On Azerbaijan’s Abşeron Peninsula jutting eastward into the Caspian Sea, the ground on a hillside called Yanar Dağ appears to be on fire. At one time that was not uncommon here. Indeed, Azerbaijan may take its name from the words “azer” (fire) and “baydjan” meaning “guardian”. Ancient traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road, including Marco Polo in the 13th Century, marvelled at flames emerging from the ground, and occasionally from water. Strangely enough, there’s even a (very) loose connection to the Christmas story.
For your amusement, I’ve just changed the featured image at the top of the “Days of Our Youth” story to a recently-discovered photo of my teenage self ushering my “clients” aboard the ultra-modern Viscount airliner.
The rugged back roads between Montenegro and the valleys of Bosnia and Hercegovina are not for the faint-hearted. Particularly in winter, with isolated checkpoints manned by unsympathetic militia whose discipline and sobriety could be questionable. But in wartime you go with what you’ve got. The brutal tide of “ethnic cleansing” sweeping the former Yugoslavia had finally reached a place that our team from the European Community Monitoring Mission had been watching closely. With a fellow monitor from Greece, along with our Montenegrin interpreter and French driver, we set out to do what we could. Thirty years later, my most enduring memory of the days that followed is of someone I never met – a decent, likeable and talented young man who made a split-second decision that cost him his life, but became a symbol of reconciliation for decent Bosnian Muslims and Serbs alike. Continue reading “Death on St Sava’s Day – “Republika Srpska”, January 1993”
The shady courtyard of Sera Monastery hums with energy as dozens of maroon-robed monks pair off in philosophical debate. One defends a proposition calmly, seated cross-legged on the ground. The other stands; challenging animatedly, concluding each argument with a dramatic sweep of the arms and a stamp of a foot. It looks like some sort of exotic scholastic Tai Chi, and perhaps in some ways it is. But it also has lessons to offer on critical thinking in a world awash with digitally-proliferated information misinformation, disinformation, opinion and downright lies.
This weekend’s visit to Halifax by the latest and greatest United States Navy aircraft carrier, Gerald R. Ford, has put me in mind of a lesson from fifty years ago. Impressive as these great ships are, and while we can be justifiably awed by the technology, we shouldn’t get over-awed. Let me take you back to 1972 for an example.
On my first opportunity to greet royalty I flubbed my lines. As a six year-old lad welcoming the newly crowned Queen on her first visit to Wales, I’d been given a little flag to wave and encouragement to give a hearty cheer as she walked by. I was well-placed at the front of the crowd, but when the time came to perform I was so over-awed that I just stood speechless with my little flag drooping [insert your own joke here]. In my defence, as well as being The Queen she was also the first TV star I’d ever seen. Her funeral last month reminded me of watching her coronation seven decades earlier, and a Canadian operation that made North American television history.
“You’d be silly to take the Hejaz Railway” the locals assured us. It would be primitive, shabby and slow. We could travel from Damascus to Amman in comfort by car, or even bus, in less than half the time. They were right of course, but for less than the cost of a movie at home, a friend and I opted for an excellent little adventure and a memory to last a lifetime. Continue reading “The Hejaz Railway: Syria to Jordan, 2001”
June First. Canada Day. Or, as we are calling it Halifax this year, “Kana’ta Day” to acknowledge the discoverers of this country whose descendants made it their home for millennia before Europeans mastered ocean navigation and gunpowder. “Kana’ta” is an indigenous work for “village”, which European arrivals mistakenly thought was the name of the entire country. Still, when you stop to think about it, that seems appropriate on many levels. Despite its many imperfections and inequalities, this half-continent village of ours is relatively one of the freest, safest and most affluent places in the world to live, notwithstanding the carping and tantrums of the trumpkins among us who persist on using that freedom to take their “fifteen minutes of fame” in spite of inconveniencing everyone else.
My friend Peter and I were about to embark on a 185 kilometre, eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Jiri, a village at the end of what’s generously described as a road. From there, we would be trekking with our Nepali crew to Everest Base Camp at the foot of the great mountain; retracing the steps of the legendary 1953 expedition that had been the first to put climbers on the summit of the world’s highest peak, sixty years earlier. Because seats in Nepali mini-buses are not designed for long-legged six-footers, the local agent for the ever-efficient Canadian Himalayan Expeditions had booked two seats each for us so that we could spread out a bit with our packs. “Don’t give up the extra seats” he emphasized. “They’re paid for”. That was easier said than done.
When Russia’s flagship, Moskva, went to the bottom of the Black Sea on 14 April, it became the first major naval combattant sunk in war since a British submarine fired torpedoes into Argentina’s General Belgrano in the battle for the Falkland Islands, exactly forty years ago today. For me, though, the more pertinent memory of the South Atlantic war is the sinking of the British destroyer Coventry a little over three weeks later (pictured above). Someone I knew was among the dead, and some of the lessons still resonate.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. (Mark Twain)
The Croatian “special police” crowding into the hotel bar were singing songs of the notorious Second World War pro-Nazi Ustaše (Ustasha). All were sporting the “skinhead” look, which may be benign now but was once the fashion choice of neo-Nazis. It was late. I was bone-weary. Over the past few days I’d been responding to Croatian “ethnic cleansing” and cease-fire violations. I’d allegedly been shot at by Serbs, although I was pretty certain that it was just some Croat trying to inject a touch of drama into a front-line visit. As the child of parents whose lives had been upended by a Nazi regime, my feelings on returning to the familiar comfort of our hotel to find it full of neo-fascists would be difficult to put into words. But my job was to monitor, so I settled down to nurse a beer and watch.
In preparation for his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin deployed the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean. Now, the powerful cruiser Marshal Ustinov stands between NATO’s naval forces (including Canada’s HMCS Montreal) and the Dardanelles, which link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Twenty-nine years ago the relationship had been very different. Ustinov made a memorably visit to Halifax and conducted friendly exercises with the Canadian Navy before heading on to the U.S. Looking back, there were warning signs even then that if the collapse of the Soviet Union were not handled prudently, sooner or later Russia would become an adversary again. And so it has proved.
Protests and intervention by Russian paratroops propelled Kazakhstan’s largest city into headlines here recently. My own memories of the place are rather more prosaic. On the outskirts of Almaty, for the second time in my life, I ended up climbing part-way up a mountain by mistake.
Please note: There were some inaccuracies in the original post which are now corrected. My apologies.
A brisk wind was gusting straight down the expanse of South Beach as Debbie set Sable Aviation’s little Islander down with deceptive ease. Earlier that morning the Parks Canada team had scouted out a suitable stretch of sand firm enough, despite the rain which had cancelled our flight plans a day earlier. The spot was about four kilometres from Sable Island Station, the sole permanent habitation for those on the island for professional reasons. For the few hundred casual visitors permitted each year between June and October, staying overnight is not an option. By sunset we had to be airborne again.
A 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur offered a perfect opportunity to visit the famous Batu Caves, a half-hour from city centre by commuter train. For tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists the main attraction is a profusion of flamboyant shrines and statues, particularly those inside the vast Temple (or Cathedral) Cave, 272 steps above the imposing guardian statue. Near the top, a gate on a side-path caught my eye, its sign welcoming passers-by to a “Dark Cave”. Checking that out after visiting the main feature turned out to be the best decision of my day.
Each year, thousands of Canadians gather at cenotaphs on November 11th – Remembrance Day – to reflect on the futility of war, and to honour those who have paid a heavy price for their service. I have many personal reasons for standing silently at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; the anniversary of guns falling silent in 1918, ending what had been optimistically dubbed “The War to End all Wars”. But from a lifetime of Remembrance Day memories the one that still stands out is observing the day in Germany in 1989.
On October 1st each year Nova Scotia celebrates Treaty Day, when nation-to-nation covenants between the indigenous Mi’kmaq and British Crown (now the Government of Canada) are reaffirmed in Halifax (Kjipuktuk in the Mi’kmaw language). Yesterday, to mark the occasion the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre presented a program of dance, song, drumming and cultural teaching along with a free meal of Atlantic salmon to all comers as a gesture of the Peace and Friendship which the treaties were intended to nurture. The troubled three-century history of the treaties and subsequent colonial abuses is too complex to relate here, but is the reason why many people were wearing orange shirts of remembrance. But this was a day of celebration and reconciliation, which put me in mind of another, more ancient annual feast.
For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax. It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far. Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban, I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed. I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.
Each summer I try to take a couple of months off to reboot, clear the mind, learn new stuff and refresh the spirit. This year I’m also starting a year-long sabbatical from responsibilities like committees, boards, task forces and so on. I need the break, and reckon that organizations may need to do some soul-searching if they can’t manage twelve months without one, particular, chronologically and melanin challenged part of the cisgender heteropatriarchy. (For those who ain’t woke, that means “old, white, straight guy”.)
See you back here in September. Hopefully by then we’ll have all cooperated in outsmarting that brainless but tenacious little coronavirus, so tiny that it would take a couple of thousand to span the period at the end of this sentence. And to those unwilling to follow simple public health guidelines, I offer this thought for the summer……
Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy” provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)
Five years ago, lingering over a last glass of wine and aftertaste of delicious Basque cooking, I was savouring the ambience of a little courtyard restaurant tucked under the medieval walls of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Calling for the bill, I jotted a few final notes in a little pocket notebook before returning to my lodgings for the night. It proved to be an unexpected life-changing moment.
The driver of one of the city’s three-wheel auto-rickshaws had proven honest and personable so I offered to hire him for a full day of exploring Old and New Delhi. The next morning Yogesh was at the door, right on time, in his little canvas-covered “tuk-tuk” with its puttering two-stroke engine, and off we went. As our final stop I wanted to wander the famous gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb so, after my faithful “rickshaw-wallah” took a picture of me taking a picture, I let him go with thanks. I thought that the thirty-minute stroll back to my lodgings would make the perfect end to a perfect adventure. I was wrong.
Private Johnston’s great adventure ended abruptly on February 18th 1900. The 19 year-old militiaman had lied about his age to join the special contingent of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, recruited to fight Boers in South Africa. But on the first day of the first battle Johnston took a bullet in the head. Mortally wounded, he died nine days later. “8105 Pte. Johnston G.” reads the casualty list. “Died of Wounds, 27-2-1900. Buried at Paardeberg, S. of Modder River, 150 yds S.W. of ford, 200 yds. west of house used as hospital.” A century later, preparing to travel to South Africa and intrigued by that cryptic entry, I resolved to find out who he was, explore where he fought, and visit his grave.
In the historic town of Carrión de los Condes in northern Spain, a diverse group of weary guests gathered in the vestibule of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) at the convent of Santa María to join some of the nuns for an evening sing-along before the nightly Pilgrim Mass. Most of us were strangers, united only by walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, to the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, still more than 400 kilometres ahead. Song sheets were distributed, a guitar produced, a few well known songs sung, and introductions made around the circle as we each described where we were from and why we were walking the Camino. We were invited to sing songs from our own countries, so a South African pilgrim and I offered a brief rendition of “Senzeni Na”, a protest song from apartheid days. And therein lies a musical tale spanning continents and cultures.
At Cairo’s airport the baggage staff were evading every request, suggestion or insistence that they issue the loss report I’d need to claim insurance for my missing luggage. It was nothing to do with them, they said – it was, after all, a Lufthansa flight and EgyptAir was just the local ground agent, so it was a German problem to solve, not Egyptian. After wearily accepting my host’s assurance that it would be looked after, I was grateful for reaching the hotel and the prospect of much needed sleep. But, as I opened the curtains, all accumulated grumpiness and fatigue evaporated. Floodlit, just half a kilometre away, rose the magnificent slopes of the great Pyramids of Giza. I must have spent at least an hour on the balcony savouring a cold drink, warm desert breeze and priceless view.
Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.
At the moment – and that’s an important qualifier – Nova Scotia is said to be the safest place from the COVID-19 coronavirus in North America, along with the neighbouring provinces cooperating as an “Atlantic Bubble.”Some other parts of Canada have spent Thanksgiving weekend locked back down after renewed outbreaks. The public health debacle south of the border in the world’s richest country beggars belief. Yet the Halifax waterfront has been lively during the summer. Most restaurants and pubs are open, albeit with limited occupancy, mandatory masking, physical distancing, and registering patrons for potential contact tracing. Shops, salons, other businesses and places of worship are struggling, but most are staying afloat. Those who can are working from home, and the public and private sector are doing their best to mitigate the economic hardships on the most vulnerable. So what’s making the difference?