Archive for the ‘countries’ Category


gaGabon (1960- ) is a Colorado-sized country on the west coast of Africa right on the equator, not far north of the Congo River. Compared to most of black Africa it is stable and well-to-do. The reason: oil and French power.

In the cities the people are about as well-off as those in Iran, though most who live in the countryside are poor. Those at the top may be on the take (the president was worth at least $130 million), but it seems that enough of it spreads down to ordinary people.

It is also very stable: it had the same president, Omar Bongo, for 42 years. Only a handful of countries anywhere in the world can beat that.

Gabon was a colony of the French Empire from the middle 1880s to 1960. In 1960 it became independent, on paper at least. In practice it is a banana republic, a vassal state of the French. The French will overthrow the government when necessary and put in power who they please. In 1967 it was Bongo.

The French have a military base there with about 1,000 soldiers. A big French oil company is there too, Total, which pumps out the oil and sells it to China. A billion tonnes of Gabon’s iron ore is also being sent to China. So is the hardwood from its ancient forests. Think the Lorax.

Bongo put Gabon’s relationship with France this way:

Gabon without France is like a car with no driver.
France without Gabon is a like a car with no fuel.

Bongo had 1,500 soldiers in his personal guard. But he mainly sweetened his enemies with money rather than frighten them with guns.

Bongo died in June 2009. For days a long line led to his $800-million marble palace where people walked up a red carpet strewn with white rose petals to kneel before his coffin to pay their last respects. A dozen African leaders came to his funeral. So did the French president. He was booed.

Until the early 1990s, when France started to push for democracy in Africa, only one party could stand for office: Bongo’s. Even after he allowed other parties, his always managed to win the elections somehow. In 2005 Bongo won 80% of the vote. Hard to believe, but outside observers said the election was free and fair. It has a free press too, though the state-run press, backed by oil money, speaks with the loudest voice.

Most people live near the coast where the land is flat and open. To the east are mountains and huge forests. A third of the country lives in the capital, Libreville, right on the sea.

There are 10,000 French people living in Gabon but most of the country’s 1.5 million people are Bantus. They speak dozens of different languages but 80% know French. In fact, Libreville is one of the places in Africa where French has taken root as a native language: at least 200,000 speak French as their first language.

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soSomalia (1960- ) is the country at the Horn of Africa. It has produced Iman, the supermodel, as well as pirates who make the evening news. In 1991 Siad Barre was overthrown and the country sank into an unending civil war that goes on even now, 18 years later.

The numbers: in a country of 9 million, 1 million have died in the war and its knock-on effects of famine and disease. Another million have fled their homes, some living in nearby countries, some living in utter poverty just outside the capital, the once beautiful city of Mogadishu. Three million depend on food aid from abroad. It is what is called a failed state.

As I write this on May 22nd 2009 the government is fighting for control of Wadnaha Road – in the capital! That is how weak it is.

In 2006, after years of fighting between warlords, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) gained control of much of the south and took over the capital. They wanted to rule the country through sharia or strict Muslim law.

It seemed like peace was at hand. But then the UIC threatened a holy war against Ethiopia. So Ethiopia sent in its troops and overthrew the UIC. Ethiopia’s dead soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu just like the Americans were in 1993. (The way the Americans pulled out shortly after that persuaded Osama bin Laden that they lacked courage, which in turn led to 9/11.)

Ethiopia as a foreign power could not put a strong government in place. As part of a United Nations peace deal, they pulled out in January 2009 and left behind Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as president. Ahmed used to belong to the UIC and as the new president of Somalia he even set up sharia law.

It sounded good but it did not satisfy everyone, in particular some of the extreme bits of the UIC which now do business as al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam. They saw Ahmed as a sell-out. They follow a Wahhabi form of Islam, which is far more extreme and Taliban-like than what most Somalis follow.

But, truth be told. al-Shabab is probably less concerned with fine points of religion and more concerned with being in power. They know the government is weak and are going in for the kill.


Because Somalia lacks a strong government it cannot control its long coastline, which is near one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. So no surprise that it has become a nest of pirates.

Somalia was formed in 1960 by joining the Italian colony of Somalia and the British protectorate of Somaliland in the north (now independent again in practice and doing well, unlike the south). Most people are Somalis and Sunni Muslims. Unlike many countries in Africa, Somalia is not divided by religion or language, but it is divided by clan.

In addition to the 9 million Somalis who live in Somalia itself, there are 5 million in Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia, 350,000 in Djibouti, nearly a million in Yemen and a half million in Kenya.


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et-oromoOromia is one of the largest countries in Africa and yet few have heard of it – because it is inside another country, Ethiopia. Ethiopia was created as the empire of the Amhara. It is made up out of five or so other countries. The largest of these is the land of the Oromo, Oromia. It lies at the centre of Ethiopia and extends to the south and to the west. It is bigger than France but has only half as many people, about 30 million. In our own time it has become the scene of genocide.

OromiaRegionMapThe Oromo are much like the Somalis in language, custom and race. They speak Oromo, one of the top ten of the thousand languages of Africa. While the Somalis live in the eastern end of the Horn of Africa, the Oromo live just to the west of them in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. But while nearly all Somalis are Muslim, only half of the Oromo are: the other half are Christians, though some do still practise the native Oromo religion.

Most were herdsmen raising cows until the 1800s. Many still are, but now most are small-time farmers, a change that began in the 1800s. Trade also increased then. That gave great power and wealth to those who could control it, so in the early 1800s Oromia was ruled by warlords. Then in the late 1800s the Amhara took over and made Oromia a part of their country, Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia.

OromoWomanIt was not enough for the Amhara simply to rule, collect taxes and keep the peace. They went beyond that. They saw the Oromo as savages, as backwards and violent. They tried to make them into good Amharas, speaking the Amharic tongue and worshipping in Orthodox Christian churches. Amharic became the language that school was taught in (till 1995). Some Oromo were ordered to become Christians or lose their land. The Amhara outlawed the practice of the old Oromo religion. They also outlawed the Oromo flag of black, red and white (pictured above).

The Amhara broke down Oromo society to weaken it – although it had already been weakening under the warlords. They sent settlers to live on Oromo land and wrote in their history books that it was the Oromo, not they, who were the newcomers to the region.

Losing one’s Oromo ways and taking on Amhara ways became the way to get ahead. Most of those who did not remained poor – probably proof to some that Oromo ways are backward.

A third of Christians in Oromia are not Orthodox but Protestant. That is high for Ethiopia, but part of the appeal of Protestant Christianity is that it is not the Amhara sort of Christianity.

People like to point out how Ethiopia largely avoided becoming a colony of the European empires – it was ruled by Italy for only five years. But to the Oromo the black man merely took the place of the white man. And he is still there.

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Ethiopia (ኢትዮጵያ)

etEthiopia (980 BC- ), or ኢትዮጵያ (ʾĪtyōṗṗyā), is one of the oldest countries in the world, and one of the few in Africa that fought off a long period of European rule. The Italians ruled it but only briefly, from 1936 to 1941. It is also one of the oldest Christian countries, becoming Christian in the 300s.

It is somewhat bigger than Egypt in land and people. It is very poor, a land broken and torn by war, genocide, famine and disease. It has only one television station and fewer than 1% get the Internet. Most people are herdsmen or small-time farmers with about a hectare of land (less than 3 acres). Most cannot read.

Many depend on food coming from the West, partly because of the lack of rain, partly because of failed government policies in the past. The government is trying to move two million to better land.

Over a million people are HIV-positive and at least 120,000 have died of Aids.

The government is a democracy, they say, but the same party always wins at election time. The press is not free and the leaders of other parties often get thrown into prison. Judges are not independent. Ethiopia has had the same prime minister, Meles Zenawi, for over 13 years.

Ethiopia was an empire created by the Amhara, the Abyssinians. It is made up of five main countries: Amhara itself, Tigray, Oromia, Afar and Ogaden (called Somali on some maps).

Amhara is in the north and Tigray in the far north. Both are Christian (Orthodox) and both speak Semitic languages that come from Ge’ez, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia, a cousin of Arabic.

Afar is in the east, Oromia in the south and Ogaden in the south-east. They speak Cushitic languages, like most people in the Horn of Africa. The people in Ogaden are Somali. In fact in 1978 Somalia sent its army into Ogaden, but was fought off with the help of Russian arms and Cuban troops. Afar and Ogaden are Muslim while Oromia is half Muslim and half Christian.

In the south-west are the tribes of the Omo valley. Some women there wear lip plates.

About 250,000 have died in genocides since the 1940s, particularly the Oromo.

Religion: Overall a third of Ethiopians are Muslim, a few follow native religions while most are Christians (60%). Most Christians are Orthodox, but some in the west are Protestants. There were about 200,000 Ethiopian Jews, but most left for Israel in 1984 and 1991.

Marxists called the Derg overthrew the emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974. The Red Terror followed where Mengistu killed thousands of his enemies. His lack of wisdom along with a lack of rain meant that a million died for want of food in the 1980s. Both Eritrea and Tigray fought against him. In 1991 Eritrea broke away and Tigray overthrew the government.

In the late 1990s Ethiopia fought a war  it could ill afford against Eritrea over a land dispute, which still is not settled. In 2006 it sent troops into Somalia to overthrow Islamists who promised a holy war against Ethiopia. It did not completely pull out its troops till 2009.


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East Turkestan, also called Xinjiang, Sinkiang or Uyguristan, lies north of Tibet and north-east of Afghanistan. It is a land of emeralds, oil and gold in the middle of Asia. It has huge deserts where the Chinese try out their death machines. The Silk Road used to pass through it, when Kashgar was its main city.

Most people born there are Turks –  Uighurs, in fact (sounds like “Weegurs”). They are distant cousins of the people in Turkey, close cousins to those in nearby Uzbekistan. Like most Turks, they are Sunni Muslims.

The Chinese have ruled East Turkestan since the late 1800s, calling it Xinjiang (Sinkiang on the old maps). The Chinese know it is not their country, which is why they have been sending their own people there to live so that it will no longer be a Turkish place. It is now about half Chinese, half Turk.

It was not always so. East Turkestan was once the centre of an empire, a place of great poets and great buildings. The Uighurs even ruled Mongolia. They defeated the Chinese in 751 and were free of Chinese rule for a thousand years (though they were ruled by the Mongols in the 1200s, but then so was everyone else in that part of the world). The Chinese sent them silk and the hand of princesses in marriage to keep the peace. Some say acupuncture started there.

East Turkestan started to fall under Chinese power in the 1700s. It came under direct Chinese rule in the late 1800s. When China was torn apart by civil war in the early 1900s, East Turkestan was independent for a time in the 1930s and again in the 1940s. In 1949 the communists won the civil war and the Chinese firmly took over again.

There has been violence directed against Chinese rule, especially in 1954, 1997 and now in 2008. The Chinese call it Islamic terrorism and blame foreigners like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But given the nature of the violence, it seems to be homegrown with little money behind it. Its aim seems to be freedom from Chinese rule, not jihad or holy war.

Turkestan is the old name for the region in Central Asia where the Turks live. In addition to East Turkestan there is West Turkestan, which the Russians once ruled: the present-day countries of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (but not Tajikistan or Afghanistan, which are Persian, not Turk).

Religion: Islam came there in 934. Before that the Uighurs were mainly Buddhists, though there were many who followed Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. Some Uighurs to the east are still Buddhist to this day.

Islam as practised there does not seem be strict or extreme: many of the young Muslims drink and dress just like the Chinese. Most Muslim women do cover their hair, but not their faces. There has been no clear proof of any suicide bombings. No one is allowed to visit Mecca on his own: the Chinese government is afraid of Islam (and any religion it cannot control).

– Abagond, 2008.

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England (450- ) is a country in Britain. It takes up most of Britain, leaving only Scotland in the north and Wales in the west.

Some people use the words English and British as if they meant the same thing. Mainly they are the same thing since two-thirds of the British are English. But even so England is only one part of Britain.

The same goes for the United Kingdom: it is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England is only one part of it, though it is by far the largest part.

England’s main city is London in the south-east. In the 1800s and early 1900s it was the centre of the vast British Empire. It gave the world the English language.

The main city in the north was once York, which used to guard the Roman empire. Birmingham is now the largest city in the north. Even so, Greater London has seven times more people.

England’s two famous universities are Oxford and Cambridge.

England was born when the Roman empire was falling in the west. In 450 the Angles, Saxons and Jutes started crossing the sea from Germany and settled in Britain.

Their new land came to be known as Anglia in Latin, named after the Angles. The people who lived there called it England in their Anglish tongue – English, that is.

In the 800s the Danes (Vikings) came, in the 900s the Norwegians came (also Vikings) and in 1066 it was the Norman French (Frenchified Vikings). The English that we speak today came from a mash-up, of Old English, Old Norse and Norman French (with a heavy sprinkling of Latin). It is no longer the once perfect English of milkmaids and farmers.

In the 1400s England was torn apart by the War of the Roses between the houses of York (the white roses) and Lancaster (the red roses). Lancaster won when Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485).

In the 1600s the English began to spread overseas: northern Ireland, and North America starting in the 1600s, Australia in the late 1700s and New Zealand and South Africa in the 1800s.

English society was planted in America four times:

  1. 1629-1640: Massachusetts from East Anglia. Spread to New England, upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington states. Yankee.
  2. 1640-1675: Virginia and Maryland from southern England. Spread to the Deep South. Owned slaves. Dixie.
  3. 1675-1725: Pennsylvania from the North Midlands. Spread to the Midwest and California. Corny.
  4. 1717-1775: Appalachia from Northumbria and northern Ireland (English and Scottish). Spread to Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Cowboy.

Most Americans are no longer English by blood. Many come from Germany, West Africa, Ireland, Mexico, Italy and other places. That is why America has pizza, jazz and Santa Claus.

Some Americans are Anglophiles: they like things English and think they are better than what America has, even though much of what America has is English too.

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Burma (1948- ), also called Myanmar by some these days, is the country just to the east of India. It is a land of rice fields and golden temples, much of it still untouched by the Machine Age. It is the land of Mandalay. It is also home to one of the few heroes on the world stage, Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the democracy movement against the generals, who have ruled Burma since 1962, longer than most of us can remember.

In 1988 there were protests to hold elections. The generals ordered the army to shoot on its own people. Thousands died. The protests were crushed. But in 1990 elections at last were held. Suu Kyi and her NLD party won a huge victory. But instead of becoming prime minister, Suu Kyi has been under arrest for most of the time ever since.

So things stood till 2007. In late August of that year tens of thousands of Buddhist monks came out to protest against the government. Most people in Burma are Buddhists, so the army could not very well shoot down the monks and think that would end it.

As the monks marched, people stood along the sides of the street and held hands as if to protect them. They came to Suu Kyi’s house. When she came out she cried.

But several weeks later the protests were brought to an end, at least for now. The government brought an end to the protests more by mass arrests than by mass killings, though it seems that hundreds were killed. But we do not know for sure since they cut the country off from the Internet (always a bad sign).

The monks came from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the most sacred place in Burma. The pagoda is over 2500 years old. It has eight hairs of Buddha and over a thousand bells of pure gold. The pagoda is made of gold, diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Kipling called it a “beautiful winking wonder.” It gets over 10,000 pilgrims a year.

The pagoda is in Rangoon, also called Yangon, the largest city in Burma. Rangoon stands on the Irrawaddy river where it flows into the sea after travelling down the middle of the country. It was once the capital but in 2005 the little known town of Naypyidaw in the middle of the country became the new capital.

The Burma Road goes from Rangoon to China. During the Second World War the British used it to supply China.

Far up the river from Rangoon is Mandalay, the second largest city. Here the king lived till the British overthrew him in 1885. Mandalay was made famous in the English-speaking world by Kipling, the first to say “on the road to Mandalay”. It was where Orwell was stationed.

From 1885 to 1948 Burma was part of the British Empire.

Burma is poor and backward, as bad as parts of Africa. In the country people still use ox carts. The roads are bad and the army controls much of the rice supply, so many are hungry.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Russia is the largest country by the size of its land, but much of it is in the cold north where few live. It has about as many people as Japan, Java, Pakistan or Brazil. America has twice as many people as it does.

It is still one of the top powers of the world, but it is not as powerful as it once was.

In the late 1900s both Russia and America had enough atom bombs to blow each other up and much of the rest of the world too. For about 40 years the world stood on the edge of complete destruction in what was called the Cold War.

In those days Russia was ruled by communists. They remade society according to the ideas of Karl Marx. The government owned everything. There was no private property: you could not buy land or run your own business. The government ran everything.

The people were not free. It was a democracy on paper, but the communists won every election. The people were not allowed to form their own parties to stand against the communists in elections. They had no freedom of speech or religion. The television and the newspapers and even most of the writers repeated government lies.

When the communists took over Russia in 1918 they kept its empire – the neighbouring countries it ruled to the west and the south – and named the whole thing the Soviet Union, also known as the USSR (or, in Russian, CCCP). They made a new flag: it was red with a yellow hammer and sickle in the corner.

Their war machines had red stars just as America’s had white stars.

If America was the new Rome, Russia was the new Constantinople. Its roots go back to the Byzantine empire. People are mostly Eastern Orthodox.

The Soviet Union was strong on the outside, but falling apart on the inside. Communism did not work in the long run, at least not for such a big country. In the 1980s, Gorbachev tried to save communism through reform, but it was too little too late.

In 1988 they pulled their troops out of Afghanistan, which they were never able to bring under its rule.

In 1989 they lost their control over eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall fell.

In 1991 the communists themselves fell from power. The countries that were part of the Soviet empire broke free. People in the West could not believe their eyes. It had seemed like the Soviet Union was going to be their enemy for years and years.

In the 1800s the empire was ruled by the tsar. Most Russians worked the land and the country was poor. It was the communists who brought in industry.

In the 1700s Russians settled Siberia. Go east, young man. Peter the Great began to bring in Western ways.

Russians were once ruled by Mongols and Turks: the Golden Horde, Tartary and all that.

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Brazil (1822- ) is the largest country in South America. It has half the people of Latin America, making it the largest Catholic country in the world. Only Nigeria has more blacks, only Italy has more Italians and only Japan has more Japanese.

It is pretty empty as countries go: most people live near the coast, especially in Rio, Sao Paulo and the other big cities in the south. As many people as Brazil has it has room for plenty more.

The north is poor, hot and most are black. The south has seasons, industry, money and most are white.

Brazil is like South Africa: it is a rich country of white people living inside a poor country. The difference is that while the poor people of South Africa are almost all black, in Brazil they are both black and white.

Some think Brazil is colour-blind, yet, aside from a few sports heroes, the rich are solidly white – even though half the country is black. There has been only one black Miss Brazil and she was light-skinned.

Note: I have been using “black” in the common English sense of the world. In Brazil things are a bit different.

The government counts four races: for every 100 Brazilians 50 are counted as white, 6 as black (“preto”), 1 as yellow or native and 43 as dark grey (“pardo”) – the mixed who are part white and part black. North Americans, according to their One Drop Rule, would see the mixed as blacks.

Nearly everyone speaks Portuguese. The written Portuguese that is taught in school is close to that of Portugal, but what you hear in the street is almost another language.

Most are Catholic, though there are quite a few Protestants: about one in six. African religion lives on in different forms.

Government: Brazil is a democracy, but it has not always been so. It was ruled by a king till 1888. From 1930 to 1945 it was ruled by Vargas who saw no need for democracy. From 1964 to 1985 it was ruled by generals: anyone who spoke against them was either killed, thrown in prison or thrown out of the country.

Even today Brazil’s human rights record is weak. The police, who are supposed to uphold law and order, repeatedly get away with murder, killing even children. Many will look the other way if you pay them enough, but if they arrest you their ways of questioning can become very rough indeed. While you could say much the same of the police in, say, New York, in Brazil it is far worse.

Nevertheless the crime rate is still sky high. It is so bad that you are more likely to be murdered in Brazil than in war-torn Iraq.

The big money-spinners in Brazil have changed over the years:

  • 1500s: wood
  • 1600s: sugar
  • 1700s: gold
  • 1800s: coffee
  • 1900s: coffee, then industry

The three main cities are all in the south:

  • Sao Paulo: its centre of business
  • Brasilia: its centre of government
  • Rio: its Rio

Copacabana is a part of Rio down by the sea. Ipanema is a part of Copacabana.

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India (1947- ) has over a billion people and lies at the heart of Hindu civilization. Toynbee would call it a universal state: one that covers most of its civilization. Only China has more people and even that will not last: China is turning grey like the countries in the West.

While China looks set to become the number one power in the world by the 2020s, India is the one country that could upset that probable history: India will not only have more people by then, it will also have a much larger work force. In addition, India’s laws and government are based on British models, which have a proven record of success. The year 2100 belongs to India, not China.

India is a parliamentary democracy like Britain. In fact, it is the largest democracy in the world. On the other had, the people in power have far more blood on their hands and dirty secrets to hide than their counterparts in Britain or America.

India was ruled by Britain for most of the 1800s and right up until 1947. Mahatma Gandhi led the peaceful protests that drove the British out. But once the British left, the blood began to flow.

India was divided in two: the Muslim part was called Pakistan and the Hindu part India. India was once ruled for hundreds of years by the Moguls. They were Muslims and so there are Muslims throughout India. Some of these fled to Pakistan, but even more had to stay behind.

Millions were killed in the break up. The bad feelings and distrust last to this day: between Hindus and Muslims and between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought four wars since then. And now they both have the bomb. Their big disagreement is how to divide Kashmir in the north.

India is far more religious than the West. It has given birth to at least four religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. At one point India was almost all Buddhist, but Hinduism made a comeback and now is number one. Even so, one person in six is Muslim (only Indonesia has more Muslims) and there are millions of Christians too.

Languages: India has over a thousand languages, but only two matter nationwide: English and Hindi. Most young people with a good education know both. In the south English is favoured over Hindi.

Most of the languages in the north come from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India that all the holy books and old stories are written in. The languages in the south are Dravidian. They are no closer to Sanskrit than they are to English.

The four largest cities are Bombay (Mumbai) in the west, New Delhi in the north (the capital since Mogul times), Calcutta (Kolkata) in the east and Madras (Chennai) in the south.

The countryside, where most people still live, is shockingly poor.

The castes that used to divide society are dying out. Cows are still holy and gurus still teach.

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Turkey (1923- ) is what remains of the Ottoman Empire, which once ruled the Middle East. It lies in Anatolia, the land between the Black and Mediterranean seas.

It is not the only country with Turks. To the east there are others: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But Turkey is by far the largest and richest of these.

Turkey stands between two worlds: Muslim and Western.

It is a Muslim country yet its people wear Western clothes, write with Roman letters and take part in parliamentary elections. Religion is kept out of government and even the women are not allowed to cover their heads in public like they do in other Muslim countries.

Turkey belongs to NATO, the Western military alliance. This means the second largest army in NATO is Muslim.

But Turkey is not part of the European Union (EU). It is not for want of trying. For years it was kept out because it had a bad record on human rights and its army had too much power in government.

Now that Turkey is changing its ways, the EU has begun talks for it to join, maybe in 2013. But the talks are going badly and Sarkozy, the president of France, is finding excuses to slow them down.

Even though Europe is no longer strongly Christian, many seem to be against Turkey joining the EU simply because it is Muslim. Turkey may seem Western on the outside but it is still Muslim on the inside.

Although Turkey has long been a friend of America, the two do not agree on Iraq: partly because Turkey is becoming more of a democracy and the people are against what America is doing in Iraq; but also because America turns a blind eye to Kurdish fighters crossing into Turkey from Iraq.

Turkey killed more than a half million Armenians in the early 1900s and later fought against Kurds in eastern Turkey. It was trying to make everyone in Turkey into Turks.

Anatolia was once a Christian land full of Greek towns and farms. It was the heart of the Byzantine empire. Between 1000 and 1500 the Turks uprooted and destroyed all of that. They marched on Constantinople and overthrew it, giving it a new name, Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was born.

When the empire reached its height in the late 1600s it ruled the Arab world, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Armenia and other nearby countries. Its armies got as far as the gates of Vienna. Two hundred years later the empire began to fall apart. In the early 1900s the First World War delivered the death blow.

After the war in the 1920s Ataturk made Turkey more Western.

Turkey stayed out of the Second World War. It still had one of the largest and best armies in the world, but it did not have the tanks and fighter planes it took to fight a war. But it did join America against Russia in the Cold War that followed.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Half the world

Half the world follows one of two religions:

  1. Christianity
  2. Islam

Half the world speaks one of eight languages (as a first or second language)

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Hindi
  3. English
  4. Spanish
  5. Russian
  6. Arabic
  7. Bengali
  8. Portuguese

Half the world lives in one of six countries:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. America
  4. Indonesia
  5. Brazil
  6. Pakistan

– Abagond, 2007.

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[Palestinian flag]

Palestine is the land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that lies between the Jordan river and the sea, between Egypt and Syria. In the middle is the city of Jerusalem. It is a land divided between Arabs and Jews, a land of endless killing and blood.

The Romans kicked the Jews out of Palestine nearly 2000 years ago. In the 1800s the Jews began returning in large numbers. In 1947, after Hitler had killed six million Jews, they were given Palestine as a country of their own. They named it Israel.

But Israel did not fall from the sky: it was created by pushing Arabs off their land, land they had lived on for over a thousand years. Those Arabs are now called Palestinians. They want their land back.

The Jews say that God had promised them the land. It says so in the Bible.

Because the Arabs are mostly Muslim and the Jews are Western, the dispute is not an ordinary one, but has become important the world over. It is always in the newspapers. So much so that many assume that this has been going on for thousands of years and not just 60.

Most Palestinians went to live in other Arab countries. Many went to live in Jordan, the neighbouring country to the east. Those with education live quite well, but many live in wretched settlements called refugee camps. The tents are long gone, but the people are still there.

In 1967 Israel took over a part of Jordan called the West Bank, and parts of Egypt called the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Israel gave back the Sinai in 1980 to make peace with Egypt. The West Bank and Gaza are still under the thumb of its military.

Israel sent Jews to settle the West Bank and Gaza. Some hoped that one day they would become part of Israel proper. But in 2005 Israel pulled out of Gaza. Both the Israeli army and the Jewish settlers have left, but the army still attacks Gaza from time to time.

In the early 1990s Israel half-promised that the West Bank and Gaza might some day become an independent country. There was some solid movement in that direction and in 2000 peace was almost made between Israel and the Palestinians, but then it all fell apart. There has been an on-and-off low-level war going on ever since, not just between Arabs and Jews, but even among the Arabs themselves.

While Arafat was alive to lead the Palestinians, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), especially the Fatah part of it, was the only political party that mattered, as corrupt as it was. Arafat died in 2004 and the years since has seen the rise of Hamas. Now both parties fight for power, both at elections and in the street.

In January 2006 Hamas won elections in Gaza. In June 2007 they took over Gaza by force. Hamas is backed by Iran, Fatah by the West.

Israel is now building a wall between itself and the Palestinians. Along the way the wall is taking in choice bits of the West Bank. It has yet to reach Jerusalem. The Jews seem to have given up on making peace.

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320px-Flag_of_Pakistan.svgPakistan (1947- ) is the country just to the west of India. Under the near-absolute rule of army general Musharraf it is playing a deadly double game of trying to be friends with both America, whose money and goodwill it needs, and the Islamists, who would destroy America in a holy war.

The Islamists include not only Osama bin Laden, believed to live somewhere in the lawless mountains of the north, but also the Taliban and many home-grown Islamists.

If Musharraf does not somehow keep both sides happy he will fall. If the Islamists take over Pakistan they will have the bomb. It is unlikely that America would sit by and let that happen.

So what happens in Pakistan holds a key to the future.

When British rule ended in 1947, the British divided India into Muslim and Hindu halves. The Muslim part became known as Pakistan. Even so, religious violence still followed and millions died. Millions more fled to either India or Pakistan according to their religion. Musharraf was one of them. Most Pakistanis who speak Urdu come from India.

India was once ruled by the Muslims under the Mogul princes. They are the ones who built the Taj Mahal. Like Pakistan, they had a green flag with a moon on it. Even under British rule Muslims made up most of the army.

Pakistan once included East Pakistan, which is now known as Bangladesh. It is the eastern, Muslim part of Bengal which stands at the mouth of the Ganges. It broke away in 1971 in a war in which millions died.

Pakistan and India are enemies and both have the bomb. Their chief dispute is over Kashmir. It is a beautiful land in the far north where both Hindus and Muslims live. Consequently, both countries say it is theirs. It has led to war and could do so again.

Pakistan and America are sometime friends. When Pakistan started to develop the bomb, America cut it off. Pakistan seemed headed for ruin, but then came 9/11. America suddenly needed its friendship again.

In the 1990s before Musharraf took over, Pakistan was a democracy. It was led by corrupt landowners. Land is still power in Pakistan.

The name “Pakistan” was invented in 1934 out of the provinces that would make it up:

  • Punjab
  • Afghan Province (= North West Frontier Province)
  • Kashmir
  • Sindh
  • Baluchistan

The name also means “Land of the pure”.

Languages: Out of every 100 Pakistanis, 48 speak Punjabi, 12 Sindhi, 10 Siraiki, 10 English, 8 Pashto, 8 Urdu and 3 Baluchi. Punjabi is spoken in the north-east, Sindhi in the south-east, Baluchi in the south-west and Pashto in the north-west. English is spoken by those at the top.

The people in the west – the Pashtuns, who speak Pashto, and Baluchis – are not Indians but Persians. About two-thirds of all Pashtuns live in Pakistan; the rest live in Afghanistan.

Religion: Most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims; one in five is Shia Muslim.

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China (中国)

800px-Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svgChina takes up most of East Asia. It is the largest country in the world. As large as America is, for every American there are more than four Chinese people.

As things stand now it is set to become the world’s top power sometime this century. It is so large that once it reaches the level of development seen in the West, no country, apart from maybe India, will be able to stand up to it. Not even America.

But besides India, three other things could stop it:

  1. Oil. There does not seem to be enough oil in the world for China to complete the growth of its industry. A new system of power will have to be found.
  2. The greying of China. For the past thirty years Chinese parents could only have one child. This has succeeded all too well: now China will face a sudden drop in its labour force while having to support more and more old people.
  3. Civil war. The communists still rule China, but for how long? And what happens when they fall? When the emperor fell in the early 1900s it was followed by a generation of civil war. In the past when the ruling party fell, war followed.

The cycle of history that China has followed for thousands of years:

  1. Warlords: The country is divided among warlords, who are always fighting one another. The country is poor and torn by war. This can go on for centuries.
  2. The emperor: in time the country is united under one man. His family or, in the case of Mao, his political party, rule the land and bring peace. Prosperity returns. The new rulers may be foreigners, like the Mongols and Manchus, or they may bring in foreign ways, like the communists.
  3. Corruption at the top: After a long period of rule, after maybe centuries, the men at the top grow corrupt. They no longer care about anything but themselves. The government weakens and, no longer able to hold the country together, it falls apart. Warlords appear and the whole cycle begins over again.

Although China has been ruled by foreigners and has taken on some of their ways, in the end it is China that conquers the conquerors: if not the conquerors themselves, then their children or grandchildren become Chinese. China is simply too large.

Like America, India and Saudi Arabia, China is at the heart of one of the four great living civilizations of the world. Like India it is close to being a universal state for its civilization.

Unlike Western and Muslim civilization, religion is not a driving force. Nor does it see itself as a universal civilization for all mankind.

China is an empire. It rules not just the Chinese but also Turks and Tibetans in the west, some Mongols in the north and the Tai and Burmese in the mountains of the south. China has grown bit by bit down through the ages by people like these at the edges becoming Chinese.

– Abagond, 2007.

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