The Salt Market

Lapiz Luzuli

The terrible tragedy unfolding in slow motion in Afghanistan reminded me of gems on sale in the open air markets of Yemen. In this week's Camino a Ítaca, I look back at the Afghan stones that were so valuable and the near hysteria of right-wing conservatives, desperate to declare their deity somehow more reasonable than others. Click over to the original version published in Spanish in El Hoy or read the English translation below. (PDF en castellano abajo)

The souk al-Milh, or Salt market, is one of the biggest and perhaps oldest open-air markets in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen. Here time isn’t marked by passing centuries but instead in millennia in what is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth. The massive doors to the walled city are still shut every evening and until relatively recently you could find the severed hands of thieves nailed to the wood, underscoring the Old Testament vision of law observed here. Under the shadows of these tapia tower houses, the adjective ‘biblical’ outplays ‘medieval’ in any attempt to describe the sights, sounds and smells. Images that evoke the thousand and one nights more vividly than any sterilized Hollywood production could ever hope to.

Traders offer everything from cardamom from the highlands of Kerala across the Arabian Sea in India, to Iranian saffron from across the Persian Gulf to highly coveted handguns from the Basque Country. Frankincense and myrrh are still commonly traded day to day commodities. If you delve deeper into the market, you come to the jewelers selling gold, silver, ceremonial daggers, ambergris and Red Sea corals.

But what always fascinated me among all the traditional jewelry were the prized royal blue gems that looked like they had somehow been extracted from folds of cloth in paintings by Michelangelo and Botticelli. These were some of the most expensive items for sale and when I asked the traders why they would quote a proverb, “If you do not wish to die, avoid the Valley of the Kokcha River, the valley where Lapis Lazuli is mined.” And just where is this valley? In one of the most remote, difficult to reach areas of the planet, the Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, the cemetery of empires, has been back in the headlines as tribal leaders from all sides gave the Americans and their allies a history lesson that is bound to be repeated (China?). Attitudes have shifted wildly since the Taliban waltzed out of the mountains and into the capital. Many pacifists have now changed their tune with a renewed interest in protecting the women who have experienced a modicum of freedom, at least in Kabul, for the past 20 years. Precisely, thanks to the military intervention they had always been against.

But the most confounding takes on the debacle have come from conservative western commentators observing this slow-motion tragedy with such zealous schadenfreude. They can’t seem to contain their delight in underscoring the barbarity that comes with the reimplementation of Sharia law and the backwardness of basing a country’s laws on iron-age texts created by men without any notion of something as basic as germ theory.

And here they are completely right.

A country’s laws must be based on reason, not faith. Laws must be argued, questioned and adapted. Religious scrolls are, by their very nature, immutable. They are dictates from a celestial dictator that cannot be questioned and perhaps, only with time and social pressure, can be ‘interpreted’. I only hope that, out of such a tragedy, they realize that the flaw isn’t a matter of which religious text is chosen to base laws, but the fact they are chosen at all.


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