Saturday, April 13, 2013

Macedonia, 2013

My blog posts are now averaging once a year. Perhaps I'll do something about that someday. 

At any rate, I've just returned from my five-week sojourn to Macedonia the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where I was working for the OSCE as a long-term observer. My base was Bitola, Macedonia's second-largest city, and my general area of responsibility stretched as far north as Prilep and west to Resen. Cities and villages such as Dolneni, Demir Hisar, and Krusevo were also in my area. 

Krusevo is particularly interesting - a charming city nestled in the mountains, and the site of the "Krusevo Republic," where Macedonians revolted against Ottoman Turkish rule in 1903. The alliance of Macedonian Christians and Muslims presided over their republic for a mere ten days before they, and thousands of their supporters, were wiped out by the Turks.

Bitiola is a laid-back metropolis where the main pastime is sipping macchiatos and people-watching. Once the mission was over and I chose to spend an extra week there, I indulged in this pastime while managing to write a bit. 

So here are a few pix, with a perhaps a few more to come in the next week...

This sad, abandoned house sat across the alley from my nice flat. The colors here are over-saturated, and bring out the layered patina:

My duties were political, of course - at least until my final week, when I was a Bitola bohemian. And those duties included attending rallies prior to the election. This shot, taken at a ruling party rally by my driver Mende Kostovski, is particularly stunning:

I also like this one, of former president Branko Crvenkovski speaking to a rapt audience in the town of Resen, near the beautiful Lake Prespa:

In Bitola, as most of Macedonia, the unemployment rate is almost unbelievable. Thirty percent is the figure one hears, and while I tend to discount that (there is a significant grey market of the occasionally-employed), Bitola does have an underclass of invisibles. I stumbled upon an abandoned restaurant not far from the city center, for example, that is evidently home to the homeless. Graffiti are painted on every wall, and I even discovered a totem fashioned of twigs, twine, and found objects. You can just barely make it out, hanging by some string in the background of the doorway here:

Outside, someone had spray-painted the enduring question of anyone who has ever had a moment of reflection: "What is the meaning of life?!"

I kept thinking of a similar message from Baku in 2004:

Not exactly graffiti, but a symbol that keeps cropping up in my travels abroad - this time in downtown Bitola:

Not that everything has to be compared to Baku, but here is a similar scene from 2006, along Rasul Raza Street:

Bitola is also home to the ancient, Greco-Roman ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, 
and we managed a visit toward the end of my mission. 

These columns, erected two thousand years ago, were holding up the afternoon sky:

Finally, from a Bitola supermarket - an obligatory picture of blue bottles:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Armenia, 2012

A few pictures from my just-completed OSCE long-term observer mission to Armenia. Most of these photos were taken in Shirak province, in Armenia's far northwest.

The scene below is at the United Airlines passageway between Terminals 1 and 2 at O'Hare Field in Chicago, on my way out of the US...

The lonely blue door is at the railway station in the appropriately-named town of "Ani Station," near the Turkish border:

The enormous and desolate Yererouk Basilica is in the same general area, and was constructed some time around the 5th century. Its roof collapsed in an earthquake in the 1700s, with its empty shell remaining today. In a dark corner, inside the church, worshippers light candles at a makeshift altar.

My Swiss colleague and I lived and worked for six weeks in Shirak, with our headquarters in the capital of Gyumri, a city cursed by the 1988 earthquake that devastated northern Armenia and killed over 25,000 people. For the people of Gyumri, time came to a standstill in 1988, and nearly 25 years later, the city has not emerged from the trauma. Gyumri, one fears, will never re-invent itself, but rather may slide into a permanent fugue state.

One man we talked to over a cup of coffee said that after the implosion of the Soviet Union, "it was like Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' here," with people practicing alchemy and living in a magical-realist landscape.

And now? There's a sense of melancholy resignation that grips the city that, once in a brief while, yields reluctantly to hope.

Here is a (cheerful) woman selling spices in the market, along with a picture of my friend Sonna:

Like anyplace else in the former USSR, commemorations to the Second World War (the "Great Patriotic War" in the Soviet Union) era can be found everywhere in Armenia, and sometimes in the most obscure locations. This memorial can be missed easily, standing somewhat removed from the main north-south road leading to the Georgian border. The proud, brooding eagle's head now sits as a curious artifact, having been dislodged after the 1988 earthquake. You can just make out the crumbling plaque on the main edifice (upper right side of photo) that reads "1941 - 19..."

Gyumri is known as Armenia's art center, and there are galleries and a thriving art community in town. The welder below is working on a statue of Jesus, which stood on a huge scaffolding not far from my hotel. We were told that when finished, it will be shipped to Syria, of all places.

Finally, we come to Yerevan and Heathrow, on my way back to the US. Yerevan is this year's "World Book Capital," and in random alleys all over the city you can find colorful, graffiti-like murals depicting famous authors. This one, of Jean-Paul Sartre, is irresistible:

Back at Heathrow, waiting for my connecting flight. I took a time-exposure and pretty much got what I wanted in this shot:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Random Caucasus pictures

Just a few scans of Velvia and whatnot, done poorly in my opinion. (More on that later when I get the slides re-scanned in Chicago.)

First off are four from Azerbaijan - the Shirvanshah Palace an hour before sunset, followed by two shots of a sprawling oil field east of Baku on the way to Surkhany. Then is a shot of a not at all unusual fruit stall in Baku, just north of the police station on Rasul Raza Street.

Below, an old woman muses on life on her doorstep in Tbilisi. This was in 2006, and by 2010 when I last checked, the graffiti were worn away and the building appeared to be abandoned...

Finally, two night scenes taken with a Nikon D90: Rustavelli Avenue looking east towards Freedom Square, and a man in a pensive mood waiting at a currency exchange late one evening in 2010...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Monday, November 01, 2010

Georgian churches, Pt 1

Some random shots of Georgian churches, mostly taken with my Nikon D90 and 18-200 VRII lens, except for the photo of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mkskheta (with the flags in the foreground), which I took with a $50 point and shoot.

The first two photos (taken in 2004 when I was an academic fellow in Baku) are of the Ananuri Fortress and Church along the Georgian Military Highway, on the way to Gaudari. This splendid church, heavily fortified, was built in the 17th century. A hundred years later, a rival clan laid siege to the compound and finally won, killing off the ducal family associated with the church/castle. The peasants soon revolted against their new overlords, however. The church is a candidate for a UNESCO world heritage designation.

Something should be said about the photo below. I know a number of artists in Tbilisi. One of them is by training a mathematician. He is apparently affiliated with the Georgian Institute of Cybernetics, and has published a number of pieces on mathematical models, including something on international theory. I dropped by a flat he provides to his late wife's sister, and as you can see, the available wall space is largely taken up with a huge array of Orthodox iconography.

We talked and had refreshments in the living room. Looking at the wall where the icons were displayed, he summed up his sister-in-law's past three decades:

"She used to be a fanatical communist," he told me.

"But now," he shrugged, "she is a fanatical Christian."

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hazarajat, Pt II

The Afghan province of Bamyan is an extraordinary place from a number of perspectives. As I’ve mentioned, it is home to the famous carved Buddhas, built 1500 years ago and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

On our last day in the province, my colleague and I (along with our translator and British bodyguard) did a bit of exploring in the web of tunnels and caves, created centuries ago when the Silk Road was alive and well and Bamyan was a center of religious study and a hub of mercantilism.
But Bamyan is also many other things, including home to the Hazara ethnic minority. The Hazaras are Shi’ite in a largely Sunni country, and look distinctly Central Asian (with physical features similar to the Kyrgyz or Uzbeks).

The mosques are unusual, with poles mounted to the roofs, pointing skyward. These poles have multi-colored flags attached to them, nervously fluttering in the wind, and looking rather like Tibetan prayer flags.

And I keep wondering if this is where the flag motif comes from: perhaps, long ago, they really were Buddhist prayer flags, and the idea was incorporated when Islam came to the area.

The Hazaras suffered terribly during the reign of the Taliban, when thousands of them were murdered (and raped) in Kabul as well as in Bamyan. Many fought and died. Others fought and finally accommodated themselves to Taliban rule, in one way or another.

Ustad Akbari is one such figure, a former Hazara warlord who initially fought the Taliban, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor (to put it charitably) and switched sides when it became apparent that the Taliban would take over Bamyan. Akbari is an incumbent in the Wolesi Jirga (parliament), and my colleague and I tried mightily to get an interview with him prior to the election, but it didn’t happen. I keep wondering how the Hazara people reconcile his collaboration with the fact that he won a seat in the last election, and how he is seen today.
A very interesting interview with Akbari can be found here at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies web site. Akbari puts his thinking at the time this way:

“…after the fall of Hazarajat in 1998, I thought the best way to serve the Hazara people was to join the Taliban. On the inside I thought I had a better chance of being able to prevent them from slaughtering my people. This is how I came to live under their dominion for three years. It was not because I supported their policies.

Akbari still generates his share of controversy. One of my short-term observers was Ben Skinner, a journalist who writes occasionally for Foreign Policy magazine, among other publications. Ben wrote an excellent piece on Bamyani politics, emphasizing the role of women and including a priceless interview with the province’s governor, Habiba Sarabi – Afghanistan’s only female governor. In Ben’s article, the governor discusses Akbari’s backing last year of a law that included “provisions that women submit to their husband's sexual demands, and remain in the home unless accompanied by a male relative.”

Read Ben’s article for the governor’s comments on Akbari and her assessment of the election, which took place on September 18.

You can go here for one of several Hazara web sites.

Attached are a number of photos, with more to come in the next week or two...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Hazarajat...

Just returned from nearly a month in Afghanistan, working as an election observer with Democracy International. Most of my time was spent in Bamyan Province - or Hazarajat, as the greater Hazara region is sometimes called. Bamyan is an exotic and wondrous place, the sort of place that you feel you could settle in, despite the fact that it's in Afghanistan and surrounded by not-so friendly people, such as the Taliban, who appear to be establishing themselves in Shibar, in the easternmost area of Bamyan.

In Bamyan, you can feel the history everywhere, moving around you invisibly in the mountains, or spectacularly lit up by the morning sun, as is the Buddha wall in Bamyan Center, the provincial capital.

Had the Taliban never conquered it during the civil war, Bamyan could have remained splendidly isolated, or perhaps gently interconnected, with its mountains and lakes and Buddhas and Hazara culture. With Afghanistan's future in doubt, that outcome could still express itself. Even in a distasteful power-sharing agreement brokered by President Karzai and the Taliban, one hopes that Bamyan may escape with some kind of autonomy, anything that will guarantee that the Hazaras will be left alone to determine their own future. We shall see.

At any rate, here are a few photos, to be followed by more in the coming weeks...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tbilisi, evolving

Tbilisi has been changing incrementally over the last few years. By contrast, Baku is transforming itself at a dizzying pace and models itself on Dubai, with new, aggressive skyscrapers and demolition crews everywhere. (Dubai is a dubious model for Baku, given its staggering debt. And for many years, Azerbaijan has been a prime candidate for Dutch Disease.)

Most of my favorite cafes and restaurants are now only fond memories, and a facebook page has sprung up entitled "Stop Destroying Baku," which allows Azeris to vent over the almost violent transformation of the city.

Tbilisi, however, is evolving in a more relaxed fashion - typical for Georgia.

Everyone complains about it, but I am not so sure that all the changes are really diminishing Tbilisi's unique character. And again, in contrast to Baku, my guess is that the gradual pace and less frenzied determination to change the city will result in a comfortable blend of old and new. (Why do the authorities in Baku feel that a complete metamorphosis has to take place as the city evolves? What was wrong with the old Baku?)

So until I come up with some additional photos, I am submitting these two - of the old Iveria Hotel and its reincarnation as the Iveria Radisson. Pretty glitzy, eh?

The old hotel was an embarrassment to the government, having been taken over by refugees from Georgia's civil war in the early 1990's. They simply moved in, took over, and adapted - with generous use of plywood and drywall to extend the square footage of what was once hotel rooms. The old Iveria, then, was a semi-permanent refugee settlement, giving it a wildly improvised appearance in the heart of downtown Tbilisi. Thus the embarrassment, because it was also a symbol of the government's inability to integrate the refugee population.

There were rumors for years that a (Japanese? Finnish?) firm had bought the Iveria and would turn it into a high-end shopping center, but to my astonishment, it morphed into another hotel. And the Radisson, for whatever reason, decided not to raze the previous structure, but to keep it intact and gut it from the inside out.

I was happy to see it still standing and refurbished. Did Radisson decide that the building's form had aesthetic potential? I want to think that it's an example of the "golden ratio," a la UN Headquarters in New York.

But this article throws cold water on the notion that many of the buildings we think of as based on the ratio actually are.

Note the presence of the fine statue of King David the Builder, still present as of the restoration in 2009. Unfortunately (and curiously), President Saakashvili ordered its removal to another site early in his administration. It's gone, and so are the refugees (who all got a buyout). And the Iveria has been restored to its former glory.