camel.” According to Anas bin Malik, one of Muhammad’s close companions, the prophet came across a camel tied to a post. The animal looked desperately malnourished. As Muhammad approached, the camel began to speak to the prophet. Sobbing, the camel complained, “My master overburdens me. I’m never given sufficient food or water. When I am weak and barely able to walk, he beats me. I can hardly bear this difficult life.”

It’s told that Muhammad searched out the owner, and exhorted him, “Don’t you fear God because of your poor treatment of this camel?” The prophet explained that God had given the camel into the man’s care, and he had a duty to treat the camel well. Humbly the owner accepted Muhammad’s rebuke and immediately repented, declaring loudly before all who were present, “I have done wrong.” He promised the prophet that he would extend greater care to all his camels.

Fresh camel milk is soon coming to a store near you!

Camelicious milk is already at local supermarkets here. Exporting is now underway to nearby countries and several  European markets.

Fresh camel’s milk is already being mass produced at the Camelicious camel farm in Dubai. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has invested significantly to make sure all Arabian people have access to quality camel milk.

Creamy and nutritionally rich, camel milk has been a common sight on the shelves of UAE supermarkets since 2006, and it’s now being exported. It is said to be higher in protein, potassium, iron and vitamin C than cow’s milk, yet it contains just half the fat and less than half the cholesterol. It’s also said to be low in lactose. According to Dr. Nisar A. Wani, the head of reproductive biology at Dubai’s state-run Camel Reproduction Centre, camel milk can boost immunity.

Thanks to the camel’s “nanobodies” (antibodies unique to camels), it’s a virtual healing center on hoofs. Wani has great hopes for the future. He envisions genetically modified camels as “walking pharmacies” serving up milk that can be used both to prevent and treat health problems such as gastric ulcers, arthritis and blood-related ailments. Camel milk is now available in strawberry, chocolate, date and saffron flavors. But why stop at milk? Al Nassma is a Dubai-based company that makes camel-milk chocolates, and Starbucks coffee shops here on the Arabian peninsula have already included camel milk in their beverage lineup.

In Dubai you are greeted by the local Starbucks’ staff, “Have you tried our new camel-chino?” And, be sure, they come in short, tall, grande or venti sizes! Here’s a short video about camels! A Saudi businessman talks about his herd:

May 21, 2012 Posted by | Animal Rights, Arabian Desert, Geography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments