Saturday, 26 February 2011

a little people?

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene where Sharif Hussein Bin Ali who has rebelled against the rule of the Ottoman Turks in 1916 and becomes the ruler of the Hejaz (now in Saudi Arabia) says to Colonel Lawrence, do the British think of us as a little people? Sharif Hussein sensed that he was a only one of the many pieces of the puzzle in the Great Game being played by European powers in the Middle-East as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. The europeans believed that the Arabs having been ruled by the Turks for 500 years would not mind being ruled now by Europe, mostly Britain and France. That analysis proved in the 20th century to be completely wrong.
Sharif Hussien bin Ali, Emir of Mecca, King of the Arabs (1853-1931)

Looking at what has been happening in around the Arab world in the last month and how many western governments and China have shuffled their feet and looked at ways of salvaging their contracts on oil and trade, one  thinks of that question of Sharif Hussein.

The proposals being made now by Washington to have sanctions against Libya or a no fly zone, can they really make a difference when the regime as lost control of the country? Ghaddafi is isolated mostly in Tripoli with his body guards and a few loyal soldiers. What would sanctions achieve now?  Would they not punish the very people who rebelled against him. Ghaddafi today has nothing to loose, he can be as murderous as he wants, it really does not matter to him or to his future. People who talk about a trial and punishment are out of touch, what difference would it actually make when you look at all the cruelties he has inflicted on his people and the world.  What is also interesting is how many politicians now are caught in the glare,  yes they accepted gifts from Ghaddafi and yes in return they said nice things about him, he was suppose to have changed and wanted to mend his ways. His son Seif al Islam was the reformer and nice guy. Now after 3 speeches on Libyan TV this is all blown away. Was Tony Blair that naive or just venal? He was certainly not the only politician to forget and forgive.

If the Lybian saga continues for more than just a few days until Ghaddafi and his family and cronies are gone, we risk another failed State. However the Arabs will never again believe our speeches on Democracy and Human Rights after the way in which we did not respond to their revolt and grasp for freedom. No one in the Western World will be able to claim that we showed the way. They did it themselves and in many cases with their bare hands. If one was to answer Sharif Hussein bin Ali, I would say to him, no the Arabs are not a little people, they have struggled for a long time against difficult odds but never lost sight of their goal to rule themselves without our help.    

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cera una volta il mare nostrum

Once upon a time our common sea, this was the headline today in a leading newspaper in Italy, the situation in Libya is worrisome to the Government here with its complicated ties to its former colony Libya.
Also the boat loads of young men have started to arrive again at the nearest island to the African coast Lampedusa.  How much longer will the mad man hold up, while listening to his speech last night when he promised to kill everyone opposing him and take down the country if need be, I thought, I heard this before in May 1945 another mad man in Berlin vowed to burn everything and bring the nation down with him, he had the decency to shoot himself, wonder if Qaddafi will do the same. The Libyans have endured 42 years of this idiot's fantasies, he gave them nothing but hardship and now wants to kill everyone. He is obviously delusional, caught in some kind of paranoid world. That is family is still able to hold on to power with money they pay mercenaries from Africa to do the dirty work shows the despair to hold on at any cost.

His sons are not much better, they certainly have showed their hand now, how much more blood will have to be spilled in this end of regime folly. What is sad to see is how the human right speech of so many countries in the West is now exposed as being nothing more than widow dressing for the masses.  Many countries like Zimbabwe's Mugabe or China's Hu Jin Tao, or other dictators must be laughing, they have known all along it was a sham. Yes we talk a good game but when the chips are down like now, we see it is all smoke and mirrors. Protecting oil and gas and our lifestyle comes first, the response so far to Qaddafi's murderous rage has been confused and weak, again trade and profits trumps all. In France a leading paper published today a letter from a group of French diplomats denouncing their own President for his poor handling of French diplomacy, stating in their letter that you cannot improvise yourself a diplomat.

Next Yemen, Bahrain, maybe Iran, the Saudi King is also worried now, who knows, but what will be even more interesting, will the new governments be more open and more democratic. The young under 30 are the majority in all Arab countries, they certainly want major change and significant change not cosmetic. We will have to stay tuned to find out.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Caravaggio's Papal Police records in Rome (1598-1606)

If the painter Michaelangelo Merisi il Caravaggio was alive today, he would probably be seen as the darling of the media and he would probably have a page on Facebook and his image would be everywhere. But in his lifetime it was a different story, artists ranked at the same level as actors and prostitutes. Even when they became popular and had powerful patrons, they ranked below the merchant class, the bourgeois and other non nobles. Their success and prosperity depended very much on attracting the favors of the Nobility and keeping them. Caravaggio was a genius, but a disturbed one, if you look at the Papal Police blotter in Rome. All the streets and Piazza mentioned below still exist and I walk them regularly so that part of Rome has not changed in 500 years. 

He was a bad boy with a nasty temper but such a great painter.
4 May 1598: Arrested at 2- 3am near Piazza Navona, for carrying a sword without a permit
19 November 1600: Sued for beating a man with a stick and tearing his cape with a sword at 3am on Via della Scrofa
2 October 1601: A man accuses Caravaggio and friends of insulting him and attacking him with a sword near the Piazza Campo Marzio
24 April 1604: Waiter complains of assault after serving artichokes at an inn on the Via Maddalena
19 October 1604: Arrested for throwing stones at policemen near Via dei Greci and Via del Babuino
28 May 1605: Arrested for carrying a sword and dagger without a permit on Via del Corso
29 July 1605: Vatican notary accuses Caravaggio of striking him from behind with a weapon
28 May 1606: Caravaggio kills a man during a pitched battle in the Campo Marzio area

Monday, 21 February 2011

Diamond Jubilee

In 2012 there will be the Olympic Games in London, it seems that the Olympic Games in Beijing were just last year, how time flies four years already. Coinciding with this event is our Sovereign's 60th anniversary of accession to the throne in 1952, she is the Constitutional Monarch of Canada.

Canada Celebrated in 1977 the Silver Jubilee, I remember it well because I was invited to a Gala concert at the National Art Centre in Ottawa in honour of the Queen and she spoke to me in French, just brief polite conversation, but I was surprised by the encounter. Pierre E. Trudeau was Prime Minister then.

Then we had the Golden Jubilee in 2002, Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister. Now we are preparing for the Diamond Jubilee, the only other Monarch who achieved this hallmark was Queen Victoria. The Canadian Government has already unveiled the commemorative medals and other insignia it will use during 2012. I doubt the Queen will tour Canada for the occasion, she was born in April 1926 and is now 85 and Prince Philip born in June 1921 is 90, so probably Prince Charles will come in her stead.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Sunday afternoon in Rome

This has been a busy weekend as we try to make the most of the last few months in Rome, four years already in Italy. Friday night we went to a wonderful Spanish Tapas restaurant at 79 Via Nomentana just at Porta Pia, Toros Y Tapas, the food was as good as what we had in Barcelona and Madrid. Saturday we had an early concert at the Accademia Santa Cecilia at the Parco della Musica.
Today, Sunday we went to visit the Doria-Pamphilj Family Palace in the heart of Rome, at a 1000 rooms it is one of the largest family palaces still inhabited by the original occupant though I would think that Prince Colonna a block up also has a palace that is close in size. The fame and wealth of the Doria-Pamphilj comes from 2 sources, one was the famous Admiral Andrea Doria who defeated the Turkish Ottoman navy at Lepanto many centuries ago and the other is Pope Innocent X. Through the centuries, the family amassed art treasures and the palace is full of them, Bernini, Velasquez, Caravaggio to name a few.

Today Prince Jonathan Doria-Pamphilj has opened the great State Rooms of the Palace to the public. These rooms represent only one third of the building, the rest is private apartments and gardens which is not open and where he lives with his companion and his two kids. The entrance to the gallery is on Via del Corso, though the palace borders also Via del Plebicito and Piazza del Collegio Romano.

The Doria-Pamphilj also had other properties in Rome, Piazza Navona was largely decorated and designed by the artists they commissioned, there is also another large palace on that piazza which is now the Embassy of Brazil and the Church of Santa Agnese in Agony bears their coat of Arms. Pope Innocent X also endowed St-Peter's Basilica with bas-relief and inlaid marble floors.
Pope Innocent X Pamphilj

Across the Tiber on the Janiculum Hill stood their summer palace, Bel Respiro and enormous park which borders the Vatican State. It is now a public park, I blogged about this a few weeks ago, look at entry of 4 January. The view of Rome and the Vatican from the Doria-Pamphilj Gardens is breathtaking.

While you visit the Palace with the audio-guide, Prince Jonathan narrates the story of the building. He tells colorful stories of his ancestors, one being Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilij (1591-1657), who was a very strong will women not content with the role assigned to her in the 17th century. She was the widow of Pamphilo Pamphilj brother of the Pope. She arranged for her brother-in-law Innocent X (1574-1655) to be elected Pope. She also was a very shrewd business women and was always looking for ways of making money. Once Innocent X was elected Pope she convinced him that it was highly immoral for the Vatican to collect taxes on brothels in Rome so why not give her the monopoly of taxing brothels. He did and to avoid having the Rome Papal Police raid her many houses of pleasure, she had the Papal Coat of Arms put over the doors. The Doria-Pamphilj family made a lot of money which ensured the future prosperity of the family. She also looted the Papal Palace on the morning after Innocent X died and even stole 2 large chests full of gold coins under his bed. There was so little left in the Papal Palace of any value that the Pope's butler had to pay for his burial. Donna Olimpia stated that she being a poor widow could not afford to pay for the dead Pope's funeral this is why she had left the body in his room for 3 days. Why anyone bought that story with her living in her own enormous palace is beyond me.
Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj

Another colorful ancestor was Prince Camillo who was Cardinal Nipote or  Secretary of State of the Holy See, being the nephew of the Pope he was very powerful but he resigned his duties and his hat of Cardinal to marry Princess Olimpia Aldobrandini who was the widow of Prince Paolo Borghese, with this marriage Camillo ensured that even more money entered into the family coffers. At the time it made a terrible scandal but when he produced an heir all was forgotten.

The Doria-Pamphilj Palace today needs a lot of repair and renovations but it is nonetheless a wonderful place to visit and gives a good idea how the mighty lived.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Biladi, Biladi, Biladi, Misr! People Power in Egypt!

Well despite the terrible speech of last night, this afternoon confronted with huge crowds gathering at the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis, the army realized that they could not march against the people, I do not think that the army wanted to choose between people or Mubarak. The crowds were continously growing and Mubarak after 18 years of turmoil, fled by helicopter going off to Sharm El-Sheik. The Egyptian Army Council has taken over for now with Field Marshall Mohamed H. Tantawi. If this is possible in Egypt the largest and most ancient country in the whole region, anything can happen in the Middle-East. Mabrouk to the people of Egypt!

Monday, 7 February 2011


In the last few weeks change has swept a part of the world where change did not seem possible. First Tunisia, a small country on the North African Coast. Regime change came fast, much faster than any thought possible, faster than any invading army could do.  In Tunisia a dictator once the ''good friend'' of many governments in the West, ''notre ami Ben Ali'' as he was described by the French government, became a tyrant the day those governments who had found him useful, no longer thought he could be of any possible use. So many despots in Asia, in Latin America, in the Middle-East and Africa have known the same fate, a friend one day and a useless tyrant the next. As long as they did what they were told and protected trade, all was well. Saddam Hussein was once a good friend, the ally against Iran, until that fateful day in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait.

Egypt is now in turmoil, though being the biggest, oldest, most populous of all Arab countries, not being really Arab since the Egyptians think of themselves as a distinct people, with a national history going back to the beginning of Civilization, once a great Empire, Egypt is a very different story.  Their President has been part of the national scene since the fall of the Monarchy in 1952.  As a young man in the army, he attached himself to people like Sadat and Nasser. He was there when Nasser died of a heart attack and Sadat succeeded him. Again he was on the podium the day Sadat was killed and assume the mantel. He has become the intimate of many heads of State, a good friend, someone they found reliable and provided stability for the region. Protecting investment and trade and a buffer for Israel. You do not abandon such an old friend and this is why so many governments in the West have been very reluctant to ask for his departure. The exception, the British PM, but then again is it wise for England to be so bold, they have a long controversial story with  Egypt, often seen in Egypt as would be colonial masters or aggressive power as during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.

What I find interesting about the crisis in Egypt is the response of Western Governments, on the one hand all important trade could be disrupted like the shipping routes through the Suez Canal, not a good thing, but how do you say this publicly without doing a double speak on democracy and human rights when you are one of those governments always hectoring the dictators.  Yes you might say democracy and the aspiration of ordinary people is important but not to the point of upsetting trade and investors. It is as if the aspirations of the Egyptian people are less important than those of Europeans or North Americans, Equality and Democracy yes, but some people are more equal than others. Its the old North-South Dialogue, the have and have not, developed and developing.

Mubarak says I cannot go, there will be chaos, really, there is chaos now. The ruling party has been shaken and all the other countries of the region have taken notice. Their despots are worried, notice how Colonel Khadafy next door in Libya is quiet. What the region does not have and cannot provide to its people is a dignified life, jobs, public services, like clean water, decent housing, health care, good schools, safe food and opportunities. When your population is 80% under 30 years of age, it is difficult for any old dictator to satisfy the young, having so little to offer.

In the West, we are scared of Islam and Islamist, thinking if dictators are swept away, for sure Islam will take over. That is a very simplistic analysis and insults the intelligence of the populations of countries like Tunisia and Egypt and all other Arab countries and our own intelligence. You have to be a simpleton to believe such idiocy, unfortunately it is still an argument found and reported in the media.

Then the other concern is if Mubarak who was present when Egypt made peace with Israel and inherited the legacy of Anwar Sadat, if he should go what then. Maybe the next fellow will not follow the same policies. So far all the actors involved on the scene and who are around Mubarak have not shown any signs of departing from the established peace treaty, why should they. Let's not forget that Egypt lives from tourism and also receives billions in foreign support to maintain the peace with Israel. It is very unlikely that any new government in Egypt would renege and change course, it would be too costly.

The Government in Israel has reasons to worry, unwise policies and aggressive attitudes of the past 60 years may come back to haunt them. But then again the poverty of all its neighbors and the enormous need for improvement at all levels would occupy any new government trying to satisfy the needs of a young population. The priority would not be Israel or a new war but instead how to satisfy the enormous  expectations of any regime change in the Arab world. Israel and the conflict would be quickly forgotten and put on the back burner.  Look at Tunisia, since the change of regime in that country a few weeks ago, the population has been enjoying the new freedom to simply do and say what you want without fear. They are looking at economic improvements and a new horizon.

Let us not forget that any people ruled by a dictator is just as deserving of the liberties we enjoy. Let's not deny them those same rights and opportunities because they happen to live in what we believe to be less advanced countries or because we want to protect our lifestyle, trade and investments before human dignity.