Eye Spy in Damascus

Finding more time on my hands than one would realistically hope for I delved into the dusty recesses of long forgotten cardboard boxes and started re-reading books that have languished for the last seventeen years; they were all kept for a reason, quarantined due to pandemic not being one of them. They were books that severed a purpose, which educated, inspired and in some way shape shifted the trajectory of my life.

The Graham Greene’s though were really just for amusement, escapism, beautifully written and laced with humour and pathos, they were never read to inspire, at no point did I put one down and think I really must dash off to the Colonies, my actual and his literary paths were never meant to cross, with the possible exception of an Oxford pub to two.

And yet, there was a moment while living in Damascus I felt I had become a character in one of his novels, one of those eccentric expats embroiled in matters politically obscure or of the heart.

That moment came while taking my usual walk into the Old city from my apartment in the suburbs, a walk I made almost every day, except that the previous evening I had been made aware I was being investigated by the intelligence services, the not very secret police.

I closed the door of my apartment building and stood for a second on the step, the street was noisy as usual, mini buses parked three deep on the corner and the din of car horns, I looked left and right without moving from the door, the delivery guy from Pizza Panda said good morning as he passed by, over the street the woman from the Post Office was waving at me, I gave a half hearted wave back, nothing seemed out of the ordinary and yet my mind was full of suspicion, I set off and passed the two fruit and vegetable stalls, I said hello to the guy that always says hello to me and I  ignored the guy who ignores me. Who were the good guys I started to wonder, the ones that said hello with a cheery smile or the ones that didn’t.

And so it began, the years of paranoia, of looking over my shoulder, thinking twice before answering a simple question, seeing two possible faces to every person I met.

My apartment block sat in the middle of a busy middle class neighbourhood, below were the gated villas of the well-to-do and the president’s office and where suited security lined the streets. Above were the ad-hoc half built houses clinging to the side of the mountain like Angora goats.

I scanned the faces of everyone in the street as I set off, if anyone was following me I was sure to know, as usual I walk quite quickly but as passed the French mandate era buildings of Afif I slowed to a dawdle and look in shop windows, casually I looked back along the street, had I not seen the guy in the blue t-shirt a few minutes earlier near my house? He crossed the street and disappeared and I continued on my way. Trying not to keep looking over my shoulder I crossed the intersection of Jisr al Abayad, the White Bridge, there was no bridge and nothing was white, concrete concealed the river, was anything ever clear in this city? The streets would have two names, the official name and the one everybody knew it as, and even houses would have more than one number, the real version and the official version.

The information I had received the previous day was that shortly after I had left an internet cafe in the Old City, two plain clothed security guys had entered and shown the friend of a friend running the place a book of mug shots, they asked which computer I had been using, connected their own laptop to the system and copied whatever information they found. Not long after that I discovered my bank account and pay pal accounts had been accessed although nothing touched. Internet access was still in its early days, at home my connection was still dial-up and the few cafes had better connections and often VPNs to access the many blocked sites. I now also now knew that a file was open on me and contained all my emails translated into Arabic. No doubt a very tedious job for a recent English graduate, translation app’s still a thing of the future, the very near future.

The street now was busy with woman shopping, predominantly for modest fashion, white hijab and black cloaked formidable Syrian Mothers moving from shop window to shop window in small groups, gossiping and giggling like schoolgirls, retail experts who drive a hard bargain and fear into the hearts of the trembling over polite sales assistants.

I chanced another glance over my shoulder and tried to pick out faces, a glance so swift and casual all I could make out was a blur of pedestrians. French architecture had given way to Soviet, built for purpose and function and mostly failing in both. The shops I was passing were less busy here at this hour, tacky teenage fashion, glittery Ts and Topshop fakery; I weaved in and out of the sequinned mannequins stationed on the pavement.

I stopped to browse at a rack of bootleg dvds, Arabic action and adventure, slap stick and Mr bean, the scruffy electrical souk stacked high, my eyes wandered to an Italian coffee grinder sitting on top of a Chinese juicer in the window beside me, as I moved closer for a better look I noticed a reflection in the glass; the guy in the blue t-shirt was there again, or was it? I turned around and looked him straight in the face, the t-shirt was green not blue and this guy was wearing glasses, was the previous guy wearing glasses I now started to wonder, come to think of it, was his t-shirt blue or green, with doubt and increasing paranoia I slipped along the arcade hardly giving the coffee grinder a second thought.

I joined the crowds heading towards the Old City and Souk al Hamidiyah, I dodged and weaved my way through, I knew the alley-ways well, no doubt the shiny white beacon that is my bald head would be easy to spot but it was still too soon for me to consider wigs and disguises.

And then I had that moment. I emerged from the darkness of a vaulted side street into harsh sunlight and suddenly swamped by a pod of diminutive Iranian pilgrims, moving as though on wheels, covered from head to toe in shades of black and blue, the colour of my ribs as they dug their bony elbows into me as they forged forward, deviating only to look at the black and blue cloth being sold by shouting street vendors, the tiny street chaotic and crowded, I stopped, I stood still while people bumped into me and the crowd streamed past as they entered the shrine of Sayyidah Ruqayya, kissing the door frame as they slipped off their shoes.

Like some weird out of body experience I was looking down and seeing myself, as in a dream or the pages of Graham Greene, the scene was absurd and unreal, for those brief seconds my nervousness gave way and I laughed out loud. I thought of poor old Wormold and his snap action coupling vacuum cleaner in Havana. Reality and parody, art and life fused in a moment.

I had been under no illusion regarding the behaviour of the state security, my Syrian friends had been subjected to far more than I ever was, I had moved to Syria knowing full well it was a police state, totalitarian in its fullest form.

This was very much just the beginning and I would spend the rest of the coming years looking over my shoulder and suspicious of everyone I met until eventually, in 2013, I would find myself in the notorious Branch 235 of the Syrian intelligence under the command of a Brigadier General now wanted for war crimes.

And I went back and bought the Italian coffee grinder.

Our Man in Havana is as relevant today as when it was written, funny and true: Click the image to check it out.

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Syrian Literary List

It was very pleasing to receive so many comments and messages encouraging me to post a reading list on Syria. So here we have my top 14 of the best books on Syria. I know that is quite a bold statement and one no doubt that will draw criticism, which is of course fine. The list is broad in nature and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes, they are all very readable books and even the political titles very accessible.The war in Syria has become a global issue not just another Middle East crisis, the lasting effects of migration and displaced refugees era defining. The news headlines tell us very little and our political parties just use the headlines to further their own agendas.

Click the image of the book for more information and to purchase from Amazon 

Brothers of The Gun    

Marwan Hisham & Molly Crabapple

Molly and Marwan are quite simply two of the most incredible people you are ever likely to meet. Molly is a writer, activist and artist, utterly unique and totally inspiring, her own biography makes compelling reading.

Marwan is a Syrian journalist and the book is his story of coming of age during the Syrian uprising and coming to terms with life under the ISIS occupation of Raqqa, yet this is no gore-fest of atrocities but a touching story of growing up in rural Syria, of family and relationships and the choices that have to be made when adversity arrives, written with both pathos and humor. What would you do when your town is over-run with religious zealots? Marwen opened an internet cafe.

The book is a creative collaboration written by both Molly and Marwan and illustrated with Molly’s beautiful art.

Assad or We Burn The Country 

Sam Dagher

I confess to not yet having read this book but I have followed Sams work closely over the years and its one I fully intend to read. The tittle alludes to the slogans spewed out and scrawled on walls by Syrian regime militia. With embedded sources and diligent journalism the provides an exceptional insight. His brave work between 2012 and 2014 landed him in one of Assads prisons before he was deported. 

Revolt in Syria, Eye Witness to The Uprising 

Stephen Starr 

Stephen is a friend and colleague, we worked on many stories together inside Syria and later in Turkey. His book is of crucial importance, he had already been living in Damascus a number of years when people took to the streets, he already had a good understanding of the complexities of Syrian society, something usually often missed in media accounts, more often referring to armchair academics with little or no contact with ordinary life in Syria. Its this ordinary life that forms the basis of this book; countess interviews with ordinary Syrians of all political, sectarian and economic persuasions. Much has changed and many have died since publication so its of great importance to remember where this all started. Stephen worked tirelessly on this book and after witnessing probably the earliest war crimes committed in the conflict he felt it time to leave.

The Struggle For Power in Syria  Nikolaos van Dam

Van Dam is a highly regarded academic and diplomat. The Struggle was first published in 1979 and has undergone several updates since then, I think the last was in 2014 but you may like to check that. Essential reading in understanding the political complexities of the Assad dynasty and their reign for half a century and so providing a valuable resource on modern Syrian history.

The Crossing  Samar Yazbek 

Since 2011 there are now many more books available in translation from wonderfully talented writers such as Samar Yazbek, a dissident writer forced to flee the country, in The Crossing she makes a courageous illicit journey back into the north of Syria to bring back heart wrenching accounts of ordinary Syrians plunged into a never ending nightmare.

My House in Damascus  Diana Darke

I first became aware of Diana as a guide book writer for Bradt travel guides. Bradt approached me for images for their Syria book, they have a well founded reputation for off the beaten track destinations, well written and skillfully researched and it was a pleasure to have one of my favorite Syria images on the cover.

Diana had bought and restored a 17th century Arabic house in the Old City of Damascus a few hundred meters from the house I bought, yet despite being neighbors and living in a community where almost everybody knows everybody else we didn’t meet until 2020 in London.

My House in Damascus is an incredible narrative, from the challenges of buying an Ottoman era property in a city with more history than any other, with a depth of understanding rare among foreigners, nuanced layers of the lives of her neighbors, of heritage and the undeniable charm of the Old City, to the inevitable catastrophe of war which along with the bullets and bombs also brought profiteers and thieves. In the midst of the onslaught Diana went back to Damascus to reclaim her property after thugs had mistakenly assumed would be easy pickings. This worthy book is hard to categorize other than encompassing all that is Syria.

Cleopatra’s Wedding Present -Travels Through Syria  Robert Tewdwr Moss 

This is a uniquely fascinating, flawed and beautiful book, very much the authors personal journey more than an insight into Syria. For anyone who has spent extended amounts of time in Syria there is indeed lots that is familiar despite the decent into flowery Orientalism, with lashings of angst and wit this book ranks highly as classic travel literature.

The writers back story is as intriguing as the book; Tewdwr Moss was found murdered in his London flat and his computer with the almost completed manuscript missing.

I first read the book before having lived in Syria so would be very keen to see how my perspective has changed. In Aleppo I met some of the characters depicted and has lead me on occasion to to describe Aleppo Souk as the gayest in the Middle East.

The Pigeon Wars of Damascus  Marius Kociejowski 

 Marius is the kind of poet you only ever meet in the souks of the middle east. I was introduced to him after being contacted by CNN Traveler magazine who wanted some images to showcase an extract of his next book, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, I had already read his previous book on Syria so was very happy for the opportunity, it also opened up the incredibly fascinating word of pigeon keeping in Syria, a subject I have mentioned many times.

Marius has a unique gift for story telling and his books will take you on a magical journey.

Mirror to Damascus    Colin Thubron

 

Its now a very long time since I read this, my overriding memory is one of brilliantly descriptive travel writing, a timeless classic that inspires wanderlust, the beautiful combination of history and humour, anecdote and adventure. Thubron is highly placed in the Pantheon of travel writers but he did make a bit of a tit of himself by returning to Syria on the books 50th anniversary, involving himself in issues he had no knowledge of, fortunately much of his meddling has since been retracted from the websites that published it.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium

William Dalrymple

 

This is not strictly a Syria book but a classic non the less and considered de-rigueur for anyone heading in that direction. It is a heady mix of all the Middle East has to offer with the occasional hermit thrown in for good measure. Dalrymple follows in the sandal steps of a couple of byzantine hipster Monks a journey from mount Athos in Greece,through Turkey and Syria into Egypt and the un-Holy land.

Ballots Or Bullets? : Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant     Carsten Weiland  

 
Carsten was my next door neighbor when I first moved to Damascus, he managed to rope me into an acting role on a Syrian TV series, something to this day amuses many and haunts me! 

It was many years later I chanced upon the book he had been writing, the war was by now well underway and I somehow felt his book would seem dated, but it was not only far from dated it was actually prophetic. Intelligent and essential reading in understanding of Syrian social political history. Its highly recommended as is the follow up book; Syria A Decade of Lost Chances 

Burning Country; Syrians in Revolution and War  Robin Yassin-Kassab & Leila Al-Shami

I first met Robin in the summer of 2013 in a refugee camp on the Turkish/Syrian border, it had only been a couple of weeks since I had managed to extract myself from Syria and here I was again, I wrote a previous bog post from that time HERE and anyone interested in reading Robins account of that Syrian interlude then I will be happy to pass it on via email-just ask.

One of the things that struck me about Robin at that time was his genuine interest in every Syrian he spoke with, patiently listening to every opinion and personal account, you may be surprised how few journalists take such time and effort.

As the Syrian conflict morphed into a Geo political cluster-fuck its important to understand the genuine Syrian resistance movement, this book gives voice to the ingenuity and creativity of grass roots activism and discusses the rise of the Islamist and sectarian violence that has become rampant. 

The Dark Side of Love    Rafik Schami 

An epic Syrian novel, this is the ultimate literary souk, you enter, you get lost and don’t care, you just keep searching and the last ting you want is to find your way out. A beautiful box set of a book. The only novel in the list, oddly, still, one that Syrian exile Schami will expose a side of Syrian culture rarely explored, a binge of a book, of poetry, politics and people. Could we compare Rafic Schami to Orhan Pamuk I wonder. 


I do hope you are all coping with these strange times we are facing, stay home, stay healthy and wash your hands.

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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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That Time in Cairo When I Met Mahfouz

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.

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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.

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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.

phoca_thumb_l_naguib mahfouz
Shot made on 3200 iso Tmax pushed to the limit and smuggled passed airport x-rays

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.

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Thesiger, Me and Mesopotamia

WRE_x1556Wilfred Thesiger died the summer of 2003, the same year I moved to Damascus, I remember hearing the news on the BBC World Service while living in one up one down hovel in the Old City. For those familiar with his life and work its probably no great surprise that his was a source of inspiration for mine. We have taken very different paths but somehow serendipity is what it is. My exhibition Syrians Unknown which should really have ended some time ago is still hanging at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which also holds the archive of Wilfred Thesiger.

Last November I had the privilege to finally visit the marshes of southern Iraq, Thesiger was there in the 50s and talks of political upheaval and the imminent demise of a culture stretching back 5000 years. The political upheaval has pretty much continued since then, he predicted the marshes would be drained, and they were, but were re-flooded, the quest for oil, war and drought have all taken their toll, and yet, a unique way of life continues, in many ways much as it has done since Sumerian times.

Very little photographic documentation has been made over the last forty years, mostly due to the war but my intention is to create a body of work comprehensive enough to be of future value and add to the legacy of Wilfred Thesiger.

Plans are underway for a return to Mesopotamia and discussions are happening regarding potential publishers but as ever funding is the major stumbling block, purchasing one of my prints would go along way towards me recouping some of my costs-the rent can wait.

Your help really is essential and much appreciated

30×40 cm Hahnemühle Photo Rag fine art paper with a wonderfully soft feel, boasts a lightly defined felt structure, lending each artwork a three-dimensional appearance and impressive pictorial depth.

Signed Editions 60 Euros

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Day Trip to Basra

Basra third largest city in Iraq

We had visas and letters of introduction and were quickly ushered towards the diplomatic booth, the guard look at the ink smudged pages of my passport with a bemused smirk and called to his colleague for guidance, the advice was simple, just stamp them in. He did and we were.

As frontiers go Basra international airport was a breeze and minutes later we were driving through one of the most depressing landscapes the Middle East has to offer. The road potholed and broken, shops shuttered, orange flames and plumes of black smoke rise from refinery towers, silhouette of derricks against a filthy sky.

There are not many reasons to come to Basra these days, war and oil being the obvious ones, the taxi driver was asking why we were here, which company he asked several times, engineers he questioned, no sir, we are archaeologists.

I am not an archaeologist. My companions though were and it was their connections with the antiquities ministry that granted our papers. I quite liked saying I was an archaeologist and tried it out a few times at check points. In my time working across the Middle East I had used a number of nom deplumes, poet, actor, artist, once at hole in the fence crossing from Qamisli in Syria to Nusybin in Turkey the Syrian guard asked me to paint his portrait, I gulped but he gave a garrulous belly laugh, slapped me on the back and waved me through, better stick to poet I thought that time. Archaeologist had a ring of Indiana about it and I have been thinking about hats ever since.

Basra was deserted, we drove through shanty suburbs with streets empty, a mangy dog and few nervous cats, I walked the along the corniche beside the Shat Al Arab, a rat scrambled over packets of biscuits on sale inside a kiosk, I wasn’t hungry. I sat and chatted with an old guy fishing, he was cheerful and happy for me to sit with him, rusting wrecks and old pleasure cruisers were moored near-by, a hint of history and a more prosperous past, black flags were fluttering on the far bank, rubbish was clogging the water below the pier we were sitting on, any fish? I asked my new friend-I didn’t catch his name, some he said but very small, I think he was killing time more than expecting to catch his lunch. I glanced at the modern bridge spanning the waterway, built by the Italians he explained, very big he said proudly, very expensive. There was little else around that promised progress and little sign of promised prosperity. Its been 15 years since the fall of Saddam and 11 years since the British military turned tail and abandoned Basra to the Mahdi army and while the fighting has stopped the sad mess that survives is one fueled by oil greed and tribal domination, street protests are now common.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

The map made the stroll to Basra Museum seem simple enough so I left the fishermen and wandered off, the solid concrete blast wall outside the Basra International Hotel was a canvas of halcyon images, a mural of Mesopotamian Marsh life, the wetlands thought to be the Garden of Eden are now as far from Paradise as they could be, as I would find out in the coming days.

Basra third largest city in Iraq

I reached a checkpoint and deflected the questions with the aloofness of visiting professor, archeologist on my way to the museum I smiled, they check my bag and were very impressed by the size of my camera and soon had me snapping selfies. It tends to be like this in the Middle East, checkpoints can go one of two ways.

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Past the checkpoint the street became wider, more water filled potholes, rubbish filled wasteland, more military, I walked alone and kept my camera in my bag. Suddenly the sound of boots and gasps of hht hht hht across the road, a small platoon of soldiers all had their weapons trained on me, one behind the other they snaked out of the gate of a tennis court, it took me a few seconds to process what was happening and bring a smile to my face and resist the temptation to get my camera out, just a training exercise of Iraqi army volunteers, they raided an abandoned building and I went to the museum.

Housed in what was once one of Saddams palaces, the museum opened in 2016 with help and support from the British Council and British Museum, I pushed the large wooden doors open and walked into the main hall with glass cases with pottery, coins and artifacts that date back as far as the first millennium BC. The importance of the archeological heritage of Iraq cannot be underestimated and the small museum in an almost forgotten Iraqi city is small sign of hope. I would later drink coffee with the indefatigable director Qahtan Alabeed who deserves so much credit for this beacon of light in such a dark place.

Basra Museum

Outside the heavens open and a deluge not seen since Noah, I splash my way towards the hotel, soaked to the skin a car pulls up beside me and the driver tells me to jump in as if kidnapping was not an actual threat.

What are you doing man he says as I drip all over his upholstery, its like summer in England I tell him with a smile, yeah, he says but are the roads this fucked? We weave around the rapidly flooding road, we pass the Italian bridge that leads to Iran now just a faint outline in the mist, I think of Sinbad who set sail from Basra in the time of Harun al Rashid as we pass a listing Dhow moored in the dirty Shatt al Arab, Sinbad battled many monsters in his quest to right wrongs, the British took his name in 2006 as they set out to right the wrongs created by the invasion of Iraq, Sinbad is a myth and Basra is a mess.

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The driver pulls up outside my hotel and we chat a while longer, an old woman shrouded in black is standing in the middle of the street begging from cars passing on either side of her. Sistani saved Iraq the driver re-iterates, Sistani not Sinbad then.

Basra was a bustling hub of global trade in the 1950s, elegant villas and tree lined boulevards, the British writer and traveler Gavin Young was working in a shipping office then when he met the legend that is Wilfred Thesiger,Thesiger was headed to the Marshes and Young was keen for adventure and tried to persuade Thesiger to take him along, I will be back in six weeks for a bath said Thesiger, come with me then.

I too am headed to the Marshes and will be back for my bath very soon.

While you are here:

I have added two new sections to the blog so please take a look:

Safe House  and Travel with lots more content on its way.

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Istanbul Street Photography

“Sometimes I felt that my happiness issued not from the possibility that Füsun was near, but from something less tangible. I felt as if I could see the very essence of life in these poor neighborhoods, with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bin, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps”

 The pathetic protagonist, actually he does not deserve the title protagonist since clearly the city is the hero, Kemal is the love sick overtly obsessed character from The Museum of Innocence beautifully crafted by Orhan Pamuk, like so much else of Istanbul Kemal is of the past, pathetic he may have been but at least he pounded the pavement in pursuit of Füsun, Facebook and Chatroulette has confined the modern stalker to malodorous bedrooms filled with tobacco smoke and crumpled tissues.

Kemal my friend if only you had carried a camera instead of pilfering underwear or whatever it was you filled your grubby little pockets with, then we too could see the essence of life in those poor neighborhoods.

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Street photography is somehow the vehicle and the destination, with a Nikon slung over my shoulder I set off on a journey of no particular route or terminus, exploring a city in transition, in constant flux, and often my happiness is not in the image I have digitized or burned on film but that understanding that comes from a curious eye.

For those that missed it here is a previous post on Street Photography in Istanbul;

Istanbul Street Photographer, A Social Media Story

I have been in Istanbul four years now and high time I organized my Street Photography archive, anyone interested in seeing more images or perhaps the stories behind the images, or should you want to learn more about technique and the fiddly bits do please feel free to get in touch.

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The First Bombs in Damascus

I never bought vegetables from his shop, I’d pass by several times a day and would always say hello, always promising myself to buy something from him one day, I never did, there were lots of similar shops and some even closer to my house. Did he mind I often wondered?

Those first days of the war in Damascus were the scariest, we knew it was coming, sometimes we were anxious, other times it seemed it could never happen on such a beautiful day, then almost overnight it arrived, all the shops closed and the streets emptied, gunfire filled the night sky and small mortar bombs landed in the narrow streets around my house, nobody came to collect the rubbish.

The shock and adjustment took a few days to sink in, the kids came out and collected the rubbish, shops were re-stocked and open again, life slowly emerged from behind the gated houses, the war continued but we adjusted, money had to be earned and food had to be put on the table.

The little vegetable shop though stayed shuttered, I walked past often expecting to see him sitting in the patch of sun on the other side of the alley, his pot of tea and cigarettes on a little wooden table.

The old man died under the first bombs, I never knew his name and never bought vegetables from his shop.

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Syrian school children walk past the old mans shop, Damascus 2012.

I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.

More from my Damascus diary; Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

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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

Portraits and Cairo Coffee

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A typically beautiful Cairo morning, cool in the dusty shadows with cats basking in the warm November sun.

I crossed the not yet busy square of Midan Hussein dodging a bread delivery boy balancing a rack of fresh baladi bread on his head; I slipped into my usual first port of call for coffee, one of the many joys of Cairo is never having to walk far to find a coffee shop.

While I waited for my coffee I loaded some film and set my pen and notebook on the chair beside me, I looked over at the man sitting opposite pulling heavily on his Nargila, I said good morning and noticing the portrait looking over his shoulder I asked if I could take his photograph, he nodded and I made just the one frame, my coffee had arrived and we both resumed our morning ritual.

 

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