Sadness in Syria, Hama.

Faisal was the first Syrian friend I made on my first ever visit, he was also the first friend I lost in the war; I made many more friends and lost more too.

My first visit to Syria must be some twenty years ago now, only my diaries lost in my Mothers cavernous loft have the details, so much of my memory is draped in the dust of time but that day is still clear to me.

I walked over the old stone bridge spanning the al Assi River, the Norias grinding on the far bank, I spotted a sandwich shop, more a kiosk really, I treated the young man behind the counter to my recently learned Arabic greeting, he smiled as he replied, he prepared my sandwich and we both sat on plastic chairs and became friends, he told me some years later the reason he had taken to me was my fumbling Arabic.

Hama had been the city that first garnered my attention in Syria, I had only recently learned of its bloody history and no sooner had I arrived in Damascus I set out to visit, qualified advice being whatever you do, don’t mention the war, but obviously I am not one for following advice as regular readers of these pages will no doubt be aware.

Hama had suffered a brutal crackdown in the political unrest in the 1980s, half the city was raised and tens of thousands were killed, the city like many in Syria is multi faith but the Muslin brotherhood and conservative Islam were synonymous, prior to the uprising in 2011 most political analysts had declared the Syrian government to have crushed the Ikwan (MB).

I asked Faisal as we sipped tea where he learned his English, he told me he had learned while in prison as a child; he showed me a crumpled photograph of his house before it was destroyed, it was a matter of fact conversation, not angry or melodramatic although he sighed somewhat tiredly as he remembered the death of his horse, even my horse he said shaking his head.

I joined him and a group of his friends again that night, in fact for the next few days I would spend the nights chatting until the early hours, walking the quiet cobbled streets, empty accept shadows, under antique arches and past the Automan Hamam, on more than one occasion getting back to find my hotel locked up, I learned a lot in those few days and acquired an affection for Hama that has never left me.

Over the years I would drop by Hama and visit my friend, when we sat together late at night our conversations were always about the injustice of political power, and not just his own, elected or not the abuse of power that punished the weak or poor, when I visited with Friends then it was just his whole hearted hospitality.

Faisal was a good friend and was always there to help when I needed it, my early days in Syria especially, on one occasion I had asked his recommendation for a restaurant to entertain a visiting friend, I took his suggestion and enjoyed a beautiful Syrian meal beside the banks of the Orontes River, when the cheque was ordered the waiter said the bill had been taken care of.

We came from very different backgrounds and lead very different lives yet became very good friends, I don’t know the exact details of his death, as was very common in the early days of the Syrian uprising his death was shared on Facebook, despite the utter sadness I felt, still feel, it did not come as a shock, he was prepared to stand up for what he believed in, and for that bravery he paid with his life.

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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

 

 

An Old Man In Cairo

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Having wandered the fetid alleyways of the Fatimid’s all morning I found myself sitting in a tiny coffee shop no bigger than an average size bathroom, the old man was sitting on the opposite row of benches, the sun couldn’t quite reach over the mud brick walls of the Cairo labyrinth, it was December and cold outside and the door had been pulled shut, the old man had shown little or no interest in the foreigner sitting an arm’s length in front of him, I on the other hand was obviously drawn to him, the lines etched onto his face like a map of the winding lanes that had brought me here.

With two Nikons dangling from my shoulders the old man must have guessed my intention, I smiled and raised one and he nodded approval somewhat reluctantly, I snapped one shot in the dull fluorescent light, then the door opened and the old man looked towards the light coming from the alley and I made the second image.

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Time and Tram Lines

Time for Mahfouz is a constant theme, in the opening chapter of Midaq Alley we hear hara-1Kirsha argue in favour of the instillation of a radio leaving the poet without a venue to recite his stories, “everything has changed” insisted Kirsha.

The tram lines seen here along Sharia Port Said are, like the coffee shop poets, a thing of the past, the trams would rumble over the junction coming from Sayyida Zeinab often with small boys hanging from the last carriage.

In the name of progress and to help alleviate Cairo’s ever increasing traffic chaos they were ripped up to make way for more cars and buses.

 

 

 

From my El-Hara project.

El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

Prints Available to Purchase

Cairo Hara Tea Boy

My friend Gomer had some business to attend to and asked if I wanted to tag along, we set off along a side street from Darb al Ahmar and meandered through the alleys, we climbed a low wall and threaded our way carefully through a smoldering rubbish tip, I wasn’t sure what Gomer’s business was but it didn’t seem like a meeting with his bank manager.

In fact our destination soon became clear as we entered a car repair workshop, the alley didn’t seem wide enough to get a car along it, I sat in a corner on an oil drum with a carpet thrown over it, there was a sheep tethered in the other corner, Gomer’s friend shouted along the alley for some tea.

The tea boy’s face looked kind and gentle and seemed out of place in the harsh depressing surroundings.

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El-Hara was a project inspired by the works of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, shot sometime ago on a couple of crusty old Nikons and pockets full of TriX.

I was lucky enough to meet Mahfouz and the project has been exhibited in a few countries, I will post some more from the series in due course.

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 leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.

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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.

What Do You Know About Syria

What Do You Know About Syria

So tell me:

It’s been five years of a brutal war and almost every day the international media has carried some Syrian related story, from revolution to refugee and while most of Europe is now cowering under its bed in fear what can you really tell me about Syria and its brutalized population?

For a future blog post I would like to try and paint a picture of Syria before the war but with your help and contribution:

Did you have the chance to visit Syria?

Are you Syrian or have friends and family who have or are living there?

What do you think Syria was like as a country before the conflict?

Do you know where it is?

Please post your thoughts, your questions and experiences, I would like to avoid turning this is into another place of conflict so let’s not get bogged down in the political whys and wherefores, for those wishing for more in depth information on any such issues I am happy to provide links and sources so just drop me a line.

My  Damascus Diary blog posts offer some insights and I promise to update and organize this more professionally shortly:

Meet The Syrians is also an ongoing project that will introduce some of my Syrian friends:

Looking forward to your contributions.

 

Syrian school children
Syrian school children

The Gates of Damascus

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Bab al-Jabiyah Damascus

Four great gates has the city of Damascus
And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining,
All day long stand like tall stone men
And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.
This is the song of the East Gate Warden
When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden.
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear,
The Portal of Bagdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.
The Persian Dawn with new desires may net the flushing mountain spires:
But my gaunt buttress still rejects the suppliance of those mellow fires.
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose
But with no scarlet to her leaf–and from whose heart no perfume flows.
Wilt thou bloom red where she buds pale, thy sister rose? Wilt thou not fail
When noonday flashes like a flail? Leave nightingale the caravan!
Pass then, pass all! “Bagdad!” ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky
Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,–
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And one who licks his lips for thirst with fevered eyes shall face in fear
The palms that wave, the streams that burst, his last mirage, O Caravan!
And one–the bird-voiced Singing-man–shall fall behind thee, Caravan!
And God shall meet him in the night, and he shall sing as best he can.
And one the Bedouin shall slay, and one, sand-stricken on the way
Go dark and blind; and one shall say–“How lonely is the Caravan!”
Pass out beneath, O Caravan, Doom’s Caravan, Death’s Caravan!
I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your Singing-man.
This was sung by the West Gate’s keeper
When heaven’s hollow dome grew deeper.
I am the gate toward the sea: O sailor men, pass out from me!
I hear you high in Lebanon, singing the marvels of the sea.
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.
Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.
Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.
Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Beyond the bay in utmost West old Solomon the Jewish King
Sits with his beard upon his breast, and grips and guards his magic ring:
And when that ring is stolen, he will rise in outraged majesty,
And take the World upon his back, and fling the World beyond the sea.
This is the song of the North Gate’s master,
Who singeth fast, but drinketh faster.
I am the gay Aleppo Gate: a dawn, a dawn and thou art there:
Eat not thy heart with fear and care, O brother of the beast we hate!
Thou hast not many miles to tread, nor other foes than fleas to dread;
Homs shall behold thy morning meal and Hama see thee safe in bed.
Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:
And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers’ price,
And buy a fat Armenian slave who smelleth odorous and nice.
Some men of noble stock were made: some glory in the murder-blade;
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honorable Trade!
Sell them the rotten, buy the ripe! Their heads are weak; their pockets burn.
Aleppo men are mighty fools. Salaam Aleikum! Safe return!
This is the song of the South Gate Holder,
A silver man, but his song is older.
I am the Gate that fears no fall: the Mihrab of Damascus wall,
The bridge of booming Sinai: the Arch of Allah all in all.
O spiritual pilgrim rise: the night has grown her single horn:
The voices of the souls unborn are half adream with Paradise.
To Meccah thou hast turned in prayer with aching heart and eyes that burn:
Ah Hajji, wither wilt thou turn when thou art there, when thou art there?
God be thy guide from camp to camp: God be thy shade from well to well;
God grant beneath the desert stars thou hear the Prophet’s camel bell.
And God shall make thy body pure, and give thee knowlede to endure
This ghost-life’s piercing phantom-pain, and bring thee out to Life again.
And God shall make thy soul a Glass where eighteen thousand Æons pass.
And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as men see dew upon the grass.
And sons of Islam, it may be that thou shalt learn at journey’s end
Who walks thy garden eve on eve, and bows his head, and calls thee Friend.
James Elroy Flecker

Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

wreford-6The ancient walls of my Damascene house are a foot deep and yet the noise from outside penetrate as though its wafer thin, fortunately for the most part it’s a quiet neighborhood, just the kids terrorizing the feral cats or playing football are a nuisance but I can hardly grudge them that.
Lost deep in muddled dreams I woke suddenly to the sound of boots thundering along the alley outside, my heart rate and mind racing I lay wide eyed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling, a split second and the butt of a gun was being hammered against a neighbors door and a yell of “jeish” followed by the unmistakable metallic click clack of a Kalashnikov being cocked, I stumbled out of bed and comically tried to pull on my clothes, I grabbed my papers and flung a coat over my camera sitting idle as usual on my desk.
Then the inevitable crash on my door; “jeish” the young conscript barked at me, yes the army I can see that I thought but what the fuck do you want, I offered my papers instead of my thoughts and welcomed in several recruits and an officer, while the officer looked through my passport and questioned me his subordinates rooted through my house.
Did I have any weapons? Well, now there’s a funny story I thought. The truthful answer was yes I did, I had a hunting knife given to me by Ahmed the Egyptian, a failed drug dealer who was trying to move into the stolen art market, the knife was an incentive for my art world connections, probably I should relate that story at a later date, do remind me. I also had a .22 Air-rifle, a pretty harmless weapon unless you are a sparrow or a rat; in fact it was a rat that induced me to buy it, I liked the sparrows and had three regularly flitting about my courtyard, the rat though was not welcome.
Abu Eid the carpenter who worked on my house was also a gun dealer-well collector is probably a more accurate description-maybe, in his workshop he presented various options including an French army pistol and a pump action shot gun, I felt a bit of a wimp going for the .22 but I paid him a 1000 Syrian Lira and hid it inside a rucksack to take home.
Needless to say my reply to the Syrian officer sucking the atmosphere out of my courtyard was a definitive no, of course I didn’t, over his shoulder I watched one of the conscripts poking around near the sofa where I had concealed the rifle, they searched the house as they had been searching all the houses in the Old City, the officer handed back my papers and they all left leaving a stale smell of sweat and tobacco lingering in the night air.
I didn’t really think the silly gun would be a problem but had decided to hide it inside the sofa just to keep it out of sight; nosey neighbors able to peek down into the courtyard could easily mistake it for something more sinister.
This was the first house search, there followed several more, each time a similar routine, on one occasion one of the soldier checking my terrace yelled down excitedly I had a chair up there, the implication being I may be a sniper, I explained its where I drink my coffee in the mornings, you can ask the snipers on the other roof I was tempted to say who some time earlier had waved me from my morning ritual. On another occasion I stupidly decided to sort out all my camera equipment, my desk was strewn with everything I had, old, redundant and broken as well as current, I knew before going to bed I should hide it all away again but couldn’t be bothered, what were the chances of another midnight visit?
They bashed on the door early next morning, I wearily welcomed the troops in, the cannon fodder fanned out and poked around my laundry while for some inexplicable reason I ushered the officer into my office, you are an artist he asked-referring to my answer earlier about my occupation, yes a painter I emphasized with a squiggle movement of my hand and an imaginary brush, a routine I had practiced often, once while crossing the border at Qamishly the border guard suggested we go to his office where I could paint his portrait! There were precious few signs of any painting around my office only something akin to the annual stock-take at Dixons, yep an artist I repeated, I can’t say he looked convinced but he didn’t pursue it, weapons is what he was after and once again they failed to look in the sofa, which I should mention is a style common in Syria with a storage cupboard under the cushions.

As I continued to think about my inevitable departure from Syria I packed boxes and re-arranged the house, I wouldn’t be able to take very much with me so it was just a case of preparing the house for someone else to live in, I decided perhaps the sofa was not such a cool hiding place despite getting away with it three times, I found a narrow gap beneath the closet and slipped it under.
Getting a good night’s sleep was becoming an increasing problem, the noise of the gunfights or the sudden silence, either way it was hard to switch off, sleep was always interrupted, always.
I leapt startled from my bed again, I slept dressed these days, the hammering at my door worse than the shelling, I swore I would replace the metal door with a wooden one after this mess is over, which according to one very well informed friend would be a couple of months, I let the soldiers in and went through the charade again, this visit it slowly dawned on me was slightly different, only my house was being searched this time and not the neighborhood, the raid was being conducted by a Moukabarat officer not military, I recognized him although I couldn’t remember from where, they choose the night because you are half asleep and can’t think straight, I remained polite and answered the usual questions, they searched the house undoing the boxes of books I had packed up, this time they did look inside the sofa but by now it was empty, they bid me goodnight and departed.
I allowed myself a momentary smile of self-satisfaction even though I was under investigation and one way or another would end up either kicked out of the country or well, dead probably.

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