Beirut: You Always Remember The First Time.

The Foreign Office advice was clear, do not go to Lebanon, and if it’s absolutely necessary then under no circumstances should you go to the Southern suburbs of Beirut, do not go to the South of the country and do not drink the contaminated water supply.

Sitting in the cushioned back seat of a lime green Mercedes parked in the southern Beirut suburb of Borj El Brajneh, I felt a sharp twinge in my abdomen, it caught me by surprise and I winced, I leaned out of the window to see where my newly found friends were. We were parked in a breeze block built shanty town, war damage and smouldering garbage. Ibrahim was emerging from a side alley with a grin on his face; the other two were following behind him. Did you get it? I asked as they all climbed back in the car. Yalla says Ibrahim clearly pleased with himself. We had just bought a second hand carburettor.

It was the early 90s, officially the Lebanese civil war was over and the last of the western hostages had just been released. An air of optimism was prevailing; the Syrian army had it all under control. Americans were banned from flying into Lebanon and for the rest of us it was far from a simple task to get there. I found a ferry from Cyprus.

In the smoke filled waiting room at the port of Larnaca I was being peppered with questions from the Lebanese expatriates waiting for the same Russian tug; Am I in the UN? Have I been before? Do I have a place to stay? Do I know anyone in Lebanon? My negative answers were making me nervous and the others dismayed. Eventually we were all summoned to a waiting mini bus, it was dark, and the curtains were pulled closed. Someone said we are not even in Beirut and already we are being kidnapped.

We boarded the boat and all headed below deck to the bar to continue taking the piss out of the idiot foreigner. The bar was small, semi-circular and mostly maroon. Natasha was working the bar and the guys kept asking for drinks that involved her having to climb the spiral stairs, as the boat lurched to the port side the Lebanese lurched to the starboard side to get a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs as she fetched the drinks.

I shared a cabin with Robert and spent most of the night being re-educated on everything I thought I understood about the Lebanese civil war. As the dawn broke the boat entered Journieh harbour and I was not feeling as confident as I had been. Perhaps Robert would guide me through the formalities and into town.

The customs shed resembled a fish market, the guard poked at my rucksack as if it was the last flounder of the morning catch.  Tourist he repeated a couple of times as though he had never said the word out loud before, I smiled and he nodded me through. Outside I looked around bewilderingly, I heard my name being shouted, and there was Robert waving from a taxi as it sped away.

I had walked the full length of Rue Hamra to the San Lorenzo Hotel, dripping in sweat I paid for a bed in a shared room, the clerk handed me a key and a litre bottle of water, in the room which resembled an army barracks with a row of empty beds and a lonely cockroach as the only other guest, I glugged every drop of the water, then I went to the sink to wash my face but there was no water. I looked at the empty water bottle on the bed and it dawned on me what had just happened. It would take another 24 hours before the pollution would seep into my veins.

Rue Hamra was busy with dilapidated traffic, hawkers selling knock-off perfume, money changers and cigarette sellers, I slipped down a side street, past the American University and onto the Corniche, bullet riddled buildings tottering beside a solid blue Mediterranean Sea, calm and chaos. A Ferris wheel miraculously still standing and rusting in midday sun of the Luna Park, bill boards advertising Crossfire walking boots and Syrian tanks sheltering in their shade.

I poked my camera through a hole in a barbed wire fence and within seconds was surrounded by shouting Lebanese soldiers; I had missed the sign for Military Beach Club, a schoolboy error, they wanted my film but despite only having shot two frames I argued to keep it and managed to extricate myself and promised them and myself to behave in the future.

 Beirut is slumped exhausted at the base of Mount Lebanon and the Corniche is the dividing line between the city and the sea, the esplanade providing respite and reflection, walkers and sunbathers, smokers and coffee drinkers. I munched on a handle of bread spread with a triangle of cheese.

It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that was draining me, I was overwhelmed, poverty I had seen before but this was Armageddon. Standing at the entrance to a side street, starring, bombed out buildings full with families, shells of cars, the haze of burning rubbish; I wanted to enter the street but was rooted on the spot. I thought I was prepared for this but I clearly wasn’t.

I hadn’t come as a tourist nor as a photojournalist, the previous couple of years I had immersed myself in all things relating to the Middle East, I wanted to learn and understand, I had researched extensively all I could prior to travelling, I was carrying more books than camera equipment. I knew nothing. I was out of my depth, had made a huge mistake, in my mind I could see the faces of the Lebanese expats in the port waiting room, they knew.

“It’s fully booked” said a voice from behind me, I had been looking up at the shell scarred frame of the Holiday Inn, the voice belonged to Ibrahim and his clear sense of humour drew me to him, I accepted his initiation to lunch, the comfort of a cafe sounded more appealing than the idea of food at this stage.

 I sat on an up-turned paint tin while Ibrahim spread newspaper on an oil spilled table, we were joined by his friends and two grilled chickens, small plastic bags with anonymous pickled vegetables and a bottle of Arak, surrounded by scrap stripped from cars and the remnants of cars stripped of scrap.

The chicken was soon devoured; despite the shadow war shattered building all around the conversation avoided the subject, I had only had a morning in Beirut and was already war weary, how do you feel after more than fifteen years. We left the workshop and walked over to the only complete car, Ibrahim tossed me the keys and said I could drive; I tossed them back, today had already tested me, not that I thought he was serious anyway, the four of us got in the Mercedes and we set off for where I had no idea.

It was hard to tell if this was a typical working day for Ibrahim and the others or the days antics were for my benefit, either way as we returned with the carburettor we decided stop at a subterranean pool hall, bottles of Almaza beer were passed round, joshing and japes, pool balls bouncing on the floor and grown men giggling like girls.

The power was off when I got back to the hotel, I heard a crunch as I made my way to my bed, I was the only guest, I slept soundly.

I sat in the Cafe de Paris and sipped espresso, Beirut was going about its business. I had been reading Jean Makdis, her Fragments of Beirut, and her words coupled with the fragments I could see all around me was wrenching; I had tears in my eyes. The history of Lebanon is littered with disturbance; a country the size of Yorkshire that once enjoyed the eponymous moniker of Switzerland of the East, a playground for the Monaco set during the heady days of the 50s and 60s and a byword for ruination by the 70s. A sectarian mezze, eighteen religious groups who have rarely seen eye to eye. It was already fragile place when the PLO helped tip the balance in 1975 and unleashed fifteen years of brutal strife.

Much of the downtown part of the city was utterly devastated, other part were busy with the usual machinations of commercial life, there were quarters of overcrowded hovels screaming with urchins and just around the corner would be faded French styled villas fragrant and blooming and all within meters of each other, but what they all had in common was the incessant peppering of bullet holes.

As I explored and tried to record as best I could I would either be thwarted by Syrian soldiers who would step out of the shadows of a derelict building to wave a figure at me, or that I was simply unable to invade the privacy of public poverty.

Most days I would pass by the car repair shop and see my friends, often we would walk down to the Corniche in the evening and drink coffee served from mobile vendors. Chatting about cars and football, I mentioned I had owned an MGB Roadster, I knew little of the different makes but Ibrahim was an encyclopaedia, he rattled off the variations and spec of each model and said that there’s MG in Beirut, and with that a red Roadster roared along outside lane of the Rue General De Gaul, “you see” he said matter-of-factly.

Back in Cyprus earlier than I planned, the state of my intestines was causing serious discomfort, I bumped into Robert who said he was surprised I got out at all, I was not sure I actually had.

I spent the next few days sitting on a bench looking out to sea; the Lebanese coast is just a couple of hundred kilometres away, but how far in reality from the package holiday resorts is immeasurable. I tried to process everything I had experienced over the previous ten days, the complexity of the politics, the simplicity of the hospitality and the extraordinary expense of ordinance. 

For all of us there are definable moments in our lives when we turn the page of one chapter and begin another, this was one of those moments. Beirut changed me and my life would never be the same again.

…………………………………………..

Thank you for reading and sharing. This is the first of two parts, in the second part I explore Lebanon beyond Beirut.

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Oman And The Turtle

A loggerhead turtle scampers frantically towards the sea, her cumbersome shell not designed for beach sprinting, the dawn light now illuminating the protective cove but it’s not only the light that has stirred her into such inelegant action so much as the camera-phone wielding tourists in hot pursuit; coming out at night to lay her eggs it’s not only the foxes and birds she has to fear but now the modern scourge of the eco-paparazzi.


Ras al Jinz is the most easterly point of the Arabian peninsula in the Gulf of Oman, when the dawn light breaks here it does so before any other point in the Arab world, time and tide waits for no man, so it’s said, and neither do the turtles nesting on the beach. The tourists are a recent addition but otherwise life continues here much as it has done for hundreds of years, the turtles are of course protected, although many a local fisherman will tell of the succulent taste of its meat, my guide and driver sheepishly admits.


Ibn Battutah, the itinerant Arab traveller, landed on these shores more than six hundred years previously at a time when the maritime traffic of the Indian Ocean, Red and Arabian seas were dominated by Muslim traders. Dialects of Swahili and Baluchise among others are still spoken in the Souks of Oman, testament to the merchants that crises-crossed the seas, not only carrying silk and cotton but also the gifts of the Magi; gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Yet Oman is no antique backwater, whilst its history and traditions are still preserved and appreciated and its unique cultural identity fully intact unlike perhaps some of its brash noisy neighbours, over the last forty years sustained development and investment have transformed the Sultanate into a modern yet understated nation. The once impenetrable interior now easily accessible by road, although in some of the more remote regions only by 4×4.

Proud of their heritage and determined to protect it the Omanis are quick to point out the difference between them and the glittering gaudy high-rise Emirates; no buildings are over four stories high in Oman, the cities have plenty of modern shopping malls but equally every Friday cattle traders turn up to Nizwa souk with sheep, cows and goats in the back of pick-ups ready to haggle a deal, farmers lead their beasts around a circular dais where prospective buyers sit and inspect, occasionally an errant bullock bucking and causing the crowd to stumble back, Rials exchanged goats carried off cradled in arms like a baby, around the corner in the restored old souk rifles and the ceremonial daggers are bought and sold, Bedouin women with their distinctive face masks shop for fruit, a traditional way of life sitting easily inside a country of modern infrastructure.


Absolute power obtained via a coup is hardly unusual in the Middle East but when Sultan Qabous Bin Said al Said ousted his father in 1970 it heralded the beginning of a renaissance and when the Arab Spring promoted discontent and protest in Oman as it did all over the Middle East he did something no other regional leader did; he listened to grievances then responded with decorum and understanding, he implemented reforms and created jobs and made promises, the Sultan died in a year ago this month; his legacy is one of cohesive inclusion, and while his reign is hardly blemish free he is held in high regard.

The dynasty continues with his first cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al Said who in his short time in office has made efforts to continue reform and much needed economic diversification to keep Oman a rare oasis of tranquillity and calm, unless that is you are a turtle.

When the dawn light breaks along the coast of Oman the rest of the Arab world is still in darkness; modern and modest and with quiet humility Oman has much to be admired and as Ibn Battutah wrote; a beauty that is undeniable.

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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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The Rubbish Collectors of Istanbul

Faceless men and women, struggling up rain soaked cobbled hills clogged with traffic. Faces windswept and facing the floor. Ignored and cursed in equal measure.

These wretched images as iconic in Istanbul as the minarets and monuments, stealthy tourists will often try and snap them as they haul a burlap load past shops with shelves laden with luxury and baklava.

From dawn to dusk and through the depths of night they will delve into bins and cram cardboard into their carts, crushing plastic water bottles into manageable merchandise.

For those living life in the margins this is survival, they choose not to beg but to work, hard work, thankless work and in this age of rampant consumer waste, important work.

Istanbul is a city living in denial, a city without end, a city whose population could be fifteen million but could more than likely be twenty million, and still it grows. The traffic grinds to a halt, the electricity comes and goes and children are a blessing and the rubbish trucks work around the clock.

Gathering garbage to recycle and sell is symptom of cities around the world, Istanbul is no different in this respect, those who have, discard and those who have not recover and redistribute and its nothing to do with trash and treasure it’s all to do with survival.

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I don’t celebrate my birthday but find alternative ways to mark time, last June I traveled from Bulgaria to Turkey to start a project I had in my mind for some time, a project I doubt will find a publisher but one I felt strongly about.

The idea was a simple one, not to document the harsh lives of the Istanbul rubbish collectors, I think there is a place for such work and maybe I will rethink that approach at a later date but for now I just felt their harsh existence needed little explanation, surely we can understand poverty and the struggle to survive?  And of course, there are individual stories and they always need to be told but, in this case, I just wanted to introduce the subject and to put a name to the faceless, those anonymous shapes that merge into the urban landscape.

Unlike a Starbucks barista they do not wear name tags and yet their contribution is of meaningful value and perhaps, if we knew their names, we would look at them differently. Homeless people often say the hardest part is not that people don’t engage with them or don’t help them but people refusing to even make eye-contact, looking away and denying their very existence.

In an abandoned half-built shopping center on the Asian side of Istanbul, a few chickens pecking around the patrons portacabin office where we drink tea and talk about the idea. The patron already has a love hate relationship with the local authorities so we have to agree on a few points, mainly discretion due to those undocumented. The basement of the concrete shell also serves as dormitory, cramped but clean, well decorated with whatever has been found and recycled.

I am presenting these portraits without background details other that the subjects name, the viewer can choose to fill in the blanks, to make whatever judgement they choose. The point really is to look humanity in the face.

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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
Cairo Coffee

The Photographers back story blog is the irreverent ramblings of Middle East based photographer John Wreford Portfolio

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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, the 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 checkpoints. 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 a poet I thought that time. Archaeologists 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 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 expected 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, an 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, with 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 Saddam’s 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 a 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 the 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, with 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.

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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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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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