Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A Wee Dram

September 28, 2016

The B&B was a replica of Fawlty Towers—at breakfast, a man with a missing tooth kept telling his three-year-old to say thank-you after every spoonful.

The landlady told me several times she served a Scottish continental breakfast. “We don’t do bacon and eggs,” she repeated, as if previous guests had hounded her on the matter.

She was a harassed and nerve-racked woman, totally devoid of humor. Her husband burnt the toast, and ten minutes later she materialized with odd-shaped materials, describing them as ‘Peter’s homemade bread’. When she mentioned kippers, visions of Basil, a dead fish poking from his waistcoat as he explains things to the doctor, flooded into my mind.

The west coast of Scotland is a very different proposition from Edinburgh, where I spent last week, but you get the same messages about the foolishness of brexit and the public school arrogance of Boris. The Scots aren’t famous for their subtlety, and the word ‘twat’ was much in evidence.

After the twee civility of the capital, I hankered for a different world, where Aberdeen Angus and black-faced sheep ruled the glen. I wound down the road, peering through the rain at the looming hills and the dark lochs, slowly closing the distance to my destination. If I were hunting pokemons, I’d be shit out of luck—the cellphone network had vanished.

But I wasn’t looking for pokemons, I was looking for whisky.

Islay is one of the inner Hebrides, the islands that separate Scotland from Northern Ireland, and at one time it was the seat of government for all the islands and parts of Ireland. At Finlaggan, the Viking longhouse is still visible, as are the ruins of fortifications at the edge of the loch. But five hundred years ago, the English king James IV put paid to the political aspirations of the island.

Maybe that’s what drove them to drink.

Whatever the reason, this one island, with a population of three thousand five hundred, is host to an inordinate amount of distilleries—the Mecca of Scottish wine.

Islay could do a lot more for visitors by broadening its appeal to the ladies. Several traditional crafts, including world-famous weaving, could diversify tourism and draw in families. The Finlaggan interpretation center was closed on Sunday morning—dutiful tourists drove quarter of an hour off the main road and peered, bemused and unwarned, at the closed doors.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

An abundance of riches. Two bottles of red wine are clearly visible on the bar, escapees from the tinto lockdown.

The gastronomy needs a critical overhaul.  To escape from the pouring rain, I went for lunch at the Bowmore Hotel, recommended as one of the better places to eat. The waitress was unsure about the red wine.

“Sorry, I’m just filling in here. There’s a wedding.”

“Please tell me what you have. A glass of red wine would be very welcome.”

She stared at me in panic. “I’m just filling in.” She rushed off and presently reported. “I’m sorry, the red wine’s all locked up. There’s a wedding.”

Two bottles of tinto sat on the bar behind me. Beyond that, I spied the greatest panoply of whiskies I’d ever seen. The allure of the grape was rapidly fading.

“Do you have white wine?”

“Yes.” The relief on her face was obvious. “I’m new—”


Perhaps she’s been taking lessons from the B&B on the mainland.

“No bother.”

It’s twenty-five miles to Ireland as the crow flies, and the same expressions prevail. Youse. No bother. Good craic.

It was time to hit the mother lode. Whisky pilgrims are like most others, small groups that share a kind of rapture as they make their way through the chapels of their passion. Like the monks of old, they stop and commune, then proceed on their way imbued with the spirit.

At Laphroaig, you’re given the chance to become a friend of the distillery, complete with a certificate and a rent payment of fifty milliliters of Scotland’s finest. Armed with your national flag and a pair of wellies, you trudge through the sodden peat bog and claim your very own square foot of land.

From Laphroaig to Lagavulin, and then on to Ardbeg, you cover the ground on the southern flank, before striking for pastures greener. Most of the barley is malted at a large complex owned by Diageo—only Kilchoman distillery does it all, from planting the barley to bottling the booze.

It was there that I purchased the jewel in the crown—whisky aged in a Sauternes cask. Customers are only allowed one bottle apiece, and I’m a firm believer in scarcity value.

The approach to Bundahabbain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The approach to Bunnahabhain, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Globalization has come to Islay, and the Bunnahabhain distillery has recently become part of a South African conglomerate. The distillery is a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal at Askaig, and the new owners are expected to sink seventeen million pounds, or twenty-two million bucks, into the much needed renovations.

Some of the distilleries are betting on innovation—Bruichladdich now produces a world-famous gin. The Botanist features no less than twenty-two herbs, and took the trendy gin market by storm. All distillers share a problem—the need to age their whisky, usually for a good number of years.

Moreover, different casks give different results, even if they’re from the same source, so the tasters are unsure of the outcome—a risky investment. Top barrels are hard to come by, and can cost seven hundred bucks, so some whisky distillers are buying out sherry producers just to get the casks.

Islay produces about three million gallons every year, and production is limited by the casks and space available for storage, so diversifying into gin, which needs no ageing at all, is a smart move.

From Tallinn to Tarbert, there’s something special about ferries. After a Scottish and thoroughly uncontinental ferry fry-up, I watch the dawn light up Jura, the island where Orwell wrote 1984.

I wonder how he would view this mad world thirty-two years later, as Russia bombs Aleppo into oblivion while the Americans look on.

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.


Fancy That!

September 18, 2016

Digital warfare is here to stay. Ignore it, pretend the ever-growing range of affected themes is merely a product of malice, but the fact is we’ve entered an era of digital history.

Over the last years, digital attacks have targeted industry (Iranian nuclear facilities), politics (Democratic National Convention hacks), and sport (medical records of Olympic athletes).

Many of these attacks take the form of zero-day vulnerabilities, a matter I’ve discussed in these pages. All software contains bugs, and zero-days exploit undetected issues such as buffer overflows to penetrate target systems.

Zero-days are worth a fortune, typically tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a burgeoning market exists to discover and sell them—mainly to governments.

The view from the top: an image from 2006 of the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.

The view from the top: the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.

Stuxnet, the virus designed to attack the centrifuges at Natanz, was a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The story of the worm’s discovery, its development, and  a broader analysis of the consequences of this digital war was published in Wired, and then released as a book.

The history of Stuxnet is the tale of digital warfare, made possible by the internet. Hacking starts with sophisticated social engineering, enticing you to click on the wrong thing.

That initiates the process of delivery of malware to your laptop, iPhone, or tablet. The typical delivery mechanism is a zero-day that takes advantage of some coding flaw. Just like any other missile, the objective is to deliver a payload, or warhead, which then dedicates itself to ensuring you have a really bad hair day.

The original Stuxnet virus contained five zero-days, worth about half a million bucks.

Because all the major software components you use are American-made, the Bush (dubya) administration found itself in the awkward position of targeting US companies, although its major entry-point was via client machines.

As an example, Microsoft Windows Update was hacked so it could deliver a virus—a brilliant choice, because Update goes right to the core of the operating system. It has to, because its job is to patch (update or replace) system files.

But you can imagine how business confidence in Microsoft is eroded if you can’t trust their software to behave itself in your own home.

As soon as hacking became the province of governments, which it now is, everything got much more complicated. The previous US republican administration obtained four hundred million dollars to develop digital warfare, and in particular to attack the Iranian nuclear program—I assure you Obama will be doing the same right now to North Korea.

In order to program something as complex as the Stuxnet ‘family’ (because various flavors have been discovered), you need top brains and top dollar. But to make sure Stuxnet delivered, the Americans set up their own uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and proceeded to test and explode a bunch of centrifuge tubes.

Letting potential enemies build your critical infrastructure is always a risk, which is probably why the Chinese shouldn’t be building Hinckley Point, Britain’s new atomic power plant.

The Russians are deep into the whole digital hackfest, with alleged government fringe firms with names like Cosy Bear and Fancy Bear. Medvedev is the Russian word for bear, and these ‘Meds’ jumped right in after the Rio Olympics to highlight the injustice done to Russian athletes.

Ultimately, digital warfare has potentially huge consequences for democracy itself—just follow the hacking sharks that circle the November election.

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 Fall

September 10, 2016

As the summer ebbs away, history returns with a vengeance—the balmy days of August quickly replaced by the barmy days of fall.

History, in this case, is prefixed by the adjectives ‘political’ and ‘economic’. I resampled London this week, which gave me a chance to probe the post-brexit mood. The thing is, as Private Eye pointed out, the UK is not in post-brexit, but in post-vote.

There is a certain naive hilarity to all this, because there’s a buoyant mood in the Great British press that ‘we got away with it.’ Problem is, the invocation of Article 50 is as distant as winter sunshine.

Let’s get down and dirty. You’ve heard Article 50 mentioned umpteen times, but most likely never read it.

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

There’s a whole website dedicated to the Lisbon Treaty, should you be affected by insomnia, but I give you only the offending article. Thankfully, it isn’t written in legalese, like so many EU directives—it may appear that the salient points are (a) the notification in 50(2), which the UK shows no signs of providing; and (b) the two-year period following it, as per 50(3).

However, 50(4) tells a more interesting tale—since the European Council concludes the negotiation, and the withdrawing Member-State does not participate, it means that in the end the UK doesn’t have a say in the final decision.

And there’s the rub. It’s for this reason that Theresa May and her twin bêtes noires (Davis and Johnson) want to strike a backdoor deal before notification, whereas the EU repeats that negotiation begins after notification.

I did a little homework on Articles 218 and 238 to help me understand the process and the majority definitions. Turns out that a qualified majority, normally equivalent to two-thirds of the vote, is a little different here. For the purpose of closing this deal the EU needs 55% of the nations, holding 65% of the population of the Union.

My interpretation is that the UK is excluded on both counts. As Stalin famously observed, it doesn’t matter who votes, but who counts the votes. So let’s engage for a minute in what the Portuguese call contar espingardas—let’s count our guns.

Rather than make a spreadsheet to work all this out, why not use the European Council’s voting calculator? The qualified majority voting system clearly favors big countries, so you can get your 65% with a five to six nation agreement.

Our calculator is flawed for this purpose, because it includes the UK, but we can make a quick correction in Excel. The UK has 12.73% of the EU population, so deduct and recalculate the percentage.

Turns out that if Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland negotiate an agreement, we’re at 66% of the population. You’d then need a further ten countries, just to gild the lily—I’d say you’re spoiled for choice (you could start with the ones that hate Farage).

Currently, the annual EU income from Member-States stands at about 133 billion euro. If you remove the net contribution from the UK, that value goes down to 126 billion euro. To top that up, each country needs an increased contribution of about five percent, but since eighteen countries are net beneficiaries, the shortfall can be partly compensated by a cut in structural funds. This penalizes convergence, but so would an increased contribution.

The point is that from the budgetary aspect, brexit is of little consequence to the remainder of the EU. From the trade perspective, it may be different. Nevertheless, people in the UK don’t choose German cars on the basis of price—they buy on quality, brand, and prestige.

Everywhere in the UK, the mantra is repeated that the EU is broken. I maintain we’re seeing the beginning of a great experiment, exactly as we saw in the creation of the United States, and it saddens me greatly that Britain won’t be along for the ride.

In between all this and the potential ‘Trexit‘ in November, perhaps things won’t be cooling down in the fall.

As the Chinese curse goes, may you live in interesting times.

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.


September 3, 2016

Tourists are scarce in the wild and beautiful lands of Donegal. My spell-checker doesn’t even know the word. The Americans who land at Shannon or Dublin, searching for their roots, Guinness, or a spot of Irish craic (pronounced crack), gravitate around Kerry and Cork—some make it up to Galway for a more Gaelic experience.

Dún na nGall is at the very top of Ireland, a rain-drenched county where the black-faced sheep is king. Perhaps due to the weather, or lack of good roads, it remains unspoiled by hordes of visitors. On the eastern side of the Inishowen peninsula lies Derry (no one calls it Londonderry on this side of the border), one of the bastions of Irish nationalism.

Keep heading east and you get to Belfast, which in many ways I prefer to Dublin. The city has undergone an amazing transformation since I first went twelve years ago—the waterfront has been given the ‘Barcelona’ treatment, and now shines with parks, a conference center, and the Titanic Odyssey.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is on the right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath are now used for shipbuilding.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is middle right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath, are now used by H&W for shipbuilding.

The Odyssey is the jewel in the crown of this modern, bustling city—one hundred million dollars were spent on this interactive museum, where you’re introduced to XIXth century Belfast. First come the flax works and textile mills, then the heavy industry.

The story of the city at that time is the tale of Chinese or Indian cities nowadays—desperately poor people, scrawny, barefoot children, but all of them are white.

Then the winding course takes you to the shipyards, the engineering and design shops, the molding rooms, the fitters and joiners at Harland & Wolff, until you become part of the great endeavor of building the Titanic—you grieve for the dead and dying, tick off the names of shipyard workers who perished after being given the reward of traveling to New York on the maiden voyage of the great ship.

Your journey ends with a Disneyland-style ride up the gantry, where all around you is the crashing of plate riveters and other shipyard workers. The rivets were hammered by two men, fixing them in place before they cooled—left- and right-handed pairs were chosen for more efficient work.

The writing on the wall at Madden's, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

The writing on the wall at Madden’s, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

But the troubles, or at least their legacy, are seen in the deep split that continues to exist between Catholics and Protestants. On a bright sunny morning, as I drove through East Belfast on my way to Donegal, the street art made the Unionist position clear.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The everpresent H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The ever-present H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

On the radio, the usual Irish craic. The word is almost as mystical as grok, the term invented by Robert Heinlein in 1961 in the book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Donegal, I frequently heard cellphone conversations start with ‘What’s the craic?”

The craic on the car radio was a spirited debate about hair growing faster on holiday. Fingernails and other body parts got thrown into the mix. One guy said he needed to shave twice a day on vacation.  Heat and dry weather were blamed. Someone promptly phoned in and said “I was in Donegal for a week and I went bald!”

Yes, Donegal can get damp and chilly, but the warmth of the people, the traditional music in the bars, and the stunning scenery, more than make up for it. I was out on the boats in Mulroy Bay, where some of the best rope mussels I’ve ever tasted are grown.

Seafood everwhere: salmon, crab, razor clams, oysters, and few young people eat it. The two Irish rowers who claimed a silver medal in Rio are a good example—first rate craic, if you can understand it. In another clip they explain that on their return they want steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s keep Donegal nicely hidden away, like any true gem. Sláinte!

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 Pillars

August 28, 2016

The relationship between Morocco and Portugal is tinctured in blood.

On August 25, 1471, a young man looked out from the window at the North African dawn. He saw the souhks of Asilah, quiet now after the battle, faint plumes of smoke rising here and there from the pillaged wasteland…with his father at his side, he had scythed and thrust a red trail from the walls of the opulent city to the final moments at the keep. The Berbers who survived had been left to the bloodlust of the soldiers. Then as now, the ravages of rape and torture spoke louder than emotions of mercy, the primeval flames of human nature erupting in the oxygen of religious fire.

These words, taken from the first page of The India Road, do justice to a relationship written in blood since the days of the caliphate. And yet today, when Portugal is mentioned as you travel in Morocco, the old battles are forgotten—we are merely friends reminiscing ancient times.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the last Saracen bastion in Lusitanian territory had fallen to the Christian army of Afonso III. Muslim occupation in Spain was to last a further two hundred forty-three years. , ending with the siege of Granada.

Supporters of the caliphate today argue Iberia was theirs for longer than it has been Christian—at best this tenuous claim to sovereignty applies only to Aragon and Castile.

By the early fifteenth century, the Portuguese noblemen were straining at the leash. The nation had decisively defeated Castile two decades before, repealing yet another attempt by their principal foe to add Lusitania to the growing list of ‘Spanish’ provinces.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic.

The battle of Aljubarrota, which forced the Spanish to relinquish their ambition to conquer Portugal. The painter, Jean de Wavrin, was only born fifteen years later. The expressions on the faces of the soldiers are amazingly bucolic, it’s often impossible to distinguish the warring parties, and the tactical nuances that won the battle for Portugal are ignored.

Aljubarrota, itself a word of Arab origin, pitched Portugal against Spain. On hand were the usual suspects—English troops on the Lusitanian side, French fighting for Castile.  The battle was won through tactical skill, with the Portuguese troops divided into three wings, or divisions.

This split made the Spaniards believe their opponents were few in number—the Castilian cavalry charged, then fell into staked pits known as boca do lobo—the mouth of the wolf.

The left flank had the romantic name of Ala dos Namorados, the wing of boyfriends, so-called because the troops were young Portuguese nobles of marriageable age.

Two years after the battle, John of Portugal, grandfather of the Perfect Prince, married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. The Treaty of Windsor celebrated the alliance.

The sons of those namorados sought to cover themselves with glory in the bloody deserts of North Africa. On August 21st,  1415, the Portuguese army conquered Ceuta, beginning an occupation that lasted two centuries, with enclaves taken, lost, and re-taken.

The Moroccan seaside resort of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, was the old Portuguese town of Mogador. The Arab name means ‘ramparts’, and the town boasts one of the best natural ports in the region. The Portuguese were by no means the first to understand its strategic value—the Phoenicians built a settlement on the island of Mogador in the 6th century BC.

Mazagão (Mazayan in Berber), was another of the various fortresses established by Portugal on Moroccan lands—all these were considered strategic, and described an arc from Gibraltar to the west, progressing down the African coast. Mazagão was eventually re-taken by the Moors, and became Al Jadida. The name means ‘The New’ (jadid).

Agadir, which the Portuguese called Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), was perhaps the most important of these, and was only reconquered by the Arabs in 1541.

This long and bellicose relationship means that the Portuguese are well-known in Morocco. Unlike the subsequent colonization by the French, this was a fight based on religious differences rather than territorial ambitions, at least as far as North Africa was concerned.

What the Portuguese wanted was an expansion of their operational base for the Gulf of Guinea, and ultimately India, security for their shipping from the pirates of the Barbary (Berber) coast, and strategic protection of their own territory from the Moors.

Five centuries later, the memories of bloody battles have sunk into the desert sands—all that remains is the twin tale of proud peoples with a shared past.

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 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


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



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.



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.


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.

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