Accidental Leaders

One of the peculiarities of this part of the world is that two of its leaders, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria (also see post of 5.4) and King Abdullah II of Jordan, came to power almost accidentally, and at young ages.

Until fairly close to his ascension to the Presidency of Syria, Bashar al-Assad had no military or political role in Syria, and instead was on his way to being an ophthalmologist. In 1994, Bashar was rushed back to Syria from London when his older brother Basil, the son who had been groomed to succeed to Syria’s monarchic presidency, died in a car crash. Bashar trained quickly to become Syria’s next president and assumed the title in 2001 at the early age of 35, when his father Hafez al-Assad passed away. Neither Bashar nor his father ever expected Bashar to be in the role of leading the country; everyone had expected the much loved Basil to be the next President of Syria.

Similarly, the next in line to Jordan’s throne after King Hussein was, for the longest time, his brother Hassan, and not his son Abdullah. A mere two weeks before the death of King Hussein, he suddenly named his son as successor, replacing Hassan as Crown Prince. King Abdullah was crowned in 1999 at the age of 37. It’s not at all clear what made King Hussein seemingly change his mind at the last minute, but one point of controversy that may have prevented an earlier designation of Abdullah as Crown Prince was his “Arabness.” King Abdullah’s mother was British and not Arab, he went to school in Britain and the U.S., and, according to one Jordanian I spoke to, his Arabic language skills at the time of his own coronation were not sufficient to give an address.

Presidents Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, Syria

King Abdullah, Wadi Musa, Jordan

This is one of the risks of monarchy–people can rise to power in unexpected, less than ideal ways: Fathers can die when their sons are too young and ill-prepared; the next in line may be inadequate in capacity or temperament; rivalries can result in bloodshed, leading the most murderous to the throne (indeed entire royal families have been wiped out in order to “fix” succession). In comparison with such scenarios, Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah both seem meritorious and successful leaders of their respective country, their popularity (and that of their families) attested to by the numerous pictures of them posted all over Syria and Jordan. Their relatively young age and lack of experience (President-Elect Obama is 47, a decade older than King Abdullah when he was coronated and twelve years older than Bashar al-Assad when he was inaugurated) seem not to be affecting their rule too negatively. The only real complaint we heard about either was that Bashar was not as “strong” as his father or brother (because “Arab countries need a strong leader”), but even the Syrian who made this complaint followed it by expressing his hope that as Bashar grew into the position, he would develop a stronger hand.

And, even if monarchies can be somewhat arbitrary, it is important to keep in mind that Presidents Bush and Ahmedinejad, two of the least popular leaders in the world, were both democratically elected (although the former’s first election was “stolen”) and one of the scariest recent near-misses in unprepared leadership was John McCain’s irresponsible and bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Democracies can sometimes result in disastrous rule, while hereditary power can sometimes result in ideal leadership (see post of 7.13 on the Aga Khan, who was selected by his grandfather to succeed to the title).

Given all of the uncertainties in this part of the world, its great geopolitical complications (and with them the potential for conflict and disaster), a great deal of responsibility was thrust on these two men, suddenly and unexpectedly–let us wish them stable, prosperous and peaceful reigns.

Chinese Exports

Chinese trucks carrying goods over the Qolma Pass from China to Tajikistan

We all know that China’s economy has flourished largely on its exports, and that the volume of Chinese exports is tremendous, but even so it has been interesting seeing in person Chinese goods across the world, as well as their effects on local economies.

One of the first and oddest visibly Chinese products we saw on our trip were these rear view mirror decorations in Syria and Iran. It was peculiar especially because of the disjunction between the clearly traditional Chinese “good-luck” design and the Islamic “Allah” in Arabic script. We imagined a factory in Guangdong Province somewhere churning these out, not knowing what it says or for where it is destined; whereever the factory may actually be, I think that the trinkets are actually produced largely for domestic consumption in Muslim Xinjiang (where we also saw them).

The Syrian driver whose car this was in didn’t even recognize the red and gold ornament as Made in China!

Given the historical influence of Russia in Central Asia, we were surprised to find that the trains in Turkmenistan were Chinese-built. They were brand new and fairly luxurious, especially considering the absurdly cheap (and clearly subsidized) fares. The train we took in Iran (also new and comfortable) was also Chinese built, as were the cars of the Tehran Metro. The Tehran Metro cars, we think, are exactly the same as Hong Kong MTR cars!

On the Tehran Metro

Chinese automobiles are also making headway around the world. In addition to Chery dealerships in Iran and elsewhere, we saw long convoys of new Chinese minivans coming over the Qolma Pass from China into Tajikistan, sometimes filled with other Chinese products such as toilet paper. The Chinese minivans are fast becoming the main mode of public transit on the Pamir Highway. We were told that, prior to the arrival of the minivans, it was sometimes hard to find any public transport, with waits of a day or two for a car. With the cheap Chinese vans ($4000-6000, and with lower maintenance costs than other, older vehicles), there are more cars and cheaper rides. The vans even had Five Friendlies seat covers, with their names in Cyrillic (the script used in Tajikistan)!

Another example of cheap Chinese products improving the world–solar energy. Living in remote locations in the high Pamirs, the Kyrgyz in Tajikistan have no access to any other electricity and no doubt the ability to have music during the day and reading light at night is a welcome luxury in their lives of privation. We were told that they used smoky oil lamps before the solar power came along.

Yurt solar power

We were able to trace the solar panels to the place where they were likely once purchased–Kashgar’s Sunday Market.

To many Americans, the availability of cheap Chinese goods might mean DVD players in the kids’ rooms or a nicer iPod; to Tajikistan, Chinese manufacturing efficiency has brought transportation, music and light.

Unfortunately, the Chinese are exporting ill habits as well. We were told by a Hunza man that the Chinese have proposed to expand the Karakoram Highway to four lanes, with parallel rail lines and gas pipelines. The cultural and natural setting of Northern Pakistan is a fragile one, and no doubt such “progress” would be devastating. Such destruction and environmental degradation are being exported elsewhere as well, for example in Southeast Asia where the Chinese are buying up huge amounts of raw materials to feed their growing economy–in Laos Derek saw a new highway to speed up the transport of timber into Yunnan Province, and the forests of Indonesia are coming down at a startling rate.

As the Chinese economy grows, its impact on the world will become greater and greater, and the scale of the country is such–unimaginable to those who have not been there–that it will be felt in every corner on Earth. From people to products to ideas, we can only hope that the Chinese contribution will be a net positive one.

Women of Cover

In our travels thus far through the Middle East, we’ve seen a variety of different styles of cover for women, and I thought that it would be interesting to compare them. Please note that this is intended to be something of a fashion post, rather than a post debating the hejab (Islamic dress code) itself. [Note: None of the individuals pictured was a source of any information for this or any post.]

Colored headscarves

Young women in Syria. In Syria, the scarf is very much a fashion accessory in addition to a religious and customary expectation. In the big cities, many women choose to go without.

Ladies’ police uniforms, Bahrain

Television personality, Bahrain

European tourists at a hotel restaurant, Iran (female tourists, like all women in Iran over the age of 8, are required to obey the hejab in public places)

Trendy mother and daughter, Iran

More trendy scarves, Iran

Black headscarves

We never confirmed this, but this style of headscarf must be required in schools and certain jobs, as they are quite common in Iran.

Getting away with showing a lot of hair, Iran

Black robes

A full black robe is fairly common in more traditional parts of the Arab world, including the Gulf.

Kuwait. Kuwaiti women all seem to wear their hair in huge buns.


A bedouin woman, looking quite stylish in Aleppo, Syria

Young ladies in Hyderabad, India, in style

A step further

The chador, the standard Iranian cover for older women

Iranian tourist in chador, Syria. There are many Iranian tourists in Damascus, on pilgrimage to Shiite sites.

The most annoying thing about wearing a chador, I think, must be the fact that it doesn’t have any clasp to stay together, forcing the wearer to constantly hold it in place, either with hands or teeth. This chador has a pattern.

A druze woman, Syria

An exotic tribal look, in Bahrain. We like to call this type of face cover a “beak.”

I’m not sure why, but one of these ladies in Aleppo, Syria has her face totally covered, not too common a look.

Burka store, Hyderabad. Burkas are sometimes seen in India and the Arab world, but not all that common in the countries we have visited (though I recall seeing quite a few in Zanzibar). Burkas are not worn in Iran, other than perhaps by the Arab minority.

A burka-style hood and face cover, in Damascus, Syria. Again, not too common.


As a reminder that head covers and veils are not uniquely Muslim, a (Hindu) Rajasthani woman from India. Of course, Christian women also often wear veils, especially in churches.

The wearing of cover in the Middle East is definitely a pre-Islamic custom. A carving at Palmyra, Syria, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD showing women in veils.


This is intended as a revision of my post of 4.12.


One of our goals on this trip is to connect related places in different countries, and so we visited the Assassin castles of Misyaf in Syria and Alamut in Iran.

Misyaf Castle, near Hama, Syria

Alamut Castle, near Qazvin, Iran

In order to understand the origin of the Assassins, it is helpful to go back to the beginning of Islam. After the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, there arose a dispute as to who should succeed his role as the (religious and political) head of the Islamic world. One faction supported Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, while others supported Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was elected the first caliph (or successor to Mohammed), followed in relatively quick succession by Umar, Uthman, and then finally Ali. Showing the contentiousness of the power struggles at the time, Umar, Uthman and Ali each met his end by murder. Some blamed the death of Uthman on the Ali faction (now known as Shiites), while the Shiites blamed the death of Ali on the others (now known as Sunnis). Following the death of Ali, the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, took over the caliphate. During this period, the conflict between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites deepened, especially after the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein, much of his family and many of his followers, in a battle near Karbala in now Iraq.

While the Shiites have been out of the majority and power in most of the Islamic world since, there have been significant times and areas when they came into control. One of the most important areas was and remains Iran, where (Twelver) Shiites form a majority. [Cf. my post of 5.20 for an introduction to Iranian Shia Islam.] Another was the Cairo-based (Sevener Shia or Ismaili) Fatimid caliphate, named after Fatima, daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, which ruled much of North Africa, Egypt and nearby lands from 910-1171. [The Twelver and Sevener Shias had split earlier due to a dispute on the identity of the seventh Imam–post on Sevener Shias likely to come.]

Around 1090, the Fatimids suffered from their own succession problem. The losing faction refused to accept the new Fatimid ruler in Cairo and formed a somewhat radical rebel group in now Iran, known to us as the Assassins. The founder of the Assassins, Hassan Sabbah, established a base at Alamut in northern Iran and led his group into repeated conflict with the prevailing Sunni Muslim hierarchy. A second group of Assassins became established in now Syria, and was particularly active under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan, who based himself at Misyaf Castle starting in 1140. It is believed that there may have been a third group of Assassins in now Iraq.

As you may know, the word “assassin,” which we use now to describe professional killers, derives from the Assassins, who are called Assassins because it was rumored that they took hashish before embarking on their missions. And much like the contemporary English meaning of the word and its derivative, assassination, the missions of the Assassins, their method of operation, was murder: the strategic killing or attempted killing of Sunni Muslim leaders, including those of the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia and Crusader-foe Saladin. The Assassins would work by embedding an operative, sometimes over the course of years, in order to murder, or assassinate, a prominent leader or otherwise powerful or influential person.

Saladin’s greatest success, prior to his defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, was the conquest of Egypt from the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. After terminating Fatimid rule, Saladin wanted to consolidate his (Sunni) control over the region, including by wiping out the Assassins in now Syria. In 1176, Saladin sieged the castle of Misyaf. According to legend, Saladin woke up one morning during the siege to find on his bed a dagger or poisoned cakes and a threatening note, depending on the story you believe, making clear that the Assassins had infiltrated his camp and could murder him at their will. The siege was called off.

The Assassins of now Iran met their end in 1256, when Hulagu, Genghiz Khan’s grandson, sucessfully sieged Alamut [cf. post of 5.27 on Hulagu and the Ilkhanids]. The Syrian branch would persist until 1273, when it was defeated by the Mamlukes.

Ruins of Alamut

Column capital at Misyaf, evidence of earlier fortifications at the site


Excerpt from Marco Polo on the Hassan Sabbah and the Fortress of Alamut:

The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it _was_ Paradise!

Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his _Ashishin_ to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So
when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.

Mountain Hideouts: Maalula and Abiyaneh

Two towns we have visited on our trip, Maalula in Syria and Abiyaneh in Iran, bear certain resemblances to each other, and I thought that it was worth covering their similarities in a post.

Maalula is located about an hour and a half north of Damascus, in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains. The village is famous not only for having a very early Christian population–seemingly established in the first centuries after Christ–but also for the fact that its residents continue to speak Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus. Shops in town sell basic Aramaic grammars and the Lord’s Prayer written in Aramaic script. While it is true that many Syrians are Christian, Maalula sticks out as a particularly Christian-dominated town, where churches far outnumber mosques and a statue of Mary stands tall above the town.

Abiyaneh, located about an hour or so north of Esfahan, is also in something of a hidden valley. While its residents now share Iran’s dominant religion of Shia Islam, Abiyaneh was a late holdout of Zoroastrianism, and the remnants of a fire temple are visible near the town center. Abiyaneh is known for maintaining many unique traditions, and, like Maalula, its residents (or at least its oldest residents) speak an archaic language (Middle Persian, dating from the Sassanid era, before the Arab conquest and Islam).

Abiyaneh at sunset

The women of Abiyaneh are famous for their dress, which includes floral headscarves–much more cheerful than the black chadors worn by other older Iranian women.

This woman is knocking the door with her knuckles, but note the different metal knockers on the left and right doors–they are designed to make different noises so that the residents of the house know whether a man or a woman is at the door.

A couple local men

A local man at the top of an old underground cistern, a common site in Iran (though largely unused).

We saw relatively few younger people in Abiyaneh. We were told later that many residents of Abiyaneh are quite wealthy, and have citizenship in countries other than Iran. The elderly population is resident year-round, while others return for holidays and special events. Even before widespread emigration, people from Abiyaneh were known for accumulating land in neighboring towns, and such purchases were celebrated by the village while those who sold land away were considered traitors.

Maalula and Abiyaneh are reminders that mountainous or remote terrain has acted to protect minorities and persecuted/targeted groups for centuries, and of the ability of such terrain to fragment and shelter languages. Today, however, with modern technology, mass culture and more powerful governments, such barriers are no longer effective, and the scattered residents of Abiyaneh and the residents of Maalula will no doubt have difficulty maintaining their local traditions and dialects.