Syria, Nine Grueling Years

Sitting in silence on a red sofa, gaze transfixed to a muted tv.

January 2011.

I had hardly left that sofa just watching history unfold via al Jazeera, this time I was squeezed between Syrian friends with tears in their eyes.

We were in Syria and the revolution was in Egypt and of all the drama, the crowds and slogans, pepper spray and tanks, it was just one line that sticks in my memory, mine and no doubt most others watching or involved; the president has gone

Everybody was thinking the same thing; would a revolution happen in Syria, could it really happen? And everybody had different ideas and opinions.

I wanted to go to Egypt, I have an affinity with Cairo and many friends there, and, something quite momentous was happening. How could I leave now?

I had to stay.

Walking home one day from the modern center of Damascus to the Old city I received a telephone call, I changed my route to avoid the noise of Souk Hamadieh, I meandered through the narrow alleyways chatting, occasionally nodding to a familiar face as I passed, dusk in Damascus settles early, the city sitting in the lap of a mountain. Propped against the bonnet of a parked car I finished my phone call and tried to make a photograph of the moon reflected in an antique window pane. A typically warm day was suddenly cold.

That stroll and conversation had taken maybe thirty minutes and unbeknown to me my detour had avoided the beginning of the uprising, an event rarely mentioned, then, days later the news from the south would arrive, the people of Deraa had taken to the streets and nothing would ever be the same.486322_10152307687975179_1794775067_n

March 2011.

The beginning and the end.

Other than those of us who follow World or Middle East events have paid much attention to what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria at that time, probably even the bloody headlines of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan hardly registered, it had already been eight years since the illegal invasion of Iraq, the Middle East was always in turmoil, easy not to pay attention, it was somewhere else and there are always problems closer to home.

Then that all changed. The problem migrated.

 

Its nine years now. There are still bombs in Damascus.

In Syria we had so many conversations about how long things would last, the optimists said a couple of months and others said decades, actually ten years was often suggested, we drank endless cups of tea and cursed the checkpoints, rampant inflation and lack of power.

I hung as long as I could in Damascus, another two and half years but eventually, after a lengthy investigation and interrogation by the Syrian security services followed by bankruptcy had little choice but to leave, I left everything. I gave the keys to the house I had bought to a displaced family and crossed the border into Lebanon and then onto Turkey to start again.

Since leaving Syria I am constantly surprised at the complete lack of understanding of the situation, I get blank stares of incomprehension when I mention I lived there, nothing compared to the comments my Syrian friends have to deal with.

I think if we allow our democratically elected governments to wage wars on our behalf or exploit the natural resources we desire or profit from, or if we deem one despot more worthy than another or feel the need to oust them, or even if we feel so superior to preach to others how they should act or behave then surely we have at least a duty to be aware of the facts and reality surrounding these events, not just the simplistic headlines.

Would it be fair to say that wars in the Middle East and especially the Syrian conflict have affected the social political fabric of Europe?

If anyone interested in learning more about the reality of the Syrian conflict or the culture and history of Syria, I have compiled a reading list. This is not just a random selection of titles groomed from the web but books I have read and/or by authors I have worked with or know personally and so can vouch for their authenticity and, I have included well researched travel writing produced prior to 2011, since I feel they offer a more gentle approach to a subject that can get bogged down in geo political semantics.

I had intended adding the list in this post but it turned out more extensive than I first imagined, so tell me if you are interested and I will make a follow up post.

There is so much more to the Syrian story than war and refugees, there is so much more to the Middle East, and fortunately there are some quite brilliant writers out there who have gone to inordinate lengths to document this heritage or tell these stories.

Syrian refugee boy Atmeh camp Idlib Syria

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Tarlabaşı; An Ode.

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Saying goodbye to Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi is a hive of informal commerce, the streets alive, trade and toil and the struggle to survive in a city overwhelmed, carts with squeaky wheels pushed up and down the hills, hawkers crying and calling, the rag and bone man and the Sahlep seller, in the afternoons the itinerant musicians take a final slurp of tea and trudge to the bars of Taksim to work for tips. Mothers, wives and daughters deal with the never-ending washing, scrubbing carpets with a stream of soap suds heading to the gutter, wood constantly being chopped to feed the stove, an aged grandmother wields an axe, a teenager uses a stone to smash old furniture, scavenged fuel to heat decrepit tenement rooms.

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The Salep Seller

In dingy basements illuminated by a single globe or a florescent tube, impoverished women from the parched plains of Hasakeh in Syria or the suburbs of Diyabakir, troubled places far from the sea. They scratch and clean mussels harvested from the Bosporus, squatting around colored plastic bowls they stuff them with rice and pass them on to be sold around the city, their fingers raw but their chatter bright.

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Freshly stuffed Midye

Little is legal, many undocumented, most on the margins. Cleaning the streets and oiling the wheels of the Turkish sweatshop economy, universally despised and denigrated but always defiant, challenges met with humor and humility and spirit.

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The streets are theater, social clubs and football pitches, living rooms and kitchens, wild weddings where Gypsies dance to music the bounces of the buildings and the bare-knuckle brawlers stagger shirtless and bloodied.

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On street corners dealers hang and fires burn, the air musty with menace, in the early hours the hollow sound of gunshots, running footsteps and the scurry of cats and rats. Tarlabasi never sleeps, it just revolves around erratic shifts of sleeping, eating and schooling. Before the dawn light reflects off the corrugated fences the working girls will totter home in cheap stilettos.

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At the end of the street the sound of jackhammers splitting concrete, the giant arms of cranes swing ominously to the sound of stressed metal, underpaid workmen clamber over the rubble. The army of progress is marching and the impoverished are paying.

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The curtain is about to fall and a community will disperse, the shouts of “Hakan” from the housewives to the store owner will fall silent, no longer will the tormented grocer rush to fill the baskets lowered from windows only to be called back again and again for a forgotten bottle of milk or an onion.

Neighborhoods evolve, they are organic, they are not created by city planners, only dismantled, there is no conversation when only money talks.untitled-0870

Having lived in Tarlabasi over several years and in various streets my time now has come to and end.

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Cairo, Egypt. February 10th 2009 Typical Egyptian Coffee
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The Photographers back story blog is the irreverent ramblings of Middle East based photographer John Wreford Portfolio

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The Cowboys Of Cappadocia

untitled-6955Strabo 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.

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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.untitled-5922

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.

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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.Untitled-9

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.Untitlesd-1

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.

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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.untitled-6585

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.untitled-6944

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I am currently adding new images to my website so please drop by and take a look:

Middle East Photography

Including travel photography from Oman, street photography from Istanbul, commercial photography from Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

 

 

 

Death Is Not The End

Death is not the end.

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Melancholia on a hill, a village given back to nature. The village offers nothing, the young would rather scrawl swastikas on the walls of smoggy cities in a country where only the white are welcome.

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Forlorn and soon to be forgotten, only the earth is fertile.


Words and pictures from a village in Bulgaria, the fastest shrinking country in the world.

Abandoned houses, farms and villages dot the beautiful Bulgarian countryside. Village life no longer offers opportunity it seems except for the fool hardy and forgotten and perhaps those intrepid enough to bring it back to life.


My exhibition Syrians Unknown is still on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford should anyone be passing – previous blog post : Syrians Unknown


In breaking social media news my Instagram page is undergoing something of a renovation, for now it will devoted to street photography from Istanbul where I should also be offering workshops and tours of the seedier backstreets. Just glance to your right hand side to see the link along with my Twitter feed.


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The Streets of Amman | Jordan

Street Photography Amman Jordan
A seedy Downtown Cinema

Maher bent forward and poured a stream of Tamer Hindi juice into a cup for me from the antique Ottoman flask on his back. It’s very sweet and very welcome, its natural Red Bull and will give me energy Maher tells me, sounding not unlike a Red Bull commercial. Dressed in traditional garb and wearing wraparound sunglasses, he aptly represents the curious contradiction of the Middle East, ‘Don’t forget to tag me on Facebook’, he shouts as I wander off.

A tour bus pulls up and a group of septuagenarian’s shuffle towards the amphitheater, not stopping as they take snap shots of the Roman colonnade with their tablets. They don’t stop to try Mahers juice either, too much of risk perhaps; a jippy tummy or worse, getting left behind to fend for themselves. Amman is only a side show, it’s Petra they have come to Jordan for, the jewel in the Kingdoms crown.

It’s a shame that Amman doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves, agreed appearances can be deceptive and it takes time to warm to this modern Middle Eastern capital. Originally built on seven hills it now sprawls over as many as nineteen, and has swelled with refugees from Iraq and Syria. Most of its population is in fact Palestinian, reflecting the turmoil of the region. Reassuringly, Jordan has remained largely trouble free and safe for travelers.

It won’t really take long to explore the official tourist sights of Amman, the second century six thousand seat Roman amphitheater impressively squatting into the side of a downtown hill, the Citadel ruins on the hill opposite with its columns and Ummayad Palace, a museum and mosque or two. The coach parties hardly stop for breath before they speed down the Kings Highway to Wadi Rum and Petra.

But surrender to the urban madness of Downtown, and be consumed by the chaos of the Souk and you will get an altogether different experience of Amman. Take time to explore the alleyway coffeeshops, binge on street food and chat with the street side vendors. The selling point of Jordan is not its crumbling columns but its congenial and ever engaging people whose character and personality will leave a lasting impression long after the postcards have faded.

Downtown Amman lies in a wadi, a mish-mash of formal and informal commerce, the hipsters rarely venture down from their lofty cafes on the surrounding hills – a latte is a latte so why strain your calf muscles clambering up to join them. The area is a street photographers paradise to explore, discover and find moments of unexpected serendipity.Street Photography Downtown Amman

I bump into Maher again, we talk of Palestine and Syria, he asks me where I learned Arabic, I ask where he learned English. I am an engineer he tells me, I just do this for some extra cash. He pours another stream of date juice into a plastic cup for me, daylight is now fading and the plaza in front of the amphitheater is filling with families – footballs are flying around, tea is being poured from large copper kettles, it’s time for my evening prayers now Maher informs me, we shake hands and as he turns away he says one last time; ‘Don’t forget to tag my photo on Facebook, John’.

Read the full essay and more street photography images from Downtown Amman in the wonderful Roam Magazine on-line here: Roam Magazine and do follow them on Instagram at @roam.magazine

Travel writers and bloggers who want to collaborate on projects please do get in touch and lets talk about possibilities

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The Brothers Kalaycioglu

 

Erol Kalaycioglu with a Mardin Kermance
Erol Kalaycioglu with a Mardin kermance

Erol and Erdem Kalaycioglu work in a tiny split level workshop in the impoverished Tarlabasi neighborhood, the gentrification process of the city is now at their doorstep, the building next door now disappeared and the ugly sounds of construction drowning out the genteel sounds of craftsmen at work, Erol hobbles around making tea while Erdem works a lathe, they specialize in the baglama and Mardin kemence, with three strings and distinctive round bowl known in the Arab world as the rehbab, the neighborhood is home to many musicians that ply their trade around the mayhanes and bars of Takism and the brothers do a good trade in repairs.

A potential customer in Erol Kalaycioglu's Tarlabasi workshop
A potential customer in Erol Kalaycioglu’s Tarlabasi workshop

A customer enquires after a baglama, the price is accepted without negotiation and a credit card is produced, unable to deal with the transaction themselves they rely on a neighbor who can but sadly the card is declined and the customer leaves empty handed, Erol slurps his tea clearly disappointed.

As the urban regeneration inches closer the brothers Atelier is facing an uncertain future, almost half a century of artistry and tradition will no doubt be pushed into the suburbs and slip by wayside, in a world of shopping malls and hipster coffee joints it’s a battle few are left to fight.

To read the full article Notes In The Margin visit Halcyon Magazine

More travel words and photography from Turkey Hasankeyf; The soon to be lost city in Anatolia

If you are feeling social please drop by and say hello on Facebook where I also post more Street Photography images.

 

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Nabatean Place of High Sacrifice

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:

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt2) And In Search of The Pharaohs Penis

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.

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                                                             Nabatean deities

 

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.

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Leading me down the mountain

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.

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A quiet Cave

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:

John Wreford Travel Photography