The Other Bloodlands

Steve Reich on my iPod, a glass of Aerosvit Airlines Merlot, and a window seat are all I need. As the Kiev-to-Dubai flight leaves the rolling plains of the Ukraine behind, crossing the Sea of Azov, hugging the northern shores of the Black Sea, headed towards the Caucasus, I’m overwhelmed. The view is breathtaking.

Below, there’s history. Plodding, bloody, human history. Grey smudges mean cities. Deep greens mean “no humans here.” Or worse, a city long gone. Sochi, Sukhumi and Poti sweep past my window. These Caucasian cities seem like a catwalk of bored bourgeoisie displaying their finest wares and excessive makeup. Even from 30,000 ft, one can see these are fine places, nestled between azure seas, deep forests and soaring peaks. But these towns, worth many an anguished New York Times editorial, are like cocaine: seductive, but toxic beneath their charms. They mean war, conflict, fights between superpowers barely able to find them on a map.

We wisely leave them behind, sweeping along the Georgian side of the snow-capped Caucasus. This is surely one of the finest views from the air, surpassed perhaps only by the approach to Almaty, with its descent hugging the north face of the Tien-Shan range. Europe’s closest approximation, the sweep off the western Alps, down to the playgrounds of the Côte dAzur, cannot compare.

Still, this is no playground. Good man, Steve Reich. He knows. As I peek past Mount Elbruz, his Music for 18 Musicians gains in urgency, pianos and glockenspiel chasing each other to the treacherously seductive arms of Section VI’s bells and piano. Reich wrote for the world that rolls away below my window. He knows that beyond the peaks of these sun-struck snowy mountains lie the brutal bloodlands of Russia’s lawless south.

This is a wild land, a lovely mosaic of small nations set in beautiful mountain valleys that never quite got to be Switzerland. The place is so much more beautiful than Russia’s endless flat wastes that it always fascinated the northerners. (Check out Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad if you get the chance. It’s short and powerful.) Today, beyond the alpine kitsch, this is a land wracked by corruption, injustice, greed, and terror. Russian incompetence and cruelty call forth the dancing demons of Salafism, giving young Cherkessians, Ingush, Daghestanis or Chechens a way out of a hopeless victimhood into a better future: Paradise (with luck,) glory (perhaps,) the primitive comradeship of the forest (certainly,) and the West’s ignorant label of “Islamic terrorist” (sadly.)

It’s enough to drive a sensitive soul to drink. The stewardess – bless her – comes to my rescue, refilling my glass with a surprisingly good Moldovan red. She’s young, blonde and fetching. There’s no political correctness on Ukrainian airlines. Between the cheap wine and professional smile, it’s possible to delude oneself into a state of optimism. But the world changes. The Airbus A320 is fast. No sooner have I finished commiserating with my friends down there (Yes, I have some,) and we leave them behind. We’re now over Iran’s Azerbaijan-e-garbi. Over Khorramshar, to be precise.

Steve Reich has, quite appropriately, moved on to the first movement of Tehilim,the desert music. Hand drums beat drily, a clarinet brings grace. Various Rachels and Judiths are proclaiming the word of God in an urgent, modern – indeed Miesian – urgency. As far as I can tell, they urge me to not give up. Their mezzo soprano sounds like the New York subway.

The voices draw me in. They welcome this world and all it’s weirdness, telling me to embrace Salafist resistance fighters and Ukrainian stewardesses alike; to dance with the Kurdish tribes whose mountains’ peace my plane is now so rudely interrupting; to shout around the fire with the Sufis of the marshes whose broken, watery mazes will soon sweep into view; to steel myself against the ultimate mirage city, Dubai, that flat and modern illusion of money and dreams just beyond these ancient lands. We’re but an hour away. Thankfully, I still have a lot of drinking ahead of me.

Photograph courtesy of Giocomai. Republished under a Creative Commons license.

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