Today’s Chaos in Nepal Episode 2 – Politics and Blockade

Oct 14 –  The blockade continues and yesterday there was yet another earthquake aftershock.  My Buddhist classes cannot now be held in seclusion at the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated before bringing Buddhism to Tibet because no cooking gas is left out there.

What is the blockade about?  The Constitution reverses a commitment made when the Hindu monarchy fell.  Electoral districts in the new secular, democratic republic were to be based on population.  Close to half of Nepalis, the Madhesi, who live in the south (the Tarai) where most of Nepal’s food is grown had never been represented.  The Tarai was operated like a colony.  And hill people who, like Doma’s family, are not Hindu were also always marginalized.

The Constitution set by men in the high caste minority who are determined to remain in control defines electoral districts not by population but geography.  They gerrymandered the districts to include enough territory north of the Tarai so all but Province 2 will have enough high caste voters.

Nepal Electoral Districts

The Madhesi began protesting when rumors about the broken commitment emerged.  Their protests turned violent when the Constitution was published.  They began blockading trucks that bring fuel and other essentials from India.

Nepal’s politicians promptly blamed India.  All Nepal’s fuel comes from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and they are filling only a small percentage of Nepal’s tankers.  The IOC must be acting on orders from the Indian government but its officials say truck drivers just decided it’s too dangerous to cross the border until Nepal’s politicians subdue the protesters.

Why would India do that?  Partly because they believe Nepal’s marginalized people should be granted equal rights.  More pragmatically because if Nepal suppresses the protests by force, the country could be destabilized and China’s influence on Nepal greatly increased.

The Nepali politicians’ appeal to patriotism – India is threatening our sovereignty! – is proving quite effective, especially in the Kathmandu Valley where there is a long history of prejudice against Indians.  Diverting the blame enables them to focus on jousting for position in the new government.

The “gentleman’s agreement” among leaders of the three big parties to form a coalition government broke down when the leader of the India-friendly traditional party began campaigning for a government of his own party led by him.  The two China-friendly, nominally Communist parties made a new deal resulting in one of them being elected Prime Minister.

In the absence of a government that can act on the blockade, only 10% of the usual supply of gasoline is coming in.  These people were told they could buy 5 liters today.  They queued overnight and into this afternoon.  It looks like they will get none.

Empty Kathmandu Street

That street is usually jammed with vehicles.  Now, motorbikes are lined three deep along the roadside as far as the eye can see.  The white taxi almost hidden behind the pedestrian walking down the road must have queued for hours to get ten liters.  There are no buses to be seen.

So why do I love it here?  Nothing works dependably, it’s poor, dirty, crazy crowded and corrupt.

Doma’s mom’s Tibetan astrology calendar says I have much in common with my long deceased mom. Life was hard for us with very little money when I was a kid in England right after WW2. My mom made our life happy, though, in that tiny remote house with no water, electricity or gas. The cheerfulness of people here in face of constant difficulty must remind me of how she made that time happy.

Classes start tomorrow.  Even the less intense schedule and environment we’ll have instead of 6 am to 9 pm in the sacred cave will be transformative.  And I’m ready!

Today’s Chaos in Nepal – Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.


Beyond the Media Hype: Egypt

Egypt is on the Mediterranean and Red Seas with the Suez canal connecting the two.  It borders Libya in the west, the Gaza Strip and Israel in the east and Sudan in the south.  It is about the size of Texas plus New Mexico.

Most of Egypt is desert, about two thirds of it part of the sandy and extremely harsh Libyan desert.   A more mountainous desert extends from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea.  The Sinai Peninsula east of that is also desert.  The only agricultural land is in the Nile Valley and Nile Delta.

Egypt Detail Map

The Nile runs about 500 miles to its delta from the Aswan Dam near the Sudan border.  The dam was built in the 1960s to control flooding, provide irrigation and generate electricity.  The annual Nile floods used to wash away crops in high-water years and failed to support them in low-water ones.

The great majority of Egypt’s 88 million people, over half of whom are under 20 years old and 91% of whom are ethnic Egyptians, live near the banks of the Nile, about half of them in urban areas, mostly Cairo, Alexandria and other major Nile Delta cities.  The entire Nile Valley and Nile Delta account for about 5.5% of Egypt’s land, and since much of that delta is marshland, 98% of the population lives on only 3% of Egypt’s entire territory.

Egypt Population Density

An estimated 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, 9% Coptic Christian and 1% other Christian denominations.  An estimated two thirds of the Muslims are Sunni, 13% are non-denominational, 17% are Egyptian-Sufi, and 3% are Shia.  Over 90% of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Egypt’s known history begins twelve thousand years ago with a grain-grinding culture.  When climate changes or overgrazing a couple of thousand years later began to turn the land to desert, the people moved to the Nile Valley.  Some of the earliest developments in writing, agriculture, urbanization, organized religion and central government were made there where a unified kingdom was founded five thousand years later and a distinctively Egyptian religious and artistic culture began to flourish.  Many of the great pyramids were built in that time.

Christianity arrived in Egypt three thousand years later as its native civilization was fading, then it was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 639–42. They ruled Egypt for the next six centuries and were followed in 1250 by Mamluks, a military caste of Turkic slaves brought by Muslim rulers to Iraq in the 9th century.   Although the Mamluk regime was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1517, they continued to rule semi-autonomously until France invaded in 1798.  When they were driven out in 1805, an Ottoman military commander took over.  His dynasty ruled until 1952 although they were by then British puppets.

Eight hundred years of benign, oppressive or behind the scenes military rule explains much about Egypt today, along with the results of several hundred years of rule by colonial powers, persistent social injustice and now, a very high percentage of under twenty year-olds.

Egypt’s debt to European banks from its partnership with France to complete the Suez Canal in 1869 was so great that it was soon forced to sell its share to Britain.  Expecting great benefit since the canal cut 4,300 miles off the sea distance between Europe and South Asia, Egypt instead got British and French controllers in its cabinet.

When the Ottomans allied with Germany in WW1, Britain replaced Egypt’s anti-British ruler and declared it a Protectorate.  The country rose in revolt after the war when Britain exiled leaders of the nationalist movement that won the first election.  Britain declared Egypt’s independence in 1922 but retained control and maintained a military presence until 1956.

Opposition to British rule led in 1928 to formation of the Muslim Brotherhood which focused first on education and charity but soon became a political force, too, advocating for the disenfranchised, modernization of Islam, and Egyptian nationalism.  During WW2 the Brotherhood sabotaged British forces in Egypt and supported terrorism in British Palestine.  In 1945, educated, lower middle class army officers established a secret Free Officers Movement within the Brotherhood.  In 1948, the Prime Minister outlawed it and was assassinated by one of its members.

In 1950, Gamal Nasser was chosen to head the still secret Free Officers Movement and began preparing to end British influence once and for all.  The military coup d’etat he organized in 1952 was quite peaceful, the Egyptian Republic was declared the following year and he became President in 1956.  Although the revolution was supported by the Brotherhood, they were given no role in the government.  When a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Nasser during his 1954 speech celebrating the upcoming British military withdrawal, his response from the podium: “My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor” made him a hero.  He abolished the Brotherhood and imprisoned thousands of its members.

Nasser went on to became leader not only of Egypt but of many Arabs everywhere.  He promoted political unification of all Arabs.  All foreign powers would be expelled and Arabs would govern themselves via Arab Socialism, which meant not Communism but eliminating the exploitation of one group of citizens by another.

Nasser’s policy toward the Great Powers was neutral and wary.  He saw it as a continuation of British influence when in 1955 Britain, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, encouraged by the US, formed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) to counter Russian expansion.  After Israel attacked the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip the same year and Egypt’s forces were too weak to respond, he made an arms deal with Czechoslovakia.  The US had stopped supplying arms because Egypt was neutral toward the USSR.

In 1956, when the US withdrew funding for the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.  France, Britain, and Israel invaded but US President Eisenhower forced them to withdraw.  Nasser later got funding for the dam from Russia.  He established a Constitution that enabled women to vote and prohibited gender-based discrimination.  By the end of the next year he had nationalized all British and French assets as well as other businesses, in total one third of the overall economy.

Pan-Arabism was by this time supported throughout the Arab world and Nasser seemed able to bring it about.  He opposed communism but the US saw pan-Arabism as a threat, too, and tried to build up King Saud as a counterweight.  When Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic in 1958, absorbed the Gaza Strip and aligned with North Yemen, King Saud’s plan to have Nasser assassinated became instead a triumph when he waved the Saudi check for shooting down his plane to cheering masses in Syria’s capital.

In 1961, Nasser helped establish, along with Burma, Ghana, India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries opposed to the Cold War.  It now has 120 members.  The same year he made Egypt’s leading Sunni institution authorize coeducational schools and declare Shia, Alawaite and Druze no longer heretical.

When civil war broke out in North Yemen in 1962 after a republic was declared, Jordan and Saudi Arabia supplied military aid to the royalists.  Nasser supplied troops and weapons to the republican side hoping to go on and expel British forces from South Yemen.  The war ended in 1970 in stalemate.

Also in 1962 Nasser introduced another new constitution along with a National Charter that included free universal health care, affordable housing, free education, more women’s rights, a minimum wage, and land reforms that gave tenant farmers security.  Government ownership of Egyptian business increased to 51%.  The economy came close to collapse by the end of the 1960s.

When Russia told him in 1967 that Israel was about to attack Syria, Nasser deployed troops near Israel’s border, expelled UN peacekeepers and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea saying, “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”  King Hussein, fearing that Israel would seize the West bank, committed Jordan to join Egypt and Syria.  Israel quickly captured Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Russia then resupplied about half of Egypt’s arms and Nasser cut relations with the US.

When Nasser died in 1970 he was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who realigned Egypt from Russia to the United States and launched economic reform.  Nasser had suppressed Muslim movements but Sadat hoped to win their support.  He freed Muslim Brothers from jail but left the Brotherhood outlawed.  Allied with Syria, he launched an attack in 1973 to regain part of the Sinai Israel had captured.  That later enabled him to regain all Egypt’s Sinai territory in return for peace with Israel, but after signing a 1979 peace agreement with Israel, he was considered an enemy of Muslims and was assassinated in 1981 by a Muslim extremist.

Hosni Mubarek, an air force commander during the 1973 war, was elected next.  He was subsequently elected to three more 6-year terms (but was the only candidate in the first two).  Despite mass arrests the Muslim Brotherhood continued to push for more democracy and against Western erosion of Islamic culture, and they continued to gain support, mainly because of their social services.

In 1989, the USA designated Egypt a major non-NATO ally.  In 1991, Mubarak began privatizing the economy and passing severe freedom-inhibiting laws.  The economy flourished but terrorist attacks increased, too, and parliament had almost no role by the late 1990s.  In 2005, although Brotherhood candidates could run only as independents, they won 20% of the parliamentary seats.  Two years later, independent candidates were banned and thousands of Brotherhood members were arrested.  The Brotherhood boycotted the 2008 election and in 2010 there were more massive arrests and all but one of their candidates lost.

Mubarak ruled Egypt for over thirty years and intended his son to succeed him but widespread protests forced him to resign in 2011.  The Egyptian military then reemerged and took over.  They legalized the Brotherhood and held an election.  The Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party won almost half the seats and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president.

Morsi granted himself unlimited powers and proposed what opponents said was an Islamist constitution, then twenty to thirty million protesters took to the streets.  The military stepped back in, removed him and re-outlawed the Brotherhood.  The US withdrew military aid to protest the abuse of democracy.  Morsi was charged with crimes that include inciting jihad in collaboration with Hezbollah and Hamas.  The head of the military, el-Sisi was elected president in early 2014.  Today Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killing of demonstrators in 2012.  Last year, the UN condemned the sentencing to death of 1,200 people in mass trials “rife with procedural irregularities.”

On April 1, 2015 (sic) the US restored $1.3B of military aid to Egypt, our second largest total after Israel.  In September 2014, Russia had agreed to a $3.5B arms deal with Egypt and a few months later Egypt had facilitated a Russian arms deal with Libya.

Escalating the Middle East arms race will not end well.  Egypt’s relations with Iran are strained by Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, its relations with Turkey are strained by Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is militarily active in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and Iran are amplifying an age-old local conflict being exploited by Al Queda.

Meanwhile, Egypt is riven internally by the conflicting aims of Muslim Brothers, Coptic Christians, secularist and military leaders.  And there are no jobs for 39% of the under twenty year-old half of Egypt’s population.

Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

Depression: Bodily Illness

This is the final post built on Facebook comments when I came Out of the Closet to admit that I have lived through debilitating episodes of mental illness.

Sara wrote: “We speak as though mental illness is one thing, not many; not even depression is a single entity – and the same treatment certainly doesn’t work equally for even those with very similar symptoms.

“Also, mental illness is a full-body phenomenon and experience.  We know this, but we don’t really think or talk about it this way.”

The Age of Enlightenment left us believing our intellect to be in some sense separate from our body.  We have only recently had tools to examine how our brains work and we have barely begun to question our belief that the brain operates in isolation from other parts of our bodily system.

Liz pointed to an excellent article about how Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut.  Another friend who recommended The Emperor’s New Drugs convinced me that the antidepressant medication I credit with removing my symptoms did not do so in the way we imagine.

How could it not be true that our brains and guts are part of an overall system that governs our physical/mental health?  We just don’t yet know much yet about how it works.

Susan wrote: “I experienced severe depression after/as a result of cancer and its treatment 5 years ago.

“Anti-depressants for 9 months and encouragement from my insurer (!) to see a therapist, talking with him over the following three years, have helped enormously.  

“Every day is still a challenge, but I am also so very grateful for every day.”

We need to know more than that cancer makes us miserable.  We need to understand the mechanism.  Diagnosing and treating mental illness is still quite haphazard, especially because, as Sara points out, depression is not a single entity.

And even the existence of mental illness is often unrecognized.

Kelly wrote:  “Depression is very common among people with chronic illnesses, and often goes untreated.  I’ve always just assumed it was part of being ill, and tried to deal with it on my own.  

“Thank you for this post, Martin.  Along with the many comments, it has inspired me to talk to my doctor about treatment.”

Physical pain is almost certainly not the only thing someone with chronic or long-lasting illness is suffering.  They are most likely also depressed.  And the tragedy is, even if they recognize their depression, they will probably not seek treatment.

When we’re in a depressive episode we do not seek treatment because we feel it is the appropriate response to our situation.

When we get a respite from the physical pain, we don’t recognize that we should seek treatment for next time because we’re so relieved to be feeling better.

My depressive episodes were triggered by other situations, not physical pain, but the same dynamic applied.  I know from the same fundamental experience how unlikely it is that Kelly will in fact talk with her doctor about treatment for depression.

There are many stories of Buddhist masters who are impervious to pain.  One of my teachers whose serenity is truly amazing suffered an extremely painful illness last year.  “I thought I should be able to ignore the pain” he said, “but I soon discovered it was impossible, so I accepted the doctor’s recommendation and took the pain medicine.”

Pain is a call to action.  We must not ignore that call.

Both the source of pain and pain itself can be treated.  We don’t have to work on only one aspect of our illness.  It may take experimentation to find an effective treatment, and the same one may not continue to be effective.  We don’t consider that a reason not to seek treatment for physical illness.

So, if you know someone with chronic or long-lasting pain, please help them overcome their reluctance to seek treatment for every part of their suffering.

Beyond the Media Hype: Arms Exports

Most of us think beheading is barbaric and are horrified by 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for a website advocating free speech.  We abhor child marriages and are appalled that women anywhere should need permission even to travel from a male guardian.

Sweden’s foreign minister recently denounced those policies and acts by Saudi Arabia as extreme violations of human decency.

She went on to say it would be wrong for Sweden to continue military cooperation with such a regime.  European Union countries had after all in 2008 established a Common Position on arms exports making “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition.

The Saudi regime’s response was to withdrew its ambassador and stop issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.  Its allies condemned Sweden’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’  The United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassador, too.

How would the Swedish government respond?  Sweden sold more than half a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014 and the Saudi regime is expected to buy 52% more arms this year than last.  Would Sweden give up such a huge opportunity?

And the impact could be much broader than Sweden’s arms exporters alone.  Denmark was hit with a major international boycott when a Danish newspaper published Muhammed cartoons in 2005.

Lobbying by Sweden’s business leaders began immediately.  Thirty chief executives signed an open letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.’

Sweden’s king called the foreign minister to his palace and told her to back off.  The Constitution grants him no power, but…

And the Saudi regime positioned the minister’s denunciation of their human rights abuses as anti-Muslim hatred.

It looked like business priorities would trump human decency.  But, after no doubt agonized debate, the Swedish government announced the cancellation of its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And a couple of weeks later Saudi Arabian media published a fabricated apology by Sweden along with the news that its ambassador would return.

This is a heartening story for anyone who thinks beheading and so forth is barbaric.  But it was little reported in Europe and almost not at all here.  So we must also note a couple of other things.

First, our US government supports the Saudi regime not just because we want their oil but because since we destroyed Iraq, it alone balances Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Middle East Map

Americans fear Iran.  We do not remember overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 and replacing it with the Shah’s dictatorship.  All we remember is the theocratic regime that overthrew our friend the Shah holding our Embassy staff hostage.  We imagine an Iran that we have always treated well but which is our mortal enemy for religious reasons.  And our ally Israel considers Iran an existential threat because it supports its Shia fellows, Hezbollah and Hamas, working for the Palestinian State that Israel’s newly re-elected leader declared he will resist to the end.

Second, Sweden’s admirable decision removes a competitor for Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases.

Arms Exporters

This March 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report notes that we delivered major weapons to at least 94 countries in 2010-14.

The world’s largest importer, India, increased its purchases by 140% from 2005-2009, chiefly from Russia.  The second largest, Saudi Arabia, increased its purchases  by 400%, supplied chiefly by the UK (36%) and the USA (35%).Arms ImportersWe delivered $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and their Iran-facing neighbor United Arab Emirates last year, up from $6 billion the previous year.

A growing share of big fast-growing markets is what every business leader wants.

The Swedish government decided human rights trump what arms business leaders want.  My government is sticking with the opposite decision.

Beyond the Media Hype: Palestine

Why is it harder to “understand” Palestine than Lebanon or other Middle East states?  Because Palestine lacks the conceptual framework of statehood.  It does not even exist on this map of Middle Eastern states that aims to illustrate the incoherence of our current alliances.

The map’s precise borders suggest stability, too.  Although Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are sunk in civil war, they seem to be unified like currently stable Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Middle East Alliances

Previous posts in this series have begun to illuminate the deep conflict between long-powerful Iran and recently-wealthy Saudi Arabia, why Yemen has become a proxy in their rivalry, and how Jordan, Lebanon and Syria became independent states.  Now we can explore why Palestine did not become one and start to think holistically about what is driving Middle Eastern conflicts.

The region between Egypt, Syria and Arabia known for thousands of years as Palestine was among the world’s first settled agricultural communities.  It is a crossroads for commerce, cultures and religions, the place where Judaism and Christianity were born.  Controlled over the centuries from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Britain and more, its boundaries changed constantly.

Today’s Palestine is part of what was Greater Syria under Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.  That Syria was the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and the Arabian Desert to southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains.  When the Ottomans got control by conquering Egypt in 1517, they subdivided it into administrative districts, some of which correspond to today’s states.

When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of WW1, the League of Nations granted Britain and France Mandates over the region.  Those Mandates placed former German and Turkish colonies under the “tutelage” of Britain and France “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Note:  If that sounds patronizing, it is worth noting that it is what we are currently trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having secretly agreed during WW1 how they would divide it between them, Britain and France established states in their mandated territories.  That was when Lebanon and Syria became separate nations.  Britain divided its territory into Palestine and Transjordan, which later became Jordan.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

Europe’s concept of nation states had come to the Arab world late in the 19th century.  It gave rise everywhere to a growing rejection of colonialism and in Greater Syria to the theory of a pluralistic Syrian nationality that supported multiple religions: Sunni and Shia, Christian and Jewish.

The idea of an independent Palestine within Greater Syria arose when Britain established Mandatory Palestine with a modern nation-state boundary.  The desire for that independence greatly increased as a result of fast growing Zionist immigration into what is now Israel.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded in 1964 to liberate Palestine by armed struggle was secularist then like Greater Syria even though about 90% of Palestinians are Sunni.

Islam only became significant in Palestinian politics with the 1980s rise of the Hamas offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928 as a religious, political, and social movement.

But let’s take a step back.  How did Ottoman Greater Syria become home to diverse people and religions, and what is the specific history of today’s Palestinian State?

The Roman Empire began converting to Christianity when it was reunified by emperor Constantine.  His mother brought Christianity to Jerusalem in 326 and Palestine grew to become a center of Christianity.  Although Greater Syria was conquered by Muslims in 636, the majority of its population remained Christian until the late 12th century.

Persecution of Christians began growing in the late 10th century during a long series of wars between Egyptian, Central Asian and Persian Empires and Europe’s Crusaders.  Then the decline of the eastern remainder of the Roman Empire in the early 13th century dramatically cut Christian influence throughout the region.

In the early 20th century, Zionist settlers began buying land in what is now Israel and evicting Palestinian peasants.  At the same time, support began growing in Britain for the establishment there of a Jewish homeland.

Jewish Owned Land in Palestine 1945

Muslim-Christian Associations formed throughout the area in opposition and became a national group that agitated for an independent Palestine.  Protests grew as mass Jewish immigration continued.  The protests developed into a 1936-1939 mass uprising.

After WW2 in 1947, the UN proposed the partition of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders along with those of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Cuba and India rejected any such plan of partition saying it violated the UN charter’s principle that people have the right to decide their own destiny.

Although Palestinian and Arab leaders now accept the partition in broad terms as a fait accompli, they continue to consider it unfair.

Jews owned 7% of Mandatory Palestine but were given 56% of it.  The area under Jewish control contained 45% of the Palestinian population.  Much of the Arab land was unfit for agriculture.

The Negev desert given to the Jewish state was also sparsely populated and unsuitable for agriculture but that area was a “vital land bridge protecting British interests from the Suez Canal to Iraq.”

Note:  To understand Palestinians’ reaction, imagine the UN establishing Native American homelands corresponding to where they lived before Columbus and returning 56% of the USA to them.

American Indians Map Census BureauPre-Columbian USA Culture MapCivil war broke out.  It became an inter-state war when Israel declared independence in May 1948.  Forces from Egypt, Jordan Syria and Iraq joined the Palestinians but Israel ended up with both its UN-recommended territory and almost 60% of the proposed Arab state.

Jordan took the rest of the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip.  No Palestinian state was created.

During ten months of battles, around 700,000 Palestinians, 60% of all those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947, fled or were driven out.  In the following three years, about the same number of Jews immigrated to Israel, 110% of those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947.

Note:  Again to put numbers in perspective, imagine 193 million Americans (60% of of 321M) being driven out in less than a year and replaced in the next three years by the same number of Muslim immigrants (who we imagine already make up 15% of our population).


What happened next?  In 1967 Israel captured the rest of the former British Mandate of Palestine, taking the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

In 1973 Syria tried but failed to regain the Golan heights and Egyptian military forces invaded with some success.

Following the case fire, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

In 1987, a new Palestinian uprising began.  The following year Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat declared Palestine’s independence.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the creation of a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as the interim self-government body to administer 39% of the West Bank under the PNA’s Fatah faction and the Gaza Strip under its Hamas wing.  Further negotiations were to take place but did not.

Israel continued to occupy 61% of the West Bank.

Palestine and Israel Map Now

In 2000, another uprising began.  That came to an end following the death of Yasser Arafat and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip.  Israel retained control of the Gaza Strip air space and coast.

In 2011, the President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the PLO submitted Palestine’s application for membership in the UN.

In 2012, the UN granted de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine.  Canada, Israel and the USA voted against the upgrade.  President Obama said “genuine peace can only be realised between Israelis and Palestinians themselves … it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach an agreement on the issues that divide them.”

The State of Palestine can now join treaties and specialized UN agencies, pursue legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, and bring “crimes against humanity” and war-crimes charges to the International Criminal Court.

Palestine UN Votes

What may be the future for Palestinians, and what is indicated for our foreign policy?

A state with the territory of Mandatory Palestine could have become self-supporting.  One made up of the land-locked West Bank and the separate Gaza Strip can not.

Jordan’s first king may have been right–a state whose territory included the West Bank as well as today’s Jordan could have been good for Palestinians.

A non-viable but internationally recognized State of Palestine may be a necessary stepping stone for Palestinians and Israelis to make peace but a different arrangement of territories in that region is inevitable.

History shows the absurdity of our belief that the borders of existing nation states just need to be accepted and democratic elections established, then all will be well.  Borders make administration possible.  Believing people on the other side of the border are intrinsically different breeds fear and makes peace impossible.

Beyond the Media Hype: Lebanon

Lebanon’s location bordering Syria made it a trading hub between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds and resulted in it becoming the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.  Its mountains isolated religious and ethnic groups from each other.

Lebanon Simple Map

Lebanon is north-south alternating strips of lowland and highland–a coastal plain, a mountain range, a central plateau, then more mountains.  Its shoreline is regular, rocky and has no deep harbor.   The Beqaa Valley between the mountain ranges is the main agricultural area but fruit and vegetables grow well on the very narrow maritime plain.

Lebanon Topography

The CIA estimates the population to be 40% Christian, 27% Shia, 27% Sunni, and 5% quasi-Shia Druze.  The Lebanese Information Center estimates 34% Christians while Statistics Lebanon estimates 46% Christian.  The 34% to 46% range for Christians is matched by a 27% to 40% range for Shia.

There are several Christian groups.  Maronite Catholics make up 21% of the overall population, Greek Orthodox 8%, Greek Catholic 5%, Protestant 1% and 6% other denominations.  When the last census was taken in 1932, Christians were 53% of the total.  It was about the same in 1956 but more Christians than Muslims have emigrated since then and the Muslim population has a higher birth rate.

Lebanon has over thousands of years been part of many empires.  It became an orthodox Christian center under the Romans.  They persecuted an ascetic Christian tradition established near Mount Lebanon in the late 4th century by a hermit named Maron.  Most of Lebanon was ruled as a Christian Crusader State from 1109 to 1289.

Most eastern Mediterranean Christian communities swore allegiance to the head of Eastern Christianity in Constantinople, but the Maronites aligned with the Pope in Rome, which led to centuries of support from France and Italy even after Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

In 1842, fighting between Maronites and the Druze led to the Mount Lebanon area being separated into a Christian district in the north and a Druze one in the south, both of which reported to the governor of the Sidon district in Beirut.  France got the northern district separated entirely from Muslim Syria in 1861 to protect Mount Lebanon’s 80% Christian population

Lebanon Religion Map

In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire fell, the League of Nations gave Syria and Lebanon to France, and Palestine and Iraq to Britain.  France was welcomed by Christians around Mount Lebanon and vehemently rejected by Muslims in Syria.  It took until 1923 for France to gain full control.

France added Tripoli, north of which is primarily Sunni, to the former Ottoman district of Mount Lebanon, along with Sidon, south of which is chiefly Shia, and the Bekaa Valley, which has a mix of Muslims, Christians and Druze, and established it in 1926 as the democratic republic of Lebanon.

A political system was established that shares power based on religious communities.  There is an unwritten agreement that the president will be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament Shia, the prime minister Sunni and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.  The Shia have considered themselves marginalized ever since.  They as well as the Maronites were persecuted by the Ottomans.

Lebanon Detail Map

When France’s puppet government during WW2 allowed Germans through Syria to attack British forces in Iraq, Britain invaded Syria and Lebanon.  France then said Lebanon would become independent with France’s ongoing support.  But when the newly elected Lebanese government abolished France’s mandate in 1943, France imprisoned them.  France was then forced by international pressure to recognize Lebanon as fully independent.  France withdrew its troops in 1946.

In 1958, Muslim demands for reunification with Syria led to the brink of civil war and US military intervention when Muslims wanted Lebanon to join the newly formed Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic.  Tension with Egypt had been growing since 1956 when Lebanon’s Christian president did not break with Israel and the Western powers that attacked Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Internal tensions continued to grow.  In 1975, civil war broke out between a Christian coalition and an alliance of Druze and Muslims with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Syria sent troops, allegedly for peace-keeping, that remained in Lebanon until 2005, long after the end of the war.

The PLO leaders had set up new headquarters in Beirut after they lost the 1970-71 civil war with the Sunni monarchy for control of Jordan.  The PLO was founded in 1964 in Jordan where Palestinian refugees from Israel had become the majority population.

Thousands of Palestinian fighters fled to Lebanon after the Syrian civil war, preceded by refugees from Israel and followed by more from Jordan.  There are 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now, primarily in the south.

In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to push PLO forces away from the border.

In 1982, PLO attacks led to a second Israeli invasion through Shia southern Lebanon and a siege of Shia Beirut.  The militant Shia political party Hezbollah came into being in the next few years to expel Israel forever and end Shia marginalization.


The civil war ended in 1990 with an agreement to disband all non-governmental Lebanese militias and deploy the Lebanese army on the border with Israel.  But Syria’s Shia government, which controlled Lebanon then, with fundamentalist Shia Iran’s support, allowed Hezbollah to continue fighting a guerrilla war against Israel and the South Lebanon Army in Shia areas occupied by Israel until 2000.    Many see Hezbollah as a proxy of Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah has continued fighting with reduced intensity since then to liberate Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights, territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  The UN considers Shebaa Farms Syrian territory.  Both Syria and Lebanon consider it part of Lebanon.  UN resolutions in any case require Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories.

In 2005, a former Prime Minister who worked to end Syrian dominance of Lebanon was assassinated, for which some accused Syria, others Israel.  Demonstrators supported by the West demanded the end of what some consider military occupation by Syria and its undue influence on Lebanon’s government.  A 1991 treaty made Syria responsible for Lebanon’s protection.

In 2006, Hezbollah launched rocket attacks and raids into Israel.  They responded by invading southern Lebanon, and with airstrikes throughout the country that destroyed bridges, ports, power stations, water and sewage treatment plants, schools, hospitals and homes.

Lebanon locations bombed 2006

The latest threat to Lebanon’s stability is the Syrian civil war.  Of Lebanon’s total 5,883,600 population, 450,000 are Palestinian refugees and 1,200,000 are recent Syrian refugees.  Refugees make up almost 30% of the population and 20% are very recent arrivals.

Diverse populations are not easily governed even in a democracy.

Most nations in the Middle East are autocracies–Sunni in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Shia in Iran and Syria, first Sunni now Shia in Iraq.  Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic a quarter or more of whose population is either Christian, Shia or Sunni citizens, or refugees from Palestine, Jordan and Syria, most them Sunni.  That’s a formidable challenge.

And Lebanon’s government was dominated by Syria from 1975 to 2005, while southern Lebanon still is dominated by PLO and Hezbollah forces, which makes it a battle ground with Israel in the quest for a Palestinian nation state.

Lebanon’s future is inextricably tied with Syria, which is in turmoil, Palestine which does not exist as a nation state, and Israel.  It seems to have been a mistake to have established Lebanon as an independent nation state and/or not to establish Palestine as one at the same time.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kuwait

Kuwait is just smaller than New Jersey.  Its key geographic feature is Kuwait Bay, a sheltered harbor with almost half the country’s 120 miles of coast on the Persian Gulf.  It has a well accepted 155 mile border with Saudi Arabia and a 150 mile contested one with Iraq.

Less than 1% of Kuwait is arable land and 90% of the population lives around the Kuwait Bay.    Kuwaitis make up only around 30% of the 4.1M population, which also includes 1.1M Arab expatriates and 1.4M Asian expatriates.  Most of Kuwait’s citizens are Muslim, an estimated 60%–70% Sunnis and 30%–40% Shias.

Kuwait Physical Map

Kuwait’s strategically located deep water port has since ancient times been important for trade.  It was colonized by Greece, fell to the Persian Sassanid Empire, then to a Muslim Caliphate in 636 AD, to a kingdom in Iraq and in 1521 to the Portuguese.  Then Arabs moved in from Saudi Arabia and took control.

The king who established Kuwait’s dynasty declared allegiance in 1752 to the Ottoman governor of Iraq.   Kuwait was then nominally governed from Basra in southern Iraq.  In practice, it was largely autonomous.  It took over much of the trade that passed through Basra when that city was attacked by Iran from 1775-79 and quickly became the primary center for shipping between Arabia, Iraq, Syria, East Africa and India.  Ships made in Kuwait carried most of the area’s trade from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century.

Kuwait’s borders were defined in 1913 when Britain made an agreement that it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  It encompassed all land within about 110 miles from the capital.  Britain confirmed that definition in 1922 when it controlled Iraq.  Limiting Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf to about 35 miles of swampy coastline made it almost impossible for Iraq to become a naval power.

Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932.  In 1938 it asserted a claim to rule Kuwait, and although it formally recognized the existing border in 1963, it continued to press for control over Bubiyan and Warbah islands through the 1960s and ’70s.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded and claimed all of Kuwait.  The UN restored its independence the following year and a UN commission reconfirmed the border, but Iraq did not accept the result.

Kuwait’s economy was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by a British trade blockade when Kuwait supported the Ottoman Empire in WW1, then by a Saudi Arabian trade blockade from 1923-37 whose aim was to annex Kuwait, and also by the Great Depression which drastically cut European demand for goods shipped via Kuwait from India and Africa.

Kuwait’s king in 1896 was assassinated and replaced by his half-brother.  When his brother’s former allies got Ottoman backing he asked Britain for naval support.  They agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to counter German influence in the region.  In 1899 Kuwait pledged never to cede territory without Britain’s consent, which gave Britain control of Kuwait’s foreign policy and security.

Kuwait  was saved by British forces when it was invaded by Saudi Arabia in 1919-20.  Britain redefined its border with Saudi Arabia after that at a conference where Kuwait had no representative.  Although Saudi Arabia got more than half Kuwait’s former territory, they continued their economic blockade and intermittent raiding.

Kuwait’s large oil reserves were discovered in 1937 but exploration was delayed by WW2.  When oil exports began in 1951, most Kuwaitis were still impoverished.  A major program of public works was begun almost immediately and by 1952, Kuwait was the largest exporter of oil in the Persian Gulf region.  That attracted many foreign workers, especially from Palestine, Egypt and India.

The royal family’s rule had been relatively limited up until WW2 but oil revenues eliminated their financial dependency on merchants who had always been Kuwait’s primary source of income.  Oil now accounts for nearly half of GDP and 94% of export revenues and government income.

Kuwait Oilfields Map

Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961 and became the first Gulf country to establish a constitution and parliament.  It embraced Western liberal attitudes and most Kuwaiti women did not wear the hijab in the 1960s and ’70s.  It consistently ranks as having the freest media in the Arab world, outranking Israel since 2009, and is the only Gulf state ranked even “partly free.”  Its legal system is mostly secular with separate family law for Sunni, Shia and non-Muslim residents.

Kuwait supported Iraq in its 1980-88 war with Iran but refused to write off the $65B of loans it had made.  Then came economic rivalry after Kuwait increased oil production by 40%, and in 1990, Iraq claimed Kuwait was stealing oil by slant drilling into its Rumaila field near the border.  Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait later that year.

Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait was the Gulf’s only pro-Soviet state.  Its relationship with the US had been strained ever since independence in 1961 and it refused to allow USA military bases in 1987.  But now, since Iraq’s 1990 invasion, the US has 10,000 soldiers based in Kuwait.

I knew nothing about Iraq or Kuwait at the time of that invasion.  I supported the US-led response to what I accepted as a war of aggression.  Now I’m not sure what I think.

Kuwait does not have the geography of a state.  It is tiny and lacks natural borders.  Its borders were defined arbitrarily by Britain.   Until Britain gained control, it was governed from Iraq.  Iraq’s desire for it as a deep water port on the Persian Gulf makes sense.  But Kuwait’s government has been pretty good for its citizens, enormously better than Iraq’s, or Saudi Arabia’s.

Depression: Suicide

I mentioned my own close approach to it in Out of the Closet, and how I reacted to my friend’s suicide in this comment.

Eric shared more details of his heart-wrenching story.  

I too was severely depressed and was saved from killing myself by Beethoven.

“I had decided to do it and stayed out very late thinking about ways.  I got home and decided to listen to The Emperor concerto for the last time.  I lay on the floor with my ear to the speaker with the volume very low so as not to wake my mother.  

“When the second movement started, the notes were so lovely that I could feel the combination of Beethoven’s depression combined with great hope and that hope spread through me and changed my mind.  

“Life became even more difficult and I dropped out of high school and took up lots of very dangerous behavior.  But I was a fighter at that point, and just kept on digging myself out.  

“I am still undergoing that process today.”

I’ve pointed out before what courage it takes to reveal such a story, especially when the battle still has to be fought every day.  Now I have something to add.

Eric and I were lucky.  I was weakened by pacing back and forth along the river bank, unable at last to decide if I had the courage to drown myself.  Eric’s strength was restored by Beethoven.  We were saved by something unintentional.

We had hidden our decision from those who loved us most.  Only something unintended could have stopped us.

Our parents would have been devastated if we had not been stopped.  They would have felt such guilt because they had not noticed our suffering, or had under-reacted.

We fear for our loved ones, our children most of all, and we rightly try hard to keep those fears to ourselves.  But while banishing fears of imaginary harm, we must remain alert to what can be very subtle signs of another’s pain.

We must learn how to ask, gently and with enough insistence when we sense a loved one’s pain so that we will get the chance, if they are lost in misery, to try to help while help is still possible.