Modern Mecca

Is it still the Kaaba (the black box in the arena) which is supposed to be the holiest site in the world, or has Mecca just become another place to worship dollars and riyals (and a copy of Big Ben)?


Posted in Economics, Islam, Religion, Saudi Arabia | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Looking for a Place to Write

“When are you going to send us your new articles?” editors from Delhi to New York inquire, their voices filled with anticipation and urgency. Readers from Hamburg to Pretoria browse the papers they just purchased at the newsstand, looking for an essay with my name in the byline. The astronauts on the International Space Station disappointedly turn towards the rest of the internet after there hasn’t been anything new on my blog for a few days.

In reality nobody asks, except some of my parents when they notice that it has been another six months since they last had an update from me. Everyone else has come to accept that I am either lazy or that I simply disappeared.

But I can tell you exactly where all of my articles are. Here they are, in several old-fashioned notebooks and scratchpads:


You see, I love to write and I write a lot. The second, third and fourth steps – writing a fair copy, editing and publishing – are the weak points.

One reason is that there is constantly new stuff happening. New countries, new wars, new stories. And even when nothing new is happening, I have new thoughts and ideas every day, one notebook being filled after the other  – and gathering dust. I need a break. Three months without travelling, without new impressions, without adventures. Time to think and write.

During my time in Bari I also noticed how important location is for writing. I live in a shared flat in the center of a loud city with loud people. When I open the window, I hear crackling and honking cars, scooters and ambulances, as well as people who are shouting at each other. Many of them are even loudly speaking to themselves, holding a little gadget to their ear (a prompter?). And dogs! Why can’t anyone shoot these mutts? When I close the window, I hear the tasteless music of my flatmates, the banging of doors and phone calls in Polish, French or Spanish. I find neither a quiet corner, nor some quiet hours.

Some people pretend that they are able to work even while it roars and rumbles around them like on a bus full of schoolchildren. I can’t. I need quiet, I need to be alone, ideally for a longer period of time, not only one hour in the early morning and two hours during the extra-long Italian siesta.

I need to find a quieter place next. An apartment to myself. My dream would be a small house or a cozy prefabricated apartment block in a mid-sized town in Eastern Europe, where after jogging in the park I would sit in my writer’s chair, sip a hot chocolate and admire how snowflakes can prettify even communist architectural eyesores. A perfect setting for writing!

On 1 October I will move. I am still looking for a new place. If you have something that doesn’t cost much more than 200 € in rent per month, please let me know. Thank you!

(Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Aufrufs.)

Posted in Apulia, Italy, Life, Travel | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Not only in James Bond

Some people still believe that James Bond books and films are fiction. How naive.

Operation MincemeatI have just read Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, the true story of a British operation during World War II, in which a dead body was equipped with forged papers and washed ashore in Spain. The idea was that the Spanish would pass on the paperwork to Germany who would find (false) plans of an invasion of Sardinia, Corsica and Greece, thus deviating their attention from Sicily where the actual invasion would take place.

The plan worked.

The man tasked with building the canister in which the dead (and rotting) body was smuggled to Spain on a submarine was Charles Fraser-Smith of “Q-Branch”.

His job was to furnish secret agents, saboteurs and prisoners of war with an array of wartime gizmos, such as miniature cameras, invisible ink, hidden weaponry and concealed compasses.

This is my favourite invention of all:

He invented garlic-flavoured chocolate to be consumed by agents parachuting into France in order that their breath should smell appropriately Gallic as soon as they landed.

Nice to have someone at the office who thinks of every little detail.

If Fraser-Smith reminds you of the Q you know from the James Bond films, that’s no coincidence. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, was an officer in the British Naval Intelligence during World War II.

Posted in Books, France, History, James Bond, UK, World War II | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Why I don’t eat Seafood

Because it can kill you:

Octopussy octopus

Posted in Death, Food, James Bond | Tagged | 3 Comments

Easily Confused (40) Beheadings

People whom we call “barbaric” and “monsters” when they cut somebody’s head off: ISIS, IS, Al-Qaeda.

James Foley beheading

People whom we do business with when they cut somebody’s head off: Saudi Arabia.

beheading Saudi Arabia

Posted in Death, Economics, Human Rights, Law, Politics, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism | Tagged , | 7 Comments

“… and the noble gesture of the German commander”

“If I hadn’t followed orders, I would have been shot myself” the culprits say, and their defense attorneys call it “acting under superior orders” when someone is indicted for crimes committed during World War II. A handy excuse, this alleged moral dilemma. Except that it is a myth.

It was only during an internship with the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes that I learnt that no cases are known in which German soldiers or members of the SS were executed for disobeying blatantly illegal orders, like orders for mass shootings of civilians. The worst consequences were the absence of further promotions or being ordered to a different posting, sometimes to a desk job in Germany, which wasn’t very exciting but still better than a winter in Stalingrad.

Unexpectedly, I stumbled across an example a few days ago when I wandered around the southern Italian port city of Trani. In the Square of the Republic, enjoying the shade of the palm trees and listening to the nearby water fountain, there is this memorial:

Denkmal Trani gross

Rows of names chiseled into a slab of concrete usually remind us of historical catastrophes, and when I read the date of 18 September 1943, I could already imagine what it was about. Two weeks prior, Italy, which had until then fought alongside Nazi Germany, had agreed an armistice with the Allies. All of a sudden, Germans and Italians were no longer partners. The Wehrmacht was now an occupying army and behaved accordingly, offering its typical range of war crimes.

Thus I expected a memorial tablet for another massacre, but stumbled when I got to the passage “… and the noble gesture of the German commander Friedrich Kurtz”. That didn’t fit. Something else must have happened here.

Denkmal Trani DetailIndeed: a few days before 18 September 1943 five German soldiers had been killed in an ambush close to Trani. The Germans assumed that Italian partisans were the perpetrators and, in line with Wehrmacht custom at that time, First Lieutenant Kurtz received the order to shoot 50 male citizens of the small town as a reprisal. The hostages had already been gathered, the firing squad was ready, when the mayor, the archbishop and the wives of some of the hostages asked to speak with Kurtz.

The German commander permitted them to plead their case and decided in the afternoon that the German forces would leave the town without shooting any of the hostages. The 54 men gathered in the town square survived thanks to this refusal to obey orders. At that time, the Allied forces had already landed on mainland Italy and British troops were just about to take Trani. Kurtz’ decision may have been influenced by this.

Friedrich KurtzAn obvious refusal to carry out an order, during wartime, close to the frontline. What happened to First Lieutenant Kurtz? He remained an officer, although he received no further promotion. The same fate befell the (few) German soldiers who refused to obey orders relating to atrocities against the civilian population elsewhere. There is no trace of duress or severe negative consequences.

One month later, on 18 October 1943, the Italian king came to Trani and awarded medals of valor to the mayor and the bishop. But in the decades that followed, the talk of the town again and again returned to the “good German”, whose identity nobody knew and who had never came forth himself. Only in 2003 did a systematic research begin and the lay historians finally identified Friedrich Kurtz. He didn’t notice anything of that or of the inauguration of the memorial in 2005. He had already died in 1993.

(Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.)

Posted in Apulia, Germany, History, Italy, Law, Military, Travel, World War II | Tagged | 1 Comment

These birds are having fun

birdhouses(Photographed at the Municipal Park in Trani, Apulia, Italy.)

Posted in Apulia, Italy, Photography, Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment