High temperatures in summer are common in Iraq. The Iraqi government has announced yesterday a two-day mandatory official holiday beginning today due to a heat wave as temperatures are soaring above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. It is the first heat advisory issued by the Iraqi government this summer. It is not uncommon for such public holidays to be declared when severe heatwaves hit during Iraq’s long, hot summers. The temperatures in southern Iraq even touched 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit)!
The world is on track for its hottest year on record and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached new highs, further fuelling global warming, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said.
On the heels of two record-setting years for global heat, 2016 is likely to set a new high for the planet in modern times. Two key climate change indicators — global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent — have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data.
Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the late nineteenth century.
The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the seasonal low point in the annual cycle, has been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade.
Previous El Niño events have driven temperatures to what were then record levels, such as in 1998. But in 2016, even as the effects of the recent El Niño taper off, global temperatures have risen well beyond those of 18 years ago because of the overall warming that has taken place in that time.
Iraq’s summers are known for their merciless heat, but just as Iraqis have shown resilience and ingenuity in dealing with the violence, they do likewise when it comes to exceptionally hot days. Some shop-owners are merciful to shoppers, setting up showers on the sidewalk that men stood under without hesitation to cool off.
Iraqis are undeterred by severe heatwaves and can be seen dancing at a party in Baghdad. Well, that’s the spirit! Isn’t it?
A wetland in southeast Iraq, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden — the Ahwar of southern Iraq, has now become a UNESCO world heritage site, reports Reuters. Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marshlands of Mesopotamia are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to bird species such as the sacred ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.
Home to the Marsh Arabs, three archaeological sites and an array of species of birds and fish, the marshes are “unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment”, says UNESCO. It also contains the ancient sites of Uruk, Tell Eridu and Ur — the birthplace of Biblical patriarch Abraham.
Saddam Hussein, who accused the region’s Marsh Arab inhabitants of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran, dammed and drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out rebels hiding in the reeds. In the 1970s, the marshes, formally known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq, covered some 9,000 sq. km, but were reduced by Saddam to barely 760 sq. km. Iraq has said it aims to recover a total of 6,000 sq. km.
After his overthrow by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, locals wrecked many of the dams to let water rush back in, and foreign environmental agencies helped breathe life back into the marshes. Over the past decade, local efforts to re-flood the area and help from environmental agencies have replenished about half the wetlands. Wildlife and Marsh Arabs, native to the wetlands for about six millennia, have also since made a return.
The origins of the Marsh Arabs are still a matter of some interest. British colonial ethnographers found it difficult to classify some of their social customs and speculated that they might have originated in India.
Iraqi date cookies called Kleicha are considered to be the national cookie of Iraq. Iraq is one of the top three producers of dates in the world. This is a traditional recipe and there are many variations. It comes in different shapes and fillings, the most common types are filled with dates or an assortment of coconut and walnuts.
During the month of Ramadan they are very popular. It’s also the custom to exchange platters of kleicha among neighbors. Kleicha is moderately sweet and not so greasy. It is rather dry but pleasantly brittle to the bite.
Historically, kleicha may be traced back to the ancient Mesopotamian ‘qullupu’. The ancient Babylonians were known to make similar cookies called qullupu, which were known to be round in shape (qullu), also taking note that the modern term for Kleicha derives from the Semitic kull meaning whole, and the Greek kolo meaning circle, and kuklus meaning, wheel.
Name the book you’re looking for and it’s said that you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this famous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad. For many Iraqis, this street — named after Abu al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, a 10th century poet from the Abbasid Caliphate period, who was regarded as one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language — offers a glimpse of hope that Iraq is still home to the Arab intellect.
This ancient street is referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community as it has been a refuge for writers of all faiths since at least the 10th century. The national library is about a mile away from Mutanabbi Street. Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbaasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops. There is an old Arab saying:
Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.
Poets, writers, intellectuals, painters and musicians converge on Mutanabbi Street’s smoke-filled traditional coffee shops to display their assets. Street is full of books and behind this counters is shops — with stationery, books, stuffs for office, dried fruits and also cafes.
Mutanabbi Street has always been a hotbed of dissent. Under the long leadership of Saddam Hussein, anti-government cells published and sold illegal copies of their tracts here under fake names. After Hussein’s fall more than a decade ago, dissidents gathered in Mutanabbi Street as successive administrations rose and fell.
COLLEGE STREET, KOLKATA
College Street is an eminent center of Kolkata’s literary crowd. Its name derives from the presence of many colleges and educational institutions, including Presidency University (established in 1817), University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824).
The College Street is most famous for its small and big bookstores, which gives it the nickname বই পাড়া (Boi Para) or “Neighbourhood of Books”. The street is also dotted with countless very small book kiosks which sell new and old books. An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street as:
…a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England.
According to Wikipedia, it is the largest second-hand book market in the world and largest book market in India and collectively boasts of a collection of almost any title ever sold at Kolkata.
In 2007, College Street featured among the famous landmarks of India which have made it to Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list. The magazine has mentioned:
Thriving beside the rusted tram tracks of College Street in north Kolkata is the boi para, or “neighborhood of books,” offering the largest mass of secondhand volumes in Asia. Generations of Kolkata’s famous writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos.
The Indian Coffee House, popularly known as Coffee House, on the College Street is a favourite hang-out places among the students, youth, scholars, editors, artists and writers. It has been the rendezvous place of many illustrious and notable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen, and the list goes on. Many talented geniuses have penned down pieces of lyrics, poems, story scripts or exchanged brimming ideas related to the world of art and culture in this cafeteria.
In 1883, the first session of the Indian National Conference was held at the prestigious Albert Hall of College Street that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. College Street has been the hub of Political meetings since 1930’s and is witness to many historical political congregations led by iconic Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal.
Although far apart, Mutanabbi Street and College Street have striking similarities!
The world’s oldest paycheck has apparently been discovered and it is claimed that it was spent on booze. New Scientist has a great article about a recent archaeology finding that shows the world’s oldest known paycheck — written in a picture language known as cuneiform — was cashed in beer! Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history of ancient Iraq and ancient Egypt.
Cuneiform is a system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia c. 3500-3000 BCE. It is considered the most significant among the many cultural contributions of the Sumerians and the greatest among those of the Sumerian city of Uruk which advanced the writing of cuneiform c. 3200 BCE. The name comes from the Latin word cuneus for ‘wedge’ owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing. In cuneiform, a carefully cut writing implement known as a stylus is pressed into soft clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or ‘word-concepts’ (closer to a modern-day understanding of a ‘word’). All of the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform (the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians, Hurrians and others) until it was abandoned in favour of the alphabetic script at some point after 100 BCE.
One tablet, excavated from the city of Uruk in modern-day Iraq, includes the symbols for “ration” (a human head eating from a bowl) and “beer” (a conical vessel): “Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker. It’s the world’s oldest known paycheck, implying that the concept of worker and employer was familiar five millennia ago.”
Archeologists link rise of civilisation and beer’s invention. Their argument is that Stone Age farmers were domesticating cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to lighten their heads, by turning the grains into beer.
It seems that some things really don’t ever change.
A sensible prediction on a seemingly obvious outcome on how the markets would react following the British referendum on European Union membership by 36-year-old hedge fund manager James Hanbury has resulted in a vast win of £110 million ($148 million), the Daily Mail reports.
The paper says that despite commissioning a private poll before the referendum which showed a Remain vote winning, Hanbury, who manages £1.1 billion for Odey Asset Management, decided to gamble on a Leave vote anyway — reasoning that there was a lot to gain and little to lose.
The vote to leave, a so-called Brexit, raised the prospect of sustained anxiety in the global economy as investors struggle to surmise what is happening. He guessed that Britain might shock the world by voting to Leave — and that the value of sterling would plunge as a result.
Brexit hit the financial world hard, with the pound dropping to a 31 year low and billions disappearing from the FTSE after the result. His latest coup will go down in hedge fund history and is comparable to a similar move by legendary investor George Soros ahead of Black Wednesday (16 September 1992).
Soros is widely known as the man who “broke” the Bank of England in 1992, when he bet against the pound and made a reported £1.5 billion. He short-sold more than £7.6 billion in the currency — meaning he would make money if its value fell. So when the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the pound collapsed, Soros pocketed a windfall.
Today, the summer solstice and full moon coincide — a rare event, indeed, that hasn’t happened in nearly 70 years, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. It’s a once-in-a-generation pairing: the start of astronomical summer and emergence of the full “Strawberry Moon.” June’s full Strawberry Moon got its name because the native American Algonquin tribes knew it as a signal to gather ripening strawberry fruit.
Depending on your local time zone, the full moon rises tonight on the same day as the June solstice for the first time since 1948. Together the two heavenly bodies will shower Mother Earth with a full 24 hours of light.
According to National Geographic, the June solstice officially kicks off tonight at 22:34 UTC, the precise time when the sun attains its northernmost position in our sky. The moon entered its full phase at 11:02 UTC today, so the two events are separated by about 12 hours. The last time the solstice and the full moon were about 12 hours apart was back in 1986.
Strawberry Moon as seen on Baghdad sky
The solstice and the full moon were separated by just a few hours but were on different days for some time zones in 1967. We have to go back much further for the last time that both events were aligned nearly simultaneously: They were less than an hour apart on 21 June 1948.
The term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Some prefer the more teutonic term ‘sunturn’ to descibe the event. Astrologers say the sun seems to ‘stand still’ at the point on the horizon where it appears to rise and set, before moving off in the reverse direction.
It appears as if the full moon and June solstice won’t fall on the same calendar date again until 21 June 2062.
The flavor of family bonding is expressed through social customs. We Indians have so many customs which makes the expression of family bonding even more prominent. Such is a custom of Bengalis in which they celebrate the son-in-law day. Yes, there is a day, which is dedicated to the son-in-law and it is called Jamai Shashthi. The son-in-law is called Jamai and Shashthi means sixth, since the festival is observed on sixth day of shukla paksha (waxing moon) in Jyestha month of traditional Bengali calendar (May-June).
The traditional festival of Jamai Shashthi originated ages ago as a part of a women’s socio-religious duty. It displays beautiful bonding of son-in-law with his in-laws. All the sons-in-law get a treat from his in-laws or শ্বশুর বাড়ী (Shoshur bari). A party is organized by the in-laws for their daughter and her husband. Sons-in-law are the center of everybody’s attention on the day. He thoroughly enjoys and loves the attention he is getting from his in-laws. I heard of a somewhat similar tradition in China. Married daughters visit their parents with their husbands on the second day of the Chinese New Year.
BENGALIS AND ILISH
Ilish (Tenualosa ilisha) is popular food among the Bengalis. It is the national fish of Bangladesh. Ilish is a fish that can make Bengalis break their pockets. It is integral to our Bengali culture. In many Bengali families a pair of Ilish (জোড়া ইলিশ or Joda Ilish) are bought on auspicious days. In Bengal, Ilish is also used during wedding as Tatwo gift. Tatwo (তত্ব) is an array of gifts that are exchanged between both families. The key feature of these gifts, are enormous and impressive sculptures made entirely of sandesh (a Bengali dessert created with milk or chhena and sugar), as well as fish dressed as bride and groom.
As Bengalis were pampering their sons-in-law yesterday on Jamai Shashthi with the choicest delicacies in keeping with traditions, it was a four-kilo shinning Ilish from faraway Myanmar that stole all the limelight. The fish fetched a whopping Rs 22,000 ($328) price at a wholesale market in Kolkata, a price no Ilish had ever been sold for. This means Rs 5,500 ($82) per kilogram, wow! that’s amazing!
This reminds me of an iconic dialogue from Dwijendralal Roy’s historical Bengali play Chandragupta where Alexander the Great tells his trusted general Seleucus Nicanor: “সত্য সেলুকাস, কি বিচিত্র এই দেশ …” (satya Seleucus, ki bichitro ei desh…), while standing on the bank of the Indus river and staring at the expanse before him that he plans to conquer. The Bengali dialogue means in English: “really Seleucus, what an amazing country is this …” Well, the country is truly amazing even now!
On Jamai Shashthi, neither laws of inflation nor demand and supply theories work on the markets in Bengal. Price of possibly every edible item skyrocket for a day because the sellers know that families buy the best they can afford. Well, this is one of the three times of the year when Bengalis are prone to reckless spending, the other two being Durga Puja and Poila Boisakh (Bengali New Year day).
It was obvious that at least some sons-in-law, if not a single lucky one, had the opportunity to taste it. I am still wondering who was the lucky son-in-law and how big was the Ilish piece on his plate! Am I envious? Maybe, yes.
Today is World Environment Day. This day is observed every year on the 5th June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). On the World Environment Day, here’s looking back at two of the crucial tree conservation movements in India.
In the 1970s, an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and came to be known as the Chipko movement. The name of the movement comes from the word “embrace”, as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors’ from felling them. The word “chipko” refers “to stick” or “to hug”. Chipko movement was a grass-root level movement, which started in response to the needs of the people of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh).
The first Chipko action took place spontaneously in April 1973 in the village of Mandal in the upper Alakananda valley and over the next five years spread to many districts of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. It was sparked off by the government’s decision to allot a plot of forest area in the Alaknanda valley to a sports goods company. Most of the leaders of the Chipko Movement were village women and men who strove to save their means of subsistence and their communities. Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a renowned Gandhian, with a group of volunteers and women started the non-violent protest by clinging to the trees to save them from felling. With encouragement from a local NGO (non-governmental organization), DGSS (Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh), the women of the area, under the leadership of an activist, Mr. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, went into the forest and formed a circle around the trees preventing the men from cutting them down.
Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna appealed to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, which resulted in the green-felling ban. Mr Bahuguna coined the Chipko slogan: “ecology is permanent economy”.
AMRITA DEVI-LED MOVEMENT
Not many people know that over the last few centuries many communities in India have helped save nature. One such is the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. The original “Chipko movement” was started in the early part of the 18th century in Rajasthan by this community.
There is a legend about a Bishnoi woman, Amrita Devi, who died trying to protect the trees that surrounded her village. The story recounts a time when the local Maharaja’s tree cutters arrived to cut the villager’s trees for wood for his new fortress. This incident is the first event of Chipko Movement in the recorded history.
It was Tuesday, the 10th day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhaadra (as per Indian lunar calendar) or the month of September, in 1730. Amrita Devi a mother of three daughters — Asu, Ratni and Bhagu was at home with her daughters. Suddenly, she came to know that many people had descended in their otherwise sleepy village of Khejarli.
It was a party of Giridhar Bhandari, a minister with Maharaja Abhay Singh, Ruler of Marwar (Jodhpur) state who wanted to fell the sacred green Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees to burn lime for the construction of his new palace. Since there was a lot of greenery in the Bishnoi villages even in the middle of Thar Desert, the king ordered his men to get the woods from Khejri trees. Amrita Devi protested against the tree-felling because such acts were prohibited by the Bishnoi’s faith. Amrita Devi along with other Bishnoi men, women and children jumped in front of the trees and hugged them. The royal party said that they would only cease if she paid them a bribe, which she refused to do because she saw that as ignominious and an insult to her faith. She said:
सर सान्टे रूख रहे तो भी सस्तो जाण
In English, it means:
If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.
Saying these, she offered her head. The axes, which were brought to cut the trees, severed her head from her trunk. The three young girls Asu, Ratni and Bhagu were not daunted, and offered their heads too. The news spread like wildfire.
News of the deaths spread and summons to a meeting were sent to 83 Bishnoi villages. The meeting determined that one Bishnoi volunteer would sacrifice their life for every tree that was cut down. Older people began hugging the trees that were intended to be cut and many were killed. These efforts failed to have the desired impact and Bhandari claimed that the Bishnois were sacrificing ageing people whom they no longer saw as useful to society. In response to this, young men, women and children began to follow the example of the old. The development shocked the tree-felling party. The group left for Jodhpur with their mission unfulfilled. 363 Bishnois died in the incident.
When Maharaja learned about the carnage, he was repentant and forbade any killing of animals and cutting of trees in the Bishnois territories. This legislation still exists today in the region. It’s no wonder that the Bishnois are considered as among the earliest conservationists in the world.
Today there are conservation movements throughout the country that integrate waste management, preservation of wildlife, cleaning of lakes and rivers, and tree planting. On the World Environment Day, I remember a poem written by Mr Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet, describing the method of embracing the trees to save them from felling:
“Embrace the trees and
Save them from being felled;
The property of our hills,
Save them from being looted.”
The 2016 Global Slavery Index, published by Perth-based Walk Free Foundation, estimates that 45.8 million people are subject to some form of modern slavery in the world today. This number is 10 million more than the last survey in 2014! The Index presents a ranking of 167 countries based on the proportion of the population that is estimated to be in modern slavery. Due to the ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function, ratings for Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria or Yemen are not included.
Modern slavery includes inter-generational bonded labour, forced child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, forced recruitment into non-state armed groups and forced marriage. Vulnerability to modern slavery is affected by a complex interaction of factors related to the presence or absence of protection and respect for rights, physical safety and security, access to the necessities of life such as food, water and health care, and patterns of migration, displacement and conflict.
The Global Slavery Index for 2016 discovered that up to 4% of the population in some countries is in bondage of some kind. Asia is the worst offender, the study found, with up to 4.37% of people in North Korea and 3.97% of the population in Uzbekistan enslaved. Those countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. The countries with the lowest estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population are Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Belgium, the United States and Canada, and Australia and New Zealand.
The survey data suggest that there are more than 18 million people or 1.4 percent of the total population, who are living in conditions of modern slavery in India. Fiona David, head of global research at Walk Free, said to Reuters while estimates of slavery had risen by 15 percent in India from the previous figure due to better data collection, government efforts to curb such exploitation had also improved. Quantification of modern slavery in any country is difficult, but is doubly so in a country as large and complex as India.
Anne Gallagher rightly said that by failing to challenge or even gently interrogate the underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, the index embodies and perpetuates a comforting belief that slavery is all about bad individuals doing bad things to good people. At the root of this belief is an unshakable faith in us being able to eliminate slavery without fundamentally changing how our societies and economies are organised; without a radical shift in the distribution and exercise of political and economic power, including a global economy that depends on the exploitation of poor people’s labour to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability.
In the words of Peter Buffet, this is not much more than “philanthropic colonialism”, the advocacy and giving that just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.
Some raise doubts on the tools and methodology used by Walk Free to determine the index. Even while we collectively obsesses over numbers and data points, we should also consider dismantling the structures that preserve and nourish a world built solidly on the foundations of human exploitation. We all need to act collectively as well as individually.