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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Street Photography Sofia

Street Photography in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Street photography is a passion of mine, as a young whipper snapper the work of the imperial Henri Cartier Bresson’s Paris was as mesmerizing as it was inspiring, William Klein’s grainy edgy New York and the now so familiar images of Istanbul made by Ara Guller, actually it’s a long list but am not getting into a roll call of photographic superstars, occasionally I can’t help thinking that somehow 1950’s New York or Paris of the ’30’s gives any photographer an edge, Istanbul still has some incredible locations but the modern world with its mass of visual pollution in the guise of capitalistic advertising giving the impression of an explosion in a paint factory means that while Ara still sits drinking his coffee in his Istanbul cafe his city has largely disappeared.

My first real attempt at producing a body of work defined as street photography was in Cairo, ( Cairo Time & Tramlines  ) in a teeming city of gazillion people it offered almost overwhelming options, I had to make some rules and limited my project to a set radius of the old Fatimid walls, for a boy who had spent more time in the meadows of the Thames than the city the excitement and exotic was a heady creative cocktail. Much later Istanbul (Istanbul Street Photography ) provided the never-ending urban landscape populated with twenty million potential subjects, some may say it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, perhaps not quite but these cities do provide an engaging backdrop in which to set the characters of endless opportunity and drama limited only by the soles wearing from your shoes.

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Moving to Sofia in Bulgaria at the start of the year was an exciting new opportunity to discover a new country, a new city, using street photography as a tool to explore, discover and learn, you pay more attention, you take things slower, you pick out the details, I can’t stress the non-photographic benefits enough.

Now I need to choose my words carefully here; for those that know Sofia and those from Sofia we can agree it’s not a screaming mega city, it has the population of a neighborhood of Istanbul, its gentle, its calm, its green, its empty. For a street photographer it’s a challenge.

The challenge this time was to create a body of work that is not simply a street shot image but one that conveys a sense location, with each location a unique history and culture, I do get a little bored of random images that say very little, technology now allows us to snap with stealth but still it’s no excuse for meaningless images, and since you have asked, I have no preference when it comes to technology but a DSLR is my workhorse and despite its clumsy and noisy attributes serves me well enough.

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So here we are then a selection of street shot images of Sofia, a city of undeniable charm, hopefully they will appeal to the more critical Bulgarians amongst us too.

Anyone interested in a personal Street Photography Workshop in Sofia, Cairo or Istanbul drop me an email, I am also preparing on-line mentoring classes for those interested.

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And needless to say anyone wanting to buy a print just send me an email-it helps with the rent.

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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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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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

Faith and Fear in Istanbul-Turkey’s Alevi Minority

JON_2423It was one of those grey Istanbul days that gives the Bosporus a melancholic look and sets you in a thoughtful mood, the Bosporus though was nowhere in sight, I was though in thoughtful mood, mostly thinking about what the hell I was doing standing on the side of a busy highway directly opposite a high security prison, my camera neatly tucked away in my bag, trucks thundering by sending dust from the construction site behind me into my eyes, trying not to stare too much at the prison I looked out onto the barren wasteland beyond, I was early, Omar though was late.
I was meeting journalist Omar Waraich who has credits with Time magazine and the New Yorker among many other illustrious publications, our plan the previous evening was to meet here and take a leisurely stroll through the suburbs to the Gazi neighborhood where we were investigating a story on Turkey’s Alevi community but clearly Google had mislead us and we were missing the suburbs, as Omar emerged from a cloud of exhaust fumes I could see he was also in a thoughtful mood, we studied our smart phones for a while, cursed them then set off in search of a taxi.
The reluctant taxi driver eventually deposited us outside the Haci Bektas Cemevi in Gazi, a Cemevi is am Alevi place of worship and of the handful in Istanbul this was the largest, after a brief brush with the leather jacket thug brigade who took exception to me photographing the outside of the Cemevi we headed inside.
I will let Omar take up the rest of the story about this fascinating and hugely misunderstood community via the link below or clicking on the image above.

http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2014/faith-and-fear-in-istanbul/

 

 

Take Your Bombs And Fuck Off Damascus 2012

Bomb in Bab Touma Square Damascus 21st Oct 2012

From my Damascus Diary:

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I have no idea now why I was in a good mood; my diary doesn’t mention the small details which is stupid now I think about it, I’m hardly likely to forget the car bomb exploding but that’s pretty much all I made a note of looking back to October 2012, it must have been a quiet night with less shelling or maybe the warm autumn weather that makes Damascus so lovely that time of year, either way I felt chipper as I hopped across my courtyard and into the bathroom to shower, there’s something comforting and safe about a bathroom we tend to think for no logical reason, then came the bang, hollow and very loud, the house shook, plaster fell from my ceiling and stuck to my wet naked body, despite the regularity of the explosions they send my heart rate soaring, I grab a towel and hurriedly dress, from my courtyard I can hear the activity of the neighbors all trying to discover what had happened, from my roof I could see the black smoke coming from Bab Touma Square, I stare for a moment at the plume of smoke rising above the satellite dishes, the war is closer still, it’s all around , already I knew it was probably a car bomb, how did I become such an expert on these matters, I climb back down the stairs and can hear the neighbors running to get their children from the school, I hear the panic in their voices as they try to react and deal with the situation, the primary school is just around the corner but there is a secondary school very much where the smoke was rising from, a women is cursing but at what or who I have no idea, I feel like doing the same except I just sit calmly and stare at a blank TV screen, I have no idea what I was thinking now, I do remember the feeling; one of despair, it’s a feeling I am having more often these days, I can still hear the sound of the children crying as they were dragged home from school.
Heading out into the street I hesitate and consider turning left to Bab Touma but decide against it and turn right and walk towards Al Hamadiyya stopping to talk with people I know, everyone saying the same thing; the government being behind the bomb, spreading fear, spreading terror, I don’t stop and leave the Old City for Shaalan.
Pages café my regular haunt these days is busy as ever, I sit facing the window and consider the wisdom of such a setting, looking at the cars stopping at the traffic lights outside I consider the possibility of another bomb and sitting with my face six inches from the window hardly seems wise, I look around the café, smoke filled, Lattes and Cappuccinos, laptops and mobiles, young faces, some buried in books cramming for exams, life somehow has to go on, my phone starts ringing with questions from the media about the bomb, Christian Quarter, Christian Quarter they keep repeating, as if the only people passing through one of busiest squares in Damascus were only Christians, the target according to the media was the local police station although that seemed somewhat idiotic, it is just a local police station not a security building, the same building houses the water supplier and the electricity office, I go there to pay the bills, the death toll starts to come through and the total eventually comes to a dozen, it’s a day or so later before I pass by as see the damage; the widows of Domino Café blown out, how often I sit there too, the small kiosk beside the car park is mangled, scorched black marks on the road, soon the army set up road blocks and turn the area into a military zone, slowly getting more organized, more check points, more soldiers, opposition forces are not far just the next neighborhood.
I update my Facebook status: Take Your Bombs and Fuck Off.