Category Archives: geography

Nations of the World: Kurdistan


“Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” – Kurdish saying

The Kurdish people today live in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, a largely mountainous region they have occupied for perhaps as much as 2,000 years. Kurdish people have lived under the rule of the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and others. While they lack a single autonomous country of their own (see however: Iraqi Kurdistan) they have proven to be an irrepressible ethnic group.

The Turkish government, in its nationalist zeal, attempted to suppress Kurdish culture by calling the people “Mountain Turks” and prohibiting use of the Kurdish language. Yet today there are between 20 and 30 million native Kurdish speakers.

The Kurdish myth of Shahmaran, the queen of snakes, is more heart-warming than it sounds. There are of course many variations, as the story has traveled thousands of miles and probably thousands of years. In this version, the queen of snakes saves a young man abandoned by his friends in a well. He later betrays her unwillingly to the king’s men, who cut her into three pieces. But even as she dies she manages to save the young man and to outwit their enemies.

Although Kurds today embrace more modern religions, the myth of Shahmaran persists in Kurdish culture. With the head of a woman and body of a snake, you might expect her to be terrifying, but she is more of a positive image than a frightening one. And as a figure divided but still powerful, I find her a worthy symbol of the Kurdish people.


Nations of the World: Nigeria

“Truth is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot embrace it” (African proverb)

Nigeria is an old, complicated place. As the most populous country in Africa, and with the largest economy of African nations (20th largest economy in the world), Nigeria is an important world power. Culturally, Nigeria is growing in importance, too – for example, Nigeria’s film industry “Nollywood” is now the second largest producer of films in the world.

Like so many other modern nations, Nigeria struggles from the lingering effects of colonialism. The southern part of the country, more influenced by British control in the 20th century, is largely Christian and practices common law, while the northern part of the country is largely Muslim and officially practices Sharia law. There are huge differences in wealth and influence, deepened by ongoing government corruption, and fueled (pun intended) by the oil industry. But more than that, Nigeria is a country of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups who have been vying for influence for at least a thousand years. There is bound to be conflict.

I found a great thread where Nigerians were swapping myths and superstitions from different parts of the country. The common themes are fascinating, and resonate with similar myths from all over the world. But there are some interesting differences, too, such as the proper response to a snake in your house. Some people say you should kill the snake, and bury its head separately from the body. But others say you should pick it up with a stick and carry it far from your home.

In 2002, a 21-year-old journalist named Isioma Daniel wrote an article for the fashion section of a paper about the upcoming Miss World contest to be held in Nigeria. In addressing the grumblings of some Muslim Nigerians about the inappropriate nature of the contest, she quipped that the prophet Mohammed would probably have married one of the contestants. Her comment became the catalyst (or excuse) for riots in the country, ultimately resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. A Muslim leader in the North issued a fatwa saying she had blasphemed and that her blood could be spilled. Daniel fled the country, and has been in Norway ever since. I wish very much that I could talk to her, but she does not seem to be on Twitter. There is some indication that she is working on a book, and I hope very much to see that one day.

As a country rich with cultural heritage, Nigeria is of course rich in mythology, too. But one story I particularly like is about the baobob tree. The tree has adapted to conserve water by not having leaves for nine months out of the year. It’s a huge, long-lived tree that looks like a normal tree that has been pulled back up and shoved in the ground again upside down. In fact, one story has it that the god Thora did not like the baobob tree in his garden, so he threw it down to earth, where it landed upside down but kept growing. Thus the baobob tree represents strength.

Trees were important to my nordic ancestors, too, so this story really resonated with me. Resilience is certainly a trait we humans associate with trees, and I think we are a little jealous of them for it. I hope that the people of Nigeria can survive the struggles they are dealing with now, and continue to be the great and vibrant nation they have been for over a thousand years.



Nations of the World: Uraguay

The indigenous people of Uraguay were known as the Charrua people. They moved into Uraguay 4,000 years ago, and for 300 years they fought the invading Portuguese and Spanish colonists. But warfare and genocide erased their culture – or so people thought.

Following a massacre in 1833, four of the last known Charrua were taken to Paris and displayed like ecological oddities. All of them died there, including a baby that was born after they arrived. The body of the chief Vaicama-Perú was returned to Uraguay in 2002, to great fanfare. (Today the Uraguayan people hold the country’s indigenous in high regard – of course, now that they are all gone they aren’t a threat, right? Sorry, that kind of thing makes me a bit cynical.) The DNA of Vaicama-Perú was tested before he was re-interred. It matched 1,600-year-old Charrua DNA. It also shared markers with 3% of modern Uruguayans. So the Charrua did not entirely disappear, but their culture was assimilated.

I want to know more about the Charrua. What was their material culture like? What stories did they tell? Were they decimated by disease, like so many American tribes who came into early contact with Europeans? How did they keep the Spanish and Portuguese at bay for so long? And ultimately, what happened to them?

Uraguay is home to another mystery: La Luz Mala. The Evil Lights are luminescent swamp gasses (or are they?) that may portend misfortune or draw unsuspecting travelers to unhappy fates. Some say they are the spirits of evil humans trapped on earth, doomed to haunt the swamplands forever. La Luz Mala are known to many other cultures where this unusual natural phenomenon has been seen – sometimes known as will-o-the-wisps or jacks. There are several possible scientific explanations. It could be this, it could be that, but really it’s a bit of a mystery.

Maybe La Luz Mala are the spirits of the Charrua, erased from history by war and genocide. If so, I would recommend avoiding them, for they certainly have a right to be unhappy.


Nations of the World: Samoa and American Samoa

“But wait!” you say, thinking you are clever. “American Samoa isn’t a country. It’s an unincorporated US territory!”

Indeed. And this is why I chose to title this series “Nations of the World” instead of “Countries of the World.” A nation is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “A large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” This certainly applies to the Samoas, but the situation is a bit unique.

Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) was a province of New Zealand and therefore has many Anglo influences on its culture: people in Samoa enjoy cricket, soccer and rugby and prefer to send their children to university in England. American Samoa is a US holding and is heavily influenced by American culture: they are very serious about American football, and many American Samoans go to college in the US or join the US military.

But despite these differences in material culture, both Somoas share a traditional system of government via chiefs, intermarriage is not uncommon, and chiefs of both Western Samoa and American Samoa are mutually recognized and respected. You might think the Samoas would want to unify as a single autonomous nation, but there does not seem to be much impetus for that mainly for economic reasons. Western Samoa is independent, and while American Samoa is currently reviewing its status as an American territory, it does not seem to be interested in joining Western Samoa.

Samoans (of both Somoa and American Samoa) are impressive people on a number of scores. In 2014, the US Army recruiting station in American Samoa was ranked #1. Keep in mind we are talking about a place that has about 60,000 people. American Samoa also produces more NFL football players than anywhere else.

Western Samoans also held a peaceful protest called a Mau (meaning roughly: a firmly held opinion) in the 1920s and 1930s against mismanagement by the New Zealand government. When their leader was shot in the back while trying to calm protesters, they continued to be peaceful but determined. The story is pretty amazing, and you should read it.

And now a myth from Samoa:

Why The Ends Of Samoan Houses Are Round.

During the time of Tagaloalagi the houses in Samoa varied in shape and this lead to many difficulties for those who wished to have a house built in a certain manner. Each carpenter was proficient in building a house of one particular shape only and it was sometimes impossible to obtain the services of the carpenter desired. A meeting of all the carpenters in the country was held to try and decide on some uniform shape. The discussion waxed enthusiastic and as there seemed no prospect of a decision being arrived at it was decided to call in the services of Tagaloalagi. After considering the matter he pointed to the dome of Heaven and to the horizon and he decreed that in future all houses built would be of that shape and this explains why all the ends of Samoan houses are as the shape of the heavens extending down to the horizon.(From:

love stories like this. It is the kind of story you tell a five-year-old when they are on a “why” binger, driving you crazy with never-ending whys. But this one settles the argument so eloquently: we make our houses the same way nature saw fit to make the sky. How can you possibly argue with that?!


Nations of the World: South Korea

Korea is the home of at least three of my favorite things: Tae Kwon Do, Go, and Bulgogi. Okay, actually go came from China, but it has been popular in Korea for centuries, too. If you have never played go, I highly recommend it. There are plenty of places you can play online.

Korea was divided into U.S. and Soviet zones following World War II, and turned into the site of a proxy war between the super powers (US, China and Russia) in the 1950’s. Korea is still separated into two nations: South Korea (a.k.a Republic of Korea), and North Korea. Today South Korea is one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations in the world, while North Korea sadly is one of the poorest. (I will write more about North Korea later.)

As a prosperous nation, Korea is known for a great many things. But one fun fact is that Korean cuisine is some of the most delicious food in the world. I’ve read through numerous “best of the world” food lists, and Korean food frequently tops the charts. Some examples for your culinary experimentation include: bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi, tteokbokki (holy cow this looks good), and, you know, really just everything on this list. Yum.

Speaking of delicious things, The Fox Sister is a terrifying Korean myth about a girl with a taste for liver… human liver, that is. Foxes feature in many myths around the world as tricksters and shape-shifters. I’ll let you decide what you think this story is about. It is for sure creepy. There is a comic inspired by this myth that you can read online. The fox sister, or Kumiho, is similar to Chinese and Japanese myths about foxes. Some earlier sources depict the Kumiho as a more sympathetic character, but she later became pure evil. Maybe she was angry at the patriarchy.







Nations of the World: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a central Asian country just East of the Caspian sea – a land-locked country next to a land-locked inland sea. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was a Soviet state, but they became independent in 1991. Most of the population are Turkic-speaking Turkmen, and they are mostly Muslim, but there are sizable populations of Russians and Orthodox Christians.

Turkmenistan is famous for a horse: the Akhal-Teke, a race-horse breed known for its metallic coat. The Akhal-Teke has its own legends, with some saying it descended from a wild sea horse, or that it could literally fly. Today it is a strikingly beautiful animal known for its speed, stamina and loyalty.

In terms of freedom of the press (and other important measures of human well-being), Turkmenistan is barely a notch above North Korea. However, I was pleased to learn that many people in the country get news from outside via satellite radio, even though it is now illegal. Also, there is an organization called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a news outlet funded by the United States and started in 1949 to combat communist propaganda. (History is fun!) They broadcast in many languages, including Turkmen, and are supposedly popular within the country. You can read news stories about Turkmenistan in English via their website.

There are a couple of other things you should know about Turkmenistan. First, it is the home of many ruined cities dating back over 4,000 years, and human settlements dating to at least 8,000 years old. Amazing. And second, Turkmenistan is officially neutral, a status that has been acknowledged by other nations (probably because they are keen to keep Turkmenistan’s natural gas flowing). For a land-locked nation keen to maintain its unique identity, neutrality makes a lot of sense.

So, now you know something about Turkmenistan you maybe didn’t know before. Cheers.


Nations of the World: Hungary

Probably one of the most significant events about Hungary during my lifetime was the opening of its border with Austria in 1989, which helped lead to the reunification of East and West Germany and the collapse of the Soviet bloc – an amazingly bloodless transition.

Hungary is an old, land-locked nation, formerly of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary joined Axis powers during World War II, and still harbors a sizable neo-nazi party today (not unlike a number of other countries, unfortunately). Hungary also contains a fairly large population of Romani (also known as Gypsies) who make up somewhere around 5% (or more) of the population.

I just read through the history of Hungary, and hoo-boy, that is a long and complicated story. But I promised not to write about history too much, so I’ll let you look that up yourself. One thing you should know, though, is that Hungary is famous for mathematicians and scientists! Thirteen Hungarians have received the Nobel prize, and Hungary is famous for a number of inventions including the electric motor, the transformer, the cathode ray tube, the electron microscope, the ballpoint pen, and the Rubik’s cube!

The Hungarian language is an isolate, a member of the Finno-Ugric language family, and unrelated to any of the Indo-European languages spoken by most Europeans. The English word “coach” comes from the Hungarian kocsi, meaning “wagon from Kocs” – the Hungarian village where it was invented (of course!). Goulash and paprika are also Hungarian words. Yum.

In ancient Hungarian mythology, the white stag is an important figure. According to various sources, the white stag represents the heavens, the gods, or the will of the gods. In the origin story of the Hungarian people, a white stag leads the brothers Hunor and Magor to Scythia, and these brothers are said to have founded the Hun and Magyar cultures. There is a children’s book called The White Stag by Kate Seredy that is supposed to be very good. Adding it to my reading list!

Hungary was in the news recently because a couple in Budapest were doing some renovating and found 6,300 files from the Nazi era stuffed in their walls – the documents recorded information about where Jews were living in Budapest at the time, and where they were going to be taken. Many of Budapest’s Jews perished during World War II, but most survived. However, many of the Jews outside of Budapest were sent to Auschwitz. Today, the largest percentage of Jews in Hungary live in Budapest.

Recently the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe met to elect their new chairman in Budapest. The choice of Hungary for the meeting was not a coincidence; European liberals are worried about Hungary’s strong and growing far-right movement. ALDE also reminded everyone that when 250,000 Hungarians fled their country during the 1956 revolt against the communist regime, Europeans took them in (many came to the United States, too). Yet Hungary has been more than unfriendly to the Syrian refugees attempting to enter their country in this decade.

The Hungarian government would do well to remember their own history. It takes about 45 minutes to read it all on Wikipedia. Maybe a white stag will show them the way.


Nations of the World: Russia

When I was a kid, it was the USSR. On my globe, there was this huge green blob that constituted a number of countries I never even heard of until later in my twenties. It was behind the Iron Curtain. It was a place I knew so little about that I took most of my knowledge from movies like “The Russians Are Coming!” (which is incredibly stupid and wonderful) and comedians like Yakov Smirnoff (“In Soviet Russia, party always finds you!”). It was vaguely ominous and maybe one day we would kill each other, but mostly I just wanted to learn more about it.

After the Collapse Of The Soviet Union, easily one of the most important events of my youth, Russia became a place we mostly cracked jokes about. There was gossip aplenty: Russia was selling tanks to anyone who wanted one, Russia was letting its nuclear-powered submarines rot in dry-dock, Russia’s economy was in tatters. But Russia has come a long way since then.

Russia is huge, and complicated. Russia is the biggest country in the world by land area, and it has over 140 million people (a little less than half the population of the United States) from dozens of different ethnic groups. There are 85 federal subjects (like states in the US), each with varying degrees of representation in the government, some more autonomous than others. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was founded as a place to pursue Jewish cultural heritage, one of only two official Jewish territories in the world (the other being Israel).

Here is something you might not know: In 1820, Antarctica was discovered by a Russian expedition, commanded by the cartographer Bellingshausen. Unlike other European expeditions, it is actually accurate to use the word “discovered” in this case, because (as far as we know) no humans had yet been to Antarctica when Bellingshausen laid eyes on it. And today there are Russians living and working in orbit around the Earth, aboard the International Space Station. You can follow the @Space_Station on twitter.

You probably know that Germany invaded Russia during World War II. But what I didn’t know was that they besieged the city of Leningrad for years. Over a million people died in Leningrad, but the city never surrendered. The Great Patriotic War killed a lot of people, but Russia lost more than most: almost 27 million people in all, and more after the war due to economic fallout. I can hardly imagine such desolation.

But I promised not to talk too much about history. So instead of history, how about a myth: The Language of the Birds (From Folk Tales From The Russian, published in 1903). This myth has some great elements: kindness to strangers repaid in kind, unworthy parents, listening to the wisdom of nature, a terrible challenge, a princess to be won, forgiveness, and a nightingale.  You should read the story; it’s good.

Side bar: the nightingale is a common bird in Eurasia and North Africa, but it has an uncommonly beautiful song and features in many works of art and many old stories. It’s called a nightingale because it sings at night, and it has had this name (in recognizably similar forms) for at least a thousand years, which is pretty amazing.

The idea that birds have a secret language or secret wisdom is seen in myths from around the world. Why birds? Why not ants or fish or snails? What is it about birds that humans seem to admire and respect so much?

Anyway, back to Russia!

So, here are two modern-day stories from Russia. First, a maker revolution is on the uptick in Moscow. People are bringing back technologies like blacksmithing, book printing, and wood-working, in part as a backlash to consumer culture. That’s pretty cool. By the way, you can follow the Moscow Times on Twitter @moscowtimes.

On the other side of the country, twin brothers Alexey Ushnisky and Afanasiy Ushnisky founded a studio called MyTona with a hit game called “The Secret Society: Hidden Mystery.” Read about them here. The brothers grew up in Siberia, playing Mortal Kombat on their Nintendo. They taught themselves how to code and have been writing games for years. Nerds are everywhere! Nerds unite! If you like, you can check out some of their games here:

And finally, how Russians are born: