Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back to old issues: China and Africa

For China watchers, there was an interesting letter in London Review of Books vol 32 No 12 from Hugh Miles in response to an article by Adam Shatz about the decline of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak.  The letter writer points out that while Shatz focuses on the relationship between Egypt and the US and Israel, another relationship has been developing:  the influence of China.

Here is the letter in full:
"Seventeen thousand Chinese are now officially resident in Egypt and the volume of trade between the two countries has gone from $635 million in 1999 to more than $5.86 billion in 2009. Besides granite and marble, China imports Egyptian cotton, oil, carpets and kitchen sinks. English is the main language of business, but around the Free Trade Zones, cheap manufacturing bases close to European markets with very few export restrictions, most of the road signs are in Chinese. According to Egypt’s General Authority for Investment, there are 1038 Chinese companies operating in Egypt, representing a total investment of $311 million.
‘Before the Chinese arrived everyone was leaving this neighbourhood,’ I was told recently by an estate agent in the Cairo suburb of New Maadi. ‘Nowadays you see more Chinese round here than Egyptians. They’re here for this.’ He tapped the granite counter. ‘After the first wave came all kinds of small businesses to service the community, like gyms, restaurants and shops. Then a second wave came to work for Huawei when it replaced Siemens and Alcatel as Etisalat’s main contractor in Egypt.’ Huawei Technologies is the second largest telecoms company in the world. Last November Wen Jiabao opened its $20 million new training centre in Cairo’s Smart Village. ‘We have a business relationship,’ the estate agent said. ‘They don’t care for football or religion. All they think about is business, except when they are drinking tea and playing cards. But there are no problems and we say hello to one another when we pass each other in the street.’
The Chinese Embassy has gone on a charm offensive of film festivals, photo exhibitions and, last February in Rihab City on Cairo’s eastern outskirts, a cultural week showcasing martial arts, Chinese music and tea art. Two Confucius institutes have been established and last year China Central Television launched a new Arabic-language satellite TV channel.
The love-in appears to be reciprocal. From 1999 to 2009 Egypt’s exports to China grew from $15 million to $989 million, creating thousands of new jobs. In the last six years, five Egyptian universities have opened Chinese departments and Chinese goods are a familiar part of everyday life. A new character has made an appearance in Egyptian soap operas: the Arabic-speaking Chinese saleswoman going from door to door, offering cheap consumer goods, bootleg DVDs and snappy haircuts. Egyptians joke about the quality of the imports and grumble that the Chinese never spend any money. Their fathers used to grumble about the Soviets for the same reason.
China’s relationship with the Arabs dates back to the Silk Road, but modern relations can be traced to 30 May 1956 when Nasser defied the US policy of containment to become the first Arab or African country to establish diplomatic ties with the Communist state. (Later that year Chinese newspapers celebrated the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.) Mubarak himself has been to China at least seven times. In 1999 he signed a key strategic agreement in Beijing and since then co-operation has deepened to include infrastructure building, training, energy and defence. There are goodwill politburo visits every few months and at the start of May Egypt’s Oil Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Petroleum Corp to build Egypt’s biggest ever oil refinery in a contract worth $2 billion. ‘Things are going perfectly,’ according to Zhijie Zeng, the director of the China Development Bank. ‘We are eager to deepen the co-operation. Africa and China have a win-win relationship.’
But the press has spoken of China’s ‘commercial attack’ on Egypt, and there have been accusations of Chinese products being dumped in Egypt at below cost price. In January a Chinese ship accidentally destroyed coral reefs in South Sinai. And in the second half of last year China abruptly halted trade shipments to Egypt. The official reason was to combat smuggling but the move sent the price of some commodities shooting up 40 per cent."
Hugh Miles

Just makes one think.....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lights and lighting in Syria

Armenian Church, Aleppo

One of the delights of touring the souks, citadels, churches, hotels, and other buildings, was the lighting.  At times, there was the feeling of being in an Ottoman fairytale.  CFL bulbs are used everywhere and while that seems so environmentally with-it, garbage disposal is such a nightmare in Syria, one really wonders where the used bulbs end up.

Below are some examples of such interest and beauty.

Reception Room, Citadel, Aleppo
Umayyad mosque, Damascus
Lights, Marian Church, Homs

Talisman Hotel, Damascus, divan room

Souk, Aleppo
Divan room, Talisman Hotel, Damascus

Ceiling of bath house, Citadel, Aleppo. Alabaster inserts

Lights in mosque, Hama

Bedroom, Talisman Hotel, Damascus
Courtyard, Casa Mia restaurant & boutique hotel, Palmyra

Fruit & vegetable market at 11pm, Aleppo

Lights in the Armenian Church, Aleppo.  Note Mamaluk-style arch

Maybe the niqab will fall by the wayside......

On 19 July, NPR reported that the Syrian government had banned the niqab in universities and on 20 July they reported, in the full education system. Only thing is, it was not announced in the media.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Arches: architectural & engineering things of beauty

Wandering among the ruins and the cities of Syria, I was constantly reminded of just what amazing structures we humans have built. Whether buildings had been erected in Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman, or any other times before, during, and after (such as the Dead Cities), often all that remains of a structure are its arches . They have withstood earthquakes, wind, dust storms, neglect.
Below are photographs taken all through our trip of arches in mosques, churches, Roman temples, monasteries, other public and private buildings, walls, gates, aqueducts.

Bab Sharqi, Damascus

The Citadel, Aleppo

Roman columns & arches on the grounds of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

The baths, Apamea; those holes were where the water pipes came in

Old City, Hama

Grand Mosque, Damascus

Monastery courtyard, Krak de Chevalier

Khan off the Souk. Damascus

Inside St. George's Monastery

The Inn at Serjilla

The wine & olive presses, Serjilla

Church, Dead City of Serjilla

Remains of two story house, Dead City of Serjilla

Chapel ,Krak de Chevalier

Baalbek, Lebanon

Courtyard in a khan, Alepppo

Ressafa in a sand storm

Inside Ressafa

St. Simeon

At St. Simeon, north of Aleppo

Colonnade at Palmyra

The three arches, Palmyra

Friday, July 9, 2010

Searching for baskets in Syria

I am a devotee of baskets and basket makers. All cultures through time have made baskets, for utilitarian and decorative purposes. While designs and techniques may vary, there are an amazing number of similarities between cultures and geographic regions.

The first basket-sighting in Syria was made by my son at the ticket office at the entry to the Azm Palace in Hama. The man in the ticket booth indicated that these were very old baskets (there was one large, flat basket and one bowl-shaped one) and that there was a shop in Hama where we could find them....unfortunately, it was closed the day we went looking (most museums and other cultural attractions are closed on Tuesdays).

The next place we saw them was in Palmyra/Tadmor at the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant. The restaurant owner offered to take me to his cousin's shop the next day...we went to the ruins instead. Next stop, Damascus, at the government-certified craft market, the Tekke Sulimaniyah. The baskets there were very garish in colour and did not look as well-made as the older ones. At the Azm Palace in Damascus, one of the rooms displaying works by artisans in the Ottoman era, there was the most fabulous collection of baskets!...obviously, not for sale. It almost seemed that every effort I made to acquire a basket was being foiled, as I found none before we had to leave. Not one to be deterred from getting hold of a basket, a solution was found: my son and his girlfriend were going to be heading to Hama. So, they were dispatched with a mission...find mum a basket. They returned to the artists' quarter in the Old City in Hama and very late in the day found the basket shop. They were told the basket seller would be able to get there by 11 pm! So, they sat around, drank tea (a common experience with merchants and artists), and brought home three lovely old baskets for me. I found an interesting reference to Syrian baskets from 1909..check it out, as there are some great old photos.

Here is a photo of a basket maker:

And here are my three baskets: