July 14, 2012
July 14, 2012
Tarek Omar says that he doesn’t know exactly how many bodies he has recovered. “I stopped counting at some point,” he says. But he can still remember the names of the first two he pulled up from the depths of the Red Sea, bringing them back onto the Egyptian shore.
“They were Conor O’Regan and Martin Gara. Irish. They were considered cautious divers. Both died here on Nov. 19, 1997. They were only 22 and 23. Sad.”
Omar is sitting under an awning on the edge of the desert, drinking tea with milk and looking out over the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, which wash against the east coast of the Sinai. The nearest settlement, the resort town of Dahab, is 10 kilometers (six miles) to the south.
“I found the bodies at a depth of 102 meters (335 feet),” says Omar. “They were holding each other in an embrace. This is how it must have happened: One of them had problems and kept sinking deeper down. The other wanted to help him. And then both of them lost consciousness. What can you do? Their memorial stone is up there.”
He steps out of the shade and walks along a dusty path. Sunburned tourists in life vests are snorkeling in the water. At the end of the cliff-lined bay, Omar stops walking and points to a slab of black marble set into the ground, with the words “In Loving Memory” inscribed onto it. “It’s only one of many memorials,” he says, and turns around.
“There…,” he says, pointing to a white panel in the cliff: “Yuri, a Russian. On April 28, 2000. Terrible story. Was lying at a depth of 115 meters.” Nearby is a black-and-red panel. “James, June 1, 2003. At 135 meters. And then here,” he says pointing to a gray plaque, “Andrei, another Russian. Aug. 24, 2004. I didn’t find the body. At 170 meters, there is a tank and a neoprene suit; it might have been his equipment.”
Because It’s the Most Dangerous
The dead also include Karl Marx, an Austrian: Jan. 10, 2007. Stefan Felder from Switzerland: Sept. 23, 2008. Madlen, a diving instructor from Sachsenhausen: May 9, 2009. The beach looks like a cemetery.
There are 14 memorial stones dedicated to divers who have lost their lives in the Blue Hole, an opening of about 80 meters in diameter in the roof of the barrier reef. Its walls taper down like the sides of a funnel, but there is an opening. At a depth of 52 meters, an arch opens into a 26-meter-long tunnel that leads through the reef and into the open sea. The floor of the tunnel slopes from a depth of 102 meters down to 120 meters. On the other side, the seafloor drops in increments, first to 130 meters, then to 150, 250, 300 and, finally, to 800 meters.
It is 10 a.m., and 23 SUVs are bumping along the road to the Blue Hole, where they unload guests from Sharm el-Sheikh. A woman in red bikini briefs and flip-flops takes a picture of the memorial site. It’s a popular subject.
There are more attractive dive sites than the Blue Hole of Dahab, with more colorful corals, and more fish, shipwrecks, channels and caves. But the Blue Hole is considered to be most famous diving spot in the world — because it’s the most dangerous.
There is no official list, but Omar estimates that more than 130 divers have lost their lives in the hole in the last 15 years. He compares what is happening in the Blue Hole to the madness on Mount Everest.
There is likely no one who knows more about the Blue Hole than Omar. He was the first to explore the hole, touch the bottom and see the bodies on the ocean floor. He still holds the depth record in the area: 209 meters.
The locals in Dahab tell the legend of how the soul of a dead girl lures the divers to her. She is taking revenge on her father, a general who once forced his daughter to drown herself in the Blue Hole. “I know every corner down there, and I haven’t seen anything,” says Omar. “No monster and no mermaid.”
‘The Parents Want a Burial’
Omar, 47, born in a village near the border with Libya, is a Bedouin from the Aulad Ali tribe. He has a slim build, gray side-whiskers and friendly eyes. He wears the white jellabiya, a shirt-like robe, along with a turban, sandals and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. Omar owns two mobile phones and an iPad.
He came to Dahab in 1989, looking for a job. In 1992, Omar learned to dive, and he began working as an instructor three years later. Since then, he has undertaken all the missions in the Blue Hole, he says. A “mission” is what Omar calls bringing a dead body to the surface.
He says that he doesn’t wait long to recover a body, usually two or three days, but no more than seven. “The parents want a burial.” Besides, he adds, the body looks terrible when it remains in the water for too long. Because of the crabs, he says. When that happens, it’s better to leave it down below.
Omar squeezes into his neoprene suit ahead of a dive into the hole, but only for fun today. “It isn’t difficult to dive in the Blue Hole. On the contrary,” he says, “but that’s what makes it risky.” Many divers underestimate the hole, he says, which quickly turns it into a trap…
July 14, 2012
THE IDEA of Europe, in the minds of Westerners today, is an intellectual concept—liberal humanism with a geographical basis—that emerged through centuries of material and intellectual advancement, as well as a reaction to devastating military conflicts in previous historical ages. The last such conflict was World War II, which spawned a resolve to merge elements of sovereignty among democratic states in order to set in motion a pacifying trend.
Alas, this grand narrative now is under assault by underlying forces of history and geography. The economic divisions seen today in the European Union, manifest in the Continent’s debt crisis and pressures on the euro, have their roots, at least partially, in contradictions that stretch far back into Europe’s past and its existential struggle to grapple with the realities of its immutable geographical structure. It is this legacy—somewhat deterministic and rarely acknowledged—that Europe still must overcome and that therefore requires a detailed description.
In the years immediately before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, intellectuals celebrated the ideal of Central Europe—Mitteleuropa—as a beacon of relative multiethnic tolerance and liberalism within the Hapsburg Empire to which the contiguous Balkans could and should aspire. But while the Continent’s spiritual heart lies in Mitteleuropa, the political heart now lies slightly to the northwest, in what we might call Charlemagne’s Europe. Charlemagne’s Europe starts with the Benelux states, then meanders south along the Franco-German frontier to the approaches of the Alps. To wit, there is the European Commission and its civil service in Brussels, the European Court in the Hague, the treaty town of Maastricht, the European Parliament in Strasbourg and so on. All these places lie athwart a line running southward from the North Sea “that formed the centerpiece and primary communications route of the Carolingian monarchy,” observes the late scholar of modern Europe Tony Judt.1 The fact that this budding European superstate of our own era is concentrated in Europe’s medieval core, with Charlemagne’s capital city of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) still at its very center, is no accident. For nowhere on the Continent is Europe’s sea and land interface quite as rich and profound as along this spinal column of Old World civilization. In the Low Countries, there is the openness to the great ocean, even as the entrance to the English Channel and a string of islands in Holland form a protective barrier, giving these small states advantages out of proportion to their size. Immediately to the rear of this North Sea coast is a wealth of protected rivers and waterways, all promising trade, movement and consequent political development. The loess soil of northwestern Europe is dark and productive, and the forests provide a natural defense. Finally, the cold climate between the North Sea and the Alps, much more so than the warmer climate south of the Alps, has been sufficiently challenging to stimulate human resolve from the late Bronze Age forward, with Franks, Alamanni, Saxons and Frisians settling in late antiquity in Gaul, the Alpine foreland and the coastal lowlands. Here, in turn, would be the proving grounds of Francia and the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century, of Burgundy, Lorraine, Brabant and Friesland, too, and of city-states such as Trier and Liege, all of which collectively displaced Rome and then fostered the polities that today drive the machinery of the European Union.
Of course, before all of the above came Rome—and before Rome, Greece. Both, in University of Chicago scholar William H. McNeill’s choice words, constitute the antechamber of the “anciently civilized” world that began in Egypt and Mesopotamia and spread from there through Minoan Crete and Anatolia to the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Civilization, as we well know, took root in warm and protected river valleys such as the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, then continued its migration into the relatively mild climates of the Levant, North Africa, and the Greek and Italian peninsulas, where living was hospitable with only rudimentary technology.
But though European civilization had its initial flowering along the Mediterranean, it continued to develop, in ages of more advanced technology and mobility, further to the north in colder climes. Rome expanded here in the decades before the start of the Common Era, providing for the first time political order and domestic security from the Carpathians in the southeast to the Atlantic in the northwest—that is, throughout much of Central Europe and the region by the North Sea and English Channel. Large settlement complexes, called oppida by Julius Caesar, emerged throughout this sprawling, forested and well-watered European black-soil heartland, which provided the rudimentary foundation for the emergence of medieval and modern cities.2
Just as Roman expansion gave a certain stability to the so-called barbarian tribes of northern Europe, Rome’s breakup would lead over the centuries to the formation of peoples and nation-states in what was to become Charlemagne’s empire and Mitteleuropa. To be sure, the world of the Middle Ages replaced the world of antiquity as the geographic hold of the Mediterranean “slackened,” when northern Europe simply broke free of Rome.3 (Mediterranean unity was, of course, further shattered by the Arab thrust across North Africa.)4 By the eleventh century, the map of Europe already had a modern appearance, with France and Poland roughly in their present shapes, the Holy Roman Empire in the guise of a united Germany and Bohemia—with Prague at its center—presaging the Czech Republic. Thus did history move north. And this is absolutely key for our own economically troubled time.
Mediterranean societies, despite their innovations in politics—Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic—were by and large defined by “traditionalism and rigidity,” in the words of the French historian and geographer Fernand Braudel. The poor quality of Mediterranean soil favored large holdings that were, perforce, under the control of the wealthy. And that, in turn, contributed to an inflexible social order. Meanwhile, in the forest clearings of northern Europe, with their richer soils, a freer civilization grew up, anchored by the informal power relationships of feudalism that would be able to take better advantage of the invention of movable type and other technologies yet to come.…
July 14, 2012
One of the most controversial elements of Turkish foreign policy has been the attempt by the Justice and Development party (AKP) to cultivate closer ties to Iran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rapprochement with Tehran has raised concerns in Western capitals that Ankara is drifting away from the West. Differences over Iran’s nuclear program have heightened these fears. In defiance of the United States and other key NATO members, such as the United Kingdom and France, Turkey has downplayed the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear policy and attempt to elude constraints imposed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The most acute example was in June 2010, when, bucking its Western allies, Ankara voted against a new UN sanctions regime that would target Iran’s military.
Worries about Ankara’s eastward drift, however, exaggerate the degree of common interests between Turkey and Iran. Beneath an amicable veneer, relations between the two countries are marked by mistrust and unease. Turkey and Iran have been strategic rivals since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Persian Safavid dynasty blunted the Ottoman Empire’s eastward expansion. The Arab Spring has given this historical rivalry new life. Since the summer of 2011, conflicts between the two countries have become more visible on Syria, missile defense, secularism, Palestine, Iraq, and the Kurdish issue. As pressures for greater democracy in the Middle East have intensified, Turkey and Iran have clashed more openly and each side has sought to expand its influence at the expense of the other.
Syria marks the most serious source of discord. Ankara’s vociferous criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as its support for the Syrian opposition, has angered Iranian leaders. Syria is Iran’s closest ally. Assad’s downfall would deal a major blow to Iran’s regional ambitions and leave Tehran ever more isolated. Consequently, in recent months, the ayatollahs in Iran have stepped up military support for Assad and, at the same time, accused Erdogan of openly interfering in Syrian internal affairs. Tensions increased at the end of June, after Syria downed a Turkish fighter jet. In response, Erdogan bluntly warned Damascus to keep troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border and requested a special meeting with its NATO allies to discuss a common approach.
Beyond Syria, Ankara’s agreement last September to host a NATO early-warning radar on Turkish soil has also infuriated the ayatollahs. Iranian commentators have claimed that the missile shield aims to protect Israel and target Iranian missiles. Last October, General Massoud Jazayeri, the deputy head of the Iranian armed forces, called on Turkey to “rethink its long-term strategic interests and draw lessons from the bitter historical experiences of other countries.” Turkey, however, has shown no sign of backing down.
To add insult to Iranian injury, the same month as the announcement about the NATO radar, Erdogan made a tour of northern Africa. In Cairo, his remarks about the importance of secularism drew strong criticism from the Iranian leadership. Clerics in Tehran, including Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a former chief of the judiciary and a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, accused Turkey of promoting a westernized version of Islam to advance its regional ambitions. Shahroudi’s criticism reflects Tehran’s concern about the popularity of the Turkish model, with its emphasis on democracy and secularism. But it also speaks to fears in Iran that Turkey is winning the political-ideological struggle for the allegiance of an increasing number of Muslims across the Middle East.
But it is not only in Cairo that Erdogan has trampled on issues that Tehran considers its own. In championing Palestinian rights, Erdogan has, in effect, hijacked the Palestinian issue and stolen Iran’s thunder. His support and his strident criticism of the Israeli offensive in Gaza increased his popularity on the Arab street. Today, he is seen by many Arabs as the only Muslim leader willing to stand up to Israel and forcefully defend Muslim interests. This has left the Iranian leadership fuming on the sidelines, struggling to get back in the game but with no viable plan for doing so.
Since the end of 2011, Iraq has also emerged as an important battleground between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces has left a power vacuum there that Iran has sought to exploit. Turkey has an interest in a stable, economically prosperous, and independent Iraq. It does not want to see the country turned into an Iranian satellite or become a springboard for the expansion of radical Islamist ideology…