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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I’d been avoiding Ahmed all week; he needed to speak to me. I didn’t need to speak to him. If the shop was busy and he had customers I would be able to slip past without him seeing me, I hurried my pace; I risked a glance into the shop and couldn’t see him, then just as I thought I had got away he was standing directly in front of me. Ya John, my brother he chirped and leant in to kiss my cheeks, Ahmed I was just looking for you I said.
It was the summer of 2003 and I had just rented a dilapidated house in the heart of Damascus. Ahmed was Egyptian and we had bonded over stories of Cairo, since our first meeting he called me his brother. He had to leave Cairo because of a dispute with some of his colleagues in the drug supply trade, he had been shot and happily showed me the scar on his stomach. Needless to say I was quite impressed. It was his morning off work and I agreed to have a glass of tea with him so we walked past the two best cafes in Damascus to a dismal alley and his one roomed apartment.
The room was mostly brown, sparse and very neat, the single bed made and coat of dust on every surface. I picked a small framed photograph, Ahmed wearing a long trench coat posing in the snow in front of the statue of Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi, the Kurdish hero whose mortal remains are entombed in a shrine a few hundred meters from where we were sitting. The day I arrived in Damascus he said referring to the picture and handing me the glass of undrinkable tea.
He started to ramble on about art and me being an artist I would understand; I had no idea what he was talking about. His English would drift between eloquent and unintelligible. It’s our big chance he said. I picked up a small hunting knife and removed the blade from its sheath, wow, is this yours? I asked wondering what other weapons he may have. It’s yours he said, no, I can’t, please you are my brother you must have it. I said of course I can’t accept it. I said I really must be getting along; I downed the tea and left with a mouthful of tea leaves and the hunting knife protruding from my pocket.
Over the next couple of weeks I would bump into Ahmed and he would always mention the art thing and ask when I would be free, anytime I would say and still have no clue what he was talking about. Eventually after he had assured me it would only take fifteen minutes of my time I gave in and agreed to meet him the next morning, just fifteen minutes he said time and time again.
As I strolled down the slope of Talet al Adi Ahmed was waiting on the corner, he was wearing a blue business suit and looking at his watch as though I was late, he was in an unusually serious mood. Nobody does drug deals at nine in the morning I reassured myself, it will only take fifteen minutes he had said.
We didn’t seem to have time for the customary greetings; Ahmed nodded to two other guys waiting on the other corner; they were stocky and short and had Turkic features, they could have been twins. One was speaking on a mobile phone, rare and expensive in Syria in 2003, when he stopped speaking Ahmed asked for the phone, he looked at it and then slipped it into his jacket pocket; I should keep this he said to the twin, the twin just shrugged and we all set of.
The Old City was just waking up, the shops in the Souk were only just beginning to open, the incessant dust was being brushed from carpets and doorsteps, tea was being boiled and bread being bought. The morning dappled sunlight was falling between the vines. None of which we noticed as we strode along the narrow street.
We emerged from the shaded Souk into the glare of Bab Touma; car horns and chaos. Waiting beyond the arched Roman gate was a small white van, the Driver slouching on the bonnet smoking. Ahmed glanced over his shoulder at me and nodded, I nodded back. I don’t recall any greetings; Ahmed removed his jacket, folded it carefully and asked me to hold it as I took the front passenger seat and the others crawled into the back, I have the phone said Ahmed. It wasn’t his or mine so why this mattered I have no idea, but then I had no idea why I was even sitting in the van. Fifteen minutes had now elapsed.
The Driver, keen to show his automotive skills weaved through the busy traffic of the eastern suburbs and onto the Homs highway, a road I had travelled many times, a road I thought I would probably die on, an Indy 500 of lawless commuters, the Driver shifted down and we sped forward.
An hour had passed and finally we turned off the highway, we wound our way into Yabrud, a town sitting in the lap of the Anti-Lebanon, the sight of the mountains lifted my spirits, perhaps this would turn out to be pleasant day-trip, a picnic perhaps. We made our way through the town, past elegant houses with bougainvillea or something pink and flowery flowing over the high walls, the car slowed and we pulled up beside villa, understated and with the shutters down, a group of men wearing leather jackets and ominous slacks were standing at the entrance, a couple more were on the other side of the street leaning against a parked car. Fucking hell I thought, it is a drug deal and I’m the bag-man.
I handed Ahmed his jacket and we followed one of the heavies into the house, our paunchy host greeted us in a crowded dining room, the table filled the room and art filled the walls, we squeezed past the furniture into a living room of sorts, our host gestured for us to sit and sent for tea, I manoeuvred myself into the corner, Ahmed on a chaise lounge, our knees pressed against coffee tables, every inch of wall space was covered with artwork, my eyes flicked from image to image without registering details, the frames were often mismatched and crooked.
Ahmed had introduced me as an art expert from London, infinity preferable to drug mule, especially with my constitution. As tea was consumed and coffee summoned conversation had taken a somewhat surreal turn. I was back in school, I hadn’t been paying attention to class and now I was being asked a question. All eyes were now on me; Ahmed was asking me what I thought, I nodded in faked agreement, he stared at me and tipped his head towards the art, go on he said, do your stuff. Oh right, yeah, my stuff, I stood up for a closer inspection of the art, my hands clasped behind my back, I leaned in and went from picture to picture, very impressive I said stepping back and trying to avoid knocking over the cluttered coffee tables, I was thinking of mentioning brush strokes or use of tone and colour when my attention suddenly focused on a signature that read Picasso, I sat back down, I looked up at the meter wide or so painting hanging above Ahmed and said; Picasso; our host nodded in approval, clearly I knew my stuff, I reached for my coffee and noticed a Goya wedged into the corner, the room was floor to ceiling Old Masters and I would be using my extensive foreign connections to find buyers for them, my esteemed Egyptian colleague would handle the smuggling, how could this possibly go wrong.
Probably fakes I thought to myself as we all shook hands; we were all looking forward to doing business together. Ahmed straightened his jacket, checked the phone, slapped me on the back and we sped back to Damascus, I spent most of the journey wondering who I know that would buy a stolen Picasso.
No sooner home I got straight to work; I typed ‘stolen Picasso’ into the search engine, the first hits were for the FBI and Interpol, I searched their data bases but didn’t recognize any of the missing art, another result was a news article about the capture of smuggler just over the border in Turkey. Was the art genuine of fake I kept wondering, where had it all come from? Smuggling has always been big business near the Syrian borders and Yabrud was very close to the Lebanese border, war has a habit of fuelling these trades and Lebanon had suffered its fair share. The notoriously porous border with Iraq was a long drive through the desert, these days mostly busy with Jihadists.
I tried to explain to Ahmed the seriousness of what he was contemplating, in return he kept reminding me, his brother, that this was our big chance; should I think of someone with a spare the odd several million dollars I would mention it I assured him.
Time passed and Ahmed gave up on me and he eventually disappeared from the Old City, there were various rumours as to what had happened to him, some involved the secret police. I have no idea what happened to the villa in Yabrud that seemed to house more fine art than the National Museum. I often saw the Turkic Twins around the Old City, they avoided eye contact.
Several Years later: A coffee shop conversation with a Syrian friend who knew the story-
Syrian Friend; did you hear Monzer has been arrested?
Me; who is Monzer?
Syrian Friend; Monzer al Kassar
Me; go on?
Syrian Friend; you went to his house that time in Yabrud.
Monzer al Kassar International arms dealer;
Aka the Prince of Marbella
Aka the Peacock
‘Just remember, when you look into his eyes,’ said one former western official, who does not want his name used, ‘you’ll be looking into pure evil.’
Monzer al Kassar was captured in a DEA sting operation in Spain and is now serving a life sentence in United States Penitentiary, Marion Illinois.
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.
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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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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.
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.
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 ;
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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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Sitting in silence on a red sofa, gaze transfixed to a muted tv.
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.
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.
Syrian refugee children, Idlib, North Syria
Syrian refugee children, Idlib, North Syria
Syrian refugee children, Idlib, North Syria
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.
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.
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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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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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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