The Souk

August 20, 2016

I tried for the tanneries of the red city the day before, wandering around the souk in one hundred and four degree heat. The alleys thinned out until no more Westerners could be seen.

I kept seeing the face of the guy who pointed me to my destination. He seemed to be walking around me, sometimes fifteen paces ahead, then twenty behind. He wasn’t alone—coordination is so much easier due to cellphone magic. Suddenly I felt like the only chicken in the shop.

My little finger told me I was walking into a trap—the web is thick with tales of tannery scams—so I re-thought my strategy.

The bunch of mint in my right hand did little to disguise the evil smell. I was just inside the walls of old Marrakech, looking at a honeycomb of tanning wells. This time, I’d used a cab—we came into the medina from the northwest through the Bab Aylan. The guy who gave (well, loaned) me the mint was a middle-aged Moroccan whose dental work would probably require divine intervention—his gums were pale blue, as if the strong dyes had etched themselves forever into his smile.

The image doesn't do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The image doesn’t do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The circular vats receive dromedary, cow, goat, and sheep hides, together with a heady mixture of pigeon poop—the ammonia the supply. Pigeons are a popular part of the local diet, and the pigeon farms that are scattered in the countryside produce copious quantities of bird shit, which finds a ready market in the tanning industry.

Later on in the leather assembly line, mimosa is used as a cleansing agent. I didn’t inquire about the effluents from this industry but they are undoubtedly a sewage engineer’s dream—as the old joke goes: it may be shit to you, but it’s my bread and butter.

After the attack in Nice, prices plummeted for Arab tourism. Somewhere with low prices and no tourists? Ideal! I had no particular concerns about Morocco—it’s the quintessential police state, and anyhow, the terrorists are all in Europe. Don’t get confused with the tannery tale—in North Africa, robbing foreigners is a pastime, killing them is a capital crime.

I watched a fair bit of the Al Jazeera news channel—in Arabic, of course. Not that I could understand much, but the imagery and body language suffice. The videos aren’t prudish about blood, or the cadavers of babies being pried out of bomb sites.

After a couple of hours watching world news, Gulf-style, Arab hatred for the West is obvious.  As is Sunni-Shia, Kurd-Turk, and a bunch of other permutations. The point is this isn’t news of Beyonce’s latest leap, Trump’s hair, and California wild fires, interspersed with fifteen seconds of terror attacks in France.

This is back to back explosions, bombings, maimings, and killings, complete with women’s wailing worthy of the Lion of the Desert. There is no break in the action, no light-hearted clip of the Mid-Eastern date seller who rescued that cute baby goat stuck in the Argan tree. OMG!

After a good dose of this channel, it’s clear why the grass roots in the Middle East applaud the attacks in France or Germany—to them, it’s just retribution. The desperately poor, illiterate, and jobless people live as they did hundreds of years ago—they know their rulers will do nothing to alleviate their lot, just as it always has been.

And on a regular basis, for reasons they don’t understand, the heavens open, not with the welcome sweetness of rain, but with fire and brimstone, delivered by Mig, Mirage, or F-15. Tormentors, as the FBI would say, both foreign and domestic.

Lunch by the river? Er... in the river.

Lunch by the river? Er… in the river.

In all the clips of war, for as long as I can recall, there are always Mercedes sedans, indestructibly transporting the populace as it attempts to escape the blind wrath of ordnance.

In the Atlas, taxis remain untouched by the finger of civilization. Decrepit diesel Mercs march on—the legendary 240D seven-seater, three in the front, four in the back. I saw the evil vehicles in their dozens, body parts scattered about their sub-frame, welded into compliance—but the engine, a veteran of millions of miles in the Moroccan sands, ticks on.

Safe transportation is key in the more unconventional spots—you always choose the older taxi drivers—they’ve survived. Out of maybe thirty rides, I only saw two meters fitted in vehicles, whether petit taxi or grand taxi—a bizarre distinction in itself. Both meters proudly displayed six zeros, but one of them only showed the bottom halves—presumably screen-burn.

Mr. Abdelah was my driver for the longer forays, and the man who unlocked the golden route to the tanneries. We drove to the Atlas, about halfway up the mountain. He invariably reacted to the insane antics of fellow drivers with a phlegmatic il est fou.

He was justly proud of his Korean vehicle, and heaped praise on the king for instituting a policy of eliminating the killer Mercs—the government will pay eighty-thousand dirhams (over eight thousand bucks) to remove your thirty- or forty-year old panzer from the road, and replace it with a nice new Renault, or an Asian car. And yet… there are many 240D and 300D owners who resist.

As you hit the narrow road that twists along the snowmelt stream, and begin to cross the Berber villages, a whole new country appears before you—tribal people, a different language. The mountains rise up, and at the last town on the road, forty-three families make their living taking people up the Atlas.

Not even the Mercs can handle the route—by now we’re down to the cat-cat Berber, from the French word quatre—the only 4X4 that can make those grades is the ubiquitous and long-suffering donkey.

My guide, thin and wiry as a mountain goat, bad teeth and a soccer shirt celebrating the Spanish world cup victory in South Africa, points to the mountain face. Thin rubber pipes meander like lianas toward town. “The villagers did this,” he proudly explains. Two different water sources, for agriculture and domestic use. To me, it’s just another indictment of a government that won’t help its people.

Basic sanitation is nonexistent, waste goes straight into the mountain stream. Every village downstream, and there are plenty, adds to the load. Down the escarpment, terraces have been built where sofas and armchairs have been placed—there are rows and rows of these informal restaurants along the riverbank.

The ‘esplanade’ consists of plastic chairs and tables placed in the river, where patrons sit, eating the inevitable tajines, their tired feet cooling in the water. The equivalent of a kids playground has been built with large round boulders to create a small weir, behind which the children splash and shout.

Back in old Marrakech, the Jemaa el Fnaa, where everything has a price, lights up at nightfall. This is the biggest square in Africa, the last trading post before you start on the long trail south to Mauritania, the Guineas, and the Congo.

Oh, and I was just kidding about the terror. In 2011, someone who watched too much Al Jazeera left a bomb in  a tourist restaurant in Jemaa el Fnaa and killed seventeen people.

If the locals got him, they’ll have made it eighteen. Without tourism, there is no economy here, only despair.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Swing – III

August 13, 2016

The Swing

The boy was sitting on a stone seat—it might have been a loveseat in ancient times, but now whoever sat there had eyes only for the one true god.

The Engineer watched him from a distance, taking in the thin body and the bowed head. He’d noticed him yesterday at Friday prayers, staring at the mullah with rapture in his eyes. Waali lit another Cleopatra, crushing his last one underfoot, and looked down the hill at beautiful old Lahore, a true beacon of Islam.

There had been many Hindus here, back when the British ruled India. But after 1947, when the English left, the Hindus understood what awaited them—they hotfooted it south, narrowly avoiding a massacre. Nowadays Lahore was the embodiment of the true faith, and on this bright Saturday afternoon, Waali felt happy he had come.

The boy sat stock-still, seeming totally absorbed in his reflections. Waali started on his next cigarette, a vice thankfully not forbidden by the Ku’ran. He took a deep drag and held it for a moment, then exhaled deeply.

“He is the chosen one.” The soft words startled the Engineer. The mullah pointed at the boy. “That one, my best talib.”

“He seems young. Is he ready?”

“Inchallah,” said the priest.

“It is in the hands of Allah. Now, are you clear about all of it?” Waali couldn’t be seen by the suicide bomber in case things went wrong. And the bomb-maker must be well clear of the scene for security reasons. The only link between the two was the maulana, and if all went well, it would be a bridge to nowhere.

The Engineer had carefully explained the precautions that must be taken. “This is no ordinary bomb, Hakim—it is called the Mother of Satan.” The mullah’s one eye widened.

“It is devastating. But very dangerous for the carrier. We will hide it in a case, and we will pad it, for a blow is enough for it to explode. I have prepared the detonator—“ he pointed at the burner—“you can use it in two ways. Press red and then green and the bomb will detonate.”

“And did you do as I asked?”

“Yes. Dial this number and the powder explodes. Even if the phone is turned off.”

The neighborhood of Rehmat Pura is about one mile southeast of the Model Town Park, and in a tight radius of three hundred yards are six churches of different denominations: there’s the United Pentacostal, the Pakistan Gospel Assemblies, and the Last Age Ministries, but  Kuldeep’s greatgrandparents had come north from Goa—a five hundred year old Portuguese enclave—the little girl’s parents had been raised as Catholics, and the family worshiped at Saint Francis Catholic Church.

On the way to Peco Road, Aman explained to her daughter that Francis Javier had been a great evangelist.

“Kuldeep, Saint Francis came to India long ago, almost five hundred years.”

“I can’t hear, Maa,” the child shouted above the roar of the tuk-tuk. On the red light the rickshaw had snaked forward, easing between the cars, until it was lined up at the lights. Kuldeep loved it when they did that, and they always did, playing their cat and mouse game like naughty Shashi, her little moon.

Now the light went green and the tuk-tuks roared ahead, only to be overtaken by the taxis, in a mayhem of honking and smoke. At the next signal the game would start all over again—her father called it the snake and the elephant.

“Our church, Kuldeep, is named after a very famous saint.” Aman raised her voice above the roar.

“I know, Maa. We learned that in Sunday School. He was a nobleman from… far away.” Kuldeep giggled.

“You can’t remember?” her father said.

“Farawayland.” The child giggled again.

The couple smiled at their shining light. “Spain, baby. It is far away. He came from Spain. Where they fight bulls.”

“They couldn’t fight bulls here!”

“No, our Hindu friends would not allow it. And it’s a cruel thing to do.  Animals are our friends.”

“Shashi’s not. She was sulking this morning. And she spit at Chann. Bad cat.”

“Sweetheart, Shashi loves your doll. And she loves you. You know what the matter is?”

The little girl solemnly shook her head.

“She’s doesn’t know its Easter. When we get home, we’ll have a tea party with Shashi. She’s part of the family too!”

Kuldeep face lit up. “Yes, mommy, we’ll have an Easter cat party. Maa, I miss my Shashi.” She sniffled and snuggled up to her mom as the tuk-tuk turned into Peco Road. “We should have brought Shashi. I think she’s sulking ‘cause she couldn’t play in the park!”

“Now, little lamp, you know we can’t bring the cat to church.”

The little girl’s eyes lit up. She sneaked a look at her father and whispered in her mother’s ear. “She could hide in the picnic basket.” The thought was too much for her, and she giggled uncontrollably.

Her father pointed and the tuk-tuk drew up opposite the church—the driver gave him a disdainful look when he saw where the family were headed. His wife saw the mustache bristle, she took her husband’s arm.

“Never mind,” Aman said as they walked into the service. “Today is a day of peace. After all, they say ameen just as we do.”

Kuldeep’s father took the picnic basket from his wife and whispered. “You’re right. I won’t let it bother me. Now, let’s makes sure our little lamp behaves.”

The little girl was busy preparing her doll for church. Kuldeep loved the tall nave, the pictures and crosses on the wall. It was always cool in St. Francis, even when the sun boiled outside. And there was the sweet smell of frankincense, the colors of the stained glass, baby Jesus, the Virgin bending over the crib.

The service was long, but she loved the singing. And during the sermon, the gospel readings she couldn’t quite understand, she counted the animals in the pictures. Kuldeep had admonished Chann, admonished her in no uncertain terms, about best behavior. It was either that, or no swings in the park!

“You can choose,” Kuldeep whispered almost silently, propping the doll up straight. When it came time to kneel, she would put the doll into the appropriate position—Chann followed the liturgy.

While the priest spoke, his booming voice echoing in the transept, Kuldeep became very busy. She screwed her eyes tight, instructed the doll to do the same, and thought long and hard—she was counting her sins.

She had to do that, know them all off by heart—she was always a little scared to kneel at the wooden booth, murmuring through the trellised wooden pane, while a priest on the other side took note of her report.

Shall I reveal my bad thoughts about Shashi? I did call her stuffy! Maybe it was a sin.

Kuldeep enumerated her list. There was that little boy in class. She knew he had a crush on her, and all she did was tease him. He’d asked her if she was going to the park on Sunday. She sneaked a look across the aisle, and there he was, sitting with his two brothers and his parents.

Kuldeep took a break from her litany of evils to say a prayer for a little sister. That’s what she’d really like. She bothered maa from time to time, but her mother said that because of father’s new business, now was not the time.

After confession, the priest would assign her penance, and grant her absolution. She left the booth with lightness in her heart, and impressed upon Chann the need to immediately say her prescribed prayers. Today she got off lightly, one Our Father and two Hail Mary’s, and she murmured them with her hands clasped firmly together, eyes tight shut.

Then she would line up with her mother for communion—that was her favorite time. She loved the soft taste as the wafer melted in her mouth, now that she had no sins in her soul. She knew that after communion the priest said only a few sentences more, wishing everyone in the congregation a happy Easter, and sending them on their way with a blessing.

While her parents exchanged pleasantries with friends in the churchyard, she could play with her friends—all the kids anxious to run and jump, after such a long period of inactivity. As soon as the priest said those last words, and the faithful filed solemnly out of the church, the fun would begin—they would go to the park.

The maulana drove slowly into the city, dodging the potholes. The boy sat in the rear seat, cradling a canvas backpack between his legs. The vehicle was an old Japanese diesel, and the shock absorbers had seen better days.

The mullah had discussed the bomb deployment with the Engineer, since the explosive was so unstable—and then of course there was the suicide bomber—life is a primary force, and it was not unknown for jihadists to change their minds.

“A taxi will be problematic, Hakim. The driver will remember the boy, there is the question of where the talib can be picked up…”

“We don’t want him to carry the pack on the street any longer than needed, so I would have to drop him off. And then of course there’s the taxi itself—you know how they drive here. An accident, a pothole… too risky, I think,” said the mullah.

Al Muhandis nodded. “You must drive him yourself.” The payload had been carefully packed—now that the white crystal was dry, any excess friction would immediately transport them both to paradise. The powder was stored in a small case and connected to the detonator, and the other components added—the nails and swarf that would spray the blast area with a deadly sea of twisted metal.

This attack would cause as much death, as much pain, as the Zionists inflicted in Palestine. Once again, their enemies would understand that no matter how many drones flew high above Pakistan, or Seahawk helicopters swooped down on their land, the children of Allah would overcome.

After the deadly device was finished, the backpack was locked in the cold room. The maulana knew the crusader churches would finish their services fairly early, before the searing heat struck, so the suicide bomber would need to time his action well.

The Gulshan-e-Iqbal park was on the opposite side to the church district, northwest of the Model Town, and this was the second time today the old car pottered down the Ferozepur Road. The maulana had driven the route from the north before dawn, and said goodbye to Al Muhandis fifty yards from the Daewoo central bus terminal.

The engineer had a lunchtime flight out of Benazir Bhutto International Airport, and the bus ride from Lahore would take five hours. Al Muhandis would have preferred the train, or even the public bus—they were less conspicuous—but train schedules were irregular at the best of times, and the bomb-maker wanted to be halfway to Dubai before the main event.

The Egyptian must be in Islamabad already, the madrassa terrorist thought as he turned right into Wahdat Road and drove past the university.

This is how the kufar will come. Up from the church district and then past the stadium, full of the fake joys their false gods deceive them with. They’ll drive this very same road.

The mullah ignored the street the Christians would take into Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, and drove a mile further to Maulana Shaukat Ali Road—he was early, and needed a quiet place to pray—it wouldn’t do to be seen with the boy.

Sahir closed his eyes and prepared to meet his fate. After he finished the Shahadah he sat quietly and listened to his teacher. The maulana told him that he would be performing the ultimate service to Allah, and explained what he needed to do.

“This park, the Gulshan, this is where the infidel families come after their sinful behavior. You will see how they insult our god, their women’s faces uncovered, as brazen as prostitutes.”

He showed Sahir the cellphone. “In this sack, there is another. You must press these buttons together, understand? When that happens, the pack will be activated and your work will be done.”

Sahir tried to be brave, but his chest was tight. “And then… then, Sir, what about me?” The words came out choked.

The mullah patted the boy’s thick black hair. “While they will be bound for the eternal fires of hell, you, Sahir, will be bound for paradise.”

“Please, Maulvi, will you describe it for me? Please?”

“Gardens of cypress and jacaranda, rivers of milk and honey. Crystal waterfalls, soft music, the air is clear and bright. All around you is peace, my son, no more of this earthly suffering. Allah himself will welcome you, and Muhammad, peace be upon him, will greet you warmly.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “The prophet himself will greet me?”

“There is more. From this moment I will name you for Jihad, and you must tell the prophet your new name when you meet him.”

“Oh!” Sahir’s heart felt warm. “My name for Jihad? What will it be, Sir?

“Abu Gulshan—you will be the father of the garden battle.”

Sahir’s fear evaporated and his thin chest swelled with pride.

“You have become a man, Abu Gulshan. The prophet will lead you into the perfumed gardens.” The maulana smiled. “And there, waiting to pleasure you, will be seventy-two virgins. After your martyrdom, you will have your fill.”

Sahir didn’t completely understand the workings of all this, how his body could suffer destruction and become one again, but he didn’t dare voice his thoughts. His teacher would be angry. He shut his eyes. Allah will provide.

The mullah explained about the park, the bumper cars and the mini-zoo, the playground.

“The parking lot is here, and I will leave you here.” His thick finger pointed to Street 9, on the eastern side of the park. This area is very popular with the infidels, they take their children to the swings, and they practice haraam with them, little boys and girls mixed together. When you press this, they will all go straight to hell.”

“I will do it, inchallah.”

“Good, Abu. You are my best talib, and my kindest one. And I will see you in paradise soon.”

Sahir walked slowly toward the railing. His mind felt like thick fog, his senses seemed to be disconnected from his thoughts. He heard the shouts of children as they played—two kids running up the ladder and shrieking with joy as they roared down the slide; opposite them, a little girl laughed every time her father pushed the swing. She soared forward, kicking her legs up as far she could; a doll, fully dressed for the occasion, was wedged under her left arm.

The girl wore a blouse, black patent leather shoes, and white socks. Her skirt barely covered her knees, and flew up when the swing rose toward him. Sahir turned his head in shame at the obscene sight.

How could these parents…

As if in a dream, he slowly pulled the rucksack from his back, lifted it over the railing, and set it down gently on the sand.

Aman was reading a Hindu pamphlet she’d found at the gate. It spoke of the Diamond Sutra, and she’d read the four lines over and over again.

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream

Maa,” the child yelled.

Aman looked up in alarm.

Maa, look! Look at Chann!”

Anda’s face softened. She waved and smiled at her shining light, shouting approval. It was only then she noticed the peasant boy next to her, and heard the shout as he pressed the two buttons on the cellphone.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Swing – II

August 6, 2016

Waali

The Egyptian was slight in build and mild in manner. When he was a student at Cairo University, his chain-smoking earned him the nickname one-match. It was only later, when he returned from the United States, that everyone started calling him al-Muhandis, the Engineer.

Waali al-Muhandis loved school. He had a crystalline memory, and as a little boy collected prizes for his word-perfect recollection of suras from the Qu’ran—by the age of nine he could recite the first fifty-seven, up to al-Hadid, the Iron. Then he memorized the other half—when he turned twelve years old, Waali enraptured his parents by reciting the entire holy book, from al-Fatihah to an-Nas.

He had never forgotten the book, and he always began his work with the Shahadah.

La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadu Rasool Allah—There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.

But the child prodigy also had secular interests, and he found his true vocation—he was a tinkerer. Little Waali pulled apart radios and DVD players, anything with complex electronic circuitry, and wandered happily among the capacitors and transistors, logic gating and multiplexers. He was particularly fascinated with cellphones, miniature devices that not only received and processed, as a television did, but transmitted.

At MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Waali was called Al—no one like the Americans for shortening names. While he was working on his Masters’ thesis in electronic engineering, he took elective courses in chemistry—it helped him understand the intricacies of silicon and germanium, and the mysterious rare earths of cellphones, elements with names like ytrium and scandium.

But Al’s brain was a sponge—he soon became fascinated with complex organic chemistry, and the astounding capacity of materials to combine in different ways. Some reactions sucked in energy, yet others were exothermal—they could release huge amounts of heat in a very short time.

He admired America for its industry, its science and academic excellence. And he despised it for its policy, its support of the Zionists who murdered his people, and the hideous bombing of his Sunni brothers in Baghdad and Mosul.

It was after his return from MIT, a top graduate of their engineering program, that he built his first bomb. This one was for the Hamas, destined for a crowded bus in Jerusalem—his Palestinian mother, who had died of cancer while her son was in Boston, would have been proud.

It didn’t take long for Islamic radicals in Cairo to realize the potential of this quiet young man, with his intense eyes and thinning hair, Cleopatra-brand cigarette permanently dangling from his lips.

The last of their bomb-makers who had been this good was killed by Shin Bet in 1996, in an exploit worthy of James Bond. Yahya Ayyash had been a Palestinian electronics expert who built bombs for Hamas, a creative man who used acetone as a base for his devices. The Israelis planted a bugged cellphone on one of his family members, but the phone weighed half an ounce more than its commercial counterparts—when the Shin Bet was certain Ayyash was on the line, the RDX explosive in the device was remotely detonated and instantly killed the bomber.

After the Jerusalem bus attack, thirty-four dead in the crowded rush hour, one of the Hamas brigade leaders went to Cairo to meet the new man.

Shokran, my friend,” the Hamas man said. “It is a great pleasure to finally meet Waali al-Muhandis.”

Waali shook the man’s hand nervously, his other hand temporarily removing the Cleopatra from his mouth. This was the the first time anyone had addressed him as the Engineer.

The Hamas was well connected with other patriotic movements throughout the Islamic world, and al-Muhandis, as he rapidly became known, became a sought-after commodity. The young man began traveling in earnest, building the bombs that did not fail, and teaching others to do the same.

His new trade took him to other countries in the Mid-East, helping the Sunni in Iraq destroy the apostate Shia. Then Indonesia, with the Jemaah Islamiyah, and more recently in Kandahar. Friends of friends had requested his help in the Punjab, where the struggle of the faithful was usually against the Hindus.

The Engineer put down the soldering iron and looked at the assembled Afghan teenagers, three of the six not yet old enough to grow their first beard. Their eyes were bright, the young talibs excited by the danger of the explosives, the prospect of killing kufars. Al-Muhandis had been working with the students for three days, a crash course in improvised explosive devices.

But IEDs had come a long way since the first attempts in Iraq back in the early 2000s. Nowadays, payload stability, targeting, and triggering were far better, and the Americans were losing limbs and eyes.

At the back of the room, a senior Taliban commander sat, his AK-47 resting on his knees. The Engineer knew the man had sodomized the youngest boy two days before, and another had come in this morning with bruises and tortured eyes. Al-Muhandis had heard this was the Afghan way, and that Kandahar was legendary for it—women are for babies, men are for pleasure, the commander had told him as they drove the dirt road up to the village.

But for the Engineer, this was al kaba’r, a sinful act, and he loathed the self-satisfied look on the commander’s face, the pain in the boy’s eyes. For that, there must be retribution.

The journey to Lahore was difficult and dangerous. Either northeast to Kabul over the mountains and then across the border into Peshawar, or toward the southeast to Quetta. The commander had agreed to drive him the hundred and twenty miles to Pakistan through the southeastern route. The Taliban leader was a Barakzai, a member of the Durrani, and his tribesmen were spread all the way from Kandahar to Quetta—taking him across the treacherous border was not a problem, the commander said.

Al-Muhandis waved goodbye as the Toyota jeep sped away down the road, and prayed for forgiveness. As the jeep climbed the ridge, heading north, he pulled out his cellphone.

The Pashtun commander was glad to be rid of the fussy Egyptian and his disapproving looks. He crushed the Cleopatra the Engineer had given him and lit up a joint. He drew deeply on the hand-rubbed Manali black his cousin had given him in Quetta, and felt the familiar rush. He turned up the radio, laughed as the colors on the road grew brighter, and wondered which boy would take his pleasure tonight. Below his seat a cellphone rang, and the fighter’s hand went down, a puzzled look on his face. The Toyota seemed to disembowel itself, as mangled pieces of man and metal hurtled into the blue sky.

 

The Mother of Satan

The Engineer quietly recited the Shahadah before beginning work on the bomb. This was the difficult task, the cellphone detonator would come after—he could do that part in his sleep.

In most cases Waali knew about the target, and in some he actually examined the area where the IED would be deployed. That was important for choosing the type of chemicals to be used, and how they would be packaged and deployed.

But Lahore would be different—the Engineer didn’t know who the target was, or where the attack would take place. He did know his device must be portable, since it would be both carried and detonated by one man.

His journey from Quetta had been uneventful, just the way he liked it. After a short cab ride, the Egyptian had taken the bus east along the winding road to Multan, and then another bus to Lahore. He carried nothing but a small bag, his fake Jordanian passport, and a wad of money. A roll of afghanis and Pakistani rupees, but also dollars—despite the wars, the hatred of America, the greenback was still king.

For his work, his mission, he brought nothing—Lahore was a great city, the capital of the old Mughal empire. In a city of ten million people, the Engineer could easily find what he needed. The chemical products were easily accessible, used in a variety of industries every day.

“Will you use the fertilizer?” the mullah asked.

Al-Muhandis shook his head. He was well aware that many of the explosives in commercial and military use contained nitrogen, which was counterintuitive—after all, eighty percent of air was nitrogen, and the reactive bit was the other twenty—the oxygen.

“No, Maulana, I will not.”

“Ah, I thought there was no other way. Semtex, ammonium nitrate, nitroglycerin, TNT…”

“You are well informed, but no. Things have changed. Our enemies keep a much sharper eye on nitrogen now, on where it is sold.”

“I understand. I was up north, many years ago. Where I lost this.” The cleric touched the eyepatch. “It was always nitrogen then.”

“Also, there are nitrogen security scanners now, Hakim, it is risky. Your operation might be compromised.”

You are the wise one, my son. Please tell me what you need, and I will provide. There is no need to expose you, and I have pledged protection. Nobody knows you’re here.” The mullah cast his arm broadly, as if in a blessing, indicating the madrassa and the grounds surrounding it.

“Thank-you, Maulana, and thank-you for your Jihad in Afghanistan. Soon the sons of dogs will be defeated, just as the Soviets were beaten.”

“Prepare your list, my son. After prayers, I shall return.”

The mullah had delivered the necessary chemicals, and Waali began his grim assembly. The compound he was about to prepare certainly required one Shahadah, perhaps two.

On the marble top were the two components of TATP, acetone and hydrogen peroxide. Both could be found in any beauty parlor, where the kufar women polished their nails and painted their hair. But both had many other uses: acetone in plastics and pharmaceuticals, peroxide in household products and paper pulp.

The Engineer planned to combine the two compounds to make triacetone triperoxide, an innocuous-looking pile of white crystals. After his job was done, the mixture of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen—the elements that make up table sugar—would produce an explosive rated eighty percent higher than the power of dynamite.

For now, he set aside the electronic equipment: soldering iron and multimeter, and the three burners—sometimes a cellphone would be defective, and there was a reason the Engineer had a hundred percent success rate—he triple-checked.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

It would take him a day or so to prepare the explosive—both the chemicals and the apparatus were simplicity itself. He poured the acetone and stirred in the peroxide, keeping the beaker cool, close to freezing point. That was the secret. The Engineer planned to make several batches of the crystals—smaller amounts of the crystal were easier to deal with, but he knew that even one eighth of an ounce could blow off his hands.

The thermometer read five degrees centigrade as he very slowly stirred the liquids. The problem with TATP was that it was unstable at various stages of manufacture, not to mention deployment. Soon he would add the acid, drop by careful drop—any inadvertent excess, and the bomb-maker would watch in horror as the temperature suddenly shot up—then boom.

Storing the stuff was diabolical also; it was best stored damp—the dry crystals were much more dangerous—and the powder must be properly sealed, or it slowly vaporized. Waali had known a guy in Ramallah who stored the crystals in plastic pharmaceutical bottles—the ones with the child’s safety cap. The man was a good chemist, and he kept his bottles cool, waiting for the day when they would discharge their terrible mission in Israel. When it came time to build the package, the contents of the bottles were transferred to the bomb itself. But in the last bottle, the Mother of Satan had crystallized in the cap threading—when the bomber pressed and twisted, the friction was enough to blow off his hands. The heat triggered off a second, much greater explosion, which transported him directly to paradise—they’d found one hand, and that was all.

But the Engineer was the best in the business, and he knew that his precious crystals would be safe underwater. He wiped his brow, sweating profusely despite the arctic cold of the air conditioning. He craved a cigarette—he couldn’t smoke when he spoke with Lucifer—but that could wait until he finished his batches and left them to settle.

Night fell, and al-Muhandis left his beakers in the cooled water bath, taking one last look at the neat rows of colorless liquid. He would leave them overnight, and in the morning all would show their fruits—a white precipitate, the Mother of Satan itself.

On the evenings when he finished the dreadful potion, Waali hardly ate. He would sleep poorly, with heavy dreams in which white crystal swirled in his subconscious mind, and wild explosions lit up the horizon. Even so, with something as dangerous as this, he preferred to do the whole job—it might be safer to leave the cooking to someone else, but how could he be sure when he coupled the detonator that he wouldn’t end up like his friend from the West Bank?

The Engineer woke early for prayers. He was exhausted from his dreams, and felt a dull ache in his belly. Lack of food was part of it, but there was another reason—today’s work would be much more dangerous than the first—he had to purify the explosive.

He carefully filtered the mixture and stared at the damp crystals with apprehension. He muttered the Shahadah, his second today, shivering in the freezing room. He would collect the product into three lots, and then purify each one in turn—some of his method was just superstition.

Along with the crystals were impurities, and he could make the explosive far stronger through the purification process. He poured an organic solvent on the damp crystals, then used a separating funnel. The last part would be the worst—evaporating the solvent using a steam bath—after that, the TATP was ready for its dreadful duty.

Waali didn’t even notice the hours go by, so concentrated was he on the job at hand. He took off his mask and safety glasses, and contemplated his final product with satisfaction. The white crystals twinkled back at their maker. He smiled as he went out into the gardens—another nail in the coffin of the enemies of Islam.

He lit up a Cleopatra, his body shouting for nicotine. In the warm air there was a smell of freshly baked chapatis and barbecued lamb, and the Engineer’s stomach suddenly growled. He was always amazed at the way he shut everything else down when the Mother of Satan called—it was as if he was reborn when the whole thing was over.

Tomorrow he would open the burner and do the soldering work—cellphones made blowing up the infidel so much easier.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Swing – I

July 30, 2016

Over the month of August I will use these pages to publish a short story. I began writing it the day after my chronicle about the Lahore bombing. In my article that weekend I wrote the first few paragraphs of an imagined account, and challenged you, kind reader, to take it forward. I wonder how we’ll match up.

 

The Swing

Peter Wibaux

 

Kuldeep

The little girl woke up very early. She knelt beside the window and said her prayers on this special day. She asked God to take care of her family, to help her father with his new business that made him so tired, she asked that he might smile more. And she prayed for chocolate.

Then she crept into the big bed, eyes shining with joy and mischief. She watched for a minute as her parents slept, then her impatience got the better of her. She put her mouth close to her mother’s ear.

Maa, I want an Easter egg,” she whispered.

Her mother stirred, her hand reached up and she stroked the girl’s long brown hair.

“Kuldeep, it is so early,” she whispered back. “Look, look how Pita sleeps, he must rest.”

Her father let out a loud snore, as if on cue. The hairs on his thick mustache quivered, making the child giggle.

“Mommy, it’s a beautiful day. It’s Easter, and I want to go play in the park.” She pouted.

Maa turned and looked at her baby, her beautiful baby with the dark eyes. She kissed Kuldeep. “Your name has a meaning, little one.”

“You told me, mommy. It means the ‘lamp of the family.’ Am I a lamp?” She giggled again, and snuggled into her mother.

“Yes. Yes, my love, you are our shining light, brighter than the sun. Go and put on your best clothes.” Kuldeep had only just learned to dress herself, and often her buttons needed fixing.

“Go, my jasmine blossom. When daddy awakes, we will go to the park. We’ll hunt for eggs, and we’ll play on the swings. But first, of course, we must go to church.”

Kuldeep went back into her bedroom and looked at Shashi. The cat lay curled on the pillow, back paws tucked under the sheet. The little girl tickled the feline’s tummy and whispered “Shashi, little moon, we’re going to the park.” The cat grudgingly opened one eye—just a slit, shielding herself from the sun that streamed in through the guillotine window.

The little girl picked up the cat, ignoring its protests, and held it firmly in her arms as she opened the window. Outside, the sweet, slightly putrid smell of the mango blossoms drew the beetles and the wasps in their mission to pollinate the tree.

Both child and cat wrinkled their noses. “Poo.” Kuldeep laughed. The feline wrestled free and parachuted onto the floor, scampering off in mock anger. “Moon, moon, moon,” the child teased. “Shashi the moon hates the sun.” The tabby hid under the bed and peered at the girl from a safe distance.

“Come here! bad girl!” Kuldeep dived for the cat. The animal calmly walked to the other side of the bed and stared the child down. She held that impassive pose that defines a cat—Shashi, lord of the universe.

“Well, Miss Stuffy Shashi,” the little girl scolded. “If you won’t be my friend, I know who will. Chann, come to mommy this minute.” Kuldeep picked up her doll. “See, Shashi! We don’t need you! Now…” she carried the doll over to the wardrobe and flung open the door. Together they examined the dresses, the brightly-colored tops.

She pursed her lips, as she had seen maa do on Sunday mornings. She flicked through the clothing, tutting to the doll in despair. “Well Chann, what are we going to wear? First church, but then the park.” She flicked through more dresses. “That one? No, Chaan, we need to be practical,” she admonished. How on earth did Chaan imagine jeans were appropriate? “You have a lot to learn about being a lady, I’m afraid!”

The doll looked crestfallen, so Kuldeep hugged and kissed her. “It’s alright, silly, don’t cry! Mommy loves you. And I shall give you lessons. Now, sit down here while I get ready.”

She plonked the doll on a small wooden chair and sat her upright. “Look, and you shall learn.” Maa peeked through a crack in the door. She smiled, hearing her daughter use daddy’s words, then opened the door an inch or two more—the cat seized the opportunity to make good its escape.

Aman left her daughter to dress herself and educate Chann, and went into the kitchen to prepare nāshtā, the first meal of the day. In Punjab meat is often served at breakfast, as is the custom in the rest of Pakistan. The Siri Payay, a lamb’s head and feet, is a Sunday treat, and in Aman’s household it was traditional to eat the dish at Easter—most uncommon in a city where the family were regarded as kufar, or unbelievers—a tiny Christian minority in a metropolis of millions, the capital of the old Mughlai Empire, and the southern gate of the Silk Road.

To each his own, Aman reflected. Her own name meant ‘the one who is peaceful’, and she prayed that Islam might see things that way also.

She placed the breakfast dishes out on the table. Khatchauri, corn roti, and fruit—the last of the winter citrus, papaya and guava, and strawberries from Kashmir. As the meat came to the boil, Shashi circled impatiently, yowling and rubbing herself against Aman—Easter was also the feline’s favorite day.

 

Sahir

The Jamir Eemaan Madrassa was the best home Sahir ever had. His maulana, or teacher, was kind, and had steered the boy onto the path of true religion.

The school furnished its students with a calm and studious environment, set back from the constant bustle of the big city. And for Sahir, who’d been hungry all his life, it provided the most precious thing of all—enough food to stop the stomach gnawing and twisting, the pangs shooting through him in the dead of night, when little children should be quietly sleeping in their beds.

It was like that in the countryside, the small rural villages of Southern Punjab. His desperately poor family had ten mouths to feed—mama, baba, seven kids, and grandma. Sahir was the fourth child, and there was never nearly enough food to sustain them—it was hard enough to scrape together the money for a few lentils and naan bread,  and the baby girl was constantly ill.

His eldest brother, Abasin, contracted polio as a child and was paralysed. Since the family had no money for a wheelchair, he dragged himself on a wooden board fitted with supermarket trolley wheels.

The kufar planned to use the disease to destroy Islam, his teacher explained. In the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the ibn-al-kalb CIA, the spies of the sons of dogs, had used doctors to poison innocent Muslim children. Osama, peace be upon him, had been dead these five years, and the faithful had responded to the polio vaccine hoax by killing seventy polio workers.

The hand of Allah was severe indeed, Sahir rejoiced, scratching his thin arms.

His father had sent him to a local madrassa where the boy could be educated and fed. Sahir was only seven years old, and for the next eight years it became his home. The clerics who ran the school did provide their charges with food, but they went about it in a singular fashion—the children had to beg for it.

Every morning after prayers the boys were loaded onto a flatbed truck and the creaking old engine would strain and wheeze as it pulled the rusted chassis to one of the nearby towns. Here, the boys would fan out and comb the market square and the nearby streets, bringing back what they received.

Sahir still bore the scars of this chore, a task he found both humiliating and frightening. At the tender age of seven, he quickly found out what happened if he failed to deliver food. The very first time his prize disappointed, the mullah gripped his left ear and led him into the store room. There, he kicked the little boy onto the flagstones, took the rattan cane from the wall, and whipped him mercilessly.

The child howled in pain, and nursed his welts and bleeding cuts over the next weeks. Every time he returned, trembling, from his morning excursion, he expected another savage beating—his begging skills improved rapidly, but from time to time out came the rattan cane and the bruises flared again.

His schoolmates were no luckier, most of them from destitute families like his own, kids whose start in life had been a tragic mix of hunger, violence, and disease. There were exceptions—his friend Mueez came from people with means, but his father had packed him off to the madrassa anyhow.

“Father told my maulana that in his life he has been a great sinner,” Mueez said. “He believes if I grow up to be a good Muslim, I can save him from the fires of hell.”

Sahir knew the kufar considered this a very special day. After prayers, he broke fast, giving thanks to Allah for the beautiful dawn. For the unbelievers, this was the day of the ressurection of Christ, the son of God.

The boy muttered a curse at the outrage. He remembered well the lessons he had been taught.

“Boy, if we are to find the right path, we must seek the truth. “ The maulana looked at the teenager, the thatch of black hair and the dark eyes, the reedy arms of malnutrition. The eyes widened.

“Yes, sir. My footsteps follow the Qu’ran, the one and only holy book.”

“Good. Now, to defend Islam, to prosecute our Jihad for Allah the exalted, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, we must know our enemies.” The mullah’s voice hardened. He gripped the boy’s shoulder. “We must know them, Sahir, so that we may destroy them.”

The boy sat, cross-legged, his worn leather sandals three sizes too big for him. The mullah saw him wince and relaxed his grip.

“The Christians, the crusaders, have inflicted much pain on the children of Allah. We are all sons of Allah, but the Lord could never have begotten a son. That is HERESY!” The maulana screamed the word in disgust, and the boy jumped back, cringing.

“That is the infidel’s filth, Sahir, this holy trinity.”

The boy was trembling.

“S-So their Jesus, sir…” he stammered.

“Their Jesus, yes. What can you tell me about him, talib?” The maulana used the Arab term for student.

“We call him Isa, may peace be upon him. But he is not a deity, sir, he is a prophet.”

“Exactly!” The teacher patted his talib on the head. “This is a grave error, an unforgivable error of the kufar doctrine. If Allah had begotten a son, what would he be?”

The boy looked perplexed. “The… son of god?”

“Exactly!” The maulana shouted. “And why is that impossible?”

“Because there is only one god, Maulvi.”

“Exactly!” A third time. “There cannot be two gods, or even three, since the crusaders add the Holy Spirit. This is nothing but blasphemy.”

The maulana stared at Sahir, reading the boy’s eyes, his thoughts. A good Muslim boy, this one, a true believer. But is he ready to do God’s work?

“These Christians, talib, these murderers of Palestine, and traitors of Jerusalem—“ the voice rose to a screech—“they dare to celebrate the ressurection of this false god! This… this insult to Islam even has a name. The kufar call it Easter.”

Sahir boiled with indignation as he remembered the lesson of his beloved maulana, a brave man who had lost an eye fighting the Soviets. Well, today will be a special day for me too.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Disaster

July 23, 2016

Some nations celebrate adversity. The English are particularly fond of this, perhaps as a way to exalt fortitude. One example is the charge of the light brigade. Another is Dunkirk. On a personal level, Scott of the Antarctic. In sports, pretty much every England football team.

Other countries don’t have these foibles, at least not in the same way, but all have their failures. It’s important to learn from failure, which is why the millennial notion of trial and improvement is weaker than the traditional trial and error. The emphasis on error promotes error correction, whereas improvement rewards you by stating it was already pretty good—and now you’re making it better.

The same applies to KISS. It changed from ‘keep it simple, stupid!’ to the politically correct blandness of ‘keep it strictly simple.’

Yet failures are mostly binary. The Alamo certainly was, and the same will be found true for Brexit. Or Trump.

Should he get elected. From my little window, I think he might, and it scares the shit out of me.

In the days after Cleveland, polls place the two candidates neck and neck. I watched as much of the Republican Reality Show as my stomach could bear, and if that’s the national outcome of a dog and pony show of that ilk, you should worry too.

Next week, the Clinton show does its thing. Hillary is really difficult to like, and for the undecided the choice is between someone you dislike and someone you despise. For a country like America, which generously bestows adjectives like awesome on what other nations barely consider good, this is a painful pill.

We’ll see if post-convention the democrats once again tip the polls—before Cleveland, Hillary led by ten percent.

One of the reasons many status quo Republicans who find Trump as indigestible as week-old sauerkraut will fight for his election is because November is not just about the next president of the most powerful (but broken, ungreat, zzz) country on earth.

November is in many ways about their jobs—concerns for House and Senate, state governorships, and the supreme court.

It’s impossible to use rational argument with the “America’s broken” crowd, to point out that tax returns of would-be politicians must be public, or that a US president needs a working knowledge of world affairs, just so he can grasp what he’s being told.

Like Columbus in Clear Eyes, and like Trump himself, the typical Trump supporter holds a set of opinions uncontaminated by facts.

If logic won’t work, what will? Bill Maher suggested recently that the solution lay in the way cops catch serial killers—since they can’t understand the mindset, they use another serial killer to help interpret.

Nothing except Trump himself can harm Trump in the eyes of his supporters. Like the Brexit voters, their minds were always made up—don’t confuse me with the facts. There’s no concept of discussing ideas, only attacking people. Crooked Hillary and Corrupt Kaine, fighting Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.

Or Porky Pence and Turkey Trump, named after Chicken Little’s Turkey Lurkey.

So the whole idea of political debate, the bizarre notion that candidates confront what they plan to do, why, and above all how, vanishes.

Since Twitter (used ad nauseam by Tweety Trump) became a weapon of choice, the ultimate sound bite has finally come of age. And that’s all you need. Any more info is just TMI—the byte-sized IV drip of social media is a lethal drug for democracy.

Ol’ Turkey knows that folks are much more interested in Jerry Springer than Meet the Press. Give it to them. Don’t worry about world issues (they don’t), details (they don’t), or depth (they don’t). Who cares about plagiarism? (they can’t even spell it). Focus on the opponents and the apocalypse. Huckleberry Hillary and  Cadpig Kaine, hounds and cads the lot of ’em. End crime. Kill Isis. Choke China. Own Mars.

A small minority understands democracy is a fragile and beautiful flower, the envy of peoples who do not possess it.

The vast majority understands Pokémon Go.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Inflammation

July 16, 2016

ɪnfləˈmeɪʃ(ə)n/

Noun

A localized physical condition in which part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot, and often painful…

I’ve been working hard over the past month on my new book, The Hourglass. An old and cantankerous British professor  used to greet his doctoral students with the words “Don’t tell me how hard you’ve worked, tell me what you’ve done.”

Truth is, Professor, I haven’t done very much.

I’m struggling with the characters—none of them jump out at me and clamor to be in the book—it’s been a real challenge, because the ‘big idea’ that underpins the book is terrific (and terrifying).

A good book needs a good plot line, but a great book needs a big idea and a great plot line, with the requisite sub-plots.

I read a lot of good books, mostly for entertainment, and Kindle has made it possible to go back in time and access stuff that would otherwise be undiscoverable. An an example, I was a fan of Elmore Leonard for years. But he’s dead and I’ve read all his books. If you go back in time, you get to Richard Stark, and the Parker novels—which are fantastic.

Stark, who was really Donald Westlake, wrote superbly terse and twisted page turners—but you won’t find a single big idea in those books.

Historical novels automatically contain the ‘big idea’. In Clear Eyes it’s the discovery of a western route to Asia. They also contain compulsory characters who jump out of the book—Columbus and the Huntress, Beatriz de Bobadilla, spring to mind. So in many ways, the book is half-written before you start.

Perhaps I’ll kill off the characters who’ve made it into the first three thousand words of The Hourglass and start again. Part of the problem may be that I organized them all beforehand, thinking I could write better with a structured approach.

Follett pre-plans everything, so I gave it a try. Westlake said he starts out with no idea where the book is going. He makes a good point: if the author doesn’t know what comes next, then neither will the reader. When it came to Clear Eyes I did no planning, and it all worked out.

The big idea in Atmos Fear was the paradigm shift brought about by the collapse of oil prices. In that light, it’s amazing how many Western players are now pushing for higher oil—when I wrote the book we were at one hundred bucks a barrel—since then we’ve touched twenty-five.

Consistently low oil prices mean the end of Mid-East sponsored terrorism, but the West didn’t cheer the low prices. Gas prices in Europe should have halved, but instead a lot more money is going into a few people’s pockets.

Which brings me to The Hourglass. The demise of the middle class, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, the enormous and insoluble drama of youth unemployment in Europe—these are unquestionably big ideas.

Associated with them are two huge topics: education and medical care—I’d like my new book to dig deep into both.

When it comes to medicine, one of the fascinating aspects is called medical inflation. Excuse me for thinking of inflation as a unified concept—blessed ignorance.

Apparently there’s the one we all deal with, which governs pay increases, negative interest rates, baskets of goods… then there’s the special one. I don’t suppose that medical inflation, a particular subset of inflammation, is the only one, but it’s the one that most affects us.

Thar she blows! The incredible disconnect between real world and med world.

Thar she blows! The incredible disconnect between real world and med world.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power, the gap between the consumer price index and so-called medical inflation began to widen—the fun thing is it’s been widening ever since.

Last year, UK medical inflation was in the region of thirteen percent, at least for insurance purposes. That means your premium goes up by that amount even before factoring in other costs—after all, you are one year older.

Gap in medical inflation (MPI) and CPI world wide over the last two years (source: AON)

The numbers in the table are stunning, but the comparison will be more evident if we take the ratio of MPI/CPI and look at the various world areas. You see, a quick glance at these data shows a jump of 20% in Latin America, or 11.6% in the Middle East and Africa. Shocking, right? but their MPI/CPI ratios are both 1.8—that was the US in the late 1990s.

Whereas the European and US ratios are 3.7 and 3.9 respectively, and the UK takes the cake (or perhaps the bitter pill) with 4.9! That means the price of medical care in Britain rose five times faster than pizza and beer.

For reasons that are nebulous, to say the least, medical insurance in the UK is up almost seventeen percent this year, the lion’s share of which is due to MPI. I’m sure this trend is identical in the US and in continental Europe.

What it means for the poor, the Brexit left-behinds, can be stated in one word—nothing. The bottom of the hourglass has no hope beyond the National Health Service. In an emergency, if the lines are backed-up three months, they’re screwed.

What it means for the top of the hourglass is more expensive services. So MPI will be followed by an equivalent inflation disconnect in legal fees, investment banking fees, and any other high-value professional services.

What it means for that squeezy middle bit of the hourglass, where the sand can only fall through one grain at a time, is that workers will increasingly receive very minimal complementary health benefits.

Middle class families who aspire to an alternative treatment option for aggressive cancer or other life-threatening emergencies—the medical equivalent of the safari Big Five—are shit out of luck. That’s why I need to write this goddamn book.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

So Sweet

July 9, 2016

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Persian emperor Darius called sugar cane ‘the reed which gives honey without bees.’

The Persians kept the secret until the Arab invasions, and the Caliphate eventually brought the precious powder to the Iberian peninsula as it expanded west, developing sugar cane cultivation.

The Moors were the first to introduce spices to Europe, and like so many other things that Northern Europeans are nowadays prone to forget, these gustative wonders came in first through the ‘peripherals.’

In the early XIVth century, around the time the Caliphate was kicked out of Portugal, a pound of sugar sold in London for the equivalent of forty dollars—it now costs a buck.

The delights of cinnamon, cumin, and ginger, not to mention the widespread use of sugar to preserve fruit, must have whetted the Portuguese appetite for exploration—noblemen and commoners alike hungered for faraway places that held great promise of wealth.

It was during this first wave of globalization that cane culture turned into a cash cow in the New World, and evolved into a major driver for the slave trade.

The infamous triangle. The image focuses on the Caribbean, but the Portuguese played a major part in the 'export' of African slaves to Brazil.

The infamous triangle. The image focuses on the Caribbean, but the Portuguese played a major part in the ‘export’ of African slaves to Brazil.

Portugal introduced sugar plantations to the Americas, and set up a booming business in the newly-discovered Vera Cruz. By 1540, the Roças de açucar on the island of Santa Catarina numbered eight hundred—there were a further two thousand in northeast Brazil.

Because the roças, or sugar mills, were so labor-intensive, the social consequences of the industry were very far reaching. Sugar was arguably the greatest driver for slavery, and accounts for the mass displacement of West African peoples through a period of centuries.

From an annual UK production of thirty thousand metric tons in the mid-eighteenth century, the world now produces one hundred-eighty million tons every year—that’s almost three ounces per day for every person on earth.

The market dictates the need, and the huge increase in dietary carbohydrates, a good (bad) part of it in refined products, has had major consequences for human health.

Blood sugar levels are either ignored altogether or a major concern, there isn’t much middle ground.

Bad moon rising—the spread of diabetes on Planet Sugar.

Bad moon rising-the spread of diabetes on Planet Sugar.

Your blood sugar is measured in milligrams per liter, abbreviated as mg/l. The UK is of course different from everyone else, and Brits measure their sugar in moles—I don’t mean facial blemishes or small subterranean creatures—the English don’t weigh their glucose, they count molecules. Canada has come out in sympathy with the Brits, perhaps due to its fondness for the queen.

Normality is a relative notion, so it’s always fun to hear doctors state it as an absolute truth, usually with great vehemence.

In India you’ll be told (and head-wagging will ensue) that values above 85 mg/l are abnormal, whereas in Europe a (fasting) range between 70 and 100 mg/l is considered fine. It seems the Indians, with their penchant for math, just took the average.

In the US, some websites will extend that to 110 mg/l, and if you have diabetes, then the ADA recommends a fasting value of 70-130 mg/l.

Your cat or your dog can also suffer from high blood sugar—apparently for felines the normal range is 85-120 mg/l. Canines come in at an identical spread, so our four-legged friends can indulge more than us.

The onset of dog diabetes, or cat carbs, is a relatively recent worry—as in humans, the causes are an excess of refined foods and overeating. We feed our pets like we feed ourselves—too much, too often.

Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease, and we see it emerge increasingly earlier, and increasingly often. The projected increases for China and India by 2035 are stunning, due to the sheer numbers, and overall the number of diabetics will be up by over fifty percent in the next two decades—the consequences are dire, because the price of all that sweet stuff is blindness and amputation.

If you stick to vegetables of the above-ground persuasion, and go easy on the pasta and rice, you’ll avoid joining that ever-growing club. China and India, with diets rich in rice, flour, and a multitude of beans, will need a real food revolution. Soy, a staple in the East, chick peas, widely eaten in Arab countries, and black beans, a Latin American favorite, are all carbohydrate bombs—just like your friendly breakfast croissant.

The fast food industry delivers a lethal combo of buns, fries, and sodas. And then there’s beer…

But those of us who drink wine get a free pass.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Brace

July 2, 2016

The word could be yet another contraction for brexit-related nonsense, for instance brexit-race. Politics in the U.K. switched to afterburner this week—in the words of one commentator, Westminster made House of Cards look like teletubbies.

The lame-duck British prime minister cooked Boris Johnson’s goose by refusing to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, thereby leaving that unsavory task to the next PM.

Bojo, whose prime motivation for this whole sad mess was to become prime minister, found himself outplayed. Become PM, lead brexit, and take responsibility for the ensuing dog’s breakfast. Become PM, don’t invoke Article 50, and renege on his electoral platform—crucifixion ensues. Or don’t run for PM, which he very sensibly chose. Checkmate.

Many voices in the more deprived areas of the U.K. now protest that although they voted out, they don’t want to lose access to EU funds that have been improving their regional infrastructure.

Like them, Britain has to work it out, and the left-behinds will be even further back—the ultimate irony of brexit.

Played to the hilt by a disbelieving media, but the voting public made it happen.

Played to the hilt by a disbelieving media, but the voting public made it happen.

My experience is that Britain maneuvered very well in the European Union, often leveraging the synergies of the countries that make up the United Kingdom to great advantage—as a consequence, British viewpoints often prevailed.

My fear is that in this new arrangement no one on the continent will have the slightest interest in the British view, because there’s no institutional context where it can even be expressed—even if Britain successfully negotiates Article 50, the strength it had before will be much diluted.

If anything good can come from this, it’s the notion that the U.S. might learn an important lesson, but that’s very unlikely. I’m hopeful Clinton will win in November—not because she’ll be a good president, but because the alternative is a tragedy.

Hopeful is one thing, confident is another. After feeling the pulse of America’s grass roots earlier this year, I’m not confident. The worst possible triple whammy is a new world order with an autistic America and Britain, totally disconnected from the continent of Europe.

A few days before the British referendum, a BBC reporter wandered through Manhattan asking New Yorkers for their thoughts on brexit—no one knew what it meant, and more to the point, after being told what it was, no one cared.

If that’s the case in New York, you can picture what Nebraska, North Carolina, or Nevada will be like—the British debacle holds no message for Trump voters, who don’t give a shit about the EU—don’t know, don’t care.

But the week also saw a brace of terror attacks, both of which plausibly organized by Isis. Airports rather than airplanes have become a target of choice—you might kill less people, but you disrupt a lot more flights.

In Istambul, as in Brussels, Paris, and Lahore, the explosive used was triacetone triperoxide—very easy (but very dangerous) to make, no nitrogen required. TATP has become a kind of Isis trademark, and since detection of nitrogen-based explosives is now well-established, the new kid on the block has become very popular.

And yesterday, Bangladesh. A different kind of strike, more along the lines of western hotel attacks we’ve seen in eastern capitals. The nation has seen a number of savage murders of bloggers who penned anything perceived as anti-Islamic, and official condemnation has often been less than sanguine.

It is for such reasons that immigration from Europe is a false flag in the recent referendum, and that unity is the only real weapon defending Western ideals.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

 

 

The Youth of Today

June 25, 2016

Today for the first time I ticked all the boxes: History, Finance, Science, Travel, World Affairs.

It’s impossible to write about Britain leaving the European Union—which to me equates with leaving Europe—and not consider that all these are significant.

So many words will be uttered by the chattering classes over the next weeks that I struggle to pen something worthy of your attention.

This decision compromises the future of our children—a Scottish friend of mine put it best: Turkeys vote for Christmas.

I’ll start with the winners, since the losers are the youth of Britain and Europe. And with the lessons.

As in any messy divorce, the winners are scuttlebutt and legal wrangling—the media will boom and lawyers will make a killing. One tabloid nailed its colors to the mast this morning, claiming responsibility for the British Exit.

The first key lesson is for young people: vote, because bystanders lose.

Democracy is like wealth accrual or weight loss—it doesn’t just happen. You have to run hard just to stay where you are, and then run some more to make things change.

The second key lesson is for nations: asking this kind of question in a referendum is tragic. Germany learned it at a huge cost—I invite you to refresh your historical memory.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of Brexit was the enthusiastic praise from Donald Trump, a man who knows demagoguery better than most. Mein Trumpf, as the fringe groups refer to him, was visiting Scotland at the time—north of Hadrian’s wall they prefer a more direct approach.

A landmark British protest image, with the inevitable imperturbable constable. Memories of the early days of the first Thatcher government cam flooding back.

A landmark British protest image, with the inevitable imperturbable constable. Memories of the first Thatcher government came flooding back.

Powerful imagery these days is often met with wry comments. One person requested that the US build a wall so Trump couldn’t get back, and got the reply: “No, we’re building a fan. He’ll die of embarrassment when we aim it at his head.”

But my award goes to someone who considered the sobriquet inappropriate because the subject ‘lacks warmth and depth.’

One of the most shocking examples of demagoguery is the British nationalist Farage, who has been encouraging Britain to leave the EU for the last twenty-five years.

Sometimes referred to in the UK as ‘the toad‘, Farage was partly responsible for all this debacle, a fact that fills him with immense pride. His UKIP party pushed the conservatives further to the right, and that helped Cameron make the worst decision in his now-defunct political career.

There are many ironies in all this process, and many still to come—in Farage’s case, were it not for the EU, the man would never have held elected office. He’s a member of the European Parliament, because European elections are based on proportional representation—the UK system would never award him a seat.

His victory on Friday cost him that job, and the Tory party hate him more than fries with mayonnaise—like Cameron, his political future ended on Independence Day.

So much was said about the cost that European Union membership represented to the UK, and sadly very little is true—the left-behinds will continue to be… left behind.

Science is a small part of GDP but a strong indicator of a country’s success. The Royal Society analyzed the UK’s financial performance in European science, and the advantages are obvious.

British capacity to attract European science investment in Framework Program 7, 2007-2013.

British capacity to attract European science investment in Framework Program 7, 2007-2013 (data normalized to GDP). The UK comes in second place, compared to the last three, Germany, France, and Italy, who benefit much less than they contribute.

These kinds of subjects are irrelevant in a referendum, where the questions are so simplistic as to defy imagination. Would you like to pay less tax?

The issues at stake in the process that just ended are complex and have multiple sub-optimal solutions. They also interact with each other, so that ‘fixing’ one problem triggers another.

The National Health Service is a case in point. ‘Fixing’ European immigration breaks the NHS, where one in five workers are EU citizens from outside the UK. Of course there’s always the Australian points system—another small irony given the historical labor relationship between the two nations.

Regional distribution of the UK referendum vote.

Regional distribution of the UK referendum vote. Stay: Scotland (62%), London (59.9%), and Northern Ireland (55.8%). Leave: rest of England (57%), Wales (52.5%).

The regional aspects of the vote show anything but a united kingdom. This is hardly ‘man bites dog’ news, but it does open up another can of worms which the next government must address.

Since the polling stations map into constituencies, I would be curious to see how this vote would split the nation if the first-past-the-post method used in general elections were applied.

Two models are normally used for trade-offs: a zero sum, such as the outcome of a football game with one winner and one loser, or a positive sum such as education, where sharing knowledge enriches both parts.

Thursday’s outcome is the worst deal of all—a negative sum that enriches neither party—both are significantly worse off today than they were last Wednesday.

The one group of winners I didn’t mention are the most despicable people in the world—those whose life is dedicated to destroying the things that make us good. You may not know who you are, but we do.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Luoma

June 18, 2016

I had a quiet week in an Italian convent, immersed in work and oblivious to any news—I slept in a monk’s cell that contained three extremely hard single beds, no soap, and no TV. For all I know, Brexit took the world by storm and Trump applied for asylum in Mexico—political or insane, possibly both.

On Thursday afternoon I saw my first Chinese tourists in the wonderful town of Orvieto, and on Friday I hit Rome.

Maybe it’s because the Middle Kingdom struggles to pronounce ‘R’, but the fact is they call the city Luoma. I had to come into Rome for two reasons: the first was the aereo, and the second was more prosaic—wine.

My quest was for a nectar made from the oldest grape in Europe—the Greeks brought it over to Southern Italy a mere four thousand years ago. Now that I’m sitting in the aereo, and the damn thing is traveling west at thirty-seven thousand feet, I’m relaxed—but I remain surrounded by Chinese.

People in the West are incredibly arrogant about their own culture, so they find it bizarre that Asians have their own names for our countries and our cities. New York, for instance, is nyu yue, and the U.S. is mei guo—the beautiful nation.

Before I went to Orvieto, I never realized it was a town, only the name of a wine—but the cathedral is astounding. En route, I drove to Caprarola, a much smaller town in the region of Viterbo, to visit Villa Farnese.

The Farnese family built the palace somewhere during the period of Clear Eyes and The India Road—Giulia Farnese, lover of the Borgia Pope in the final part of his life, was a family member. The Farnese fortune was made by popes and cardinals, and Giulia’s relationship helped promote her brother, who later became Pope Paul III.

The highlight of the villa is the map room, which boasts the work of Giovanni da Varese, Il Vanosino—he painted the entire room in 1573-1574: seven huge maps, portraits of Magellan, Marco Polo, Vespucci, and Columbus, and astronomical constellations on the ceiling.

The high point is the mappamundi, which shows how much better we knew the world by then, less than one hundred years after the Cape of Good Hope was conquered. Of all the continents, Africa is by far the most accurately painted, and there are all the Portuguese names chosen by Cão, Dias, and Gama.

South America is a little bizarre in shape, but the umbilical cord that stretches from Panama to Guatemala is well drawn. The eastern seaboard of North America ends up a little too close to Europe, courtesy of Columbus.

The world in the last quarter of the XVIth century, painted by Fanosino on an Italian wall.

The world in the last quarter of the XVIth century, painted by Vanosino on an Italian wall.

My maquina, as the Italians call cars, hit the Rome city limits, and all hell broke loose. The traffic is permanent chaos—a school of fish darting in all directions to escape an apocryphal killer whale.

My destination was an enoteca in the center of town, to meet the guy who first turned me on to the sacred grape about three years ago. The center of Luoma has no parking of any description—no underground car parks, no elevated parking, zero! I made a couple of feeble attempts to circle my prey, like a pathetic shark, and finally gave up and headed past the city walls to a parcheggio.

The cabbie adeptly navigated the Roman chaos as we reviewed our options for the Italy-Sweden match—simultaneously he maintained a brisk cellphone conversation with a third party and dodged Chinese tourists on the purely decorative crosswalks.

He even knew the wine store, and I greeted my guru with joy as we began to review his stock of Aglianico del Vulture. I don’t usually share my wine secrets, but you deserve it: Aglianico is to the south of Italy what Barolo is to the north—however a good bottle of Barolo goes for over a hundred and fifty bucks and an Aglianico costs you thirty.

Italian cities have implemented a video traffic system—I almost wrote control, but it’s technically impossible to use the two words in the same sentence where Rome is concerned. Cabbies are exempt, but ordinary mortals are slowly steered into the trap, like groundfish collected in the codend of a trawl net.

I’ve been fined fifty euros after being trawled in Bologna, but this week I heard the tale of an unfortunate driver who received three successive fines at one-hour intervals—by the time the cumulative costs caught up with him, a factoring company from the Netherlands was chasing the one thousand euro debt at his address in Zeeland.

The next cabbie transported my precious cargo, winding his way into the car cave so I could stash my prey in safety, before driving me to a lunch appointment on the other side of town. I retrieved the wine-mobile after pranzo, courtesy of a third taxi who opted to take me through the city, terrorizing a fresh batch of Chinese.

By then my flight time was imminent, and it was my turn to drive Roman-style to Fiumicino—there are no signs for the airport, and the route is littered with red lights—I took very few prisoners, and my GPS constantly suggested in clipped Oxford English that one might like to consider the astonishing number of mobile safety cameras. One didn’t.

Fiumicino, or Leonardo da Vinci airport, as it’s now called, was the very picture of chaos—Uncle Leonard, a man of symmetry and vision, would turn in his grave. Ordinarily, it’s highly likely I’d have missed the flight, since I was going nowhere without my Aglianico.

But the bag went snaking off into the bowels of the airport, Italy narrowly beat the Swedes at the very end of the game, and my flight was delayed two hours.

The wine’s in the hold, the plane’s on the final approach, Lisbon traffic will be the pinnacle of civility compared to Rome, and I discovered why I made the flight—the Italian air traffic controllers were on strike, god bless ‘em.


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