Wilfred Thesiger died the summer of 2003, the same year I moved to Damascus, I remember hearing the news on the BBC World Service while living in one up one down hovel in the Old City. For those familiar with his life and work its probably no great surprise that his was a source of inspiration for mine. We have taken very different paths but somehow serendipity is what it is. My exhibition Syrians Unknown which should really have ended some time ago is still hanging at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which also holds the archive of Wilfred Thesiger.
Last November I had the privilege to finally visit the marshes of southern Iraq, Thesiger was there in the 50s and talks of political upheaval and the imminent demise of a culture stretching back 5000 years. The political upheaval has pretty much continued since then, he predicted the marshes would be drained, and they were, but were re-flooded, the quest for oil, war and drought have all taken their toll, and yet, a unique way of life continues, in many ways much as it has done since Sumerian times.
Very little photographic documentation has been made over the last forty years, mostly due to the war but my intention is to create a body of work comprehensive enough to be of future value and add to the legacy of Wilfred Thesiger.
Plans are underway for a return to Mesopotamia and discussions are happening regarding potential publishers but as ever funding is the major stumbling block, purchasing one of my prints would go along way towards me recouping some of my costs-the rent can wait.
Your help really is essential and much appreciated
30×40 cm Hahnemühle Photo Rag fine art paper with a wonderfully soft feel, boasts a lightly defined felt structure, lending each artwork a three-dimensional appearance and impressive pictorial depth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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I arrived in Sofia just as the year was ending, my life in luggage I could carry, another blank page ahead of me, I knew only one person, Iva, a host on Couchsurfing who had kindly offered to host me, I rarely surf couches but the offer was timely and genuine.
Over wine and Banitsa we chatted into the early hours about art, life and travel, you really must meet Rossitza Iva had implored, and, disregarding the late hour our meeting had been arranged for the party the following night ushering in the new year.
Well after the apocalyptical impromptu firework display had finished terrifying me and the neighborhood dogs Rossitza made her fashionably late entrance.
From Andalusia to the Orient is a project with EU funding that Dr. Rossitza Ohridska-Olson had been busy creating in Bulgaria, discussing and celebrating the interaction of the shared cultures of Europe and the East, quickly we found common ground and before dawn had broken on the new year we had discussed the possibility of me taking part in the evolving exhibition.
It may come as something of a surprise to some but things can move pretty quickly in Bulgaria, soon after our initial meeting we traveled to the small town of Samokov an hour or so drive from Sofia, the town better known for winter sports has a rich history of art and culture, there we met with Vesselin Hadjiangelov the director of the beautiful museum of history, from Andalusia to the Orient had already arrived in Samokov and was on display in the prettiest of Ottoman mosques, it was soon agreed I would also take part.
A flurry of activity followed, images were selected and edited, printers were harangued and Rossitza worked through several nights on the design, layout of the hanging panels and accompanying text, it all seemed slightly unrealistic to achieve and yet, on a cold night in Samakov the results were hanging and guests sipping wine.
The images were hung as a labyrinth, a confusing journey of contrasts and misconceptions, the hanging panels were cut with hexagonal windows allowing just a glimpse into another world.
The first six weeks of life in Bulgaria have been very inspiring, the warmth and hospitality unrivaled, I feel very blessed to have met such lovely people.
Am now just about to leave on an exciting road trip so please stay tuned for more images and silly stories, sign up for email updates in the box to the right and below, social media junkies I am all over the web so lets connect and if anybody wants to help with next months rent then buying a print will help tremendously.
It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.
I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.
I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.
He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.
The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?
Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.
For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;
Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.
Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.
Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.
I think we all know what a toe-rag is.
For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.
John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration
It was one of those balmy Beirut summer evenings, the smell of Nargila smoke mingling intoxicatingly with the car fumes along the corniche, I had strolled alone as I almost always do when visiting the dysfunctional Lebanese capital.
My evening amble had started in romantic enough fashion around the spot that, on Valentine’s Day 2007 the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was blown to kingdom come in a truck bomb explosion that had left little to chance.Rafic had been known as Mr. Lebanon and not because he had won a pageant like beauty contest wearing skinny gold shorts, alas, but because he pretty much owned Lebanon, and, as is very well known, Lebanon cannot be owned by a Lebanese.
As is my good fortune I had also walked this very same route that year only a couple of weeks prior to the assassination and again shortly after, debris and blast damage not looking nearly as out of place in the scarred urban landscape as it should.
This walk is always one of pondering my past visits and while I have never lived in the city I have been a frequent visitor since the early nineties, so much has changed and yet so much never seems to in Beirut. I pass the military beach club where a few hours after arriving on my first ever visit soldiers surrounded me screaming, I carefully made it clear they really needn’t get so excited I was only pointing my camera through the broken chain link fence at the privileged surrounded by the poverty, a Syrian tank barrel poked ominously from between billboards advertising Cross Fire walking boots on the other side of the street, my art and irony lost on these guys but they cleverly figured I was not much of a threat and let me go and I mosey along past the Luna tic Park where the fabulous Ferris wheel has defied all logic and survived, no doubt those rusting bucket seats can tell some stories.
As I cast a flirtatious glance at Dalieh, Beirut’s last remaining virgin, a slab of rock anxiously waiting to be violated by the money hungry property developers, a softly spoken man with neatly trimmed beard sidles up beside me and says hello, you know how much they cost he said without waiting for me to reply to his friendliness, pointing across the traffic clogged street at the empty apartment block, nope I said and so he told me, we walked and talked, chit chat as is not entirely uncommon in the Middle East, we soon tired of the Beirut property scene and seamlessly segwayed into the Beirut cruising scene.
I am Arab, Muslim and gay he announced, you cannot believe how complicated my life is. I said I can almost imagine, he lived a lie needless to say and shared some of his frustrations, we took a seat on a park bench and drank tea from disposable plastic cups, there was some pinkness now creeping into the sky above the filthy Mediterranean seascape, you’re not gay are you he said, nope I said, hmm he replied and perhaps a little disappointed I would like to believe, the trouble with you British he said, now the trouble with the British is a conversation I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine, (or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.
Hmm now this was not exactly what I expected but it did give me pause for thought, and no, not really about the gender and sexuality roles gently forced upon me by my conservative British upbringing but about a previous encounter some years earlier the sordid details of which I will go into with another post in the future.
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.
So it was bound to come out sooner or later; Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal.
Thanks to that bloody Assange and his leaking Wiki tittle-tattle, like a jealous teenager Julian it seems has been scrolling through Hilary’s Whatsapp messages and internet history to find irrefutable proof that the inevitable (did I say inevitable) leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.
That the Democrat nominee is corrupt would not come as a surprise to many, that she has been funding ISIS is, albeit unlikely, hardly something she would shy away from had the deal something to offer in her interests such as, well you know, profit, no, obviously the shock of the revelations is my involvement.
So the accusation that Hills back in the early 1990’s was a board member of the French cement company Lafarge, the same company may have received micro finance loans aimed at development projects in third world countries, Lafarge has a cement factory in Raqqa province in Syria, in the heart of the short lived (I am sure) Caliphate, the French CEO is reported to have paid via a series of middle men, or as we prefer to call them; blood sucking parasitic war lords, substantial amounts of cash to keep the factory operational, ISIS taxes or protection money call it what you like, the factory was able to continue production and importantly continue to employ and pay local staff until it finally closed in 2014.
So where in this sordid story does Wreford come in I hear you ask; In the summer of 2011 I was commissioned by Lafarge to visit Raqqa province and photograph the factory, staff and some of the surrounding area, the revolution in Syria was well underway by that time and fighting was taking place in Homs and the south but Aleppo and the north still relatively calm, it proved to be one of my last paying jobs in Syria.
I flew with a representative of Lafarge to Aleppo, as usual on arrival my camera equipment caused a degree of excitement with the security guys, journalist, journalist one was the cry of one young recruit almost weeping with pleasure, we calmed them down with some official paperwork and set of for our hotel.
We checked into the brand new Carlton Citadel hotel, a swanky palace of a place that was once a beautiful Ottoman hospital, I had already visited the hotel just before it opened the previous year, its only redeeming feature being the views over the beautiful old city of Aleppo. Syria in 2010 was a very different place and tourism investment was flourishing, the Carlton though was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the time being 2014 and the wrong place being the front line between the Syrian regime army who were using it as a base to attack the rebel opposition, in an audacious attack opposition forces tunneled under the hotel and laid enough explosives to raise the hotel to the ground, its Google + page now declaring it permanently closed.
Early the following morning we drove the 150 Kms or so via a few military checkpoints without problem to the factory where we spent the day, unlike cement factories I have photographed in Egypt this was pristine, efficient, safety conscious and came with the usual overwhelming Syrian hospitality that included not only a substantial lunch but also a porta-cabin with bed and shower to relax in. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the local farming villages, remote and beautiful countryside, Bedouin shepherds and fields of smiling sunflowers, it was a calm and peaceful time but the war was very close and would inevitably arrive.
The factory eventually closed its doors in 2014, the staff were paid for a while but soon mostly fired, and the local villages were overrun by the godless animals of Daash, now as I write this the trip is fresh in my mind yet so much has changed, I hope those beautiful people have survived all that has been wrought upon them.
My name has been redacted from the emails but I will confess here and now I did take money from Hilary Clinton via a Syrian intermediary working for Lafarge during the Syrian uprising.
Lafarge Cement Company Syria
Lafarge Cement Company Syria
Lafarge Cement Company Syria
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It’s been five years of a brutal war and almost every day the international media has carried some Syrian related story, from revolution to refugee and while most of Europe is now cowering under its bed in fear what can you really tell me about Syria and its brutalized population?
For a future blog post I would like to try and paint a picture of Syria before the war but with your help and contribution:
Did you have the chance to visit Syria?
Are you Syrian or have friends and family who have or are living there?
What do you think Syria was like as a country before the conflict?
Do you know where it is?
Please post your thoughts, your questions and experiences, I would like to avoid turning this is into another place of conflict so let’s not get bogged down in the political whys and wherefores, for those wishing for more in depth information on any such issues I am happy to provide links and sources so just drop me a line.
My Damascus Diary blog posts offer some insights and I promise to update and organize this more professionally shortly:
Meet The Syrians is also an ongoing project that will introduce some of my Syrian friends:
Four great gates has the city of Damascus
And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining,
All day long stand like tall stone men
And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.
This is the song of the East Gate Warden
When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden.
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear,
The Portal of Bagdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.
The Persian Dawn with new desires may net the flushing mountain spires:
But my gaunt buttress still rejects the suppliance of those mellow fires.
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose
But with no scarlet to her leaf–and from whose heart no perfume flows.
Wilt thou bloom red where she buds pale, thy sister rose? Wilt thou not fail
When noonday flashes like a flail? Leave nightingale the caravan!
Pass then, pass all! “Bagdad!” ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky
Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,–
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And one who licks his lips for thirst with fevered eyes shall face in fear
The palms that wave, the streams that burst, his last mirage, O Caravan!
And one–the bird-voiced Singing-man–shall fall behind thee, Caravan!
And God shall meet him in the night, and he shall sing as best he can.
And one the Bedouin shall slay, and one, sand-stricken on the way
Go dark and blind; and one shall say–“How lonely is the Caravan!”
Pass out beneath, O Caravan, Doom’s Caravan, Death’s Caravan!
I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your Singing-man.
This was sung by the West Gate’s keeper
When heaven’s hollow dome grew deeper.
I am the gate toward the sea: O sailor men, pass out from me!
I hear you high in Lebanon, singing the marvels of the sea.
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.
Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.
Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.
Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Beyond the bay in utmost West old Solomon the Jewish King
Sits with his beard upon his breast, and grips and guards his magic ring:
And when that ring is stolen, he will rise in outraged majesty,
And take the World upon his back, and fling the World beyond the sea.
This is the song of the North Gate’s master,
Who singeth fast, but drinketh faster.
I am the gay Aleppo Gate: a dawn, a dawn and thou art there:
Eat not thy heart with fear and care, O brother of the beast we hate!
Thou hast not many miles to tread, nor other foes than fleas to dread;
Homs shall behold thy morning meal and Hama see thee safe in bed.
Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:
And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers’ price,
And buy a fat Armenian slave who smelleth odorous and nice.
Some men of noble stock were made: some glory in the murder-blade;
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honorable Trade!
Sell them the rotten, buy the ripe! Their heads are weak; their pockets burn.
Aleppo men are mighty fools. Salaam Aleikum! Safe return!
This is the song of the South Gate Holder,
A silver man, but his song is older.
I am the Gate that fears no fall: the Mihrab of Damascus wall,
The bridge of booming Sinai: the Arch of Allah all in all.
O spiritual pilgrim rise: the night has grown her single horn:
The voices of the souls unborn are half adream with Paradise.
To Meccah thou hast turned in prayer with aching heart and eyes that burn:
Ah Hajji, wither wilt thou turn when thou art there, when thou art there?
God be thy guide from camp to camp: God be thy shade from well to well;
God grant beneath the desert stars thou hear the Prophet’s camel bell.
And God shall make thy body pure, and give thee knowlede to endure
This ghost-life’s piercing phantom-pain, and bring thee out to Life again.
And God shall make thy soul a Glass where eighteen thousand Æons pass.
And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as men see dew upon the grass.
And sons of Islam, it may be that thou shalt learn at journey’s end
Who walks thy garden eve on eve, and bows his head, and calls thee Friend.
James Elroy Flecker
Emerging from Hamadiyah souk the light is almost blinding, the shoppers silhouetted, the modern world outside the Old City is noisy and harsh; in the summer the heat slaps you in the face and where the traffic is frustrated and angry.
The Old City an urban oasis offers protection, a sanctuary where the narrow alleys and trellised vines shield the sun, the mud brick thick walls of century before muffle the noise, its only necessity that compels me to walk the half kilometer of covered bazaar, leaving behind the calmness and languid pace, where only pigeons being chased by children disturb the peace until the Muezzins recital, a sound even to the unbeliever is as harmonious as birdsong.
Always it feels like leaving one world for another, a world of cars and commerce, of electric elevators, offices and underpasses.
In the past when I had to leave the Old City I would avoid Hamadiya simply to avoid the crowd of shoppers seemingly all heading towards me but these days I prefer it simply as it avoids a couple of checkpoints, that’s not to say it’s not watched, soldiers lounge in front of the Mosque at one end and undercover police mill around at the other, they never shown any interest in me and I pretend not to notice them.
Sharia Thawra, Revolution Street, every Middle Eastern city has one and this one no less revolting, clogged with traffic, the car park opposite empty since the car bomb, I had been in the exact spot twenty-four hours exactly before it exploded, I felt the blast under my feet while walking in the souk near my house, I should vary my route I keep telling myself-kidnapping is becoming more and more of a threat, past the Palace of Justice and more irony, over the road and into the electric souk, a thriving market in generators that now only the very well off can now afford to counter the frequent cuts.
Standing on the corner of Merjeh Square I think how anyone of the hundreds of cars parked randomly on corners could be full of TNT or whatever it is they use.
I cross over the foot bridge as a convoy of ragged Syrian troops trundles underneath to or from the front line just a couple of kilometers in either direction, at the bottom of the footbridge a soldier is checking bags, the road is closed now and concrete blast walls line the street, perhaps when all this is over it could stay pedestrianized I wonder, its much nicer, another bag check, everyone being very polite.
My current favorite watering hole, for coffee that is, Pages café, Americano coffee and electricity, well more than in the Old City anyway, the WiFi is somewhat iffy but enough-it’s not as though I have images to file these days. The café is crowded as usual, the smoking ban being flouted, I can’t see anyone being brave enough to try enforcing it either given the situation, most of the familiar faces of my friends have gone now, some have died but most have left the country, the waiter brings my coffee without me ordering it, I perch on a redundant barber’s chair by the window, most of the clientele are students busy with studies, hunched over books, ipads and laptops, the sound of artillery thundering overheard gets no attention whatsoever, if it wasn’t for a war outside the scene inside would be the same anywhere, bright young things working on a bright future, on various occasions I have been approached and asked for help with language study, CV writing, job and visa applications, rarely we discuss the elephant in the room.
Despite everything happening I retain great faith in the young Syrian generation to drag the country from the mire, however long it takes.
The following day a massive car bomb explodes in Merjeh square, dozens are killed and scores injured, mangled cars are strewn across the streets and every windowpane blown out of every building, I felt the blast under my feet at home and watched the black smoke billow in the breeze.
I knew what I was getting into moving to Syria, I knew the risks, I have no regrets, my bank cutting me off and leaving me without funds was to say the least fucking annoying, it’s hard to imagine being made bankrupt is the least of your problems, I could live with the war, I wanted to stay in Syria as long as I felt the risks were calculable, Syrians had to live with this and if I was being denied the opportunity to photograph what was happening at least I could bear witness, the media was as is no surprise all over the place and hardly giving a true picture of the situation.
My issue with the Moukhabarat was obviously something to worry about; for the most part I had been following Kipling’s advice and keeping my head, it’s just routine everybody would tell me, if it was serious they would have come for you, the Old City was crawling with security these days and I wasn’t hard to find, if they did surely my blood coloured British passport would save me from diplomatic embarrassment, my embassy and minions needless to say had long since fled, I had placed all my faith in a corrupt not very secret secret policeman, one thing stuck in my mind, the words of the soft immigration officer, after telling me I was wanted at the intelligence building he advised me not to go.
I sat on my terrace, shielded from snipers, ignoring the shelling and read Eat Prey Love; a book so annoying I wanted to throw it into the air and see if it got shot to pieces. When the power was working my television viewing was just as banal, ten years of being detached from popular US/UK culture I was now well versed in Kardashian catchphrases.
Wasseem would call and tell me where and when I should meet him, numerous visits to filthy offices, usually I would wait outside, at the passport office in Merjeh I sat at the guards desk and watched as several detainees were lead away handcuffed and chained to each other, the filed through the reception area and up the stairs, nobody paid any attention, now as I think about it I hardly paid attention only looking up from the messages on my phone as they passed.
Cruising the clogged streets of Damascus with Wassem as my chauffer had its advantages, closed roads were open to us, checkpoints were just a formality as we skirted around long queues of those waiting to humiliated; a friend had been arrested at a checkpoint a few weeks previously, when he asked why he was told “we’re arresting everybody today” Wassem would pepper me with questions about my financial situation, the value and size of my house with obvious thoughts in the back of his mind, he had an agenda and was helping me not only for the few hundred dollars we had agreed but had his eye on a bigger goal, despite his position he never questioned me on the current situation which was unusual for those connected to the regime.
A battle was raging a few streets away, I climbed to the roof to get an idea of where it was happening, some neighbors had the same idea but they thought it prudent to bring the children too, as if the collapse of the country was entertainment or a video game, suddenly bullets were flying above my head and striking the satellite dishes, I ducked instinctively for cover although I knew I was shielded by the higher building, my neighbors on the other hand were not and made a run for the stairs, the shooting only lasted a few minutes but it gave me plenty to contemplate after, how far do those bullets travel.