blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Afghan doctor

Dr. Hasina Rasuli is a Tajik who has felt rejected by her Pashtun associates; tribal tensions are still a fact of life in Afghanistan. 75% of Afghans still live in the rural areas where 30 years of conflict have damaged the structures of schools and other communal buildings, so they are not making very rapid progress. Hasina has been involved as a director and consultant in education and health initiatives, agricultural projects (creating jobs in lieu of poppy production) and women's rights programs, in the rural north. It is important for women from different areas of the country to get together to compare their experiences, she said.

Afghans do not ask for help when they are sick or overstressed; they tend to believe that a visit to a sacred shrine like the Blue Mosque in Masar-e Sharif will solve their problems. She told us of mobile health units set up for people –– adults! ––  who had never seen a doctor before, who urgently need health education and family planning advice, but as she became more experienced in her work, Hasina stopped distributing medicine so freely because she realised it was being ignorantly misused.

She admitted that wearing a burqa did allow for freedom of movement outside the home; women recognise one another by their shoes. She is proud of her achievements but now that she has come to Canada she feels she must stay here; she has made such an impact in Afghanistan that she fears it wouldn't be safe for her to go back there. It is traditional for a women living with her parents to be called a "girl" and be expected to behave demurely. Then, once she becomes engaged, she is obliged to wear make-up and jewelry whether she wants to or not. Pride in a woman is considered shameless. Eye-contact with strangers and a self-confident body language –– as in my photos –– would mark her as abnormal over there, a "bad woman." Hasina told us of her younger sisters and of the female medical students who need to overcome these obstacles and attitudes. The recipient of a higher education grant does sometimes gain kudos for the whole family and the increase in income helps. A doctor in Afghanistan will earn $50 per month, a teacher, $30. However, men don't always take their female colleagues seriously even when they work 20 hours a day.

All the same, women look at the future with hope, said Hasina, and do not dwell on the past. As simple a thing as installing ladies' washrooms in offices makes their lives easier. If they become landowners as, by law, they now may, they can open bank accounts; however, a woman may not acquire property unless she has sons. Even so, Hasina mentioned a woman who lost seven sons and yet thanked God for her daughter.

Hasina is writing a book: profiles of "bold" Afghan women.

Some Afghan men are helpful, including her own father, educated by the Russians; she says there are plenty of good men in Afghanistan, but warns of double standards. Some are very willing to support women's advancement, so long as it doesn't concern members of their own families. But if the men can be truly supportive, "that's the solution!" she says.

Trouble and co-operation on the border

I don't mean any present day border, although it approximates to the present day border country between Turkey and Syria, from the Taurus Mountains to the alluvial plains of the Euphrates.

Taurus Mountains (Wikipedia image)
On Sunday at Saint Paul University we heard Prof. Asa Ager of UNC (Greensboro) give an archeology lecture. His subject was the frontier between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate in the early middle ages. The subheading was: "Interaction and Exchange Among Muslim and Christian Communities". Before attending the lecture I knew practically nothing about this subject. Here are some notes I took.

The Byzantine landscape in this part of the world was seen by Muslims as a wilderness; they planned to cultivate and civilise it, like settlers a thousand years later, wanting to tame the American West. The mountains formed a natural divide, although it was a permeable one because of the "gaps between the teeth" in the mountains, as the people called them: the passes.

Prof. Ager told us of archeological digs recently done in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) and in places north of there and around the Euphrates. The archeologists had used remote sensing and satellite imagery too. For obvious reasons several study sites near Aleppo and Raqqa, Syria, have recently been put out of bounds. The word Raqqa, incidentally, means "flooded plain". The researchers had studied canal sites, marsh sites and way-stations. He mentioned that after the first Muslims took control of Syria in the 8th century, far fewer villages existed than before that time. They had not been heavily defended; many were unwalled.

Canal sites
Traces of these settlements were discovered in the vicinity of the Afrin River or the Euphrates: evidence of water lifting devices and mills. Irrigation systems protected farmers against lean years and cooperation between the landowners, through water councils, was essential for the sharing of resources. After the early Islamic conquests, Muslim farmers took over abandoned lands and developed or revitalised them, which allowed them tax exemptions. Any remaining Syriac Christians were permitted to keep their lands. According to the 7th / 8th century poet Jarir b. Atiya, the area was "a paradise on earth" and onlookers would "bite their fingertips" (a sign of jealousy) to see the orchards ready for harvest.

Marsh sites
During Byzantine days, massive erosion on the slopes of the uplands had occurred, due to unsustainable agricultural practices. When the canals flooded, wetlands became more permanent. This was not a deterrent to some Islamic settlers who constructed their villages in the wettest parts, such as the Lake of Antioch, not drained until the mid-20th century. These were reed-gathering people on small islands, who extracted clay from the marsh bed and hunted waterfowl for their sustenance. These medieval Marsh Arabs were independent-minded people who tended to rebel against the Caliph's armies. Along with their water buffalo, they were relocated or became nomadic and may be the ancestors of today's Romany.

People stopped here to trade brass and ceramic artifacts, and travelling fairs came by. Armies did not much interfere with these activities although armies came and went, and prisoners were sometimes exchanged (bartered) at the river crossings. The Abassids connected with the outside world by sea, so the cedar and pine trees growing around the way stations were cut down as timber for the construction of merchant ships. Fig trees grew there too.

Prof. Ager's lecture included a mention of Christian monasteries in the region, that had flourished for centuries and that remained functional until the 10th century. The monks had no specific loyalties or inhibitions, it seems. Travellers were served wine there and the attractive young monks and nuns appealed to some, such as an Abassid aristocrat who referred to a "tempting gazelle" he had noticed, whether male or female is unclear. The caves of Cappadocia were a special case, where Christian communities, both people and animals, sought refuge from invaders and inclement winters. In fact the Islamic raids only took place in the spring or summer; the Arabs knew of their underground granaries and the troglodytes' passages were sealed with great stones for greater security. Christians would raid Islamic lands as well.

The plains of Syria were dry as a bone in the summer months, which caused the Bedouin tribes to wander westwards towards the mountains and with their herds of sheep they might join Byzantine groups. To some extent the construction of the canals and the way-stations were a ploy to encourage them to stay put, but it didn't work. In later centuries Kurds and Basques have been similarly hard to control by a central government.

It is challenging to make sense of the history of the near east with its never-ending Islamic Jihad and the associated propaganda on every side. There were / are Christian Arabs as well, which further confuses matters. The clashes continue and the archeologists, during their digs at the Antioch site, sometimes hear bombs falling on Syria. Antakya is only a two-hour drive from Aleppo.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lectures, and other pastimes

In the first half of this month I've heard three talks: (1) by a young Afghan doctor talking about her challenging career in her home country, (2) the Canadian Prime Minister's brother giving his perspective on present day China, and (3) an American archeologist speaking of the exchanges between Islamic and Byzantine communities in the 7th-10th centuries, on what is now the border country between Turkey and Syria. I am still digesting the input.

On Monday evenings I'm taught something about Mandarin Chinese by Jingnan, a highly intelligent young woman. On the last two occasions she's been helping us to translate and analyse a description and historical explanation of China's National Day parades in Tiananmen Square.

Serious stuff.

For light relief I have been swimming and cycling, as usual, doing Sudoku puzzles in the coffee shops and some pottering/puttering in the garden. I harvested 3kg of tomatoes-on-the-vine today, but, as I wrote on Facebook, they are all green; my friends are recommending green tomato recipes. With my German conversation group, I've been preparing for some fun for Friday when we're going to sing silly German songs at an Oktoberfest themed lunch.

Our own Fall Rhapsody

Every October, the National Capital Commission encourages Ottawa's citizens to get out of town and admire the nearby scenery, as if it weren't a recommended thing to do at any other time of year. The NCC grandly calls the Gatineau Hills experience Fall Rhapsody and both tourists and local people take up the suggestion in their thousands. Chris and I tend to avoid the Gatineau Park at this time of year because, especially at weekends, the roads and stopping places get so crowded. In any case, October's coloured trees aren't limited to one area and nor is the range of our little aeroplane.

11th October, the Tuesday following the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, was another of Chris' semi-demi-retirement days –– he now stays off work for five out of 20 working days –– which we were lucky enough to spend flying to Kingston (CYGK) and back, so that we could appreciate the colours from above, under a sunny, blue sky. There were startling pockets of red and gold among the stretches of muskeg and beside the lakes. The views southwest of Perth were particularly splendid.

On the ground at Kingston we chose to walk to a restaurant we didn't know existed until I'd found its advert on the internet: Days on Front, it is called, a stylish place on Front Road. I can heartily recommend their asparagus soup and their grilled cheese sandwich isn't a common or garden one; it has brie, "apple butter" and pears in it. Chris ordered their equivalent of a BLT, containing "grilled peameal + roasted garlic dijon aioli + butter lettuce" with the tomato. During our walk back to the airport where ultralight flying is now in vogue, we stopped to clamber down to lake level by the golden willow trees and watch the wavelets breaking on the shore.

A week later, the trees are even more spectacular.

Yesterday, Monday 17th, being another off-work day for Chris, we went flying again, for the same purpose, this time following the Gatineau River north and returning in an easterly loop, over the Val-des-Monts region. Early morning patches of low cloud were just beginning to lift and break up above the valleys. What a magical sight.

Once north of the more populated part of the hills, we realise that the colour spreads for miles and miles. We must enjoy it while it lasts. We circled Lac Chevreuil to take seasonal photos for our friends who have a cottage there. Those autumn uplands will turn grey before long, and then white.

Lac Chevreuil in the fall

"Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist [...]
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

An inspiring day

I cycled along the canal path to a concert at lunchtime which was all JS Bach. The performer was Roland Graham, director of the music at Southminster Church, where these Doors Open For Music (DOMS) concerts happen, and director of DOMS besides. He was enthusiastically introduced by the ecclesiastic in charge, Trisha Elliott (who incidentally describes herself as an Intentional Interim and Transitional minister, kind of a “specialist” in helping congregations navigate change). Under the influence of Glenn Gould recordings, Mr Graham plays the piano, as well as conducting, composing or teaching at other times, and he specialises in Bach. This was a performance on the grand piano of Bach's 3-part Sinfonias, fifteen of them played without a break, followed by the far better known Italian Concerto (BWV 971).

What a feat of concentration, especially as he played them all from memory. Imitating the way Angela Hewitt performs Bach, he did not touch the foot pedal once. I was watching, soaked in music of the highest quality –– occasionally I closed my eyes. It seems to me that since Bach's time, every musical thought in western music was anticipated by this composer; is that notion too far-fetched? I try to be analytical about his music, but I always fail, especially when it comes to the compositions in minor keys. They are so beautiful, and I love his mood-changing tierces de Picardie at the end of the minor sequences, although he went one better in the final Sinfonia in F minor, which had a major chord before the end, then returned to the minor harmonies, before reaching the actual conclusion.

(Ignore the picture! Listen with eyes closed.)

In the Italian Concerto, the slow, middle movement is a deeply felt composition, in the minor key, with one of Bach's exquisite melody lines:

Is it also too far-fetched or fanciful to point out the universality of Bach's music? I'm convinced it does not appeal, and was not meant to appeal, to only one type or breed of people, but that it is for all of us. Intellectual snobs might think otherwise; inverted snobs might think otherwise too. I maintain that if a listener is unbiassed and open enough, it doesn't matter who (s)he is. There was a girl with Down Syndrome sitting in front of me. She was quietly loving this music, smiling throughout the concert.

I cycled back the way I'd come, but on the other side of the canal, the colourful side with the flower beds, then went swimming in the Chateau Laurier basement pool which I had all to myself.

The TOGETHER exhibition trailer
Later in the afternoon I went to the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive where their touring exhibition (in a very large truck) was parked outside the building. It was a thrilling exhibition with sophisticated interactive displays, called TOGETHER, the theme of which was the certainty that if, as citizens of the world, we work together, we not only address, but eventually overcome, global poverty. The Aga Khan Foundation Canada is setting an example all over the world to show people instances of how, in spite of all the challenges, it can be done. ("Together, we have the tools and knowledge to make a real difference.") Rather than being overwhelmed by difficulties, the Aga Khan Foundation focuses on the necessary and possible solutions.

Inside the Delegation building

Then I heard that the Canadian government ratified the Paris Climate Change accord today. A good day indeed.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Windtet and Bierfest

Eleonore in her garden,
photo by Christiane Willox-Conzemius
The German Ambassador and his wife Eleonore are very generous with their hospitality. On top of everything else that they do, they arranged for three Kulturtage (days of German Culture) in a row at their residence, this week; all and sundry were invited.

On Thursday evening they "proudly presented" a German piano and wind quintet (a Windtet, they call themselves) known as Ensemble 4.1. Two of its members, the clarinet and horn player, are in the Berlin Symphony Orchestra; the pianist, oboist and bassoon player have equally prestigious careers. Back in 2009, Thomas Hoppe the pianist was chosen as the BBC's New Generation Artist. The point is, they are obviously good friends who love playing together and sharing their usually unusual choice of music with an audience. The audience in Eleonore's reception room was packed, crammed together on the folding chairs. While our buffet supper was being prepared in the adjoining rooms (we could smell it!) we heard an hour and a half of wonderful music, all of which is to be found on their new CD, apparently.

Beethoven's Op. 16 first, a three movement, Mozartian quintet. Introducing it, the clarinetist led us to believe that Beethoven, when he wrote this early work, was competing with Mozart. (The embedded video below shows these musicians playing the Mozart piece).

Then followed a four-movement quintet by a 19th century German composer no-one in the room but the performers had heard of, Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Brahms was his wife's piano teacher, apparently, and the music was indeed Brahmsian.

The last piece on the programme was by a composer from New York, Avner Dorman, composed in 2007 for a chamber music festival in Jerusalem and entitled Jerusalem Mix. It was a sound-painting of that city, evoking the dances and Jewish wedding marches, the chanted prayers of both Jews and Muslims (the Wailing Wall, the Islamic call to prayer); the "intense, shocking" fourth section of the piece was simply entitled "Blast". Jerusalem Mix is also the name of a meaty dish served in Israel and Herr Glücksmann, the clarinetist, said that this symbolised the "cultural melting pot" that is Jerusalem: "all combined, everyone." The musical techniques displayed were quite experimental, the pianist leaning over the grand piano to pluck, hit or strum its strings, for instance, the wind players revelling in its discordant or unison passages. Some of the audience preferred listening to the Beethoven, but personally, I find this modern stuff exciting.

Arriving at the Bierfest, Friday evening,
photo by Christiane Willox-Conzemius
The German meal that we ate after this was delicious, including some Knödel (dumplings) with mushroom sauce that I'm now determined to try recreating in my own kitchen. Unfortunately Chris wasn't along to share this treat, having an appointment at the optician's, but he did join me at the Bierfest yesterday evening, Friday. This was an event for which the invitation asked people to come casually dressed, and was a relaxed, very well-attended affair, with frothy German Weissbier served in the tents, consumed with Pretzels and chicken legs or hot-dogs with coleslaw at tables on the lawn and a central marquee for traditional, Bierfest style, accordion / saxophone music and dancing. Several of the guests were wearing Dirndl –– which are flattering garments for all women (I'll have to buy one next time I'm in Germany) –– or Lederhosen shorts with leather braces, not so flattering for the men, really, although I liked one chap's felt hat with its flamboyant plume of feathers. This party too was excellently well put together. We made some new acquaintances, a Finnish couple, a lady married to a Dutch diplomat, the newly arrived German Defence Attaché, and also met and talked to a good few people we already knew, including a young couple from our flying club, Tanner and Christine, who were doubtless looking for ideas for the Oktoberfest parties they like to throw at their own house.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Trip south: sixth and final day

We are back again, landed in Gatineau at 3:50pm to satisfy CANPASS immigration requirements, although the officers never turned up to check (presumably since all the necessary work is done by phone and form-filling) and then, without getting out of the 'plane, flew the little 10-minute Ottawa River hop straight over to CYRO to tie PTN down at her home spot and retrieve our car.

The flying was beautiful today. We were engine-on at 10:02, says Chris, reminding me. I was sorry to leave State College without really having seen any of the main part of town on this occasion, but on our take-off the hilly view to the north of town was spectacular, a much clearer view than yesterday's, when that rain was coming on.

Somewhat at random, simply because we hadn't landed there before and were curious, we chose to fly to Oswego County today, in New York State, just over an hour and a half away. This airport (KFZY) turned out to be a fair distance from Oswego itself which is on the Lake Ontario shoreline, the nearest town to the airport being Fulton.

In the air, we were enthralled by the steep sides of the curvacious Pennsylvanian valleys on a sunny autumn morning. Some small low clouds hung around in the valleys but it was mostly clear and the sun made the winding rivers sparkle. We identified places that brought memories back for us: the ridge near State College (where Chris took George and his astro-physicist friends flying in 2006), Elmira (June 1999), Glen Watkins, Ithaca, the gorges round Cayuga Lake and the other Finger Lakes (last spring). Mellow colours emphasised the shapes of the woods and fields. The lakes were very blue, the swamps near the airport bright green.

For lunch we took a taxi (long wait, slow drive) to a Wendy's fast food place in Fulton and didn't have time to linger there because Chris was concerned about the Ottawa weather forecast for our planned arrival time. We did step onto the Broadway bridge to see the Oswego River flow down the rapids (this town used to be called Oswego Falls) and out of a hole in the wall of a former mill. On the other side of that building is a wide canal lock, obviously intended for more than pleasure boats.

Chris filed his CANPASS and EAPIS documents and his flight plan in good time; we took off to cross the border at 2:30pm, and this was a scenic flight too, up the eastern edge of Lake Ontario with the wind creating continuous breakers on the long, sandy shoreline. We could see the power stations and town of Oswego on our left, to the southwest. Ahead was Watertown and the St. Lawrence that we crossed near Brockville en route to the waypoint called CYRIL, This is where Wheeler Sack approach hands you over to Montreal's aerial jurisdiction and the traffic controllers' voices begin to have French rather than New York accents. All very familiar to us now. During this part of the journey today, we gazed in fascination at the growing cumulus clouds, some dropping dark grey showers on the landscape, others just casting big shadows. We could make out the Gatineau Hills to the north so realised we weren't going to blunder into bad weather at our destination. The Ottawa controller gave us vectors to a visual approach at Gatineau, so that we didn't have such a long final as usual. The winds, forecast to be strong, gusting 20 knots or something, turned out to be so light (only 4 or 5 knots with no gusts) that we were able to do a tailwind landing at CYND, ditto at Rockcliffe.

For the record, total engine-on time during this holiday was 17.7 hours. 1385 nautical miles there and back airport to airport (see the map above), but we detoured, zigzagged and extended our approaches, so the mileage actually totalled more than that.

Well done, Chris!