On the Road

For the past three and a half years I’ve been exploring the roads, the highways and byways, of India on my motorbike. I’ve probably traveled more than 50,000 km all over the country – the only area I haven’t been to is the north east. I usually go on longer trips, 4 weeks or more, and I try to avoid the sterile and boring to ride highways and look for the lonesome roads, the country tracks. To put it mildly, these are not always in tip-top condition – but most of the time it’s well worth investing that extra time and effort. Simply because it’s here that you can dig deeper into the country and get a real feeling for it. I believe it’s on roads like this that India shows its true face: beautiful but sometimes very unforgiving. The landscape can be stunning but all too often it’s scattered with litter and scarred with garbage dumps. The people you meet are among the most innocent and curious that you’ll find but they’re horribly left behind. All these are pictures that we don’t usually find in Western media which pushes the image of an emerging, rapidly growing economic power.

I started to ride a motorbike a few months after arriving in India. Before that I had 20 years devotion to the humble motor scooter and my longest trip on the 50 ccm two wheeler was from Berlin to Heidelberg – a grand total of 650 km! It took me three days and what a great way it was to explore the country roads of my home land away from the straight and narrow of the Autobahn. But motorbiking in India is a different story. Upgrading from a scooter to a motorbike wasn’t so much of a challenge – the real challenge was how to cope with the sheer unpredictability of any kind of Indian traffic situation. Whether on a four lane highway where on-coming traffic shouldn’t be so surprising, not even on the fast track, or arriving in an urbanized area where the density of everything suddenly and dramatically increases. In less than a minute you move from the free breeze in your face to jostling crowds of people, an exploded zoo of animals, swarms of children and jostling competitive traffic: anything from bicycles and auto rickshaws, to oxcarts, pick-up trucks and motorbikes. And the noise is simply ear-splitting. There seem to be simply no rules – it’s freestyle, self-organized traffic where each driver seems to take his life in his hands and act like there were no tomorrow.

My first long tour was on a Honda Hero Impulse 125 ccm – a dirt bike – from Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh all the way up to Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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Climbing up to Manali

On my way back I went through Rajasthan and Gujarat. The same bike took me to the south of India. Climbing up the Western Ghats was one of my most memorable experiences – it was like driving through the lands of the Avatar movie. Spectacular landscape, fascinating light and lush nature. And plenty of tea plantations.

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Western Ghats in the early morning

After a year on this very dashing bike I bought a new one that was a bit faster when I decided to go on a four month trip to Kashmir and Ladakh. Now the 200 ccm KTM is a very speedy bike, but for me – who had to endure it on long rides – it was simply too small and too tightly upholstered which made for a very ass-numbing experience at the end of a long day.

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And then, last year in Diwali I had this Eureka moment. I was on a tour with a friend going from Bombay to Goa (again on the KTM) when he offered me to ride his “Bullet”. So I got my first taste of how it feels to ride a right Royal Enfield – the supreme incarnation of the motorbike in India that’s been in continuous production now for 75 years. Only my first taste was disappointing. I felt it was way too heavy for me and that I couldn’t handle it properly. So I gratefully hopped back on my KTM. But two days later temptation overcame me and I tried again, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. I’ve bitten the Bullet ever since. It’s like a luxurious sofa on wheels … and once it starts rolling, believe me, it really does roll.

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Exploring India by road has given me a pretty good sense of how just huge, wild and diverse this country is. Distance has taken on a new meaning here where I can drive 500 km but when I look at the map I’ve hardly moved from my starting point. Using Google maps in India – which is what I do while traveling – can turn out to be tricky once in a while because, as I’ve found to my cost, Google maps don’t scale right. Very often distances on the map might look the same but in fact can vary from between 50 km to 150 km which really screws up your day’s travel schedule. And Google won’t show you how winding the roads are either which is another important factor when you’re calculating travel time.

Usually with the Bullet I do 350 km a day, and rarely stretch myself to cover a grandiose 600 km. If I have to, it means I’m KO in the evening – because 12 or more hours on the bike on bumpy roads is definitely too much. It only happens when I want to reach a certain place or when I’m forced to continue because I can’t find a decent place to stay for the night. There are no hotels or homestays in the villages and small cities. There might be places where you can sleep – but seriously after a day on the bike I do need running water (preferably hot water which is a challenge in itself) and I do need a toilet. My face is a mask of dust and dirt, my clothes are ready for laundry and my hair – even though most of the time I’m wearing a helmet – is so stiff with filth it can hardly be brushed. So sometimes the only option is to move on. Over time I’ve developed a routine where I check out various places online for my next destination – but this doesn’t always work out.

When I finally reach my destination it’s always an adventure finding the place where I plan to stay. Hardly anyone in the streets speaks English and, on top of that, hardly anyone can read – so my Hindi written papers are no help either. It’s pretty much trial and error until I find someone who understands what I want. In the bigger cities it’s slightly easier to find someone who speaks English and I’ve discovered that auto rickshaw drivers have some very basic understanding and at least some sense of direction. So very often I let an auto rickshaw driver be my guide. Sometimes I ask the policemen standing along the road and to my surprise three times a police guy jumped on his motorbike and showed me the way. Probably a special gallant service for lone western women on motorbikes!

The wildness and diversity of India is a continual source of fascination and inspiration. But sometimes it also frustrates me and makes me angry. I see the wildness in the ways the trees grow and the forests and lawns are “not maintained”. I see it in the way the waters flow and fall and how the mountains are shaped.

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Doodhpuri, Kashmir

The co-existence of nature and humans – sometimes brutal, sometimes harmonious – adds its part to the picture. The endless bright colors of the saris with the brownish and greenish shades of the landscape in their background are stored in my memory for ever. The eyes of the children, sometimes empty, very often curious and astonished to see “something like me”. The huge number of wild animals roaming around: tigers, leopards, hyenas, jungle cats, snakes, elephants, camels, donkeys, monkeys, goats, buffalos, pigs, cows, insects and endless number of birds, the infinite variety of sounds you hear – all this expresses India’s abundance and messiness and its beauty. The women working in the fields, taking care of their children and carrying home water and other goods on their heads have become a very familiar scene in my life. But what frustrates me and makes me aggressive is the way that men are absolutely dominant in the rural parts of the country – and by “men” I mean bunches of mostly uneducated, unemployed guys hanging around acting macho like little lords of creation but not moving a muscle to make a more decent life for their villages. On the contrary they make things much worse. In the early hours of the evening they start drinking their local wine and rum, and when they’re pissed out of their tiny minds they’re in a fit state to go home and beat and abuse their wives and very often their kids too. It’s disgusting, abominable but unfortunately way too often just part of the fabric of daily life. Women count for less than nothing in these rural areas.

I don’t know how many of India’s 700,000 rural villages I’ve passed through on my travels. This is where most of India’s population is living, probably some 800 million people. And this is where India is the most exploited. These villagers live without any water supply and electricity. They’ve hardly any health coverage and no kind of sanitation. Malnutrition is chronic and just part of life – they have too much to die but too little to prosper. Yes, government schools have arrived in some parts, but often enough teachers don’t show up or children don’t attend because they have to work in the fields. There’s no TV and if a village has a phone it’s simply one very basic cell phone for receiving in-coming calls with no chance of making an out-going one. The homes are mostly just one room with no furniture where three generations of the same family plus an odd goat or two sleep on the ground. They carry cans of water to wash themselves after they’ve emptied their bowels somewhere else. Sometimes they’ll follow the call of nature right next to the road, sometimes along the railway tracks, sometimes in the fields, and very often kids will squat down on heaps of uncollected garbage where pavements should be. Right next to the chickens, pigs, donkeys, goats and cows looking for something to eat. This mixture of rotting garbage and excrement sends out an acrid nauseous smell which hangs in the air and sticks in your throat. When they set fire to it, which they very often do, it becomes truly excruciating.

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Bophal, MP

But still these people laugh. They are very friendly. They are happy – much more happy than many of the people I see in the streets of Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. Or back home.

Why is this?

This is a question that puzzles me and that I often mull over while crossing India on my motorbike. So far I haven’t found an answer. But I think it has something to do with NOT having access to the Western or the so-called developed world. These people accept their lives for what they are and enjoy what they have. For “us” it seems like nothing – for them it might be a hard life but it’s a happy one. There is an innocence and a curiosity about them which urban culture has lost.

Riding my bike is a form of mediation for me – my mind becomes free. Many of my best ideas were born on these trips. There’s no tension. No phone-calls. No e-mails. Nothing to worry about. The roads and nature are wide open. All you need to do is to go. And you can go endlessly. I become one with the bike and the road and the surroundings. I don’t count the kilometers I am riding, I simply enjoy the NOW.

I feel the country.
The sun. The dust. The rain. The dirt. The air. The noise. The smell. The density. The wildness.

(Thank you my dear Paul Morland for adding some “Shakespearean Art” to my text)

DIY Ready To Scale?

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Kevin Kelly, senior maverick at Wired, has his doubts on this. David Li, the guy who opened up the first maker / hacker space in China, interviewed Kevin at the MakerFaire in Shenzen. Being asked if open source and DIY products will replace or challenge traditional mass prodcution Kelly replied very hesistant: “DIY and open source products enhance the number of possibilities and this by itself is a very good and positive thing. But today I cannot foresee any scenario that DIY and/or open source products will ever vanish mass production for consumer and/or industrial goods or even challenge it in a significant way.” A bear hug for the world capitol of mass production in electronics, an embarrassment for the fairly new and quickly growing community of young innovators which was just recently ennobled by none less than the Chinese Prime Minister himself. China’s new innovators embody the DIY culture and I do believe that their biggest gathering and get together has a very specific reason to take place in the world centre for mass manufacturing – and this reason is explicitly mass manufacturing. So what happened when DIY and mass manufacturing meet? Is Kevin Kelly wrong?

It was my third visit to Shenzen, the second one in this year. You can almost see the city changing during a three month period. And it was my second visit to a MakerFaire. The first one I attended was in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. It was the first African MakerFaire and it was in 2009. In Accra everything was about prototyping. Prototyping products which eventually would improve the daily lives of the people. We saw prototypes such as a cooler for tomatoes or an irrigation system for farmers or clothes made out of old plastic bags and newspapers. A broad variety of daily needs. In Shenzen there weren’t any prototypes – almost each and every showcased DIY product and gadget was ready for mass production.

Shenzhen was built from scratch exactly for the reason of mass production. Mass production of electronics. It became well-known as THE copy-cat center of the world – but this is changing rapidly. Not only do the manufacturing lines change towards more qualitative products, e.g. Leica is supplying its objectives and lenses for the Chinese version of the gopro camera, we also see the rise of an entire new service industry around the manufacturing processes: consultants helping people to design their manufacturing outlets – very flexible, very fast and still very cheap. You basically come with a prototype and they design the facilities or adjust existing ones. It’s what’s called an “absorptive state” – it’s getting better and better at combining its own local capabilities and infrastructure with foreign technologies and knowledge. And when you walk around in the electronic malls in Shenzhen you experience the international business crowd looking out for exactly this. Basically each vendor in the mall is associated with at least one or two manufacturers. And this is the feeling I had when I strolled around at the MakerFaire in the midst of Hardware City – the district in which most of the multinational IT hardware companies have their offices. The only difference: the international business crowd at MakerFaire were the young makers. Unlike in many other MakerFaires the DIY spirit and the presence of art-tech mash-ups were lacking. Instead the makers were equipped with order sheets and product catalogs – the things I saw most were robots, drones and 3D-printers. And I saw guys from the manufacturing firms walking around and looking for interesting prototypes ready for their mass production units. And at quite some office buildings you could see the logos of international accelerators.

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Kevin Kelly (left) interviewed by David Li

So coming back to Kevin Kelly – yes, I’d argue he is wrong. What I’ve seen in Shenzhen is “Maker to Market” – fully supported and in line with the Chinese government claims. What this basically means is that “weird prototypes and gadgets” which were developed in the grassroots communities of hacker and maker spaces in Shanghai and Shenzhen and elsewhere now become commercial products.

And what you can also already sense and already see in Shenzhen – many of these young makers and innovators set up their own companies. They want to become entrepreneurs. This will certainly fuel Shenzen’s economy further and add a new component to its industrial landscape. And when you walk through OCT Loft, a very surprising quarter of Shenzhen (at least to me), you’ll get a sense of what this means … just click through the pict below and you feel you are in Amsterdam, Berlin or Barcelona. OCT Loft – surprise, surprise – is also home of the first maker space in Shenzhen: Chaihuo – the cell and first office of seeed studio. And it’s also the place where the first Shenzhen MakerFaire took place. Seeed studio in turn is the main sponsor and organizer of the Shenzhen MakerFaire and the world’s biggest online platform selling everything what maker need. Mostly open source hardware components – made by makers for makers. And with their own production facilities – which are open and transparent – they are closing the gap between prototype and mass production by manufacturing up to 1000 pieces.

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OCT Loft in Shenzen

Currently the “Maker to Market” products are quite simple – in comparison to sophisticated and specialized technologies – and they are mostly built on open hardware technologies such as Arduino and low cost labour force. But having seen the transformation in Shenzhen’s industry in the last decade it’s hard to imagine that it will STOP here. And the first glimpses we could catch already: students from Hunan University showcased an electric car that runs 300 km per charge. Others showed a fuel-efficient vehicle which could run 1000 km with 1l of gasoline. And this vehicle only scored second best in a Honda competition for fuel-efficient cars. The big companies have realized the potential of the makers – and they are embracing it. Sony and Samsung for example have opened their research labs for the makers in Beijing. A bold move.

But does all this mean at a wider level that the manufacturing practices in Shenzhen, in the Guandong region and in entire China will even get worse? More unfair pay and harsh working conditions in the factories? Already many strikes for better salaries are going on and Foxconn, one of the MakerFaire’s main sponsors, is subject to interrogation about the working conditions in its factories. And the question of what kind of impact these factories have on the environment (air, water, nature, health …) isn’t part of a public debate yet. This opens a wide area for speculation.

For me the Shenzhen MakerFaire shined a light on the potential of the DIY ecosystem and ways to move forward, the political regimes which more or less regulates it, the infrastructures which supports it, the forms of work that drive it and the culture and history that shape it.

Iran – How to deal with Khamenei’s open letter to the youth in the West?

On January 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei wrote an open letter addressing the youth in the Western world. He invited them to read the Koran and to go to the sources to achieve a better understanding of what Islam is all about. The letter – I think – has a perfect tone and language.

A few hours after the letter was published I’ve received an invitation from my friends in Iran, whom I travelled and worked with last April during our Peace Pilgrimage to Syria (via Iran), to answer a few questions regarding this very letter. Mmmmhhh, what to do? I was somehow in a double windmill – I love the country, it’s beautiful and the Iranian people are warm, welcoming and very well educated. I always sense a kind of education in the humanities and classic traditions we in the West have almost lost. And for all of this I love this country. I also have to say I like the way Iran and its leaders act in the current Middle East conflict zone – in comparison to the U.S and the West they do have a strategy and position – whether one like it or not. Iran took its stand and is acting wisely. But there are also things I really don’t like about Iran – high among them the way they treat women (women need permission from a male if tehy want to travel!!!), the way they “force” foreign women to wear the hijab, the way they practice freedom of expression and the way they censor (there seem to be a decline in censorship these days as well) and especially the way they treat people who do exactly what Khamenei is asking the Westerners to do. Double-dealing?

So I didn’t want to offend them but I also thought one should support this initiative to reach out and understand each other better …

To make a long story short; I didn’t answer but I decided to publish a letter Amir Maasoumi wrote to one of our delegation members of the Peace Pilgrimage to Syria – Amir was asked if and how one should reply to this letter … below is his answer. I’ve chosen to publih it because it’s reflection the same tensions I felt … So please take Amir’s take instead of mine!

Amir is born in Iran. He is now living with his family in Montreal. He is a peace activist and intellectual.

Thanks Amir for having giving permission to re-print this.

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Khamenei addressing Iranians

Very dear …

Thank you for your kind e-mail.

I have read your exchanges with …

I’m not at all surprised by this reach-out of Khamenei and the efforts and initiatives being made to gain support for it – especially support from well-known international peace and social justice activists; the prominent Western celebraties. I also know that they’ve contacted other friends and colleagues. A clear-cut answer to your question is “Do you think it would be helpful if I wrote something on this development?” is not easy to give!

I’ve read the letter of Ayatollah Khameneii the moment it was published. It’s a very good letter with a truly surprising invitation, thesis and approach. But the important question in this context is not related to any good words or wishful thinking. Unfortunately the experience has taught us that beautiful words and ideas do not go very far in the real life of the Iranians. There is a “double discourse”; soft speaking and harsh acting are the very nature and deeply rooted in the identity of the Iranian pragmatic politicians.

We – you and I – are the people who celebrate peace and dialogue. And we live up to it. Therefore any occasion to establish the contact between them and us will reduce the tensions, will build the bridge and encourage the dialogue towards durable peace. It is the most welcome for all of us. But a real and genuine dialogue, a dialogue based on respect for one another is something different. A dialogue with clear objectives and not a dialogue which is exploited for political means while in reality life as usual continues, it sometimes even gets worst. Or did Israel’s continuous talk about dialogue, negotiation and peace with Palestinians change anything in the daily lives of millions of Palestinians? No, their horrifying tragedy, the occupation, massacres, apartheid and ethnic cleansing are going on – in fact it’s getting worse. And everybody knows it, sees it – but nothing stops it. Or do the same warmongering attitudes of all other US, EU and NATO’s ‘’human rights and peace lover’’ leaders make any sense?

Please allow me to be more clear.

You know that I’m working in this field since more than 3 decades. In the aftermath of 9/11 early 2000 when President Khatemi (a “reformist” who is actually almost banned in public, muzzled and practically in danger in Iran) made the “dialogue among the cultures and civilizations” the central axe of his foreign policies, it was then when I asked him in an open letter: “Why do not we start at home, in Iran, the inera-Islamic dialogue with our Sunni minorities, the Sufis (the mystical dervishes) … and the inter-religious dialogue with others such as Bahaiis, different Christians denominations etc … ? I do not mention here the cultural dialogues, the relations with cultural and linguistic minorities within the country … Why do not we start this dialogue at home?” For instance more than two million Sunnis in the mega city Tehran do not have one Mosque and are not allowed to build one. They are Muslims as well. And they are by far the largest minority in this country. At that time the supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameneii and his powerful institutional and individual supporters were totally against Khatemi’s policies. Against any kind of dialogue! And now – at least officially – they take the same stand.

At the same period, I received an invitation from the U.S Senate Foreign Policy Comity as well as the General Consulate of the U.S in Montreal to help to build the relations and create “dialogue groups” with Muslim communities in the U.S and Canada. My answer was simple and clear: “A genuine dialogue is based on mutual respect amongst equal partners. It starts by and materializes in concrete actions. Dialogue is much more than sitting around a table and chatting. And it is definitely not possible when at the same time one side is persistently looting and burning Iranian homes, killing Iranian families and destroying our countriy…!” I also remember, at the very same period, G. W. Bush manoeuvring repeatedly with the same rhetoric of “dialogue with Islam and Muslims” in his speeches and declarations … Well, in order to address all these recuperations, these empty discourses “on dialogue” aiming particularly to thwart a real desire among the peoples for a genuine “dialogue in action” and as the alternative to permanent confrontation, to the “global wars” based on lies and manipulations. I published several papers and gave numerous lectures on the minimal requirements of a reel dialogue. Unfortunately they are all in French. Please see an example here.

As to me, I do not have any problem to inter in dialogue even with my “enemies”. But I do not want to be manipulated. I do not want to “serve” and become the instrument of the agenda of others which has nothing to do with “dialogue and rapprochement”. In contrary it very often goes in opposite direction. Thus, before saying “yes” to their invitation I would like to ask several simple questions why these notorious and persistent “opponents of dialogue” became so suddenly the new apostles of it – but only with the foreigners.

How come the regime expresses its wishes, its warm and irresistible desire for a constructive dialogue with the Western youth but it refuses to do so with its own? In Persian, we have a very good expression. It says: The lantern which is needed at home is not even allowed to be given to a Mosque!

How come, they invite and ask the Western youth to read the Koran and discover the true meanings of Islam without any intermediary, without interferences and influences of the negative propaganda or violent readings and practices of some groups … , but when the Iranian youth or Muslim intellectuals do the same thing, they go to jail, to exile, or they will be tortured or executed?

You know why?

Because they are not honest! Because for them, the only “authority” who has the right to talk about Islam is the clerical establishment, and the only authorized readings of Islam are their readings. Not even the readings of all other clergies out of th einner circle of power, even the most prominent once like late Ayatollah Montazeri; the designated successor of the “leader of the revolution” Ayatollah Khomeini, was discarded from power and died in house arrest. This is a very disgusting hypocrisy. The last young intellectual has been executed only four months ego, simply for his innocent interpretation of a very anecdotal Koranic verse, without any social or political implication, was Mohsen Amir-Aslani. He is one among the almost five hundreds executions since the new president Rouhani (so called moderate) has been elected – more executions than hardliner Ahmadi-Nejad had in the same period of time.

Well, if some Muslims among these “young Westerners”, after their own quest for the true meanings of Islam, reach the conclusion that Islam it not a convenient spiritual path for them and as the result they decide to convert to another religion or simply become atheist, what will be their sentence? Are they considered as “apostate” or “abjurer” as the case may be, with “capital punishment” applicable to them as demanded by Iranian so called “Islamic” based laws? If not why do not they abolish these inhuman and archaic “sacralised” jurist-opinions-of-another century and release all “new-Christians” and other conscious and faith based prisoners from Iranian jails? Why is the “freedom of conscious” only reserved for others? Why do they continue to apply these inhuman punishments to the Iranians?

Most of these young Westerners are very joyful and happy! They love to listen to music. They love to dance. Will they be questioned and eventually punished for doing what they love? If not, why are these simple activities judged as a crime when Iranians do it? Why must the Iranian youth pay such a high price for doing the same things? Being happy, dancing in private, film it and eventually share it on YouTube?

From a “theological” point of view the Ayatollah’s proposition, as I said before, is even more interesting. It has high significance and implications if it’s real and not only for short term political marketing operations or cosmetic purposes. Recognizing the legitimacy of everybody’s right to go directly to the “sources of Islam” and having his/her own understanding of the sacred texts – which is a basic principal of Islam. A principal that Iran is insincerely denying in the name of Islam since centuries, implies de facto that the entire clerical establishment (especially the Shiite branch of Islam) is nothing more than a guardian of the traditions without any “divine” power, without any specific authority to guide or control forcefully the lives of other believers. It implies that they don’t have any monopoly of the Islamic discourse or privilege access to the “unique and true sense of Islam and its texts” as they always pretended to have. In this case, the position of the “Supreme guide”, justified by the theological assumption that he has direct link and “connection” to the “last hidden Imam” and ‘’ his representative on the earth, with all his divine authorities, doesn’t have any base nor any raison to be. Therefore and in order to be coherent, at a very first step, these people must amend the Iranian Constitution and simply abolish the “Supreme guide’s” position with all its disproportionate and despotic powers. Even further, they must rewrite and reform the theological and ideological corpus of the theory of the “Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” – the very core of the regime and the system.

On the other hand, how come that the famous Iranian philosopher and theologian Abdol-Karim Soroush (we can see him also in some episode of the “Salam Iran a Persian letter’”, a film based on my life) who suggested exactly the same ideas more than fifteenth years ago – has to live in exile? I’m neither talking about “radical pluralistic anti-clergy theologians and thinkers” nor about the human rights activists, leftist students, lawyers, dissident intellectuals – no. I’m talking about Soroush, a semi-liberal Muslim thinker who was for longtime amongst the “collaborators” and official intellectuals of the Iranian regime. Well, if the Iranian regime is really ready to accept this simple point or at least having a serious dialogue about it, then why they do not start this dialogue with people like Soroush? With Shirin Ebadi and many many others?

How many Christians, Baha’is, Sunnites, Dervishes even Shiites and among them the Ayatollahs with deviant readings of Islam and Koran have we in Iranian jails? Is it not better to start first or at least at the same time the respectful and constructive dialogue with them as well?

The two Candidates of the 2009 presidential elections: Mir Hossien Moussavie (with his wife), the “beloved” PM of Khomeini in the eighties and Mehdi Karroubi, a clergy and ex-president of the Parliament, also very close to Khomeini are currently under house arrest. Since 5 years, without any charges or leave alone a trial. Each one backed by millions of voters and supporters, especially by the youth and women. So, why not release them and start a dialogue with them and by doing so addressing the Iranian youths who massively voted for them?

I could go on and on and on …

Dear …, as I wrote to you and Shirin Ebadi in last April, after our second humanitarian and peace missions to Syria via Iran: “(…) This schizophrenic duality, this institutionalized hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, generally progressive and defendable in foreign policies but very repressive, reactionary, autocratic and violent within its own boundaries, this unimaginable inhuman and paternalistic contempt towards its own people must stop! Iran can’t continue to pretend to be a part of the “axis of resistance” against U.S imperialism and Zionism on the one hand while on the other hand doing the same things, acting with the same logic against their own people. Exactly the same way their “opponents” in the opposite axis are doing to other peoples and nations. …

… the respect of human dignity and human rights in general and the rights of women and minorities in particular lacks dramatically in Iran. Millions of men, women, especially the young generation, have paid with their lives to achieve the minimum of respect, dignity and freedom. And the sacrifices are going on. As I told you before, in this country apparently the freedom of expression and choice exist but the freedom of “after” expression and choice, does not! And this is not a funny rhetoric game. It’s an unbearable reality of daily life in Iran! One must live in this country to understand it. One has to feel it!(…)”

I firmly believe that these guys are manipulators – very clever and skillful manipulators (The Persian Vizier!). And we have to be very careful in dealing with them. I think the idea of a respectful letter to the Supreme guide in support of “his initiative” is a good thing but in my humble opinion this letter must include at least the crucial and basic questions mentioned above. And it should include as well the issues of the fundamental rights, discrimination and apartheid against women, minority rights, politically controlled and arbitrary judiciary system, executions, torture, freedom of expression and “after-expression” – among many other issues. Otherwise, we are an instrument of the propaganda and manipulation of the regime who will not hesitate to use the gained credibility it has gained to accentuate the repression against its people.

With my best wishes.

Amir

Experimenting …..

Slowly, slowly I am getting ready for another motorbike tour up to the Himalayas … final destination: Leh where I will stay with a friend and do some writing. Some stories of my life;-) But I am also planning to climb up a few passes (while Thomas is writing;-), Khardung La Pass and Chang La Pass are definitely high on the list.

So I am trying to figure out what is the best way to fix the camera on the bike … I want to get some video footage, not sure what for right now … Here is the first attempt. It’s filmed in Jhansi, leaving the town towards Gwalior (both MP) … the camera was (loosely) fixed in my pack back which I had above the tank … not ideal but the result is not too bad …

Deo Bagh

In God’s garden I was in heaven 😉 Literally.

Deo Bagh is one of the BEST hotels I ever stayed! It is located in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, and it is the most perfect stop in between Ken River Lodge (where I stay in Khajuraho) and Delhi on a motorbike ride. It’s almost half way and it’s an oasis of silence. Just the perfect spot after 5 or 6 hours on the dirty dusty roads;-)

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“Hallway” to the rooms

I arrived around 1 pm after a beautiful ride from Ken River via Orcha and Jhansi. By now the new motorbike was MINE;-) It was a bit tricky to find the place since I entered Gwalior at the complete opposite side, but with the help of an auto ricksha driver I made it through the busy, loud and chaotic center of Gwalior.

The moment you enter Deo Bagh you are in a different world.

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Entrance of Deo Bagh

After a long hot shower in the HUGE bathroom I slept for 3.5 hours and when I woke up I felt like a newborn.
I walked around the temples of the Maharatsha which are part of the hotel property and enjoyed that NOBODY was there.
A quite unusual thing for India.

A light dinner in the evening and a good book to read was all I needed.
In the next morning I left for Dehli (via Agra) at 5 am.

And all of this for 40 Euro a night!
Not bad.

Here is a short video of the place – outdoor.

The Gritty Height of Irony

I never thought that I would ever dream of seeing Bashar al Asad winning an election. But frankly speaking – today I do. For the sake of the Syrian people.

During my last visit to Syria in April 2014 I had two meetings which confronted me so badly with the gritty height of irony we are facing in Syria. It hurts. It makes me feel desperate and angry. What can WE the people achieve against this bulwark of power and money?

The first meeting was with Nourra, Bassel’s wife. Among many other things Bassel is a social activist. He has been detained 2 years ago. And Nourra, his brave and courageous wife is fighting for his release. No accusation. No trial. A political prisoner. I wrote about it earlier. The situation is a mess and it is getting worse and more unpredictable every day. Together with Bassel there are currently 30.000 (estimated number) political prisoners in Syria’s government prisons. The prisons seem to be not necessarily controlled by government, the prison security apparatus has become an institution of its own during the war. And arbitrariness is what we see. Hardly anyone of the detained is facing a trial, many of them disappear – and no one knows where. The number of requests sent to the officials is countless, relatives very often have no idea what has happened to their loved ones. Actually one need to admit that Nourra can be “happy” with the situation … Hard to imagine, but this is reality!

My second meeting was with a young student at Damascus University. Feras is his name. He attended a presentation of the Iranian delegation of our International Peace Pilgrimage to Syria. A group of scientists and artists – all very well-known in Iran. Here is Feras’ reaction:

So why were these two meetings so abounded with irony ?

Nourra and Feras, among other young Syrians, confirmed that in April 2011 people all over Syria went in the streets. Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. Frustrated with Assad’s dictatorship, its lack of fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech and censorship. They’ve said maybe a few hundred went out in Damascus, but never ever thousands. And they’ve said, that their “revolution” has been stolen, stolen by foreign powers who have an interest in Syria and who’ve brought foreign fighters into Syria to overthrow Assad. An intervention as we’ve seen it in Irak or in Libya is still an option for the West.

Having said this, the irony become obvious:

  • Those young people who fought for the values the West used to stand for turned against their former ideal.
  • For most Syrians, including those who went out into the streets for a regime change, Assad is THE only one who can re-stabilize the country and protect it from foreign powers. He is stronger than ever.
  • The Syrian youth doesn’t see a near future WITHOUT Assad and they are convinced that he will use pretty ruthlessly the failures of the West against his own people. Meaning more censorship, less human rights … more military.
  • The Syrians have lost their nation. Their country is destroyed.
  • And the Syrians never accepted the SNC – heavily supported and dominated by the West and the Saudis – as their representatives.

So, what has been achieved in Syria?

Another destroyed country in the Middle East. Millions of refugees – the UN speaks about the biggest human desaster nowadays. In Syria more than anywhere else the dirty game of war, power and economic interests became transparent for the worldwide public. The opposition – supported by the West – got “out of control” and today with the weapons of the West they fight against the West. The fear that jihadist – trained by the US and UK – return into their home countries and attack their citizens is bigger than ever before. The number of fundamentalists is growing rapidly and the entire region is far from being peaceful. In Irak the war is escalating. Today many more people die on a daily basis than during the war. The government can’t control the country. Same is true for Libya. And Yemen – were silently a US drone war is going on. In Egypt a new general was sworn in as President – a Western and Gulf puppet who when dressed in his uniform always reminds me of Gaddafi . Sisi was elected by less than 50% of the Egyptians! Is he a people’s president? In all countries the economic situation is a mess and the youth has lost its hope.

If not this, than what is irony?

———————————-

And here is a piece written by Rick Sterling, a founding member of Syrian Solidarity Movement, who joined our “International Peace Pilgrimage to Syria”: Why are They Afraid of the Syrian Elections?

This article was first published by COUNTERPUNCH, May 30, 2014

The Presidential Election in Syria takes place next Tuesday, June 3. With a revised 2012 Constitution, Syria is no longer a one party state and there are multiple candidates for office. Running against Bashar al Asad are former communist and legislator Maher al Hajjar and business person Hassan al Nouri.

The election has been vehemently opposed by the so called “Friends of Syria” (NATO members Turkey, Germany, France, UK, Italy, USA, plus the Gulf monarchies UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia plus Jordan and Egypt). Since 2011 the “Friends” have met periodically to coordinate funding, arming and training the rebels plus trying to promote and consolidate a credible outside political leadership. According to the pro opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the result of this externally supported uprising has been over 62,000 dead Syrian soldiers and militia, plus another 80,836 dead civilians. Many of the civilians were killed by rebels. Just looking at the number of dead Syrian soldiers and security forces, can you imagine what would happen if 10% that number (6,000 soldiers and security) were killed in the USA?

Given the extent of the violence, the well publicized fanaticism of the most active rebels and evident difficulty to manage the political operatives who were supposed to be anointed “leaders”, one might wonder whey the USA and others persist in trying to force regime change in Syria.

But instead of viewing the multi-candidate election in Syria as a step forward, they are viewing it as a mortal threat. “Assad’s staged elections are a farce,” Kerry said after the so-called Friends of Syria meeting in London on Thursday May 15. “They’re an insult. They are a fraud on democracy, on the Syrian people and on the world,” he added.

France, Germany, Belgium and the Gulf States have all prohibited voting in the Syrian election. Syrian Embassies in the US and Canada have been forced to close, removing the chance for Syrians living in these countries to vote.

Why are Kerry and the “Friends” so upset and fearful of Syrian elections? If they are such a farce, then much of the public will not participate in them. If the vote is seen by the public as meaningless, then voter turnout will be very low such as in Egypt this week.

As to the issue of holding an election during a time of conflict, this was done right here in the USA. The 1864 election which re-elected Abraham Lincoln was held during the midst of the extremely bloody US civil war.

Another group afraid of the Syrian elections is the Syrian American Council (SAC). This well funded lobby group claims to represent Syrian Americans. They have launched a twitter and Facebook campaign decrying the ‘Blood Election’. They have professional marketing and public relations, paid staff and support from neo-con and zionist interventionists in Congress. Still, their real support across the country seems thin. Last August and September 2013, they were promoting a US attack on Syria. They were not concerned with the massive bloodshed that would have resulted from that. Ironically they are decrying blood now when Syria holds a peaceful election.

In sharp contrast with SAC, alternative organizations such as Arab Americans for Syria (AA4Syria) and Syrian American Forum (SAF) are speaking with growing strength against our US tax dollars being used to destroy their homeland. As a measure of the depth of feelings, over 25 members of AA4Syria are flying to Beirut then traveling by land to Syria to vote in next Tuesday’s election. The same thing is happening in other countries which have prevented Syrians from casting a vote. Syrians who live in the Gulf are traveling all the way to Syria to vote as a sign of their commitment.

The reason is that many Syrians, both inside and outside the country, see voting in this election as a sign of support for their homeland at this difficult time.

Voting by Syrians living abroad has already begun, with voting yesterday May 28 in Lebanon, Jordan and a few other countries. The turnout in Beirut was massive, with tens of thousands of people marching, chanting and singing through the avenue and along the highway to the Syrian Embassy compound east of the city center. Look at the video and judge for yourself whether these people are being “forced” to vote or cheer for Bashar al Asad.

The voting in Beirut has been extended due to the huge turnout. This is in ironic contrast with Egypt where the government is desperately extending the voting hours and days, trying to boost the voting turnout.

If recent history is a guide, there may be some kind of spectacular media event or atrocity in the coming days. The Syrian opposition and their handlers have executed PR stunts at critical times. If it happens here, the purpose will be to distract from the strong Syrian participation in the election and to attempt to renew the branding of Asad as “brutal dictator”.

But the branding is wearing thin, those who are most affected by the crisis know the truth and even those who have been influenced by the immense propaganda may be starting to wonder: Was it ever a genuine “Syrian revolution”? What kind of “revolution” is financed by corrupt monarchies and former colonial powers? Is the “brutal dictator” really as bad as they say? The scenes of thousands of Syrians waving his poster, chanting his name and youth expressing love for him are not what they wish us to see.

Next week we can look at the videos, photos and stories from Syria. Hopefully there will be some reasonably unbiased reports. John Kerry and other “Friends of Syria” did not want it to happen, and there may still be violence and bumps on the journey, but the election in Syria is going ahead. Let’s see what Kerry and company are afraid of.

Iran – The Revolution is alive! Is it really?

These days I received an email from Amir Massoumi (see pict below), a human rights activist based in Montreal, who was traveling with us on our “Peace Pilgrimage to Syria” a few weeks ago. He is Iranian … he has fled his country in 1984 and came back only once so far … I’ve learnt a lot from him about Iran, the Shah and Khomeini’s return during our travels. Here is what he has shared with us:

Maireead Amir plérinage Paix Avril 2014 Syrie
Amir with Maired Macguire at the Tehran Peace Museum

“I was greatly surprised by the unexpected positives changes that I saw in my country. I was amazed by the inspiring youth and all that energy and dynamism. This makes me believe that the great Revolution of our generation and its aims: ‘’independence, freedom and human dignity’’, are not dead. It proves that the Revolution is still alive and running, despite of all the attempts to divert it from its path and objectives, after all these repressions, betrayed hopes, sacrifices and destroyed lives, despite of all violence and crimes committed against it and against the Iranian people by the illegitimate clerical establishment and its archaic ideology who took power aftermath of the initial and primary victories against the monarchic regime …. I’m so proud!

This has been said, the issues of the respect of the human dignity and rights in general, women rights and minorities in particular, social justice, equality and freedom are still remaining central and dramatic in this country. The generations of millions of men, women, especially youths, have paid heavily by their lives for a minimum respect for their dignity and freedom, and the sacrifice goes on…. As I said before to you, in this country, apparently ‘’the freedom of expression and choices exist’’, but the freedom of ‘’after’’ expression and choices, no! This is not a funny rhetoric. It’s an unbearable reality of everyday life! We must live in this country, as millions do and for a while, under this suffocating atmosphere, to understand this. To feel it!

This schizophrenic duality, this institutionalized hypocrisy of Iranian regime; generally very progressive in foreign policies but very repressive, reactionary, autocratic and violent in its internal practices, with unimaginable inhuman and paternalistic contempt toward its own people, must stop! They can’t continually pretend to be part of the ‘’axis of resistance’’ again imperialism and Zionism but doing the same things, acting with the same ‘’logic’’ toward their own people. Exactly on the same way that their ‘’opponents’’ in opposite ‘’axis’’ are dong to other peoples and nations.

At the same time, we must remain vigilant. In the ‘’real world’’, the human rights issue is highly instrumentalized, particularly by the must criminals of this world. As you know better than me, the ‘’human rights’’ is now becoming the instrument of war, justification for aggression. And we know that Iran is in sight, since longtime ego. Therefore, while we are working for peace and pushing for resolution, by peaceful and diplomatic means, of all differences between Iran and other countries, while we are opposing strongly to any aggression and military intervention against Iran and Iranian people, we must support, at the same time, the Iranian people’s aspirations, resistance and struggle for their rights, for a free and better life, for a better future.”

I myself experienced Iran again “en passant”.
It was my 7th visit.
First time all on my own – at least for the first days.
And my feelings, impressions and experiences were not always in line with Amir’s words.

IMG_7074Mountains north of Tehran, just a 20 minute drive from the center of the city

I crossed the border into Iran at Taftan/Zehedan, leaving behind the wilderness and beauty of Balochistan, Pakistan. The border of which the German Consul in Frankfurt told me: “I am not sure if this border is under government control!” I wrote him in an e-mail later, that it isn’t.

I was still in Balochistan, the Iranian part of it.

Spending the last (cash) money I had, I bought a bus ticket and went straight to Mashad, Iran’s holiest (the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims – Iman Reza – was martyred here and so his shrine was placed there) and the second largest city of the country (2.8 million).

I arrived at one of Mashad’s so clean and opulent hotels – build for the Arab pilgrims coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuweit, Bahrain … and for Iranians who live abroad in exile. I probably looked a bit “inappropriate” after having spent 4 days with the Balouch tribals in their villages and traveling with them to the Iranian border. When I told them at the reception that I didn’t had have any cash on me and that I need to figure out how to receive some, I doubted that they would ever check me in. But they did! Unheard of in the West.

Because Iran is banned from the international finance circus you can’t get any money with your credit card and you can’t pay with it. So carrying cash around is your only option. And my cash was gone. I ran out of it because I got stuck for more than a week in Quetta, capital of Balochistan Pakistan. The only place where you could stay was the very nice Serena Hotel – but it had its price. And none of Quetta ATM machines was working … So here I was. Cash-less. But the very friendly and open-minded staff trusted me.

After a long refreshing shower I went online to connect with my future host in Tehran. I was surprised by the speed of the internet – and I was surprised how quickly the Iranian government could track my VPN and shut it down (I wasn’t using TOR). So I played the cat and mouse game … And I was enjoying it. Most of the VPNs are blocked for download in Iran … Much worse than in Pakistan, where only Youtube and a few other sides are blocked, but VPNs are available. But nevertheless all young Iranians are connected via SKYPE, Twitter and Facebook … So I found Roohulla, my host, on SKYPE and told him my situation … He laughed and said that in the afternoon a friend of his would come by and pay my hotel bill and provide me with some cash. I’ve never met him before, we’ve only SKYPED so far … but there he was willing to borrow me 350 USD. Unusual I thought. For the second time. In the afternoon his friend came by, we’ve had a cup of tea and everything was set. Networking at its best. Lucky me.

After a long sleep and another shower I went off to explore Iman Reza’s shrine, Iran’s holliest place.

IMG_7013
Inside the shrine

It was a 20 minute walk from the hotel along the Emam Reza St, Mashad’s promenade. Early spring, sunny skies, slightly fresh air and many people in the streets. I was ready to compromise and wear “my” chador – or at least I was trying to wear it – but wearing it properly does take some practice. So walking down the street I was a bit struggling with this long shawl, but I thought I’d managed O.K. But surprise, surprise!
I wasn’t even close to the inner heart of the shrine when an old woman approached me and without saying a word, she put her hands into my face and was trying to tighten my chador and put my hair underneath. I asked her to stop. But she didn’t. Again she tried. Again I said no. The third time I caught her hands and put them down. This should stuck with me during my entire stay. For most of the Iranians it wasn’t enough to show respect and trying to wear the chador as best as one could – no, there was this constant pressure and demand from all sides to wear it right. One-sided respect – I felt. And I didn’t like it.

From Mashad I took an overnight bus to Tehran – packed with young Iranians returning back to the capital after having visited their families back home for the New Year celebrations. I was surrounded by a bunch of young women in the bus, their English was as good as my Persian. Therefore our conversation wasn’t very “fluent”, but it was nonetheless interesting. We managed and we’ve had fun. I found out that all of them were studying. With the permission of their father or their eldest brother they were allowed to do so. It felt very normal for them to ask for permission, I assume they even don’t have the idea NOT to ask. They shared their food and water with me and explained every village/city we were passing by. They were very proud of their country and happy to meet a foreigner.

Two hours before the official program of the Peace Pilgrimage to Syria started, I arrived at the hotel and met with all the other participants. 4200 km all the way from Delhi land over! What a trip so far!

Before I continue with my travel report, let me add some remarks to Amir’s observations. Yes, it is true that among the Iranian youth there is a good spirit … just like we can see in Europe, the US and other parts of the world. The internet has brought the world together and there are many common causes – especially among the young people. No matter if social media tools are blocked or not. They share it with their own unique spirit and the Web, including mobile, brings it all beautifully together – using its own dynamics. The emerging patterns we see embrace values such as participation, transparency, openness, equality, integrity, (social) responsibility and reputation. In the different countries they may come with a different interpretation and understanding … but the overall direction is the same. This is what makes governments and political leaders so nervous.

I didn’t had the feeling that the majority of the Iranian youth feels deeply suppressed by their government or their religious leaders. They might want to have some things differently, but I’ve had the feeling they know their time will come. Having had the green revolution a few years ago and having learnt from the lost “Arab Spring” – the Iranian youth is just about to figure out their way for “human rights” and a separation of politics and government. They have a playground and they are stretching the boundaries. The winds of change have arrived and the Iranian government is slowly moving. Multiple disruption is evident. The Iranian youth is intelligent, they do have money to a certain extend – and they clearly see and understand the failure of the West. And going along with it their chances. They are proud. They are connected and they know about their situation. They won’t start another revolution. No.

IMG_7276
“Our” Iranian delegation at Damascus University

What I wish to see and this is what I’ve heard from the young people I’ve spoken to, is that Iran uses its intelligentsia wisely – just like Khamenei did when he gave “power” to Rouhani, who wasn’t his most preferred candidate. Iran should use its current (international) up winds – they should (and I think they will) encourage their youth and find a peaceful balance. They should not dominate their local allies. They should protect and help Syria WITHOUT asking “What is in it for me?”. They should proudly negotiate with the West but should NOT fall under western influence. They should extend their English news channel Press TV and cherish freedom of press and speech. They should rather establish tight strings to BRICS than to the Atlanticists. They should strengthen their own Iranian way. They should foster (worldwide) pluralism which is so desperately needed and become another “counterpart” in the most positive way to the US.

And I see the Iranian chances are good. The West needs Iran – just think about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Irak … And the Iranian understand this much better than any Westerner does the other way round.


Remarks – after I received Amir’s comment (see below):
If what we see today in Iran are the “effects” of the 1979 Revolution – as Amir has written – then wonderful! I cannot judge this … Until I first traveled to Iran seven years ago I only knew that in 1979 the Shah had fled the country and Khomenei returned and brought back Shia Islam … I have and I still have little knowledge about Iran’s youngest history. But what AMit is saying would proof once again that change can’t happen over night, it takes generations.

No wonder Amir was smiling all day long during our trip;-)

And to see the change happening in a peaceful way – even if it might take longer – is even better! We don’t know yet how long it will take to see peace again in Aghanistan, Irak, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Syria … All countries where the West interfered and still is interfering – and which are rather in a state of decomposition than in boom conditions.

Downtown Damascus April 2014

Here are two videos I have taken during Holy Week 2014 in downtown Damascus – it shows almost “life as usual”. We were on our way from the hotel through the old Souks of Damascus to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in which Patriarch Gregorios Laham celebrated Palm Sunday.

It’s bizarre … “life as usual” accompagnied by the constant sound of the missiles … may be the only way to live through such an era of unrest and war.

INTERNATIONAL PEACE PILGRIMAGE TO SYRIA VIA IRAN

The following blog post – a bit longer as usual – is a “report” written by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire on April 24. She sent the piece out to all the delegates of the pilgrimage. Mairead is also a founder of the Peace People. The Peace People began in 1976 as a protest movement against the on-going violence in Northern Ireland.

As an intro to Maired’s text I’d like to add the interview I did with her during our stay in Iran:

But now, here is Mairead’s text:

Ann Patterson and I were honoured to participate in the International Peace Pilgrimage to Syria via Iran, from 5th – 14th April, 2014. During an international delegation to Syria last year, we had both promised to return to Syria, and we also fulfilled a long-held intention to visit Iran.

IRAN

We arrived in Iran on 5th April, and joined an international delegation of 14 from Lebanon, Australia, Canada, Pakistan, the UK and Germany. We were invited by the Unified Union of Unified Ummah’s, who organized this peace and humanitarian mission via Iran. Although Iranians are themselves suffering economic duress from some of the same nations oppressing Syria, they choose to show solidarity with Syria by sending large amounts of aid, purchased with the individual contributions of thousands of caring Iranian citizens.

We spent four wonderful days in Iran, where we visited Tehran, (for the main meetings and conference), Isfahan (a centre for Iranian and Armenian Christians), and Qom (a religious centre for Shia Muslims, where we met with Shia scholars). There was also a major event at Tehran University, where we spoke to students, and children sang and presented toys, including their own, for Syrian children. We also met with the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and other political representatives.

I was deeply moved by the warmth and friendliness of the Iranian people, and was particularly impressed with the youth. We asked some women students about their hope for the future of their country and they replied that they feared an attack by the US or NATO, but hoped otherwise. We found this sad, as these young people are eager to travel and make friends in other countries, like most young people.

The cities we visited were modern, and the Islamic architecture magnificent, as was the Armenian church. I would encourage people to visit Iran to meet its people and experience its beauty. Indeed I believe this is the only way to peace – people to people and country to country. Foreign women are encouraged to wear the headscarf, out of respect for Iran’s tradition.

During our visit we also met with an Iranian friend, who shared her story of imprisonment and abuse, due to her human rights advocacy. There is no doubt Iran needs to show greater respect for human rights, but many said that it is moving in the right direction.

It was a great inspiration to visit Iran, and I look forward to visiting again in the future. I would like to extend our deepest thanks for our Iranian friends for their wonderful hospitality during our visit to their country.

FROM IRAN TO SYRIA

On 10th April, forty people, including 24 of the most highly respected and well-known cultural and religious Iranian leaders, together with 16 internationals, flew from Tehran to Damascus. We brought medical aid (co-ordinated by Iranian Red Crescent) and also toys and other gifts, all collected with donations from people of Iran and the international visitors.

We were welcomed in Damascus by Dr. Ahmed Khaddour, Mother Agnes Mariam, the Mussalaha organization, Dr. Declan Hayes, and Mohamed Quraish. I would take this opportunity to thank them for their central role in conceiving this project and bringing it to fruition. Other pilgrims joined us from Lebanon, the US, Canada, and other locations.

During the next four days our delegation visited the Great Mosque, Chapel of St. Paul, the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, (in the words of the Iranian Imam, ‘a dream come true for Iranian pilgrims’). It was a great privilege to join and pray with our Muslim and Christian friends.

Our delegation also travelled to Lattakiah and Homs. We saw the damage and spoke to Syrians who were unable to live in their homes and have suffered unspeakable crimes committed by rebels against them. Outside our hotel in Damascus we heard two large explosions that killed a soldier and three civilians in two cars. They were the result of random mortar attacks that plague a city otherwise apparently under control of government forces. Even the wife of the ex-president was killed in her home by such an attack whilst she was cooking breakfast.

In Lattakiah, Governor Abdel-Qader told us that the Syrian people are facing with steadfastness an international plot against their country. He pointed to thousands of Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters that swarmed across the Turkish border on March 21, 2014, with Turkish military support to attack Christian Armenian Syrians north of Lattakiah. Eyewitnesses reported that 50-90 residents were massacred, others taken into Turkey against their will, and a large number sent in flight to Lattakiah. We visited some of these refugees, who were staying in an Armenian Church.

We also visited refugees from Haram, near Idlib, Syria. They told us how over a year ago hundreds of foreign fighters had crossed from the nearby Turkish border, kidnapped over 300 people and brutally killed another 150. Many had fled and were afraid to return to their area, seeking instead to live in as refugees in Lattakiah. They also reported that Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters received support from the Turkish military, and launched cross border artillery, tank fire and missile attacks against not only Syrian Army positions but at the civilian population of Lattakiah. (Some Syrians told us that Turkey has evolved into a major military operational base for a NATO backed invasion of Syria.)

In Lattakiah we met with Lilly Martin, an American immigrant to Syria who has lived there permanently for 24 years. She told us that missiles are fired daily into Lattakiah from Turkish territory, upon the civilian community, and often killing many people on the streets of the city. She said that Syria was “neither in civil nor sectarian war” and that the crisis that began in March, 2011 in Deraa, Syria, was not a popular uprising, or a revolution but rather a foreign funded and foreign planned attack on the Syrian government and its civilian population, for the express purpose of regime change. When asked, “What do you see as the solution for Syria, and whom do you want to hear this message?” Martin replied, “The solution to the crisis in Syria will come when the United States of America will make a public political decision to stop aiding and supporting terrorism, and specifically the Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates who are killing Syrians daily. I want President Obama to hear my message and the message of the Peace Pilgrimage to Syria, April 2014.”


This is an interview, I, Ulrike Reinhard, conducted during our stay in Lattakiah with Lilly Martin

In Homs, where the Mussalaha movement began with Mother Agnes Mariam as one of its leaders, and where its members continue to work for peace and reconciliation, we met a group of ex-fighters who have accepted the Syrian government offer of amnesty (the 5th such) and stopped fighting. Some are now working with the Mussalaha movement for a peaceful solution in Syria. (Before leaving Damascus we learned over 100 rebels had agreed to give up their guns and that this is happening throughout Syria.)

We also met with six registered opposition parties. They said that internal problems, such as marginalization of a big part of the Syrian society, was part of the conflict, but that Syrians could deal with these problems, without foreign intervention and internationalization of the crisis in order to implement foreign agendas.

During a reception, the religious leaders, including Grand Mufti Dr. Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun and His Beautitude, Patriarch Gregorios Laham, shared their message that Syria is united in its diversity, and their belief that Syrian people will be able to reach an understanding amongst themselves and resolve their differences in a national dialogue and without the use of guns. They believe in a Syria that is created by Syrians and not by outside forces. Like most Syrians, they are sure that if other countries will stop the flow of arms, fighters and other interference in Syria, the Syrian people will be able to reach an understanding amongst themselves and rebuild Syria together. We were also informed that they all support the planned elections in spite of the fighting.

Our delegation left Syria inspired by and hopeful for the Syrian people, for peace in their country, and we ask our countries and indeed all countries, to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Syria.

To all those who have lost loved ones, we extend our deepest sympathy. We thank our hosts and the Syrian people for their kindness and hospitality and assure them of our solidarity as they rebuild their country, which has suffered so very much.

PEACE PILGRIMAGE TO SYRIA VIA IRAN  5-14 April, 2014Further Links to our Peace Pilgrimage:

Syria Solidarity Movement

Conversations in Syria

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