The Worst Best Hotel in the Middle East

The boy looked at me incredulously, his face glancing from me to the bath-tub and back to me again;”beera”? He questioned again looking at the chipped enamel tub. I seem to have given him the impression I wanted to bathe in beer, there was a brief moment of silence while we both considered the possibilities, it had been an arduous days travel and soaking in a tub of beer all of a sudden did seem quite appealing but as I again tried to explain to the lobby boy who was still hugging my rucksack, I really just wanted him to bring me a bottle from the bar.

I had just checked into the Baron Hotel, Aleppo, it was my first visit to Syria and after a couple of weeks staying in flea-pits and knocking shops this was me treating myself, the hotel had clearly seen better days, the dusty reception counter was a mess, curled and faded postcards on rack, an oversize green Bakelite telephone and a sign written in English warning; “Do not to change money with the staff” who clearly could not be trusted.  The guidebooks were not keen either, they recommended a backpacker hovel around the corner run by an ex prostitute called Madam Olga, as tempting as that sounded the literary litany of the Barons was the deciding factor, that, and the freestanding bathtub obviously.

Aleppo has also seen better days, once a cosmopolitan crossroads of commerce and trade. The Barons was built just after the turn of the century to provide some comfort to European traders in silk and soap and stuff. Then the terrace overlooked fields and gardens but they are now long gone, as is the comfort and service the Hotel was known for.

To this day Aleppo is a commercial hub, continuously boisterous and bustling with signs in Cyrillic and prices in Euro or Dollar or Dinar and a subterranean Souk crowded with Bedouin and businessmen. A city consumed by traffic and fumes but with gems of colonial architecture revealing itself with casual abandon to those who persist, and you really must persist.

Of all that Aleppo had to offer, the Grand Mosque, the medieval citadel and caravansary it was the legend that is The Baron that tickled my fancy. The guest book read like a who’s who of Middle Eastern history.

The Citadel Aleppo

I let the tepid water fill the tub and tipped the lobby boy for the equally tepid beer. No sooner had I closed the door and started peeling off my soiled jeans a knock at the door; “change money” asked a pot bellied porter. I declined and made my way back to the bathroom. Another knock at the door, this time a middle aged cleaning lady asked if I wanted to change money. I didn’t. I slumped in my bath and slurped my beer and ignored the sporadic knocking on the door.

 There are some wonderful bars dotted around the Middle East and the bar at the Barons is without doubt one of my favourites. It would be hard to rank them without a spit and sawdust brawl kicking off, but, Abu George on the Street Called Straight in Damascus and Horreya in downtown Cairo would be right in the thick of it. I slipped easily onto a bar stool and ordered a cold bottle of al Sharq beer, quickly a relationship blossomed between me and the bar tender, a Kurd with an instinct for the thirsty, I don’t think I ever actually asked for another beer, they would just appear miraculously when needed.

Agatha Christie was a frequent guest; she would stop by while toing and froing from her congical visits in the desert where her husband was an archaeologist, no doubt as appreciative of her bathroom ablutions as I, although perhaps the bar not so much, more likely she was tucked up in her lumpy bed with an Ovaltine and a train time table.

Over the years the bar stool at the Baron became a regular perch. On one early occasion I had arranged to meet Eric, a French wildlife conservationist I had met in Damascus. We had both planned to travel along the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq, I intended hitchhiking but Eric was going to hire a car. I bounded into the bar to find Eric waiting for me with a glum frown on his face. He had forgotten his driving license. There was a beautiful girl sitting at the far end of the bar, we were both distracted, oh well I said let’s have a drink. “I have to go to the Hammam” said Eric, really? I questioned, my eyes looking along the bar, “yeah, I met a guy earlier and he invited me” I was impressed with Eric’s easy going nature; few people would agree to go bathe with a random stranger they had just met in the souk.

After a pleasant evening in the bar followed by a walk around town and a bite to eat I met Eric back in the Baron. Eric mon ami, I chirped enthusiastically as he slumped into a worn leather armchair beside me. I related all the evenings events; the wonderful Aleppan meal, the sight of a dozen high heeled  prostitutes being escorted from their hotel to their respected places of employment, a spectacle that literally stopped traffic. I told him about the beautiful Armenian girl who had been sitting at the other end of the bar. How was your evening? I finally asked “Hmph ‘e was omosexual” was the only detail he would  divulge.  

There are elegant aspects to the Baron, the chess board tiled entrance hall leading to a stone staircase, the wood panelled dining room with monogrammed crockery and table linen, faded travel posters and the musky waft of belle epoch.

Elegant as the dining room is they do only serve a meagre breakfast, I have enjoyed comedic scenes of staff sending out for pizzas when occasional tourists stopped by to poke around and grad some lunch.

“Ah Mr John, welcome, welcome back to your home” gushes Lucine, the ever present house keeper, as I descend the stone stairs for breakfast. By now I have been a regular visitor for years; I was in town on assignment to photograph the 1950s and 60 American cars that prowl the streets a bit like those in Havana.

1956 Chevy, Aleppo, Syria.

 Slightly taken aback by the welcome as this was the first time anyone other than the barman had recognized me, “breakfast”? She asked as I entered the typically empty dining room, “indeed” I replied basking in the new status I seem to have attained, “would you like a coffee”? She asked with surprising inside knowledge, the boiled egg and triangle of laughing cow cheese usually comes with a dainty cup of Liptons tea and coffee was unheard of at this hour so I accepted the generous show of hospitality with the enthusiasm of the weak willed addict I am.

After failing to adequately cover the bread with the limited portion of cheese and battling to remove the hardboiled egg from its shell I consoled myself with the Nescafe. “Everything is fine”? The housekeeper asked with unusual conscientiousness, “oh yes, lovely, thank you” I replied in typically British fashion, and with that she presented me with an inflated bill for the non-inclusive Nescafe.

In the scruffy lounge dominated by an early Ottoman television set is a cabinet that houses among other mementos of illustrious guests of yesteryear the unpaid bar bill of TE Lawrence, a man of duplicitous reputation in these parts, one can only imagine why the bill remains unpaid.

I had been promised an appointment with Armen Mazloumian the owner and had been waiting all day, I was watching a Syrian soap opera on TV until Mr Walid entered the room and switched it off. Mr Walid was grumpy with me after I had declined one of his infamous tours to the Dead Cities, usually he asked me several times per visit, it wasn’t that he was persistent, he just failed to recognize having asked me on the previous occasions, the last time I had declined using his name before he had even started his usual patter and he was clearly annoyed. I gave up on the appointment and set out for the Souk.

It was 1am in the bar when Armen finally showed up. Oddly he knew which room I had been staying in and apologized; the hotel had been busy and my unannounced arrival meant a broom cupboard at the back. We spent a genial evening cursing those responsible for the poor reviews the hotel had been getting in the guide books and the declining standard of guest. I glanced around the bar and imagined King Faisal propping up the bar and Charles de Gaulle eyeing the drunk German stumbling on his way out to bed.

Armen had promised to meet me after breakfast the next morning to show me the guest book and the room Agatha Christie supposedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And once again I sat waiting, streams of light pouring in from the tall open windows illuminating the dust filled room, outside the continuous sound of car horns, a looped backing trap to any Middle Eastern city. At one point a flurry of activity, a waiter rushing from the kitchen behind the reception and into an office out of sight, clearly someone important was having his breakfast delivered I thought. I waited another half an hour and went to reception and asked if Mr Armen was free. “No he’s not here” was the reply; no doubt the disappointment was clear from the tone of my voice, the conversation became somewhat surreal; “why-had I seen him”? As the waiter passed by with an empty breakfast tray I said no I hadn’t seen him.

I ordered a coffee and sat outside on the terrace and pondered the past, looking up at the balconies where King Faisal and Gamal Abd Nasser had delivered speeches, of Rockerfeller and Rooservelt, of how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to survive six months as a guest here while the 1918 flu pandemic was rampant and the Ottoman empire was crumbling.

As I made my way to the train station I considered how the Baron Hotel was a metaphor for the Middle East; full of charm and disappointment in equal measure.

…..

The Baron hotel inevitably was forced to close because of the war; the front line was a couple of streets away and has sustained damage but fortunately nothing too serious. Armen Mazloumian sadly passed away in 2016.

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John Wreford is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Turkey; https://wreford.photoshelter.com

Middle East Print Sale

Photographs really should be printed and hung on walls; I say this as someone who loves photography not as a photographer.

As I work towards launching a new website dedicated to print sales I am offering a generous discount to raise the necessary funds, buying a print will go a long way to supporting my work as well as the opportunity to own a beautifully crafted image.

The prints are made at a London lab that pride themselves in producing the highest quality Giclee prints using the latest Epson professional Ultrachrome inks on beautiful archival rag paper.

Only $75 for a 30cm x 40 cm print (+ postage) other sizes are of course available.

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The images on this post are just a sample; please do search my website and Facebook page for alternatives.

(Please note a few images are not available due to lost hard-drives when I fled my house in Syria)

Have a browse and drop me a line and I will forward a detailed price list.

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The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.

Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.

Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.

Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.

In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.

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Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.

The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.

Sabah relaxes while his pigeons fly around the rooftops of Damascus Syria

I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.

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Syrian Resilience, A Portrait.

I photographed Syrian farmer Mohammed Darwish in late 2009 while on assignment for the Financial Times, this was three years after the worst drought for nine hundred years and two years before the beginning of the current Syrian war.

Mohammed was forced to leave his farm in Hasekeh in the north east of the country after successive crop failures, over the course of the drought hundreds of thousands of other Syrian farmers were forced to migrate south to the cities which were often already overcrowded with refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.

How much the drought impacted the war is open to debate but there must be little doubt that socio economic factors must have contributed, the war has touched every segment of Syrian society but the poorest needless to say suffer most, millions of refugees in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are from the most vulnerable communities.

Mohammed was determined to continue working the harsh Syrian steppe and resist migrating to the city, we found him tending a flock of sheep on a narrow strip of land currently under Syrian government control but sandwiched between the deluded forces of the Islamic State to the east and west.

Needless to say I have no idea how or where Mohammed is now, like so many Syrians I met and photographed over the years, I do though smile when I remember him asking if I was going to take a thousand pictures and when we asked if he had anything waiting for him back in Hasakeh he replied only an old mattress, but you can’t eat a mattress he said and drew heavily on his cigarette.

My fingers were freezing as I fired off the thousandth frame but I wanted to capture the resilience etched in Mohammed’s face.

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I lived the first two and half years of the current Syrian crisis, read more from my  Damascus Diaries here: Damascus The Beginning of the End

 

 

Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal

So it was bound to come out sooner or later; Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal.

Thanks to that bloody Assange and his leaking Wiki tittle-tattle, like a jealous teenager Julian it seems has been scrolling through Hilary’s Whatsapp messages and internet history to find irrefutable proof that the inevitable (did I say inevitable)  leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.

2016-08-02-07_21_16-BOMBSHELL_-Wikileaks-Releases-MORE-Hillary-Secrets-She-Accepted-Donations-From.

That the Democrat nominee is corrupt would not come as a surprise to many, that she has been funding ISIS is, albeit unlikely, hardly something she would shy away from had the deal something to offer in her interests such as, well you know, profit, no, obviously the shock of the revelations is my involvement.

So the accusation that Hills back in the early 1990’s was a board member of the French cement company Lafarge, the same company may have received micro finance loans aimed at development projects in third world countries, Lafarge has a cement factory in Raqqa province in Syria, in the heart of the short lived (I am sure) Caliphate, the French CEO is reported to have paid via a series of middle men, or as we prefer to call them; blood sucking parasitic war lords, substantial amounts of cash to keep the factory operational, ISIS taxes or protection money call it what you like, the factory was able to continue production and importantly continue to employ and pay local staff until it finally closed in 2014.

So where in this sordid story does Wreford come in I hear you ask; In the summer of 2011 I was commissioned by Lafarge to visit Raqqa province and photograph the factory, staff and some of the surrounding area, the revolution in Syria was well underway by that time and fighting was taking place in Homs and the south but Aleppo and the north still relatively calm, it proved to be one of my last paying jobs in Syria.

I flew with a representative of Lafarge to Aleppo, as usual on arrival my camera equipment caused a degree of excitement with the security guys, journalist, journalist one was the cry of one young recruit almost weeping with pleasure, we calmed them down with some official paperwork and set of for our hotel.

We checked into the brand new Carlton Citadel hotel, a swanky palace of a place that was once a beautiful Ottoman hospital, I had already visited the hotel just before it opened the previous year, its only redeeming feature being the views over the beautiful old city of Aleppo. Syria in 2010 was a very different place and tourism investment was flourishing, the Carlton though was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the time being 2014 and the wrong place being the front line between the Syrian regime army who were using it as a base to attack the rebel opposition, in an audacious attack opposition forces tunneled under the hotel and laid enough explosives to raise the hotel to the ground, its Google + page now declaring it permanently closed.

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The Carlton Citadel just before it closed.

Early the following morning we drove the 150 Kms or so via a few military checkpoints without problem to the factory where we spent the day, unlike cement factories I have photographed in Egypt this was pristine, efficient, safety conscious and came with the usual overwhelming Syrian hospitality that included not only a substantial lunch but also a porta-cabin with bed and shower to relax in. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the local farming villages, remote and beautiful countryside, Bedouin shepherds and fields of smiling sunflowers, it was a calm and peaceful time but the war was very close and would inevitably arrive.

The factory eventually closed its doors in 2014, the staff were paid for a while but soon mostly fired, and the local villages were overrun by the godless animals of Daash, now as I write this the trip is fresh in my mind yet so much has changed, I hope those beautiful people have survived all that has been wrought upon them.

My name has been redacted from the emails but I will confess here and now I did take money from Hilary Clinton via a Syrian intermediary working for Lafarge during the Syrian uprising.

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Help a Syrian Child

Help a Syrian Child

Every day my Facebook time line is filled with pictures of your beautiful children, their birthday parties, dress-up Halloween, guitar practice and first day at school, happy moments you share with friends and family, I love this insight, the peek into another life often far away.

So I want to share with a photo of a little girl who’s life is not so happy although with her straw blonde hair, blue eyes and knowing smile she could easily be a part of any of your families or friends, but she isn’t, she is unfortunate enough to live in a tent on the side of a freezing windswept hill in Syria, her Mum is not instagraming pictures of her blowing the candles out on her birthday cake she is just too busy trying to stay alive, she is not there by choice, she has fled the horror of war, she would love to go back home but she can’t.
She could though with a little help and kindness benefit from a wonderful educational program organsized by the Karam Foundation called Zeitouna; is it really too much to ask for you to make a small donation or at least share with your friends the link-please?

  • Please click on the image for details

 

Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

I have to confess Aleppo has never been my favorite city in Syria, I tried often to like it, after a decade of life in Damascus I guess I succumbed to the Shami perspective of preferring the capital, that said I did enjoy my frequent visits, the bus journey though was tedious, five hours of monochrome monotony apart from a brief glimpse of greenery while passing through the gardens of Hama, arriving in just the wrong mood for a city too busy to woo me the way Damascus would, I preferred the train, leaving on the midnight sleeper and arriving just after dawn, it was a longer journey but at least sleep was a possibility, arriving in any city by train is infinitely preferable, Aleppo station has seen a great deal of history pass along its platforms, the Berlin to Baghdad posters have given way to Bashar’s but the essence has been retained, well run and spotlessly clean with toilet facilities a joy to behold, not that you would, in 2003 the management even had the foresight to agree to hold the Syrian International Photography Gathering arranged by the eponymous Issa Touma, I remember old Bedouin farmers stepping off the train from the north east and pondering my images with genuine interest before heading off to do battle with the businessmen of the souk.
From the station into town is a casual stroll through a well-kept park that early in the morning is always busy with joggers and walkers, old and young, Christian and Muslim, male and female, Versace sweat pants and ipods, sitting on park bench sipping coffee it would seem to me it that it was almost compulsory that every facet of Syrian society was represented, the fountains and pools the manicured lawns, you could learn more about Syria sitting here drinking coffee than you ever would staring at Saladin’s stones, judging by the media representation of Syria recently I get the impression though that nobody ever did, so let’s stroll on to the souk, and yes it’s a labyrinth and an assault on the senses, lets gaze up at the medieval marvel that is the citadel and remark that it is, indeed imposing and then let’s turn our backs and walk away.