Walking the shark

The shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, uses its fins to wiggle along the seabed and forage for small fish and crustaceans – ‘walking shark’ discovered in Indonesia – The Guardian

I caught up with the shark as he was promenading off Bali the other day and he was in a bit of a rueful mood. ‘Wiggle? I ask you, do I wiggle?’ he mewled, sounding aggrieved and displaying several rows of sharp teeth in what I initially mistook for a threat but later realised was just his way of sneering. He distractedly masticated a bucketful of small fish and crustaceans that the bountiful seas of Indonesia deposited straight into his mouth as if from a conveyor belt. We pulled up some rocks around a tabletop of coral and sat down to chew the fat for a couple of minutes. ‘Oooh, big deal, a walking shark,’ he snorted. ‘As if we hold the presses every time we see an underwater human or one that has a decent taste in sushi.’ With one swell bite he took the side off a passing grouper, loudly saying ‘yummy’ and looking very pleased with himself. ‘Listen, this whole walking thing is a bit of a scam. Of course we prefer to swim, have you tried walking at this depth?’ He did a comical impression of maneuvering a giant umbrella into a hurricane. ‘We just do it to blend in.’ I nodded understandingly, ‘right, to avoid the shark fin hunters.’ The sitting shark growled at me contemptuously, ‘Most of those supposed fins are flippers that we tear off gormless divers like you and then stick to our backs. Ever wondered why they taste so rubbery? No, we walk to avoid having to bribe the coast guard. They suspect that we sharks make money posing for tourists and they want their cut. It confuses them when we walk. But thanks to that bloody newspaper article, they’re on to us.’ I nodded sympathetically, ‘yes, I wish the press would mind its own goddamn business.’ We silently watched the fish trying to scramble away from us for a while, the shark contemplating the vagaries of life and me enjoying the oxygen as an underwater hubbly bubbly. ‘You’ve got a bit of seaweed stuck to your upper lip,’ I solicitously pointed out to the shark. He scowled at me, ‘that’s my version of a holiday beard, having no chin and all. Actually, after having seen Jeremy Paxman’s attempt, I think I’m doing rather well,’ he said a bit smugly. ‘Sorry,’ I blurted, trying hard not to stare. ‘So, where did you summer this year?’ The shark sighed and gave its version of shrugging its shoulders, which would have been the subject of another excited article had any scientists or journalists been around: a shrugging shark! ‘We went to see my cuz in the Med. The place has become a dump,’ he answered disgustedly. I nodded in agreement, ‘yes all the tourist development can get a bit much.’ Once again the shark looked at me as if he’d run in to an uncomprehending mollusc that could not be eaten and had to be endured. ‘No, no. It’s just that on the European side they always used to dump lots of good stuff into the sea. Whole sides of beef sometimes in Greece. Those guys knew how to waste their souvlaki on a grand scale. But now, nada!’ I wanted to point out that he was mixing his Greek and his Spanish but thought better of it; you don’t want to annoy a shark, not even a walking one. He wasn’t done yet with his holiday gripes. ‘And off Syria, where we often used to find these bodies floating in the sea, as if they were executed by some madman but never mind, I got the most horrible chemical taste in my mouth and I was sick for days. I tell you, that ruined my break well and truly.’ I tutted in sympathy, ‘well at least you’re OK now and back home safe and sound.’ The shark started getting up from the rock he had been squatting on, ‘Yes, back to the grind of freaking out tourists.’ As he ambled away he called over his shoulder, ‘I’ve had it with Europe and the Middle East. Next year I’ll focus more on Asia, so catch you here again if you’re around.’ I watched him wiggle away, yes he did wiggle, and resolved firmly to stay home next year; who wants to hang out with a grumpy, hungry and sick shark, with blisters on its fins to boot?

All in the Assad Family

I Love Bashar in English, Arabic and Camel
I Love Bashar in English, Arabic and Camel

Come on, who doesn’t love Bashar? Well at least his Assad family paraphernalia. Sure, this is not government issue and he has eschewed the statues and huge portraits that his father, Hafez, so enjoyed. Syria’s ruling house has been somewhat middle of the road in its self aggrandisement when compared to some of its neighbours. Jordan’s Hashemites shouldn’t have to go for the farcical, full-bedouin dress or operetta-military outfit propaganda pics, being descendants of the prophet but they do anyway. And remember the giant stone busts of fellow Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein at his Baghdad palace? Still, the Assads have been cultivating their image as a ruling family for decades, as in this button from the 1990’s depicting Hafez with his son Basil, his intended heir who died in a car crash, and Bashar who had to be given legitimacy quickly.

Hafez, Basil and bashar, The Assad family's, hence Syria's, Holy Trinity
Hafez, Basil and bashar, The Assad family’s, hence Syria’s, Holy Trinity

The text at the bottom boldly declares ‘Suria al-Assad’ as if another push towards more complete identification of the family with the country and vice versa were necessary. But it’s a lovely tradition in the region to name your country after your family. The Saudis did it and Jordan is also the Hashemite Kingdom. Anyway, to understand the particular mess that Syria is in today, it helps to know a couple of things about the Assads, apart from the whole Alawite angle. Bashar was never intended to lead the country, his older, more dashing and martial brother Basil was the heir apparent. He took a ‘special interest’ in neighbouring Lebanon that extended to him dating a beautiful Lebanese girl – ironic detail: after he died, she married a Lebanese politician and newspaperman who was killed years later in what many belief was Syria’s campaign against its opponents in Lebanon.

The dashing Basil Assad - groomed for greatness, died in a car crash
The dashing Basil Assad – groomed for greatness, died in a car crash

Bashar, the gawky supposed medical doctor and ophthalmologist was roped in to rescue the family franchise, leading to the by now well-known list of blunders on his part, starting with a ruthless crackdown on even the mildest of dissidents following a very brief ‘spring’ when he took over in 2000, then the fiasco in Lebanon where his henchmen are widely suspected of being behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and culminating in the brutal actions against peaceful demonstrations in 2011 that led to the current civil war. While on the subject of blunders: Those awful Sunni Jihadi terrorists that he accuses of forming the bulk of the opposition, well they are to a large degree his own creation. Syria used radical Islam on many occasions against its enemies, including the well-documented sluicing of men and money to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the very same group that’s now causing so much trouble in his own ‘Suria al-Assad’. Blowback or what?

Obviously Bashar paraphernalia is so much less cool than Basil’s and Hafez’s. They are both buried in a mausoleum in Qardaha, the birthplace of the Assad clan that sports a large statue of the pater familias in the town centre. Bashar may end up in foreign soil, if things continue this way. I have more Hafez and possibly some Bashar stuff stored somewhere and will try post the gaudiest items if I ever dig them up.

Bosnia’s invisible Saudi

Saudi man cutout

Meet the invisible Saudi, he resides at the King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud cultural centre in Sarajevo, adjacent to the largest mosque on the Balkans, a gift from Saudi Arabia to the people of Bosnia after that country’s devastating war in the 1990’s. A prop used by the cultural centre during a book fair to get Bosnians better acquainted with Saudi society, the invisible Saudi and his equally invisible wife (but that is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia) could be a symbol for that country’s role in Bosnia. During the war, rumours were rife of Saudi funded foreign Jihadis joining the ranks of Bosnia’s besieged Muslim community in their fight with mainly the Orthodox Christian Serbs. Concern over these supposed Jihadis using Bosnia as a jumping board into Europe and the US kept cropping up periodically for more than a decade after the war and received new impetus after 9/11. But the story has since died a silent death. One local journalist and analyst in Sarajevo who wrote about it repeatedly, recently told me that it has become a non-issue. Steps that were taken to deal with it have proved adequate and the threat never panned out. With global concern over Jihadis in Syria reaching fever pitch, it may be a very small example of how worst-case scenarios are not always realistic.

Saudi Cutouts

Much more revealing about the present moment in the Middle East than the whole Jihadi question was an unprompted remark by the Saudi cultural representative in Sarajevo concerning Iran. Asked about Turkey’s unquestionable cultural influence in Bosnia, he said, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the same in Bosnia. Only some other countries are against us. Yes, Iran”. European Bosnia may not seem an obvious place for the raging sectarian tensions that plague the Middle East to surface but maybe the official had in mind the expulsion of four Iranian diplomats accused of spying that was rumoured to be taking place as he was speaking.

The Saudi-built King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Balkan’s largest.

Many Bosniaks, the name for Bosnian Muslims, are not that charmed by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, which a group of youngsters having coffee on a Friday morning in the shade of the looming Saudi mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo lumped together as “the East”. Ignoring the call to Friday prayer, the law and business students at the café expressed their disapproval of “all that Wahhabi stuff, veils, religion in the street, that we never had before the war.” Yet they did not see a major Jihadist problem in Bosnia either. “We are European, not like those Muslims of the East.”

Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque
The invisible Saudi nipping out for prayer at the Ottoman era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosquein central Sarajevo

The Bosnians have plenty of their own problems to worry about without importing new ones from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The sectarian and political mess that persists almost two decade after the war is leaving them behind in the former Yugoslav republics’ drive to join the EU. The corruption, bloody mindedness and astonishing obtuseness of their political leaders has led to such high-farce crises as the babies born in bureaucratic limbo and a national museum closed for lack of a national narrative. Even though a virtual EU protectorate and boosted by Islamic and European goodwill and aid, Bosnia is an object lesson in how civil war and sectarian divisions can screw a place up for years to come.

Bosnia National Museum closed

Creative Commons License
Bosnia’s invisible Saudi by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Green Absinthe by Frederick Seidel


‘Twas brillig and as if I’d drunk
Green absinthe the night before.
The bed felt like an upper bunk
Ten miles above the bedroom floor.

Maybe it’s because I did,
Maybe it’s because I do
Drink a bathtub of poison gas each night and kid
Myself I’m still able to.

Hey, something is coming—what’s that glow?
It’s snow or rain, it’s spring.
It’s chemical weapons. It’s baseball spring training. Whoa!
Mariano Rivera throws a wicked cut fastball—a vicious,
  delicious thing!

Day after day of gray
For Obama in his second term,
And trying not to be poisoned by the horror in Syria today
The apple is trying to digest the worm.

Bashar al-Assad (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
The dead about to lead him to his doom.

The dead in the streets gape and gasp.
The dead smell like chlorine.
Their dead nostrils tried to breathe the asp.
There’s a waitress at Cafe Luxembourg named Maureen.

Maureen, your eyes are green.
Your parents crossbred Ireland with Russia.
The bloody blarney of the Troubles, ‘tis obscene, Maureen,
And the Kremlin percussionists, if they can, they’ll crush ya.

Yeats walked on the moon and spent the night there.
Back on earth, found his rhetoric and politics and splendor
  and rage.
Soviet Mandelstam rose like Christ from the nightmare,
Rises from the gulag, sunrise on the page.

Something is coming more than we know how.
More than we know how. An asteroid. Soon.
A world-destroying future is exploding toward us now.
Yangon hurtles toward Rangoon.

Maureen, I think I’d better order while one still can!
I’d like the Syria tartare, please, to start.
Then tender baby baboon from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Picking a dessert is the hard part.