2011/11/14

Eid-al-Adha

The great Medina of Tunis was completely empty, the light blue shutters of the shops presenting themselves to smooth, cobbled alleys and hiding their store of wares. Not a single person was to be seen, but a few stray cats prowled the occasional rubbish pile. It was Eid-al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, one of the major holidays in the Islamic calendar, when everyone goes home to be with their families and lambs are slaughtered to remember the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was willing to make.

Not only the Medina, but the whole city of Tunis, normally a buzzing, loud, busy place, was shut down. A few people could be seen hurrying home, and a few unlucky soldiers were guarding the empty government buildings. Here and there in some quiet street corner a group of men would be barbequeing a lamb's head or some other body part using a blowtorch, and here and there splotches of dried blood on the pavement show where an animal had been slaughtered. Apart from the slaughtering, the only other activity that could be observed on the streets of Tunis was the occasional rattling of an empty tram as it trundled towards or away from the central terminus. The trams that day were free, given that all the inspectors and ticket sellers had gone home. Even the youth hostel was opened by a middle-aged European lady, who said: "The manager isn't here. It's a holiday you know, everyone has gone home. I think I'm running the place now!" She's a guest herself and had been staying in the hostel the past month.

***


[Caption: statue at Civitavecchia, port of Rome (left); embarking (right).]

Two days earlier I had booked the ferry in Civitavecchia, bound for Tunis. The previous boat was booked out, and this one was packed full, possibly overcrowded. In the walkways, gangways, in the cafes, everywhere, there were prone bodies or groups huddled together and chatting. It seemed like the whole Tunisian community in Europe was going home. In my cabin were three Tunisian gentlemen working in Switzerland. One spoke English and was from Sfax, another kept dancing and making funny faces, and the third alternated between terrorist jokes and lecturing very seriously about Islam. They make the journey often, and told me the boat is usually one-third full. Unusually, it was also late in departure due to bad weather, and when we finally slipped out into the Tyrrhenian Sea at around 11pm, it felt more like being on a dingy rather than a large passenger boat.

The weather didn't clear the next day either, and we docked in Palermo to see it out. This meant an extra day's delay, and since Eid was on the following day, the passengers were not happy! A large crowd had gathered at the reception and several people were shouting angrily at the stewards. Most of the passengers sat resignedly or paced the decks, smoking and drinking coffee. In order to placate the crowd the stewards announced that there would be free dinner for all passengers beginning at 7pm.

Now, the diner itself is quite small, being able to sit about 100 people in a squeeze. In an overcrowded boat full of anxious and nervous passengers this announcement was asking for trouble! By 6:40pm the entrance to the diner (whose glass doors were closed) was completely packed full of people. You could hardly move an arm, and once in the crowd it was impossible to escape, you simply moved with the crowd.

By 6:50pm there was some chanting and screaming by a few "ringleaders". By 7pm the doors hadn't opened, so a few people jumped the small fence separating the queue from the diner, which of course made more people want to jump in or exchange angry words. The poor security guard was completely helpless, and by 7:20pm when the cooks were finally ready to serve, the crowd was a ravenous mob. The guard nervously unlocked the glass doors and whoosh! A mass of screaming, pushing men surged into the entrance, and only the arrival of more guards stemmed the flow by the frantic closing of the doors.

This process continued: once the queue inside the diner was manageable, the nervous guard unlocked the door and whoosh! A crush of swirling bodies, some people facing odd directions, others pinioned onto columns or wall features - and just as quickly as it started it stopped - the diner queuing area was completely full within seconds and the guards managed to shut the glass doors. The mob was stuck again into a frozen mass, hungrily eyeing those already eating in the diner, waiting for the next nervous opening of the doors.


[Caption: Palermo and the mountains of Sicily, the pilot coming out (left); waiting for underdone fish and overdone beans aboard the ferry (right).]

***

We finally arrived in Tunis bay the next morning, 12 hours late. It was the day of Eid. The skies were blue, the sea shimmering under the low, autumn sun. The green hills of Africa loomed in the near horizon and the white-washed houses of Sidi Bou Said twinkled on the starboard beam. A few freighters were at anchor inthe bay, keeping us company.


[Caption: Tunis harbour, the day of Eid (left); the empty medina of Tunis (right).]

Half an hour later, I noticed the same scene. The exact same scene - the boat had stopped! It was Eid and apparently the harbour pilot wouldn't be coming out for another 2 hours! We finally docked at noon, and having learnt from my previous mistake I stayed well away from the crowd gathering on the lower deck and instead observed the disembarkment from the upper weather deck. Tiny people were streaming out of the ferry, cars were honking madly with joy, and the people would very soon be home.

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[Caption: a happy mob disembarking in Tunis (left); a happy mob singing aboard the ferry (right).]

2011/11/05

Gravehunting in Zurich - in search of Felix Bloch

"... He is buried on the side of a mountain that overlooks the city of Zurich.". The biographical memoir of physicist Felix Bloch concludes with this esoteric note*. Enlightened quantum-spiritually after our recent course in quantum mechanics at ETH, Dan and I had to find and pay homage to this Nobel Prize winner and former student of physics and mathematics at our university.


As a student, Bloch regularly attended the physics colloquia, held jointly by ETH and the University of Zürich , where stalwarts like Peter Debye and Erwin Schrödinger discussed and lectured on the recent advances in theoretical and experimental physics in Europe. He recalls the day when Debye asked Schrödinger to express his views on the strange new hypothesis put forward by de Broglie on wave-particle duality. Schrödinger gave an excellent summarization of how de Broglie's wave hypothesis could be used to get the exact atomic quantization rules developed by Niels Bohr and Arnold Sommerfield, in terms of integral multiple of waves that can fit a spatial atomic orbit. Terming this description as childish, Debye asked, "If it's a wave, there's got to be a wave equation". A few weeks later, at the same colloquia, Schrödinger announced, "My colleague Debye suggested that one should have a wave equation; well I have found one!". This talk formed the basis for the first of a series of papers in Annalen der Physik, and was titled  Quantization as Eigenvalue Problem. Five of the individuals mentioned in this short paragraph were awarded the Nobel Prize.


Such was the epoch, that Felix Bloch lived, studied and worked in, witnessing the progressive upheaval of physics and a quantum leap in our understanding of the atomic world. After his studies in Zürich, he went to Leipzig, to join as the first graduate student of Werner Heisenberg. Later, he found himself in the beurlaubungen compilation circulated by John von Neumann, of scientists in Nazi-Germany who were "forced to leave, and who's  name was on The List". This may have been the basis for the professorship at Stanford University, and Bloch left European academia, emigrating to the U.S in 1934. Felix Bloch received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952, for his work in nuclear magnetic resonance.

The plan was drawn up. Find him, and find him fast.

With no other clue than the cryptic statement in his memoir, and the fact that Felix Bloch was Jewish, we set out with the addresses of the twenty or so graveyards in Zurich. The city center of Zurich lies nestled between several hills, and most of the friedhofs (german for cemeteries) were located on hillsides overlooking the city. So much for the help from the note! Maybe he was an atheist, but the chances of him being buried in a jewish friedhof were high. We decided to check the twin jewish cemeteries at Friesenberg. A short walk from the Friesenberg railway stop on the S10 line going up to Uetliberg, we arrived at the Israelitischer Friedhof (Unterer Friesenberg). A frosty January morning, there was not a single soul in the cemetery. We noticed a wooden hoarding of the Orientierungsplan (Direction Plan) , damaged and decaying, the moisture seeping in through the broken glass paneling. 


 Next to the mausoleum-like building, which we later learned to be the abdications hall (die Abdankungshalle ) , we found a register with names, grave numbers and the dates of death. 


 Dew drops clung onto the thin plastic films which enclosed the printed name lists. We realized that Bloch seemed to be a popular Jewish surname, noticing three pages of Blochs. From the dates of death printed alongside each name, it was clear that there had been no burials after the mid-1950s, most probably due to lack of space, we concluded.  


 Dejected, but resilient, we decided to continue our search in the cemetery at oberer Frieseberg.



This cemetery seemed to be better off than the dilapidated conditions at unterer Friesenberg. There seemed to be signs of life and activity at the cemetery office. We noticed two workers smoking, taking a break off from work, while another one walked away, carrying a huge pair of shears.


 We found the register with the name list at the cemetery office. With a sense of  impending thrill, we hurriedly flipped the pages to the surname Bloch. There it was! Right in the center of the page, "Bloch, Felix 7559 10.09.1983" . 


Wasting no time, we found the Friedhof Orientierungsplan, and identified the plot marked N, which housed the graves, marked from 7509 to 7769.

Gloomy excitement is the only description of how we felt, as we swiftly walked past eerie rows of tombstones with their cryptic hebrew epitaphs. 



The hebrew equivalent of here lies is פה נקבר  (po nikbar) and its abbreviation פנ (p n) is inscribed on most tombstones.


Walking along the graveled pathway, there it was, a marker with the grave number 7559, poking out from the dense bush of creepers.



A simple tombstone with no lithographic frills, the epitaph stated " Here lies...Felix Bloch...1905-1983 ". There was no embossed Magen David (Star of David) nor the hand symbol on the stone. A fresh mound of snow lay around, but no cut flowers, wreaths, yahrzeit candles, nor any visible signs of bereavement and care.


To honor his memory and pay respects, we wished to place something beside the grave. As we looked around, we noticed small pebbles and stones neatly piled on top of the surrounding tombstones. Some of the tombstones, had one or two of them, while others had many, placed with no apparent ordering on the narrow stone ledge. We sensed the importance of these stones, but did not know the exact reason why they were kept there.



We picked up three pebbles and neatly arranged them on top of the tombstone, to remember and honor the memory of the former student of ETH and Nobel Prize winner, Felix Bloch.



* www.nasonline.org/site/DocServer/Bloch_Felix.pdf?docID=74047 Felix Bloch (1905 - 1983) - A Biographical Memoir by Robert Hofstadter ( published by the National Academy of Science )