The Worst Best Hotel in the Middle East

The boy looked at me incredulously, his face glancing from me to the bath-tub and back to me again;”beera”? He questioned again looking at the chipped enamel tub. I seem to have given him the impression I wanted to bathe in beer, there was a brief moment of silence while we both considered the possibilities, it had been an arduous days travel and soaking in a tub of beer all of a sudden did seem quite appealing but as I again tried to explain to the lobby boy who was still hugging my rucksack, I really just wanted him to bring me a bottle from the bar.

I had just checked into the Baron Hotel, Aleppo, it was my first visit to Syria and after a couple of weeks staying in flea-pits and knocking shops this was me treating myself, the hotel had clearly seen better days, the dusty reception counter was a mess, curled and faded postcards on rack, an oversize green Bakelite telephone and a sign written in English warning; “Do not to change money with the staff” who clearly could not be trusted.  The guidebooks were not keen either, they recommended a backpacker hovel around the corner run by an ex prostitute called Madam Olga, as tempting as that sounded the literary litany of the Barons was the deciding factor, that, and the freestanding bathtub obviously.

Aleppo has also seen better days, once a cosmopolitan crossroads of commerce and trade. The Barons was built just after the turn of the century to provide some comfort to European traders in silk and soap and stuff. Then the terrace overlooked fields and gardens but they are now long gone, as is the comfort and service the Hotel was known for.

To this day Aleppo is a commercial hub, continuously boisterous and bustling with signs in Cyrillic and prices in Euro or Dollar or Dinar and a subterranean Souk crowded with Bedouin and businessmen. A city consumed by traffic and fumes but with gems of colonial architecture revealing itself with casual abandon to those who persist, and you really must persist.

Of all that Aleppo had to offer, the Grand Mosque, the medieval citadel and caravansary it was the legend that is The Baron that tickled my fancy. The guest book read like a who’s who of Middle Eastern history.

The Citadel Aleppo

I let the tepid water fill the tub and tipped the lobby boy for the equally tepid beer. No sooner had I closed the door and started peeling off my soiled jeans a knock at the door; “change money” asked a pot bellied porter. I declined and made my way back to the bathroom. Another knock at the door, this time a middle aged cleaning lady asked if I wanted to change money. I didn’t. I slumped in my bath and slurped my beer and ignored the sporadic knocking on the door.

 There are some wonderful bars dotted around the Middle East and the bar at the Barons is without doubt one of my favourites. It would be hard to rank them without a spit and sawdust brawl kicking off, but, Abu George on the Street Called Straight in Damascus and Horreya in downtown Cairo would be right in the thick of it. I slipped easily onto a bar stool and ordered a cold bottle of al Sharq beer, quickly a relationship blossomed between me and the bar tender, a Kurd with an instinct for the thirsty, I don’t think I ever actually asked for another beer, they would just appear miraculously when needed.

Agatha Christie was a frequent guest; she would stop by while toing and froing from her congical visits in the desert where her husband was an archaeologist, no doubt as appreciative of her bathroom ablutions as I, although perhaps the bar not so much, more likely she was tucked up in her lumpy bed with an Ovaltine and a train time table.

Over the years the bar stool at the Baron became a regular perch. On one early occasion I had arranged to meet Eric, a French wildlife conservationist I had met in Damascus. We had both planned to travel along the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq, I intended hitchhiking but Eric was going to hire a car. I bounded into the bar to find Eric waiting for me with a glum frown on his face. He had forgotten his driving license. There was a beautiful girl sitting at the far end of the bar, we were both distracted, oh well I said let’s have a drink. “I have to go to the Hammam” said Eric, really? I questioned, my eyes looking along the bar, “yeah, I met a guy earlier and he invited me” I was impressed with Eric’s easy going nature; few people would agree to go bathe with a random stranger they had just met in the souk.

After a pleasant evening in the bar followed by a walk around town and a bite to eat I met Eric back in the Baron. Eric mon ami, I chirped enthusiastically as he slumped into a worn leather armchair beside me. I related all the evenings events; the wonderful Aleppan meal, the sight of a dozen high heeled  prostitutes being escorted from their hotel to their respected places of employment, a spectacle that literally stopped traffic. I told him about the beautiful Armenian girl who had been sitting at the other end of the bar. How was your evening? I finally asked “Hmph ‘e was omosexual” was the only detail he would  divulge.  

There are elegant aspects to the Baron, the chess board tiled entrance hall leading to a stone staircase, the wood panelled dining room with monogrammed crockery and table linen, faded travel posters and the musky waft of belle epoch.

Elegant as the dining room is they do only serve a meagre breakfast, I have enjoyed comedic scenes of staff sending out for pizzas when occasional tourists stopped by to poke around and grad some lunch.

“Ah Mr John, welcome, welcome back to your home” gushes Lucine, the ever present house keeper, as I descend the stone stairs for breakfast. By now I have been a regular visitor for years; I was in town on assignment to photograph the 1950s and 60 American cars that prowl the streets a bit like those in Havana.

1956 Chevy, Aleppo, Syria.

 Slightly taken aback by the welcome as this was the first time anyone other than the barman had recognized me, “breakfast”? She asked as I entered the typically empty dining room, “indeed” I replied basking in the new status I seem to have attained, “would you like a coffee”? She asked with surprising inside knowledge, the boiled egg and triangle of laughing cow cheese usually comes with a dainty cup of Liptons tea and coffee was unheard of at this hour so I accepted the generous show of hospitality with the enthusiasm of the weak willed addict I am.

After failing to adequately cover the bread with the limited portion of cheese and battling to remove the hardboiled egg from its shell I consoled myself with the Nescafe. “Everything is fine”? The housekeeper asked with unusual conscientiousness, “oh yes, lovely, thank you” I replied in typically British fashion, and with that she presented me with an inflated bill for the non-inclusive Nescafe.

In the scruffy lounge dominated by an early Ottoman television set is a cabinet that houses among other mementos of illustrious guests of yesteryear the unpaid bar bill of TE Lawrence, a man of duplicitous reputation in these parts, one can only imagine why the bill remains unpaid.

I had been promised an appointment with Armen Mazloumian the owner and had been waiting all day, I was watching a Syrian soap opera on TV until Mr Walid entered the room and switched it off. Mr Walid was grumpy with me after I had declined one of his infamous tours to the Dead Cities, usually he asked me several times per visit, it wasn’t that he was persistent, he just failed to recognize having asked me on the previous occasions, the last time I had declined using his name before he had even started his usual patter and he was clearly annoyed. I gave up on the appointment and set out for the Souk.

It was 1am in the bar when Armen finally showed up. Oddly he knew which room I had been staying in and apologized; the hotel had been busy and my unannounced arrival meant a broom cupboard at the back. We spent a genial evening cursing those responsible for the poor reviews the hotel had been getting in the guide books and the declining standard of guest. I glanced around the bar and imagined King Faisal propping up the bar and Charles de Gaulle eyeing the drunk German stumbling on his way out to bed.

Armen had promised to meet me after breakfast the next morning to show me the guest book and the room Agatha Christie supposedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And once again I sat waiting, streams of light pouring in from the tall open windows illuminating the dust filled room, outside the continuous sound of car horns, a looped backing trap to any Middle Eastern city. At one point a flurry of activity, a waiter rushing from the kitchen behind the reception and into an office out of sight, clearly someone important was having his breakfast delivered I thought. I waited another half an hour and went to reception and asked if Mr Armen was free. “No he’s not here” was the reply; no doubt the disappointment was clear from the tone of my voice, the conversation became somewhat surreal; “why-had I seen him”? As the waiter passed by with an empty breakfast tray I said no I hadn’t seen him.

I ordered a coffee and sat outside on the terrace and pondered the past, looking up at the balconies where King Faisal and Gamal Abd Nasser had delivered speeches, of Rockerfeller and Rooservelt, of how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to survive six months as a guest here while the 1918 flu pandemic was rampant and the Ottoman empire was crumbling.

As I made my way to the train station I considered how the Baron Hotel was a metaphor for the Middle East; full of charm and disappointment in equal measure.

…..

The Baron hotel inevitably was forced to close because of the war; the front line was a couple of streets away and has sustained damage but fortunately nothing too serious. Armen Mazloumian sadly passed away in 2016.

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Siwa, City of Sand

Maher shuffled his way into the coffee-shop sneezing, coughing and complaining, his flip-flops hardly lifting from the dusty floor as he moved, I’m sick he announced to the waiter who didn’t look away from the TV, he sneezed again to prove his point. In Egypt the cure for the common cold is Helba a herbal yellow tea made from fenugreek seeds; Doctors will prescribe Helba for almost any ailment from flu to a twisted ankle. Maher though ordered his usual shisha pipe, hitched up his Gallabiyah and plonked himself on a chair in the corner, sucked on his pipe and coughed some more.

Outside the street is drowning in clouds of dust and sand stirred up by the haphazard traffic, mostly motorbikes, some with three wheels some with two, some with two passengers and some with three and other infinite combinations. A group of lads sitting playing backgammon at the entrance to the cafe oblivious to the swirling Saharan smog, a shop keeper on the other side of the street squirts water from a bottle in a futile attempt at controlling it.

Inside the café every surface is coated in the grainy dust, the waiter understands the futility of wasting his time, when the Khamseen blows the desert comes to town and paints everything beige, welcome to Siwa says the waiter when he puts down my coffee on the dusty table.

Siwa an island adrift in the Great Sand Sea between Western Egypt and Eastern Libya, an oasis of palm trees watered by underground springs, of crumbling mud brick houses populated by Berber Nomads, a place of more legends than tourists, where spring swirls with the Khamseen wind.

Egypt has had a turbulent time over the past few years but consensus has it that things have settled now, increased stability has seen a steady return of tourists with forecasts set to increase, But Siwa is a long way from the sandy beaches of the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, it has never been high on the itinerary of the charter crowds that fill coaches and head from Cairo along the Nile to Luxor, Siwa takes a little more effort to reach.

Alexander the Great set out from Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, driven by the need to prove his divinity and seek approval from the Oracle of Amun, the desert crossing as harsh now as it was then, with routes obscured by the ever-drifting sands he followed a flock of crows to the oasis, at the Temple of Amun his status as a God on Earth was confirmed and the young Macedonian King went on to make his historical mark. These days it’s much easier to just take the train to Alexandria and then a bus as the crow flies into the desert, it’s a bumpy ride with numerous military check-points, the errant Bedouin tribes having little respect for the border with Libya about 30 miles away.

It’s a rickety cycle ride along a dusty track to the temple ruins, past groves of palm trees dusted dull from the surrounding sands, ageing Siwians sitting on their doorsteps gossiping. Somehow it seems unlikely Cleopatra passed this way and even less likely on a bicycle but a pool fed with natural spring water takes her name, in the past brides would bathe here prior to their wedding but these days it’s more a spot to wash the sand off, sip a juice and watch the local lads dip and dive.

It was 323 years before the birth of Christ that Alexander entered the temple and time has taken its inevitable toll on the complex, but by climbing the path you follow in the footsteps of the Pharaohs and from the crumbling ramparts you can see the extent of the palm groves and beyond the shimmer of a vast salt lake.

 The distant Nile is the thread that weaves life into Egypt; the land is parched beyond its fertile banks except for the seven oases where underground aquifers feed the date palms. The dates of Siwa are the best in the world, at least according to a grinning Mustafa, who was trying to sell me a half a kilo from his shack in the shadow of Shali fortress. The verdant gardens have always proved a reliable provider; tourism is an intermittent side show.

I washed the dust from Mustafa’s dates and munched on them as I followed the path through the decrepit ruins to the former fortress that dominates the town, an impenetrable citadel that stood for 13 centuries until 1923 when several days of flash floods took its toll,  the houses had been built from Kershef, a muddy mixture of clay and salt and now most of the houses are just mustard colored skeletons, home to donkeys and huddled sheep,  although now investment and restoration is seeing a slow transformation with a boutique hotel or two and inevitably a handful of  Airbnb’s.

As the sun sinks the call to prayer rises, a crackle and cough from a thousand-year-old minaret, remarkably intact and looking not unlike a potteries chimney, shadowy figures scuttle up the steps to the dun colored Mosque.  

Siwians are easy going and independently minded, conservative and polite, the language is Siwian first and Arabic second, the culture is Berber Bedouin, they see themselves as a world apart from the rest of Egypt. Siwa is cloaked in a sandy otherworldliness.

Over breakfast of mashed fava beans and yogurt at Abdo’s restaurant I negotiated with Abdul Rahman to chauffeur me a little further than the bone shaker bicycle could manage, Abdul Rahman assured me of the upmost comfort, no distance too far, salt lakes and sand seas guaranteed.

Thirty minutes later I was being thrown violently from side to side in the back of a motorcycle tuk-tuk, Abdul Rahman glancing over his shoulder every so often to check if I was still aboard, the engine noise limiting our communication to a series of emojis, me thumbs-up and him a smiley face.

The Sahara surrounding Siwa is remarkably wet, despite its status as an oasis it does come as a surprise to see so much water, expansive saline lakes and numerous hot and cold springs all offering respite and rejuvenation and adding to the unique character of this remote Egyptian outpost.

The road out of town is flanked by mountains peppered with tombs cut into the limestone rock, grave robbers long gone, on the walls only intricate inscriptions detailing the importance of life and afterlife remain. And an earie quiet.

The tuk-tuk has overheated, Abdul Rahman had pushed it too far and was now fiddling with the tormented engine, the sand drifted silently across the tarmac, I kicked at the bleached bones of another victim an unforgiving landscape, a couple of local Bedouin from a settlement close by wandered over to offer advice and offer refreshments.

The Bedouin seemed amused at my choice of transport, a shiny 4×4 was parked at the entrance to a cluster of yellow painted buildings in the shade of several palm trees, Bedouin culture is more settled these days. With the tuk-tuk fixed our new friends invited us for tea, we loaded up with supplies and headed off in convoy along a dusty camel track to the edge of a salt heavy lake, as the sun faded we kindled a fire and cooked more tea, selfies were made and conversation revolved around our hosts cross-border drug smuggling business, the border with Libya a few shifting dunes away.

The desert can be unforgiving, vast and unknown, it can also be serene, poetic in its shapes and hues, and it can also be therapeutic, not just in mind but also in body. The desert bathing season starts once the sand is at its hottest, taking a Siwa sand sauna involves being buried up to the neck and left to roast in the hope of curing everything from rheumatism to impotence.

We said goodbye to our new friends, promising to keep in-touch regarding some potential business opportunities and struggled through the darkness back to town.

Next morning in the coffee-shop Maher was puffing on his pipe, the water gurgling in its bowl, a glint of sunlight picking out the particles of Sahara in the air, the TV was switched off and outside the traffic was still quiet, I ordered coffee and waited for Abdul Rahman to take me to the bus station, apart from Maher’s occasional cough we sat in silence, inside the café the dust was settling but outside the sands were shifting.

Maher

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Welcome to Vulture Town

A kettle of vulture’s circle high in the sky, with wings wide and necks outstretched to surf the summer thermal draft. In the valley below the Arda river loops and doubles back on its self, a naked man basks on the shingle beach. A kilometre beyond sits the town, sitting dead centre in the crater of a flaccid volcano, the town is empty, its population dwindling since the gold mine closed leaving behind tumbleweed pensioners. This description is beginning to sound bleak but this is the eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and nothing is ever as it seems.

Steeped in history and shrouded in mystery the forested peaks of the Rhodope cover around 12,000 km’s of Bulgaria on the Balkan peninsular, the town of Madzharovo a stone’s throw from the border with Greece.

It’s the land of Orpheus and serpents and dancing trees, and where the landscape has been carved by dragons.

With its population now hovering at around 500 its gold rush days are long gone, during the communist times when the mine was open the town was flush with cash, in the now shuttered and somewhat forlorn looking Sky Club Bar they would come from miles around just to rub shoulders with the wealthy miners, their salaries five times that of the locals, in fact they couldn’t get rid of it says Veselina who used to work behind the bar back in the day, with nothing but Rakia and beer to spend it on, they would roll up wads of Leva to prop up wobbly table legs she laughed.  And is there still gold in dem hills? Oh yes she says assuredly and the prospectors still come and sift and silt along the seams, ever hopeful of what the ancient Thracian tribes had thrived on.

Just outside town on a forested bluff beside the river is the Vulture Visitor Centre, bustling with volunteers twitching with anticipation at the imminent arrival of a couple of chicks from Prague, that is to say, a pair of Egyptian vulture fledglings from Prague zoo.

The magnificent Egyptian vulture was once a common sight above the peaks of the Balkan peninsular but is now globally under threat. Needless to say increased urbanization, exploitative agricultural practice and poaching have all contributed their steady decline. But somewhat surprisingly the tables may be turning and it seems the human population in Bulgaria is now in decline and the vultures are having something of a renaissance.

Marrin, the ruddy faced center manager swigs from his cold can of Kamenitza beer and tries to explain the state of the local food chain;

 It’s all to do with the cows he says;

 Cows? I question and pull the ring on my beer.

 Da, they are wild and rare.

Rare wild cows I ponder as Marrin sups on his beer as though he has explained everything.

Marrin detecting I am a bit slow on the up-take goes into further detail;

The Rhodope short horn cow is one of the last remaining indigenous cattle still surviving in Bulgaria, one of the last of the European prehistoric breeds; numbers had fallen to a few hundred. Predatory wolves being the chief culprits so the local farmers would use poison to combat the wolves, not only the cows and wolves would fall victim but the vultures feeding on poisoned carrion set out for the wolves would also get caught up in the rural carnage.

Wild cows, wolves, vultures. I shifted uneasily in my seat and eyed the surrounding forest with suspicion.

With help from the Bulgarian Bird Society and funds from the European Union a truce between the wolves and farmers has been holding long enough to reverse the decline, the successful preservation and protection of raptors such as the Griffin and Egyptian Vulture is just part of the re-wilding of Europe that has also witnessed the re-introduction of Bison to Bulgaria, missing for centuries.

The chicks from Prague have arrived and after having electronic tags attached by the BBS team they will be settled into a hack perched on the side of the mountain in preparation for life in the wild.

A task not for the faint of heart that will involve the scaling of a Rhodope peak with the birds carried in crates strapped to the backs of intrepid Sherpa-esq team members. Scrabbling over scree and hauling along rope pulleys, with the river diminishing in size and the vistas growing grander, it’s a long way down.

The absolute dedication and commitment to the cause could not be more evident as one of the BBS experts laden with a heavy wooden crate abseils from the summit and places the juvenile Vulture in the hack.

As the summer heat subsides and autumn approaches the migration will begin, a not unfamiliar story; from the barbed wire  boundaries of Europe, across Anatolia into the Middle East and Africa, a journey in search of resource, safety and security, a journey fraught with risk, a journey of hope and the struggle to survive.

Madzharovo has turned its back on its industrial past and is rebranding itself; the giant murals painted on the side of communist housing blocks are testament to a proud new vision.

And what of the naked man sunning himself on the banks of the Arda I hear you ask? He, much like the near-by town is returning to nature.

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Abandoned in Idlib

Atmeh camp clings to the side of a hill on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. Colored plastic bags flap like flags trapped in the rolls of razor wire that separate the two countries. Turkish soldiers watch from a guard post on the hill above. And just to be clear, Atmeh camp is on the Syrian side of the border, part of Idlib province now under the control of the opposition.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced child Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

As we enter the camp the scene is messy and chaotic. Water carriers and foam mattresses are being unloaded from a couple of small trucks, an ambulance screams past on its way to a Turkish hospital with a newborn child. A moment of panic and everyone scuttles for cover as a Syrian warplane is spotted in the distance, a truck mounted Doshka swivels and scans the sky, the danger passes and people re-emerge, a black plume of smoke rises from across the valley.
As first impressions go, Atmeh does not feel like a place of refuge. More than twenty thousand Syrians are living here, the largest camp for the internally displaced in Syria, the decision to come would not have been taken lightly, driven by fear and desperation and with nowhere else to go.

One after the other, thousands upon thousands of tents spread amongst the olive groves. The soil is rich and red and for a moment looks almost picturesque; the olive branch is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace but so far it has only provided a little shade from an unremitting sun. Drinking water is delivered by tanker, it’s not always enough, there is no electricity and the candles often cause fires and more heartache, many of the children seem to have coughs and colds.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

Fetid streams of sewage run down the hill as bare footed toddlers play, women do battle with the dust that permeates every pore and try to keep the inside of their tents as clean and tidy as the living rooms they left behind, desperate but still dignified. The men though are few and far between.

It’s June and already the heat is fierce, still it will get hotter and then another winter will come and with it the rain, the red earth will turn to rivers of mud and mix with the shit that doesn’t drain away.
With its much needed wealth of experience in dealing with awful situations like this the United Nations Refugee agency and World Food Program are unable to work here without the cooperation of the Syrian government, protocol preventing humanitarian assistance. The only help being provided comes from a small group of Syrian NGO’s based inside Turkey and a handful of Syrian expat charities. I came with the Camp Zeitouna Project charged with bringing some entertainment for the children, building a playground and football pitch, helping with education and holding creative workshops, a small distraction from a life of continuous struggle in a war that doesn’t discriminate against the innocent.

The children are not backward in coming forward, swarming around us asking for photographs to be taken, posing with gap toothed smiles and victory signs, holding our hands as though lifelong friends or long-lost uncles, till now the only fun had been provided by whatever could be put to use, an old bicycle inner tube or a plastic bag tied to a piece of string, popping the caps of water bottles. They have already been labeled Syria’s lost generation and are happy to feel as though they’ve not been forgotten, but we only have the power of distraction – those with real power cannot even overcome issues of protocol.
A little girl takes my hand, I ask her name, Mariam she says with a cheeky smile, a bob of blonde hair and eyes as blue as the not too distant Mediterranean. Where are you from Mariam I ask, Haas, she tells me. Do I know Haas she asks, I tell her I don’t but wish I did, she asks me my name and I tell her, I tell her I am English and that until very recently I lived in Damascus. Does she know Damascus, I ask, she doesn’t, Hass is a long way from Damascus we both agree.

A day later driving through the Idlib countryside we pass through the small town of Haas. It’s almost deserted, bullet riddled, bombed and buckled, this is the Syria we are familiar with now, war torn and devastated. I think of Mariam and her family, in which street did they live, which house. It would have been a typical Syrian town, I imagine her and her friends heading off to school with their pink backpacks. I can’t really imagine what Mariam has already had to endure, living in a muddy field surviving on hand-outs is the best the world has to offer her just now, the crisis in Syria is complicated we are often reminded and protocol has to be followed.

‘There are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, displaced within Syria, the biggest internally displaced population in the World. The pace of displacement remains relentless. Well over 1.8 million people have been displaced in 2017, many for the second or third time’ UNHCR.

I wrote and published this back in 2013 but have decided to re-post since little has changed other than the recent arrival of COVID-19 to add insult to numerous injuries.

For further reading I have compiled a list of 14 great books on Syria ;

https://johnwreford.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/syrian-literary-list/

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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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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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Black Sea

Black Sea

At that (Homeric) time, the sea was not navigable and was called Axenos (inhospitable) because of its wintery storms and the tribes that lived around it, and in particularly the Sythians in that they sacrificed strangers…

But later it was called Euxeinos (friendly to strangers) when the Ionians founded cities on the seaboard.

Strabo From his Geographica

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Copyright John Wreford 

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From my Black Sea series, a project in progress

Printed on 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.

A lovely fine art print signed by the artist.

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Tarlabaşı; An Ode.

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Saying goodbye to Tarlabasi

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

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The Salep Seller

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

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Freshly stuffed Midye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cowboys Of Cappadocia

untitled-6955Strabo must have scrambled his way to the peak of Erciyes, one of the Volcanoes that surround the tectonic crossroads of Cappadocia in the heart of Anatolian Turkey, scribbling in his ancient notebook he could see both the Black sea to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, he was less than three hundred kilometers from his hometown and no doubt the journey by horse would have been arduous, whatever that shimmer was he saw in the distance, it was unlikely to have been either of the seas, Strabo the cross eyed geographer had made mistakes before, his seventeen volume Geographica  was fastidiously complied yet littered with errors, the scholarly Greek had traveled far and wide in his valiant attempt to record and acquaint us with lands distant.

The land of lava and ash stretched out below him is peaked and dotted with cinder cones and fairy chimneys, the rock so soft it was easy to carve caves and provide shelter and sanctuary, new age Neolithic revolutionaries had settled thousands of years before Strabo arrived a little over half a century before the birth of Christ, the Assyrians and the warrior Hitties too would carve their homes here long before horses of the Roman legions marched across this rugged land.

Ekram leans nonchalantly against the entrance to his cave, sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, a lined face and hippie hair only partially covered by his cowboy hat, he surveys the corral of wild Anatolian horses, Ekram is slowly building their trust and will, when the time is right, break them and put them to work on his ranch, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that Ekram is known as the Horse Whisperer of Cappadocia.

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It’s the land of beautiful horses Ekram tells me, referring to the meaning of the name Cappadocia, some say it derives from the old Persian name of Haspaduya, the true meaning is something of academic debate but the tour guides will tell you with fervent enthusiasm the name does mean the Land of Beautiful Horses, and why wouldn’t it? Well one reason is the admission by a prominent Turkish photographer who claimed he used the term to save a project he was working on, the disgruntled top brass of the military who had recently claimed power via a coup d’état didn’t like the sound of the Persian version.untitled-5922

Cappadocia is without doubt the land of beautiful horses despite it being better known for its hot air balloons and fairy chimneys, tourists fly in simply to catch a dawn flight over the magnificent otherworldly landscape, another tick on the bucket list, the real way to experience the nature of Cappadocia is as Strabo did, as the conquering armies of the Hittites and Persians, the Assyrian traders following the Silk road, the Byzantine Fathers when they built their labyrinth of underground cities, as almost every visitor until very recent times did, by horse.

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In the corral down below a one-eyed puppy wrestles with a cat, the cat chases some pigeons, chickens peck and some geese flap near a water bath and the stable boys begin preparing the horses for a day’s ride, saddles rest on the fence, Canan grooms a mare, while most of the youth of Anatolia turn their backs on rural life and move to the cities Canan who quit his job in IT and moved from Ankara to Cappadocia to ride, when not leading tours into the Rose valley he races and takes pride in his horsemanship.Untitled-9

Across the valley Irfan is parking his battered Peugeot outside a fairy chimney, his Kangal strains at his leash and barks ferociously, he will feed his chickens before letting his horses into the field, soon he will buckle his chaps and set about re-shoeing one of his horses, the first time, he tells me it took him ages and the horse was kicking and struggling, now though his horse is calm and lets Irfan hack at the fillings in the hoofs, I learned from YouTube he says. Ekram told me the same thing while I watched him clean the teeth of one of his horses, the culture of keeping horses has somehow missed a generation, Ekram is in his 40s and Irfan only just into his 30s they didn’t inherit this knowledge, the tourist industry has taken over traditional farming a long time ago but these new age Cappadocia cowboys are turning the clock back and keeping alive a noble culture.Untitlesd-1

Irfan’s eyes are sad and his eyebrows droop and it’s only the sight of his horses that his face lights up, you can see the affection as he strokes its mane and whispers in Turkish, I’m not sure there is room in Irfans life for any other girls.

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We sip Nescafe on the porch of his fairly chimney and he tells me of his ambitious plans, the political situation in Turkey meant fewer tourists have been passing by so he wants to invest in some sheep and a plough, really, I ask, a plough? Well the tractors just cut through the roots but my horses know better, I will rent it out to the local farmers, I live a simple life and want to be self-sufficient.

Ekram is something more of a businessman, a regular flow of day tripping Turks arrive for a quick trot into the valleys, the wild horses when tamed will be sold on, his heart is of a hippie but he his head a capitalist, his horses are healthy and well looked after, I feed them grapes he tells me, I have vines in the other valley, all organic, I can tell when a horse is getting sick, I can feel its heart rate or from the way it walks and I know what I must feed it to help it recover, nature provides the answer and I don’t need artificial antibiotics.untitled-6585

When Strabo descended mount Erciyes and finally got around to recording his observations he would talk of the importance of Cappadocian horse culture for the Persian economy and military, these days the only Persians visiting are tourists and but on the foot hills of mount Erciyes Ekram is wrangling mares to do his best to continue the legacy.untitled-6944

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Middle East Photography

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