Sunday, 29 May 2011

Forget The Headlines And Enjoy The Islands

Anyone thinking about a holiday to Greece this summer should not be deterred by the screaming headlines of economic catastrophe and political incompetence that dominate any discussion of this country. Yes, the financial situation is dire. Yes, the entire economic structure of the country needs to be reformed. And yes, the political leadership of all the parties seems incapable and/or unwilling to deal with the problem.

But the would-be tourists should also remember that Greece is the alpha and omega of contradictions. There can be angry demonstrations in the city’s main square while countless coffee shops in a nearby square are filled to bursting with people engaging in the main Greek national activities of drinking coffee, smoking, and discussing at high volume everything from the state of their relations with the opposite sex (bad) to the state of economy (even worse). The only point of agreement on the economy is that “It’s not our fault!” The arrow of guilt usually swings in the direction of the Northern Europeans (especially Germany), the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (Now we know how they make their decisions!), their own politicians (despite the fact that one of these defamed politicians probably gave a job in the tax office to one of the speaker’s relatives), and an assortment of hedge fund managers and global bankers.

The Dodecanese islands (the 12 islands) where we went sailing with our American friends Ken and Stephanie MacLean are even further removed from the confusion that seems to hang like a cloud over much of Athens. These islands stretch roughly from Rhodes northward close to the Turkish coast and include Simi, Telos, Nisiros, Kos, Pserimos, Kalimnos, Leros, Patmos, Lipsi, and the small islets of Arki and Marathi. We arrived in Kos on a beautiful, sunny day with plenty of wind for good sailing. After checking in at the Kos marina we met up with our old friend from Turkey, Noyan Bulugan, who would provide invaluable help with the boat.

The Aegean Sea around these islands offers some of the finest sailing to be found anywhere. Tucked away on the southeastern side of the Aegean they avoid the strong meltemi winds that make sailing in the Cyclades and other Aegean islands such a struggle later in the summer. The prevailing wind in the Dodecanese is northwest, and usually can be counted on to blow around 20 - 25 miles per hour in the afternoons. There is no fog, tides are almost non-existent, the water is crystal clear, and there is very little rain to interfere with a sailing holiday. In addition to the sailing there are interesting islands and small, sparsely populated bays to visit within a short day’s sail. With the exception of Rhodes these islands are relatively free from the worst of the mass tourism development that has infected a few other Greek islands, and they have been able to preserve much of the charm and tranquility of traditional island life. While there is ferry service among the major towns on the Dodecanese the best way to enjoy the islands is on a small boat where you can stop in secluded bays and the smaller towns.

We decided to go north from Kos and take advantage of the good northwest wind that comes down the channel between Turkey, Kos and Kalimnos. The wind picked up to 25 knots as we beat up the channel, and even our fairly old charter sail boat was making good time. Our first stop was on the Turkish side of the channel in a small town near where I used to have a house. The town of Gümüşlük is tucked inside a fairly well protected bay and is the site of the ancient city of Myndos. Even though much of the once-pristine area surrounding Gümüșlük has been covered with brutal holiday development the town itself has escaped the worst of the damage. The only change is that visitors now have their choice of several good fish restaurants along the waterfront instead of the one or two that were open when I used to live in the area. The only downside to the town is that prices have soared, especially when compared with prices on the nearby Greek islands. A decent fish dinner in Gümüşlük was more than three times the price of an even better meal just a few miles away on Leros.

Morning In Gumusluk
After spending the following morning strolling around the town and visiting the ruins of Myndos we headed back to the Greek side of the channel to the bay at Paleonissos which, at the peak season, might have at most three or four other boats. This time of year there was one other boat and it left soon after we arrived. Until very recently the area around Paleonissos had no electricity, no roads, and – mercifully --  no cell phone connection. Electricity and a road have now been brought to the bay, and two houses are under construction. Still, it’s hard to call it crowded, and other than a few children swimming at the head of the bay our only company was a small herd of goats wandering around the steep hills.
Paleonissos At Rush Hour

An Early Season Swim

By the time we had a swim and lunch it was about 2:30 and we set off for the next island, Leros. The narrow entrance to the main harbor on Leros is cut between two high cliffs, but once through this opening the harbor opens into a large, well protected bay. If you have been banging about with stiff Aegean winds and choppy seas it is a welcome relief to sail into the calm waters of the bay.

Waterfront in Lakki
The small marina in the main town of Lakki was unusually busy for this time of year because the Italy/Greece yacht race had stopped there. Nonetheless our old friend Vassilis found us a space and went so far as to put a ‘Reserved’ sign on the spot lest anyone else think of tying up there. Leros has close historical ties to Italy, and remains a very popular tourist destination for Italians, many of whom have bought homes on the island. The island has a bit of a checkered reputation for many Greeks, but it has become one of our favorite islands and has one of the best restaurants in the entire Dodecanese. More on Leros later.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

It now looks that barring any unlikely external intervention the brutal regime in Syria will be able to stay in power for now by maintaining its stranglehold on the people struggling for a more open, democratic society. Unlike their Libyan counterparts, the Syrian protestors don’t have any weapons to fight back and don’t enjoy NATO airpower to keep the government troops at bay.

But, as Rainer Hermann, the very experienced and perceptive Arabic-speaking journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, put it, “Even assuming the regime survives for the time being, the end of the game has begun.”

“The Syrian people have seen what happened as autocratic governments were overthrown in other Middle Eastern countries. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is only a matter of time before the regime crumbles from within or is toppled from the outside.”

Right now the regime is supported by a diverse cast of characters that are afraid of what might follow Basher Assad and his henchmen. “Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel would be reluctant to see this regime disappear. The Iranians would lose their influence in this part of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia and Israel are both afraid of what might follow,” Hermann said in a recent telephone call. Iran has been a strong supporter of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and without Syrian assistance this support becomes much more difficult. Israel and Saudi Arabia may not like the Syrian regime, but they dislike the prospect of unpredictable change even more. Better the devil you know than take a chance on unruly protestors.

Hermann noted that one of his high level contacts in the Gulf summed up the dilemma very neatly. “We are very afraid of regime change in Syria. Then everything will change in the Middle East, and we don’t want that.”

He was recently in Yemen and mentioned a conversation with an economist there that highlighted the extent of the underlying problems throughout the region. “If Yemen falls apart what happens to 23 million people? The situation is already desperate where 200,000 young people enter the work force every year and only 10% of them have a hope of finding a job. In 1999 40% of the people existed on less than $2 per day. Today that number has risen to 48% living on less than $2 per day.” With an economic profile like that the only mystery is why the protests took so long to develop.

The Iranians, meanwhile, are going through their own internal conflicts. Unlike the loud protests that followed the last dubious election, this conflict is within the regime and pits the religious leadership against the very hard core military wing of the pasarn and the Revolutionary Guards. Hermann, who travels frequently to Iran, believes that the military wing strong supports President Ahmedi-Nejad and is challenging the legitimacy of the religious leadership.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is much more of a military dictatorship than an Islamic republic under control of the clergy. They could be even more hard line,” Hermann noted.

The good news is that he believes Iran’s regional influence is diminishing as a result of the Arab Spring. “The protestors who toppled Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and are threatening Gaddafi in Libya are not impressed by an Iran that suppresses its own people and supports an autocratic regime in Syria,” he added.

As if the Arabs didn’t have enough problems of their own a Turkish Islamic charity organization, which some allege acts more like a terrorist organization than a charity, is planning another flotilla of ‘aid’ to Gaza. The trip a year ago ended in a disaster when Israeli commandos boarded the ship and a number of people were killed in the ensuing fire fight. This time around the Turkish group, IHH, has rounded up support from some quarters in Europe and is planning to send several ships. In their zeal to embarrass Israel the organizers of this fiasco seem oblivious to the fact that such a direct provocation will only result in increasing tensions in an already volatile region. The organizers seem to forget that Israel is not easily embarrassed and takes its security very, very seriously.

Evangelos Areteos, a Brussels-based journalist with the Cypriot newspaper Politis, has been following this flotilla issue closely and told me the timing is extremely dangerous. “The organizers of this flotilla combine dangerous naivety and political manipulation.” The IHH has close links to the ruling AKP party in Turkey, and it is no coincidence that this trip comes just before June 12 national elections in Turkey. There would be nothing like a major confrontation with Israel to rouse the faithful and increase AKP’s share of the vote. If they were genuinely interested in helping the people of Gaza they would use the route through Egypt that is now open. But that would deprive them of the all important pre-election political gain back in Turkey if they confront Israel directly.

The situation has dramatically changed since last year with the Arab uprisings and a surprise reconciliation of two contending Palestinian groups Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Egypt has now opened the border with Gaza that had been closed at the time of last year’s trip. Also, just when it is trying to convince the world that it is a reasonable, trustworthy political organization and not a terrorist group Hamas may not consider this the best time to manufacture a major conflict with Israel.

There are some signs that IHH is reconsidering the destination of the flotilla. Instead of heading directly for Gaza, which the Israelis would block, one early ship sent ahead will avoid confrontation with the Israeli navy and head for the Egyptian port of El Arish from which the goods will be sent overland into Gaza. This single trip was reported in a strongly pro-AKP publication in Turkey, but Areteos says the European organizers remain unaware of any such potential change. The Turkish government, ignoring the close ties between itself and the organizers, says weakly that it has no control over the IHH because it is a non-governmental organization. Right. But maybe, just maybe common sense will prevail and they will find a way to reap the political benefit without needless and dangerous provocation.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Relief Of An Island Easter

The social and religious rituals surrounding Greek Orthodox Easter provide a welcome relief to the constant drumbeat of depressing economic news coming out of Athens. Tempers have been fraught for months as the newspapers and television are filled with reports of yet more strikes, demonstrations, or persistent rumors of Greece about to reschedule or default on its mountain of debt.

Come Easter these fears and tensions turn to more mundane matters like the drama of fitting every living relative, household pet, cars, and piles of luggage onto the ferries out to the islands a few days before Easter. Crew members are busy helping, usually bodily lifting, ancient immobile family members up the stairs and then stuffing them into seats. Children and toys are scattered over the stairs while the hordes of smokers head for the open decks where they can relieve the tension of daily life by going through a pack of Marlboros during the two-hour trip to Andros. All of this is accompanied by furious hand gestures and a high decibel cacophony of opinions on the state of the world, the injustice of their current situation, concern about how to get the grandmother up the steps into the church without too much protesting, worries that the lamb won’t be ready, and fears that the wife forgot the all important red dye without which the Easter eggs will be a failure. This results in emptying bulging sacks of luggage all over the deck until the errant jar of dye is triumphantly found and displayed to the other passengers.

Once on the island thoughts turn to the succession of church services and meals that must be prepared according to dictates of the Orthodox version of fasting during Holy Week. It is the very clever cook indeed that can successfully navigate this narrow channel of what is acceptable and what is not. In theory, all meat, dairy products, fish – except for shell fish and squid, are forbidden during Holy Week. On Good Friday the forbidden list expands to include olive oil – but not olives. Supermarket trolleys are carefully, if somewhat surreptitiously, examined by other shoppers for signs of contraband dairy products or the odd sausage skillfully buried beneath mounds of innocent vegetables.

Those of us not involved in food preparation can take advantage of the sunny and chilly weather to explore the island’s countless ancient paths that crisscross the steep hills and green valleys. Many of these paths have become overgrown with thick gorse bushes and are all but impassable. But others have been cleared and marked by international groups of volunteers dedicated to opening up these ancient pathways. These paths and weathered steps were once the only way to get around the island, and the intricate stone walls carefully delineated ancient property rights. In some places you come across remains of terraces that were once cultivated with fruit trees and vegetables. In other places you see foundations of what were mountain shelters for the shepherds that used to follow their flocks across the craggy hills.

One of my wife’s many cousins joined me in an effort to find an alternate route up to the monastery perched high above the town. We trudged for more than an hour up a semi-cleared path between high stone walls before emerging onto a plateau covered with bright blue anemones, pink and white snapdragons, and other wild flowers that went well beyond our limited knowledge. We also stumbled upon the water source for the village at the bottom of the hill before deciding that the search for the alternate monastery path would have to be completed another day.

These paths are among the island’s hidden treasures. Away from the sparkling blue sea, white houses and tavernas beloved by travel brochures these trails let you discover new parts of the island’s rich heritage and beautiful vistas as you marvel at the effort and craftsmanship that created the stone paths and high stone walls.

Above all else, however, the days leading up to Easter are dominated by a succession of church services culminating in the midnight liturgy on Saturday. The churches and the courtyards are packed as the sounds of chanting and the whiff of incense float out to the waiting crowds. Everyone, from those in push chairs to elderly people using walkers, is holding a candle waiting to light it as the priest comes outside at midnight and pronounces Christos Anesti - Christ is Risen. Alithos – Indeed He is Risen. Bells ring out, firecrackers explode, and the crowd disperses for the next part of the ritual – a full meal celebrating the end of the fast.

This meal, featuring the traditional thick magiritsa soup made with generous helpings of lamb offal, is one of the main parts of the Easter celebrations. Treasured by many, this particular dish remains a taste yet to be acquired by others. However, housewives spend much of Saturday making their magiritsa and good manners dictate that you at least taste it before gently putting it aside. If you’re lucky the person next to you loves the stuff and will gladly finish yours before the hostess notices how quickly you have moved on to the meat dishes.

It’s about 2 am as you slowly make your way back up the agora wondering just how your arteries are going to cope with mainlining all this cholesterol. A couple of Alka Selzers later you fall asleep only to be woken around 9 am by the sounds and smells of people getting ready for the main event – whole lambs that are slowly roasting on a spit. In addition to the lamb many cooks will include a goat and the inevitable kokoretsi¬ – bits of lamb or goat intestines put onto a skewer and slowly roasted. While the uninitiated might run the other way, most consider kokoretsi the highlight of the weekend and will savor it with the same satisfaction as a wine connoisseur tasting a rare bottle of Haut Brion.

The ferry trip back is noticeably quieter as people either sleep off the weekend excesses or worry about what faces them on the mainland. Others, buoyed by the celebrations and enduring message of Easter, recall that Greece has been through very hard times before and has always managed – somehow – to pull through.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

'All Change' In the Middle East

The relatively muted response in the Middle East to the death of Osama Bin Laden illustrates clearly just how much conditions in region have changed and how outdated the tactics of terrorism have become. Of course the fanatics will rant and rave at the passing of the poster child of Islamic terrorism. They will swear eternal vengeance on the ‘heretics,’ ‘hypocrites’ and ‘blasphemers’ – especially those in Washington – but the words are beginning to ring hollow.

Make no mistake, the terrorists have had – and may well continue to have - their tactical successes. But they have failed miserably in their larger efforts to drag the world back into their medieval paradise. Methods of prevention and detection of terrorist threats have sharply improved, but more than that, the goal of rolling the clock back several hundred years has far less appeal than the thoroughly modern aspirations like democracy, justice, equal opportunity, or improved living standards.

If the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has shown anything it is that millions of people across the region are willing to risk a great deal to attain these basic standards that we in the developed world tend to take for granted. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the fighters in Benghazi, or the brave protestors in Syria are not struggling to impose a medieval religious life style or a new Islamic caliphate. They are trying something new. Rather than simply blame outsiders (Europe, America and Israel) for their problems, the new wave of Arab activism is looking inward and seeking long-overdue changes to the region’s stagnant political and economic structure.

In many ways groups like Al Qaeda and the old Arab regimes played off each other. Al Qaeda and the jihadis would threaten the old regimes who in turn would use this threat as a tool to deflect external calls for change and to extort billions of dollars from the West, all in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’. Now, thanks to the efforts of millions of ordinary, brave people this cynical game is ending. No one knows how these events will play out, but governments already have to begin re-calibrating their relationships with the new, emerging forces in several key Arab countries. What will the attitude of the new players be toward those countries that for too long helped to prop up oppressive regimes throughout the Middle East? Will there be serious calls for real Arab unity – something that has evaded them for centuries? Exactly how will they deal with the staggering social and economic problems that continue to plague the region? Can countries like Syria and Lebanon avoid sinking into the quagmire of sectarian violence?

Perhaps no country has to do more re-calibrating than Israel. Israeli leaders had gotten comfortable with the old regimes. They knew exactly where they stood with Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria. Israel could do pretty much what it wanted with the Palestinians, and none of its neighbours would make more than a pro forma protest. The Egyptians, for example, were perfectly happy for Israel to clamp down hard on Hamas and, in the process, remove a problem for Egypt. Successive Israeli leaders became very adept at playing off the inherent Arab divisions to the seeming benefit of Israel’s own security.

Having built its relationships with the heavy handed Arab regimes, Israel was now faced with the unsettling prospect of dealing with more democratic regimes that reflect the desires and aspirations of ordinary people. The risk for Israel is that the ordinary people in most Arab countries were much less enthusiastic about relations with Israel in general, and much more enthusiastic about the rights of the Palestinians than the old, autocratic regimes ever had been. Egypt, for one, has been quick to re-orient its foreign policy more favourably toward Hamas and even Iran. It has also opened the border with Gaza.

Israel also is now faced with the improbable alliance of the two main Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, that have fought each other viciously over the past few years and have diametrically opposed views toward Israel. Fatah has recognized the reality of Israel and has worked closely with the West to negotiate a two-state solution. While Hamas pledges non-violence it continues to reject recognition of Israel. Fatah leaders also praised the death of Osama Bin Laden, whereas one Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned what he called the ‘assassination and killing of an Arab holy warrior.’ The issue is further complicated because Hamas is recognized as a terrorist group by the United States and many European countries. The agreement was signed this week in Egypt, but it remains to be seen just how long these two opposites can co-exist.

Hamas as well is forced to do a bit of recalibration in Syria where it has long been supported by the Assad regime. It has to decide whether to support the murderous regime or lend its voice to the people protesting. After all their support the Syrian authorities are demanding payback and insist that Hamas speak out forcefully in favour of the regime and against the pro-democracy insurgents. The Hamas leadership disingenuously maintains that the organization is a ‘guest’ in Syria and must remain neutral.

Whatever the final outcome, this agreement between Fatah and Hamas has presented Israel with a brand new situation. Divided Palestinians were much easier to deal with than united Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted in his usual Pavlovian, hard-line fashion and immediately called on Fatah to break the deal. He also moved to block the transfer of $90 million to the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli foreign ministry, however, favours a more nuanced, cautious approach. In an internal document the foreign ministry says a united Fatah/Hamas unity government would offer Israel a strategic opportunity.

“The Palestinian move is not only a security threat, but also a strategic opportunity to create a genuine change in the Palestinian context. . . Such a change may serve the long-term interests of Israel.” One can only hope that the Israeli political leadership listens to the professionals in the foreign ministry.

We can expect many similar confusing, contradictory statements from governments around the world as leaders struggle to learn just how the ‘Arab Spring’ will evolve into summer and fall.