Dissident Editions




POETRY

poems of the month

fish

vagabondage

measuring my face

ostracism

old clothes

modern iranian poems

my hero

face at the bottom of the world

perhaps (maybe)

the diogenes sequence

where to store furs

i am and am not:
      fragments of rumi

destiny and destination

the zen of no-enlightenment

the iraqi monologues

already backwards

a light in ruins

the sexy jihad

awaiting the barbarians

the smell of possibilities

ultimate leaves

rejoice in the dog

post-millennium maggot

the book of nothing

dispatches from the war against the world

albanian poems

french poems in honour of jean genet

the hells going on

the joy of suicide

book disease

foreground trouble

the transcendental hotel

cinema of the blind

lament of the earth mother

uranian poems

haikai by okami

haikai on the edge

black hole of your heart

jung's motel

leda and the swan

confession from belgrade

gloss on rilke's
ninth duino elegy

jewels and shit:
poems by rimbaud

villon's dialogue with his heart

vasko popa:
a shepherd of wolves ?

the rubáiyát of omar khayyám

genrikh sapgir:
an ironic mystic

imagepoem

 

BETWEEN POETRY AND PROSE

good riddance to mankind

the maxims of michel de montaigne

400 revolutionary maxims

nice men and
  suicide of an alien

anti-fairy tales

the most terrible event in history

the rich man and the leper

disgusting

art, truth and bafflement

 

SHORT STORIES

godpieces

the three bears

three albanian tales

odorous underwear

a little creation story

 

ESSAYS & MEMOIRS

a curious and peculiar
kind of queer

the ivory palace

helen's tower

extortion through e-bay

schopenhauer for muthafuckas

are doctors autistic ?

single track in the snow

never a pygmy

against money

did franco die ?

'original sin' followed by
crippled consciousness

a gay man's guide to soft-willy sex

the holosensual alternative

tiger wine

the death of poetry

the absinthe drinker

with mrs dalloway in ukraine

love  and  hell

running on emptiness

a holocaust near you

a note on the cathars

happiness

londons of the mind
& dealing death to the caspian

genocide

a muezzin from the tower of darkness

kegan and kagan

being or television

satan in the groin

womb of half-fogged mirrors

tourism and terrorism

the dog from sinope

shoplifting
in britain & america

this sorry scheme of things

the bektashi dervishes

a holy dog
& a dog-headed saint

fools for nothingness

death of a bestseller

vacuum of desire: a homo-erotic correspondence

a note on beards

translation and the oulipo

the visit

 

PHOTOGRAPHS

prelude

 

Nuadú, God of War

field guide to megalithic ireland

houses for the dead

ireland & the phallic continuum

the sheela-na-gig conundrum

french megaliths

a small town in france

 

 

 

 


LONDONS OF THE MIND
and DEATH TO THE CASPIAN

Horatio Morpurgo

a freelance writer based in the South West of England

 


1. The Old Lady and New Europe
formerly published in
The New Internationalist
2006

I start early one frosty morning from a small town in the Netherlands, close to the Belgian border. Someone in the ticket office, hearing my question and having the same train to catch, accompanies me to the platform and we fall into conversation. My companion speaks good English and I've been in the country just a few days. It occurs to me that I've not yet asked anyone here about the Dutch vote against the European Constitution, so I ask. She is in her sixties perhaps, dressed in a way suggestive of solid material comfort - a new woollen coat and silk headscarf. She responds eagerly.

‘Oh all these Romanians and Bulgarians - there are so many criminals now...'

‘They are all criminals?' I ask.

‘No - but it's too fast - I think they aren't ready yet.' People are shot in the streets now, she goes on, and invariably it turns out the hired assassins were ‘from there'. The reference is to a recent spate of contract killings in The Netherlands , in which criminal gangs from the Balkans are taking on their Dutch equivalents over real estate in Amsterdam. Her reservations are ‘because of Islam too', she concedes - ‘Not the religion - as a religion its fine, but the extremists...'

The discussion moved on and then a crowded train pulled in and so our impromptu exchange broke up. I pondered that quiet conflation, afterwards, of European Union (EU) enlargement and Islamic terrorism. Here was a particularly fine example, surely, of those over-heated, under-informed imaginations which are the proud achievement of affluent Europe's mainstream media.

I've spent quite a lot of time out there in the wilds. I'll focus mainly on Romania because I know it better. She would have been surprised, perhaps, to learn how many there share her fears about the country's ‘readiness'. Their fears tend to be derived from something like information so I guess she would find them rather dull.

‘I would be worried too, if I was from Western Europe,' a young literary critic recently told me, for example. ‘I think you will have problems with us. With the corruption, of course.' He meant the embezzling of EU funds. ‘But with the attitude more.' Meaning? ‘There's a fatalism in people here - maybe it was communism, maybe it goes deeper...'

My old lady might have learnt something from the general reluctance of Romanians to blame problems on foreigners. In 2000 the President abruptly resigned, not only from his post but from politics altogether. He went on TV to explain that in four years of trying to tackle corruption he had discovered ‘a mafia system in which a web of front organizations was backed by the highest state institutions... a world where everything is for sale...'

Confirmation of this, if any were needed, came in 2002, when it emerged that a Prefect in the region of Iasi had been offered $150,000 for his job. The Prefect's office is one through which enormous sums from Brussels as well as Bucharest are already passing, as power is ‘devolved to the regions' on the best EU advice. Such stories are not rare. Former communists converted old contacts and ready cash into vast fortunes during privatisation.
Breeding monsters

In Bucharest four-wheel-drives (‘jeepuri') race each other along the tree-lined boulevards in the evenings. Parking spaces are reserved for them outside the most fashionable cafés. This is a poor country. Whatever the explanation for such brutally exhibitionist forms of ‘prosperity', it clearly has little to do with a functioning economy in any meaningful sense of the term. Some 60 or 70 contract killings have been carried out by their Bulgarian equivalents in Sofia in recent years. If the sleep of reason brings forth monsters, a breakdown of social solidarity on this scale does much the same. Soft-peddling anti-Hungarian sentiment is still a vote-winner in Transylvania. Populist tycoons on the Berlusconi model, only cruder (seeing is believing), make fortunes in real estate, found political parties, buy TV stations, football clubs, newspapers - which then disseminate ‘euromyths' tailored to the home market. The EU will mean investigation of their financial affairs and is therefore a Very Bad Thing. Accordingly, the recent rise in fuel prices is explained, not as a global phenomenon, but somewhat mysteriously as a result of imminent accession.

It was idle Western talk about the magical efficacy of unregulated market forces, at all times and in all places, which gave this mafia class the opportunity it needed. Its position is now almost unassailable. The election of Traian Basescu to the Presidency in December 2004 seemed to mark a turning point. He is trying to bring two of his predecessors in the post to trial, hoping finally to discredit the ‘reformed' Communist Party. Ion Iliescu stands accused of orchestrating the violence of December 1989 as the smokescreen for what amounted to a coup d'état. Adrian Nastase stands accused of amassing a fortune in bribes. This may impress Brussels but the problem remains systemic rather than individual.

The EU finances new water and drainage systems. Its engineers clean up refineries. And it will do more. But it is also currently financing the rapid construction of a new road network, soon to span both countries. Through the Rhodope Mountains, where Orpheus once charmed rivers out of their courses with his song, a new motorway is being built despite Bulgarian protests.

Some new roads are no doubt needed. But these have been planned in seamless co-ordination with the companies building shopping malls around the larger cities. Despite the EU's trumpeted concerns for climate change there is no comparable investment in the extensive and popular railway network. The EU's main role here is as globalization's local facilitator, promoting a trade bloc: consumerism, cars, malls and the rest.

Most people want Europe because they think it will tame the oligarchs and reconnect the economy and the culture with the West. But two closely related questions remain to be answered: what is it in these societies that has caused them to neglect their own best interests? And what do Europeans really mean by freedom?

Horatio Morpurgo is a regular contributor to The New Internationalist, and tends to wander around the Danube and points east.

 

"I c

an't say it!" H.R.H. the Prince Philip of Greece, Duke of Edinburgh (overheard)

2. Londons of the Mind

originally published on
this website


I thought I'd flown to Kazakhstan to write a piece about Caspian ecology and the oil business. Flights to Atyrau, the country's 'oil-hub', are mainly via Istanbul and often fully booked because of all the contractors, but I found one eventually and there are plenty of hotels there now, catering to the foreign workers. The receptionist at mine asked straight out Are you with Halliburton ? They enjoyed a special rate apparently. As I waited at the elevators one of the security guards approached to offer me a prostitute. Naturally I wondered whether Halliburton employees enjoy a special rate with them too, but never got round to asking.

At the front of this 'casino-restaurant-hotel' was a terrace facing onto the street. There the burly shaven-headed contractors, British and Dutch mainly, drank Belgian beer and engaged in red-blooded speculation about the young women as they passed. Their confidence that nobody could understand what they were saying was impressive. I was out there one evening as a new sign for the front of the hotel was winched into place. The crane had been hired from 'KazTransOil', a pipeline construction company. The hotel logo was an enormous capital A, done up to resemble an oil-derrick as closely as possible - there was even a little wavy blue bit, signifying the Caspian.

The new 'super-giant' oil-field at Kashagan, on which these contractors were all working, is off-shore, situated about 40 miles from the Ural delta in the north of the Caspian. Discovered in 2000, it will eventually comprise about 100 wells operating from 17 artificial islands. The Caspian has already seen heavy industrial pollution, via the Volga, for many years, with levels of lead, cadmium, copper, zinc and mercury all well in excess of prescribed limits. Since 1991 its famous sturgeon fisheries have been de-regulated to serve Mafia interests - a survey of the resulting decimation of fish-stocks is currently being undertaken with funding from the World Bank.

An estimated eleven billion barrels of oil will now be pumped from reserves lying 5 km below the Caspian. High in sulphur content, such 'old oil' must be pumped at scalding temperatures - up to 125 C - and at very high pressure - around 1,000 Atmospheres. The reservoir is 25% 'sour gas', i.e hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide - both highly toxic. The extraction of material as volatile and toxic as this, in the most vulnerable area of an already over-fished and heavily polluted sea, has naturally caused concern.

Such, in very brief, is the 'story' I went to look into. Someone had told me in advance that the uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan had badly rattled other post-Soviet regimes. Kazakhstan's, for example, has not changed since 1991. I might find that western journalists were not very welcome.

10 am on Day 3. I arrive to interview a Professor of Geology, as arranged, at the Institute of Oil and Gas. There to meet me are two individuals, both courteous, neither of them the professor, one of them claiming to be an interpreter. What do I want to ask the professor ? they would like to know. So like a fool I tell them. I want to ask him about geology. 'This is a political question,' the male half of this couple announces, adding that he will answer no more questions.

But I'm not here to ask him any questions, I protest. The professor is not here, he responds. To conduct any further interviews I will need written permission from the mayor. To obtain that I will need a letter of recommendation from Agip, the Italian company which fronts the international consortium at Kashagan.
Agip was, naturally, unable to oblige.

I wandered the city at a loss for a couple of days. The influential people here evidently didn't regard being helpful to journalists as part of their remit. I'm freelance anyway. Influential people don't have to be nice to me. 'The Chevron personal who did give me a couple of interviews were pleasant enough but told me nothing I couldn't have found online. Listening to the beery porno-talk of those thicknecks at the hotel had made me cringe to think that I was from Britain too, but that initial unease about my status here began to ramify now.

I took my cue from that new hotel sign in the end. It seemed to me that looked at properly there would be plenty to interview just in all the new buildings - the hotels and offices and banks going up everywhere. Right in the middle of the city, for example, a new bridge spans the river Ural, financed by Chevron. At either end of it stands a small kiosk, something pompous half-way between a band-stand and a bus-shelter. Around the top of the one on the west bank runs the word EUROPE in Latin and Cyrillic script, in red lights, with ASIA in green lights round the top of its opposite number. The bridge itself looked more like a fly-over to me but most people seem to like it.

My absolute favourite was the 'Chevron compound', the gated (and guarded and ring-fenced) community built specially for Chevron employees. It can best be described as an attempt to reproduce, under tricky circumstances, the purrfect American suburb. The wall around it, and the walls of the houses inside it, are all painted the same lemony shade of off-white and the bars around it, set in those lemony off-white walls, are the same grey as the grey of the metal roofs on the houses. Behind the bars the security guards wear blue, to distinguish them from the gardeners, who all wear green. Every flower-bed contains the same two or three varieties of roses and hollyhocks. Meanwhile dauntless sprinklers help to spread liberty right across the immaculate and identical lawns, even unto the banks of the Ural. Who needs interviews when people build like this ?

Most of the houses cleared to make way for the compound would have been single-storey cottages of lime-washed plaster over wooden frames and mud brick. There are still a few of them falling to pieces next-door. Whole districts of Atyrau are still largely made up of these. It's an uncomfortable experience, to be a fifteen-minute walk from the homes of people living off Chevron salaries, among the homes of people dressed in rags living off a vegetable patch and a goat. And since tourism does not exist in this part of the country, as a foreigner you are immediately identified as something to do with the oil. Being looked at like that - at dusk, in a shanty-town, in a country where you don't have the language and are already unwelcome - is conducive to thoughts along the lines of what on earth am I doing here ?

One evening in particular I was by the river watching the fish rise - watching them furiously snapping and splashing in a particular place and birds hovering to try and scoop one out - when the call to prayer went out from a mosque somewhere off in the distance. Very slow at first, and solemn, rippling gently now - and caught by surprise I wondered at the sound - at my not having paid it any serious attention it before. It seemed the first human utterance I'd heard in this town in any way worthy of the great river-flow running through the heart of it.

Amid all the oil business double-talk, amid the manoeuvrings of corrupt and frightened state functionaries, here was a voice which made its appeal to another order: an order in which neither Agip nor the mayor's office nor the high-rise hotels could lord it so completely so utterly uncontested over everything and everyone else. Or perhaps it was only my own frustrations that made of that sung prayer over Atyrau something so beautiful.

Next day I happened past the mosque and went to find the singing-master there. He spoke some English and was very eager to practise it. Sure, he could tell me about his job at the mosque, and about his interest in music of all kinds - 'Day'fter day, 'lone on a hill, Man withe foolish green is keeping per-fect-ly-still...' or 'London's burning London's burning, Fetch water, Fetch water...'

We stood outside the mosque as he ran through his medley of English songs before he lowered his voice and came to the point. His was the only income in his household - neither of his parents had jobs, and the rent, you know, these days... I gave him some and he thanked me. Did I have any contacts at the oil companies ? he continued. What he really needed was a proper job - could I recommend him to anyone in one of the foreign companies ?

So I gave him some more, but I had to get out of Atyrau. I felt a dupe of course, with my timeless oriental moment on the banks of the Ural, with my touristic hankerings so utterly inappropriate to a time and a place like this. The urban centres in Kasachstan are still largely russified - there is also a large and influential Russian minority in all of them. Many of the nomadic Kasachs in any case converted to Islam relatively late. The country has retained a secular constitution, partly a Soviet hang-over, partly also an accurate reflection of life as it is lived in the larger cities.

Back at the hotel, among the bestseller fiction that made up most of the small library was an earnest German travel guide - Kazakhstan Entdecken. Flipping through it I came to the description of a mosque far out in the desert, on the border with Turkmenistan, carved out inside a cliff. Now a place of pilgrimage it had been the home of an 18th century Sufi mystic, Beket Ata, famous for his mathematical writings and for his powers as a healer.

Domestic flights in Kasachstan cost very little and I easily found one to Aktau - another oil town but halfway down the east coast of the Caspian, so on the way to Turkmenistan. There was a chance I'd be left alone by the authorities there, and I might even get out to that mosque.

I was left alone - indeed I got to interview as many geologists and biologists and journalists and archæologists as I liked, without once being asked to explain my presence. I soon had more than enough for the planned articles. There would be time for that mosque too, although the Internet was strangely unhelpful. The hotel's 'Business Center' - i.e. a room with a computer in it - was, however, staffed by a woman who knew at once where to look. Half a dozen rival pilgrim buses advertised at the back of the local paper.

They were distinguished from other taxi-minivans by the grey paintwork and masking tape all around their back doors, to keep out the dust. The one which was waiting early next morning outside my hotel also sported a bumper-sticker reading In God We Trust. I was unsure how to interpret that at first but several interpretations would offer themselves in the course of the day ahead. It would be a nine-hour ride.

The ten people who had also booked this minivan were waiting at various addresses around the town. Crammed together in silence we slept or watched. The sun was still below the horizon as we climbed the plateau above the town and set out into the desert. We began to pass enormous oil-fields, their gas-flares just beginning to pale. In a village we stopped at an 'independent' filling station, meaning an old tanker parked at the side of the road. We got out to stretch our legs in the early morning sunlight.

I had assumed we would stop at places where you could buy food, so the landscape in this sunlight was very beautiful but it left me looking slightly foolish and feeling very hungry. I didn't need to ask and it broke the ice anyway, sharing their breakfast. I realised this was the first time I had actually eaten with Kazakhs since arriving here. They drink their tea with milk, by the way, and consider this a national peculiarity of theirs, so I felt oddly at home as they poured me mine. So this was perhaps the first God in which you could trust here - the God of communality, of fellowship and hospitality.

We left the metalled road at about seven and it was overland all the way from there, along steadily worsening dirt-tracks. We flew along at first - there were generally three or four different tracks to choose from and we rattled cheerfully from one to another, the earth bone-dry but flat. Only gradually did the driver's choice of tracks begin to dwindle until there was just one, leading up and down ever steeper ever stonier inclines as we travelled south towards the border with Turkmenistan. It ran along the edge of spectacular ravines carved out of the limestone by seas or rivers long since vanished. A pair of gazelles went bounding across our path. There were desert plover and partridges. There were canyons where each stratum of exposed rock was white with salt or shot through with a different wash - ochre or mauve, dull yellow, a bleached pink and several shades of green. To think that so many of the great migrations into Europe over the ages must have come this way, to think the Silk Road once ran past all this...

Or indeed not to think about any of that. We had all been waking up and taking a closer look at each other after breakfast when the youngest of the three women in the seat behind me leant forward. She asked was I glad that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympics - it had been the main news story the previous day. I supposed so. It was her mother's dream, she said, to see a Wimbledon Final. How much would a ticket cost for Centre Court, did I think ?

'A lot' was all I could tell her but she introduced herself as my translator for the day anyway, which seemed a good thing. Her dream, she continued, was to see Big Ben, and the double decker buses. Someone in her class had been to Paris three times and to London once. England was so green, too. It was hardly fair. The air was bad in Kazakhstan. From the refineries, she meant ? No - it was just too hot. Too dry. Just look - she gestured at the window - there was nothing here. It was boring.

Others tried to sleep on as best they could after breakfast, siblings sprawled across each other or in the laps of mothers or grandmothers. Unable to travel now at much speed, our van picked its way along the edge of ravines and I continued in my efforts at communing with it all - here was the real Central Asia!
Didn't I have a walkaman ? my translator inquired over the seat. I must disappoint her on that score too. It was fun to talk - it helps to pass the time, didn't I think ? She didn't think girls should marry at 16. They should get some experience first, not have children while they're still children themselves. I could see nothing to quarrel with in this. She was 17 herself but most people she met thought she looked more like 20. What did I think ?

I think she was wearing a scarlet T-shirt which read Columbia Sports team.

The sun-scorched plateaux rolled by one after another outside. Why had this mosque been constructed so far from anywhere ? How long had it once taken pilgrims to cover the distance that is now covered in a day ? How had they ever managed it ? The minivan lurched through dips or rocked along some particularly shattered bit of track. It didn't seem to be of specially robust construction but survived it all somehow.

We came out onto a high promontory and the van stopped to let us all out. The route down was too steep - it would be safer for us to get out and walk. There were little dark rocks everywhere that looked as if they had splintered from the heat. A scorching wind billowed up the cliff-face on the other side and a falcon was trying to balance in it. It hung there and seemed hardly a creature at all, wings only slightly open. Had it opened them any further it would have been carried off in a moment. So it kept them like that, held about a quarter open - and looked like some thrown-away scrap of brown and grey as back and forth it went like this, now lower, below the cliff-top out of sight, then rising again to steady itself in the blast. There seemed something demonic in a falcon that flies around with its wings shut, or in the place that makes such a thing possible.

There's a three-hour time difference and I wasn't paying very close attention to the time anyway but I suppose the three bombs in London must have been detonating about then.
My translator soon caught up with me. 'Is it interesting for you ?' she asked, all irony. She was bored. What kind of music did I like ? She had read the biographies of all the Spice Girls when she was younger, but she didn't like them any more. She'd grown out of them. Which film-stars had I seen in real-life ? Had I ever seen Beckham ?

We were joined now by a puffy-faced young man who had been watching us closely from the front seat of the van, unable to make contact. Now he closed in. He was from Atyrau - had I been to Atyrau ? Yes, I said, as we walked down together. You like ? Sexy girls ? How much you buy sexy girl Atyrau ? No, I said. He made a rapid gesture with finger and left hand, to clarify his point. Girls in Atyrau $100 only - is cheap, he reasoned. You like Kazakhstan ? Yes, I said. You stay here in Kazakhstan - I fly back to London ? He made an aircraft taking off noise. Why did he want to live in London ? I asked. He shrugged. 'It's better there.'

To my relief the former Spice Girl and the pimp seemed to hit it off at once. At the foot of the slope we climbed back into the van, re-occupying our previous seats. The girl's mother continued to prompt her with questions for the foreigner and she told me a little about why Aktau was a boring town to live, but it was fortunately beginning to dawn on her that I was boring too. She amused herself instead by playing through the whole menu of ring-tones on her mother's mobile phone.

So it was to the God of being left alone in magnificent scenery that I returned at last, grateful. I remembered the Turkish businessmen I'd spoken to over supper one evening in Atyrau - many of the construction companies there are Turkish-owned. The manager of the restaurant had stopped by to talk to us. One of their fellow-countrymen. He had been unimpressed by the country in which he did business. 'The Kazakhs are not really Muslim. They don't live according to any law. They don't know their own culture.' When they built the new mosque here they had to bring the Imam from Turkey. There was nobody here who knew enough. He blamed the Soviet years and moved on to the next table.

At the time I'd caught a whiff of Islamo-Fascism but I was less sure now. What sort of 'pilgrimage' were these two companions of mine on, for example ? Their chit-chat might be amusing and instructive enough, in its postmodern sort of way. If I needed confirmation of what consumerism can do, here it was. 'Everybody hates home', myself included, after all. But wasn't there a sadness, finally, especially amid scenery like this, about people here just fidgetting with their mobiles, wishing they were 'there' ? Or was that just my good fortune speaking through me ? Where was their pride ?

Former Spice Girls are in any case little help as guides to Muslim holy places. Our group divided into men and women at each stop. So it fell to the pimp to initiate me into the purification rituals required of us - two wash-houses stood outside each holy place. We stopped at an ancient cemetery, the side of a hill covered in ancient headstones. The pimp explained that there had been a great battle with Hitler and these were the graves of all the heroes. He did an imitation of spraying the mountain-side with machine-gun fire, signifying 'great battle'. It was his imitations that really mattered to him - the story about Hitler's war in Kazakhstan, otherwise unknown to History, was mainly the pretext for his finely honed machine-gun-noise. The cemetery was 13th century. He liked to end his stories with another sound-effect which signified someone being laid out with a single punch - a sort of 'djjj' sound - borrowed from computer games.

At the top of the hill was a memorial chapel carved into the rock, with a bedroom leading off it where another Sufi had once lived, Shopan Ata. We sat on the rugs covering its floor while a young man quietly recited a homily on the saint's life. White cotton cloths were distributed with a blue floral pattern printed on them, blessed by the saint's healing spirit. If we were ever hurt we should tie this cloth around the wound and its power would cure us.
Healing was the main theme of both the shrines we visited and just to add my own utterly inappropriate reference, I read Arthur Miller's memoirs once. He described Marilyn Monroe's intuitive awareness of the lostness in other people, her sense of people as 'all wound'. All in need of healing. In what religion are the saints not also acclaimed as healers ? Even in the religion of showbiz they are healers.

A big Russian helicopter from 'Euro-Asian Airlines' arrived as we walked back down, churning up a gigantic cloud of dust as it landed not far from the car-park. A small party of men in suits stepped out of the helicopter and were conducted on their own tour. They did not eat with the other visitors. After our meal of chicken and potatoes in a house by the car park we stood a while outside before leaving. That tremendous dusty machine for the rulers of the earth was waiting about fifty yards away. My translator looked on, full of admiration for those who could skip the boring bits in this way, those who did not need to sit for hours without a Walkman while 'nothing' went past outside. Her skirt was with red stripes and her trainers had blue stars on them.

We finally arrived at our destination mid-afternoon, stepping out of our modest transportation into suffocating heat. At the top of the cliff into which the mosque was carved stood the pilgrim house, where we would rest, letting this heat pass before making the descent. Meals were eaten in a long central hall with five blue domes. On either side were dormitories where the floor was covered in sleepers - so many that the far end of the dining hall was also thick with the spill-over of quiet reclining figures.

I tried to lie down among them but the young mobster and his new moll soon found me out. They flipped through my notebook and borrowed my pen to write risqué remarks about each other in its back-pages. The mobster was going to get married next year, he announced, but he was looking for a girl to have some fun with first. The former Spice Girl translated for me, laughing rather prettily. And what if your wife decides she'd like to enjoy herself in the meantime too ? I asked. He made one of his knock-out punch noises, together with a gesture very expressive of someone's eye swelling up. 'He will bite her,' the Spice Girl translated, still smiling but faintly embarrassed. The pimp went on talking. 'He is a wild animal,' she continued.

We left the pilgrim house in the early evening. Three-quarters of the way down the side of a magnificent ravine, the path came to a man-made terrace. The mosque was entered by a small simple doorway cut into the rock at the end of this terrace - the groups of pilgrims took it in turns to go inside.
Mainly it was just cramped and dark in there. I crawled around on carpets till I found what felt like a space, then sat in it. A young man harangued everybody for a few minutes. It must have been built as a hermitage. A small, remote house of prayer. As my eyes adjusted I saw there was enough of an opening in the ceiling to provide some shadowy light. It must have been about meditation originally and having lost that we moderns come blundering in search of miracle cures, I thought. It was cool in there too, and the darkness was a relief to over-strained eyes. I knew nothing about this Beket Ata and nobody I was with could tell me anything about him. He had been a saint and his shrine healed people. This much I knew.

The trouble with 'trusting in God' is notoriously that people do not all believe in the same one and they never will. There is the intractable problem too of how power-seeking motives mask themselves as religious ones in individuals as in groups. Some conclude that it's best not to believe in any God at all - and there are many forms of 'religious' faith on which that conclusion is definitely an advance. But it depends of course, no less notoriously, on what people then start believing instead. Are we completely sure that our consumer-secularism isn't part of the problem ? Or that a re-examination of our own attitudes toward religious faith is not a part of the solution ? A purely secular explanation for the current conflict is clearly inadequate to its magnitude and complexity. It is also only ever going to satisfy people on one side of the conflict. That happens to be the side which holds most of the weapons for now, so there's no urgency about listening to the other side if we would rather not. For now.

We waited outside as the women took their turn. The cliff we had descended by a winding path towered and blazed its whiteness until it met a dark blue sky almost directly overhead. The ravens that went gliding or tumbling through that blue seemed to have it pretty much to themselves, and their calls only added to the atmosphere of silence and bone-dryness and Elijah. Stay here a while, or somewhere like it, praying, and you could imagine History would soon begin to seem a distraction - an illusion, even. The pale dust of the plains below shimmered, salt-encrusted. It was all horizons, this place - the ragged edge of one towering above you, others spread out below. What great religion does not bring something of the desert with it ? I picked up a fossilised clam by the side of the path and put it in my pocket.

Each minivan had contributed towards the price of a sheep which was slaughtered and cooked on our return to the pilgrim house. One or two people had started watching me curiously, questioning me closely via children who knew some western languages. I ask myself now if perhaps they had heard the news and wondered which reconnoitring foreign power had brought this 'stray' Englishman to their door. Or was I a convert perhaps ? I puzzled them. At supper, sweating my way through all that lamb and noddles, someone eating with us asked me bluntly to produce my passport. I seemed more like an Uzbek to him, not English - though he conceded I didn't sound very Uzbek. The passport seemed to settle the matter anyway.

Uzbek. That was a new one. It meant they must have thought I was a survivor of the massacre there earlier this year. The border was only 60 miles away.
It was dark outside now. After the meal braziers were lit before the sculptured tombs nearby. People took turns to hold their hands over the coals, then gestured as if to 'wash' themselves with the warmth from them. This too would bring healing to any unwell part of the body. Where railings overlooked the ravine with that mosque near the bottom of it another group stared intently down. If you stared only in that direction and intently enough, the saint would visit you in your sleep that night and suggest a cure for any ailment you might have, it was said. People talked together, then fell silent, then talked some more or looked at the stars. One young woman there had 'seen' Beket Ata, when her grandfather was very ill once - a very old man had appeared to her in a vision, to reassure her that he would not die. And he hadn't. Another thing she mentioned - that the call to prayer was actually suggested to Mohammed by a friend who had dreamed it first - had dreamed he saw someone calling believers from the roof of a mosque to come and worship. I asked her if she was religious. She believed, she said, but didn't feel specially 'religious'.

There's a famous chapter in E.R.Dodds' The Greeks and The Irrational about the dream-life of the ancients, especially its importance at temples to Asclepius. There too the god of healing was said to visit in their dreams those who slept in the shrine and prescribe remedies for their sickness. Various methods were tried to induce such 'oracle dreams' - such as prayer, isolation, fasting or sleeping on the skin of a sacrificed animal. Similar cults existed right across the ancient world - the ones in Greece are merely the best documented - Asclepius himself was later exported all over the Roman Empire. Such cults have been studied by anthropologists in many contemporary societies too.

What I had stumbled upon here was an islamised version available, to me at least, only in a crudely abbreviated and commercialised form. It had struck me, perhaps, as a day-trip to Lourdes might strike a Kazakh who knew no French and next to nothing about Catholicism. We stayed up too late. To be in Aktau by next morning our minibus had to leave by 3 a.m. anyway, which left very little time for divine dreams or any other kind.
The road back to reality was an hour shorter than it had been going the other way for some reason. On CNN in my hotel room, there were the familiar streets around Russell Square, cordoned off and under Police guard. So it had happened.

Exhausted after a largely sleepless night I tried to sleep but found myself constantly waking up, wanting to find out more, more obsessed by London after all than either my translator or her mobster or both - back and back I went to the latest from forensic experts whether I'd heard the latest five times already or not. Hear it in a different language then. So I channel-hopped as furiously as the saddest of news-junkies. But I wondered too what the people I'd met at Beket Ata might be thinking as they heard this news.

Now that a month or more of the relentless commentary, and my rapt attention, have done their usual job of generating more heat than light, I still wonder about it. And I'm glad that between me and my apprehension of this event there stood for one evening that group of us at the railings. Speaking in whichever language we had bits of in common, or pretending to know more about the stars than any of us did, or concentrating, silent - literally staring into an abyss. But not in despair. Looking down in hope, because of the benign spirit which was said to haunt its depths, a spirit which visits the faithful of all religions in one form or another. It is a spirit that can still perhaps rise up out of that abyss and give us the dream that will heal us.


"I am anti-American and damned proud of it - but of I can't say it!" H.R.H. the Prince Philip of Greece, Duke of Edinburgh (overheard)
3. The North Caspian - What am I bid?
formerly published in
The New Internationalist
2005


Horatio Morpurgo's travels to the newest oil frontier provoke some uncomfortable questions, from sturgeon with muscular dystrophy to oil corporations in deep denial.


When the first Soviet atom bomb was exploded in 1949 what the world heard was the starting gun for the arms race. It was a less abstract sensation for Kazakhstan, where the test took place and where uranium exploration had begun the previous year. A new phase in the country's fateful relationship with its own mineral wealth was under way. In due course this vast territory would 'host' some 470 nuclear weapons tests. All such weapons were returned to Russia after independence in 1991 and the clean-up remains a contentious issue.

Aktau, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, was founded in 1963 as large uranium deposits were discovered nearby. Intended as a showcase city for the then-new technology, its power station and desalination plant were both nuclear-powered. The city's main east-west axis still runs between a war memorial which looks quite a lot like a missile silo opening, and the 'statue' of a Russian jet fighter, frozen in mid-take-off.

The place feels less sure of itself these days. Uranium mining in this region ended in 1994 and the city's BN-350 fast reactor was shut down in 1997. The old botanical gardens have reverted to wilderness and the glamour has faded from the row upon row of identical south-facing apartment blocks.

But hardly had the weapons been returned to sender than the new country's fate became once again inseparable from its abundant 'raw commodities'. There are two major pipelines now under construction in Kazakhstan: one will connect the Caspian oilfields with China and the other will connect the massive new offshore field at Kashagan with a terminal at Aktau. Here, in full view of the city, the oil will be transferred to a specially built fleet of Russian freighters and shipped across the Caspian to Baku in Azerbaijan. From there it will flow along a recently opened pipeline over the Caucasus to southern Turkey, from which Western markets will be supplied.

For environmentalists the focus of concern has been and remains Kashagan. Discovered in 2000, it is the first full-scale project on the North Caspian shelf. The water which covers this shelf is only a few metres deep. Its salinity is also very low, with the Volga delta close by, so that it freezes over each winter. Thousands of seals haul out onto the ice to have their pups and these seals are themselves a relic of just one phase of the Caspian's long and strange history. During the last ice age it formed the southernmost part of a sea reaching northwards across what is now Russia. The Caspian still has its own breed of salmon as a result, as well as its own species of seal.

The Caspian's famous sturgeon meanwhile easily supplied the bulk of the world's caviare so long as fishing remained under some effective form of regulation. This has not been the case since 1991 and the result appears to have been an unprecedented collapse of fish numbers. Heavy metal contamination of the Volga has been rising consistently for 15 years--copper, zinc, lead, cadmium and mercury all exceed Kazakh government limits by a factor of five or more. Many sturgeon appear to have developed a form of muscular dystrophy. Liver abnormalities are now endemic.

To the east of the Caspian semi-arid deserts stretch away into Central Asia. The contrast between these two environments, onshore and offshore, could hardly be more stark, but the attraction for modern big business lies about five kilometres below both of them. The Kashagan oilfield will consist of about 100 wells operating from 17 artificial islands, situated between 40 and 70 kilometres from the delta of the River Ural. It is thought to contain roughly 11 billion barrels.

Oil found at this depth is known as 'old oil'. The 'younger' reserves exploited in Kazakhstan for more than a century do not bear comparison with the scale, or chemical composition, of what is now being extracted. Three of the world's largest drilling platforms are already employed by a local subsidiary of ChevronTexaco at the Tengiz onshore field, the fifth-largest oilfield in the world.

The problems peculiar to the extraction of such oil are well known from Chevron's experience there. It is pumped at a temperature of about 125[degrees]C and at enormously high pressure--typically about 1,000 kg per c[m.sup.2]. In addition some 25 per cent of reserves are in the form of 'sour gas'--mainly hydrogen sulphide, with sulphur dioxide also present in large quantities.

Tengiz is probably the closest we can get to an idea of what to expect at Kashagan--a deposit of similar proportions and chemical composition. A fire there in 1985 shot a column of flame 200 metres into the air and took more than a year to extinguish. This, it is argued, is because the field was then being run by a Russian company not technically equal to the task. Similar oil is found in western Canada, however. A blow-out at a remote field in Alberta in 2000 still took a month to bring under control. Also in 2000, the first year of drilling at Kashagan, an estimated 11,000 seals, bleeding from the nose and ears, were washed up dead in the North Caspian. The multinational consortium, led by an Italian company, Agip, was worried enough to pay a Russian university to investigate what had happened. It was concluded that death was from canine distemper, against which the seals' immunity defences were abnormally low.

This eastern shoreline is also a migration route for the more than 200 bird species that travel each year between Iran and western Siberia. During the spring migration bird densities as high as 6,500 per square kilometre have been recorded in the Ural delta. But along with migratory whooper and mute swans, resident flamingos and pelicans have been in decline for more than 10 years and were recently placed on the country's red list of endangered species. The gas flares at Kashagan recently attracted and then killed hundreds of migrating bulbuls, prompting a demand for compensation and assurances from the oil companies that in future they will halt production during the peak migration periods.

But the Government's concern for the environment should not be taken entirely at face value. This is a regime now considering new legislation that will force all NGOs to 're-register', after recent upheavals in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It finds itself a 'much-consulted partner' as consumer-economies east and west, new and old, do the sums on their projected energy needs for the 21st century. It holds some very strong cards and a few hundred dead bulbuls can be turned to useful propaganda effect. The more closely you look into the new economic paradigm establishing itself in this region, the more tortuous the reasoning of the different players begins to seem. But even as you lose yourself among these ever more intricate motives, there are questions on another level that don't seem to get asked at all.

The Kashagan field, for example, is expected eventually to pump some 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. Agip's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) includes calculations of the refinery's projected greenhouse gas emissions for 2009. These will amount to the equivalent of two million tonnes of C[O.sub.2], or 1.3 per cent of Kazakhstan's total emissions for 2001. 'The impact on climate change,' it concludes, 'will be negligible.' It points meanwhile to the benefits that will accrue locally.

These points are probably true as far as they go. It is futile to expect a country sunk in post-Soviet depression to pass up the opportunities afforded it by big oil strikes. But what of the foreign companies here, for which the host country's poverty is all opportunity? Any oil company knows full well that what drives climate change is not the refining but the burning of fossil fuels. There exists no serious alternative to educating future generations in reduced dependency on hydrocarbons. It's hard to see how pumping more than a million barrels per day plus training up an entire society for long-term total dependency on fossil fuels will have a 'negligible' effect on climate change. But it's only an EIA. Of course Agip is only extracting, marketing and delivering a product. If customers take it into their heads to go and burn it, that's their own lookout.

But if you listen to everyone defending their own 'negligible' part in the process, that ends with droughts and retreating glaciers and plainly something is adding up wrong. You are left with the sense of a culture, a global one, your own, defending itself continually by reference to its local effect because its global impact is just too frightening to face.

Further north along the Caspian shoreline, just upstream from the Ural delta, the same conundrum is at work shaping this country's future. Whole districts of the Kazakh 'oil-hub', Atyrau, have already been transformed by the new wealth. It has a new bridge across the Ural and a new university building courtesy of Chevron. It has been able to build itself a new mosque and surround a new central plaza with banks and engineering company headquarters. A stroll around this town is a salutary experience for anyone accustomed, as so many of us are, to deriding 'the big oil companies'. Nobody talks like that in Atyrau, because the only realistic alternative to them was a continued agonizing decline against the backdrop of decaying Soviet-era infrastructure. It's much easier to wish that on someone else than to wish it for oneself.

From this truth the companies draw the inference that they are a benefit to the countries they work in and hence net contributors to global prosperity. But, as we've seen, to draw that inference requires blinding oneself to a bigger picture of planetary degradation that is no longer seriously contested by anybody.

There is another conclusion that suggests itself in a place like Kazakhstan. It is that the system which 'triumphed' over the Soviet Union (and, later, Iraq) had no serious programme beyond the defeat of its rival and the securing of its resources. The advantages of the Western way--its freedoms of movement and expression--would indeed now be made available, but only on terms agreeable to big business. Meaning, on at least one count, that they would not be made available at all. On any logic other than that of shareholders, opening an oilfield on the scale of Kashagan now is a profoundly questionable act. To do so 50-odd kilometres from the Ural delta is breathtaking effrontery. But the new order sees to it that no one, in Kazakhstan at least, will express that truth to any effect. And where else can it be expressed to serious effect?

By all ecologically measurable indices, the ideology of big business is at least as deeply in denial as its predecessor in this part of the world. Set out magnificent botanical gardens in a city founded on the atom bomb. Carefully construct your pipeline to go round a river delta, as temperatures rise all over the planet from the oil that flows along it. What do either of these gestures 'prove', beyond an enduring capacity for self-deception?


more by Horatio Morpurgo - about Ukraine >

more by Horatio Morpurgo - about Albania >


Horatio Morpurgo's collection of Essays, published June 1st 2011 >

THE WARS OF THE WELL-OILED HYPOCRITES >
"I am anti-American and damned proud of it - but of I can't say it!" H.R.H. the Prince Philip of Greece, Duke of Edinburgh (overheard)
"I am anti-American and damned proud of it - but of course I can't say it!"

- H.R.H. the Prince Philip of Greece, Duke of Edinburgh (reportedly overhead)

Western Values

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