Updates, Oceans, and Words

 

 

 

 

 

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Naked Man’s New Direction (also known as Skip to the title Ocean Updates for the meat of the article!)

Hello 2010! Today’s entry is about returning to a few topics explored in the past by Naked Man in the Tree as well as give a little information on the lack of updates coming from this site. In this brief entry there will be some good news to be shared and some bad news to be shared. Such is life.

This image depicts a tree and woman excitedly imagining about the big changes coming to Naked Man in the Tree, one of which, I know not, is clearly hard of seeing

We’ll begin with the good news: This site was started in 2007 as a place for me to begin to start writing about my personal passions in which my previous site (yes, I bet you didn’t know I had a site prior to this one!) was not directed towards. My prior site was silly and funny, while this site tended to focus on more serious topics (hopefully I kept some parts of it fun). Naked Man in the Tree was a place I could to develop my thoughts and viewpoints about the world and was never truly meant for public viewing. Of course if anybody wanted to take the time out to read what I have written and constructively criticize or appreciate my writing, I was happy with that too. I didn’t need it to be private although it was created as a playground for my personal creative adventures. This is in part why my entries rarely have any association with each other. This is why in one entry I will write a modern translation of an ancient Arabian story and in another entry write about an ecological disaster. These are things that interest me personally and I never meant to appeal to a “base.” This is also the reason why I will go months without updating.

I am about to graduate with a Masters degree in 2 months which (I’m sure you can imagine) has been the biggest thorn in my side stunting my creativity in favor of prudence. And although this child has been neglected, it has not been forgotten. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This child has been coming to adulthood in my head and I am going to create a new project site that will become my highest priority outside of financially supporting myself. In this new site you can expect the following:

1. Revised and updated articles on the topics you have already read on this site.

2. Audio-versions of the text for those of us who have more time to listen than to read.

3. A wide variety of new topics to be discussed with an addition of other creative projects.

4. Far more frequent updates.

5. Increased opportunities for discussion.

And let’s face it, this is good news. The only problem with this good news is that unlike this site I am going to create a “reservoir” of articles and projects before I begin the site which will take me a large portion of my Spring and Summer of 2010. When this reservoir is complete I am going to create a professional layout on an actual domain name (it’s already chosen and saved) with an incredibly user-friendly interface (not so much like this one). The best part is I’m actually leaving out a few of the best surprises for when the site actually opens (hopefully this fall). Unlike the site I had before Naked Man in the Tree, I will share the location of my new site to everybody who visits this site, so please continue to return for the actual posting of the address. However, at this point I DO plan on posting a few more entries before I create my own site.

Finally, I want to relate how impressed I am with the visits to this site despite my infamously infrequent updating. Each day hundreds to thousands of visitors flock to this site for some reason or another. It is clear that when I discipline myself and create something it can be appreciated, and my future site will be almost completely about enhancing your experience as a visitor to my site. I appreciate all the positive, thoughtful, and caring comments that I have received while creating these entries. Every single positive or thoughtful comment is the true payment I receive for my labor (because everyone knows I’m not doing this for the money). At the end of this article I am going to share a couple of organizations that came to me for some help.

This guy knows how to keep track of the ocean!

Ocean Updates

Now it’s time for some bad news: National Geographic, stalwart in their understanding of the natural world, has three pieces of information crucial to our greater understand of our Ocean’s problems.

In June, 2008 and in May, 2009 I wrote an entry on The North Pacific Garbage Patch and The State of our Oceans respectively. The North Pacific Garbage patch entry was largely about the fact that plastics can’t easily decompose and spend time meandering for years in oceanic stasis around an unimaginably large groggy abandoned forgotten vortex in the Pacific Ocean. It touched on the fact that with each new tide that comes in on many islands, including the United States’ Hawaiian islands, a new disgorging of plastic is left behind in its wake. A big concern was that the plastics would not biodegrade for hundreds of years, floating seemingly forever. Also, I alluded to the idea that Bisphenol A (BPA) is likely the cause behind higher female birth rates.

National Geographic contributed more knowledge to the community at large in this August, 2009 article entitled Plastics Do Break Down in Ocean, After All – And Fast.  “Ha!” laughs the sociopath skeptic “I knew you were all left wing environmentalist crazies who make up problems that don’t exist. You all were worried that the plastic would never break down in the ocean and here is National Geographic proclaiming that they not only break down in the ocean, but they break down quickly. All of that worry for nothing.”

Although it is true that plastic does break down in the ocean at a much lower temperature than was previously expected, by all accounts this is not a good thing. Instead of our ocean water consisting largely of 2 things – Water and Salt – now we are making ourselves a little chemical cocktail that just so happens covers 70% of the entire planet. Our ocean was so old-skool, you know? I mean how plain can you be? Salt and water were the 2 main ingredients in the ocean when the dinosaurs reigned the planet for goodness sakes. Can we please get an upgrade?

Yes! The chemical companies of the planet are happy to oblige. Again, referring to our oceans as a “plastic soup” our NEW ocean is already consisting of large quantities of BPA and styrene trimer which are wrecking havoc indiscriminately on biological systems across the planet and found as ingredients in our most inexpensive products. Which is part of the irony of course, because the cost they create are so exorbitantly expensive the human race just prefers to turn a blind eye to the problem rather than immediately and appropriately address it. What else is new? The article lists a myriad of everyday products that are made with our new oceanic chemical compounds. Also, the article briefly mentions that almost half of all seabirds eat plastic garbage on accident (you mean they don’t get any nutritional value out of our material defecation? Sounds to me like we need to build new birds!). Also, they throw out the arbitrary number of species (267) negatively affected by our plastic garbage. I love that it’s only 267, no more and no less. I don’t have any scientific data to back this statement up, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that ALL ocean species are affected by our plastic garbage. But hey, who am I?

This research was conducted by a chemist named Katsuhiko Saido from Niho University in Japan. I like how he kindly sums up his feelings on his study: “Plastic, he said, should be considered a new source of chemical pollution in the ocean.” Oh, you think so? Maybe after it gets argued in congress for months with billions  of dollars poured into propaganda only to find ourselves exactly with the same rules and laws as before, then we’ll think about treating plastic as pollution. But kudos to Saido for saying what needed to be said and having the data to back his statement up! So Saido gets to go on my list of people we need to listen to (note:  I did not use the words should, could, might consider… I used the word need). Also on this list (which you can find in my Ocean entry) are Callum Roberts, Jeremy Jackson, Steve O’Shea, Daniel Pauly, and Robert Diaz. Again, there is no other alternative than to physically raise these divine professors over our heads and crowd surf them directly to the leaders of the planet and force the leaders to listen to their professional advice.

Oh Prometheus, we know the pain of foresight all too well! Yet, we are still working on our ability to be as provocatively dressed as you!

Why? Why? Why were only a small handful of us given the capability of foresight on a planet covered in an identical species that has none? We are poor Prometheus, painfully aware of our gift of foresight, clearly acknowledging the horrifying tsunami of repercussions about to douse us, and we live on a planet inundated with Epimetheus, filled with afterthought and excuses. It is no wonder why Epimetheus was the cause of mankind’s misery by accepting Pandora as his wife! With no foresight, always creating a convenient excuse, our planet easily teams 10:1, no 1,000:1, no 1,000,000: 1  of Epimetheuses to Prometheuses. But I digress…

Plastics and their negative influence on the ocean is not new as I had written about the North Pacific Garbage 2 years ago. And I was not even one of the first to be aware of it. But the North Pacific Garbage Patch is only the grotesque superstar in a morbid production as National Geographic reports a Huge Garbage Patch Found in the Atlantic Too. If I could give it a name, I’d probably give it the Mid-Atlantic Garbage Patch as it’s determined to be about the size of Cuba to Virgina. I thought this was a nice touch because both the Pacific and Northern part of the hemisphere were totally stealing all the limelight. Now we can at least enjoy a nice swim in some tropical chemical soup. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Well too bad, because the package is already signed, sealed, and delivered.

In all honesty, I don’t believe the North Pacific and the Mid Atlantic are anywhere near the total of these delightful little garbage vortices. The Southern Hemisphere gets nowhere near the love that the Northern Hemisphere does and my spidey sense tingles at idea of more trash vortices down there – particularly the Indian Ocean, which seems to be more of a favorite to malnutritioned pirates than scientific study.  So what are some details about Miss Mid-Atlantic in our first annual garbage patch beauty pageant?  Well she is a bit more petite than her famous sister in the Pacific only weighing in at 520,000 bits of plastic per square mile while Miss North Pacific weighs in at a buxom 1.9 million bits of plastic per square mile. But, don’t discount Miss Mid Atlantic yet, she promises she’s working on her curves and before you know it, she’ll be just the same size as her sister, or bigger!

Ah yes, trash, billions of infinitesimally small pieces being forever absorbed into our ocean with reckless abandon by our species and the best part is most everybody doesn’t even think twice about it! The centuries, nay, millenia of human descendants that must inhabit the planet after us in gloom and despair riveted with malnutrition, diseases, and cancer will daily fall to their knees and look to sky and ask their creator why they must suffer so greatly. They will be certain that we, today, could not possibly have foreseen how we poisoned our very home. But if they have any record of history, they will know that all the evidence was there, clear and broad as daylight, and ignored by a vain species brimming with hubris. Yes, we deliberately ruined our only home – a mode of dust suspended in a sunbeam (score! Carl Sagan reference!). We turned the car on in the garage, ran a hose from the tailpipe to the kitchen, reversed the sewers, threw everything from the refrigerator onto the floor (2 weeks ago uncleaned), and replaced anything consumable with DRAIN-O. There is time to still curb this negative impact, but being a citizen in the United States I can tell you my government has a hard time tying its own shoe, let alone saving the world today.

"What did you just say?" "Obtuse, I said don't be obtuse..."

"What did you just say?" "Obtuse, I said you're being obtuse..."

You think I’m being obtuse, don’t you? It’s okay, you can think that, I won’t throw you in solitary confinement for a month for telling me that (unlike the Warden at Shawshank!). But I know, you think that I am exaggerating the situation. Of course, if that is true then you never read my entries or checked my sources. But to show you how accurate I’m trying to portray our situation, National Geographic has created a documentary entitled The End of the Line, which talks all about the state of our oceans today, and how it is truly The End of the Line. What line? How about the line of a non-primordial ocean without consisting globally of poisonous man-made chemical compounds? Maybe we’re at the end of that line. Watch the documentary please – it has some of those on my list of people we need to listen to.

One point where I will give some credit is to the company Sun Chips, they appear to have created a chip bag that decomposes in 14 weeks! Sustainable thinking. I like it.

Generosity Opportunities and Karma Points!

Now have I made you feel terrible enough? Good. Because it’s all your fault and the entire purpose of this entry was to make you feel terrible. Why would that be my purpose? Now you are sufficiently feeling guilty enough to donate, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Oh, I kid, I kid. If you’re feeling guilty then that’s your own stupid fault. This isn’t one person’s fault, but it’s our collective fault. I’m just writing about things that I feel are important and I don’t care if you donate money to anything or not. In fact – you can go and throw your money away on cheap plastic toys, and designer clothes, and big screen tvs and not donate ANY of it – I hear it’s all the rage these days. But let me tell you about two organizations that e-mailed ME PERSONALLY for some help concerning their organizations. I am greatly humbled by any organization e-mailing me on the topics of our oceans as if I was someone who even lived near one or even worked in the field of science. These are two organizations dedicated to the cause of saving our oceans. I decided to donate what I could to them, but I am totally nowhere near rich (does anybody using a wordpress account have any money anyway?) and these organizations could use your help. They also could use fanfare and you should tell people about these organizations so they can be more well known and get even more money.

Project Kaisei – A man creating a documentary following this project e-mailed me for media information. I actually had the honor to see the trailer for the documentary and I was very impressed. I would share the link but I do not see it on the internet yet. Kaisei is the flagship of a fleet of vessels that are doing the legwork on cleaning up the Garbage Vortices. On this site you will find some great videos and some relief that at least a small handful of people are doing something about this garbage patch problem. They could always use donations which are easy to give at the bottom of the page. I highly urge you to consider it, but I’m biased, I like clean plastic-free oceans.

The International Seakeepers Society – The organizer of the newsletter for the International Seakeeper’s Society actually requested to use some of my writing for their upcoming newsletter! This felt really good to me for somebody to appreciate my writing that much. So look for me on the first quarter newsletter of the International Seakeeper’s Society! Why should you support this group? They are incessantly collecting data from the ocean which we can turn into useable information to help protect our oceans through various methods. If Project Kaisei is our legs then The International Seakeepers Society is our eyes. They are giving us awareness of our surroundings making the frightening specter of ocean trauma tangible and something we will then be able to tackle. Check out the section labeled “Our expanding fleet” for more detailed information! I know! It’s super tough to decide which organization to donate to, so you might as well donate to both. After all, they both asked me for some help, and I always like to give more help than asked for.

Bonus Section for Word and Language Lovers

But wait! There’s more! If you are one of our first 100 customers you will receive a FREE… sorry. Really though, I have one more organization I would like you to donate to. After all, 3 donations is way luckier than 2. There will probably be a lot of good coming your way with 3 donations.

 

One Good Turn Deserves Another!

Librivox – I have totally become a Librivox fan lately and I have to tell you why. Librivox is an organization where anybody with a microphone (hey! That’s you!) reads stories that are in the public domain so that the rest of us don’t have to read them and can listen to them in the car or on the subway on our way to work. I have taken librivox up liberally on their offer of free audio books and have listened to everything from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Rudyard Kipling to Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad. In fact (don’t tell anyone this because it’s super nerdy) I even PERSONALLY have read aloud multiple stories to add to librivox’s collection and they were super thankful and nice. And since one good turn deserves another (I always hear that idiom in the voice of the doorknob from the cartoon Alice in Wonderland) I am going to be super nice and thankful back by both donating and recommending that you donate to help librivox. In fact – librivox has never asked for donations before, but their site is getting so popular (because it’s so good!) that they are asking us to help cover the costs of free audio books. How can we say no? Help Librivox keep culture alive in the digital age! And go see if you can guess which stories I read!

Finally, I will leave you with a thought-provoking e-mail I left Merriam-Webster after attempting to search some definitions lately. Could you tell I was frustrated? If you loved language like I love language, you’d be frustrated too. Until next time!

m-w.com: For as long as I have used the internet I have used Merriam-Webster for my professional dictionary needs. However, as the years pass by, I am noticing a disturbing trend that must be addressed by a professional organization such as yourselves. It is so disturbing that I am e-mailing you with the hope and prayer that you might actually be unaware of how unprofessional and shockingly disrespectful to the user your website is.

While advertisements are crucial to the success of any website, no website uses quite the variety and cleverness of cruelty in their advertisements as your website. Whether those in charge of advertising are unaware of basic internet etiquette or are apathetic to it I am still unclear.

The ads found surrounding the page are natural and are to be expected. Even the pop-ups, as obnoxious and rude as they are to a user, are understandable. I guess you have to make money and if you truly believe pop-up ads are that successful then who am I to argue? But the fact remains that you are supposed to be a professional organization.

So when I choose your site (out of the many dictionary sites on the internet) to look up a word, and I type that word in the “Search” box, I do not think it is very professional of you to show me a PARTIAL definition to a word while an advertisement that could easily fit in the corner of my screen sits proudly in front of the definition purposefully obscuring it ensuring seething hatred toward whatever is being advertised and your website for participating in such rude advertising.

And when you finally do get the full definition, it is still surrounded by ads for Google and Bing hardly distinguishable from the definition. But what truly makes Merriam-Webster unique in their advertising is after you search for your definition and hunt for the tiny “skip this ad” button hidden to the side. Finally, the definition you have so longingly come for lay in front of you in its entirety and it is possible to begin to read it. And just when you do begin to read the definition a box from the corner of your site comes flying to the center of the screen, again, yes again, obscuring the definition until you click the tiny x to make it go away. Then at last, I am bestowed the honor of the definition in which I originally came.

The only websites that I have seen using such Machiavellian advertising tactics have been pornographic websites and infomercial sites. I hope your group remembers that you are attempting to appeal to an intelligent audience that actually cares about the definition of words and the advertising tactics you are using is flying in the face of what any intelligent person would consider respectful advertising.

Afterward, I got an automated response that promised a reply within 24 hours. It’s been like 168 hours, oh well.


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The Darien Gap

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

I haven’t updated since July, but October was one of my best months yet. Despite being in the middle of finishing my masters degree (my albatross), I have found a window of opportunity to get a quick update in. Just to show this site has not left my mind, far from it, ideas are countless still. My next update should be during the winter break between fall and spring semester. So… in preparation for a more in depth article on Latin America I’m going to tell you about the Darien Gap.

What is the Darien Gap?

darien-gap-overview

The Darien Gap - thanks to Canary in the Coal Mine

This question is more difficult to answer than I had originally planned. ‘What is the Darien Gap’ is like asking ‘What is physics?’ Sure – there’s the simple answer that it’s the study of matter and energy and how they interact with each other… but anybody who has ever studied it knows that physics is the greatest mindfuck there is. And like physics, the complexity surrounding the Darien Gap might be equally boggling. And also like physics, there is a simple answer: the Darien Gap is a small swath of jungle that sits on the border of Central and South America on the edges of Colombia and Panama. It’s a mere 31 miles wide from the Caribbean Coast to the Pacific Coast and various thicknesses depending on your source and what they consider to be the Darien Gap since it’s not an entirely defined region. But as I said, this simple answer to the question “What is the Darien Gap’ does it no justice. If I were to create my own answer to this question I might simply call it the most insidious place on Earth.

And there was no light matter in choosing the word ‘insidious’ either. The Darien Gap is insidious in every aspect of the definition. Merriam-Webster describes insidious as “awaiting a chance entrap: treacherous, harmful and enticing: seductive” and the Darien Gap is most definitely both seductive and treacherous. The following are real-life situations and issues directly involving the seduction and treachery of the Darien Gap. And these stories are so extreme that they could only be fact because fiction wouldn’t believe them. But the Darien Gap is virtually unheard of despite its global reach. The 31 miles of unbroken jungle seems paltry to the behemoth Amazon to the South, yet it is crucial to understand the power it holds. But for all these stories to truly have weight, we need to understand the setting: The Darien Jungle itself.

 

60e0c72c3f8b539480e5461365724985_large

Thomas Griffioen's beautiful snapshot of the Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle consists of some of the most impassible and impossible terrain on the planet. In some areas rocky cliffs reign supreme while other areas are so swampy that you could hide a few passenger jets deep in the swamp with plenty of room to spare. Some rainforest areas have been described as if being in a giant Cathedral with nothing but dirt on the ground and nothing but canopied trees above, other areas are shrouded in a constant fog of clouds. The picture to the right is from one of the only places I could find quality pictures from the Darien Gap. Most pictures are small or grainy or poor quality in some way. Thomas Griffioen’s website has a lot of high quality beautiful pictures from the area, his set of pictures will really help you get a feel for the area. Through these pictures the seduction of the Darien Gap becomes obvious.  In fact, it seduced this entirely different man to be the first to cross the Darien Gap by motorcycle and he had this to say about describing one part of the jungle:

After two hours on the trail we arrived at the marker on the Panama Columbia border. The hills were getting steeper and longer, sometimes it took three of us to get a bike up a hill. At places the trail was on the side of a steep hill. One slip, bike and rider would plunge into a deep valley that would be almost impossible to get out of. To make problems worse, there were many fallen trees and the jungle seemed to be getting thicker. We could barley see the sky and the jungle seemed like perpetual twilight zone.

He also took some pictures. Ian Hibell, a bicyclist that made the goal to bike from the tip of South America to Alaska went through the Darien Gap and you can see him hiking through a torturous swamp. And that is actually the only video I have of the Darien Jungle deep in its own heart. To think so very few primary resources of any place teeming with life on the planet in the 21st century is shocking.

And hidden deep within the jungle along the coast not accessible by road lays nothing less than one of the most unique fishing locations on the planet. The Tropic Star Lodge’s website proudly acknowledges that they are rated the number one salt-water fishing resort in the world. Built in 1961 by a Texas oil rancher it has become an expensive fishing resort that lures the rich and famous across the planet including John Wayne and Saudi Shieks.

The Tropic Star Lodge poolside, the mystical Darien in the background

As in any unexplored jungle, it is needless to say that species of both plant and animal life still lay undiscovered inside. So naturally there are also numerous species that have been discovered that are endemic within the Darien Gap area. The Darien Gap is also a safe-haven for quite a few endangered species. Of these endangered species you might stumble across a Howler monkey, so surly in disposition it is the only untamed monkey by Native Americans. The Giant Anteater is another endangered species crawling through this tropical dimension. I’m going to take a minute to grind my axe here – I hate it when species like this are endangered, I’ve express this same feeling in my ocean entry about the endangered Leatherback turtles that eat jellyfish.  Speaking from one human to another, we do not want species like this to go extinct. I know the anteater looks like a joke with legs but truly this animal is really smart and useful. Like bats and Leatherbacks they get rid of the pesky primordial species that are always trying to overwhelm the planet to turn the Earth back in to the golden age of when simple-celled organisms and insects ruled the planet. Ants are ridiculously plentiful, nobody is complaining about the scarcity of ants, and nobody is all too keen on hanging around with ants – so why aren’t we worshiping these creatures that have adapted a nose to actually inhale them? AND it’s the BIGGEST of them ALL! These animals are worth not only saving but actually growing their population. But instead we blindly go around eradicating these useful complex species from our planet in favor of the mechanical insects and primordial jellyfish. Why are we so stupid as to pick stinging, burning, biting, insects over silly-looking ant-eaters, flying mammals, and cool turtles, I will never understand this…

But I digress… Another endangered species found in the Darien Gap is the Bush Dog – super cute little guy right there. The white lipped peccary is a hog-like species that are notoriously aggressive and travel in packs. So you might be going for a random stroll through the Darien Jungle when all of a sudden you hear a large herd of white lipped peccaries coming your way – you better climb up the nearest tree because these little guys are nasty and they aren’t afraid of people. The lesser capybara is another rare and endangered species, it also weighs in as the worlds largest rodent. But before you cringe in disgust it’s clear the picture that it looks less like a rat and more like a guinea pig. And giant guinea pigs should be cool in everybody’s book. In fact, looking at this animal makes me understand that even rabbits had to have come from rodent ancestry.  Another endangered species is the Oncilla, a super cute 5 – 10 lb wildcat, I suspect living in a jungle they could get pretty nasty though. Baird’s Tapir is the last endangered animal I’m going to showcase even though it is not the last endangered animal in the jungle; this strange mammal travels largely alone through the inexplicably unforgiving jungle trying to survive despite lower and lower numbers. These Tapirs take over a year to give birth after being impregnated and have to survive in a jungle in addition to being hunted by humans. I’m surprised any animal lives a year in that jungle with all the predators and deadly insects. Finally, some of the native residents of the Darien Jungle are the Embera tribe, traditional warriors of the region. Hunting with blowpipes and into some serious body painting, these native inhabitants have survived the Darien for centuries.

The Darien Scheme

Darien-map3

The Isthmus of Darien

So how unforgiving can the Darien Gap be? Well, listen to the story of how the Darien Gap defeats the country of Scotland. Yes – Scotland! How does a 30-mile swath of jungle in Central America defeat a country half a world away? Well, Scotland had existed as an autonomous entity for roughly 1000 years without compromising their independence. Yet it is well documented that at the very minimum the Darien Gap accelerated dissolution of Scotland and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

William Paterson was a Scottish fellow who got rich by creating the Bank of England. And for his second trick he decided to return to his native Scotland and create a trading empire out of the tiny kingdom to the North. The cartography of the world had been complete enough at the turn of the 18th century and Paterson recognized a trading monopolists dream. It was clear beyond a doubt that the narrow isthmus of Darien, a mere 30 miles across (have I stressed that point enough yet?), would be ideal to establish a trading monopoly. Paterson was certain that if the Scottish government and the people of Scotland backed this plan they could colonize this isthmus and establish a crucial trading route from the expansive Atlantic and mighty Pacific.

I can only imagine Paterson’s vision. Any completed map of the world back then would clearly show the unique geographic feature of an incredibly thin strip of land sitting conveniently between two massive continents. I can even feel his excitement – the Panama Canal would not be created for another 200 years – plenty of time to make Scotland the ultimate trading monopoly on the planet. For all these years the Kingdom of Scotland sat in the shadow of the likes of England, France, and Spain colonizing half the planet while Scotland held no successful colonies. And here was Scotland’s prodigal son – William Paterson – a successful businessman with capital to invest getting ready to give Scotland its just due in the light of exploitation. No longer will England, Spain, and France be the only countries patting each other on the back for the capitalization of whole regions of the planet – in fact they’ll now be at Scotland’s mercy because they will have control of the Darien isthmus – and thus have control of the simplest trading route between the two monster continents. It would be an unavoidable monopoly and it would be Scotland who would benefit.

So Paterson started pitching this “scheme” to the Scots, and the Scots bought it – hook, line, and sinker. The Scots invested £500,000 which totaled about 50% of the nations capital. There was hardly a Scot who didn’t throw whatever money he could at this global conquest. Originally, the Scots weren’t going to bare the entire load and Paterson had worked the English and Dutch into the deal who subsequently backed out. To this day scandalous rumors float around questioning if this was done intentionally with the foresight of what would happen in Darien. Volunteers for the first trip to Darien were easy to find and were packed on a boat, 1,200 in number, and sailed 4 months across an expansive ocean to settle in their distant tropical paradise, build a colony, and make money! Of course when you cram 1,200 people on a boat for 4 months across an ocean at the turn of the 18th century enthusiasm tends to diffuse rather quickly. The Scots arrived in Darien sick and filled with dead – including Paterson’s wife.

They unloaded their ship and began setting up their colony in the exact jungle in which I’ve already took the liberty to describe for you. And if things were bad on the boat they only got worse in the unforgiving heart of tropical Darien. Jungle diseases quickly began decimating the population and rations were becoming thin. Back at home Scotland sent a resupply ship which got shipwrecked. It then took even longer to send two ships which began their 4 month journey to Darien too late. The colony, decimated, took to the jungle in search of nearby plantations run by other nations. The resupply ships, only equipped for the basic necessities for a fully operating colony landed at Darien in shock and dismay to find nobody.  1,200 resupply colonists reached Darien but it is said that as few as 30 survived.  With a complete and utter disaster realized it’s believed that Scotland became so crippled it forced the 1707 Act of Union with England.

The Pan-American Highway

PanAmericanHwy

Nothing can stop the pan-American highway... except for the Darien Gap -click to enlarge-

So we just read some history of the Darien region, now let’s fast-forward to modern day. But again, let’s step away from Darien for a moment and head to the top of the world where the small town of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Like Darien, this is a place on the planet where most people avoid. In fact, Prudhoe Bay has only about 50 residents all toiling in a remote, lifeless region of the planet to pump oil back to civilization for us to consume. According to their website that looks like it was made in 1995, there are 0 families that live at this northernmost town in North America. A few years ago Prudhoe Bay got some notoriety when BP spilled over a million liters of oil.

Now let’s go the the very opposite now – the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina – often regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Not as extreme as Prudhoe Bay, Ushuaia enjoys milder weather despite its location. What do these two places have in common? They are both the starting and ending points of the Pan-American Highway – a highway created to span across the expanses of two continents. Unbroken lay the chain of highway from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia standing as a testament to the power of mankind over nature… well unbroken everywhere except for the Darien Gap.

Yes, you could take the Pan-American Highway and cross its distances from the icy Arctic, where no trees live through the towering rockies and conifer forests, down through the North American deserts, into unstable Central American countries shrouded in jungle, but in the small backwater of Yaviza, Panama the Pan-American Highway stops. A seemingly impenetrable wall of jungle faces you here – you are staring at the Darien Gap. Nothing but raw jungle stands between you and Turbo Colombia. From Colombia, you could follow along the Pacific through Ecuador, Peru, and Chile into the ribbed backside of the Andes Mountains.  The final leg of the intensely long journey would be through country of Argentina, showcasing its capital – Buenos Aires, before turning sharply South along the Atlantic to Ushuaia.

And it’s this fact that draws people to want to know more about the Darien Gap. We have a road that has conquered all aside from this stretch of jungle. Why hasn’t the jungle been breached? Why haven’t we connected this highway that would be an unrivaled global achievement? What power does this Darien Gap have that we cannot tame in this 21st Century? It turns out that these questions are presumptuous, because despite its inaccessibility, it was purposefully left unfinished.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – With all the endangered species I listed above it’s clear that a highway cutting through this very narrow and diverse jungle is something that humanity as a species would never dare ruin because the preciousness of diversity in life far outweighs the worlds longest road.  But the truth is a terrible livestock disease that exists in South America does not exist in North America. The disease is called Foot and Mouth Disease, from Outside Magazine:

FMD is the doomsday plague of the livestock industry, an illness whose outbreak can shake global stock markets. Most recently, an epidemic of FMD ravaged England in 2001, causing more than $7 billion in economic losses. No cases of the disease have been reported in Panama, and the last U.S. outbreak occurred in 1929. But in Colombia, FMD was endemic during the 1970s and remains present today.

“If FMD were to invade Central America, it could have very rapid access to the United States,” says Harold Hofmann, 61, associate regional director of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the Department of Agriculture that’s charged with protecting the U.S. food supply from pests and diseases. “Therefore, the government’s plan is to keep it as far away as we can.”

Not only did the Pan-American highway never get finished but the creation of the Darien National Park was a result of the fear of this disease. A national park ensured no livestock would be raised within its boundaries. The United States has been puppeteering this region because it is precisely the country standing to lose the most if this disease crosses over. The United States Health Inspection Service has a $4.5 million regional budget working towards eliminating both FMD and a critter known as a screwworm whose larvae eat the flesh of cows.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

colombia_farc-rebels-march-in-la-macarenapreview

FARC rebels

So Darien is purposefully closed off, and with essentially good reasons. But when we look closer, we see there is still yet more to the story. It’s essential to remember the Darien Gap is insidious. And while we look at the Darien Gap and see 3 feet tall kitties and cute rodents and endangered species that need to be saved, the people who live with the Darien see the jungle as a giant death trap. Not simply for the natural causes of death – which are many – but because the Darien Gap has been home to Americas oldest terrorist organization. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are a by-product of over a century of civil war in Colombia. In the 1960s, rallying behind Marxist ideas, FARC was organized and began financing through the drug-trade. Today FARC is a multi-billion dollar drug-dealing enterprise supplying the United States with at least 60% of its cocaine.  This is unfortunate because this is financing a group who recruits child-soldiers and kidnaps anyone of seemingly value  and holds them in remote jungle prisons for sometimes years. The FARC have found their way to the Colombia-Panama border and are living (among other places)  in the Darien Jungle kidnapping those they could use in any way and killing those who don’t help in any way. There will be no arrest for your murder when you are murdered in the jungle, because you will never be found. Due to FARCs power people such as Hugo Chavez, leader of Venezuela, use them to cause confusion among accountable established nations by committing a certain amount of support for them. The United States has paid particular attention to them due to their influence.

Other rebel/terrorist groups that exist in this region are the National Liberation Army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. All groups kidnap for some money. National Geographic Adventure magazine reporter, Robert Young Pelton, and two others were kidnapped for 10 days by the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia attempting to trek the Darien.  When asked advice for travelers considering going to the region he responded:

The Darién Gap is an extremely dangerous place—it’s probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It’s used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there’s no military, the trails aren’t marked. Kuna Indians are freaked out now because of the violence being perpetrated against them. Unless you have a lot of experience in Colombia, I wouldn’t suggest it. [For the most part] the jungle there is not viewed as a place that is pristine and beautiful—it’s looked at as a place where you get killed. Because no one bothers gathering information, like I did. I mean, I know how you can hike the Darién now. But you have to have a group of armed men with you.

 

Abandoned mining train succumbing to the Darien Jungle

Destruction of the Darien Gap

Despite the Darien Gap existing (albeit dangerously) into the 21st century, it is guaranteed that it will not exist into the 22nd century. In fact it seems the Gap has less than a decade until the natural plug is breached and the Americas are irrevocably connected. Deforestation of the Gap is rampant. The rebel groups infest the interior making it incredibly dangerous for any sort of ecological protection. And the clock ticks until the final, slim, remaining barrier between North and South America is breached and the transference of Foot-and-Mouth disease to the North will be uncertain. The Native Embera tribe and jungle animals are losing their home tree by tree for basic subsistence and the result will be the elimination of an ecosystem of transcontinental importance.

Home the movie

Click on the picture to see a free high def movie!

Click on the picture to see a free high def movie!

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Wow! Hands down, I just watched a movie that should be mandatory for every human on this planet. A lot of what I try and talk about on here is expressed through gorgeous high definition images ALL for free right on Youtube!

Home” – the movie that should change your life if you weren’t already thinking like this every day of your life. If you weren’t, you should start doing it now. What this movie says is what you should base all your foundational decisions on. This movie is incredibly moving to me.

Why? First off, this movie is oriented correctly. This movie is filled with stunning images and jaw-dropping facts that most people are unaware of – and yet it’s free on Youtube. This is the kind of people we want making movies in our future. The entertainment industry is deadlocking our court system. With the advent of the internet we do not need the largely bureaucratic systems that were built to promote an artist or a movie. The only people who complain about copyright infringement and stealing are giant corporate bureacracies such as the MPAA and the RIAA. The MPAA and RIAA are the giant screaming toddlers that the United States government pacifies with the granting of retrieving ridiculous amounts of cash wherever they deem an unjustice happened to them. What would happen if the courts ruled against them? What would happen if we persecuted the entertainment industry where agents and promoters were the victims rather than a useless remnant of the 20th century still acquiring an income for simply existing? Where artists had a direct relationship with their fans and created their own mp3s which they could sell or even just give away and they make money by playing a live performance? Where anybody who wanted to make a movie would just fund it and toss it up on Youtube? Like “Home” did. What would we lose if we did such a thing? Such gems as “Night at the Museum” and “The Mummy” series? Bastardized Spielberg versions of “War of the Worlds” and “Indiana Jones”? Jokes such as “National Treasure” or “300” or “Titanic” or “Pearl Harbor” guised as historical but clearly warped? Oh, how terrible, imagine a world where those cookie-cutter movies that are churned out yearly as if from a factory disappeared. Money might actually be spent on something useful. Which brings me to my next point on why I like “Home.”

The movie steps back and tries to look at the world from an outside perspective. It really tries to show you the big picture and how critical THIS MOMENT is right now to our actions as a whole. There is no excuse in ignorance – the facts are clear and laid out and our bureaucratic mechanisms need to respond swiftly. And they shouldn’t be mucking around in the entertainment industry – we’re humans – we are entertained VERY easily. “Home” chooses its images carefully and contrasts where our money SHOULD be going and where it IS going. They show how we build cities in deserts such as Dubai as monuments to our glut at the expense of limited and quickly exhausting resources. The movie throws out important facts that reorient where we want to be and where we are: “The world spends 12 times more on military expenditures than on aid to developing countries.” “40% of arable land has suffered long-term damage.” “Every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear.”

The man behind this film is a French photographer, journalist, and reporter Yann Arthus-Bertrand. This is a man who apparently cares about the future of humans not living in post-apocalyptic Hell within our lifetime and is calling us to attention with this movie. I can tell you that this man is someone you should take information from because he puts it together and can read the implications. And, as you know from reading this site, the implications are dire. “One mammal in 4, one bird in 8, and one amphibian in 3 are threatened with extinction. Species are dying out at a rhythm of 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate.”

Also, I liked how it ended. It did give me hope, and I might even admit a tear. Because no matter how much we’ve destroyed or ruined, humans are notorious for perseverance. And we might have to learn a hard lesson, but it would be a shame to have our lonely species annihilated due to our collective ignorance.

But what kills me is despite the beautiful images and despite the important and dire messages “Home” portrays it has only been viewed by just over a million people on Youtube. This thing is way too important to stay so far under the radar. So please – push this movie as I am because this movie should be a basis to a question to all people in charge of anything – what are you doing with what you’re in charge of to align yourself with this situation? Well, what are you doing?

Khalifah the Fisherman of Baghdad

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

I don’t normally do this, but before I get to the meat of this entry I’d just like to explain some things on what’s happening with this site. As I’ve had this site for over a year now I’m happy to note that there has been a overall increase in visitors every month despite my entire lack of consistent posting. I thought it important that I explain why I update so little in hope of attaining some form of a regular reading base.

The first reason on why I post infrequently is because usually my entries take a lot of thought, time, and resources. I tend to use common sense logic and seemingly reliable resources to construct my thoughts and understanding of the world. Because this site is mostly for me I feel it’s absolutely essential for me to take as much time as I need to complete an entry because if I’m not in the mood I will not take the issue I’m working on as seriously.  The second reasons are because I work a full time job as a teacher, I am still going to college for my Masters , balancing a social life, or staying in shape. All these things steal time away from this.

Also though, and most importantly, I need to intake information I consider important through means I deem appropriate. This brings me to what my post is about. I just finished reading The Arabian Nights: Tales from A Thousand and One Nights. While the picture of this book is shown to the right, it does no justice, because you can’t recognize from straight on that the book is as thick as a brick. 882 pages long with an additional 166 pages of notes, with 2 centimeters tall text (I just measured it) written entirely solidly without breaks or pictures save little poems and titles. If you’d like to see just how long it is on the computer, you can check it written here (but I see just by glancing they’re missing at least 1 story)On top of it all it was translated in 1850, not exactly modern language being used either.

So why would I waste my time reading an old thick translation of The Arabian Nights? My initial reason was because I have a severe thirst for learning about cultures across our planet and for that I need to read regional classics. Reading simply American or English classics will leave me blind of much of the world. I chose this version the the Nights because it was translated by a man known as Sir Richard F. Burton. At some point I shall write an entry about this man because I believe that we will never know the extent that his influence has had on the world as we know it today. A man with unparalleled skills, Burton may have more knowledge about indigenous cultures across the world than any other man living or dead. Of course, I definitely know he had is drawbacks, but he is a man I respect in his worldly knowledge and his ability to understand the absolute importance of unbiased information while still letting you know he has his own opinions of the matter. I knew reading the Burton translation would supply me with the most raw, articulate, and insightful understanding of the Eastern culture that surrounds these stories. Since I have just completed reading this monster I would like to try my attempt at translating an ancient middle-eastern story translated by an intelligent explorer from the 1850s into something that people today might actually enjoy reading. I know there are plenty of translations of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor out there so I decided to share a story I enjoyed but is lesser known. So without further adieu, I give you:

Khalifah, the Fisherman of Baghdad

The Dynasty underneath the Caliph during this time. (Click to enlarge)

The Dynasty underneath the Caliph during this time. (Click to enlarge)

Centuries ago the most powerful city in the entire world was Baghdad, what is now the capital of Iraq. Terrorism, imperialism, despotism, poverty, and desperation were not in vogue at the time and instead bloomed forth a flourishing kingdom. Nestled in this fertile crescent, the same city in which much of our civilization sprang forth, there was a leader that outstretched the power of any Sultan. A sultan is simply just a King in charge of thousands of square kilometers of land, a military to protect that land, dozens of cities and all the common people who make their living in his kingdom. But in Baghdad there lived not a Sultan, but a Caliph.

Between the 700’s and 1300’s the religion of Islam spread like wildfire across the Middle East. As far West as the deserted Atlantic shores of Africa and as far East as the mighty heaven-scraping Himalayas and the warm, wet Indian subcontinent Islam reigned supreme. Europe was a poverty-stricken cesspool of factional Christian kingdoms – just as much at war with each other as they were with the Muslims. The Europeans sent their poorly armed troops to fight the refined mechanized superiority of the Caliphate.

Because, you see, the Caliph was not just in charge of the city of Baghdad – but instead he was in charge of the entire Muslim world. As far as Muslims were concerned during this time period, he was the man closest to God. His power and might went unrivaled because the Caliph had more power on 3 continents than anyone else had on just one.  Spices from China would trade in its market and an ebony man from Nigeria could be purchasing it. It was the center of the entire civilized world.

To be the Caliph during this time period would be simply inexplicable. The power that he held in his hands is probably unrivaled by the power held by any single man before or since. He didn’t just have access to weapons or information but people laid down their lives for him at the drop of a hat, it was the amount of devout followers that truly gave the Caliph his power. He had vast armies just waiting for him to breathe. The Caliph received anything he desired; he had more wealth than he could squander away in several lifetimes; he owned many slaves, both black and white, male and female, that tended to his every whim. The Caliph protected God – and Muslims across the globe agreed; there was nothing more sacred.

During a particularly peaceful and productive period for the Muslim world a Caliph reigned named Harun Al-Rashid. At the Caliph’s side at all times was his head councilor, known as a Wazir, named Ja’afar. [Quick side note: Because Disney is superior at altering classic literature I just wanted to clarify something. Ja’afar happens to be the Wazir to the Caliph in many of the stories within the Arabian Nights – however Ja’afar actually does not appear in the story of Alaeddin. This is because Alaeddin takes place in China and the person who locks him in the underground chamber was a Moroccan Magician. Also Ja’afar was never the Wazir to a mere Sultan – but always the Caliph. Also – Ja’afar is actually far more reasonable and nice than the Caliph in many of the stories and he does not attempt to undermine him.]

Caliph Harun Al-Rashid on left looking divine

Caliph Harun Al-Rashid on left looking divine

Caliph Al-Rashid was married to the prestigious and beautiful Lady Zubaydah. However, the Caliph was a man of wide-taste and at the end of another tiring day of absolute power Al-Rashid would have his concubines line up and he would determine which one he would bed with for the night. I’m sure his rationale for this behavior has something to do with Allah wishing him to try only the best fruits of his labor, but if you want to know what I suspect, I think the Caliph was just using God as justification for getting his very Earthly needs. Also, having such power is going to make him a bit spoiled, so he’s going to want to have “more” than everyone else and of course he’ll need the “best” – very typical human behavior. But – on the other side of things – though he used these women exclusively for showing off power and sex I would also surmise that they were compensated quite well for this duty to where even the strongest feminist might consider becoming a concubine to a man of such unexhaustable wealth.

So I imagine the Caliph walking down a line of beautiful women dressed in the most precious of cloths and silk. All of these women ready and willing to give herself to him, but all of them also knowing that she will not be chosen tonight. All of the Caliph’s concubines knew Al-Rashid’s favorite woman. She surpassed all others in physical beauty and mental acuteness and the all-powerful Caliph felt his only weakness when it came to her. After studying each woman carefully, without fail, he would pull out Kut-al-Kulub and the rest of the women would return to whence they came and the Caliph would lustily retreat with her to another room of his magnificent palace. For the Caliph and amiable Ja’afar the Cailphate was peaceful, prosperous, fruitful, and easy. Life was good. Things were seemingly all too perfect within the kingdom of the Caliphate.

Of course, things outside the palace tend to lose their fairy-tale essence. In the poorest section of Baghdad, covered in dirty streets and neighbors living on top of another, lived a man known as Khalifah. Khalifah woke up daily with shame branded on his body. His house had but one room and there was no privacy, for even a conversation could be heard by the neighbors. He stepped out of his home to get teased by the neighborhood children. Even among the poorest and most desperate citizens of Baghdad Khalifah was a joke. For Khalifah was already 35 and he had no wife. The children heard their parents mock him for being one of the only people in all of Baghdad to be so old and unmarried, and when they saw Khalifah, miserable and hungover, step out of his house in the morning the teasing would begin. Khalifah would chase them but they scattered too quickly and he was too hungry and hungover to expend any extra energy.  Khalifah always woke up not knowing if he would eat that night, strangely enough even when one isn’t sure where his next meal will come from, one is always able to find a bottle of alcohol for cheaper. Though Khalifah was penniless and had nobody else in the world he attempted to make an honest living through the only trade he knew – fishing. One morning Khalifah woke up, far away from the palace of the Caliphate, and took hold of his fishing nets and found a remote part of the mighty Tigris river that would hopefully provide him with his daily food. As he walked through the dirty, poverty-stricken city Khalifah looked up at the Caliphate in envy, but only briefly. He learned a long time ago that it did him no good to dream. As he reached the edge of the shore he knew so well, he began to throw out his nets and fish. For thousands of years mankind had come to these shores for their daily bread.

The mighty Tigris river was one of two that supported Baghdad and the surrounding city. The Tigris gave the people of Baghdad their water and it supplied them with their fish. Its banks were lush and green and provided shelter from the hot desert sun. Khalifah spent the morning listening to the birds and the afternoons listening to the bugs while he tried to catch his food for the day. He would toss his nets out and walk closeby sitting in the grass or wading in the water. It flowed deep and was full of nutrients and had been a lifeline for civilization since it had began between these same two rivers.

Actual Tigris River! Khalifah's around there somewhere.

Actual Tigris River! Khalifah's around there somewhere.

By the time the sun was high in the air Khalifah was at his wits end with the river. Wet, dirty, hungry, hot, headachey, and burned Khalifah tossed his nets out one last time wiping the sweat from his brow defeated. He looked up at the sky desperate, knowing that he would not eat if he did not catch fish for the day, and pleaded his case to his creator, “Almighty Allah, I know I’m supposed to be patient, and I know that you will do whatever your will is, and I know that you are great, but I am begging you, please,” he closed his eyes tight and looked back up to the blinding sun, “please,” feeling as if maybe he wasn’t sincere enough, then he paused one more time,  “please just give me my daily bread so that I can eat today!” Then Khalifah sat down on the bank in the shade hoping his nets would catch something. Patiently Khalifah waited a full hour and walked up to his nets and tugged…

They were heavy! “Allah!” he yelled aloud before drawing it in, “I knew you’d pull through for me!” Khalifah started to draw the heavy net in, “Allah is the only God as well as the most bountiful one!” Khalifah was ecstatic feeling the nets heavier than expected for simply a meal, “And Allah, bounty you have provided!” Khalifah pulled the net harder, he could not wait to see what it was, perhaps a full net of fish? “Allah, you have surely outdone yourself in your kindness to m…”

Khalifah stopped speaking as soon as he saw what he dragged in. It was not a whole net of fish or even a single fish, or even anything that belonged in water at all for any reason. Sopping wet on the bank of the river was an ape, alive, and slowly attempting to untangle itself from Khalifah’s net. Khalifah watched the specimen with his jaw still dropped from praising Allah and noticed that not only did he catch an ape, but the ape was missing his left eye. Instead of an eye a deep wet gaping infected hole looked back at Khalifah. “Oh Allah!” he yelled when he found his voice, “What have I done to you?!” he shuddered in fear. The children must be right, he thought, I must be a miserable wretch and a blight to Allah. Just then the one eyed ape found his way out of the net and began to walk up the bank towards Khalifah when he realized that he was only using his left leg. His right leg dragged behind him like a stump. “Oh Holy Allah! I asked you to provide me with my daily bread and you have given me a one-eyed, lame legged ape!” Khalifah shut his mouth again astounded that he had just pulled an ape out of the deep and cool Tigris.

Then deep inside Khalifah rage boiled, he walked sternly up to the lame-legged, one-eyed ape and he grabbed it by his stinking wet arm and dragged him up the bank to a tree where Khalifah tied him up to it. “You stupid ape!” Khalifah shrieked with fury, “I said I wanted fish in my net! Not a stupid one-eyed, lame-legged APE!” Khalifah scoured the ground nearby for a good switch to beat him with and spotted one. “Oh yes!” he looked at the switch maniacally, finally fed up with his patience.  Starving, hot, hungry, and tired, he eyed the ape slowly up and down without a flicker in his gaze. The ape looked back at him with what looked like a slight concern. Khalifah stomped up to the ape and raised his hand with the switch in it and just before Khalifah was going to lay his blow down upon the ape, it cried:

“Khalifah!”… There it was, Khalifah’s name, clear out of the ape’s mouth. Again Khalifah’s jaw dropped and the switch fell behind his back as he just stared at the creature. “Instead of beating me with that switch, leave me bound to this tree, go back down to the river and cast your nets one last time, if you don’t get your daily bread then you may return up here and beat me.” Khalifah looked at the ape skeptically, realizing he not only wasn’t going to be able to release his rage, but have to cast his nets one last time. However, knowing the lame-legged ape wasn’t going anywhere, he replied back to the ape, “One more time. If I don’t receive food for the day, then you will be sorely beaten you grotesque ape!” and with that Khalifah went back down to the river, cast his nets, and again waited glancing occasionally at the ape who refused to speak again.

And again, the nets were full. Khalifah’s hate vanished and his heart again was in his throat. The ape was right, for this time the net was heavier, and again Khalifah began to pull in the nets faster, and again he praised Allah for being so kind to him. And when he finally got the nets to the river’s edge Khalifah could not believe what he saw: not only was it another ape, but it had a massive gap between the two front teeth which stuck far out of its mouth, its eyes were darkened with soot, it was covered in henna-dyes, and was wearing a tattered waistcloth! If that wasn’t enough, the ape was guffawing right at Khalifah, not even trying to get out of the net, rolling around on the sand hardly breathing for how hard he was laughing.

This second ape really must want to see the first one beaten

This second ape really must want to see the first one beaten

Next to Khalifah was his switch and he bent over and picked it up and walked straight to the one-eyed, lame-legged ape and took back his hand ready to beat the ever-loving life out of the ape when again, for the second time, he spoke: “Before you beat me, please go see what my ape-friend has to say to you, because he’ll give you what you want.” Khalifah seethed at the one-eyed ape but nonetheless marched back down to the bank where the gap-toothed ape was finally untangling himself from the nets and his laughing had died down to an uncontrollable cackle that came in spurts. “Khalifah,” he began, “if you listen to me, you’ll get what you need,” he hooted. Khalifah was unimpressed with the ape’s manners but he really was not in a much better position just by beating the apes, so he listened, “Tie me up to a tree like my friend up there, and toss your nets in one last time, this time you will surely get what you need.” Khalifah looked flatly at him, then glanced up at the sun which was by this point beginning to fall in the sky. Khalifah tied up the gap-toothed ape to a second tree and returned back to fishing along the bank. As he fastened his nets to the shore he said to himself, “Today, Allah must’ve decided to play a joke on us all and replaced all the fish in the mighty Tigris with apes,” and again he sat watching the apes who silently waited. Occasionally the second ape began to giggle ready to burst into guffaws which were knocked silent by Khalifah’s glare.

Again, his net was full. This time his hope returned but it was guarded, Khalifah wasn’t sure he could handle it if another ape came up, and of course one did. Khalifah dropped his nets, “Thank you Allah for this glorious day you have provided us with, with the beautiful weather, and the cool breeze, and that today is a day made for apes. Today we are not allowed to fish, but instead we come to the river to catch monkeys from Allah that are deep in the Tigris!” Turning his attention to the ape that just washed ashore, this time a beautiful red ape with a blue waist-cloth similarly decorated as the gap-toothed ape, Khalifah asked exhausted, “And what are you going to tell me to do? Because if you think I’m going to toss those nets in that river one more time you’re…” the ape interrupted him, “Khalifah! Don’t you remember me?”

Khalifah looked again at the ape and took a moment to respond. Then, angrily realizing he knew absolutely no apes responded, “No, I know no apes.” The ape replied, “I’m the ape of Abu al-Sadat, the Jewish banker in the city.” While Khalifah noticed the lack of imperfections of this third ape in comparison to the others, he wondered at why this ape was telling him this, “So what do you do for Abu?” asked Khalifah. “Well,” began the ape, “every morning when he wakes up I tell him ‘good morning’ and give him 5 dinars of the most precious gold and before he goes to bed at night I give him 5 dinars again and say goodnight.”

This incensed poor Khalifah who couldn’t even get a meal for the day and shot his eyes angrily at the one-eyed, lame-legged ape and yelled, “See what fine apes other owners have?! Abu gets an ape that pays him just for waking up and going to bed at night and I get an ape that tells me to keep going fishing for more apes while I starve to death! You’re an awful, terrible, no-good, rotten, wretched, foul, excuse for an ape!” and Khalifah remembering the switch in his hand started running towards the one-eyed, lame-legged ape. The red ape spoke up again, “Khalifah! Do not beat him yet, let me first tell you what I want you to do!” Khalifah dropped the switch and looked back at the third ape. “And what do you want me to do?” rejoined Khalifah.

“I want you to,” began the ape, “cast your nets back into the river one last time.” “Oh no you don’t!” yelled Khalifah raising the switch again and eying the first ape, while the ape of Abu continued, “Let me finish, cast your nets back into the river and whatever you capture bring it up to me and I’ll tell you a secret!” Khalifah was only half convinced as beating the one-eyed, lame-legged ape seemed like the better judgment. Playing monkey games all day is only making him end up with more monkeys; but he appealed to Allah, and knowing that patience must come before all (and that he could beat all 3 if he didn’t get anything), he tied the third up to another tree and again tossed his nets back into the deep and bountiful Tigris River. Again, he waited eying the apes that now were three in number. They sat silently waiting, the one-eyed, lame-legged looking wholly concerned, the gap-toothed ape guffawing, and the third sitting politely. After some time Khalifah got up to check his nets.

Again, something was inside of it and he pulled it in, thoroughly unthrilled. However, to Khalifah’s surprise, the most beautiful and biggest fish he had ever pulled from the Tigris came out looking absolutely fat, healthy, and exotic. Of his entire life fishing out of the bountiful Tigris he had never seen a fish so fat and beautiful.  “So what do you plan on doing now?” asked the red ape. Khalifah thought and said, “I’m going to take that switch, beat that wretched monkey over there with the one-eye and lame-leg for making me waste an entire afternoon catching monkeys, then I’m going to take you home and eat this delicious-looking fish.”

“I have a better plan,” replied the red ape, “Put that fish in the basket, and take it to my Master Abu al-Sa’adat, the Jewish banker…” The ape continued giving Khalifah instructions and promised that if he did exactly what he said that the beautiful red ape would give Khalifah 10 dinars of gold every day instead of the banker, and the Jewish banker instead would get the luck of the one-eyed, lame-legged, wretched ape. There was but one catch:

“What is it?” asked Khalifah finally. “You must let us all go. Me, the cackling ape, and even the wretched one-eyed ape.” Khalifah looked down at his switch and then back up at the foul ape. Khalifah briefly envisioned a moment of pleasure by beating the filthy ape within an inch of his life, but to get the red ape’s promise reward he knew he had to let his aggression toward the awful ape go. Khalifah looked back down at his hand which would not let go of the switch; finally he dropped it. He then walked up to the red ape who hopped down the bank of the river to a fresh pool and quietly lay inside cooling off watching Khalifah. Khalifah then let the gapped-tooth ape go which hooted all the way down the bank and made a loud splash into the water. Finally he walked up to the one-eyed, filthy, lame-legged ape and stopped in front of him. The beautiful red ape in the river watched closely. Khalifah stared into the infected gaping hole in his head. It stunk, even from such a distance, and there was nothing to like about this ape – it deserved to be beaten Khalifah thought. He then turned his head toward the red ape in the river and wondered why he wanted him to let him go so much, but untied the ape and watched it slowly limp down to the river and disappear back into the water. Then all 3 apes were gone just as mysteriously as they appeared and the banks of the mighty Tigris were again quiet. The only proof that they existed was the fat healthy fish that he held in his hand that was to reward him from this day forth. While the insects buzzed lazily on the cool banks of the river Khalifah made his way back to the city.

We'll pretend this is the Baghdad Khalifah trapses through because the only pictures I can find of it is of wartorn rubble

We'll pretend this is the Baghdad Khalifah trapses through because the only pictures I can find of it is of wartorn rubble

It was still the afternoon when Khalifah made it back to the city. The ape’s instructions were simple. The first instruction the ape gave him was to go straight to see Abu, the Jewish banker. Khalifah was not allowed to stop anywhere else and he was not allowed to speak to anybody else – otherwise the ape’s promise would be void. Khalifah walked through the familiar market that he had spent his entire life begging and buying from. “Khalifah! What are you hiding in there?” one of his acquaintances, the tailor, joked at him. A swelling that did not usually enter Khalifah filled him and he wanted to stop and brag, but quickly ignored the feeling remembering the deal. Then he passed by the children who teased him earlier that morning, “Khalifah – a man with no wife so he is a man with no charm!” yelled the children, “Yes! and a man with no money and who stinks like a bloated fish on the shore of the Tigris!” Khalifah walked by them silently. This is harder than I expected, thought Khalifah.

And if this step was hard he could not imagine how hard the next step would be. The red ape told him to do something very strange. When he gives the fish to Abu the banker he needs to accept nothing in return. However, the ape warned him that Abu will in fact give him 1 dinar for the fish but it was essential that Khalifah not accept this 1 dinar and to give it back to Abu. When Khalifah gives back the dinar Abu will give Khalifah back 2 dinars. Khalifah then needed to return the 2 dinars. The red ape warned that this would happen until Abu has given Khalifah the weight of the fish in gold – but to not accept it. Instead, the red ape said, tell him the only way to pay for the fish is to say these few words in front of everybody: “Bear witness, everybody that is here at the market today. I give Khalifah the fisherman my ape in exchange for his ape, and that I barter for his lot and luck for my lot and luck.” The ape told Khalifah that must be the price of the fish and to accept absolutely no gold.

Khalifah found himself in front of Abu al-Sa’adat’s place of business and stepped inside. Abu sat like the Caliph himself donned in beautiful dress with servants and slaves moving busily around tending to his whims. Initially, Abu didn’t notice Khalifah come inside as he was busy scolding a servant for not getting him an exotic meal for dinner that evening. Khalifah walked right up to Abu and stood before him. Abu stopped scolding his servant and cast his eyes upon the poor and wretched Khalifah. Khalifah was covered in sweat, stunk like the river, and was burned red from the sun. Immediately Abu addressed the situation, “Khalifah the fisherman! Welcome to my shop! What can I do for you? If anybody has done you any wrong that has any association with me we will both go to the Chief of Police and we’ll seek justice together. We’ll take it to the Caliph if we must!”

Khalifah replied, “No, your business has always been reputable with me. But I do have an funny story that I think would interest you. You see, this morning I went to the river and cast in my nets on your luck and came out with this beautiful fish.” With this Khalifah showed Abu the fish.

Abu about fell out of his chair when he noticed the fish, “Khalifah! You have no idea! Last night I drempt a beautiful woman promised me God would bestow me with a precious present and this fish is undoubtedly it!” Khalifah felt an excitement grow inside that everything was working according to how the red ape said. Then Abu grew very grave and came close to Khalifah, “By your faith Khalifah, have you shown this fish to anybody but me?” Khalifah replied honestly, “By Allah, nobody has seen it but you.” Abu turned to the servant he was scolding and said “This will be my dinner for tonight, bring it to my wife and have her broil and fry it up for my meal when I return home.” With this the servant did as Abu asked and took the only food Khalifah had caught all day away from him so that Abu could eat well.

When the boy left Abu held out his hand and gave Khalifah 1 dinar of gold, “Take this for yourself Khalifah, and spend it on your family.” As the gold entered Khalifah’s hand his wits left from his head. Khalifah smiled as if he had never seen a dinar of gold in his life. Finally – he had the power to buy some food and a few other things he had been needing for his home. With a grin pasted to his face he turned away from Abu and left his shop and began walking down the market street thinking about all of the things he could buy with his dinar – he could even buy alcohol that didn’t burn like acid all the way down his throat… then as he was about to round the corner of buildings near his home his wits returned. Very clearly the ape had stated that he must give the dinar of gold back and accept no gold for his gift. He turned around and bolted back to Abu al-Sa’adat’s shop and came bursting back in. He threw the dinar back down on the table and shouted, “Take back your gold and give me back my fish! Are you trying to make a laughing stock of me?” If Abu didn’t know any better he would’ve bet a separate person left the shop from the person who came racing back in.

“Oh Khalifah! Please settle down!” the banker chuckled, “if the price be-it unfair then take these 2 dinars in addition to the 1 I had given you before.”

Just as the ape had said. Khalifah held his ground, “Give me back my fish and nothing else! What makes you think I’d sell it at such a low price?”

Annoyed, the Jew responded, “Khalifah, take two more dinars of gold. That’s a total of 5 dinars. Now go out of my shop and don’t be anymore greedy. I have a business to run and can’t be bartering the price of fish all day.” The next thing Khalifah remembered was walking down the street of the market cheering, “I have more luck with Allah today than the Caliph himself!” He joyfully rolled his 5 gold pieces in his hand feeling their cold hard crisp opportunity. He could finally pay off his debt to Kamar. He could eat without fishing for weeks. And he planned on getting very drunk that evening. Then he turned around and saw Abu’s shop across the marketplace and again he remembered what the red ape said: Do not accept any gold for the fish.

Khalifah came running back into the shop breathless and looking as wholly unappealing as before, throwing the gold pieces back at the Jewish banker. Surprised, Abu responded, “Do you want to change your pieces of gold for pieces of silver?”

“No. I don’t want silver and I don’t want gold. I don’t want 5 pieces or 10 pieces. I only want you to give me back my fish!”

Abu could not understand how audacious such a destitute person was acting and became contemptuous, “Fisherman! You bring me a fish not worth 1 gold dinar and I give you 5 for it; yet you are not happy with that. Tell me Khalifah, have you stumbled upon a genie that has made you crazy? Please, tell me what your price for that fish is, I’d love to hear what price you put on it.” Abu was impressive with his rich clothes and stern demeanor that everyone watching the spectacle knew Khalifah had overstepped his boundary.  All watched intently to see the wily Khalifah’s response.

Khalifah, hyped on adrenaline, was trying to remember clearly what it was that he needed to make Abu say according to the red ape. His head reeled and pounded for he was both excited and exhausted. And in this mixture of energy and fatigue Khalifah made an innocent mistake. When someone wants to become Muslim Islam requires the new member to say the Shibboleth of the Muslim creed, also known as “the two words.” To a Muslim that has been a Muslim his whole life talking in everyday conversation “two words” simply means that you’d like to say a few words. However, to the Jewish banker in a Muslim city “two words” has a very Muslim meaning to him and what Khalifah said next made Abu the Jew reel with anger. “I don’t want any gold or silver for my fish but instead I simply want you to say two words.”

For the first time Abu rose from his comfortable chair. He narrowed his eyes sharply and gritted his teeth. “You, Khalifah – the most execrable of the Muslim faith, will have me throw away my Judaism over the sake of a fish!? You will remove me from my own religion and change my entire belief system which has been taught to me and my family for generations… for a fish?!” Abu yelled to all his servants who were watching the spectacle, “Go and beat this man who wants to defile my own religion in my own shop!” And down fell Abu’s servants onto Khalifah. Though Baghdad was a city dedicated strictly to the Muslim faith money speaks universally; and Abu clearly had it and Khalifah clearly did not. Khalifah was beaten to the ground by the time Abu called his servants off of him and returned to his seat. “Leave him and let him rise,” he stated. Khalifah pushed himself from the floor and stood before Abu as if nothing had happened. “Now, Khalifah, tell me what your price is for the fish. Seriously now, as you see I’m quite sick of dealing with this very simple matter.”

Khalifah inspected his body and when he was satisfied responded, “Don’t worry about the beating. I’m 10 times more stubborn than a donkey and can take 10 times the beating of one too.” Abu smiled and restated his question clearly ready to rid him of Khalifah the Bother. “I will accept nothing from you,” Khalifah replied, “aside from two words that I’ll relate to you.”

Abu leaned down in his chair, “Khalifah, are you trying to turn me into a Muslim?”

Khalifah replied, exhausted and annoyed at the mysterious red ape, “I don’t want you to become a Muslim and I don’t want to become a Jew. I don’t want you to say anything bad having to do with the Muslim religion and I don’t want to have to say anything bad of the Jewish religion. I don’t want you to not believe in the things you believe in or believe in the things you don’t believe in,” Khalifah paused stymied, “at least I think that’s what I meant – I mean – I just want you to stand on your feet and say these words: ‘Bear witness, everybody that is here at the market today. I give Khalifah the fisherman my ape in exchange for his ape, and that I barter his lot and luck for my lot and luck .'”

The sun sinking over the real Tigris River - Khalifah can't enjoy it because he has an empty stomach

The sun sinking over the real Tigris River - Khalifah can't enjoy it because he has an empty stomach

Abu the Jewish banker looked blankly down at Khalifah, “That’s it?” Khalifah just shook his head and Abu responded, “If this is all you require for your fish then we could’ve gotten this taken care of a long time ago. This will sit lightly upon me.” Abu stood up and spoke the words that Khalifah had related. When the banker had finally spoken the word “luck” Khalifah left his shop with a strong feeling of satisfaction. However, when the door shut behind him Khalifah became quickly deflated. In front of him lay the market and he hadn’t a single piece of money to exchange for food in it – and the only fish he had caught that day was now in the hands of the banker – paid in full.

Starving and dejected Khalifah made his way back to the river. Again he passed by the children and again they teased him but he did not hear their words. Internally he was scolding himself for following the orders of a bunch of raucous apes. It was late afternoon by the time Khalifah returned to the banks of the Tigris with no apes in sight. The sun sat low in the sky. He walked down to the bank and tossed his nets for the umpteenth time. He sat and watched the sun sink lower in the sky for a while and ignoring the snarling knot inside his empty stomach. He walked up to his nets and pulled them in – they were heavy. With greater and greater force he pulled them in half expecting to see an ape and half expecting an actual meal for the first time this day. And as the net came out so did all kinds of fish. A woman walking along the bank saw the catch and offered 1 gold dinar for a fish. Another man quickly saw this transaction and came to make one himself. In total he made himself 10 gold dinars that and had enough fish for a full course meal.  That night as he lay in his bed full for the first time in weeks Khalifah recalled that he received 10 gold dinars that day just as the red ape had promised. He then slept the deepest sober sleep he had in years.

In fact Khalifah sklept so well that he woke up many hours later the next day than he had the previous day. It was already after noon and normally Khalifah would’ve been fishing all morning. Still with a full stomach Khalifah picked up his fishing nets and realized that even if he didn’t catch anything today he could have another delicious meal with the 10 dinars he had made the previous day. But – after yesterday – Khalifah was just too curious to see what the mighty Tigris had to offer today. He stepped out of his front door where the neighborhood children were playing. “Lazy Khalifah is so rich he does not need to get up until after noon to work!” yelled one. “His kingdom is but vast and wide and to travel it takes much energy from him. He must rest,” yelled another. Khalifah was used to this and he continued on to the river, at least today something interesting might happen like yesterday. His one day rest renewed his energy and maybe even the ape would reappear again today with more good news.

After only a few attempts into the Tigris deep Khalifah had obtained the amount of fish it took him all day to get yesterday. He was finished and it was hours before he had made his final trip to the river the previous day. Khalifah sold the fish and had far more money than the previous day. Khalifah paid off his debt to Kamar and bought foods he had never tried before but were common among Baghdad. Khalifah then swung down to the shop that sold alcohol and got his favorite bottle and a bit of hashish to smoke that evening. He even was able to set up his merchant stand that he never used because he never had anything to sell. As he stepped inside he realized it would be a lot better place to sleep than at home around the teasing neighborhood children. He then decided he would sleep here and sell his fish here. When he counted his profit for the day he realized again he had made 10 dinars as the ape had promised. He realized that he wouldn’t get the 10 dinars if he did not fish for the day, but realized it was a small price to pay for such fine results.

Time-appropriate art

Time-appropriate art

For 10 days this went on so that in total Khalifah the fisherman had made 100 dinars in gold. This realization came to him on the 10th night while he was in the back of his shop swigging from a bottle. “Yes. 10 days – 100 dinars. Khalifah,” he addressed himself taking a break to smoke from his pipe, “everyone knows you as a poor fisherman and now you have 100 gold dinars!” This quickly concerned Khalifah. He was not used to having money and he knew people who dealt with a lot of money usually had to deal with the Caliph. He didn’t know the details but he knew the Caliph took money just because he wanted it and nobody could tell him no.  Khalifah took another swill, “What if word got to the Caliph that I have 100 gold dinars and he calls me to his huge palace and tells me to give it to him?” Khalifah thought quickly and responded to his own question, “Well you would say, ‘Oh Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, I am but a poor fisherman and I do not have this money you speak of. Whoever told you this information must be a liar.’ – then what would he do?” Khalifah was quiet again and the still night air of the market enveloped the room, he took a deep draw from his pipe, “he would torture me.” Khalifah got up off his bed and said to himself, “He would torture me with a whip until I gave him his 100 dinars,” Khalifah thought about this for a moment and said, “No. He will not take my 100 dinars! I earned that money myself and I will not give it to him! He can torture me all he wants he will not get my 100 dinars!” Khalifah was pacing around the room with seething anger by now but he still was debating with himself, “I can take the worst of beatings… but he will not be beating, he’ll be whipping… I’ve been whipped before and I can handle it… You’ve been whipped for not listening, not for 100 dinars, do you really think you can take that beating?… It’s been a while, but I’ll try, I’ll practice whipping myself to be ready for when the Caliph is ready to whip me!” And with this Khalifah tore off his clothes in a hazy stupor and began whipping himself as best he could. He beat himself until he screamed like that of one being tortured. Typically it’s not an activity someone participates on their own, so when the neighboring merchants came out to ask Khalifah if he was being robbed and found him naked whipping himself, they asked in astonishment what he was doing.

“If someone tells the Caliph of the dinars I have made here then he will demand it from me and when I don’t give it to him he’ll torture me. I’m accustoming myself to what may come.”

The other merchants laughed at Khalifah, “Khalifah you are a fool. May Allah not bless you or the dinars you have gotten. You’ve disturbed us all from our sleep because you’re drunk and high and doing something absolutely crazy!” All the merchants returned to their shops while Khalifah went on whipping himself.

On the 11th day Khalifah felt much like he did on the first. He was hungover and the only difference this time was that instead of waking up with hunger he woke up with scars across his body. He rolled around in pain for a while until he could rise clutching his purse with 100 gold dinars in it. Not only did he have to worry about the Caliph calling him and demanding it from him but now he had his neighbors to worry about snooping his merchant shop while he’s gone because he had admitted to them the previous night that he had quite a bit of money. Khalifah couldn’t remember if he told them it was 100 dinars, for the first time in 10 days Khalifah felt shame again. But then he remembered his 100 dinars and his shame turned to bitter greed. “If I leave the 100 dinars in the shop they’ll surely be taken, and if I bring them on my belt someone will lay in wait for me and kill me for it.” Khalifah thought for a moment and remembered a secret pocket in the collar of his gaberdine. Satisfied he put his purse in there and put on his waistcloth, girdle, and got his supplies ready to fish for the day.

Outside the children from his neighborhood had found his merchant shop. They noticed he did not leave or enter his house recently and were too interested to see what Khalifah was up to now. One of them peered his eyes into Khalifah’s window and saw him coming towards the front door with his nets. A boy stood poised next to a dirty puddle in front of Khalifah’s humble shop. As Khalifah stepped outside the boy kicked the puddle and it splashed right into Khalifah’s face. The children ran laughing. Khalifah just clutched his collar pocket with gritted teeth and went down to the deep and cool Tigris. “At least I should be done fishing by noon and I can come back and eat, drink and smoke some more.”

It was well into the afternoon and Khalifah had still not caught anything. He had tried everything – moving different places, staying in one spot, but no matter what he did he couldn’t catch any fish – and he was out later than he had been for any of the last 10 days. He became more and more frustrated with this until he cried out to Allah, much like on the first day and said “This throw will be my final throw into the river and I will fish no more after this!” With all his might Khalifah threw his nets into the deep, cool water and at the same time his collar pocket ripped throwing the purse to the depths. In slow motion he saw the pocket rip and the purse come flying out tossing some of the dinars out into the air. Khalifah could do nothing but watch as it dipped below to steady depths of the river. Immediately he tore off his clothes and dove into the Tigris. Nearly 100 times Khalifah dove to the bottom of the river and each time came up without a single dinar. On the final time he realized he hardly had enough energy to stay afloat and tore himself to the shore for no other reason than pure exhaustion. Just as Khalifah had been 11 days earlier he was again broken – sunburned, scarred, filthy and exhausted on the shore of the river.

While Khalifah was diving desperately for his dinars the children had caught him jumping like mad into the river. The boy who had kicked the puddle in Khalifah’s face earlier came up with the idea to run away with Khalifah’s clothes. So one of the boys snuck up while Khalifah dove under for the purse, grabbed his gaberdine, girdle, and waistcloth, and ran all the way back to Baghdad without stopping. When Khalifah pulled himself up from the shores to see nothing but his nets, staff, and basket he fell back to the ground again. Khalifah’s rage boiled and he crawled to his feet, wrapped his net around his body with his basket in one hand and a staff in the others. He was going to find who took his clothes. To anyone standing along the river that day Khalifah would’ve been a sight to behold – resembling a lobster that just fought off a whole fishing crew still half-wrapped in the net.

Another supposed painting of the beloved Caliph Harun Al-Rashid

Another supposed painting of the beloved Caliph Harun Al-Rashid

A short distance from the bank of the river the Caliph Al-Rashid himself was riding with his Wazir, Ja’afar. They had decided to take a ride on this particular day because people were starting to talk about Al-Rashid and his fascination for Kut al-Kulub. Al-Rashid had even been neglecting his Caliphate duties by spending almost every waking moment beside her listening to her talk and making love to her. “I have no desire to do anything else,” Al-Rashid confided to his loyal Wazir. Ja’afar pondered thoughtfully and then remarked, “Even your wife, the Lady Zubaydah, hasn’t seen you nearly in proportion as Kut al-Kulub. You have responsibilities Oh Commander of the Faithful.”

“Yes, you’re right,” responded the Caliph disappointed but pleased with the sense of truth he spoke, “You were right Ja’afar to make me come out on this day. But right now I am so thirsty, is that a man atop that mound over there?” Ja’afar agreed that it was and offered to go ask him for some water but the Caliph insisted on doing it himself as he would’ve had to wait even longer for the water. Al-Rashid started to ride on his mule towards the man in the distance.

Khalifah had just walked up the edge of the Tigris when a man on a mule in the distance rode up to greet him. When the Caliph saw him he was astonished at how horrible Khalifah looked, wrapped up in his net, basket in one hand, and staff in the other. Khalifah was dirty, sunburned, exhausted, and still had open wounds across his whole body from the night before. Still the Caliph saluted the odious man and Khalifah returned the salute. Certain that this homeless man did not recognize who he was he asked politely, “Do you by chance have any water?” Khalifah snapped back at him, “There is a whole rivers worth down there!” The Caliph thanked him and rode down to the waters edge and took his drink. Then he called Khalifah down to the water’s edge. Al-Rashid was unsure how to start a conversation with such a strange man.

“Can I ask what is your profession?” he began. Khalifah flared up even angrier than before, “I didn’t know you could come up with a sillier question than that about the water but you have! I do believe the only thing that is between both me and you is my profession!”

“So it is!” replied the Caliph, unsure of what to say next he addressed the elephant in the room, “Then where is your gaberdine, girdle, waistcloth, and the rest of your clothing?” Khalifah began to suspect that if this strange man with soft skin and outlandish clothing knew what he was wearing then he must’ve been the thief playing a trick on Khalifah. Certainly with what this man was wearing he wouldn’t know the specifics of Khalifah’s clothing so well unless he took it himself. “Give me back my clothes right this minute, I’m tired of the jokes!”Khalifah yelled.

“I promise!” replied the Caliph, “I do not know a thing about your clothes!”

Khalifah rejoined, “If you do not give me my clothes back right now I will take this staff and bash it right over your skull!” The Caliph, a bit unnerved, pulled off his satin gown and gave it to him instead. “Take this in place of your clothes,” the Caliph said. Khalifah looked it over unimpressed complaining about how much more his lost clothes were worth because they actually were durable. Khalifah slipped it over himself and cut around the bottom because it was too long. The Caliph watched one of his fine silk gowns get shredded by this vile man and could do nothing but laugh to himself at the sight. Khalifah amused the Caliph and when he was done shredding his gown he turned to the Caliph and asked how much a soft man like him earned, “10 dinars a month” the Caliph replied picking a typical wage among the poor in the city.

“That’s too bad for you!” replied Khalifah, “I make 10 dinars every day!” Khalifah happened to ignore the fact that this day was not one of them, “If you want I’ll show you how to fish and we’ll split the profit!” Al-Rashid, still amused by Khalifah, agreed and Khalifah taught the Caliph how to fish. And before long the Caliph had caught dozens of fish with Khalifah’s net, and Khalifah could not be more excited. “I’ll look after these fish here by the river and you take your mule to market and get a couple of frails. Then we can take the fish to my stand in the market and split the profit.”

“Hearing is obeying,” replied the Caliph, hopped on his mule, and rode back up over the mound back towards Ja’afar. Ja’afar noticed that the Caliph had lost his serious demeanor of the previous conversation about Kut al-Kulub and instead it was replaced with a grin. The Caliph related all that he saw down by the river and how Khalifah was naked and angry and cut up his robe. Ja’afar just listened relieved the Caliph had found something else to put his mind on. “… and so now he’s down there waiting for me to come back with a couple of frails. But Ja’afar, I’m tired now and want to go back to my palace and rest.”

“Right,” said Ja’afar, “I’ll send someone in place of you to get the frails and return to Khalifah then?” The Caliph laughed, “Tell anyone that brings me a fish from Khalifah – the man who taught me to fish – will get 1 gold dinar!” And with that the troops swept forth to the riverbank to collect a fish for a dinar.

Khalifah sat on the riverbank sorting through his bunches of fish picking out the two he was going to have for dinner that night when he heard a strange rumbling. He set down his basket next to the pile of fish and took his two favorite with him to look over the edge of the river bank. To his surprise a whole slew of soldiers and slaves came rushing up to the bank covering the entire area with dust. Khalifah’s eyes widened and he ran back down the edge of the bank and quickly began to try and hide the fish – but there were too many and all of the servants came down the side of the river and picking up the fish. “No! Don’t take them! I’ve earned these for my living!” Khalifah yelled in fear. But as the men surrounded him he realized they were offering him money! Khalifah motioned down to his basket and began granting soldier after slave a fish for some silver.

And just as quickly as they had arrived all of the men were gone back over the river bank. A stunned and dusty Khalifah looked down at his basket full of silver and all he was carrying were the two fish he was going to have for dinner tonight. He looked down at his two fish and then just looked ahead blankly for a long moment – then he shouted. “Wahoo! Those fish must’ve been straight from paradise!” He let out another howl of excitement and jumped into the river to clean himself and his fish off. He dove under and felt the cool water rush around his body and he came back up to the edge of the shore refreshed, “Oh Allah, by the virtue of these fish, let my soft-skinned silly clothed servant come back with the frails at this very moment!”

And at that very moment the chief of the Caliph’s black slaves, Sandal, came over the riverbank. He had ridden behind the rest and had just finished tying up his mule before spotting Khalifah. Sandal was a eunuch which is a slave that have been castrated so as to be trustworthy enough to serve women. The Caliph had thousands of eunuchs – of many races. I just thought that was noteworthy. So Sandal saw that Khalifah had 2 fish left and he knew that meant the Caliph would give him 2 gold dinars.

“How much for those fish?” the eunuch asked.

“They are not for sale, go away!” Khalifah yelled back at the intimidating character. Though Sandal was castrated he did not become the chief of the black eunuchs without brute strength. Sandal continued to approach Khalifah who got a little nervous – but they were his two best fish and he planned on eating them that night.

“Give me the fish and I’ll pay you the price,” stated Sandal, more directly this time. Khalifah was nervous but was not quick to back down.

“Has a genie got ahold of your head? These fish are not for sale!” Khalifah looked right into Sandal’s eyes only to find that they were already piercingly staring back. Sandal reached into his waist and pulled out a mace. “Oh! These fish are for sale though!” Khalifah restated holding up the very two fish he was about to hide behind his back. He handed the fish to Sandal and Sandal reached into his pockets for the silver. After checking his pockets multiple times he realized he had none. Khalifah looked at him.

“I don’t have your silver so you’re out of luck,” Sandal said sternly. Just as Khalifah was about to fly into a torrent of words Sandal continued, “But I’ll tell you what I will do for you. You come tomorrow to the Palace of the Caliphate and ask for the eunuch Sandal; the slaves will then bring you to me and I will pay you what I owe you and I will be free of your debt.” The thought of being able to go to the palace of the mighty Caliph Al-Rashid to collect money was too much for Khalifah. Despite having taught him to fish earlier Khalifah thought he had never seen the person closest to Allah, let alone be able to collect money from his home.

“Thank you, Sandal!” Khalifah replied, “Today is a blessed day and it has been from the moment the sun rose over the desert this morning. I will be by tomorrow to collect my silver.” With that Khalifah and Sandal parted ways.

As dusk settled the sun cast deep colors across the market in Baghdad. Khalifah took his basket of silver and bought food, drink, and smoke with it. He walked along a common street in the market where many shops were closing down for the day. He passed by the tailor who noticed Khalifah’s peculiar outfit. As Khalifah approached he thought it looked like clothing of the Caliph and wanted to take a closer look. He called out to Khalifah who looked like he had been dragged across the desert by a camel but had a calm look to his face.

“Khalifah – by chance could you tell me where you got your gown?”

“It’s ugly isn’t it? This was a gift given to me by my new apprentice. If he didn’t give it to me I’d have had his hand chopped off for stealing my clothes from me! I took the young man and taught him how to make a real living for a day – instead of stealing! I taught him so well, look how much he earned me and I hardly had to lift a finger!” While Khalifah was bragging the tailor was certain the gown was of the Caliph and worth 1000 dinars had Khalifah not sliced it up with his knife.  As he bid Khalifah goodnight the tailor mused at what the Caliph had done when he came across Khalifah. He just imagined Khalifah the wretch and the Commander of the Faithful interacting and chuckled to himself before he returned home to his family to tell the story.

———————————————–

Earlier that day while Khalifah was teaching the Caliph how to fish a plot was being conspired back at the palace of the Caliphate. Lady Zubaydah, the wife of Harun Al-Rashid, was seething with jealousy over Kut al-Kulub. “I am the Caliph’s wife! I should be respected as such! Night and day he spends all his hours with her! What does she have that I can not provide? A Caliph has his right to his concubines but this is excessive – I am being treated more like a concubine than his wife! There is only one thing that must be done then!” She looked directly at her most faithful eunuch (a castrated slave), “You are going to find the lady Kut al-Kulub and you are going to tell her how pleased I am that I finally get to meet the adoration of my husbands affection. Tell her that I, the wife of the Commander of the Faithful, am inviting her to a banquet this afternoon to witness her most perfect mental and physical grace in person. Fill her head with pride so it is certain that she comes, and tell her I insist. And then later tonight, when you are serving the dessert, drug her so that she passes out and will not wake up – but do not kill her.” The eunuch replied, “Hearing is obeying,” and left.

Kut al-Kulub? I say yes.

Kut al-Kulub? I say yes.

When Lady Zubaydah saw Kut al-Kulub for the first time that evening her jealousy redoubled. She was the most beautiful woman in all of the Caliphate and she carried herself in a way most women could only dream of. With her teeth gritted Lady Zubaydah continued to flatter her guest and talk with her finding Kut al-Kulub’s knowledge far outranged her own. At long last dessert was finally served and Kut al-Kulub ate hers with pleasure and compliments – this was sweetest of all to the Lady Zubaydah. A short while later Kut al-Kulub’s form finally took an imperfect form, her eyes drooped heavily, and Kut al-Kulub was asleep on the table that lay in front of her. She turned to her most trusted eunuch and told him to carry her upstairs and then immediately prepare a tomb for her before the Caliph returned with Ja’afar. The eunuch took Kut al-Kulub under the arms and brought her up the stairs.

When Caliph Al-Rashid rode into the palace that evening he was all smiles. “Oh yes, Mr. Caliph sir, I was wondering if you had a magnificent robe that I could knife up with my scaly fishing knife, I believe I could be starting a new trend for Caliph’s of the future!” Al-Rashid joked to Ja’afar.

“Indeed that is funny Oh Commander of the Faithful, but it looks as if a slave is here to give you a message,” Ja’afar responded and looked down at the nervous slave who began kissing the ground before the Caliph.

“May you live 1000 years and never die!” the slave began, “but be certain that Kut al-Kulub choked on her food and died this very night!”

For the Caliph day turned to night and light turned to dark, he was silent while he ran into the palace with Ja’afar close behind. “Where is her tomb!?” he shouted. Servants quickly showed him the way to the falsified tomb. Outside of it the Lady Zubaydah stood innocently yet menacingly. Each servant in the area knew the truth but did not dare speak a word for fear of their lives. The Caliph sat in the tomb for an hour before retiring to his room for the evening heartbroken.

Lady Zubaydah and her eunuch walked upstairs to the room they were hiding Kut al-Kulub in. She was still sound asleep. “I couldn’t kill her, you know that,” Lady Zubaydah said to the eunuch, “But what can I do with her? She’ll be awake within a day or two!” The eunuch stayed silent hoping that he would not have to murder such a lovely woman. “Bring me that chest from my chamber,” Lady Zubaydah finally ordered and the eunuch left and returned with the chest. “Yes, this will work. We’ll put her in here and tomorrow you will go to market at your usual time and you will bring this chest to sell with you. Now this is what you will tell anybody who wants to buy the chest – they must buy it locked. Tell them there is no key so it can only be used as a bench or table. This way no one will ever open it and no one will ever find out the fate of the wonderous Kut al-Kulub.”

“Hearing is obeying,” replied the eunuch and the two retired for the evening.

————————————-

Khalifah woke up early the next morning of the 12th day. He had went to bed early the night before due to exhaustion of his hard day of losing all of his money. He glanced over at his what was left of his silver, which wasn’t much. He wondered for a moment whatever happened to the soft faced boy that gave him that silly robe. But there was something bigger on his mind – for today he was going to visit the palace of the Caliphate. Today was the day Khalifah was going to collect a debt from the palace of the Caliph himself! Khalifah didn’t need to go fishing today and put on his best clothes that he owned. They were tattered and dulled from overuse but they were clean. Khalifah was about to step out the front door when he saw the neighborhood children outside with some rotten fruit from the night before ready to throw at Khalifah when he stepped outside. Khalifah slipped out the back of his small shop with the rest of his silver and ran behind the string of shops to the sweets store on the other side of the market. He bought a handful of sweets and circled around behind the children so that he was facing his shop waiting for himself to come out to hit with fruit. Khalifah sat on a bench mere meters behind the children.

“He’s gonna get it good when he gets out? Hmm?” asked Khalifah to the boy that kicked water in his face the previous day. The boy responded without looking back, afraid that if he did he’d miss the moment to get Khalifah right in the face, “Oh yea, you should see how mad he gets! He never learns, that Khalifah!” Then the boy recognized the voice as Khalifah’s but by the time he turned around all that was in his place was a pile of sweets for the boys. Khalifah was disappearing into the morning crowd chuckling to himself – he had outsmarted the children so today was certainly going to be a good day.

Khalifah wandered through the streets of the market and then through his poor neighborhood that he hadn’t returned to the last couple of weeks. He saw his neighbors living humbly and they could tell as he passed that he walked with a purpose today. “Where are you going Khalifah?” they would ask, “I’m going to collect my debt. From the palace of the Caliphate!” Most people knew that when words like these came out of Khalifah’s mouth to get back to doing work. Khalifah continued his walk through the nicer neighborhoods of Baghdad where more prosperous merchants, sailors, and soldiers lived. Then Khalifah found himself in the nicest neighborhoods that surrounded the palace where dignitaries lived, people who knew the Caliph directly, Khalifah slowed his pace feeling a bit intimidated by all of the materialism. He, after all, was only going to collect two pieces of silver and even if he had his 100 dinars couldn’t even purchase a single decoration from one of these houses. Yet, he continued on because a debt is a debt and any man can appreciate that being worth settling.

Arabian architecture is awesome

Arabian architecture is awesome

When Khalifah reached the gates of the palace he realized that he was in the presence of a place so beautiful he might as well have been wearing his fishing nets over himself as he did the day before because the clothes he had on were not much better. Shame burned him as he walked towards the slave entrance of the palace – the slave entrance – and he still felt unworthy. Then he stopped before he approached the slave in front of the door to collect himself. This man took 2 fish from you yesterday, Khalifah said to himself, and you are entitled to 2 dirhams of silver for them – now march inside this palace and act like you deserve it – if you show them weakness they’ll laugh at you for trying to do business out of the palace of the Caliphate.

He went up quite bravely to the slave standing at the door and said as professionally as he thought he could be, “I am here to see Sandal the eunuch, please,” Khalifah was then led into the entrance where Mamelukes (white slaves), black slaves, and eunuchs poured about the quarters taking care of their portion of the palace. Khalifah was awed by the sight but then remembered that this was a business trip and followed the slave through a few more chambers until he was in a small room with a few other eunuchs. Across the room was Sandal and Khalifah approached him.

“I have not disappointed you gentleman. We fisherman are men of our words,” Khalifah addressed Sandal. When Sandal turned his head to see who had spoken to him he nearly hopped back when his eyes recognized him as that wretch of a fisherman he promised two dirhams of silver to but yesterday in clothes that weren’t fit for a beggar. Sandal laughed long and deep.

“By Allah, you know I’m no gentleman. But you are right Fisherman, you are a man of your word, as am I,” Sandal reached for his pouch to pay the fisherman and continue on with his work when who walks into the room but the Grand Wazir of the Caliph himself, Ja’afar. Though Ja’afar was not the Caliph many around the palace treated them as one in the same for whatever Ja’afar said always allied with the Caliph and whatever the Caliph said always allied with Ja’afar. To do anything but stand at absolute attention in his presence would be disrespectful and Sandal stopped everything he was doing, including getting Khalifah his silver.

But Khalifah, not used to the customs of the palace, just watched Sandal reach for his pouch and then drop it behind his robe again. And when he looked up at Sandal’s face to see what the matter was he noticed he stopped paying attention to him completely! Khalifah did notice a man enter the room but Khalifah did not think Sandal so daft to forget something as simple as paying him 2 dirhams – but yet he continued to gaze his attention elsewhere. Khalifah, so focused on the interruption and Sandal’s odd behavior, failed to notice everyone else standing at attention for Ja’afar in the room. And Ja’afar himself was almost standing at attention looking at the filthy man that was so focused on his eunuch Sandal. Khalifah decided that Sandal must have no attention span and to remind him of the reason why he’s there.

“Oh gentleman, the silver you promised me, so I may go please,” Khalifah began to feel uneasy and did not like the situation. Sandal continued to stand at attention out of respect for the Grand Wazir. Khalifah snapped.

“Oh! Are we waiting for the moon to be full first? Was this some part of the agreement I do not remember? May Allah put the greatest shame on the man who takes from an honest worker and does not give him proper pay for it. If you think you’d like to fix that situation you can simply just pay me my two dirhams and I will be on my way. Most gratefully to Allah will I be on my way!” Ja’afar watched this spectacle with bemusement. It wasn’t every day somebody would act so foolish in front of him. However, Ja’afar saw it was becoming obvious that this man was getting quite angry at Sandal.

“Oh Eunuch, what does that beggar want with you?” Ja’afar asked.

“You don’t know him, my lord Wazir?” asked Sandal surprised.

“Please! I am quite certain I would remember this unique character,” Ja’afar smiled.

“This is the man whose fish we bought yesterday that the Caliph asked us to get for him. I didn’t want to return to the Commander of the Faithful without a gift of fish when all the other soldiers had some. I promised him that I’d pay him today.”

“Sandal! You don’t know who this is, do you?!” asked Ja’afar excitedly, “How interesting that he show up at the Caliph’s hour of need.”

“Grand Wazir, who is he?,” replied Sandal.

“This is the Master of the Commander of the Faithful and equal partner in business!” Ja’afar beamed. Sandal couldn’t help but break a smile at the thought of this poor fisherman being the master of anything, let alone the Caliph. Ja’afar continued, “You know how the Caliph’s feeling about Kut al-Kulub’s death and nothing that has been tried today has come even close to cheering the Commander of the Faithful up. The last time I saw the Caliph so happy was yesterday after meeting this very fisherman and today it will be this fisherman again that will bring joy to our commander. Please Sandal, may I take him?”

“Do what you will with him, you know my only relationship to him, Oh Grand Wazir.”

“Great!” replied Ja’afar smiling, “Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere and I’ll be back,” he looked knowingly at Sandal, “I’ve got a plan.” Ja’afar disappeared back behind the door. Sandal ordered the other eunuchs in the room to seize Khalifah for Ja’afar.

Khalifah, not understanding exactly what passed between the eunuch and the strange man that entered the room, all of a sudden found himself seized by the other eunuchs in the room. “So what a wonderful payment for my fish – you know, you were wrong, you really are a gentleman! I come for my payment and instead you are going to imprison me and demand payment from me! There is no finer gentleman than that!” Sandal put cotton in his ears and went about his business.

The Caliph mourning over Kut-al-Kulub's death... and a random slave?

The Caliph mourning over Kut-al-Kulub's death... and a random slave?

Inside the main hall, where the Caliph sat on his throne, was quiet and melancholy. As the Caliph sulked on his throne for loss of his love Ja’afar approached and greeted him. The Caliph returned his greeting.

“Oh Commander of the Faithful, do I have your honorable permission to speak freely?”

“Who ever put a restraint on it my Grand Wazir? Say whatever is on your mind.”

“Well,” started Ja’afar in a very serious manner, “as you know I have just left you to return to my house when on my way a man was waiting outside the palace. And who was it but your Master and partner, Khalifah the Fisherman!” Ja’afar paused for a moment for effect, “And you’ll never guess but he was here because he wanted to complain about your behavior. In fact, he told me this exactly, ‘By Allah I taught him how to fish and when I needed him to fetch me a pair of frails he left and never came back. This is the work of a bad partner and a bad apprentice.’ So, Oh Commander of the Faithful, he awaits you just outside the palace right now expecting you to either tell him yes, you wish to continue this partnership you promised or no, you don’t wish to continue it. That is the due he charges you with now. He said it’s only fair for him to know so that he can find a new partner.” For the first time since entering the palace the previous night the Caliph beamed.

“Are you serious Ja’afar?” he asked incredulously, “Is he really outside the palace right now?”

“By Allah and life he stands right outside the palace at this very moment.” The Caliph’s mind raced and a larger smile slowly consumed his face as he thought. Ja’afar began to congratulate himself in his head on what a terrific Wazir he was to make the Caliph so happy at the height of his mourning. It was clear that Khalifah had the power to make the Caliph happy regardless of the situation – he was better than a jester.

“Oh Ja’afar, by Allah, I will give Khalifah his due alright! Take that paper over there and cut me 40 pieces,” the Caliph ordered and the Wazir followed them happily. Ja’afar exaggerated his excitement to make the Caliph feel better and it was clear that at the moment Kut al-Kulub was off of his mind and that Ja’afar had succeeded in his duties as Grand Wazir. He certainly was Grand alright…

“If Allah wants to send him misery through me then he will send him misery, if Allah wants to send him propserity, then he will have that,” the Caliph continued. Ja’afar finished cutting the 40 pieces and looked curiously interested at what the Caliph meant by “misery.”

“On 20 pieces of paper put different sums of money, anywhere between 1 dinar and 1000 dinars – oh and also throw in some positions around the palace – anywhere from the least appointment to the Caliphate!” Ja’afar looked wide-eyed at the Caliph but did as he said, “On the other 20 pieces of paper put 20 kinds of punishment from the lightest beating all the way to death. Now when the fisherman comes in here I will have him choose 1 of these 40 pieces of paper and whatever is written on that paper I will give him.”

“Even the Caliphate?” Ja’afar asked wide-eyed.

“Even the Caliphate and with no ill will,” Al-Rashid replied seriously, “Of course if he picks hanging, mutilation, or death then he will also receive that. Now go and fetch him while I prepare,” replied the Caliph. There was no trace of sadness on the Caliph now, but Ja’afar thought to himself, at what cost? If this fisherman dies simply because he was trying to cheer up the Caliph then Ja’afar would be responsible. And if this wretch of a fisherman becomes the new Caliph, again, it will be due to Ja’afar’s lies. As Ja’afar walked to get Khalifah his mind raced for a way to diffuse the situation, but knowing that the Caliph had ordered it, he knew nothing else could be done. When Ja’afar re-entered the room where he last saw Sandal and Khalifah, he found Khalifah ranting despite all the eunuchs’ collective annoyance.

“I’ve learned my lesson! Never trust a slave who has more gold than I’ve earned in my entire life. Because that slave will invite you to the Caliph’s palace and try to make me pay money I do not have! And he does this with the audacity of knowledge that it is actually he who owes silver to me! Like I said, you are no slave, but a gentleman! You’ve treated me like nothing but an honored guest since I’ve shown up!” Khalifah wailed but did not fight as 2 eunuchs held him by the arm and two eunuchs stood closeby in case he became violent. Ja’afar sighed and waived at the eunuchs to bring Khalifah to him and to follow him to the Caliph. Realizing that he was being taken away from Sandal, who had not acknowledged him since Ja’afar originally entered the room, Khalifah began directing his insults at Ja’afar, whom he did not know to be the Grand Wazir.

I'm sure the beauty inside the Caliphate much exceeded this

Middle East - 10 points for your attention to detail!

“And if he is a gentleman, then you must be a Persian Prince! And I’m not only held here against my will to be robbed of my empty pockets by a treasure chest! It’s not enough for you all to arrest me – but these slaves must come with me wherever I go like I am Allah’s most dangerous enemy! Certainly it takes nothing less than a gentleman and a Persian Prince to treat me with such honor and dignity for going to collect a debt of 2 dirhams!” Ja’afar easily became unaffected by Khalifah’s words because they were nothing but a bunch of hot air. However, understanding that he did put Khalifah in a position he did not belong or asked for, Ja’afar’s heart was with him. Despite his loud raucous, Ja’afar was certain that Khalifah deserved compensation for being put out of his way like this. After all – he was just a simple fisherman who was doing nothing but his trade. No matter which way Ja’afar cut it, Khalifah had done no wrong. As they walked through 7 vestabules total filled with riches beyond Khalifah’s wildest dreams he did not see them. His world was dark and full of unjust treatment and that is exactly what he was focused on.

Khalifah only shut his mouth for a moment when Ja’afar had led him in front of a giant curtain. Ja’afar looked at Khalifah starkly, “Mark my words, Oh Fisherman! You stand in front of the Commander of the Faithful and the defender of the Faith of Islam!” With this the curtain was raised and the Caliph was exposed. Though this was the same hall where Ja’afar and the Caliph had just cut and filled out the papers the atmosphere was completely different. The hall was lit brightly and the Caliph looked stately and impressive with countless servants and people of high importance at his side. Wealth beamed from the Caliph’s presence as he was seated on the couch looking down upon both Ja’afar and Khalifah. Despite this dramatic display much was lost to Khalifah. When he heard Ja’afar’s words a moment of panic and fear struck him for he remembered the other night where he feared this very scenario. He was about to be whipped by the Caliph for the money that he had regretfully lost in the river. Now he was about to be whipped by the Caliph and he had no money this time.

But when the curtain dropped Khalifah was relieved to find that it was not the Caliph that sat behind the curtain, but instead a bunch of men he did not know – except for one! After Ja’afar’s words the hall was silent. Khalifah walked up to the Caliph and spoke.

“Well if it isn’t the man with the soft skin and silly clothes. I see you found yourself some even stranger clothes to wear! Was this what you did instead of getting my frails? It wasn’t right of you to say you were my partner and apprentice in fishing and then never return leaving me to guard all the fish. And do you know why it wasn’t right? Because once you left I was swarmed by soldiers and servants of this very palace and they bought the fish at a much cheaper price than if you would’ve returned quickly with the frails. And so I come here today to receive my payment and they have arrested me to steal money I do not have.  And this is all your fault because you did not return with the frails. But, Softskin, tell me for why have they imprisoned you?” Khalifah asked with interest after his scolding, “You have even less money than me! For a palace so grand you would expect the Caliph to be spending his time robbing someone a little richer than us, no?”

The Caliph simply smiled, “Please come here Khalifah and take one of these pieces of paper.”

“Yesterday you were a fisherman and today you are an astrologer! But the more trades a man has the less he gains from them!” Khalifah replied hoping to convince this lucky boy to return to fishing with him as he captured more fish than Khalifah had on any of his previous days.

“Do as he says and do it now!” Ja’afar said sternly.

Perhaps this is the jar the Caliph put the papers in!

Perhaps this is the jar the Caliph put the papers in!

This aggravated Khalifah and he replied spitefully, “The Persian Prince has spoken! I didn’t even want to work with this poor, goofy apprentice in the first place!” He walked forward and took a piece of paper from a jar giving it to the Caliph. Khalifah waited in angst as the Caliph passed it to Ja’afar.

“Read the paper aloud,” the Caliph ordered. Ja’afar slowly unfolded the paper and looked at it. Shame poured upon the Wazir when he read the words and he cried out.

“There is no Majesty and there is no Might, save in Allah, the Glorious and the Great!” Ja’afar cried the usual words of bad news.

The Caliph’s eyes narrowed and counteracted with, “I hope Allah has given you the opportunity to give me good news. Read the paper, Oh Grand Wazir!”

“The paper states, ‘Let the fisherman receive an hundred blows with the stick.'”

“Then Allah shall be granted his wish!” The Caliph roared and ordered a guard to go over to Khalifah and whip him.

“I knew it! I knew you would torture me for my money!” And down upon Khalifah the guard came with a stick. They lifted his shirt and pulled down the back of his pants and began beating both his back and bottom. At first welts swelled over his own beating from a few nights previous. Once the welts split blood began to gush down his back. Finally the beatings ended and Khalifah lay a bloody pile on the floor in front of the Chief Justice of Allah. Then, slowly, Khalifah began to raise himself.  He stood up in his pool of blood that lay beneath his feet and wiped sweat and blood away from his face and looked right at Ja’afar with an intense renewal of energy and spite.

“I can take the beatings of 100 stubborn donkeys and I swear to you I have no gold to give! I hope you’re enjoying your game of imprisoning and beating someone who has come only to complete an honest business proposal, you’ve been nothing less than the prince I’ve known you as since you brought me here!” Khalifah hissed at Ja’afar. Ja’afar looked up at the Caliph who looked content to let Khalifah go with 100 beatings for the collection of his meger and necessary pay. Then Ja’afar looked back at Khalifah, a bloody mess – and knew that none of this would’ve happened save for his entrance to the room when he was collecting his debt from Sandal, and then he knew none of this would’ve happened without his meddling so Ja’afar worked up his courage and spoke directly to the Caliph.

“Oh Commander of the Faithful,” Ja’afar began his appeal, “this poor devil came to the river to drink, and how should we now let him go away thirsting? Give this poor beggar something as that was his intent on coming. We have only taken from him, we have given him nothing.” The Caliph narrowed his eyes at Ja’afar for daring to question his magnanimity, “My suggestion,” then continued Ja’afar reading the Caliph very clearly, “is that we allow a charity to this worthless wight and allow him to choose another paper to hopefully admonish his poverty.”

“You understand,” the Caliph addressed Ja’afar, “that if he takes another one of these papers and he receives death then I will assuredly kill him. And this will all be the cause of your interference.” Ja’afar looked over at Khalifah who was already a mess because of him.

“If he dies, he’ll be at rest,” Ja’afar responded.

With those words Khalifah’s eyes widened, “May Allah never gladden you with any good news!  Has Baghdad become so constricted that you seek to murder me for some extra space? What have I ever done to you? I just came to collect 2 dirhams of silver!” Khalifah could not believe what he heard just pass between them about him. He had just taken 100 beatings, and Allah only knew what other punishments lay within those papers, and yet this man Khalifah called a Persian Prince wanted him to draw another!

“Just take a paper and crave a blessing from Allah,” Ja’afar replied to Khalifah sincerely. Khalifah walked from his pool of blood back to the Caliph who reached out the container of papers. Khalifah drew one with a large flicker of annoyance crossing his face. He walked back down to Ja’afar and glaringly gave the paper to him. Blood and sweat was smeared across the back as Ja’afar opened the paper and stared at the words without saying a thing.

“Why are you quiet Oh Grand Wazir?” the Caliph asked.

“The paper says,” began Ja’afar, startled back to reality by Al-Rashid, “Nothing shall be given to the fisherman.” A sigh of relief left Khalifah.

“Hmm,” mused the Caliph, “Well then his daily bread shall not come from us! Guards, escort the fisherman out of my palace!”

“Just one moment please, Oh Commander of the Faithful,” quickly interrupted Ja’afar. The guilt of Khalifah leaving with no just compensation for his fish and instead being beaten severely still weighed heavily on him, “Please let the fisherman take a third paper that will hold his charity!” Khalifah could not believe what he was hearing. He had escaped death twice for trying to honestly collect his living and yet this man continued to put his life in danger.

“Let him take one and no more,” compromised Caliph Al-Rashid, “and if death comes, then death will come.” For a third time the Caliph extended the container with the remaining 38 pieces of paper. Khalifah dug his hand deep into the papers and brought another one out and scathingly gave it Ja’afar. Ja’afar slowly opened up the paper. The hall was silent aside from the unfolding. Wealth unimaginable gleamed from every corner of the hall. The suspense thickened.

Khalifah's single dinar of gold given to him by the Caliph

Khalifah's single dinar of gold given to him by the Caliph

“The fisherman will be given one dinar of gold,” Ja’afar said flatly and turning to Khalifah said, “I’ve sought nothing but good fortune for you but Allah has willed it that you get nothing except for this single dinar of gold,” which Ja’afar pulled out of his robe and gave it to Khalifah.

“Thank you again Persian Prince,” Khalifah remarked with heavy sarcasm, “For every hundred beatings I receive with a stick I get 1 dinar of gold, this is exactly the good fortune you’ve worked so hard to give me,” Khalifah looked in disgust at Ja’afar and spit on the floor into his own puddle of blood, “May Allah never send your body any health!”

With these words the Caliph laughed in delight, “This man will never tire in amusing me,” he chuckled, “Now please, eunuchs, escort him back to whence he came,” and Khalifah was taken back to the slave quarters in which he entered the palace.  Khalifah saw nothing but red as he walked toward the exit of the palace grounds. While a gold dinar was more than the 2 pieces of silver he had come for, it seemed an insult after his 100 beatings.

Sandal was working near the exit of the slave quarters when he saw Khalifah come through the room in which he left him at. Knowing that the Caliph only wanted to see Khalifah for pleasure he was certain Khalifah received much more than the 2 pieces of silver he had come for. “Oh fisherman,” cried Sandal, “why don’t you share some of the riches you received from the Caliph when he was playing with you?”

“Oh yes gentleman! And will you share with me you worthless slave?” Khalifah shot back full of venomous hate, “I have eaten a stick to the tune of a hundred blows, and my payment? 1 gold dinar. So you!” he looked at Sandal at his wits end and yelled, “You are all too welcome to this single worthless dinar!” and took the dinar from his pocket and threw it right at Sandal. As the dinar hit Sandal’s robes Khalifah began to have tears stream down his cheeks while running wildly for the exit. He had come to the palace of the Caliphate to collect an honest debt and now he was beaten and humiliated. Sandal immediately ordered two slaves to grab Khalifah and bring him to him.

“I’ve said too much and I have wronged you,” Sandal spoke to Khalifah who had his head lowered in shame, he could not leave even if he tried. Sandal reached into his robe and pulled out a red purse, he opened it, and dumped the contents into Khalifah’s hand. “Take this 100 gold dinars in payment for your fish and do not feel that I have wronged you,” Sandal said bending over to pick up the dinar Khalifah had just thrown at him, “And don’t forget the Caliph’s dinar!”

Despite just being severely beaten Khalifah felt a whole new sense of energy and power. He now had 101 gold dinars and was now richer than he had ever been. He did not remember leaving the palace for he was celebrating in his head. He had scars on his back but walked with pride unrivaled by anybody as he enetered the market. He saw a group of people around a stand and headed toward the crowd. They were huddled around the stand so close that Khalifah could not see what was being sold on the inside so absentmindedly he began pushing through the crowd. The crowd easily spread for Khalifah who was still bloodied from his beatings at the palace. Inside the stand was an elaborate chest with a eunuch sitting atop it. Next to the chest and eunuch was a merchant crying out, “Oh merchants, men of money, who will lay down some money for the unknown contents of this chest? It is said that this chest was never to be opened again and was taken directly from Lady Zubaydah of the Palace of the Caliphate, which is why a eunuch sits atop of it. Who will be willing to throw down some money for this beautiful chest?”

“20 gold dinars,” an unknown man from the crowd began the bidding. Also within the crowd with Khalifah was the tailor who had seen Khalifah in the Caliph’s torn up robe. When he heard the chest came from Lady Zubaydah he hoped that some expensive clothing lie inside and he joined into the bidding. “50 gold dinars!” the tailor yelled. Khalifah watched and listened in amazement. He had never had enough money to be around, let alone participate, in an auction like this. He had more than 50 gold dinars and if he chose to he could bet on this chest, and he was about to open his mouth when another man in the back of the crowd shouted, “70 gold dinars!” Khalifah was about to bid again when he wasn’t sure how much he should bid now, the tailor yelled out from the crowd again, “80 gold dinars!” Khalifah got annoyed, his mind couldn’t work this fast, the minute somebody gave a price somebody else was already giving out a new price. He opened his mouth to yell again when someone else in the crowd, in an act of desperation, shouted out, “95 gold dinars!” The tailor knew that the man bidding against him had spent all of his money and shouted in return, “100 gold dinars!” Khalifah was in a dead panic, he wanted to bid for the chest even if he didn’t get it, just to be a part of normal market life and in an act of desperation he shouted out louder and more intensely than any other, “100 gold dinars and 1!”

Time-appropriate art

Time-appropriate art

Everybody looked at Khalifah, the bloody miserable wretch, in shock. The tailor looked at Khalifah, his new opponent in bidding for the chest, and began to laugh out loud. “Oh eunuch, sell the chest to Khalifah the fisherman for 101 dinars,” the tailor could not help but laugh at the situations he ran into Khalifah and felt nothing but goodwill toward him. The crowd began to cheer, to see such a poor miserable fisherman purchasing something from the Caliphate amused everybody. What was even more amusing was when Khalifah actually produced all 101 dinars on the spot. Once the transaction took place the crowd began to disperse and the eunuch made his way back to Lady Zubaydah to tell her he accomplished her mission and received 101 dinars in compensation for the chest. Within minutes the stand was completely empty and Khalifah had a chest that he could not carry; he also was completely broke agian. He had spent the rest of the silver on sweets for the children and he had spent all the money he had earned from Sandal on this chest. Yet Khalifah was stubbornly satisfied because he had a big expensive chest now and it looked important.

He walked around the chest and tried picking it up and was only able to lift it to his waist before he dropped it again, “This chest sure is heavy!” Khalifah said to himself looking around a little meekly feeling a little foolish for spending all of his money on something he could not carry. However, 15 minutes later he had propped up the chest diagonally against the wall and squeezed underneath it and used his shredded back for support. Though it stung he felt proud that he had found a way to move the chest and dragged it all the way to his shop. However once he reached his shop he realized the chest would not fit inside.

Another 20 minutes found everything that was once inside Khalifah’s humble shop was now sitting in front of it and the chest was now inside. He squeezed what he could back into his shop but left the table outside underneath the wooden awning. Khalifah made all kinds of efforts to open the chest but was too exhausted and decided to wait until morning. Having no money Khalifah made his bed atop the chest and went to sleep early and hungry as he had not eaten since the previous evening.

Underneath the pristine Baghdad sky that night the market was silent and all was asleep. Khalifah lay on his chest sleeping soundlessly when from the chest came a tap. It echoed across Khalifah’s humble shop and shattered the silent night in Khalifah’s ears. His eyes opened but he saw nothing different than when they were closed; everything was black. The single window in the front of the shop provided the only point of reference for Khalifah. A deep blue sky with piercing stars gave Khalifah assurance that he was in his shop but he could not shake that a very distinct sound had awoken him from his sleep. He listened and heard only the nothing that permeated the rest of the sleepy market. Khalifah adjusted his position so that he lay his ear directly on the chest and closed his eyes to fall back asleep.

Then the noise happened again and to Khalifah’s fright he heard it coming from inside the chest! He hopped off of it as quickly as he could stumbling in to the clutter he had created trying to get the chest inside his shop. Now with everything he had done to get the chest inside his shop he was willing to do twice as much to get it back outside the shop. Khalifah tripped and fell over something hitting his head and waxing him angry. “I’m certain there must be a genie inside and I will grab a stick and beat it when it comes out!” Khalifah clammered around for a lamp and realizing he had no oil for it ran outside of his shop distrubing the peace of the market.

“Oh, people of the market!” Khalifah yelled and slowly people began to stir, one of his neighbors yelled, “What do you want Khalifah?”

“Please supply me with a lamp for genies are upon me!” Khalifah yelled in fright. Everyone who awoke laughed at Khalifah and one of the neighbors supplied him with a lamp and everyone returned to their places. Khalifah crouched next to the lock of the chest with the lamp nearby, rock in one hand, and a stick in the other. “I will smite this genie for disturbing my sleep!” and with those words he broke the lock off of the chest with the rock and began opening the chest.

Inside the chest Kut al-Kulub’s drugs were wearing off and she began to stir which is what startled Khalifah so much. When the chest began to open she awoke from her deep sleep and looked up to see a filthy man covered in dry blood and a terrible stench of fish permeated the air.

Khalifah looked down into the chest, “And who are you?!” asked Khalifah in surprise. He was expecting to find a genie but instead found a beautiful woman for the likes he had never seen.  “Bring me my maidens,” Kut al-Kulub ordered the filthy man, but Khalifah responded, “Maidens would not come within miles of this shop.” Kut al-Kulub sat up in the chest and looked at Khalifah and said, “Where am I?”

“You are at my shop,” replied Khalifah.

“So am I not in the palace of the Commander of the Faithful, Al-Rashid?” Kut al-Kulub tried to straighten her head on the situation she found herself in. She could not remember what she had done last.

“What are you talking about madwoman? You are nothing but my slavegirl for I purchased you and this chest for 101 dinars earlier today and brought you home. I didn’t know you were asleep inside this chest until this very moment, but I did buy the contents of this chest,” said Khalifah. Kut al-Kulub began to piece together what happened remembering her nervousness when seeing the Lady Zubaydah. She remembered becoming incredibly sleepy while eating and that was her last memory. Lady Zubaydah must have gotten jealous of the time she spent with her husband and stuffed her in the chest and had someone sell it at the market. Then this pathetic wight purchased the chest. She considered Khalifah for a moment.

“What is your name?” she asked.

Khalifah looked at her smitten by her beauty, “My name is Khalifah. Why is it that good fortune has shined upon me when I know of nothing but bad?” Kut al-Kulub could see the lust in his eyes and decided to take control of the situation.

“Spare me this talk. Do you, Khalifah, have anything to eat?” she asked.

“No nor anything to drink. I haven’t eaten for almost two days now and went to bed hungry tonight,” replied Khalifah.

“Don’t you have any money?” Kut al-Kulub asked.

“I spent all the money I had on the very chest you came in on. I am now completely broke,” Khalifah explained. Kut al-Kulub laughed at him for his poor judgment.

“Get up right now and go ask your neighbors for some food for I am hungry,” Kut al-Kulub told Khalifah. If he didn’t have anything himself at least she could make him useful.

Khalifah went outside and awoke his neighbors for the second time that night, “Oh people of the market!”

Out of one of the dark shops one responded, “Now what is the problem Khalifah? Has the genie requested something you can’t provide?”

“No my neighbors, I am hungry but have no food to eat.” Pity filled his sleepy neighbors’ hearts and one by one they came out with meats, cheese, and vegetables until Khalifah could carry no more food. Then he returned to his shop where he placed all the food in front of Kut al-Kulub and told her to eat saving nothing for himself. Kut al-Kulub simply laughed at him.

“How can I eat this without something to drink? Do you want me to choke and die?” Khalifah wandered back outside with a pitcher and stood in the middle of the street.

“Oh people of the market!” Khalifah yelled.

“What calamity has befallen you now you bothersome wight?” someone yelled back.

“I have eaten my food but I am now thirsty and have nothing to drink.” Pity again filled the hearts of some of those in the marketplace and one by one each came up to Khalifah and gave him a portion of water until his pitcher was full. He returned to Kut al-Kulub who was satisfied and began to eat. While she ate she acquainted Khalifah with her story and who she was.

When she mentioned the Caliph Al-Rashid Khalifah stopped her, “Is this Caliph Al-Rashid the one who imprisoned me yesterday?”

“There is only one Caliph,” she replied.

“By Allah I’ve never met someone who is as rich and yet cheap as he. He gave me a hundred blows yesterday all for a single dinar and my crime was teaching him how to fish and letting him be my partner. He treated me wrong!” Khalifah fumed showing off his healing wounds. Kut al-Kulub could see this was a sore subject for Khalifah and again took control.

“Stop this talk on the Commander and the Faithful. If he treated you wrong be prepared to be treated very right. Did you not hear who I am to him? You will be rewarded beyond measure if you deliver me to him safely.” With these words everything transformed in Khalifah’s mind. He asked Kut al-Kulub if she needed anything else and when she did not they both slept separately until morning. By noon that day Khalifah was again standing in front of the Caliph, this time with rewards being bestowed upon him beyond measure. The Caliph was so pleased to get his favorite concubine back he spent another solid month with her. Ja’afar was pleased to see Khalifah rewarded so well. When Khalifah was leaving the palace he ran into Sandal, related the story of what happened after he left, and gave Sandal 1,000 dinars for the 100 he had given him the previous day. If it was not for Sandal’s generosity Khalifah would not have become rich.

Another picture of the Tigris

Another picture of the Tigris

Khalifah became so rich he never had to fish again. Bestowed with slaves and more money than he knew what to do with he bought a mansion high on a hill that looked over the city and the mighty and mysterious Tigris river. From his mansion he could see where he used to have his merchant shop and where he used to live. One day Khalifah was walking through the streets a beggar came up to him asking for some money. The beggar was remarkable for two reasons – he was a Jew in a Muslim city and his face was familiar to Khalifah but he could not place it. Khalifah gave him a gold dinar and returned to his mansion and sat watching the mighty Tigris flow by. Then along the banks he saw a monkey climb out from the water and run into the nearby trees. Khalifah recalled looking ignorantly up at the Caliphate on that day a long time ago daring not to dream – and now one of his closest friends was the Caliph. “I live in a strange world,” thought Khalifah who smoked from his pipe and then napped.

Population

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Who doesn’t love babies? I know I sure do. Some of you may claim to be that one who “can’t stand babies” but all things being serious I’m certain that experiencing the death of a baby would be far more traumatic than that of someone older. Like all species we are attached to our young with something so adhesive only Life itself could’ve come up with it. Like any animal protecting their children we can go primal when it comes to threatening their safety. The abortion issue is a clear indication of how important our children are to us, they need only be conceived and their life has become sacred.

The reason why we, as humans, all love our children; the reason why all life loves all life, particularly their own species is because it is genetically imbedded in us. To evolve we need something driving the continuation of the species – otherwise life would be a lot more of a “miss” than a “hit.” The reason why sex is so unimaginably pleasurable and seductive to us is not so much sin but instead our natural urge to do the one thing we were knowingly meant to do – and that’s reproduce.

Our genetic code is complex, but the urge for sex will surpass social standards, legal standards, and moral standards that also keep the genetic code intact. That is why this drive is so primally strong and so zombie-esque in need. As a species we feed on sex like vampires to blood.  But of course – nothing new here – we are not even the most sexually active species on the planet.

There is a point to all this – the preservation of life is sacred to us all that exist through it. But specifically the preservation of your particular species, even more specifically – your personal genetic code. From this simple purpose you came to know to love, for nothing melts our hearts more than a love for a child. And I’ll admit – that sounds really sappy – but it’s just a simple fact that shouldn’t be overlooked.

A single life is so complex and beautiful. The creation of a child should never be diminished in its importance as it might as well be a miracle for every time it occurred. The conception of a new life is practically magical in the rapid assembly of itself. For generations which I cannot even fathom this has occurred and this is something profound to say about both life and humanity.

The Problem

With all that being said above, we do have a problem. I just wanted to make it perfectly clear that I think human life is a beautiful, sacred thing that has signficant importance to all our lives. The problem lies directly on the graph to the right. Now, I know you all see what I’m talking about and you want to skip right to the end where you see the giant leap. But let’s take this graph step by step. First let’s recognize that 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago not very much changed in the human population growth. How do we know this? Because more people would’ve meant more bones and bodies found in the ground – but we stayed a relatively low-key species for about 2.5 million years.

Then something happened about 10,000 years ago to change this very sustainable way of living. What was it? What took the population control away from Fate’s hands and into our own? What was our key to control over our own population levels? The answer happens to be something pretty boring sounding considering its power – the agricultural revolution. It’s hard to express my emotional attachment to this time period in human history. To me the agricultural revolution is more than just simply learning how to farm and store food, it was the first breath of civilization. This is important to me because civilization is the one thing we are completely surrounded by with virtually no questioning or truly understanding it. And it was simply the result of deciding to stop running around everywhere and make use of what was directly around us.

And a human living in a world of tribal sustenance, hunting and gathering, incessantly setting up camp and taking it down, almost completely exposed to unfavorable weather, and sometimes not knowing if they’ll have a next meal or have a day to rest I can only applaud their sheer brilliance of fortifying a single spot and attempt to master some of nature to work for us for a change – instead of the other way around. And because of this we prospered, and our genetic code was ecstatic pumping our brains with endorphins as our species finally could put their efforts in to other things rather than simply surviving – one of those other things quite obviously being sex. Yet other things were medical advances which helped people live better and longer lives, and still yet other things were to make life more convenient so as to decrease the risk of something going wrong. And through this we prospered even more, having more free time, and being productive in our own definition of the word with that free time.

Continuing on the graph our species goes through the many periods on which historians use to define eras – we float by the New Stone Age, in which some of the earliest civilizations on the planet began to flourish, in modern day Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. The Iron Age gave rise to the world’s most prominent civilizations to date, mighty empires rising and spreading across the planet only to crumble and fall again, sometimes centuries later. Additionally the Iron Age gave rise to our modern day commonly accepted religions, hardly a blip on the radar of humanity, life, the planet, and the Universe.  For now we’ll skip over the Middle Ages and move right to the Modern Age. Wow. How did the population get so high so quickly? Things hardly changed in millions of years and in the course of a few hundred years it skyrockets.

This is known as an exponential curve. The exponential function is an interesting concept best summed up by this quote right here:

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponentional function.

Albert A. Bartlett, Physicist

And even though humanity has done a great job of demonstrating exponential growth with our populations and subsequently demand for resources, we as a race, rarely take it in to serious consideration. So what is this exponential function? What does it mean? And really the best source of explanation of that comes from the same man who gave the quote above. He has about an 80 minute video on Youtube aptly labeled The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See. If you truly want to feel the gravity of a blindsiding slap of what we as a species are doing to ourselves and the planet with very simple math, you should watch that video. Additionally if you want to understand why John McCain should not support drilling as much as he does – this isn’t political – it’s math – solid fact.But here is how Albert A. Bartlett brilliantly describes exponential growth (with my clever illustration to go with it).

He tells you to imagine a bottle with a bacteria in it that splits every minute, so that after an hours time the bottle will be full.

See the bacteria? He’s in there. The number along side the bottle? Bartlett decides this is the time in which we’ll put the bacteria in the bottle to watch it reproduce.

And there it is! The miracle of life! Where there was once bacteria there now is two. Now, at 11:02 both bacteria are going to split, so again there will be twice as many bacteria.

And there they are! All 4! Now, again, they double. And Again. And Again.

I like how they are stacking themselves up. It reminds me of a flea circus or something. But Bartlett asks this question: Using this method, at what time would the bottle be half full? My initial answer was probably similar to yours if you never thought about this before ” I dunno.” But the question is a trick because it was answered by the problem itself. If it doubles every minute, and after an hour it is full, it must be that at 11:59 the bottle was half full, as such:

Not as cozy and cute as the first 5 minutes. And in a single minutes time, we recieve this:

Even when you are expecting it, it is still slightly shocking, I must admit. For the simple reason that every single minute PRIOR to 11:59 you would’ve never guessed such a substantial growth rate. There is an old riddle whose origin and type of grain changes, but the story follows the same line. You start by putting one piece of grain on the first square, two on the second, and so on – before you reach halfway (or so) you’ve already used up all of the world’s known resources of grain. This is exponential growth – it sneaks up on you even when you know it’s coming. The next question Dr. Bartlett asks is If you were an average bacterium in the bottle, at which point would you realize you were running out of space?  I have taken the liberty to graph the bacteria experiment aforementioned above. Along the bottom is time and along the Y-Axis is the percentage of the bottle that is full (I have no idea how to tell Excel to stop at 100):

That is a fair question. Becuase certainly we can discount almost the entire history of the bacteria existence up until about 11:50. Bacteria at 11:50 have lived the whole history of their entire world, all 50 minutes of it, with a number that virtually amounts to 0. By 11:55 the bacteria are only taking up 3% of the entire bottle. 5 minutes until 12 – and the bottle is 3% full. What bacteria is going to naturally think that in 5 minutes the entire bottle is going to be full? Especially when the last 55 minutes have hardly incurred any growth at all?!

The beautiful thing about a man like Dr. Bartlett is that he thinks ahead. He allows the ability for him to be wrong by large proportions and still make his point. He first off allows the bacteria to “recognize” their danger when they are 25% full – or 2 minutes to 12, which is very generous as the average bacteria would say “There is still 75% of the bottle left to go.” So the bacteria recognize that they are running out of space at 2 minutes to 12 and they send out search parties across the world and they find 3 new bottles! Problem solved, right? Well, this leads to Dr. Bartlett’s 3rd question: How long can the growth continue as a result of the discovery of three new bottles; this quadrupling of the proven resource? Well by 12:00, the first bottle is full, by 12:01 2 bottles would be full, and by 12:02 all 4 bottles would be full, what does this mean?

It means that in this Bacteria-world, even though it took 59 minutes to fill only half of the first bottle (or 98% of the time), it would take only 3 minutes to fill 4 bottles (or 0.05% of the time). Now before I lose you, let me explain how this relates to people: This is why it’s bad to continue on the path of the exponential consumption of oil. Even if we found 3 times the total known amount of oil – we would still use it all up in minutely small amount of time.

You see – that chart I showed you with the rate of growth of the bacteria – it looks familiar. It looks like I’ve seen it somewhere before, where could it have been?! Oh wait, I remember! It reminds me a hell of a lot like the people graph I originally showed near the top of this entry – let’s take a look at what I mean:

So what does this mean? Simply – it means we are the bacteria in the bottle. Instead of bacteria in the bottle, it is humans on the planet. Just as the bacteria cannot survive outside of a bottle, we humans cannot survive outside of our planet. 12:00 is a metaphor – one that is almost cliched – it is a metaphor for our doom. And what time is it now for us? At the very earliest it is 11:59. And the problem for us, unlike the bacteria, is we cannot go exploring out in space and drag 3 other similarly identical planets back near us so we can populate them. We only have 1 bottle – 1 planet – that will sustain life as we know it – diverse and abundant. But every day the seconds tick by to our 12:00, human’s 12:00, in which maximum capacity has been reached and the only way for the population to go is down.

What Does The Population Going Down Really Mean?

Let me tell you what I’m not saying – I’m not saying every square inch of this Earth is going to be crushed with people – that is silly. But at some point this idea of “growth” that civilized culture so unwaveringly supports will not happen anymore. Why am I so certain? One neat thing to do is to take a look at this site that really puts you in perspective with the rest of humanity. Population: One shows what it would be like if each person on the Earth were a single pixel, with you being the first. If you did not click on that link, I encourage you to do it now. Each pixel you see there is a mouth to feed and a butt that poops. Each pixel you see there is someone who needs shelter, and potable water. Each pixel you see there is someone who needs resources to create what they desire, and each pixel you see there creates waste. Many of those pixels contribute to creating waste that does not turn in to something useful again for a long time – leaving less useful natural resources for the pixels to come… and they’re coming. Each of those pixels was once a precious indispensable human fetus.  The pixels are getting larger at an exponential rate – every day. If you would like to see it in real time (as well as many other jaw-dropping statistics) I suggest the World Clock. No matter how hard you try, you can never feel the full impact of what the World Clock is counting – it’s literally impossible as it silently calculates its statistics – yet it’s happening. Right now. Right. now.

At about 2 minutes to 12, or in 1798, a man by the name of Thomas Malthus was our bacteria that recognized the problem early on, when the world was still only 25% “full.” While he did not send tug-boat space ships to each corner of the galaxy to find us 3 new planets, he did prophesize that eventually food production would not be able to increase at the same rate as population. This has been known as the Malthusian dilemma. While some have ignorantly attempted to ignore the exponential function the Malthusian Dilemma is still a very valid and encroaching fear. A quote from Thomas Malthus:

The Power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce substinence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race

Premature death visiting the human race. That is probably the most eloquent way to put it – however in reality that means the creation of humanity’s worst nightmares. And yet we play blind and ignorant to this fact because it is taking on the responsibility of curbing the population of our entire species, which individually we all feel too small to do. And this is so counter-intuitive in thought as everything that we consider good, from medicine to peace all facilitate population growth. But the fact remains – our species will reach a point that if we don’t curb our growth, nature will. How?

Well one way is to look back up at my initial chart of the human race over the last 2.5 million years. There is something noteworthy that I breezed over initially. Between 1000 AD and 2025 AD the chart makes note of the only dip in our population – the black death. For any who choose to minimize the severe impact of disease on humanity, I encourage to click that link, and recognize the apocolyptic scenario we would be facing. In the span of about 6 years, 6 measley years, about half of the population of Europe was wiped out – so much that it even impacted the entire global population of humans (hence the dip on the chart). Today disease is even easier to spread with the simplicity of transportation. A disease that lay dormant for 24 hours, yet strikes like the black plague, could decimate our entire species in roughly the same timespan, if not smaller, than the black death.

And if the disease doesn’t get us and we continue to ignore our population growth – something else will. As we continue to team the planet, wars will be fought more frequently due to the dwindling amount of energy or fresh water sources, there is sufficient evidence to link the current Iraq War with the demand for the untapped oil resources that lay beneath the country. What other energy wars may occur in the future? And of course there is Malthus’ ever-famous famine that will occur if all else fails to diminish our population. There is only so much arable land on the planet and every year we lose more of it to the already voracious need for food in some places around the globe.

But let’s take a closer look at food. As it was the agricultural revolution that had sparked this population dominoes. A man named David Pimentel is quoted in this (boring, yet still relatively) informative slide show :

The populations of all organisms increase to the limit of their food resources

Let’s see. Are we an organism? Check. Well, that was easy, we’ve met all the criteria needed to increase to the limit of our food resource. Ever since we’ve been able to store food, we’ve been subconsciously increasing our population to meet the amount of food available. David Pimentel claims it in his study Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply. All too often we hear people cry out that in many places in the world people are starving and that we need to be able to make more food for them. WorldHunger.org refutes this by saying:

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9).  The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.

Notice how they openly admit that we are currently producing more food than we ever have before, despite the 70% increase in population (in only 30 years). To make this point clearer, I am going to cite a portion from one of the most inspiring authors I’ve ever read, Daniel Quinn, in his book The Story of B (p. 261 – 262):

Imagine if you will a cage with movable sides, so that it can be enlarged to any desired size. We begin by putting 10 healthy mice of both sexes into the cage, along with plenty of food and water. In just a few days there will of course be 20 mice, and we accordingly increase the amount of food we’re putting in the cage. In a few weeks, as we steadily increase the amount of available food, there will be 40, then 50, then 60, and so on, until one day there is 100. And let’s say that we’ve decided to stop the growth of the colony at 100. I’m sure you realize that we don’t need to pass out little condoms or birth-control pills to achieve this effect. All we have to do is stop increasing the amount of food that goes into the cage. Every day we put in an amount that we know is sufficient to sustain 100 mice — and no more. This is the part that many find hard to believe, but, trust me, it’s the truth: The growth of the community stops dead. Not overnight, of course, but in very short order. Putting in an amount of food sufficient for 100 mice, we will find — every single time — that the population of the cage soon stabilizes at 100. Of course I don’t mean 100 precisely. It will fluctuate between 90 and 110 but never go much beyond those limits. On the average, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the population inside the cage will be 100.

Now if we should decide to have a population of 200 mice instead of 100, we won’t have to add aphrodisiacs to their diets or play erotic mouse movies for them. We’ll just have to increase the amount of food we put in the cage. If we put in enough food for 200, we’ll soon have 200. If we put in enough for 300, we’ll soon have 300. If we put in enough food for 400, we’ll soon have 400. If we put in enough for 500, we’ll soon have 500. This isn’t a guess, my friends. This isn’t a conjecture. This is a certainty.

So that’s it. We have to come up with a global limit to food supply for the entire human race. With that food supply limit we may not all die of a terrible bubonic plague or a massive nuclear winter, but instead we would taper the population off and, down the road, attempt to decrease it.

It is at this moment in time that I would like to invoke my initial statements of this entry. I’m not supporting this decision because I’m cruel or think humans, especially starving babies, aren’t special and don’t deserve to be fed. I am only supporting this decision because to me, it seems like the least cruel outcome. But let’s face facts here: It’s 11:59 and Thomas Malthus did not send space ships out 1 minute ago to save us with 3 times our current resources. We are on the brink of population collapse, and assuredly extreme disorder – in a world that we have proudly polluted for centuries, especially within the last 10 – 15 decades.

I would also like to add this as well: Don’t have children. If you’re reading this, whatever your age, don’t have children. And if you already have had some children – don’t have anymore. I only beg this of you because I know most will not listen, and they have every right. I would never believe that the government, or any group, should have the right to punish you for baring children. To me that seems as cold as you can come – I cannot support population control with prison and babies thrown out to sea. But please take an active part in our 11:59 attempt at stabilizing and decreasing the population. Dr. Barlett used many amazing quotes with his presentation, this being one of them, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:

Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases (which) we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.

Food production control and your own personal choice to not have children are not the only two things there are either. Let me make it a point that I’m a teacher of some of the most unloved children in New York State, and yet I still acquire many positive relationships with them. I try hard to make a personal connection and influence on all of my students who look even remotely accepting of any positive and progressive influence. Yet, as much as I love children of all ages, I will never have any of my own. Does this make me sad? Not really, I never let it enter my head as a true option because by the time I was adult-enough to understand the population situation, I had decided that it would be nothing less than selfish for me to be the one to create a child.

With saying that I am about to say some politically controversial things, but I believe given our circumstances, these should be nothing but common sense. First is sex education should be comprehensive and international regardless of religious beliefs due to our 11:59 situation. Within the sex education program abstinence should be promoted, if for no other reason than to stop the spread of disease. Additionally condoms and birth control should be completely free for anybody who wishes to use them – please take full advantage. So Catholics – this means you – as precious as life is, it’s okay that not every load blown is for the sole purpose of impregnation. Our sexual drive is too strong for that at this dire hour.

My other controversial belief is that abortions should be legal without thought of debate. Now I’m not talking about weird-ass late term abortions where a woman decides to kill a fully developed fetus on none-other than a whim (which my parents seem to think are the only kind of abortions going on). I believe early abortions for accidental pregnancies should be legal, not because I don’t think that child isn’t special, but because we really have too much on our plate right now to say, on principle, that a woman MUST bare her child if she becomes impregnated, regardless of rape-cases or accidental preganancies. A late-term abortion should only be allowed if the mother is endangered or a similarly good reason. I’m not promoting a murder-of-fetuses-for-fun-day or anything like that, but the fact that an individual should have the right to choose whether or not she wants to bare the life that is within her should be a non-issue. If it isn’t your body, it isn’t your choice in the matter, please if you are really intent on saving lives, focus on one of the many that are in need of you that currently reside on the planet and not in a womb. That is a serious request.

I would like to complete this entry with another quote used by Dr. Bartlett on his video that I implore you to watch. Also, feel free to comment on this entry below, I’m always happy to hear intelligent and thought-provoking responses. This is a quote from Asimov:

In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation.

Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation.

Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation

As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.

The Congo

Nothing can go wrong-o, I’m in the Congo.

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Undoubtedly you’ve heard of the Congo and most likely know that it’s located somewhere in Africa. However for most people- especially in the United States- their knowledge of the Congo is summed up in that single sentence. But… people usually get a feeling when thinking about the Congo, even though they know so little. It’s wild, packed with jungle, untouched by civilized man, enigmatic and dark. Blockbuster hits like Congo and outbreaks in the area of the dreaded Ebola virus – one of the (if not THE) most heinous viruses known to man – continue to portray the image of a surreal enchanted land. It is a region of the earth shrouded in mystery as well as misery. It is as if Heaven and Hell were forced to co-exist in one place with the most extremes of good, beauty, and bounty… as well as the most extreme of evil, death and deprivation. 700 years ago when the Divine Comedy was written, Dante passed a sign before he entered Hell: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Many could argue the sign might be more appropriate for the entrance to the Congo.

What is it about the Congo that captures imaginations? The Congo is similar to an ancient, decrepit, haunted house. Far away from the rest of humanity, up on a hill, with lightening flashing in the background and a”Beware” sign hanging crooked on the banging iron gate that leads on to the property. Of course there is one difference – the Congo is full of abundant beauty- which makes it all the more surreal.

Well first what exactly is the Congo? It’s actually a river in Southwest Africa. Just as Buzz Aldrin will never have the fame of Neil Armstrong the Congo River is eclipsed by the Nile River for the longest river in Africa. After the Nile though, no river in Africa comes close. And the second longest river in Africa happens to run straight through the second largest rainforest in the world. The River is so popular two countries were named after it – which makes it a little confusing for conversation. The country to the Northwest of the Congo River is known as the “Republic of the Congo,” or simply Congo-Brazzaville as that is their capital city which is perched right on the edge of the mighty Congo River. African colonies and their “owners”This country deserves a story all its own, but this entry is going to focus on the much larger country to the Southeast – the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” or Congo-Kinshasa (the capitals of the two countries sit directly across the Congo River from each other). It is this country that this entry focuses around because its history is unrivaled and it is soaked in blood.

The Congo River got its name from the old Kingdom of Kongo which has its origins as far back as 1400 and lasted up until 1914 – or at least thats what Wikipedia says. I’m admittedly no expert on early Congo history but it does seem the Kingdom was relatively sound until it came in contact with the Europeans who began using them as slaves turning their own kingdom on itself. Considering the resulting temperament of the region hence, it is reasonable to wonder how many innocent lives could’ve been saved if the “civilized” white Europeans and Americans would’ve greeted the natives they met as simply another culture to learn from. What I mean by that is this:

The year is 1885 and European ego has ballooned to epic proportions as whole nations are making claim to owning the entire continent of Africa – absolutely with no regard to natural or native boundaries. This is something important enough to stop and look at real quick – just so we don’t underestimate what a truly global issue this is. This map of Africa is about 30 years too late but this is the same basic idea – it was just a free-for-all land grab with absolutely no consideration towards the native population. This may ring some bells of similarity in America. There was serious cultural damage done from this white European display of prideful ignorance. I’m not pointing any fingers as all the culprits and initial victims are long dead and anyone who still is living in those days is clinging to a dying past. There can be some direct blame laid, as those who initiated the use of such brutal force were directly involved – and in 1885 one of the largest private properties known to man was acquired – and it happens to be the single blue area in the African map – right in the center.

The King

King Leopold the jerkThere once was a King of a small European country who had a terrible problem. As a good King should he wanted his country great, and he racked his brains night and day trying to come up with a way to make his country great. And finally his eureka-moment came and an epiphany had been realized. He thought about it – where could he get more stuff for his country without bothering his immediate neighbors? And then it dawned on him – Colonies! The idea probably made his heart flutter near the ceiling. It made perfect sense – the King probably hit his palm to his forehead asking why he didn’t think of it sooner but there was still another problem that he didn’t anticipate. When he proposed his idea to Congress and his subjects there was virtually no interest. You see – this small European Country was Belgium and the King was none-other than King Leopold II. The people and government of Belgium wanted nothing to do with colonies in an age where democracy was beginning to flourish and the importance of the King was slowly eroding away. But King Leopold II was not deterred, he made a private company, had the area around the Congo River surveyed, and in 1885 all the other greedy countries recognized the Congo Free State as owned by only King Leopold II and nobody else – it is why the Congo is split in half at the river, he ‘gave‘ the northern half to the French for sovereignty of the much larger south. You see – he tricked his own subjects in to thinking he was just going to survey the land when in reality he was simply trying to grab an entire country as his sole property – and he succeeded with bribes.

As a private block of land 1/4 the size of the United States the King went straight away to using it to create a profit. Seeing as no Europeans were living in the Congo Free State King Leopold II absentmindedly declared the entire land as “vacant.” And thus the arduous anguish-ridden history of the people of the Congo began. The cruelty of the first European colonists in the Congo Free State is noteworthy. King Leopold II was serious about making sure the “vacant” land turned him a profit – in any form necessary. If natives were encountered it was essential to use them for forced labor – slavery. Ivory which cost innocent animal life and rubber which was collected via slavery were the two main exports of King Leopold’s II new land. King Leopold II even allowed rival slave traders run parts of the Congo Free State.

Back in Belgium the King kept a tight lid on things – but not tight enough. His people were mad at the debt he had created by investing so deeply into this African colony he tricked everyone about acquiring in the first place. On top of that rumors were being spread about the brutal rule he had over the colony. After all – very few people who went there rarely came back, most were not allowed to leave the country. But politics crept up on Leopold and he was forced to let an independent group assess how he ran the country. And in 1908 there was international outrage towards the King and his forced labor – even the United States condemned it- slavery was apparently last century news (at this point it was only acceptable to restrict equal rights). Thusly the Western World virtually appointed the country of Belgium the new ruler of the Congo Free State to tone down the massive human rights abuses – and thus the Belgian Congo was born (which is why that is the name on the above map).

The Belgian people were not happy with their King during his reign and in 1902 he was almost assassinated. When he died in 1909 he was booed during his burial parade. I do not know the extent of the cruelty the King was responsible for and I don’t think anybody will ever know for sure (one of those eerie sayings people always say when countless have been murdered). I’ve read figures as high as 10 million innocent lives were taken under the brutal dictatorship that surpassed the brutality that even “regular colonies” employed. In 2005 a statue of King Leopold II was erected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the capital of Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) for historical purposes, by the time the sun rose the next morning it had been removed.

For more information on Leopold’s rule check out the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as this seems to be the authority everybody points to (though fiction the book is largely based on what the author saw while in the Congo). But believe it or not King Leopold II and his creation of the Congo Free State is only the background of the tale I want to tell.

Katanga moneyKatanga

I find it hard to convey the complexity surrounding the Congo’s situation without mentioning the province of Katanga. During Leopold’s rule they were a modern African Kingdom that held their own against both Leopold’s men to the north as well as the encroaching British from the south. A Kingdom had arisen around the same time as Leopold’s men were entering the Congo from the West. It was known as the Yeke Kingdom and its leader was known as Msiri. Msiri was not a particularly benevolent leader but I can’t help but be impressed with the native attempt at demanding independence in a way that was every bit as economically brutal as Leopold. Being at the heart of the African continent they were an ideal trading post which produced slaves and copper. Their regional influence grew so large that the Kingdom quickly shared a sense of independence from the European encroachers. Despite the sense of unity Leopold’s men killed Msiri and took Katanga for their own profit – classic Leopold style. However this Kingdom seemed to have infused the area with a sense of brutal independence that ran through the decades.

Independence and the Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba

The Belgian Congo, ruled by the country of Belgium, did not carry on the brutal rule of their King but instead the more socially acceptable forms of discrimination rife with colonies those days. Katanga proved to be a mineral rich area of the Congo and the Belgian’s profited nicely from Leopold’s greed. While primary schools apparently were built in abundance a stark absence of secondary or higher education was found. And still, even though no longer run by Leopold, the country kept its borders as closed as possible to retain ignorance and protect from independent influence. The Africans were encouraged to get service jobs they weren’t allowed to have the higher paying jobs that would support a country. All of this kept the unwanted, bastardized, adopted Congo child in a non-threatening and profit-producing state (much like todays genetically modified pigs – helpless independently, bountiful for the ones who made it that way).

But by the time the late 1950’s occurred the natives of the Congo became increasingly more demanding about Independence as word leaked of other African countries becoming independent. The logistics of Independence had become nightmarishly large in size. The complete lack of higher education would leave a country helpless to care for themselves in a modern world now broadcasting information across oceans and flying fighter jets. Yet the native Congolese were becoming violent and the Belgian government had lost almost all favor – faced with no other option in January of 1960 Belgium promised independence in June of the same year. The total number of university graduates was 30, only 136 completed secondary education, and the country only had 600 priests to help tend to the countries needs – no doctors, no secondary school teachers, no army officers. With Congo’s native culture ravaged by Belgium and its leaders during the last 70+ years of occupation and forced to live under “civilized” order the Congolese sat at the eve of their Independence in complete ignorance on what it takes to run a “civilized” nation. The only history they had really known of a “civilized” nation was that of a very pushy and unpleasant country – which they were about to get rid of (or so they thought – there is little civilized action in a civilized world).

Five days before independence a non-executive president and Prime Minister were elected – Joseph Kasa-Vubu and Patrice Lumumba respectively. Both were leaders in the Congolese demand for independence. While the new King of Belgium – King Baudouin – came expecting to hear praise for his great Uncle – King Leopold II – he was greeted by Patrice Lumumbaa blasé president and a vehement prime minister. Lumumba chose his words with justifiable passion:

“We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night because we were ‘niggers’… We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have seen that this law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. We have seen the terrible suffering of those banished to remote regions because of their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled within their own country, their fate was truly worse than death itself… And finally, who can forget the volleys of gunfire in which so many of our brothers perished, the cells where the authorities threw those who would not submit to a rule where justice meant oppression and exploitation”

Each word was undoubtedly justifiable and thus the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was born, independent from imperial rule, and alienated by their lofty oppressors. Immediately there were problems. The army started to get vocal about their low wages and began to riot, Lumumba immediately blamed the Belgian’s accusing them of inciting rebellion doing little to address the actual problem at hand. While the Belgian’s did keep the overhead jobs from the Congolese it was Lumumba himself who demanded the 6th month plan to independence instead of the Belgian’s proposed 4 year plan. Mutiny quickly became rampant and whites were beaten, raped, and insulted. A mass exodus of the white population quickly fled in the thousands and many of the Congolese feasted on their first taste of lustful bigotry and oppression – it was their turn to inflict the harm on the whites. During this time many of the Congolese quickly converted to everything they’ve ever hated about the Belgian rule. Of course the Belgian’s have left no other model of rule around leaving disaster inevitable.

As Lumumba rushed about his new duties taking care of this national crisis while refusing any aid from the Belgians, a sly politician named Moise Tshombe declared the mineral rich Katanga (remember Katanga?) an independent state, adding one more thing for Lumumba to handle. Katanga quickly became a unified unit at the earliest of the DRC’s independence. Lumumba, having nowhere to turn, looked towards the United Nations (UN) to help and within days foreign troops were maintaining public safety and civilian task forces were created to run public services. Of course at this point Belgian troops had also intervened to ensure the safety of their ex-patriots and this in no way pleased Lumumba.

Lumumba insisted that the UN expel the Belgian troops and the UN refused to intervene figuring the Congo needed all the help it could get. Infuriated Lumumba demanded the UN remove Belgian troops or he would invite the Soviet’s to intervene. It’s 1960. Lumumba happened to press the one button that would possibly get the United States even marginally interested in a remote African backwater – they called Commie! And the United States saw this as a very serious threat because a year previously a revolution had just taken place off the tip of Florida and a young Fidel Castro began his rule of the small country of Cuba. The DRC could be another country that could fall to the dreaded rule of communism and so Lumumba was rushed to Washington where the CIA attempted to persuade him not to make such a rash decision. By August the United States was calling Lumumba “a Castro or worse,” “irrational,” a “mad dog” and “psychotic.” The UN called Lumumba crazy, threatening, demanding, irrational and claimed he acted like a child. Within two months of independence the United States and UN were completely fed up with Lumumba’s rule and seemed more than happy to let the communists deal with him.

In fact we get a rare glimpse into how powerful politics really can get. President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to “eliminate” Lumumba. I’m not joking. “There was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds and the meeting continued,” Johnson recalled. Belgian leaders rife with embarrassment came to similar conclusions: “The main aim to pursue in the interests of the Congo, Katanga, and Belgium, is clearly Lumumba’s elimination definitive.” With the Western World attempting to manipulate the potentially malignant Soviet country and Katanga attempting to secede using military might and an army that has mutinied Lumumba’s options were thin but he continued to attempt to manage the country showing no signs of letting go. To add to Lumumba’s poor image a recent military expedition to Kasai ended with hundreds of Baluba tribesmen murdered and 250,000 displaced refugees. UN Soldiers looked on with strict orders not to use weapons aside for self defense.

Young MobutuWhat about Kasa-Vubu – the non-executive President? What was he doing during all this time? Kasa-Vubu had quickly grown accustomed and comfortable with his new life of luxury and was not in any hurry to stir any political trouble. But when approached by the U.S., the Belgians, and fellow Congolese Kasa-Vubu was virtually forced to act – but not before Lumumba did – and he quickly accused Kasa-Vubu of treason and dismissed him as president.

Lumumba’s end came from an unlikely source – from a trusted personal aide that Lumumba promoted to army commander – his name was Joseph Mobutu (left). Supported by the CIA, UN, and many frustrated Congolese citizens the 29 year old Joseph Mobutu declared that he was neutralizing all politicians and assuming power until the end of the year. The 35 year old Lumumba quickly disappeared in to hiding.

On December 1st, 1960- 6 months after he became the first acting Prime Minister of the DRC- Lumumba was found crouching in the back of a pickup and arrested. After he was thoroughly beaten he was sent straight to Leopoldville (the capital later renamed Kinshasa) where Joseph Mobutu ruled with UN and U.S. support. And in that tropical December of 1960 along the muddy banks of the Congo River somewhere in Leopoldville Patrice Lumumba lay at the mercy of Joseph Mobutu. A former minister claimed to have seen Mobutu spit in Lumumba’s face and declare: “Well! You swore to have my skin, now it is I who have yours.”

The Death of Patrice Lumumba

You did know he was going to die, didn’t you? It’s common knowledge to not expect a happy ending in Africa and Lumumba’s death, unfortunately, is not exceptional compared to the ends of many African’s that dare to toil in African politics. In fact it might not even be worth talking about if it wasn’t so scandalous and if the resulting aftermath wasn’t so powerful –

Earlier I spoke of Lumumba killing hundreds of Baluba tribesmen as well as displacing 250,000 refugees. Well after a month of being detained it was decided that Lumumba and two of his colleagues be transported to a different city – Elizabethville. The guards picked for this transportation were Baluba – Baluba that were ready for revenge. The entire 6 hour flight was filled with unimaginable beatings and when the plane landed and the torture should have ended (should it have started?) there were Katangese soldiers and Belgian officers waiting for him. They took up the beatings where the Baluba soldiers left off and transported them to an empty house. You see – Elizabethville is located deep in the Southern Congo – in Katanga (remember Katanga?). Tshombe, the man who declared independence while Lumumba was in charge, still kept Katanga in an autonomous rule from the rest of the Congo and was supported by the Belgians. Tshombe and Belgian police commissioner Frans Verscheure were in charge of the detention of Lumumba and his colleagues and spent the afternoon taunting and beating Lumumba further.

Tshombe and Verscheure eventually got tired of torturing Lumumba and went home to get drunk. Tshombe’s butler noticed that his employer came home that evening covered in blood. By 10 P.M. many were drunk enough to have murder on there minds. Lumumba and his colleagues were never to see another sunrise – and they probably didn’t want to. Hauled 30 miles out of town the three men were ripped out of the pickup truck to face open graves in front of them.

Last pictures of Lumumba before he was dragged off and murdered“You’re going to kill us, aren’t you?” Lumumba asked.

“Yes,” Verscheure replied. And that night – January 17, 1961 – a group of drunken Katangese soldiers and Belgian officers murdered 3 men (Lumumba being the last) who spent the day being tortured. Then they were buried. As sobriety started to settle in panic began to engulf the group and cover stories started to be spun. It was the Belgians that worried particularly as what had just occurred would be found entirely unacceptable to the Western culture in which they so belonged. A political prisoner was in their hands the previous day and now they had no way of accounting for him. The following night after the diabolical deed had occurred some Belgians dug the cadavers back up, took them 120 miles away, hacked them up, and dissolved them in a vat of sulphuric acid. Then their bones were ground up and scattered on the return trip to Elizabethville so as to lose all connections with their cold blooded murder.

Nevertheless, this event was witnessed by too many people and the secret was not kept. The murder of Patrice Lumumba made him into one of the most famous political martyrs of modern times. The Congolese were vehement towards the Belgian’s for continuing to meddle with their independence and murdering their first leader. In addition this news was one of the few maniacal secrets the Congo had released to the world and staged protests occurred across the globe in over 30 cities. The support behind Lumumba came from the concept that he was just a poor guy trying to free his country from colonialism and for that simple reason – murdered – and the country that just “gave” them independence was responsible. Belgium was globally chastised – which I imagine, in some way, is exactly what Lumumba would want his death to do – hurt the image of those who had put him and his people in such a fetal state. Now we know Lumumba could not blame all of the misfortunes on Belgium, for he definitely created his fair share of oppression and impossible demands… but I can’t help but wonder – with the way Belgium treated the Congolese, no matter how the transition phase occurred (6 months OR 4 years), and no matter WHO was put in position of power – whether the Democratic Republic of the Congo was just set up to fail.

Civil Strife

Congo CrisisMobutu assumed power of Leopoldville with the avid support of the U.S. and UN but was not the favored leader in the country. The Soviet Union was aiding a Northeastern uprising (red), Tshombe still was attempting succession of Katanga in the Southeast aided by the Belgians still (green), and in the Southwest diamonds had been found in the area of Kasai and the locals began to guard the area from the rest of the country – the Belgians also meddled here (blue). Mobutu, in short, was only in charge of the Western portion of the country and the capital (yellow). Most of the rest of the country started to divide itself.

By 1964 Katanga had failed to become an independent state and Tshombe became acting Prime Minister of the entire DRC. That same year a revolt occurred in the Eastern (red) portion of the map and Tshombe had to recover half the land of the country he had previously tried to secede from. Mass executions began of the Congolese people who were deemed “intellectuals” or “counter-revolutionaries.” It was this section of the country that supported Lumumba the strongest and they began executing the “counter-revolutionaries” at the foot of Lumumba statues. The United States and Belgium were in panic, if the revolution succeeded communist Lumumba supporters would cover the country leaving only what is vile and distrustful to U.S. and Belgian interest. The two countries supplied the Western half of the country with combat aircrafts, transport planes, counter-insurgency experts and technicians. The DRC was undoubtedly a pawn in the global chess game of Democracy vs. Socialism (leaving only despotism in the wake). More confusion, killing, torture, and power struggles occurred in the decimated country until the Eastern Soviet rebellion was managable. All in all an estimated one million people had died during the rebellion.

By 1965 Mobutu had officially declared himself president (a popular thing military heads were doing all over Africa at this time). Personally I don’t understand how any man could take the position Mobutu did but he seemed to become severely hardened after the chaos of the previous 5 years. Dissidents were quickly eliminated. Mobutu instilled public hangings and brutal treatment of those who did not completely support him which quickly stabilized the country. One must truly look at the situation and legitimately ask whether if Mobutu did not take these actions if another million would’ve died. Of course it’s rhetorical as we’ll never know, but what we do know is a little more on how the United States played a role in this very real and nightmarish mess:

The United States and its Relationship with the Congo

“General, if it hadn’t been for you the whole thing would have collapsed and the Communists would have taken over,” President Kennedy was quoted as saying to Mobutu in 1963 about his initial assertion of power.

“I do what I am able to do,” Mobutu responded while asking for military equipment, training, and parachute training for himself. The President granted his request and gave him a command aircraft for his personal use and a permanent US Air Force crew to go with it to boot. Also he was kept on the CIA payroll and was paraded around as an exotic and powerful leader by those in the United States government.

In 1970 Nixon praised Mobutu and told him “there are things we can learn from you.” On top of that Nixon pushed for more investment in the country. By 1974 the U.S. and Europe had over $2 billion (2,000,000,000) invested in the country celebrating Mobutu – a dictator the likes of which the world has only rarely seen – as the appropriate leader to manage the country of their “investment.”

Mobutu and NixonI hate to bring U.S. involvement in on the history of an African country but it is obvious from the above facts that the United States government were far more involved with the politics of the DRC than they probably should have been or care to openly admit. The people of the United States were ignorantly unaware that the leader of a remote African country was zipping around in a tax-paid jet with a tax-paid crew and a tax-paid staff and was being injected with tax-paid cash. Morally the concept of a leader of a country being on another country’s payroll is just another Westernized form of stunting a culture and country of people. While the United States certainly did not acknowledge the intricate details of the situation in the Congo they blanketly placed them in a category of “Potential Soviet ally” and insisted on menacing in the countries very internal and bloody business. Of course the Soviets were no better grubbying their fingers in the Congo pot as well aiding the stir of an uprise that cost one million lives.

The United States brought shame upon themselves as a country becoming so worked up at Lumumba calling for Soviet help. If you remember country’s total graduates of both higher education and secondary education totaled less than 200 in 1960. What honest threat would a jungle nation with a handful of people educated on the “civilized” world that was ripe for civil war cause if they had become communist? Logic says none at all. And if democracy was really their goal why did they support a military dictator which was neither socialist nor democratic? He was despotic!

In an age where the prevailing argument of American policy is “We were noble enough to free the Iraqi people from a terrible dictator,” it goes completely ignored that the United States had supported harsh military dictators for decades (including Saddam originally). As I argued in my entry on The Bush Administration with another harsh military dictator – Samuel Doe – the United States has never been interested in “freeing people” or “democracy” so much as it has been interested in strict obedience. And Mobutu provided just that.

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga

Just as we’ll never know what Michael Jackson would be like without gross amounts of fame we will never know what Joseph Mobutu would’ve been like without gross amounts of power. As the economy started to tentatively increase in the 1970’s Mobutu started to let his ego expand. After all the previous ruler couldn’t even rule for 6 months and he had ruled it for almost a decade with progress. He often began to be seen wearing a leopard-skin hat. On top of that he had decided to change his name in 1971 from Joseph Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (the title of this section) which meant something along the lines of “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Not exactly modest nor really encouraging. It was also during this time Leopoldville (the capital) became Kinshasa, Elisabethville (where Lumumba met his torturous end) Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville (where the 1964 rebel revolt took place) became Kisangani. Lastly Mobutu decided that the name Democratic Republic of the Congo was outdated and changed the name to Zaire. Today many of your decade-old maps still have the Democratic Republic of the Congo labeled as Zaire as it continued to be named such until 1997.

Another dicatatorial action Mobutu took was creating a single party to eliminate political opposition. In case you were ever interested in what the trademarked official way of removing all political rights from the masses – it is the creation of a single party. This way things are simple – they become your way… or the rape, torture, abusive, deprivation, prison way. And the opposition party is usually preoccupied with one of the listed things if you know what I’m saying. So he started a single party and, of course, it was the duty of the party to follow, as he deemed it, “Mobutuism.” The concept behind it was basically that the belief of sharing power is absurd and having only one leader is the most important thing – and what that leader says goes or else punishment will ensue. Mobutu had become as oppressive as the Beglian colony was by taking on this paternal position for his people.

Actual Zairian money - seriously.Also this is known as something – Mobutu was creating a cult of personality. The name changes to himself and the country, the creation of a single party, naming things after himself – all of these things are signs of when your ego can no longer bathe in the Pacific Ocean anymore. From this point on nobody was allowed to have a European name in the country and priests baptizing anyone with a European name will receive a 5 year jail sentence. European suits were banned and fawning over the “Saviour of the People” (his title, not mine) was encouraged. In fact songs and dances were constantly being put on for him. Places where he lived and grew up became national pilgrimage places or places of “high meditation.” His staff began calling him a prophet. A former prime minister – Nguzu Karl-i-Bond – later wrote in his memoirs the following about Mobutu:

“Nothing is possible in Zaire without Mobutu. He created Zaire. He fathered the Zairian people. He grew the trees and the plants. He brings rain and good weather. You don’t go to the toilet without the authorisation of Le Guide. Zairians would be nothing without him. Mobutu has obligations to nobody, but everybody has obligation to him. As he said to me on August 13, 1977, in front of three witnesses: ‘Nguz’, there’s nothing I have to do for you; on the contrary, I have made you whatever you are.'”

And the American government still supported him.

Having satiated himself with fame Mobutu turned his head toward fortune to devour. With the simple ease of just vocalizing it Mobutu seized a massive amount of foreign businesses. In a simple decree he acquired 2,000 businesses and redistributed them to friends and family. Mobutu himself was the boss of plantation conglomerate with over 25,000 employees. Mobutu virtually owned the country – not dissimilar to his Belgian predecessor. During the 1970’s it was estimated that one-third of total national revenues was in one way or another at his disposal. Mobutu immersed himself in all aspects of business in his country bloating himself with wealth while his country slowly slipped back in decline. Whether it was copper, cobalt, diamonds, banking, stocks, business ownership, and surely much more Mobutu siphoned the profit guiltlessly for his arbitrary whims. In the 1980’s the average individual on the Forbes 500 list made about $400 million a year. Mobutu was estimated to be making $5 billion making him one of the richest men in the world at the time.

And the American government still supported him.

The consequence? National disaster. Mobutu could not handle all of the capital he had acquired making himself rich making Zaire’s budding economy begin to slowly rot. As poverty spread from the mismanaged businesses greed enveloped anyone with any power. Teachers and hospital staff went unpaid for months. It was Mobutu who helped coin a new form of government in which Zaire was a leading example – the term was a kleptocracy – klepto commonly know as someone who commonly steals – so a kleptocracy is a form of government that commonly steals. People with all levels of power took more than their fair share leaving the masses with little else but poverty. It came to a point where nothing could be accomplished without a bribe. It is at this time that we can see the Congolese people have become indistinguishable with their oppressors as corruption permeated the country turning neighbor on neighbor for a petty level of power.

“If you steal, do not steal too much at a time. You may be arrested, Yibana mayele – Steal cleverly, little by little.”

This is a documented quote directly from Mobutu himself. While corruption was on the minds of the leaders the country was impoverished. Medical staff, teachers, and other workers stopped working because they were receiving no wages. Those who did receive wages were getting little more than 10% of their value in 1960 (their independence). Hunger, disease, and malnutrition were the product of the greed. Mobutu modeled the practice of many ruthless African dictators. The first step is to gorge on as much profit from your country in any way you please. The second step is to invite foreign investors to gorge on the money they bring as well. The third step is to comply with foreign inquiry to missing funds until they try to get you to stop gorging, then ignore them and wait to see what they do. And this is exactly what Mobutu did, threatening the lives of those who came to his country to monitor fair business practices. Mobutu constantly was shifting his friends and enemies to make sure nobody ever got too close.

BFFsAnd the American government still supported him.

I stress this so many times because this is a clear cut case where the United State blatantly and flagrantly ignored the concept of democracy and freedom for the sake of convenience. The United States only saw the Congo one-dimensionally. The Congo was a block of land in Africa that was not allowed to supply its wealth to the Soviet Union – and that’s it. If the nation dove in to despotism, debt, greed, despair, torture, wars, and suffering that was acceptable so long as they were not supplying their wealth to the Soviet Union. In this regard the political term for him was a “friendly tyrant.” In case that doesn’t make sense I’ll gladly break it down for you. Mobutu is still a tyrant and does all the terrible, horrible, awful things a tyrant does to his own people – however – he is friendly towards us, which makes us feel safe, so we give him money for doing that to keep him that way. That is what the term “friendly tyrant” means. How much money did the United States give to Mobutu? Between 1965 and 1988 the United States gave Mobutu $860 million of taxpayer money. Mobutu maintained friendship with the United States administration after administration. Into the Reagan and Bush Administration Mobutu was still solidly not helping the Soviet Union in a Cold War gone lukewarm. The suffering was obvious, the only unity maintained was through Mobutu’s iron fist of greed, and keeping him in power curdled the tense situations as they began to root.

I bring all this up to ask the philosophical question – is it right for one nation-state to put a leader of another nation-state on their payroll? Does this not undermine the very responsibility of a leader? Where is this leader’s loyalty when he is being paid by another country? Who could possibly argue that a leader can stay loyal to his country while on the payroll of another? The United States and the Soviet Union created so much global tension out of an ego issue it reverberated negatively around the world – the Congo being one of the worst affected. Taxpayer money went for decades to a man whose only job was to suppress, and he was praised for it:

“I have come to appreciate the dynamism that is so characteristic of Zaire and Zairians and to respect your dedication to fairness and reason. I have come to admire, Mr. President, your personal courage and leadership in Africa.”

“Zaire is among America’s oldest friends, and its president – President Mobutu – one of our most valued friends. And we are proud and very, very pleased to have you with us today.”

Both of the above are direct quotes from President George Bush I (There is something eerily familiar about having to use Roman Numerals for identification of a specific leader and its correlation with oppression). The history of the United States and Mobutu is simply unacceptable behavior if it were happening in America, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason (so this excludes discrimination and hate-mongering) why this should be happening because of Americans elsewhere. It would be as if one high school superintendent paid off another high school superintendent to make all their students and staff submissive to him, which may include robbing them, not paying them, refusing them any decent medical attention, refusing to have any autonomy whatsoever… all so the original superintendent can feel like he’s doing a good job eliminating potential (not actual even yet!) competition. From Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush I all the presidents supported Mobutu and supplied him with cash to continue his plundering and oppression – it was little other than that by any standards at all – and Bush says those complete false positive things about him. The feeling was mutual however with Mobutu sharing positive feelings on George Bush I himself:

“As regards George Bush I’ve met him thirteen times. We know each other from way back. He was in charge of the CIA and knew Zaire’s problems backwards. He received me at his home in Maine with his mother, wife, and children and grandchildren. I met him again recently at the funeral of Emperor Hirohito. He is an intelligent, open and sensitive man, with strong convictions.”

I find these quotes so essential because they are documented facts. There was absolute friendship between a dictator who many would largely agree was worse than Saddam Hussein, yet even at this time Bush was fighting that very man for being a ruthless dictator. The hypocrisy is blatant and the fact that this is not acknowledged as a historical lesson goes to show that there is a strong level of national oppression within the United States let alone what type of oppression the government encourages outside of the country.

When the Soviet Union fell there was little reason to keep Mobutu on the United States payroll and his reputation was catching up with him. The United States began to distance herself from Mobutu until eventually the government denied Mobutu a visa into the United States. No longer was he welcome less than a decade after the breakup, one of the United States “oldest friends,” perhaps Bush meant “oldest tools.” In fact – the only one to speak up for Mobutu anymore in America happened to be Pat Robertson, the famous televangelist (of all people), giving an argument for Mobutu to visit the United States. Though Pat Robertson has done a good job covering his tracks there have been quite a few accounts claiming that Mobutu allowed him to mine diamonds in his country, which is probably the reason for their forged relationship. Robertson seems a man willing to profit from anything – religion to an oppressed nation – regardless of moral character.

France and the Rwandan Genocide

The Congo and RwandaIn a small country a fraction of the size of Zaire along its exotic Eastern border a conflict was occurring. A group known as the Tutsi were about to be murdered in such large amounts the word genocide had to be pulled out of the closet before anything was seriously done about it. The Tutsi, though a minority group, tended to be wealthy and hold positions of power. The Tutsis had an aristocracy and enjoyed a higher style of living than their Hutu counterparts. The Hutu were the majority in this country known as Rwanda and some Hutus felt indignant over this Tutsi rule. Rwanda and Burundi have had ethnic tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi stemming back to the 1960s. Political leaders have been assassinated, executed, and murdered by Hutu and Tutsi alike. The Tutsi people were exiled for over 30 years creating one of the largest refugee communities in Africa. The Tutsis who remained in Rwanda (while the exiles planned for their return) were forced to carry an ethnicity card, given quotas determined by the Hutu government, Tutsi women were not allowed to be married to Hutu men, and the leader of it all – Juvenal Habyarimana – kept a photograph of a Tutsi hut in flames in his presidential mansion.

But now it is the early 1990’s and the Tutsi had earned their way back in to Rwanda but not without continued ethnic tension. Habyarimana was not willing to share the power with the returning Tutsi and began to stir up dehumanizing hate in which only the most desperate and lowly of people do. Hutu supremacists began organizing death squads and murdering the Tutsi in cold blood.

As all this was going on next door Mobutu was immersed in troubles of his own. After 30 years of rule Mobutu had little to show for it. Since 1988 the economy had shrunk by 40% and his money was worthless. Per capital gross domestic product in 1993 was $117, about 65% lower than in 1958 – before independence. Mobutu’s old stealing grounds were in decline and people across the world had begun to wise up to Mobutu’s destructive, deceitful, ignorant ways. Copper, cobalt, diamonds and gold all were mismanaged, not being produced, or being smuggled. Mobutu had reaped what he had sewn. Distrust permeated through every level of government and when cohesion looked possible Mobutu incited ethnic tensions just like his neighbor, Habyarimana, to the East. But the worst of it all was that he had virtually no foreign friends that could provide him with his insatiable desire for wealth and global leverage. The United States wouldn’t talk to him anymore, the World Bank stopped funding him as they saw $9 billion sink into the murky depths of the Congo never to reappear, it really looked as if it were only a matter of time before Mobutu met the fate of his predecessor – Lumumba.

Francophone AfricaEnter France. First it was Belgium who could not help but get their fingers dirty in Africa, followed by the Americans, and now the French saw the Congo as a part of their imperialist vision. If one country asserted more dominance on the continent of Africa than any others – it would be France. France was very diligent in not only maintaining but spreading the Francophone culture. To France Africa was divided into two sections – Francophone Africa (map on left) – and then everybody else. France didn’t really regard Africa as a totally separate culture or continent from their own – they regarded Africa, literally, as their own backyard. To them defending Francophone Africa was defending France – it was defending France’s backyard. And what was France defending Francophone Africa from? Why Anglophone Africa of course – the British influence could not encroach.

Treating a continent of people like a backyard once again shows the immaturity Africans had to deal with when encountering their European counterparts. Everything from the French language to French influence were of the highest priority in Francophone Africa- everything else coming second – and I mean everything. Jaques Foccart, the leader authority of French policy on Africa for 40 years and met Mobutu personally, had explained France’s interest on the topic of Zaire:

“[Zaire] is the largest country on francophone Africa. It has considerable natural resources. It has the means of being a regional power. The long-term interest of France and its African allies is evident.”

No longer was Zaire considered a country with desperate people and a flat-lined economy in dire need of compassion and stability with a ruthless leader. It was viewed simply as a potential area of profit and if France continued to support its leadership – whoever it was – they can benefit from any economic or regional power gained from it. However unfortunate for the French what was brewing in the region was not potential profit but genocide. In fact France supplied Habyarimana with troops which he used to repress his opponents (Mobutu also had supplied Habyarimana in the past with troops and weapons). Rwanda was also part of the precious francophone empire and acknowledging the genocide that Rwandan Hutus were facilitating would not look good for France. But the crisis continued to grow, Tutsis continued to be slaughtered and the West, especially France, was slow to react. When Habyarimana was assassinated in April of 1994 the genocide took full effect.

Rwandan refugee camp in ZaireFor Mobutu though he had found a new purpose – a new way to manipulate power again. The Rwandan crisis was getting out of hand and Mobutu gladly opened the border to his country for refugees to come spilling in. However, this time, the refugees were not Tutsi – they were Hutu. The whole reason the crisis began in Rwanda was because Tutsis were demanding to return to the government that exiled them 30 years prior. The Hutu elite used dehumanization, discrimination, and then outright murder to refuse the Tutsi entrance back in to their original country of residence. So while the Tutsi continued to push southward militarily – triumphantly taking back the country in which they originally belonged – while Hutus cowardly murdered civilian Tutsis and fled the country claiming Tutsi created genocide- not the actual Hutu created genocide that was occurring.

As the Hutus poured in to all of Rwanda’s bordering nations international outcry reached a new level. Images of Hutus exiling themselves from the country turned in to the images of the holocaust. Indeed hidden within this traveling band of refugees were the actual people directly responsible for the blood-lust atrocities. As CNN streamed the images of the Hutu refugees the hearts of people across the world went out to them even though some were facilitating the genocide.

When Belgium wanted to send in troops to stabilize the situation it was France who refused it. When a regional meeting set up to discuss Rwanda was going to be in “anglophone” Tanzania both Mobutu and France blocked the move. Meanwhile innocent civilians were being murdered and raped in the street. Both Mobutu and France held out their power in an orgy of greed for power and wealth. It was from the Hutu refugee camps inside Zaire that facilitators of the genocide safely plotted their next blood-spilling scheme.

The Congolese Wars

With all the political greed in the region the locals were getting overwhelmed with the refugees and ethnic tensions began to flare between the locals and the refugees. Due to Mobutu helping out the Hutu genocidaires the new Tutsi-instated government decided to attack the genocidaires and march all the way west to the capital of Zaire – Kinshasa – and remove Mobutu from power. At this time in 1996 Mobutu was in ill health, had no money, and could not afford a military to defend himself. The rebellion started in the Second Congolese War linesEast at the Rwandan border and then spread West slowly. Mobutu watched as his country began to dissolve in front of hi eyes. Province after province joined in on the rebellion with Mobutu virtually powerless to stop it – even Katanga joined in. This was known as the First Congolese War.

The last time the East Congo started rebelling it was 1965 and the United States was supplying Mobutu with all he needed to suppress the uprising. In fact, I did not mention this earlier, Fidel Castro and Cuba even got involved. Having personal vendettas against American imperialism in Cuba, Castro sent Che Guevara to the Eastern Congo to meet a man named Laurent-Désiré Kabila who claimed he had an army to Che to train. Che was a professional guerrilla soldier ready to train an uprising for the good of the people. Che was disgusted to meet an unmotivated army with an unmotivated leader that demanded money and put in little effort. The revolution Che had planned was a disaster and Che headed straight back to Cuba. About 30 years later it was again, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who the Tutsis trusted to take over the Congo. It was this man, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who Che said on his return to Cuba:

“He let the days pass without concerning himself with anything other than political squabbles, and all the signs are that he is too addicted to drink and women”

Che also claimed Kabila lacked any “revolutionary seriousness. So what a surprise it might have been to Che (had he not been murdered himself later on in life) to see that it was indeed Kabila (with major help from Tutsi Rwanda) that ran Mobutu out of the country. Mobutu escaped with little more than his frail life. After 32 years of playing ruthless dictator of possibly the most saddest country on Earth Mobutu fled on a plane that being riddled with bullets – never to Current Congo - Joseph Kabilareturn. As the remainder of Mobutu’s army made it across the Congo River to Congo-Brazzaville in 1997 the leader of the months-long assault, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, assumed leadership and returned the name back to the original (though confusing) name of independence: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If genocide and a war wasn’t enough to deal with in a single decade a second war was quickly ready to break out. The Second Congolese War has been the largest conflict since World War II and also Africa’s largest war involving 8 nations. Though Kabila could have never taken over Kinshasa without the help of the new Tutsi Rwandan government Kabila was short in patience when Rwanda tried to control the Congo. Kabila made sure to thank them and then curtly made them leave. Shortly thereafter fighting flared up and the Rwandan and Ugandan government started to feed off the Northeast parts of the Congo plundering their wealth. Other nations got involved on both sides and things did not significantly change until 2001 when Kabila was assassinated. Immediately his son – Joseph Kabila was instated. By 2003 Uganda and Rwanda withdrew and the war was officially over.

Of course Rwanda is still bitter and continues to support rebel action within the borders of the Congo. And these shallow actions continue to perpetuate the corrosive and rotting culture of violence the citizens of the Congolese have been forced to endure since its inception and almost completely due to international stimulation. Joseph Kabila’s leadership is still in its infancy. Certainly his task is daunting and unlike his father or any of his predecessors Joseph Kabila is described as a shy man. Perhaps a leader without an ego can help unite the country and it is true that he is attempting peace talks with the Rwandan Tutsi rebels. Unfortunately it was only August 2007 when rebel and government forces fought in the province of Kivu displacing almost a million people. Is it possible that Joseph Kabila will be able to restore even the most basic safeties to the country without keeping the citizens in a fetal state? I certainly don’t know but I hope the best of intentions and the wisest of choices are guiding him.

Conclusion

So why did I bring up this long disastrous history of a nation nobody cares about unless they live in it? For a few reasons:

  1. Current CongoSome people attribute Africa’s problems to race. Many people seriously believe that skin color affects intelligence even in the slightest. I found the history of the Congo to be typical to the history of many African colonial nations. Unprepared for independence and mettlesome once independence is achieved African leaders, especially in the case of the Congo, have a hard time not being used like a pawn. In this case we saw the first serious mistreatment of people occur by a white European leader. The history of the Congo is one of the infinite amount of testimonies that no one race is superior to any other.
  2. Many of the people and countries involved with the Congo were bolded upon their first mention in this entry. This is to show how Congo’s strife-ridden history has little to do with internal affairs, though there can be improvement on all ends. The Congo’s story is a testament to the theory that Western powers have direct influence with the most poverty-stricken and strife-ridden areas on the planet.
  3. Specifically the United States befriending this ruthless tyrant, Mobutu, for decades because of his obedience and yet in the same breath call Saddam out as being a ruthless dictator. The United States has a hard time recognizing its mistakes and befriending and paying Mobutu was one of them. The Congo’s story is a testament to the idea that the United States only looks for obedience in a foreign leader as opposed to serving “freedom” to the citizens – and to use that as an excuse to be extra dubious.
  4. To bring attention to a region of the world that is constantly ignored by telling its fascinating, if not gory, history.

Normally I link more references than I did in this entry and a lot you must take my word on to believe. Why should you take my word for it? Because virtually everything I’ve written was paraphrased from the book listed below, The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith which is probably one of the most comprehensive looks at Africa and its history since independence. I strongly urge anyone to read it who wants to know why civilization has not been as kind to all parts of the world as it has been to the West. I would love any more information that is insightful to read on the Congo and I encourage comments on this entry

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith – excellent book.

The Aral Sea

 

 

 

***Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!***

Update August 2009*** Newest Photo of Aral Sea by NASA – The sea has become virtually a desert.

***If you enjoyed this entry, you might also be interested in my entry on the North Pacific Garbage Patch or Our Oceans***

Yes. The Aral Sea. The name either stirs up complex emotions of urgency, desperation, hopelessness, and shame or – nothing at all. For too many people on this planet the latter response is all too common, the Aral Sea might as well be a massive depression on the moon or Mars because they could not locate it on a map of the world despite its huge size and complex issues surrounding it. The story of the Aral Sea is epic. It marks a beginning as well as an end on this planet, it is a watershed. It’s an indicator of the progress of civilization and it is a marker of human power. It is also infinitely buried behind stories of Hollywood drama, iEverything, and sports scandals. It is the story of the Aral Sea that future generations will look back upon and clearly understand where humans went wrong but are left empty with the reasons why. Parched, starving, and disease-ridden they will look back at their species impact on the planet and feel abysmal shame. But for now we live pridefully in ignorance, playing a game of economics, gratuitously feeding the infinite desires in our finite world, laughing or scoffing at those who do not win or play the game.

The Aral Sea from SpaceSo what is the story of the Aral Sea? When I said it was epic, I wasn’t kidding. It’s a story that J. R. R. Tolkien could be impressed with, and it’s real too. It’s a story involving extreme landscapes, powerful leaders, deadly weapons the likes of which this Earth has never seen, projects never before attempted. It is about a struggle for humanity to become God. To the right we see the Aral Sea and its serene beauty from space. The reason why we can see it from space is because the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. That’s right – a lake. A lake that supported all forms of life – including humans – for centuries.

The difference between a lake and a sea is salinity, or salt – the more salinity the more likely the body of water will be called a sea. The Aral Sea lay around some of the flattest and driest land on the planet. An area naturally high in salt the Aral Sea seemed destined to become a salty sea. But over 1,500 miles away in the remote mountains of a forgotten country that is known today as Tajikistan – something was happening that greatly affected the Aral Sea. The Pamir Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the world and still covered in glaciers. Being one of the few unthawed regions left on the planet glacial waters poured in abundance from the mountains dropping to much lower land in the West. Fresh and clean, two of the largest rivers in Central Asia headed West and drained into the Aral Sea. This freshwater runoff allowed the Aral Sea to lose salinity and become the fourth largest lake in the world. Fish prospered, animals prospered, people prospered. Centuries went by and the Aral Sea continued to provide. Strong coastal communities formed where fishing and fresh water dominated the otherwise dry and empty plains. The story of the Aral Sea up to this point could be one akin to a fairy-tale, a massive source of water in one of the driest and hottest places on the planet, a much needed source of fresh water and food, like a mother she nurtured those who trusted her with their lives.

As the centuries passed nothing remarkable changed. The freshwater from the mountains were plentiful as was the diverse ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Even when the Great Russian Famine struck in the early 1920’s the Aral Sea helped provide for a growing nation. The Aral Sea could not have known what the people it had helped try to feed during the famine were going to do to it a couple decades later – nobody could’ve known.

The Karakum and the Nurek:

A Darvasa Gas Crater in the Karakum desertThe Karakum desert is one of the largest deserts in the world and lies mostly Southeast of the Aral Sea. The hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet was 136 degrees Fahrenheit in Libya… the Karakum desert has been known to reach over 122 degrees. Translated the name does little to help the image of the Karakum, or Kara – kum, or “Black Sand.” The desert of black sand sounds like the kind of place where Satan himself seems like he’d reside, and he just might. Overshadowed by the boundless Sahara or the enchanted Gobi little is known or documented about this desert which resides in a country almost entirely sheltered from the outside world (Turkmenistan). Closed to the public the Karakum desert has a mystical allure to it which the Darvasa Gas Craters exacerbate (right).

In 1954 the United States and the Soviet Union were beginning their long descent in to the Cold War. While the United States was condemning the actions of Joseph McCarthy and his red scare, the Soviet Union was very interested in this desert Hell. They had grand schemes to transform a desert, that’s right – a desert, into prosperous agricultural land. The Soviets had visions of cotton and rice supplying their socialist empire from one of the most forsaken deserts on the planet.

The Karakum Canal - good luck finding better pictures of itHow do you pull off making a desert a haven for life? It is a contradiction in terms to have an abundance of life with a desert. Deserts are meant to be void of life, empty of the necessities of survival for most species regardless of what kingdom they belong, yet this was the plan of the Soviets. A year earlier in 1953 one of the most notorious leaders in the recorded history of the planet had finally died due to a stroke – Joseph Stalin. There was then a struggle for power in the Soviet Empire in which Nikita Kruschev came out on top. It was in the infancy of his leadership that the plan to turn a desert in to an ecosystem began. And the plan was this: To build the largest irrigation canal that this Earth has ever seen. And in 1954 the Karakum Canal was being built. When finished it was going to be 500 miles of pure irrigation madness. There was just one little problem – where would they get all that water from in a desert? The answer lay in the foot of the impressive Pamir Mountains in which the longest river in Central Asia flowed out of – known as the Amu Darya.

The Amu Darya, such a large river the name actually translates into “sea” or “big river,” had enough water to provide the Karakum Canal with the water it needed for irrigation. It would take over 3 decades to complete the canal but it was completed, not only that but the Karakum Canal was a success! Canals started springing up all along the Amu Darya and her sister to the North, Syr Darya, mainly growing cotton and rice. It quickly became the staple in these Middle Earth countries. Even today the Karakum Canal still reigns as the largest irrigation canal in the world. The long flowing arms of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya became economic goldmines. The Syr Darya’s name means “Great Pearl” because of the fresh glacial sediment pouring off the mountains giving the color of wet cement. The sources of these rivers were useful to the Soviet agenda as well. Deep in the vast Pamirs the Soviets were brewing another plan to harness the powers of these glacial rivers.

Secret Picture of the Nurek DamTucked in the Pamir Mountains, in the quiet country of Tajikistan, a town was created that never existed before. The town of Nurek was built out of necessity and still exists. Like a relic from a long forgotten past a statue of Lenin, the godfather of the Soviet Union, adorns the town even today. The town was created for one job – to build the tallest dam in the world and then staff it and run it. The Nurek Dam was born. The Nurek Dam provides electricity for 98% of the country in the past and currently. It is still an essential part of the Tajik lifestyle. Families take vacations to the Dam’s reservoir and swim in the pristine blue glacial waters. The government is so concerned about security with it that they allow almost no pictures of it – you are lucky to find 4 on the internet. The river the Nurek Dam sits on – the Vakhsh River – used to flow into the pearly Syr Darya but it is now used to power an entire country. The Soviet Union only saw success in their eyes: the longest canal, the tallest dam. Surely they questioned what it is they couldn’t do. Their legacy carries on today as a heavy portion of the world market of cotton comes from this area of the world because of the irrigation canals these two rivers fed, and the Nurek Dam is still the tallest fully functioning dam in the world.

The Death of the Amu and Syr Darya:

Now, while all this was happening the Aral Sea was creating a local mystery. The shoreline of the Aral Sea was receding. The waters edge was quickly becoming more distant. Interestingly enough it was originally branded as a temporary problem. The solution was simple – get some boats, bring them upstream, dredge the nearest canal and pull that water back to the Aral Sea so boats could still go about their business. The water the dredgers brought back were toxic with pesticides and high concentrations of salt. To the fish it was a chemical bath that most did not survive and the result was a plummeting fishing industry in a lake with a still receding shore. In the early 60s the Aral Sea employed 60,000 people in the fishing industry, by the 70’s the industry had dropped 75%. The Aral Sea was in a crisis and the reality of it soon sunk in. The irrigation canals and the dams all diverted the arteries of the Aral Sea across Central Asian desert. Naturally the answer would be to close down the irrigation canals and allow the water to continue to flow in the sea, but too late, these canals help aid a global need for cotton as well as employs thousands. Nobody was in a rush to shut all this down to feed a dying Sea – that, in the rest of the world’s eyes, was a local problem.

By 2000, less than a half century after the last time the Aral Sea was seen at normal levels, the Aral Sea is a wasteland. Piles of salt encrust the sand that used to be full of thriving life and all underwater. When the wind picks up it blows fine pieces of sand, salt, and chemicals across theA dry Amu Darya now barren desert. If Rip Van Winkle himself went to sleep under a tree in front of the Aral Sea Coastline he would wake up aghast at the desert that surrounded him. He would hop on the parched landscape breathing in the sandy heat. Surely it would feel post-apocalyptic. At one point Rip Van Winkle could stop and look up and say “The water should be 30 feet over my head,” because it had been only 50 years earlier. Eventually Rip Van Winkle would find the shoreline – far off in the distance from the original. Once the 4th largest lake in the world it’s now between the 10th and 15th largest… and dropping rapidly. On top of creating the salty, sandy, pesticide-ridden desert the Soviets had one more thing to contribute to the area.

Renaissance Island:

Picture a James Bond movie: James Bond: Renaissance Island. This mission for Bond isn’t easy, he has to infiltrate a forgotten Asian country and reach an island in the middle of a sea undetected. On this island lies one of the most top-secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities on the face of this planet. This is Renaissance Island – a name only a cliche Bond movie could’ve come up with. Once he passes through the test chambers and secretly strangles a few guards Bond finds himself in a clean, white laboratory with the most hazardous materials on the planet: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. “You’re too late Bond,” the Soviet supervillian appears from behind a secret door blocking his exit in his pressed and decorated uniform, “I’m just about to release these toxins into the world, and you’re too late to stop me.” Normally this is where Bond does something really creative, but in real life Bond never stood a chance. This time the supervillian wins.

Welcome to Vozrozhdeniya Island. Yes, the name really does mean Renaissance. The word renaissance means “rebirth,” so it is interesting that only death was on the mind of so many of the inhabitants. Indeed it is true Vozrozhdeniya Island was host to one of the most top secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities in the world. However, it didn’t always used to be like that. Vozrozhdeniya is the southwestern of the two islands in the Aral Sea. In the 1930’s it was briefly used as a bioweapons testing range but was not considered for some of mankind’s most dastardly work again until the 1950s. Enter Kantubek, the town created for the scientists to live and play in when not working in a top secret bioweapons facility.

Vozrozhdeniya Island is dubbed “the world’s largest biological warfare testing ground.” This facility really did carry those germs mentioned above: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. Out of Kantubek the men would come to work to create some of the world’s most powerful superstrains. This meant that they would take something like smallpox and make it super resistant to antibiotics making it more easily communicable. But how do we know for sure what was going on in that facility? While many scientists have worked there I have only found two that have spoken about their time there.

Seriously the only picture of the Vozrozhdeniya lab complex not from space on the internet - seriously.In 1992 a man named Ken Alibek defected from Russia to the United States. Alibek and Vozrozhdeniya Island had a special history together. You see, Alibek used to be the former head of the Soviet germ warfare program and just so happened to have worked on Vozrozhdeniya himself. He openly admits to the atrocious strains they worked on. He claims to have been ordered to prepare a strain of anthrax, small-pox, and bubonic plague to be put in a warhead aimed at the United States – New York, Boston, Chicago. Openly Alibek admits that in a certain scenario the devastation would be catastrophic. Animal testing was common on the Island; guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, cows, horses, donkeys and even monkeys were all animal victims of the facility. Like a funhouse from Hell the animals would be pulled through unknown corridors and led to dead ends where agonizing and terrible Death lay waiting to be fed Life sautéed in disease.

They tested at night, hidden from the secret eye of satellites, it was when the sun set that the animals must’ve backed in to a corner of their cage fearing their “turn.” Open air testing with biological weapons is universally agreed as a bad idea, yet on Vozrozhdeniya it was common practice. The Soviets, however, did attempt some level of containment. They figured insects or birds could be nearby during the open-air testing thusly transferring some superstrain to the mainland. To solve this little problem the Soviets poisoned the whole testing area to kill off anything around that happened to be alive. This is to ensure those insects are dead before any serious biological weapons are tested, some have taken issue with this practice claiming that it guarantees nothing, but the Soviets took no mind. After the open-air testing facility is freshly poisoned it is time to bring the animal(s) out to be subjected to some of the most wretched diseases on the planet. Alibek describes one night: “The cloud would start moving towards the monkeys. They were crying because they knew they would die.” Afterwards they’d be studied until they languishingly succumbed to death – Alibek claims thousands of animals died through this method.

The other man I found was named Gennadi Lepyoshkin who was a supervisor of scientific teams on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the 1970’s. He recalls the still fresh and deep Aral in which they swam during their off time. The island was “beautiful.” From Lepyoshkin we gather a more relaxed atmosphere even claiming one woman who dropped a petri dish of anthrax and tried to cover it up was not even punished for her action, “Nobody got sick” he says. Plus not all work Lepyoshkin worked on was negative: “We discovered new methods to improve the immune system. We developed an anthrax vaccine that was given to the whole army, and it’s considered to be the best in the world. Same with our plague vaccine; it’s been used more than 40 years.” Yet I wonder if he really believed the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Lepyoshkin on his feelings for testing biological weapons of horror:

I knew the weapons would never be used. When nuclear weapons were made, no one thought they would be used. You’d have to be mad to use them. But now that there’s terrorism, it’s more scary. You know biological weapons are cheap. We calculated that to achieve an effect on one square kilometer (and by ”effect,” he explains, he means killing about half of the population) it costs $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, $600 with a chemical weapon and $1 with a bioweapon. One dollar.

Unfortunately the story of Vozrozhdeniya Island gets worse. One dark night in 1988 a train was heading towards the Aral Sea carrying 100 tons of anthrax. There were orders straight from Moscow to bury the anthrax on Vozrozhdeniya and to never speak of it again. Covered in bleach they were shipped to the island in steel barrels. Officials decided instead of burying them in the barrels they would just dump them in pits and pour a little more bleach on it just to be sure. In 1991 the island was abandoned altogether becoming one of the most hazardous places on the planet.

The Aral Sea Disaster:

The Aral Seashore todayMan. The Aral Sea sure has its fair share of stories. And they come together in a putrid parade of human ignorance. The dreams that the irrigation canals and the dams were supposed to fulfill gave birth to nightmares that thrived the further down the rivers you traveled. The irrigation canals did do their job – they created plenty of arable land to make cotton. In fact today in Uzbekistan an ancient communist dictator is still in charge of the country which he uses as his own personal cotton-picking slave business. In this video they ask a child how long shes been picking cotton and she responds “for a long time.” This is what she is forced to do for “school.” When picked the workers (slaves) are forced to sell it to the government for below market price so the corrupt leadership can make a profit. The region using these canals sell a serious portion of global cotton to the world, so it makes one wonder what one could be inadvertently contributing to when they simply buy clothes. Cotton is known as “white gold” for a reason. And on top of that they load the cotton with pesticides poisoning the canals and the river water that did make it to the Aral Sea.

In fact it was the pesticides flowing into the Aral, the heavily increased salinity in the area, and the unique batch of poison and diseases of Renaissance Island that left the sea null of life by the 1980s. It took a matter of about two decades to eliminate all life from the Aral. The water has decreased at an unparalleled rate. Reports currently fear the Sea’s disappearance in under a decade – and any satellite picture shows it too. It was as if the Vozrozhdeniya bioweapons facility manufactured a disease that could cause terrible cancer – not to humans – but bodies of water. From space one would watch the Aral Sea slowly look more ill up until the present where the Aral looks sickeningly like a skeleton of her former self. She is not being fed and she has become emaciated.

A good idea at the rate the 4th largest lake disappearedWhat is the Aral Sea like today on the ground? Put simply – awful. It’s even worse than in 2000, the Aral Sea was everything to the locals, it even gave them milder summers and winters in a land that was already known for extremes. The Aral Sea is now a dry, salty, desert. When the wind picks up here the fine particles of sand, pesticides, and poison make a “chemical cocktail,” a term I’ve only heard used describing the air of the Aral Sea. And when this wind picks up, some of it doesn’t land until it’s as far as the Antarctic, or even further. Lime disease, all sorts of cancer, anemia and tuberculosis are all running rampant in the Aral Sea region. The infant mortality rate has risen in the area as well. Doctors without Borders, something that has previously been chiefly used in war-zones, have committed themselves to aiding the Aral Sea problem as their first environmental cause. Yes, it is that bad. Abandoned boats are strewn across this desert leaving the eerie feeling of death. Maybe it’s because the Aral Sea is literally now a desert, void of life – or maybe it’s because you are standing around ships in that desert – the only desert on Earth covered in ships.

If you pass the barren coastal towns, pass the abandoned desert ships, hike through the searing desert with snowpiles of salt as wind pummels your pores with fine toxic particles, you will come to the sea’s edge. It’s still there for the time being. The salinity is so high it is now compared to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on mainland Earth. Walk along the edge of the water pondering humanity for a while and come to the newly formed land-bridge that now connects you to the Renaissance Peninsula. In 2001, the 10 year anniversary of the Soviets abandoning one of the most toxic islands on the planet, Vozrozhdeniya, she shed her Island title in place for the fancier “Peninsula.” Vozrozhdeniya rejoined the mainland as waters decreased to its consistent record low. Rodents and other animals now have open access to one of the most lethal areas on the planet.

One of the many abandoned ships in the Aral DesertIn 1995 a U.S. Department of Defense mission found its way to Vozrozhdeniya shortly before it turned into a peninsula. What drove them to this wretched corner of the Earth was again Ken Alibek, the defector from Russia:

It is clear, when you destroy tons and tons of their weapons, it wouldn’t be possible to kill everything. And now, what we know, is this island is contaminated.

And he was right. They found the anthrax pits, took some samples back, and found that they were still alive and could even be used for a potential terrorist plot. In 2002 the U.S. returned, this time with the intent of destruction. 8 warehouses were burned on the freshly created peninsula. Just because the island is one of the most noxious places on the Earth, it does not necessarily keep people away. Chris Pada is the only reporter I’ve found to have visited the island (he also interviewed Lepyoshkin). He did this by meeting up with a group of locals about to head to the abandoned peninsula. He called these people “scavengers” because they have been stripping apart the facility and the town since 1996 to sell or use the parts. While Pada notes the respectful silence the scavengers give to this infamous town the general attitude is unworried (“I don’t see any microbes”). Pada also noticed the 8 burned warehouses that the U.S. government destroyed earlier in the year. An unnerving fact is that Pada found many things the warehouses held still intact, but a U.S. Defense Department Official still claims all the anthrax is destroyed from the bleach pits they were buried in a decade earlier.

Whatever has claimed to have been done to neutralize the island does not compensate for some strange diseases occurring around the dying watermass. Even during the Soviet time, in 1971, a superstrain of smallpox had reached mainland from a scientist on a boat in the Aral Sea. In 1999 a 9-year old boy who lived near the shores of the Aral Sea died of the plague. Also in 1999 there were two cases of anthrax infecting people in Kazakhstan near the sea.

The Aral Sea seemed to hit rock-bottom with experts agreeing on no hope of a complete recovery. What was once the fourth largest lake in the world turned in to a massive dustbowl covered in salt plains. The rain is less frequent, the air more deadly, the temperatures more extreme, the wind more harsh. However in the Aral’s darkest hour some hope still lies yet for this doomed sea.

A New Hope – The North Aral Sea:

While the Amu Darya fed the Aral Sea from the south, the Syr Darya fed the Aral Sea from the North seemingly splitting the lake in half. The Syr Darya created the smaller northern region in Kazakhstan connecting through a small 8 mile gap to the larger southern portion mainly in Uzbekistan. It is in the much smaller northern region where progress is being seen today, no matter how small. The Kazakhstan government couldn’t save the whole sea but they realized that the 8 mile dam could amputate the dead and decaying southern portion from the much healthier northern portion. The Kazakhstan government, whose maximum spending ability is less than half of Wal-mart’s profit for 2006, put together $68 million to build a dam known as the Kok-Aral. The Kok-Aral has become the center of attention for those who still live by the Aral, it has helped regain 40% of its surface area since the dam was built and the water raised over 9 feet using just the Syr Darya.

The Aralsk harbor - the sea hasn’t returned yetAn issue with the dam is that it is low, which will not allow the North Aral Sea to reach previous levels, and so with a $126 million loan from the World Bank, a second dam is going to be attempted. Those who live by the northern section of the Aral Sea are ecstatic. Everything from better weather to a renewed fishing industry is giving everybody a positive attitude. The dam is a local attraction and people like to hang about it fishing. An ecosystem is being restored here. A sign in Aralsk, once the greatest fishing port on the sea, is patiently waiting for its return. A sign in the town reads “The sea has left our harbor, but it hasn’t left our hearts.

Ultimately though, the northern part of the Aral Sea is just a fraction of the entire thing. The feeling of hope quickly dissipates the farther south one goes past the Kok-Aral dam. There are no easy solutions to this problem. Uzbekistan has an archaic self-absorbed government that shows no signs of saving its portion of the sea. The profit from the cotton slave business is good enough for now, even as the salt from the receding sea and excessive pesticides kills arable land daily.

How to make a sea disappear in just 5 decadesThe story of the Aral Sea is a sad one. Even if the northern part returns to previous levels it will no longer be considered anywhere near the 4th largest lake in the world. It will have rejoined a class of mediocre lakes all around the world. But what’s the point of this Aral Sea story, why did I go so in depth into it? Well the question I ask myself, and I ask all of you, is this a trend that will be repeated in the future? The Aral Sea is not the only ecological disaster and they are not shrinking in numbers. There are trails of garbage miles long in the most remote parts of the Pacific. There is a radioactive town and forest in Ukraine. In China one of the world’s longest rivers is almost void of life because of pollution. At first these things seem to start small, for convenience. Is the Aral Sea a manifestation of future events or is it a freak accident?

The evidence points to the former. The reason why the Aral Sea began to shrink and die was not because of a natural climate shift, it was first and foremost a man-made disaster. But the irrigation canals were not made for pure evil purposes, they were simply made to ultimately create a profit. While there are plenty of benefits and positive aspects to capitalism, with the human population growing at an exponential rate, there are only more unlimited wants in an otherwise limited planet, so a greater need for resources is a natural reaction. Fresh water seems to be resource of the future and we can see how quickly it can disappear. The Aral Sea is disappearing in less than a half-century. That is less than one lifetime. I am here to suggest some humble wisdom for the human race that is likely on the minds of anybody who ever thinks of these things – not everything can be a game. In physics we’ve learned how relative everything can be, but even in physics there are admittedly some things that are not relative. This is also true for life. The need for freshwater for plants, animals, and humans is something that needs to be heavily invested in without profit or even an attempt at profit. If one is greedy with water and attempts to profit off of it then one is most likely guilty of some of the most awful crimes of life. Water was not made for Company/Government/Person A to pollute and Company/Government/Person B to profit and yet this is exactly the direction our planet is heading in without a bit more sincerity to our home. The Earth is our home and it is the only thing that provides for us – nothing else does. As I will explain in a different entry those who sniff future profits are attempting to monopolize the water “business.” But if you are still certain that disasters like Aral only come from incompetent archaic rulers, it just might be time to reconsider.

 

Is this our future?

I encourage discussion, comments, and clicking on the links. I really looked hard for them and it is where most of my information came from. The videos are amazing and the articles are thought-provoking. For such a terrible disaster it is almost not spoken about. Some of the articles I had to use were years old just because of the lack of reporting from the region. Any other things on the Aral Sea, feel free to share.