Monday, June 13, 2011

Syria | Damascus | Gay Girl Blogger | Last Update

Very Last Update, later on 06/13/11: Now the NYT has weighted in with what will hopefully be the Last Word on this ultimately sordid tale. I did not realize that the blogger had been taken so seriously in various political circles. These people now feel duped and betrayed. Oddly enough, it was his defense of Sunni Muslim Beliefs that seemed most genuine . . . Wow! People are piling on now! See Screw You, Tom MacMaster.

Latest Update 06/13/11: Five days ago I wondered if the Gay Girl Blogger from Damascus could possibly be a guy. Now it turns out there is a “bizarre twist” to the story! The blogger is a guy! See Apology To Readers. Why did the thought cross my mind that the blogger might actually be a guy? Somehow the story seemed just a little too neat . . . Anyhow the author, Tom MacMaster, might be able to make a career out of writing soft-porn lesbian poetry . . . and Sunni manifestos!  And he was posting, so he claimed, from Istanbul, of all places! Could Tom MacMaster be the reincarnation of Pierre Loti? This would have been a mildly amusing literary hoax had it not been played out against the all-too-real political situation in Syria and the perpetrator had not stolen the photos/identities of actual people, including apparently that of Jelena Lecic. Also, some women apparently fell in love with “Amina Abdallah Arraf” on-line. The author deceived these people beyond the point of merely assuming a female pen name. A Cautionary Tale for the internet age.

Update 06/09/11: The Gay Girl Blogger Story keeps growing. It became the lead story on Al Jazeera Blogs (may be bumped down by the time you read this).  Now her identity has been called into question. See Londoner Says Missing Syrian Blogger Stole Her Identity and Does Kidnapped U.S. Lesbian Blogger in Syria Actually Exist? These sources say the person in the photo is actually a Croatian woman by the name of Jelena Lecic who now lives in England and she says the blog is not hers. So who wrote the posts, which remain quite interesting, on the Gay Girl’s Blog? Has she (could it possibly be a he?—that would be a bizarre twist) actually been detained by the Syrian authorities? All of which pertains to the intriguing question of identities on the internet . . . this story is probably not over.

Original Post: Interesting and informative post by the Gay Girl in Damascus. The blogger, a young woman named Amina Abdallah Arraf, is reportedly Being Held By The Authorities in Damascus and her current situation is unknown. See Poetry by Amina and Honey Trap. She has also written the Beginning of A Novel which appears to be based heavily on her own life. 
Amina Abdallah Arraf, or Jelena Lecic, or  . . . Tom MacMaster?  Apparently Jelena Lecic. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Three Muslim Traders

Since at least the second century B.C. the people known as Sogdians, inhabitants of the oasis cities of Transoxiania, the land between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, had been trading with China far off to the east. Sogdian merchants around this time were familiar with Chang’an (the Current City Of Xian), which would later became perhaps the most important eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and they also initiated trade with the Xiongnu (Hunni) peoples of current-day Mongolia. According to Chinese sources, 
At birth honey was put in their mouth [so they would be adept at the sweet talk often needed to seal a deal] and gum was put on their hands [so that any money they touched would stick to them] . . . they learned the trade from the age of five . . . and at twelve were sent to do business in a neighboring state.
To the west they eventually extend their trade networks into Iran and across Asia Minor to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. 

Such was their business acumen and the reach of their commercial contacts that their very name—Sogdians—became synonymous with “merchant”, and their language, a early form of Persian, became the lingua franca of the great trade routes which connected the Occidental and Oriental worlds. With the incursion of Arab-speaking Muslims into Transoxiana starting in the late seventh century and the later invasions of Turkic peoples the Sogdians were slowly subsumed and by the tenth century had largely disappeared as a distinct people. Yet the thousand-year old tradition of far-reaching trade networks which they had established lived on in the thirteenth-century Muslim traders of the Khwarezm Empire. According to Juvaini: 
. . . wherever profit or gain was displayed, in the uttermost West or the farthermost East, thither [Muslim] merchants would bend their steps. And since the Mongols were not settled in any town and there was no concourse of merchants and travellers to them, articles of dress were a great rarity amongst them and the advantages of trading with them well known. For this reason three persons, Ahmad of Khojend [now Leninabad in Tajikistan], the son of the Emir Husain, and Ahmad Balchikh, decided to journey together to the countries of the East, and having assembled an immeasurable quantity of merchandise--golden embroidered fabrics, cottons, zandanichi [an exotic fabric produced only in Zandana, a village about fifteen miles north of Bukhara, then part of Khwarezm, now in Uzbekistan] and whatever else they thought suitable—they set their faces to the road. 
It is not exactly clear when this trade mission occurred, nor where they finally encountered Chingis Khan. The Russian Orientalist Barthold suggests that the three merchants accompanied the fact-finding mission of Baha al-Din Razi. Trade, diplomacy, and spying were then, as now, inextricably linked, and it is possible the traders finally met up the Mongol Khan when he was camped on the outskirts of Zhongdu in the summer and fall of 1215. Juzjani, who as noted got a first hand account of the fact-finding mission, does not mention the traders, however, nor does Juvaini, who provides the most detailed account of the trade mission, mention Baha al-Din Razi.

In any case, by the time the three merchants from Khwarezm arrived Chingis Khan was already actively encouraging trade. Merchants arriving at the borders of his domains were given safe conduct passes and their merchandize carefully examined. If officials determined that their wares might be of interest to Chingis himself they were sent to his court for an interview. The wares from Khwarezm were deemed to be of sufficient worth for the merchants to be send directly to Chingis’s camp, wherever he may have been at the time. According to Juvaini, the Muslims were warmly welcomed: “For in those days the Mongols regarded the Moslems [sic] with the eye of respect, and for their dignity and comfort would erect them clean tents of white felt.” 

Perhaps the friendly reception they received made the merchants over-confident. Apparently the merchant Ahmad Balchikh was the first to offer his merchandize directly to Chingis. Unwisely, he set an exorbitant price on this wares, demanding three balish of gold coins for pieces of fabric which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. One balish was probably equal to about seventy-five dinars at the time, so the merchant was asking 225 dinars for a length of fabric which which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. This was an exorbitant markup even by Silk Road standards and Chingis was understandably outraged. “Does this fellow think that fabrics have never been brought to us before?” he bellowed. In order to demonstrate to Ahmad Balchikh that he wasn’t dealing with ignorant and gullible rubes Chingis ordered that he be shown a warehouse bulging with similar fabrics already procured by the Mongols and then confiscated all of the merchant’s goods and put him under house arrest. 

His two companions were called in next. Chary from of the treatment of their fellow trader, they refused to set a price on the their goods, saying simply that brought them for the Khan’s delectation. Mollified by this approach, Chingis then offered them a balich of gold for each length of gold and silk brocade and a balich of silver for each length of cotton and zandanichi. This still represented a handsome profit for the merchants. Chingis then released Ahmad Balchikh and bought his confiscated fabrics at the same price. Obviously he wanted to remain on good terms with these merchants who could provide him with the luxurious fabrics that he valued so highly.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Chingis Khan and the Khwarezmshah

One ruler who could not help but take note of Chingis Khan’s sudden rise to power in the East was Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, the Sultan of the Khwarezm Empire, also known as the Khwarezmshah. The empire over which he reigned was by 1215 the most powerful state in Central Asia. Centered around the ancient province on Khwarezm on the lower valley of Amu Darya River—the Oxus of Antiquity—and the delta of the river where it flowed into the Aral Sea, the Khwarezmshah’s domains extended westward to the edge of the Iranian Plateau and south to the Persian Gulf, encompassing much of current-day Iran. HIs territories abutted Mesopotamia, home of the long-ruling ((750-1258) Abassid Caliphate whose ruler an-Nasir was the Caliph—the Commander of the Faithful—of the Muslim world. The Khwarezmshah had even launched an attack on the Abbasid Dynasty in an attempt to overthrow the Caliph an-Nasir and name one of his own nobles as “Commander of the Faithful”, thus making himself Islam’s most powerful figure. This venture had failed, but in 1215 he still posed a threat to the Abbasids. In the east he had defeated the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Khitan Dynasty in China who after being overthrown by the Jin had migrated westward and founded their own state in Inner Asia, thereby extending his empire up the Amu Darya River valley into current-day Kyrgyzstan Thus in the northeast his empire had reached the ramparts of the Tian Shan, on the other side of which lie Uighuristan, now part of Chingis Khan’s burgeoning empire . . . Continued.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part IV

The Mongols would not have long to enjoy their plunder. In July of 1214, when they were fattening their horses on the steppe, came the disturbing news that Emperor Xuanzong had abandoned Zhongdu, the Northern Capital. On 30,000 carts, and accompanied by 3000 camel loads of treasure, the Jin court and government had left Zhongdu and was on its way to the Southern Capital (current-day Kaifeng), hopefully out of reach of further Mongol incursions. Many Jurchens viewed this apparent refusal to face the Mongol threat head-on as abject cowardice on their part of their leadership. Mutinies broke about among Jurchen troops and even more units defected to the Mongols. The Southern Sung Dynasty, sensing the impotence of the Jin, refused to cough up the tribute it had previously promised to pay them. Chingis Khan, after the humiliating terms he had early imposed on the Jin, considered them to be subordinate to the Mongols, indeed part of the nascent Mongol Empire, and he viewed the move south as a treacherous attempt on the part to Jin Emperor to regroup and continue the fighting, despite the treaty agreements of early 1214. Obviously the war with the Jin was not over. 

In the autumn of 1214 Mongols armies again poured off the Mongolian Plateau, and by the end of the year the Northern Capital of Zhongdu was once more invested. The court and government may have fled, but the inhabitants of Zhongdu, including the army units that had remained, were by no means ready to surrender their walled and well-fortified city. In their earlier battles with the Xi Xia the Mongols had failed to take any major fortified cities due to their ignorance of siege techniques. This weakness again manifested itself. The walls of the city refused to yield, and a brutal war of attrition played out through the winter and spring of 1215. Food supplies within the city were soon exhausted and according to the Secret History, “the remaining soldiers, who began to grow thin and die, ate human flesh.” 

When a relief train sent to the beleaguered city was captured by the Mongols the defenders knew they were doomed. The commandant of the Northern Capital, Wayen Fuxing, committed suicide, and in late May or early June of 1215 troops led by the Khitan Shimo Mingan, who as we have seen had defected to the Mongols back in 1211, forced their way into the city. A month-long orgy of looting and mayhem ensued. According to one account, 60,000 women and girls committed suicide by throwing themselves from the city walls in order to avoid capture by the Mongols. This was no doubt an exaggeration, but a large part of the populace was massacred and much of city burned, but not before huge amounts of loot was seized . . . Continued.

Monday, June 6, 2011

China | iPad | Kidneys

Did you hear the one about the Chinese kid who sold his kidney so he could buy an iPad 2? This Is Not A Joke

Speaking of iPads, I was sitting in a Louche Coffee Shop (I do occasionally go slumming) in Ulaanbaatar the other day  and someone said to me, “Oh, an iPad! Is that an iPad 2? What a ridiculous question! Do I look like someone who would be using an obsolete Mac product?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part III

The invasion began in May of 1211. This was no small move on Chingis’s part. The Jin Dynasty, despite the symptoms of dynastic decay which had been reported to Chingis by his various spies, was still one of the five or six great sedentary states of Eurasia. The Jin state had a population of perhaps 40,000,000, although only around 3,000,000 of the populace were Jurchens, descendants of the original Jurchen tribesmen from Manchuria, the rest being Han Chinese and other indigenous peoples. The Jin state could muster 150,000 or so cavalrymen, most of the Jurchens, and 300,000 to 400,000 infantrymen, most of them Chinese. The loyalty of these Chinese infantry was, of course, in question. Still, according to one modern historian, “the Jin army retained a reputation as the most powerful military state in the known world.” 

Chingis had under his overall commanded one army of perhaps 50,000 cavalry led by himself, and another army of 50,000 cavalrymen led by three of his sons. His ranks would soon be swollen with discontented tribesmen and deserters from the Jin. 

The Mongols first confronted the Onggut, a tribe of nomads which guarded the southern rim of the Mongolian Plateau on behalf of the Jin Dynasty. Their leader Alakush quickly defected to Chingis along with many of his troops, demonstrating just how tenuous a hold the Jurchens had over many of their subject peoples. Loyalists along the Onggut reacted by assassinating Alakush, but at the urging of his nephew and heir the rest of the Ongguts soon fell in line and joined the Chingis’s forces. Several towns near present day Zhangjiakhou (earlier known as Kalgan) on the very edge of the Mongolian Plateau, quickly fell to advancing nomads, and more border troops deserted. Liu Bailin, the Jin commander of the town of Weining defected, and would go on to play a leading role in the defeat the the dynasty. 

WIth the Mongols, their ranks now swelled with former Jin auxiliary troops, poised on the very edge of the great ramparts overlooking the farm lands northern China and within a couple days ride of the Central Capital of Zhongdu (Beijing), the Jurchen court panicked and put out peace feelers, apparently thinking that this was just a another Mongol raid in search of quick loot and that Chingis could be bought off with some suitable bribes. When this initial overture was rejected, an senior envoy, a Khitan man by the name of Shimo Mingan who knew the Mongolian language and had earlier met with Chingis in Mongolia, was sent north with more serious peace proposals. Shimo Mingan promptly defected to the Mongols and was made a commander of both Mongol detachments and of native Chinese troops who had now turned on the Jurchens  . . . Continued.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part II

During Chingis Khan’s rise to power he had sought of patronage of Tooril, the powerful ruler of the Kerait Tribe who was headquartered in the valley of the Tuul River not far from current-day Ulaanbaatar. Tooril had recognized the nominal suzerainty of the Jin and apparently paid tribute to to them. In return he was awarded the title of Wang (or Ong) Khan. As one of Tooril’s vassals Temûchin also received a minor title from Jin Dynasty and may have also paid tribute. There are also hints that Temüchin sought refuge among the Jurchen during the low points in his early career when he was being hounded by more powerful Mongol tribes. 

Chingis Khan and the Wang Khan would later fall out and the Keraits would be defeated, calling into question the Jin title Temüchin had received as one of the Kerait ruler’s vassals. The Jin, for their part, still believed that Chingis Khan owed loyalty and tribute to them, even after he had been confirmed as leader of all the Mongols at the 1206 convocation on the Onon River. The Jurchens were no doubt aware that having became the most powerful ruler on the Mongolian Plateau Chingis now posed a direct threat to themselves, but at the time they were embroiled in war with the Song Dynasty in the south of China and could not confront Chingis directly. 

In 1208 the Jin Dynasty finally sought to clarify their relationship with Chingis Khan. The Jin emperor Zhangzong sent his uncle Wanyan Yunji, the Prince of Wei, north to reaffirm their suzerainty and receive tribute from Chingis. 

The Mongol Khan met with the prince but refused to make the proper signs of obeisance. It soon became clear the Chingis no longer recognized the Jin as his overlords. No mention was made of tribute. The infuriated Prince returned to China and began mobilizing troops to attack the Mongols. In late 1208 Emperor Zhangzong died and Wanyan Yunji became the new ruler of the Jin Dynasty. The attack was postponed, and instead Wanyan Yunji sent ambassador to Chingis with the news that he was now the Altan Khan (Golden Khan), as the the Mongols called the Jin Emperor, and that Chingis should declare his loyalty to him. Chingis, however, apparently had not been to impressed by Wanyan Yunji at their previous meeting. According to one account, when Chingis was asked by the ambassador to make obeisance to the new emperor he “flew into a rage” and stormed: “‘Is an imbecile like [Wanyan Yunjii] worthy of the throne and am I to humble myself before him?‘” He answered his own question by turning to the south and spitting in the direction of China. The ambassador was dismissed and Chingis rode away to the north. The import of these actions was clear to the Jin Emperor; Chingis Khan had declared war on the Jin Dynasty . . . Continued.

Mongolia | Zaisan | Gaga Invasion

Yesterday was Children’s Day in Mongolia. I went downtown to get my mail (the kind lady at my branch post office now sends me a text message when I get mail) and noticed block parties for children, complete with balloons and loud music, everywhere. Then I returned to Zaisan. It turns out the apartment complex next to my hovel was having a big party in its courtyard, complete with hundreds, maybe thousands, of balloons (what’s with the balloon thing?), clowns in uniform, and a sound system that boomed music loud enough to be heard a half mile away. The music was—you know it’s coming—Lady Gaga’s latest album “Born This Way”.

It was on endless loop and played for at least three hours. Perhaps nine out of ten people listening do not understand English and thus do not know what she is singing about, but who cares? It is just a wall of sound. Now I am as big a Lady Gaga Fan as the next guy, but this was just too much. I tried to settle down with the book I had just received in the mail, A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World, but it was a bit hard to concentrate with Lady Gaga music playing loud enough to rattle the windows of my hovel. 
Lady Gaga has invaded Zaisan. There is no escape. Now we are all just vassals in Lady Gaga’s world. 
 Zaisan goes Gaga

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part I

Earlier I wrote about the Uighurs and the Xi Xia. Now I must finally turn my attention to the Jin Dynasty, also known as the Jurchen Dynasty (1115–1234).

The people known as Jurchens who went on to found the Jurchen, or Jin Dynasty, originated around the timbered basins of the Amur, Ussuri, and Sungari rivers in Manchuria, in what is now northeast China. Their language was Tungusic, an eastern extension of the Altaic language family and closely related to Manchu, the language of the people what would later create the Qing Dynasty. 

Almost nothing is known of their history prior to the tenth century a.d. Apparently they began to use iron only in the early eleventh century. One tribe of the Jurchen, the Wanyan, began making farming tools and weapons from iron and on the basis of this new technology soon dominated their neighbors. Under the leadership of a chieftain known as Wugunai (1021–1074) the Wanyan soon assumed leadership of a loose confederation of the various Jurchen tribes. Wugunai, according to contemporary histories, “was addicted to wine and women and could outdrink anyone,” but he was also a warrior of legendary stature  . . . Continued.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Baga Nuur | Zevgee’s Family

Wandered on out to Baga Nuur to visit the family of my friend Zevgee, who recently transmigrated. My last visit to Baga Nuur, to celebrate Women’s Day, was a happier occasion.
Saraa, Zevgee’s wife Tümen-Ölzii, Zevgee and Enkha  celebrating Women’s Day
This time Zevgee was no longer with us, but I did have the opportunity of meeting up once again with his family members, many of them from Bayankhongor Aimag, where Zevgee was born. 
 Five of Zevgee’s brothers, to the right, in Baga Nuur
A few years ago I did a camel trip from Amarbuyant Khiid in Bayankhongor to Shar Khuls Oasis with Zevgee, his wife, and two of his brothers, Davakhüü and Khaidav, following the Route Of The 13th Dalai Lama and The Roerich Expedition.  
 Davakhüü
 Khaidav
Khaidav, Zevgee’s son Bira, his brother-in-law Shoovoi, and Davakhüü loading a camel at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Davakhüü and Khaidav with four of their magnificent camels at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Zevgee, Khaidav, and Davakhüü taking a rest break in the Gobi
Davakhüü, Zevgee, Khaidav, and Tümen-Ölzii (standing) at the ovoo of The Ja Lama at Ekhiin Gol Oasis. Assistant Camel Wrangler, Historical Consultant, and Fox Zolzaya is sitting front right. 
Khaidav with his grandchildren at his ger in Bayankhongor
 Zevgee’s sister in Baga Nuur. We stayed at her ger in Bayankhongor Aimag and she and her husband Shoovoi cooked a goat with hot rocks—a dish known as Khorkhog—for us in honor of our visit. 
Khorkhog. The entire goat (not including head and innards) is cut up and cooked with heated rocks in a big milk can. This is the serving dish. You should always juggle one of the hot rocks in your left hand while eating with the right hand. 
Zevgee’s sister with her husband Shoovoi in Bayankhongor
 Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers. This man was once the mayor of Shinejinst, a village in Bayankhongor Aimag. We stayed at his ger at the beginning of our camel trip.  
Ger in Shinejinst where we stayed