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Monday, 3 June 2019

Middle East trip wrap

There’s a strange paradox at the heart of the Middle East that can only be expressed in oblique terms. I count all of the countries visited on this trip as being part of the Middle East even though some people living in some of those countries might object to the label. But if you generalise on the basis that taxi drivers – and people more generally – are always trying to cheat you, then all of these countries warrant the label. Israelis are better than Jordanians or Turks when it comes to honesty, but Jerusalem taxi drivers will try to rip you off with as much dedication and guile as one who works in Istanbul or in Amman.

There is no official religion in Turkey. There is in Israel and in Jordan. But Turkish taxi drivers are possibly the worst when it comes to cheating tourists. Even if they say they will set the meter in the car running, that doesn’t mean it will happen. If they don’t set the meter running they just make up a figure to suit themselves. As we found to our cost on our last day in Istanbul. The fare to the airport came to 220TL even though the inbound trip between the same two points had been around 135TL. The driver on the outbound trip even faked looking at a meter in the car to substantiate his excessive fare. In a country where the symbols of religion – such as mosques – are so prominent, this is a bit alarming.

It seems as though there is one set of values when it comes to other locals, and another, completely separate set of values in play when it comes to foreigners. Euros are accepted in some stores in Istanbul and there are plenty of European tourists staying there at any one time, but I can’t see Turkey becoming part of Europe given the proclivities of the people who work in industries that cater to tourists. And if you express annoyance to a restaurant tout on account of the constant pestering, he will as likely as not get angry with you and say something to express his displeasure.

Amman had the best food by far, although one restaurant we ate at in Jerusalem (Angelica) was very good. The meal we ate late on the night we arrived in Abu Dhabi on the homeward leg was also very good. This was a Lebanese meal and it came with some pretty amazing dry Lebanese white wine.

The museums in Jerusalem were better by far than what was available in either Amman or Istanbul. The labels attached to the exhibits in Israel demonstrated a much greater level of scholarship and public relations – they really know what visitors are interested in knowing about each object – and so they were much more satisfying than what was on offer in Istanbul or Amman. Even though the range of objects in Istanbul, especially Mesopotamian ones, was superior.

Abu Dhabi is the way it is – grand, clean, and with honest taxi drivers – because the other places in the Middle East are so dodgy. My travelling companion bought two rings in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar which turned out not to be silver. She had been promised silver rings. We took the rings to the Tourism Police at night on the same day the purchase was made and made a complaint. They told us to come back the next day to see the municipal authorities, who have an office on Sultanahmet Plaza, and we duly turned up at 9am. When we did, however, the guy on duty there spoke no English. He phoned a colleague who told us at length that they couldn’t do anything about the rings. We went back to the Tourism Police and the two men had a shouting match across the space in front of their respective offices. In the end we decided to take the bull by the horns and went back to the shop that had sold my friend the useless items. She got her money back.

Abu Dhabi tries to set itself apart by being more honest and open than the countries that surround it. Hot and humid, the place requires taxis to get around. We went to a cafĂ© in the Palace Hotel on the day we had free there and my friend ordered a cappuccino sprinkled with 14-carat gold. The waiter who served us also went out of his way to fetch a pair of hotel slippers as my friend’s shoes had given up the ghost just as we were getting out of the taxi on arrival at the lobby.

The Palace Hotel is grand but it is nothing compared to the Presidential Palace, which we also visited. Photos follow here. The building emblematises a particular fact about Islam, which is a religion born in the desert. Islam is a religion of the oasis. It promises gardens for the worthy and the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, which is enormous and is air-conditioned during the day, symbolises the kind of retreat that awaits the devoted follower of Mohammed.

Christianity on the other hand is a religion of the body. The body of Christ lies at the centre of the cult, and if you go to Jerusalem you can follow what are said to be the stations of the cross from one marked point in the old city’s warren of alleyways to another marked point. The Passion of Christ lies at the centre of Christianity but in the end it became a religion of the mind. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion of narrow rules but what you end up with is nothing more than a celebration of the body. To free the spirit, you needed a religion of the body. The paradox lies here.

But I don’t want to end with this observation. Rather, I want to end with the dervishes, who you can see perform their rite on any day in the old part of Istanbul. We got the clerk at the front desk of the hotel to make the booking and then we paid when we arrived at the cultural centre. Entry is not expensive, but doing this is mandatory to get a full picture of Turkey.

Sufism is a strange amalgam of east and west. It is a religion of the body but it borrows heavily from Buddhism, especially in the number five which is the number of dancers who perform the rite. Each dancer, furthermore, has his hands open: one facing up (the right hand) and the other facing down (the left hand). This represents the yang and the yin of Chinese custom: the light and the dark, the male principle and the female principle.

The eastern cognates don’t merely stop with the dervishes’ raised hands, however. The rite starts with the dancers walking slowly around a circular platform in the midst of the seats whence the audience watches. Making their circle, at one point at the top of the shape one dancer would stop, turn on his heel, and face the one following him, then they would perform a bow aimed at each other. The circle is the symbol of life, and this is a universal symbol, belonging to both east and west. The turn is a kind of acknowledgement of reality in the Other, with an oriental bow to mark its import. And once the turns accelerated and the whirling started, the dancers were poised in perfect symmetry, moving around in the same circle they had started out marking at a slow pace, and always keeping the same distance one from the other.

The ecstasy of the dance represents in its final phase the attempt to achieve nonbeing within earthly existence. The dance is therefore an attempt to escape the confines of the body through the body. It is a marvelous display of Roman culture (the dance) mixed with disparate far-eastern cognates. You simply will not see anything like it anywhere else in the world.


Above: Leaving Istanbul, you fly east to avoid Syria, then turn south and then southeast toward Abu Dhabi.


Above: The Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi is enormous. And air conditioned.


Above: The detail in the Presidential Palace is stunning. Here is etched stone (left) and an intricate mosaic (right).


Above: From floor 74 of Etihad Towers.


Above: Leaving Abu Dhabi back to Sydney, we avoided the horn of Africa then made a strange turn over the Indian Ocean.


Above: Back to Sydney. On the outward leg we had flown over Sri Lanka and the tip of India.

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