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.
The boy looked at me incredulously, his face glancing from me to the bath-tub and back to me again;”beera”? He questioned again looking at the chipped enamel tub. I seem to have given him the impression I wanted to bathe in beer, there was a brief moment of silence while we both considered the possibilities, it had been an arduous days travel and soaking in a tub of beer all of a sudden did seem quite appealing but as I again tried to explain to the lobby boy who was still hugging my rucksack, I really just wanted him to bring me a bottle from the bar.
I had just checked into the Baron Hotel, Aleppo, it was my first visit to Syria and after a couple of weeks staying in flea-pits and knocking shops this was me treating myself, the hotel had clearly seen better days, the dusty reception counter was a mess, curled and faded postcards on rack, an oversize green Bakelite telephone and a sign written in English warning; “Do not to change money with the staff” who clearly could not be trusted. The guidebooks were not keen either, they recommended a backpacker hovel around the corner run by an ex prostitute called Madam Olga, as tempting as that sounded the literary litany of the Barons was the deciding factor, that, and the freestanding bathtub obviously.
Aleppo has also seen better days, once a cosmopolitan crossroads of commerce and trade. The Barons was built just after the turn of the century to provide some comfort to European traders in silk and soap and stuff. Then the terrace overlooked fields and gardens but they are now long gone, as is the comfort and service the Hotel was known for.
To this day Aleppo is a commercial hub, continuously boisterous and bustling with signs in Cyrillic and prices in Euro or Dollar or Dinar and a subterranean Souk crowded with Bedouin and businessmen. A city consumed by traffic and fumes but with gems of colonial architecture revealing itself with casual abandon to those who persist, and you really must persist.
Of all that Aleppo had to offer, the Grand Mosque, the medieval citadel and caravansary it was the legend that is The Baron that tickled my fancy. The guest book read like a who’s who of Middle Eastern history.
I let the tepid water fill the tub and tipped the lobby boy for the equally tepid beer. No sooner had I closed the door and started peeling off my soiled jeans a knock at the door; “change money” asked a pot bellied porter. I declined and made my way back to the bathroom. Another knock at the door, this time a middle aged cleaning lady asked if I wanted to change money. I didn’t. I slumped in my bath and slurped my beer and ignored the sporadic knocking on the door.
There are some wonderful bars dotted around the Middle East and the bar at the Barons is without doubt one of my favourites. It would be hard to rank them without a spit and sawdust brawl kicking off, but, Abu George on the Street Called Straight in Damascus and Horreya in downtown Cairo would be right in the thick of it. I slipped easily onto a bar stool and ordered a cold bottle of al Sharq beer, quickly a relationship blossomed between me and the bar tender, a Kurd with an instinct for the thirsty, I don’t think I ever actually asked for another beer, they would just appear miraculously when needed.
Agatha Christie was a frequent guest; she would stop by while toing and froing from her congical visits in the desert where her husband was an archaeologist, no doubt as appreciative of her bathroom ablutions as I, although perhaps the bar not so much, more likely she was tucked up in her lumpy bed with an Ovaltine and a train time table.
Over the years the bar stool at the Baron became a regular perch. On one early occasion I had arranged to meet Eric, a French wildlife conservationist I had met in Damascus. We had both planned to travel along the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq, I intended hitchhiking but Eric was going to hire a car. I bounded into the bar to find Eric waiting for me with a glum frown on his face. He had forgotten his driving license. There was a beautiful girl sitting at the far end of the bar, we were both distracted, oh well I said let’s have a drink. “I have to go to the Hammam” said Eric, really? I questioned, my eyes looking along the bar, “yeah, I met a guy earlier and he invited me” I was impressed with Eric’s easy going nature; few people would agree to go bathe with a random stranger they had just met in the souk.
After a pleasant evening in the bar followed by a walk around town and a bite to eat I met Eric back in the Baron. Eric mon ami, I chirped enthusiastically as he slumped into a worn leather armchair beside me. I related all the evenings events; the wonderful Aleppan meal, the sight of a dozen high heeled prostitutes being escorted from their hotel to their respected places of employment, a spectacle that literally stopped traffic. I told him about the beautiful Armenian girl who had been sitting at the other end of the bar. How was your evening? I finally asked “Hmph ‘e was omosexual” was the only detail he would divulge.
There are elegant aspects to the Baron, the chess board tiled entrance hall leading to a stone staircase, the wood panelled dining room with monogrammed crockery and table linen, faded travel posters and the musky waft of belle epoch.
Elegant as the dining room is they do only serve a meagre breakfast, I have enjoyed comedic scenes of staff sending out for pizzas when occasional tourists stopped by to poke around and grad some lunch.
“Ah Mr John, welcome, welcome back to your home” gushes Lucine, the ever present house keeper, as I descend the stone stairs for breakfast. By now I have been a regular visitor for years; I was in town on assignment to photograph the 1950s and 60 American cars that prowl the streets a bit like those in Havana.
Slightly taken aback by the welcome as this was the first time anyone other than the barman had recognized me, “breakfast”? She asked as I entered the typically empty dining room, “indeed” I replied basking in the new status I seem to have attained, “would you like a coffee”? She asked with surprising inside knowledge, the boiled egg and triangle of laughing cow cheese usually comes with a dainty cup of Liptons tea and coffee was unheard of at this hour so I accepted the generous show of hospitality with the enthusiasm of the weak willed addict I am.
After failing to adequately cover the bread with the limited portion of cheese and battling to remove the hardboiled egg from its shell I consoled myself with the Nescafe. “Everything is fine”? The housekeeper asked with unusual conscientiousness, “oh yes, lovely, thank you” I replied in typically British fashion, and with that she presented me with an inflated bill for the non-inclusive Nescafe.
In the scruffy lounge dominated by an early Ottoman television set is a cabinet that houses among other mementos of illustrious guests of yesteryear the unpaid bar bill of TE Lawrence, a man of duplicitous reputation in these parts, one can only imagine why the bill remains unpaid.
I had been promised an appointment with Armen Mazloumian the owner and had been waiting all day, I was watching a Syrian soap opera on TV until Mr Walid entered the room and switched it off. Mr Walid was grumpy with me after I had declined one of his infamous tours to the Dead Cities, usually he asked me several times per visit, it wasn’t that he was persistent, he just failed to recognize having asked me on the previous occasions, the last time I had declined using his name before he had even started his usual patter and he was clearly annoyed. I gave up on the appointment and set out for the Souk.
It was 1am in the bar when Armen finally showed up. Oddly he knew which room I had been staying in and apologized; the hotel had been busy and my unannounced arrival meant a broom cupboard at the back. We spent a genial evening cursing those responsible for the poor reviews the hotel had been getting in the guide books and the declining standard of guest. I glanced around the bar and imagined King Faisal propping up the bar and Charles de Gaulle eyeing the drunk German stumbling on his way out to bed.
Armen had promised to meet me after breakfast the next morning to show me the guest book and the room Agatha Christie supposedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And once again I sat waiting, streams of light pouring in from the tall open windows illuminating the dust filled room, outside the continuous sound of car horns, a looped backing trap to any Middle Eastern city. At one point a flurry of activity, a waiter rushing from the kitchen behind the reception and into an office out of sight, clearly someone important was having his breakfast delivered I thought. I waited another half an hour and went to reception and asked if Mr Armen was free. “No he’s not here” was the reply; no doubt the disappointment was clear from the tone of my voice, the conversation became somewhat surreal; “why-had I seen him”? As the waiter passed by with an empty breakfast tray I said no I hadn’t seen him.
I ordered a coffee and sat outside on the terrace and pondered the past, looking up at the balconies where King Faisal and Gamal Abd Nasser had delivered speeches, of Rockerfeller and Rooservelt, of how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to survive six months as a guest here while the 1918 flu pandemic was rampant and the Ottoman empire was crumbling.
As I made my way to the train station I considered how the Baron Hotel was a metaphor for the Middle East; full of charm and disappointment in equal measure.
The Baron hotel inevitably was forced to close because of the war; the front line was a couple of streets away and has sustained damage but fortunately nothing too serious. Armen Mazloumian sadly passed away in 2016.
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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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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.
Click the image of the book for more information and to purchase from Amazon
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.
Strabo must have scrambled his way to the peak of Erciyes, one of the Volcanoes that surround the tectonic crossroads of Cappadocia in the heart of Anatolian Turkey, scribbling in his ancient notebook he could see both the Black sea to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, he was less than three hundred kilometers from his hometown and no doubt the journey by horse would have been arduous, whatever that shimmer was he saw in the distance, it was unlikely to have been either of the seas, Strabo the cross eyed geographer had made mistakes before, his seventeen volume Geographica was fastidiously complied yet littered with errors, the scholarly Greek had traveled far and wide in his valiant attempt to record and acquaint us with lands distant.
The land of lava and ash stretched out below him is peaked and dotted with cinder cones and fairy chimneys, the rock so soft it was easy to carve caves and provide shelter and sanctuary, new age Neolithic revolutionaries had settled thousands of years before Strabo arrived a little over half a century before the birth of Christ, the Assyrians and the warrior Hitties too would carve their homes here long before horses of the Roman legions marched across this rugged land.
Ekram leans nonchalantly against the entrance to his cave, sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, a lined face and hippie hair only partially covered by his cowboy hat, he surveys the corral of wild Anatolian horses, Ekram is slowly building their trust and will, when the time is right, break them and put them to work on his ranch, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that Ekram is known as the Horse Whisperer of Cappadocia.
It’s the land of beautiful horses Ekram tells me, referring to the meaning of the name Cappadocia, some say it derives from the old Persian name of Haspaduya, the true meaning is something of academic debate but the tour guides will tell you with fervent enthusiasm the name does mean the Land of Beautiful Horses, and why wouldn’t it? Well one reason is the admission by a prominent Turkish photographer who claimed he used the term to save a project he was working on, the disgruntled top brass of the military who had recently claimed power via a coup d’état didn’t like the sound of the Persian version.
Cappadocia is without doubt the land of beautiful horses despite it being better known for its hot air balloons and fairy chimneys, tourists fly in simply to catch a dawn flight over the magnificent otherworldly landscape, another tick on the bucket list, the real way to experience the nature of Cappadocia is as Strabo did, as the conquering armies of the Hittites and Persians, the Assyrian traders following the Silk road, the Byzantine Fathers when they built their labyrinth of underground cities, as almost every visitor until very recent times did, by horse.
In the corral down below a one-eyed puppy wrestles with a cat, the cat chases some pigeons, chickens peck and some geese flap near a water bath and the stable boys begin preparing the horses for a day’s ride, saddles rest on the fence, Canan grooms a mare, while most of the youth of Anatolia turn their backs on rural life and move to the cities Canan who quit his job in IT and moved from Ankara to Cappadocia to ride, when not leading tours into the Rose valley he races and takes pride in his horsemanship.
Across the valley Irfan is parking his battered Peugeot outside a fairy chimney, his Kangal strains at his leash and barks ferociously, he will feed his chickens before letting his horses into the field, soon he will buckle his chaps and set about re-shoeing one of his horses, the first time, he tells me it took him ages and the horse was kicking and struggling, now though his horse is calm and lets Irfan hack at the fillings in the hoofs, I learned from YouTube he says. Ekram told me the same thing while I watched him clean the teeth of one of his horses, the culture of keeping horses has somehow missed a generation, Ekram is in his 40s and Irfan only just into his 30s they didn’t inherit this knowledge, the tourist industry has taken over traditional farming a long time ago but these new age Cappadocia cowboys are turning the clock back and keeping alive a noble culture.
Irfan’s eyes are sad and his eyebrows droop and it’s only the sight of his horses that his face lights up, you can see the affection as he strokes its mane and whispers in Turkish, I’m not sure there is room in Irfans life for any other girls.
We sip Nescafe on the porch of his fairly chimney and he tells me of his ambitious plans, the political situation in Turkey meant fewer tourists have been passing by so he wants to invest in some sheep and a plough, really, I ask, a plough? Well the tractors just cut through the roots but my horses know better, I will rent it out to the local farmers, I live a simple life and want to be self-sufficient.
Ekram is something more of a businessman, a regular flow of day tripping Turks arrive for a quick trot into the valleys, the wild horses when tamed will be sold on, his heart is of a hippie but he his head a capitalist, his horses are healthy and well looked after, I feed them grapes he tells me, I have vines in the other valley, all organic, I can tell when a horse is getting sick, I can feel its heart rate or from the way it walks and I know what I must feed it to help it recover, nature provides the answer and I don’t need artificial antibiotics.
When Strabo descended mount Erciyes and finally got around to recording his observations he would talk of the importance of Cappadocian horse culture for the Persian economy and military, these days the only Persians visiting are tourists and but on the foot hills of mount Erciyes Ekram is wrangling mares to do his best to continue the legacy.
Street photography is a passion of mine, as a young whipper snapper the work of the imperial Henri Cartier Bresson’s Paris was as mesmerizing as it was inspiring, William Klein’s grainy edgy New York and the now so familiar images of Istanbul made by Ara Guller, actually it’s a long list but am not getting into a roll call of photographic superstars, occasionally I can’t help thinking that somehow 1950’s New York or Paris of the ’30’s gives any photographer an edge, Istanbul still has some incredible locations but the modern world with its mass of visual pollution in the guise of capitalistic advertising giving the impression of an explosion in a paint factory means that while Ara still sits drinking his coffee in his Istanbul cafe his city has largely disappeared.
My first real attempt at producing a body of work defined as street photography was in Cairo, ( Cairo Time & Tramlines ) in a teeming city of gazillion people it offered almost overwhelming options, I had to make some rules and limited my project to a set radius of the old Fatimid walls, for a boy who had spent more time in the meadows of the Thames than the city the excitement and exotic was a heady creative cocktail. Much later Istanbul (Istanbul Street Photography ) provided the never-ending urban landscape populated with twenty million potential subjects, some may say it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, perhaps not quite but these cities do provide an engaging backdrop in which to set the characters of endless opportunity and drama limited only by the soles wearing from your shoes.
Moving to Sofia in Bulgaria at the start of the year was an exciting new opportunity to discover a new country, a new city, using street photography as a tool to explore, discover and learn, you pay more attention, you take things slower, you pick out the details, I can’t stress the non-photographic benefits enough.
Now I need to choose my words carefully here; for those that know Sofia and those from Sofia we can agree it’s not a screaming mega city, it has the population of a neighborhood of Istanbul, its gentle, its calm, its green, its empty. For a street photographer it’s a challenge.
The challenge this time was to create a body of work that is not simply a street shot image but one that conveys a sense location, with each location a unique history and culture, I do get a little bored of random images that say very little, technology now allows us to snap with stealth but still it’s no excuse for meaningless images, and since you have asked, I have no preference when it comes to technology but a DSLR is my workhorse and despite its clumsy and noisy attributes serves me well enough.
So here we are then a selection of street shot images of Sofia, a city of undeniable charm, hopefully they will appeal to the more critical Bulgarians amongst us too.
Anyone interested in a personal Street Photography Workshop in Sofia, Cairo or Istanbul drop me an email, I am also preparing on-line mentoring classes for those interested.
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Maher bent forward and poured a stream of Tamer Hindi juice into a cup for me from the antique Ottoman flask on his back. It’s very sweet and very welcome, its natural Red Bull and will give me energy Maher tells me, sounding not unlike a Red Bull commercial. Dressed in traditional garb and wearing wraparound sunglasses, he aptly represents the curious contradiction of the Middle East, ‘Don’t forget to tag me on Facebook’, he shouts as I wander off.
A tour bus pulls up and a group of septuagenarian’s shuffle towards the amphitheater, not stopping as they take snap shots of the Roman colonnade with their tablets. They don’t stop to try Mahers juice either, too much of risk perhaps; a jippy tummy or worse, getting left behind to fend for themselves. Amman is only a side show, it’s Petra they have come to Jordan for, the jewel in the Kingdoms crown.
It’s a shame that Amman doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves, agreed appearances can be deceptive and it takes time to warm to this modern Middle Eastern capital. Originally built on seven hills it now sprawls over as many as nineteen, and has swelled with refugees from Iraq and Syria. Most of its population is in fact Palestinian, reflecting the turmoil of the region. Reassuringly, Jordan has remained largely trouble free and safe for travelers.
It won’t really take long to explore the official tourist sights of Amman, the second century six thousand seat Roman amphitheater impressively squatting into the side of a downtown hill, the Citadel ruins on the hill opposite with its columns and Ummayad Palace, a museum and mosque or two. The coach parties hardly stop for breath before they speed down the Kings Highway to Wadi Rum and Petra.
But surrender to the urban madness of Downtown, and be consumed by the chaos of the Souk and you will get an altogether different experience of Amman. Take time to explore the alleyway coffeeshops, binge on street food and chat with the street side vendors. The selling point of Jordan is not its crumbling columns but its congenial and ever engaging people whose character and personality will leave a lasting impression long after the postcards have faded.
Downtown Amman lies in a wadi, a mish-mash of formal and informal commerce, the hipsters rarely venture down from their lofty cafes on the surrounding hills – a latte is a latte so why strain your calf muscles clambering up to join them. The area is a street photographers paradise to explore, discover and find moments of unexpected serendipity.
I bump into Maher again, we talk of Palestine and Syria, he asks me where I learned Arabic, I ask where he learned English. I am an engineer he tells me, I just do this for some extra cash. He pours another stream of date juice into a plastic cup for me, daylight is now fading and the plaza in front of the amphitheater is filling with families – footballs are flying around, tea is being poured from large copper kettles, it’s time for my evening prayers now Maher informs me, we shake hands and as he turns away he says one last time; ‘Don’t forget to tag my photo on Facebook, John’.
Read the full essay and more street photography images from Downtown Amman in the wonderful Roam Magazine on-line here: Roam Magazine and do follow them on Instagram at @roam.magazine
Travel writers and bloggers who want to collaborate on projects please do get in touch and lets talk about possibilities
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.