On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




God bless the Kurds!

THERE APPEARS, at present, to be little light at the end of the tunnel that is Iraq. The thugs of ISIS are proving to be much nastier than anyone anticipated, and more successful, having pushed further east from the recently conquered city of Mosul. And what had been considered a sure thing, the Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government, turned out to be not as effective a fighting force as they have long been held up to be.

The very viability of the Kurdish autonomous region appeared to be called into question, as peshmerga, apparently heavily outgunned, yielded to ISIS gangs who came within cooee of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. This was terrifying enough because until then the peshmerga had been thought of as an effective bulwark against the ISIS fanatics.

More immediately horrific was the prospect of mass slaughter unfolding with the world in attendance – via social media. ISIS rolled Sinjar, a town that has been home to the heterodox Yazidis since time immemorial. In their ignorant and blinkered ideology – which they claim is a version of Islam – the ISIS hoods saw the diverse threads that make up Yazidi belief as reason to put them to the sword. As is well documented now, thousands of Yazidis who fled the ISIS onslaught were stranded without supplies on Mt Sinjar. A place of mystical significance for the Yazidis, Mt Sinjar is also remote and shelterless. Refugees huddled here at the mercy of the elements during the height of an Iraqi summer.


Mt. Sinjar

Fortunately, a public switched on via social media raised an outcry that galvanised action. As beleaguered Kurdish peshmerga sought to beat a path to the stranded Yezidis, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish President appealed for military support. In the meantime, the US rallied support for a humanitarian mission to deliver supplies to the Yazidis atop Mt Sinjar (see some dramatic footage here of supplies being dropped, and the mad scramble to escape for some of the trapped refugees) and provided air cover for Kurdish forces. After the woes visited on Iraq’s Christians, Türkmens and Shi’ite by ISIS in recent weeks, something had to be done. The Guardian rightly pointed out that it was imperative that the US and UK take decisive action because they “have a humanitarian duty to the endangered minorities, and a debt of honour to the Kurds”.

The plight of the benighted Yazidis on Mt Sinjar touched a nerve. Yazidi communities in Georgia and Armenia raised their voices in support of their stranded brethren and in Israel the Holocaust Museum added its voice condemning the genocidal behaviour of ISIS. Disgust with ISIS is clearly widespread and communities across the region are stepping up to support the victims of its gratuitous evil – Najaf, the city of Shi’ite pilgrimage in southern Iraq, has opened its doors to Christian refugees expelled from Mosul, while Iran has also pledged to help Iraqi Christian refugees.

For an Aussie, with little to be proud of as regards our government’s conduct on the world stage at present, it was pleasing to see that Australian troops were involved in the humanitarian mission carried out on Mt Sinjar. An Iraqi photolibrary Metrography has some startling images of the Yazidis as they left Mt Sinjar and sought shelter in Syria and Kurdish-held areas of Iraq. (It is a measure of the desperation of their plight that they have trekked across an unforgiving desert to find refuge in Syria, of all places.) I’ve ‘borrowed’ one of the images from Metrography, here. Looking at this image I have only one word: respect! To me it exemplifies the strength, the resilience, the love, the humanity of the Yazidis.

Image: Zmnako Ismael,  via Metrography

Image: Zmnako Ismael, via Metrography

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge out of this whole sorry tale is that the Kurds exhibit these very qualities: strength, resilience, love, humanity. Kurdish elements from across borders came together to rescue the Yazidis, to take on the ISIS murderers . A quick glance at the history books indicates that the Kurds have long been divided and have been hung out to dry by outside powers many a time. But here, the Kurds came together to confront an evil challenge.

Of course, the Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS for some time, entirely unheralded and unsupported. It is the YPG militia (People’s Defence Units) of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party) that has fended off ISIS and prevented it extending its reach to the Turkish border. The enclave of Kobanê, one of three that makes up the Rojava autonomous zone, in particular has come under concerted attack, but local Kurds have held their own, and then some. The Rojava Kurds are credited with much of the heavy lifting involved in rescuing the Yazidis.

It seems that it was not just Rojava Kurds involved in the rescue mission, however. In effect, the Kurdish cavalry arrived. German MP Ulla Jelpke was in Rojava to observe goings on and she remarked that (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK fighters – listed as terrorists by Turkey, the US and the EU – also rallied to the cause and effectively amounted to a “guarantee of life” for the Yazidis.

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore...

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore…

PKK units had also made their way to Kurdish-held Kirkuk, apparently receiving a hero’s welcome as they went. It was also PKK fighters who were instrumental in reclaiming Mahmour, just on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital Erbil, that had earlier fallen to the ISIS thugs. And it seems that the Iranian Kurdish militia of the KDP-I (yes, there are a lot of acronyms in Kurdish affairs!) also joined the fray at the shoulders of their cross-border compatriots.

There is now serious talk that the US State Department and the EU should remove the PKK from their lists of designated terrorists. (A petition to that effect is awaiting signatures.) Whatever outrages the PKK perpetrated in Turkey in decades past – and outrages there certainly were – do not necessarily reflect the ambitions or potentials of the group now, nor do they necessarily impugn fighters who are now rallying to a worthwhile cause and acting not only in the interests of Kurds, but other peoples in Iraq and Syria, and more broadly in the interests of the West. I think it’s time to bring the PKK into the fold.

So while an anti-ISIS front might have been formed by disparate Kurdish groups, there are still petty rivalries at play and proverbial roosters are jousting. But for now, the Kurds continue to be a resilient, resourceful and honourable presence, people of valour, generosity of spirit and immense humanity in the benighted lands of Iraq and Syria. Long may they prosper.

Iran and the West: old struggles, new opportunities

EARLIER THIS MONTH, renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain Tweeted* enthusiastically of the great treatment he received from total strangers while he was in Iran, ‘of all the countries in the world’.

Such a reception took him by surprise, but anyone who is familiar with the reality of Iran and Iranians would most likely say ‘well, derr’ (to use a standard Australian response to a statement of the blindingly obvious).

In the popular imagination, Iran remains unpopular, regarded with suspicion, if not active dislike, by many. A survey conducted earlier this year in over 20 countries shows that it is the world’s most negatively viewed country.

Yet as Bourdain’s Tweet bears out, those who travel to Iran are generally overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality of Iranians, by the richness of their culture, art and cuisine, and the physical beauty of Iranian landscapes and architecture. For those in the know, Iran is diverse, challenging and intriguing in equal measure, but above all welcoming.

Iranians, for their part, are aware that their country is not particularly fondly regarded. During my time in Iran I was constantly asked if I was not concerned about Axis of Evil rhetoric. The whole ‘axis’ notion is utter tosh, of course, but that’s not to say that the regime that runs Iran isn’t very savoury. And there’s the rub: the government – and the hardliners who prop it up, and profit from its various dealings – is not truly representative of the people, of their interests, material, artistic or otherwise.

chehel-sotun-frescoIranian art boasts a depth of tradition and history that may well be unsurpassed, and the modern art scene, despite tight censorship and curmudgeonly official oversight, is vibrant and engaged in global dialogue. Iranians are eager consumers of culture from the – supposedly decadent – West. This can incur the wrath of regime Grinchs as was seen recently with the arrest of several young Iranians who had posted online a video of themselves singing and dancing along to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.

Official killjoys, labelling the video as ‘obscene’, detained six young people before releasing them on bail and making them recant on state-run TV. These actions speak volumes about the disconnect between the regime and the people. They reveal, yet again, an official paranoia about Western influence, and a lack of understanding on the part of the regime of Iranian youth’s hunger for engagement, of their aspirations and interests. Most of all, the arrests had the effect of bringing the video – obscene dancing or not – to a wider audience that would never had been reached if it was left as just another video upload amongst untold millions.

The arrests prompted a huge outcry on social media, including an apparent defence of the dancers from the Twitter account of no less a personality than President Hassan Rouhani. It’s ironic that the president should have a Twitter account, when it is officially banned in Iran. But this in itself is indicative of an ongoing struggle within the Islamic Republic between conservative and progressive, or reformist, forces.

The Iranian political arena has been locked in a conservative-progressive see-sawing stoush for decades, whereby progressive political forces assume power, on the basis of popular approval won at elections, then as they attempt to create a more open society, conservative elements in the judiciary, media and within the political apparatus hinder, hobble and obstruct them. This was most clearly apparent during the Khatami presidency from 1997-2005, and it’s odds-on that the same will occur during President Rouhani’s incumbency.

That said, the arrival of Rouhani in the presidential palace presents an opportunity for rapprochement between Iran and the West. He is noted for his liberal disposition and has stated that he seeks better relations globally. In fact, as has been argued by Stephen Kinzer, Iran has many attributes that make it a natural ally for the West in the Middle East.

iran-night-streetI would wager that a majority of Iranians want improved relations with the West, too. I’d also punt that the majority of the Iranian populace does not want to be ruled by the Islamic regime, or at least not in the strict, rigid and unforgiving form that it currently assumes. Iranians of all stripes hanker for greater opportunities and freedoms; they find sly and subtle ways to subvert the strictures that hover over them, a recent example being the My Stealthy Freedom campaign whereby Iranian women post images of themselves online sans hijab.

My encounters with Iranians in Iran certainly indicate both a desire to engage more broadly and a displeasure with the conditions under which they continue to live. Interactions within academic and institutional forums also lend weight to the argument that Iranians wish to be done with an isolationist position. Years of sanctions and being cast as pariahs do not sit well with a well-educated, cultured, literate, engaged population. Better relations would be welcomed by many segments of Iranian society – youth, intelligentsia, artists – but whether regime hardliners/power-holders would entertain such a prospect remains to be seen.

Happily, recent developments mean that rapprochement is looking possible in some shape or form. With some progress in nuclear negotiations early this year and subsequent easing of trade restrictions, Western companies are looking to Iran for business opportunities. Meanwhile, following the shenanigans in Ukraine and Russia’s erratic behaviour, Iran, and its gas reserves, may emerge as a solution to Europe’s energy woes should Russia withhold gas supplies to the West. And with the rapid advance of the thoroughly nasty ISIS/ISIL in Iraq, it appears that Iran is in a position where it is willing to , or in fact needs to, engage with the US, and the West, more broadly and more productively.

So will Iran open up and unclench its fist? Let’s watch this space.

*Technical incompetence prevents me from embedding the actual Tweet into the page. Yes, it is frustrating…




The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Iran: the winds of change?

WHILE NEWS coming out of Egypt, Syria and Turkey of late has been decidedly disturbing, the situation in Iran, putative member of the Axis of Evil, has been rosier. Predictions prior to the Iranian presidential election of June 14 were dire. Remembering what happened four years ago, where a disputed electoral result saw the political situation deteriorating, few held high hopes for this latest election.

Pre-electoral hijinks were at their usual level in Tehran, with the Guardian Council banning several significant candidates from running, theoretically paving the way for a hardliner to win, an outcome that pundits expected would tighten the conservative grip on the levers of power and further alienate the populace from the regime. In the event, Hassan Rouhani, running on a pro-reform ticket, won the election. His victory prompted widespread jubilation across Iran.

shiraz-bathsIt remains to be seen if such a result is a sleight of hand from the regime, if it’s a sign of pragmatism on the part of those hardliners who wield. Or it may be that regime insiders wedged themselves.

Did the regime realise that it needed to concede some ground to a largely disengaged electorate and offer up a presidential candidate who, while remaining an insider, could address societal ills and salve the political frustrations of Iranians at large? Or did an attempt to eliminate pro-reform voices from the electoral rolls mean that the hardline vote was split amongst a range of conservative candidates thus leaving the way clear for all voters of a reformist inclination to vote for the single palatable candidate? Whatever the case, the punters opted for Rouhani, giving him a resounding majority.

While there has been some cynicism about the installation of Rouhani (could he just be a Khamenei stooge?), the fact is that suddenly the political situation in Iran and the geopolitical scene around it seem a whole lot less ominous. Rouhani appears to have the ear of the Supreme Leader and the support of the people, meaning that real change may be a possibility, perhaps. (Yes, that is a qualified observation!) There have been plenty of “springs” forecast in the region in recent years, most of which have been beset by squalls and which have failed to deliver real change, but could it be that an “Iranian spring” is in the offing?

As reported in The Guardian after the inauguration of the new president, Rouhani signalled his intention to engage with the West, and the US in particular, in order to redress the poisonous and combative atmosphere that has long persisted but which had reached a peak under the previous incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

isfahan-mosque-gossipIt’s tempting to believe that Rouhani’s campaign promise to re-orient dealings with the West was a significant part of his appeal to the Iranian electorate. In my own experience, most Iranians-on-the-street harbour no ill feelings towards the West or Westerners (with some exceptions, no doubt). Generally they are eager to engage and many speak very good English. The welcome Western travellers receive in Iran is genuine and spontaneous, even more so than in Turkey, in my estimation. Indeed, some pundits say that of all Muslim nations it is the Iranians (hardline elements aside) who are most enamoured of the US and the West in general.

Another significant part of Rouhani’s appeal to Iranian voters was his pledge to focus on economic issues. The Iranian economy had gone seriously pear-shaped during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, despite windfall oil royalties that should have guaranteed a healthy economic outlook. Ahmadinejad’s bombast and sabre-rattling have clearly done Iran little good, in particular his intransigence on the nuclear issue, which, in providing the impetus for economic sanctions, has only worsened the impacts of his erratic, ill-judged and populist economic policies.

Newly incumbent Iranian presidents have made brave statements before; such bravado has led to their undoing, or at least their falling in the estimation of Iranian voters when said pledges, however basic, fundamentally sound or eminently sensible, prove undoable in the prevailing political climate. Such failure, or inability, to follow through results in the disillusionment of the Iranian electorate. (Think of Khatami’s brandishing of a copy the constitution on the campaign trail in 1997 and swearing that it was his intention, if elected to the presidency, to uphold the rule of law inherent within the constitution. Hardline stonewalling and general chicanery stymied his reform programme and saw him in the end derided as a “lame duck” president.)

Bringing a degree of accountability to the Iranian political arena, the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto has instituted the Rouhani-meter, a gauge to see how well Rouhani goes in pursuing and implementing his campaign promises. The meter is touted as a mechanism to “enhance the profile of democratic voices outside Iran, to connect them to Iranians inside Iran, and provide a space for public dialogue”. It certainly demonstrates that Rouhani ran on an ambitious platform, but let’s hope that in months and years to come it doesn’t serve to highlight the hopelessness of the reformist cause in Iran. Rouhani must pull of a delicate balancing act, in retaining the support of the electorate while (and more importantly) not incurring the wrath or invoking the resistance of the hardline conservative apparatus that determines the trajectory that the Islamic Republic is allowed to travel in.

While Iranians are no doubt expecting Rouhani to follow through on his campaign platform any optimism is tempered by bitter experience following both the Khatami era false dawn and the forceful suppression of the Green movement after the elections of 2009. The prospect of real change in the Iranian political sphere remains difficult to gauge.

isfahan-carpet-bazaarOn other fronts, there have been some positives since Rouhani’s inauguration in August. The appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister was generally well received. US-educated and with a track record of pragmatic and even-handed diplomacy, Zarif marked a different course for Iranian international relations when he conveyed his best wishes for the Jewish New Year.

The Supreme Leader, Khamenei has since given hints that Iranian positions may not be so forcefully held, remarking that in diplomacy “heroic flexibility” was sometimes desirable. Such a position led to speculation that there may have been an opening for a one-on-one meeting between Barack Obama and Rouhani last week at the UN general assembly. This idea was eventually scotched, presumably because hardliners both in US and Iranian camps would have kicked up too much of a fuss. In the end, contact was made by phone, a conversation that by all accounts proceeded smoothly. It was a small but significant step, and hopefully a prelude to further engagement.

In an indication of the struggle that Rouhani faces to maintain a balance between engaging with the West and incurring the wrath of hardline regime loyalists in Iran, he was met by a significant crowd in Tehran upon his return from talking at the UN. Some threw eggs and shoes at him, others welcomed him warmly. However it appears that the majority of Iranians are excited at the prospect of a thaw in Iran-US relations.

Is a thaw a harbinger of a spring? Let’s hope so.

Georgia: at the crossroads

HAVING SHRUGGED off the jealous embrace of Russia, and after beginning a stumbling approach towards Europe, Georgia is coming into its own. Georgians like to think of themselves as the original Europeans, yet EU membership remains a much-longed for but unlikely dream, for the time being.

In a recently released movie The Loneliest Planet (what was inspiration for that title!?!), a young couple endure travails and challenges to their relationship while trekking in the Georgian Caucasus. Despite not overly positive reviews of the film, it might go some way to putting the country on the radar of Western travellers.

tbilisi-from-metekhiCertain others, however, have already discovered the delights that Georgia has to offer. Georgia is establishing strong business and tourism links with the Middle East. The largest Georgian airline, Airzena, has recently launched direct flights to Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Kurdish holiday makers are availing themselves of the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast, visa-free no less. It appears that few Georgians are returning the compliment, that is taking the return flights, even though the Kurdistan region is the most peaceful and by all accounts beautiful region of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been for some time making a bee line for Georgia, having similarly launched direct flights and dropped visa requirements in 2010. Economic ties are strong, and there is considerable two-way traffic, with Georgians commonly seen haggling in the bazaars of Iran, and Iranians joining in the clamour of Georgian markets. The two countries have some shared history – if not always entirely happy. In fact it was the threat of ongoing Persian domination that prompted Georgia’s King Erekli II to ask Russia, a fellow Christian nation, for protection in the late 18th century. That ‘protection’ lasted until the 1990s.

In Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s wonderful novel Paper, a tale set, to my mind, somewhere on the cusp of Persian territory and the Caucasus (even though the back cover blurb says it’s in Central Asia) during the Qajar era, a wily  Georgian envoy milled amongst Persian mullahs and other characters, while a tormented scribe hankered after the eponymous paper. (Note to self: must reread this some time.)

I once encountered a wily Georgian of my own in Tbilisi. On my final day of my visit I marched into a carpet shop that I had been circling for some time and announced that I wanted to buy a Georgian carpet. The carpet seller, a woman with a bad peroxide job partially grown out, produced several options, assuring me that all were authentically Georgian. When I had chosen and gone through the haggling process and all was agreed, the woman let slip that this was a carpet ‘from a Georgian village near Tabriz’. I didn’t remonstrate, figuring that there was at least some Georgian aspect to the item. On a later trip to Tabriz (the Tabriz that’s in Iran!) I saw many a carpet very reminiscent of my ‘Georgian’ purchase, and was roundly told that there was no such thing as a Georgian village anywhere nearby… A dodgy carpet seller: who would’ve thought…

tbilisi-castleGeorgia is also establishing stronger links with its neighbour to the west, Turkey. There is a sizable Turkish community on Aghmashenebelis street in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili in Tbilisi, and I have encountered Georgians working (usually at menial jobs) in Istanbul. In fact, there was a long history of Georgians playing significant roles in the Ottoman hierarchy. Relations between the two countries are again strengthening, with plans afoot for the construction of a new mosque for the Turkish community in Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. In return, Turkey has pledged to contribute to the refurbishment of derelict Georgian churches in the valleys in and around Yusufeli in the northeast of Anatolia.

I recall visiting a church near Dörtkilise, in Turkey’s so-called ‘Georgian valleys’, in the mid-1990s. The church, a sturdy structure in golden stone, appeared along a remote track, surrounded by robust greenery but no other constructions, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Inside: whizzing bats, dim  light coming through slim, arched windows. On a bare stone altar, delicate curlicues of Georgian script. And on the back wall, conflicting graffiti scrawled in charcoal in Turkish: ‘one day Islam will rule the world’; and ‘we must protect this church’.  There is hope now that the latter sentiment may be acted upon.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the recent experience of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not indicative of Georgia’s prospects as it embraces its near neighbours: on a recent trip in Turkey he fell off his bike and broke his arm…

Anatolian spring: season of fresh hopes?

GOOGLING TO FIND proverbs is an activity sometimes necessary in order to come up with pithy hooks for a blog… Searching for aphorisms about spring will turn up a Kurdish proverb that states that when spring arrives grass will grow even under a large stone. It will also lead you to a seemingly more phlegmatic French maxim stating that a late Easter is a harbinger of a long, cold spring.

This year Easter arrives early, so if we invert the rationale of the French proverb this must herald a warm spring. Meanwhile developments in Turkey mean that perhaps at last a spring thaw is occurring as regards Kurdish issue. This may well mean that Kurdish grass – in the form of political and cultural rights – will eventually sprout despite the centuries-old shadow of the heavy stone of Turkish nationalism.

The AKP government’s much-vaunted ‘Kurdish opening’ of 2009 amounted to nothing in the wash up. But recent endeavours appear to be bearing fruit. Direct negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the outlawed PKK, have resulted in the prospect of the PKK laying down their arms once and for all. Long-time parliamentary deputy Ahmet Türk (who, despite his name, is a Kurd) has tipped a PKK ceasefire before Nevruz, the spring equinox and Persian-Kurdish new year on March 21. The government now expects the same.

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Since negotiations began between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and the jailed PKK leader several months ago, things have moved at speed, with even the opposition CHP voicing its approval of the dialogue.

In late February, a letter penned by Öcalan was delivered to PKK operatives in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. I can’t help wondering what language Öcalan’s letter was written. My money would be on Turkish. If that’s the case there’s an irony that such a forceful proponent of Kurdish nationalism should rely on Turkish as his first language. I remember seeing a documentary on Öcalan in the mid-90s and he spoke all the while in Turkish… not just rough street Turkish, but *proper* Turkish, using all the -dir and -dır suffixes that bedevil students of the language.

Whatever language of the letter may have been composed in, the spirit of the letter (I’m assuming the message was to adopt a position of conciliation) has been taken on board by PKK members, with the release in recent days of eight hostages, Turkish police officers and soldiers, who had been held by the PKK, some for almost two years. There is cause for optimism now, from both Turkish and Kurdish perspectives. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu concurs, remarking recently that he has ‘seen hope in Diyabakır’.

Indeed, Today’s Zaman reports that such is the optimism of one observer, Professor Mücahit Bilici, a sociologist at the City University of New York, that he presages a ‘Kurdish spring’ in a post-PKK era.

He comments that Turkey, under the AKP, has experienced a revolution, one that relieved the country of the straitjacket of Kemalism. Bilici contends that this was only the first revolution that Turkey requires; two more are necessary, so there would be a trilogy all told. The second of the three should result in the Kurds being given ‘a state that belongs to them’. In Bilici’s estimation that state should be Turkey, a Turkey shorn of pretensions or aspirations to ethnic homogeneity, a Turkey that is not just a homeland for the Turks but for others as well, a state that ‘belongs to all citizens as individuals and as groups’. The third revolution should be the recognition of the past wrongs done to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities and the restoration of their rights in the present, Bilici argues.

Bilici envisages the PKK being absorbed into the political framework, their monopolisation of Kurdish discourse being dispelled, a transformation that will result in a ‘democratic Kurdish resurgence against which a democratic Turkey will have no defence’. As he foresees it, the continuation –and ultimate resolution – of the Kurdish struggle will be carried out within an Islamic discourse.

Bilici’s predictions perhaps seem unduly optimistic. While nationalism, and the military establishment which fans it, is not as pervasive in the Turkey of 2013 it is still not a spent force and there remain elements who would recoil in horror at some of Bilici’s sentiments and predictions.  That said, the political arena is much more receptive to such ideas than it was in earlier decades. This can be attributed to a growing realisation that the military struggle against the PKK was not likely to produce an enduring solution, to the fact that Öcalan was in custody, but also to the AKP’s recasting of the national identity. In this they have emphasised an umbrella of Islamic brotherhood that offers Kurds a way of opting in, rather than the ethno-nationalist framework that is at the core of Kemalism that left Kurds at a loose end.

spring-flowers-shirazIt remains to be seen if Turkey is replacing one straitjacket with another by adopting such an approach, but at least at some level it recognises an element of the ‘unity of culture, language and ideal’ that the Republican founders of the modern state aspired to. Such unity was in the 1930s narrowly defined: the language, culture and ideal were all to be homogenously Turkish.  Some 90 years later, perhaps it has been recognised that homogeneity or culture and language are not imperative, but unity of ideal – an ideal to live together harmoniously – is something that both Turks and Kurds can share. Let’s see what transpires from here.

Casting our gaze beyond the confines of Anatolia reveals harbingers of, or at least aspirations to, further springs. Following an election in Armenia in February, a poll boycotted by three political parties and that the incumbent won by a considerable margin, rumblings of discontent have been heard. Voters during the election expressed their dissatisfaction by casting spurious votes for Kim Kardashian (who is of Armenian descent) or Chuck Norris (where did that one come from?), while others did a ‘Gangnam Style’ dance outside  the Central Election Commission. Subsequent accusations of fraud by electoral officials led the runner-up candidate Raffi Hovannisian to organise well-attended protest rallies around the country and announce a ‘Revolution of Hello’. Whether this actually foreshadows a political spring in Armenia remains to be seen. In neighbouring Azerbaijan hopes for a political awakening appear dim, but over recent months there have been several protests at the restrictive rule of the Aliyev regime.

Meanwhile in Iran, former regime-favourite cum fly in the ointment, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been irritating the mullahs by talking up his own ‘spring’ in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad was the darling of the regime after winning in 2009 what was alleged to be a rigged election, but he has subsequently fallen from favour, displaying a degree of single-mindedness in not bowing to the dictates of the Supreme Leader and assorted cadres, and pursuing his own frankly idiosyncratic and sometimes erratic agenda. Now despite stern disapproval in the corridors of power, he perhaps believes he can choreograph a victory for one of his own cronies in the presidential election scheduled for June this year, an event that in his estimation would amount to yet another ‘spring’. Either that or he’s just razzing up the mullahs. In a weird way you have to admire his chutzpah!

Christmas in Iran

IT MAY SEEM incongruous, but every December Christmas decorations appear in Tehran. Perhaps it’s not such a weird idea, after all, there was a Persian at the nativity – so the legend goes – but no Westerners as such: Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, was a Persian scholar.

Received wisdom, meantime, may generally equate the Islamic Republic of Iran with an attitude of extreme intolerance, and a monolithic populace conforming to some (misperceived) Islamic stereotype. In reality, pluralism and diversity are part and parcel of the Iranian social fabric. So, while Khomeini’s stern visage may glower from oversize billboards, in some shops you will find Christmas trees, cards and even nativity scenes.

si-o-se-isfahanIn Tehran, this is likely to be a middle-class phenomena, evidence of the pro-Western stance of significant segments of Iranian society. In Isfahan, in the neighbourhood of New Julfa, south of the Zayandeh River, Christmas is more than an aspirational Western affectation, for this is the Armenian quarter, home to a centuries-old Christian community that has long been embraced as an integral part of the Iranian nation. Here, Armenians celebrate Christmas with gusto on January 6th as is the case with the Eastern churches (for the Western churches, this is Epiphany).

New Julfa is in effect a part of Armenian that has been picked up and placed in the heart of historical Persia. The centrepiece and focal point of the neighbourhood is the imposing Vank Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, but there are a dozen churches, schools and an Armenian cemetery. Far from a cowled, tremulous, oppressed community, Armenian identity here is proudly upheld and displayed. The language that rings through the streets here is Armenian, not Persian.

The exterior of Vank Cathedral, with a central dome reminiscent of a mosque, is bulky and commanding; the interior reveals more lightness of touch, more artistic flourish. The artwork here – allegorical frescoes, tilework – are a hybrid of  Eastern and Western styles: some floral motifs are apparently painted in a Persian miniature style, but to my eye would not be out of place in French baroque cathedrals.

vank-cloistersIn the cloisters, Armenian girls, no less sassy than their Persian counterparts, congregate and chatter. They wear a jeans-sneakers-tunic-headscarf combo to comply with Islamic dress restrictions, but they carry it off with a certain insouciance, headscarfs slipping back from mahogany tresses.

The Armenians were brought by Shah Abbas to his new capital in the early 17th century, shifted wholesale from Julfa, on the Caucasian fringe. Abbas intended them to act as his agents in political and economic dealings with the West. As detailed in a post on Ajam Media Collective, the Armenians  slotted neatly into the Persian socio-political framework, forming a relatively autonomous merchant oligarchy.  At the time, the Ottoman Turks to the west had made it illegal for their subjects to trade with Shi’ite Persia, so the Armenians stepped into the breach, creating flourishing trade networks across the Ottoman realm and further into western Europe.

The Armenians became an integral part of the upper crust, as it were, in Abbas’ Isfahan – notable Armenian families invited the shah to celebrate Christmas. However, as Monash University scholar James Barry points out, Abbas did not necessarily champion the Armenians’ cause out of the goodness of his heart, or some benevolent notion of multiculturalism. In fact, Abbas was being much more pragmatic. It was political and commercial expediency, pure and simple. Abbas distrusted the Persian (Muslim) commercial classes – and perhaps feared a strong Persian merchant bourgeoisie as an oppositional power – so nurtured and promoted the Armenians in their stead.

There are Armenian communities elsewhere in Iran, including Tabriz, another important trading city. St Mary’s Church, near the Tabriz bazaar, proved inviolate behind firmly closed iron gates when I passed through in 2008, but in The Way of the World, his outstandingly wonderful travel memoir, Nicolas Bouvier relates living in the Armenian community of Tabriz through the winter of 1953. He tells how on his first night there the locals came to see he and his travel companion, “these foreign Christians, escaped from an easier world”.

tabriz-bazaarWith exquisitely dexterous prose Bouvier details the freezing winter and evokes the sense of community, local rivalries, characters and dramas, including the saga of an Armenian girl who took her own life because she’d fallen in love with a local “Muslim”(it is not specified whether he was Persian, Kurdish or Turkish). To the modern reader, Bouvier’s book recounts an altogether less-troubled world. They drive in a Fiat from the Balkans, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan without any of the attendant issues that would waylay modern travellers. However, the fragmented nature of the world-wide Armenian community is apparent: as Bouvier observes them tuning into the Patriarch of Echmiadzin (at that time within the Soviet Union). “Each Christmas he sent to his brothers in Iran faint but politic encouragement over the air-waves of Radio Baku,” Bouvier tells us.

Meanwhile, communal relations between Persians and Armenians remain strong. Armenians are free to celebrate Christmas in Iran, and increasingly Iranians journey to Armenia for their holidays, including Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Iranians head north into Armenia to enjoy the more liberal atmosphere, to escape the constraints of Iran’s Islamic dress code and to hear Persian music acts that are banned at home. This is all made possible by a simplified visa regime between the two countries that has come alongside strengthening ties between Armenia and Iran and that makes zipping across the border relatively straight forward. Interestingly, however, Armenians appear to enjoy holidaying anywhere other than Armenia, heading in increasing numbers into  Georgia, or even Turkey.

That Armenians would choose to holiday in Turkey strikes me as particularly incongruous given the historical controversies and modern acrimonies that pollute relations between these neighbours. The Turkish-Armenian border remains closed (despite the protestations of many on both sides of the border) and diplomatic relations frosty. The closure of the border, in turn, hobbles the economic development of Armenia, meaning that significant numbers of Armenians, many of them women, head to Turkey (passing by way of Georgia) seeking employment or economic opportunity. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Armenian women are working in Istanbul, centred on the historical Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapı. As they are without papers, they effectively form an economic underclass, however they perform an important role in certain segments of the economy.

The contrast with the buoyant and assured entrepreneurial class in Abbas’ Iran could not be more stark. In Istanbul are women performing menial roles – often those that Turks won’t do – raising their families alongside them in straitened circumstances and sending money home to relatives in Armenia. This is in contrast, too, to the status of many Armenians in pre-20th century Istanbul, and other cities of the Ottoman realm, where Armenians often played prominent roles in politics, trade, society and literature. (For example see Mavi Boncuk’s post about Armenian lexicographers who played an important role in developing the Turkish language.)

The Armenian presence was all but expunged from Anatolia during the poisonous events of 1915. This was a tragedy for the Armenians, and I would assert that it was a tragedy for Turkey as well, as yet unreconciled. It means that in İstanbul, and elsewhere in Anatolia, where Armenians lived for thousands of years, Christmas may not be (openly) celebrated. Meanwhile, across the border, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the mullahs hold sway, the Armenians are busily exchanging Christmas cards and adorning shops with decorated trees.