A loggerhead turtle scampers frantically towards the sea, her cumbersome shell not designed for beach sprinting, the dawn light now illuminating the protective cove but it’s not only the light that has stirred her into such inelegant action so much as the camera-phone wielding tourists in hot pursuit; coming out at night to lay her eggs it’s not only the foxes and birds she has to fear but now the modern scourge of the eco-paparazzi.
Ras al Jinz is the most easterly point of the Arabian peninsula in the Gulf of Oman, when the dawn light breaks here it does so before any other point in the Arab world, time and tide waits for no man, so it’s said, and neither do the turtles nesting on the beach. The tourists are a recent addition but otherwise life continues here much as it has done for hundreds of years, the turtles are of course protected, although many a local fisherman will tell of the succulent taste of its meat, my guide and driver sheepishly admits.
Ibn Battutah, the itinerant Arab traveller, landed on these shores more than six hundred years previously at a time when the maritime traffic of the Indian Ocean, Red and Arabian seas were dominated by Muslim traders. Dialects of Swahili and Baluchise among others are still spoken in the Souks of Oman, testament to the merchants that crises-crossed the seas, not only carrying silk and cotton but also the gifts of the Magi; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet Oman is no antique backwater, whilst its history and traditions are still preserved and appreciated and its unique cultural identity fully intact unlike perhaps some of its brash noisy neighbours, over the last forty years sustained development and investment have transformed the Sultanate into a modern yet understated nation. The once impenetrable interior now easily accessible by road, although in some of the more remote regions only by 4×4.
Proud of their heritage and determined to protect it the Omanis are quick to point out the difference between them and the glittering gaudy high-rise Emirates; no buildings are over four stories high in Oman, the cities have plenty of modern shopping malls but equally every Friday cattle traders turn up to Nizwa souk with sheep, cows and goats in the back of pick-ups ready to haggle a deal, farmers lead their beasts around a circular dais where prospective buyers sit and inspect, occasionally an errant bullock bucking and causing the crowd to stumble back, Rials exchanged goats carried off cradled in arms like a baby, around the corner in the restored old souk rifles and the ceremonial daggers are bought and sold, Bedouin women with their distinctive face masks shop for fruit, a traditional way of life sitting easily inside a country of modern infrastructure.
Absolute power obtained via a coup is hardly unusual in the Middle East but when Sultan Qabous Bin Said al Said ousted his father in 1970 it heralded the beginning of a renaissance and when the Arab Spring promoted discontent and protest in Oman as it did all over the Middle East he did something no other regional leader did; he listened to grievances then responded with decorum and understanding, he implemented reforms and created jobs and made promises, the Sultan died in a year ago this month; his legacy is one of cohesive inclusion, and while his reign is hardly blemish free he is held in high regard.
The dynasty continues with his first cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al Said who in his short time in office has made efforts to continue reform and much needed economic diversification to keep Oman a rare oasis of tranquillity and calm, unless that is you are a turtle.
When the dawn light breaks along the coast of Oman the rest of the Arab world is still in darkness; modern and modest and with quiet humility Oman has much to be admired and as Ibn Battutah wrote; a beauty that is undeniable.
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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.
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.
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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Outside the street is drowning in clouds of dust and sand stirred up by the haphazard traffic, mostly motorbikes, some with three wheels some with two, some with two passengers and some with three and other infinite combinations. A group of lads sitting playing backgammon at the entrance to the cafe oblivious to the swirling Saharan smog, a shop keeper on the other side of the street squirts water from a bottle in a futile attempt at controlling it.
Inside the café every surface is coated in the grainy dust, the waiter understands the futility of wasting his time, when the Khamseen blows the desert comes to town and paints everything beige, welcome to Siwa says the waiter when he puts down my coffee on the dusty table.
Siwa an island adrift in the Great Sand Sea between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, an oasis of palm trees watered by underground springs, of crumbling mud brick houses populated by Berber Nomads, a place of more legends than tourists, where spring swirls with the Khamseen wind.
Egypt has had a turbulent time over the past few years but consensus has it that things have settled now, increased stability has seen a steady return of tourists with forecasts set to increase, But Siwa is a long way from the sandy beaches of the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, it has never been high on the itinerary of the charter crowds that fill coaches and head from Cairo along the Nile to Luxor, Siwa takes a little more effort to reach.
Alexander the Great set out from Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, driven by the need to prove his divinity and seek approval from the Oracle of Amun, the desert crossing as harsh now as it was then, with routes obscured by the ever-drifting sands he followed a flock of crows to the oasis, at the Temple of Amun his status as a God on Earth was confirmed and the young Macedonian King went on to make his historical mark. These days it’s much easier to just take the train to Alexandria and then a bus as the crow flies into the desert, it’s a bumpy ride with numerous military check-points, the errant Bedouin tribes having little respect for the border with Libya about 30 miles away.
It’s a rickety cycle ride along a dusty track to the temple ruins, past groves of palm trees dusted dull from the surrounding sands, ageing Siwians sitting on their doorsteps gossiping. Somehow it seems unlikely Cleopatra passed this way and even less likely on a bicycle but a pool fed with natural spring water takes her name, in the past brides would bathe here prior to their wedding but these days it’s more a spot to wash the sand off, sip a juice and watch the local lads dip and dive.
It was 323 years before the birth of Christ that Alexander entered the temple and time has taken its inevitable toll on the complex, but by climbing the path you follow in the footsteps of the Pharaohs and from the crumbling ramparts you can see the extent of the palm groves and beyond the shimmer of a vast salt lake.
The distant Nile is the thread that weaves life into Egypt; the land is parched beyond its fertile banks except for the seven oases where underground aquifers feed the date palms. The dates of Siwa are the best in the world, at least according to a grinning Mustafa, who was trying to sell me a half a kilo from his shack in the shadow of Shali fortress. The verdant gardens have always proved a reliable provider; tourism is an intermittent side show.
I washed the dust from Mustafa’s dates and munched on them as I followed the path through the decrepit ruins to the former fortress that dominates the town, an impenetrable citadel that stood for 13 centuries until 1923 when several days of flash floods took its toll, the houses had been built from Kershef, a muddy mixture of clay and salt and now most of the houses are just mustard colored skeletons, home to donkeys and huddled sheep, although now investment and restoration is seeing a slow transformation with a boutique hotel or two and inevitably a handful of Airbnb’s.
As the sun sinks the call to prayer rises, a crackle and cough from a thousand-year-old minaret, remarkably intact and looking not unlike a potteries chimney, shadowy figures scuttle up the steps to the dun colored Mosque.
Siwians are easy going and independently minded, conservative and polite, the language is Siwian first and Arabic second, the culture is Berber Bedouin, they see themselves as a world apart from the rest of Egypt. Siwa is cloaked in a sandy otherworldliness.
Over breakfast of mashed fava beans and yogurt at Abdo’s restaurant I negotiated with Abdul Rahman to chauffeur me a little further than the bone shaker bicycle could manage, Abdul Rahman assured me of the upmost comfort, no distance too far, salt lakes and sand seas guaranteed.
Thirty minutes later I was being thrown violently from side to side in the back of a motorcycle tuk-tuk, Abdul Rahman glancing over his shoulder every so often to check if I was still aboard, the engine noise limiting our communication to a series of emojis, me thumbs-up and him a smiley face.
The Sahara surrounding Siwa is remarkably wet, despite its status as an oasis it does come as a surprise to see so much water, expansive saline lakes and numerous hot and cold springs all offering respite and rejuvenation and adding to the unique character of this remote Egyptian outpost.
The road out of town is flanked by mountains peppered with tombs cut into the limestone rock, grave robbers long gone, on the walls only intricate inscriptions detailing the importance of life and afterlife remain. And an earie quiet.
The tuk-tuk has overheated, Abdul Rahman had pushed it too far and was now fiddling with the tormented engine, the sand drifted silently across the tarmac, I kicked at the bleached bones of another victim an unforgiving landscape, a couple of local Bedouin from a settlement close by wandered over to offer advice and offer refreshments.
The Bedouin seemed amused at my choice of transport, a shiny 4×4 was parked at the entrance to a cluster of yellow painted buildings in the shade of several palm trees, Bedouin culture is more settled these days. With the tuk-tuk fixed our new friends invited us for tea, we loaded up with supplies and headed off in convoy along a dusty camel track to the edge of a salt heavy lake, as the sun faded we kindled a fire and cooked more tea, selfies were made and conversation revolved around our hosts cross-border drug smuggling business, the border with Libya a few shifting dunes away.
The desert can be unforgiving, vast and unknown, it can also be serene, poetic in its shapes and hues, and it can also be therapeutic, not just in mind but also in body. The desert bathing season starts once the sand is at its hottest, taking a Siwa sand sauna involves being buried up to the neck and left to roast in the hope of curing everything from rheumatism to impotence.
We said goodbye to our new friends, promising to keep in-touch regarding some potential business opportunities and struggled through the darkness back to town.
Next morning in the coffee-shop Maher was puffing on his pipe, the water gurgling in its bowl, a glint of sunlight picking out the particles of Sahara in the air, the TV was switched off and outside the traffic was still quiet, I ordered coffee and waited for Abdul Rahman to take me to the bus station, apart from Maher’s occasional cough we sat in silence, inside the café the dust was settling but outside the sands were shifting.
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A kettle of vulture’s circle high in the sky, with wings wide and necks outstretched to surf the summer thermal draft. In the valley below the Arda river loops and doubles back on its self, a naked man basks on the shingle beach. A kilometre beyond sits the town, sitting dead centre in the crater of a flaccid volcano, the town is empty, its population dwindling since the gold mine closed leaving behind tumbleweed pensioners. This description is beginning to sound bleak but this is the eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and nothing is ever as it seems.
Steeped in history and shrouded in mystery the forested peaks of the Rhodope cover around 12,000 km’s of Bulgaria on the Balkan peninsular, the town of Madzharovo a stone’s throw from the border with Greece.
It’s the land of Orpheus and serpents and dancing trees, and where the landscape has been carved by dragons.
With its population now hovering at around 500 its gold rush days are long gone, during the communist times when the mine was open the town was flush with cash, in the now shuttered and somewhat forlorn looking Sky Club Bar they would come from miles around just to rub shoulders with the wealthy miners, their salaries five times that of the locals, in fact they couldn’t get rid of it says Veselina who used to work behind the bar back in the day, with nothing but Rakia and beer to spend it on, they would roll up wads of Leva to prop up wobbly table legs she laughed. And is there still gold in dem hills? Oh yes she says assuredly and the prospectors still come and sift and silt along the seams, ever hopeful of what the ancient Thracian tribes had thrived on.
Just outside town on a forested bluff beside the river is the Vulture Visitor Centre, bustling with volunteers twitching with anticipation at the imminent arrival of a couple of chicks from Prague, that is to say, a pair of Egyptian vulture fledglings from Prague zoo.
The magnificent Egyptian vulture was once a common sight above the peaks of the Balkan peninsular but is now globally under threat. Needless to say increased urbanization, exploitative agricultural practice and poaching have all contributed their steady decline. But somewhat surprisingly the tables may be turning and it seems the human population in Bulgaria is now in decline and the vultures are having something of a renaissance.
Marrin, the ruddy faced center manager swigs from his cold can of Kamenitza beer and tries to explain the state of the local food chain;
It’s all to do with the cows he says;
Cows? I question and pull the ring on my beer.
Da, they are wild and rare.
Rare wild cows I ponder as Marrin sups on his beer as though he has explained everything.
Marrin detecting I am a bit slow on the up-take goes into further detail;
The Rhodope short horn cow is one of the last remaining indigenous cattle still surviving in Bulgaria, one of the last of the European prehistoric breeds; numbers had fallen to a few hundred. Predatory wolves being the chief culprits so the local farmers would use poison to combat the wolves, not only the cows and wolves would fall victim but the vultures feeding on poisoned carrion set out for the wolves would also get caught up in the rural carnage.
Wild cows, wolves, vultures. I shifted uneasily in my seat and eyed the surrounding forest with suspicion.
With help from the Bulgarian Bird Society and funds from the European Union a truce between the wolves and farmers has been holding long enough to reverse the decline, the successful preservation and protection of raptors such as the Griffin and Egyptian Vulture is just part of the re-wilding of Europe that has also witnessed the re-introduction of Bison to Bulgaria, missing for centuries.
The chicks from Prague have arrived and after having electronic tags attached by the BBS team they will be settled into a hack perched on the side of the mountain in preparation for life in the wild.
A task not for the faint of heart that will involve the scaling of a Rhodope peak with the birds carried in crates strapped to the backs of intrepid Sherpa-esq team members. Scrabbling over scree and hauling along rope pulleys, with the river diminishing in size and the vistas growing grander, it’s a long way down.
The absolute dedication and commitment to the cause could not be more evident as one of the BBS experts laden with a heavy wooden crate abseils from the summit and places the juvenile Vulture in the hack.
As the summer heat subsides and autumn approaches the migration will begin, a not unfamiliar story; from the barbed wire boundaries of Europe, across Anatolia into the Middle East and Africa, a journey in search of resource, safety and security, a journey fraught with risk, a journey of hope and the struggle to survive.
Madzharovo has turned its back on its industrial past and is rebranding itself; the giant murals painted on the side of communist housing blocks are testament to a proud new vision.
And what of the naked man sunning himself on the banks of the Arda I hear you ask? He, much like the near-by town is returning to nature.
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Strabo must have scrambled his way to the peak of Erciyes, one of the Volcanoes that surround the tectonic crossroads of Cappadocia in the heart of Anatolian Turkey, scribbling in his ancient notebook he could see both the Black sea to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, he was less than three hundred kilometers from his hometown and no doubt the journey by horse would have been arduous, whatever that shimmer was he saw in the distance, it was unlikely to have been either of the seas, Strabo the cross eyed geographer had made mistakes before, his seventeen volume Geographica was fastidiously complied yet littered with errors, the scholarly Greek had traveled far and wide in his valiant attempt to record and acquaint us with lands distant.
The land of lava and ash stretched out below him is peaked and dotted with cinder cones and fairy chimneys, the rock so soft it was easy to carve caves and provide shelter and sanctuary, new age Neolithic revolutionaries had settled thousands of years before Strabo arrived a little over half a century before the birth of Christ, the Assyrians and the warrior Hitties too would carve their homes here long before horses of the Roman legions marched across this rugged land.
Ekram leans nonchalantly against the entrance to his cave, sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, a lined face and hippie hair only partially covered by his cowboy hat, he surveys the corral of wild Anatolian horses, Ekram is slowly building their trust and will, when the time is right, break them and put them to work on his ranch, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that Ekram is known as the Horse Whisperer of Cappadocia.
It’s the land of beautiful horses Ekram tells me, referring to the meaning of the name Cappadocia, some say it derives from the old Persian name of Haspaduya, the true meaning is something of academic debate but the tour guides will tell you with fervent enthusiasm the name does mean the Land of Beautiful Horses, and why wouldn’t it? Well one reason is the admission by a prominent Turkish photographer who claimed he used the term to save a project he was working on, the disgruntled top brass of the military who had recently claimed power via a coup d’état didn’t like the sound of the Persian version.
Cappadocia is without doubt the land of beautiful horses despite it being better known for its hot air balloons and fairy chimneys, tourists fly in simply to catch a dawn flight over the magnificent otherworldly landscape, another tick on the bucket list, the real way to experience the nature of Cappadocia is as Strabo did, as the conquering armies of the Hittites and Persians, the Assyrian traders following the Silk road, the Byzantine Fathers when they built their labyrinth of underground cities, as almost every visitor until very recent times did, by horse.
In the corral down below a one-eyed puppy wrestles with a cat, the cat chases some pigeons, chickens peck and some geese flap near a water bath and the stable boys begin preparing the horses for a day’s ride, saddles rest on the fence, Canan grooms a mare, while most of the youth of Anatolia turn their backs on rural life and move to the cities Canan who quit his job in IT and moved from Ankara to Cappadocia to ride, when not leading tours into the Rose valley he races and takes pride in his horsemanship.
Across the valley Irfan is parking his battered Peugeot outside a fairy chimney, his Kangal strains at his leash and barks ferociously, he will feed his chickens before letting his horses into the field, soon he will buckle his chaps and set about re-shoeing one of his horses, the first time, he tells me it took him ages and the horse was kicking and struggling, now though his horse is calm and lets Irfan hack at the fillings in the hoofs, I learned from YouTube he says. Ekram told me the same thing while I watched him clean the teeth of one of his horses, the culture of keeping horses has somehow missed a generation, Ekram is in his 40s and Irfan only just into his 30s they didn’t inherit this knowledge, the tourist industry has taken over traditional farming a long time ago but these new age Cappadocia cowboys are turning the clock back and keeping alive a noble culture.
Irfan’s eyes are sad and his eyebrows droop and it’s only the sight of his horses that his face lights up, you can see the affection as he strokes its mane and whispers in Turkish, I’m not sure there is room in Irfans life for any other girls.
We sip Nescafe on the porch of his fairly chimney and he tells me of his ambitious plans, the political situation in Turkey meant fewer tourists have been passing by so he wants to invest in some sheep and a plough, really, I ask, a plough? Well the tractors just cut through the roots but my horses know better, I will rent it out to the local farmers, I live a simple life and want to be self-sufficient.
Ekram is something more of a businessman, a regular flow of day tripping Turks arrive for a quick trot into the valleys, the wild horses when tamed will be sold on, his heart is of a hippie but he his head a capitalist, his horses are healthy and well looked after, I feed them grapes he tells me, I have vines in the other valley, all organic, I can tell when a horse is getting sick, I can feel its heart rate or from the way it walks and I know what I must feed it to help it recover, nature provides the answer and I don’t need artificial antibiotics.
When Strabo descended mount Erciyes and finally got around to recording his observations he would talk of the importance of Cappadocian horse culture for the Persian economy and military, these days the only Persians visiting are tourists and but on the foot hills of mount Erciyes Ekram is wrangling mares to do his best to continue the legacy.
Cairo, a steaming mess of a city that has the capacity to at first seduce and serenade you then almost immediately slap and violate you, and yet, despite it all you keep coming back for more.
And here I was, back again. On the balcony of my scruffy room in the Hotel Hussein, the hotel named after the severed head that resides in the Mosque next door, the head of the Prophets grandson, the same head curiously also resides in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, its curiosity that brings you to the Middle East, then keeps you here.
It was a day like any other, that is like any other day in Cairo. Crisp morning sunlight stinging your sleep deprived eyes, slurping down thick black tea with a boiled egg and triangle of cheese for breakfast, another dusty day stumbling around the lanes of Gamalaya in the shadow of the Fatimids. Then, just as has a habit of happening in this part of the world, you bump into a Nobel prize winner for literature.
It had been one of my frequent visits to Cairo working on my self-assigned street photography project, ( Previous Cairo Photography ) after my first visit to Egypt I began reading Naguib Mahfouz avidly and this project had been inspired by his words, the Egyptian Nobel laureate grew up in this overcrowded neighborhood, his childhood home a couple of streets away and this anarchic labyrinth the setting of many of his novels.
My days usually followed a similar pattern, an uncomfortable night followed by a disappointing breakfast tinged with self-doubt and medieval view shrouded in 21st century exhaust fumes. I’m not a morning person. After breakfast I would surrender myself to the all-consuming city and the first coffee shop in my path. By sunset I would be back at the hotel and trying to wash the grime away in a lukewarm trickle of a shower. Feeling marginally rejuvenated I would head downtown to explore the 1001 hedonistic delights of Koshery and bookstores and maybe a cheeky bottle of Egyptian Stella.
My evening is progressing as predicted, I’m propping up a bookshelf in shop just off Tahrir square and flipping through the pages of novel by my favorite Egyptian scribe when a diminutive chap sidled up beside me and with a nod and wink said “So you like Naguib Mahfouz” Yes that old chestnut I thought. So we got chatting about Egyptian literature and my pompous idea of a photography project, my new friend said his name was Bhar and taught English literature at a Cairo university.
After a short while he said I should follow him to a private club to meet some of his friends, he seemed harmless enough so we left the shop and walked to a near-by side street where a gathering of Cairo’s intelligentsia engaged heavily in existentialism and smoking. I was made very welcome and held court slumped in a worn out arm chair with my coffee perched precariously on my knee.
Conversation flowed, cigarettes were extinguished and lit, tea followed coffee and everyone agreed my project was terrific idea, I should meet this person and that, I couldn’t really keep up with the questions coming at me from different corners of the small back room. That’s arranged then said Bhar suddenly, and lead me back outside into the street with waves and goodbyes to my new found friends as I left.
I had no idea what had just been arranged but scuttled along after Bhar, it was quite late now and the usually crowded streets pretty quiet, after about twenty minutes walking we entered a closed office of an Egyptian newspaper, we risked a rickety elevator up several floors then a long a fluorescent corridor and tapped on door and entered without waiting for the answer. To this day I have no idea who I then shook hands with, tea was summoned and a conversation ensued, me and my grand project, phone calls were made and suddenly a photographer appeared and took my startled portrait, had I just been interviewed I wondered as we said our goodbyes and left the building.
As we walked in the general direction of my hotel, I tried to re-cap with Bhar what had just happened, the bottom line when it eventually transpired was that I had been invited the following evening to meet Naguib Mahfouz at hotel beside the Nile.
The following evening, I tried to flatten the rucksack induced creases from my best T-shirt and headed downtown to meet arguably the most important living writer in Arabic literature.
Born in 1911 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, like most great writers he was a divisive figure, known to be shy he was also very social able and approachable, these twin characteristics also lead to him being physically attacked, his daily routine of walking from his home to his office via Tahrir square had often been quoted in interviews, in 1994 outside his home an assailant stabbed him in the neck, already a frail man miraculously he survived.
I had no idea what to expect, I had some scribbled directions on a scrap of paper, the address was modern hotel overlooking the Nile. I found my way to the lounge some floors up and entered with that slight feeling of an imposter.
Mahfouz was unmistakably sitting on plump armchair in the corner surrounded by an entourage of devotees, a literary salon, conversation was hushed, his hearing-impaired questions to him were relayed through a friend sitting beside him. I was in good company and chatted with authors Raymond Stock and Gamal al-Ghitani and it was the latter that introduced me to Mahfouz and explained my project. Mahfouz approved of my idea and shared a childhood anecdote from the streets I was plying those December days. We shook hands and he wished me well.
John Ezard writes: In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.
He wrote of life and his fellow humans. I was fortunate to meet such a soul. He passed away a couple of years later.
No doubt this will be my last post of 2019 so I wish you all the very best for the holidays and the coming new year. Thank you for following and all your support.
Am I homeless or a Digital Nomad? The next few months are going to be unknown, exciting and a new chapter.
A Turkish friend had been going into lucid detail of the true meaning of mindfulness, a term of modern trend that can often be treated with flippant discard or so I thought.
One version of the meaning according to Psychology Today is; “Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance” There are many definitions of this meditative practice that has its roots in Buddhism but this description in particular appealed to me, another is “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”
Now regular followers of my blog may have already determined I am not really a spiritual man, neither am I one for hanging labels on my beliefs or philosophy, I do poach a little from here and there and no doubt that a thread of anarchism runs through it all but in the end I see things in shades of monochromatic pragmatism. So, it does seem somewhat contradictory of me to delve into the world of Zen. But I am also a contradictory fellow.
As my friend was explaining the concept to me, I realized that this was something I already practice but I know it as the non-philosophical term; Photography. Personally speaking, photography and the concept of Mindfulness are intrinsically intertwined, to be at the very least a competent photographer you must follow the basic principles of Mindfulness.
The day had not been going well, frustration and anger had been slowing morphing into depression, I had decided a walk would do me good, I shouldered my camera gear with only half an idea of shooting a near by lake at sunset, I am not a landscape photographer but I enjoy the process and of course the walk.
Along a potholed lane out of the village, past a couple of scruffy mutts bleating and into open fields, the sun was still high and the heat induced sweat dribbling wherever it could, past sullen sunflower plants with their heads bowed in despair, the landscape was not spectacular; provincial, pastural, pleasant, the lake was hardly a lake, more a big pond, I’m not sure how you define either. I hiked the ridge above the lake and surveyed the scene from every angle, a gypsy and his cart toddled past and some fishermen were packing their kit and getting ready to leave. Soon I stood alone apart from a hawk of some sort, wings wide above the fields.
I predicted the final movements of the sun, where the shadows would fall, the only problem was that from every angle an electricity pylon spoiled my potential photograph, it was the wrong sort of energy that was blighting my bliss. There would be no pretty picture postcard lake at sunset shot and It didn’t matter, this was not a commission, I had no brief to fulfil.
I scrambled down the bank to the waters edge and startled basking frogs back into the sanctuary of the water, plopping one after the other in perfect time to my footsteps, at the far side of the lake I set my bag down and made myself comfortable in the long grass.
Its here that things began to come into focus, my view was limited to what was in close proximity, the only sound was nature, in the stillness the frogs regained their confidence and reappeared in the algae coated water, a stork settled and turtle edged along his perch, I was completely focused on my surroundings, the pattern of plants and the insects that went about their business without interruption, as the lake fell into shadow I felt inclined to head back to home, I have no idea how long I sat there, in those moments my mind was free, not empty but not cluttered with concern or toxicity. I made a couple of images and strode home as dusk passed into night.
The images were unimportant snapshots consigned to my hard-drive until now, the clarity though was enough to make a difficult decision a simple one.
I think we need to talk about Slow Photography more often and its relationship with Mindfulness and its potential as Art Therapy.
As a full time professional photographer, it is often hard to justify the time and trouble and inevitable expense to engage in non-profitable work, that is, unless you redefine the term profitable.
Thank you all for your continued support and buying me a coffee goes much further than you can possibly imagine Buy Me A Coffee
I have just returned from ten days working in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. I have been a few times before to Dubai but only fleeting visits and always confirming my feeling that it’s a soulless monstrosity cluttering an otherwise pristine desert. This time because of the work I was doing I had more opportunity to engage with its population and this gave me pause for thought.
I was born in London and was always proud of our multi-cultural diversity and have sadly watched at safe distance this heritage eroded and denigrated, myth and falsehoods perpetuated by fake news and fascist firebrands. I have lived as a migrant in the Middle East, a landscape torn apart by competing empires and paying the price to this day, my faith in humanity never wavers but is constantly tested, the era of Brexit and rise of the populist sodomizers intent on divide and rule and profit before morality the most depressing of tests.
Could there be a more multi-cultural society than the UAE? Yes, the shiny mega-projects were built on exploitation amounting to modern day slavery and obscene discrimination but for all the failings the overriding asset the Emirates has to offer is its vast migrant resource. Over the course of my visit I probably met around half a dozen Emiratis and they were without exception, warm, friendly and very welcoming but everyone else was from everywhere else, I met Brits and Americans, Australians and Romanians, Pakistani, Indian and Kashmiri, Russian and Ukrainians, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Afghans, Zimbabweans, Thai, Filipino and Korean, many were the second generation of mixed expat marriages.
Sure it was still only a short visit and its never enough to fully understand the complexities of any society but it did leave a lasting impression, not just the warmth and friendliness I was shown at every juncture but also the support and understanding shown to each other, the Russians working alongside Ukrainians, the Indians with the Pakistanis.
Without stoking the fires of fear, humanity is doing just fine.
These random portraits were shot quickly between assignments in the busy Gold Souk and port alongside Dubai Creek.
God spoke to Noah commanding him to save his family, build an Ark and take the animals – the flood was coming, Earth needed to be cleansed. The well-known story is related in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and finding the Ark and proving the story true an eternal quest.
Noah reputedly hailed from Mesopotamia, and the last resting place of the Ark is still thought to be in the region of Ararat in Turkish Anatolia, so it’s with some irony that a few hundred kilometers to the south all the talk is of impending flood waters that will drown towns and villages along the Tigris basin, the ancient town of Hasankeyf being the most prominent.
This time the Turkish government is the one preparing to open the floodgates; the southeast Anatolian project (GAP) is an ambitious plan to develop the infrastructure of the impoverished region utilizing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers via a series of dams and hydroelectric plants. Needless to say there has to be casualties and it looks like Hasankeyf is going down with all its treasure, a chest that includes the partially standing remains of a 12th century bridge, a 15th century cylindrical mausoleum, several Mosques, hundreds of cave dwellings and the opportunity to unearth clearly much more, to say nothing of the fate of the local population who are unhappy about being re-housed.
The Silk Road and all those that traded along it kept Hasankeyf alive, the high limestone cliffs providing strategic protection. But the city the Assyrians named Castrum Kefa – the Castle of The Rock – is now facing an ignominious end, the Turkish government is moving ahead and new homes for the local inhabitants are being built. There is still a glimmer of hope in that previous protests have halted the damn and plans are also being made to save and relocate some of the antiquity, but so far it is only a glimmer.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Nabatean Place of High Sacrifice, stop me if you’ve heard this one, it’s a delicate tale and one I can’t help but share.
My journey to the beautiful caravan city of Petra sandwiched between the seas Red and Dead had started in the other great caravan city of Damascus, much of this excursion has already been related in the pages:
So here I am, slurping tea with a Bedouin women named Basma, she offered me another but I respectfully declined, it was already my third, I need to get up to the place of high sacrifice before closing time I explained, she looked disappointed, an excuse she had clearly heard before, what I mean before closing time it was my last day and the sun was going down, am pretty sure the business of sacrifice is quite flexible but the golden glow of the suns dying rays would not wait, and, as is always the case with places of high sacrifice it was located on the top of a mountain, I thanked Basma as she stoked her fire and strode off along the Wadi.
I followed the rock cut sandstone steps along an escarpment as it weaved around the base of the mountain, I picked up the pace taking long strides, every so often looking over my shoulder at the view and diminishing sun, it wasn’t steep and had I not been racing would have made a pleasant walk, I passed a few people heading down but pretty much it seemed the mountain was mine.
Hot and sweaty I reached the summit; a pair of pert obelisks were perched on the plateau a testament to long past craftsmanship and worship, curiously it would be much later I would learn of the deities being tributes to the Gods of both strength but also water and fertility, how one may go about paying tribute to those Gods I was soon to learn.
I pranced around the ancient alter for a while enjoying the solitude, then just as I was scrambling down from another somewhat perilous vantage point an old Bedouin woman appeared and offered me tea, as interesting as sacrificial ceremony maybe I much prefer a cuppa and a chat.
A blackened pot was sitting on a pile of flaming kindling, the tea was rancid and I drank while keeping an eye out for chance to tip it away, my host was perhaps not as old as I first thought, her face weather worn, she was a widow she told me and lived in a village the other side of the wadi, she rolled a cigarette and puffed happily, I asked what it was she was smoking but my Arabic was not efficient enough to identify the herbs which she told me she picked on the mountain, I took some pictures and she played me a tune on a metal flute, so far, in my world that is, all quite normal.
The sun was almost finished for the day and my genial host suggested she show me the quick way down the mountain, we kicked dust over the embers of the fire and set off, after no more than a few meters she told me to wait, she stressed I should wait where I was and she dashed behind some bushes, Juniper probably, she reappeared seconds later smoothing down her dress, no explanations necessary I thought and we moved on.
Wait, wait she said again, we had only been walking a few minutes, she ducked behind a bush but hardly out of my peripheral vision, I looked skyward to be sure as she dealt with the clearly urgent need, we continued, the route now becoming trickier, clambering over rocks and sliding down clefts in the mountainside, nimble as a goat she hopped and danced from rock to rock, I fumbled and dithered and did my best to keep up, once again she pulled up sharply and this time didn’t bother with modesty and just dropped to her haunches and peed freely, And I do mean freely, not since a mad Friday night in Piccadilly had I seen such wantonness, this is the Middle East and whilst many are hardly religious issues of modesty are rigorous, I was both bemused and amused, we continued, our pace was almost frantic, she deftly dealing with the terrain but me struggling to keep up, she had edged away from me and as I cupped my camera and slid down a gulley she was waiting for me, squatting, dress hitched up and in full flow, how, I marveled, could she produce such quantity, and, I admit, for a few brief seconds I couldn’t help myself but marvel, I mean, what the… she shot me a look, this time I had not looked away and felt for a moment as though I had been caught red handed, she just said yallah and we carried on our way, as if nothing had happened, this was the last time she performed, since that what it seemed to be, the image though is hard to shake off and one that no doubt al-Uzza, Nabatean God of water and fertility would approve, she did though have one more thing to show me.
She took my hand and lead me then into a cave hidden behind some overhanging greenery, I felt pretty sure that if things turned nasty I could handle the old girl, inside the cave she stepped away from me, she looked directly into my eyes, oh God I thought, how is my British politeness going to get me out of this, after an uncomfortable pause that may have lasted several seconds she pointed to the paintings etched into the wall, faded pastel shades of prehistoric art, was there an image of a snake, I wasn’t paying attention, lovely I declared and we exited the cave.
Not enough is written of the risks to white men traveling alone in the Middle East and I have enough stories to fill a book, My Gay Adventures in the Middle East has long been a working title, do feel free to encourage me.
Back in Wadi Farasa we said our goodbyes, just a few words and formal as you’d expect, I really do not know what just happened are probably the only words going through my mind, I slipped her a few diners for the tea anyway.
Please do visit my website, most of the images are available to purchase as prints: