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
all criminals?' I ask.
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...'
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.
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.
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...'
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.
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
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?
Morpurgo is a regular contributor to The New Internationalist,
and tends to wander around the Danube and points east.
an't say it!"
H.R.H. the Prince Philip of Greece, Duke of Edinburgh (overheard)
2. Londons of the Mind
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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)
The North Caspian - What am I bid?
The New Internationalist
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
by Horatio Morpurgo - about Ukraine
by Horatio Morpurgo - about Albania
Morpurgo's collection of Essays, published June 1st 2011