Why does society need people who go on crazy, stupid, arduous adventures?

My friend Simon Moore is doing something crazy, stupid and arduous.

With Maria Gallastegui, he is sailing in a sixteen-foot dinghy over three thousand miles, from London to Lebanon.

It’s hard to capture quite how crazy, stupid and arduous this is unless you’ve done something similar, which I haven’t. And that’s kind of the point of this article.

Within about five minutes of us waving Simon and Maria off back last July, they discovered that their boat had holes in.

Then they discovered that, actually, waves could get pretty big in the North Sea and, if they capsized now, they’d be dead.

It took them four days, beaten back each time by gales and high seas, to get around just one point in Kent. Then they faced the Channel crossing.

Limping into Calais port, more coastal storms “encouraged” them to change their plans, from sailing around the Atlantic coast, to navigating through France along the canals.

That change of plan meant, rather than filling their sails, they faced instead months of back-breaking rowing.

Some days, Simon told me, he didn’t want to eat or drink anything because he didn’t have the strength to build a fire.

When he left, Simon thought the whole journey might be over in six months. Six months later, like Odysseus returning from Troy, Maria and Simon face an Odyssey that might take years.

Simon has now returned to the UK for the winter, to recover and take stock, waiting for the better Mediterranean sailing conditions of spring.

He is also thinking of giving up.

When he told me this, I was shocked. Shocked, a little panicky and then confused.

I could understand why he would give up; as if the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the spread of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon makes even the destination deadly.

Any sensible, rational algorithm would calculate risk, profit and loss and conclude abandonment of the project.

I could understand his doubts and his concerns and could not blame him for such a decision.

So why did I feel shock, panic and confusion? Why should I take his retirement personally?

Because, I realise, I was relying on Simon’s journey.

Facing down my personal daily struggles – publishing a book, fixing my bike, taking clothes to Calais – relied in some small way on knowing that he was out there doing something far more crazy, stupid and arduous.

And I realised that, as a society, we need people like Simon and Maria, sacrificing themselves to do crazy, stupid and arduous things.

Why? The Philosophy of Inspiration

The process of doing anything starts in your imagination, with the conception that it is possible.

Without the imagination, there can be no action.

That’s why the most reliable indicator of whether you’ll end up as a doctor is if someone in your family is… a doctor.

This is also one reason why rich or privileged folks are more likely to embark on ambitious projects: thanks to their elite education and lineage, they have witnessed that anything is possible.

They have an arrogance of potentialities; they do not doubt what they are capable of.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of the charity Kids Company, remembers as a child hearing her grandfather and uncles talking about setting up the biggest ski resort in the world. Within a month, they’d started.

Camila grew up with that as a model: You dream something up and then make it happen.

Camila had written the business plan for Kids Company by the time she was fourteen.

The charity now helps 36,000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK with practical, emotional and educational support.

It wouldn’t have been possible – it wouldn’t have been even imaginable – if she hadn’t had her family’s lineage of imagination and action behind her.

You can’t do anything of which you can’t conceive; nor can you do anything you believe is impossible.

Camila Batmanghelidjh believed she could set up Kids Company because she’d experienced as a child that such things were possible.

I never considered a career in medicine because I had no conception that such a career was possible for me. I had no role models so it just wasn’t on my radar.

It might be illustrative to demonstrate how imagination turns into action with an example from my own life.

The Genealogy of an Adventure

Until 2009, I had no lineage of grand cycling adventures in my life. Bicycles were annoying machines that rusted in the garage and occasionally used to cycle two miles into town.

I had no conception that anyone could use them for adventures. My imagination for cycling extended as far as Wallingford and that was about it.

My parents did travel widely before I was born, hitch-hiking to Australia in the 1970s.

On Sunday evenings at home, to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes, they’d often show slides of their adventures in South America, my sister and I gazing in awe from the sofa.

But I didn’t connect cycling with such adventures until I stumbled across Alastair Humphreys at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore Conference in 2008.

Alastair had recently finished cycling around the world, which is about as extreme a demonstration of the adventuring possibilities of the bicycle that you could hope for.

That conference marked the beginning of my imaginative lineage for cycling adventures.

The next year, I cycled to Bordeaux, followed by trips around Britain and then around Tunisia.

Each time, I stretched my imaginative conception of what was possible on a bicycle. As my imagination grew, I burst with new ideas and, gradually, I became able to turn those ideas into realities.

But none of my journeys would have been possible without the imaginative lineage I inherited from my parents and from Alastair Humphreys.

Sahara Cycling

The Ripples of Transformative Stories

As a society, we need people like Alastair, Simon and Maria to do these crazy, stupid, arduous things because they are the ones who stretch our imagination and our conception of what is possible.

Everyone who comes into contact with Simon’s story now understands that such an audacious adventure is within their grasp.

Hearing Simon’s story forces us to confront an alternative reality, an alternative way of doing things.

We can’t ignore Simon’s journey precisely because it is crazy, stupid and arduous. It is a challenge to ourselves to overcome whatever struggles we are facing.

You cannot listen to Simon and go back to your life unchanged. He has given me the gift of an expanded imagination, an expanded reality, in the same way that my parents and Alastair Humphreys did.

Their stories are transformative; they force you to reconsider your conception of what you are capable of in life, in an instant.

That’s why journeys such as Simon’s are important to our society and that’s why I believe he should persevere.

Not for himself (although he will learn much from the journey), not for his charity Syrian Eyes (although they will benefit much from messages of solidarity and fundraising), but for the immeasurable millions of ripples his story will riffle through society.

Unbeknownst to him, Simon is transforming lives, opening minds, broadening imaginations. His arduous journey, his risking death, is not in vain; he offers us the gift of expanded imagination and a new perspective from which to examine our lives.

In this way, these kinds of journeys are a precious social service and it is a shame that they seem to be undervalued in our society.

Because their impact cannot be easily measured or monetised, these journeys are dismissed in value and left to people like Simon.

And people like Simon, if left without appropriate recognition of their positive impression on society, can get disheartened about their worth and think about giving up.

We must treasure these people; not worship, but treasure them. They do productive and inspirational work that is no less great for the fact that its impression is immeasurable.

Support them, share their experiences, spread their ripples. We need them.

I’m not saying that I’m going to rush off and sail to Lebanon, by the way, and I’m not saying that you should either. But I can never go back to believing that such a thing is impossible.

And, if sailing 3,500 miles in a dinghy is not impossible, then what else in my life is not impossible? What other potentials must I reassess? What else is my imagination capable of conceiving and making manifest?

We must not ignore or run from the audacity of our imagination. We must embrace it and surprise, delight and inspire the world.

Sailing


UPDATE: Kids Company was dissolved in 2015 after the withdrawal of government funding and the support of major donors due to concerns over the charity’s financial management and a police investigation into allegations of child abuse.

A shocking denouement, but the story of the foundation of Kids Company is still illustrative of my point in this post. The police investigation found insufficient evidence of child abuse to meet the threshold for prosecution.

Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

Do We Need Borders?

You might have seen some stories in the news recently about illegal immigrants trying to get into the UK. I recently spent some time in Calais, teaching English and generally hanging out with the wannabe immigrants there. I was staying with about sixty people in a squat originally set up by an activist group called No Borders, whose aim, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the dismantling of all national borders.

One migrant, who grew up in London, but is illegal there and had recently been deported, asked me: “What’s with all this No Borders stuff? Why do you bother? It’s obviously not working.”

It’s a good question, until you see that it’s loaded. You might as well ask why the government bothers with borders, because they’re obviously not working either.

Do we need borders? A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.
A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.

Borders aren’t working

Borders aren’t working for the hundreds of people killed every year trying to break into Fortress Europe, fleeing civil conflicts frequently armed by UK arms dealers. They’re not working either for the thousands of lives suspended in the limbo of Calais and places like Calais. These are human lives we have branded illegal and forbidden from working, forbidden from rebuilding their shattered dreams and contributing to their new society. Because, like it or not, these people aren’t going anywhere; they’ve got nowhere to go.

The borders are not working, you could also argue, for the people they are supposedly designed to protect. How are British jobs safeguarded by borders, when a transnational, borderless corporation like Amazon can suck our small businesses into the void, while contributing next to nothing to our society? How are British lives safeguarded by borders, when borderless ideologies – religion, politics – can twist minds and precipitate outrageous acts of violence from within?

In this article, I will ask: Do we even need borders?

Do we need borders? The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.
The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.

Why do we have national borders?

National borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars. They evolved to deal with a very specific problem: How can we divide nation states? You need borders.

Before the World Wars, there were only a scattering of recognised nation states – France, the United Kingdom, Germany and so forth – the rest of the world was divided among those nation states according to Empire. While the First World War was essentially the violent collapse of the imperial world order, the Second World War was the battle to decide what system would fill the void – nation states – and where the borders would be drawn.

From the end of the Second World War, for reasons of geopolitical organisation, every corner of the earth had to have a sovereign master, demarcated by borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn with indelible marker by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

My point: National borders were not and are not the “natural” way of breaking up territory. They were arbitrary servants to the invented political idea of the nation state. We only need borders because we have nation states.

Do we need borders? Map of border defences between Britain and France
The Channel: The final frontier of the Schengen Zone.

What is a nation state?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

To give you a guide of how ludicrous the idea is that a state-sized territory would have this mythical common national identity: at the time of the French revolution only half the population of France spoke any French at all. Some national identity, eh! France has taken hundreds of years to evolve a national identity. It’s too much to go into detail here about whether it was worth it or not.

My point: Nation states are not the “natural” way of organising ourselves politically and the global creation of nation states after the Second World War has been nothing less than catastrophic. If we didn’t have nation states, we wouldn’t need borders.

Do we need borders? We want freedom
Activists raise a sign: “We Want Freedom”.

What’s the problem with nation states and their fixed borders?

Basically, if arbitrary borders don’t fit perfectly with mythical national groupings, then we’ve got trouble.

Entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq – scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged – in South Africa, in Brazil, in the United States – could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

Do we need borders? "Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible."
“Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible.”

But borders are a good thing!

Borders have been nothing more than an attempt at a solution to a problem of politics. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world – remember that, in a generation, wars went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in the scale of geopolitics and required a radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could argue that borders have been a decent solution to that problem. For many, particularly those in the west, the world has effectively been at peace since the Second World War. A strange thing to say, but I am not completely naïve. Considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: There is no natural law that commands we live with borders. For most of human history, we didn’t have or need borders.

Do we need borders? "No one is illegal. We are all equal."
“No one is illegal. We are all equal.”

So do we need borders?

In a world where corporations and ideologies are borderless, are national borders, where we can restrict only the movement of people and goods, still the best solution?

I’ll let you make your mind up. Ultimately, whatever your viewpoint, we’re on the same side. This is a race to find a solution to a problem of politics. Perhaps the governments of nation states will find a solution that works for everyone. Or perhaps the solution will come from elsewhere, from groups like No Borders.

But who cares where the solution comes from? The important thing is that we try to find one, because what we have now isn’t working.

Do we need borders? A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.
A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.

Most Living and the Meaning of Life: Sailing 3,500 Miles for Syria

Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.
Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.

On Saturday the 12th of July, Simon Moore and Maria Gallastegui stepped aboard ‘Rumi’, the sixteen-foot Wayfarer dinghy that they hope will carry them 3,500 miles by sea, from London to Lebanon.

A few hours after seeing them off with a pile of home-baked flapjacks, I joined a thousand other cyclists on a night-long joyride from London Fields to Dunwich, 114 miles away on the Suffolk seashore.

Two journeys: one political, one pointless. Both high on exertion, both involving the sea, both journeys into the unknown, testing our spirit and endurance. But the question is Why?

Why do we do these things?

Simon and Maria are sailing in solidarity with the people of Syria, hoping to raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the disastrous humanitarian crisis that is forgotten in yesterday’s newspaper headlines.

The Dunwich Dynamo, as it’s known, had no such charitable purpose. It was a last-minute decision to do something stupid.

But neither of those responses really answer the question. Why do we do these things?

There are a thousand ways that Simon and Maria could raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the plight of Syrians. So why this way? Why risk their lives doings something that has a high probability of failure and that will likely be forgotten the moment they leave?

There are a thousand ways that I could have spent my Saturday night. So why this way? Why risk my knees doing something that will only hurt and leave me sleep deprived for a week?

It is the purpose of this article to find a better answer this question of why.

Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.
Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.

Albert Camus and The Reason We Don’t Commit Suicide

Albert Camus was, in my opinion, the most successful of the French existentialist authors of the mid-twentieth century (he’d hate me for calling him an existentialist, but that is how he is remembered…). His philosophy, however flawed, at least made a stab at giving us practical answers to the problem of existence. And his works of fiction are streets ahead of Sartre.

Existentialism is most frequently diluted in our collective memories to become a particularly French form of nihilism (he’d hate me even more for associating him with nihilism!). If people make a distinction between the two philosophical schools, it’s mostly by sticking a Gaullois between their lips and shrugging their shoulders. And, unfortunately, nihilism is seen as a highly negative way of viewing existence: there is no purpose to life, existence is pointless, so why bother?

But Camus himself, in the first lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, asked this very question.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

In other words: Why, if there is no purpose to life, do we not just go and kill ourselves? His response, teased out over the course of a hundred pages, is the concept of ‘most living’.

Best Living versus Most Living

The existentialist idea that life is ‘absurd’, that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, means that there can be no such thing as universal morality. The only problem is that this leaves us with no road map for life. Without universal morality, there is no model existence for us to strive to follow: Jesus was just another guy. There is no such thing as ‘best living’.

But the only thing more absurd than the absurdity of life is taking the absurdity of life so seriously that you would kill yourself to avoid it. And, if the course of ‘best living’ is no longer open to us, as it was to our believing forefathers, then the only course of life that we can pursue is ‘most living’.

Most Living at its Most

And this is why we choose to spend twelve hours cycling overnight to the seaside, when we could be asleep and dreaming. This is why we choose to spend six months battling across the high seas in a dinghy with four holes in the hull, when we could just fire off a petition or two to parliament.

It’s not about finding the best way to spend our Saturday night, or finding the best way to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrians – because the mythical best does not exist. It’s about investing in our present moments the most we can. That is all we can do to rage against the absurdity of our life and our inevitable death.

And there was no greater ‘most’ way that I could have spent my Saturday night. There is no greater ‘most’ way for Simon and Maria to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Syria. These are heroic challenges that take every ounce of strength. It is most living at its most.

Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.
Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.

From Theoretical Philosophy to Practical Psychology

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus implores us not to commit suicide, either physical or philosophical. He encourages us to throw ourselves into life with full force: as Don Juan, as Conquering Hero, as Stage Actor – without losing sight of the ultimate absurdity of our actions.

Yes, Camus was an optimist. You may, as a rigorous philosopher, be able to pick holes in his argument. It’s not the most logical I’ve ever heard. But that hardly matters now. What matters is that, half a century later, psychologists are offering some tantalising evidence of quite how accurate his dichotomy between best living and most living was.

Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck has been researching motivation, personality and development for many years, at Colombia, Harvard and now at Stanford. In the course of her research, she has discovered that the human brain approaches the various challenges of life through one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is fixed, it can’t be improved. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) I have no artistic talent and I might as well never bother trying to draw an apple every again.

The growth mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is something that you can improve through hard work and practice.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) If I want to be able to draw an apple, all I have to do is put in the hours and practice.

In both cases, the challenge is the same and both people realise that they’re bad at drawing. But only the person with the growth mindset will ever do anything to improve themselves. It gets worse.

It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.
It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.

Fixed Mindset and the Fear of Failure

The fixed mindset also breeds fear: the fear of failure. If intelligence or strength or artistic talent is fixed, then any failure is final. If you have built your self-image around being superb at drawing the still life of an apple – and you lose the annual still life of an apple contest, then what are you? Any opportunity to be judged becomes an existential crisis and you will cease seeking out new challenges. This has the effect of shrinking the fixed mindset’s world until it only participates in the smallest fields of endeavour, where success is guaranteed.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees failure as an opportunity to learn. Any new challenge, opponent or obstacle is great fun because it is only by failing that you are able to improve and grow. A growth mindset says yes to everything, even when failure is almost certain. A growth mindset is greedy for new experiences, for shocks and jolts and tests and obstacles and difficulties.

Growth Mindset and Most Living

The fixed mindset is focussed on judging others and on being judged. Success is measured in concrete successes; a zero-sum game in a finite, competitive world. The growth mindset is focussed on learning and helping others learn. Success is measured in growth; an infinite horizon in a world with so many secrets.

The fixed mindset is obsessed with being the best in life. The growth mindset is obsessed with getting the most out of life. The fixed mindset yearns for a mythical best living. The growth mindset is Camus’ most living.

Which mindset would set you out into the world, sailing 3,500 miles in an absurd attempt to raise awareness of a crisis that you can never alleviate? Which mindset would put you into a thousand-strong bike ride through the night, knowing that you’ll end up with broken knees, sleep deprivation and a £100 taxi fare?

Which mindset would you choose?

Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?
Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?

Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis market
Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.
Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.
Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Fish.
Ex-fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.
Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.
Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.
Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.
Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.
Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.
One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.
Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.
Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.
Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.
Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.
A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.
The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia - with tuna, of course.
Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.
Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.
A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.
Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

Tunis Martyrs’ Day Violence: Why and What Next?

Last Monday, I followed a protest in Tunis that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.

It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.

Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.

First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.

It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.

So far, so reasonable.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba: nice, wide, pedestrian-protest-promenade…

(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)

… Plus soldiers, tanks and a statue of Ibn Khaldoun.

That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?

To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).

One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.

Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.

One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.

I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.

Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.

Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!” His frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.

Man on street, day after. Banner (approximately) reads: “Tunisia martyrs, commemorated in the Lord.” Excuse Arabic!

On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.

On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.

Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).

But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.

I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.

A bad photo I took, forgive me. But those plainclothes men in that white A-Team van are about to produce white painted wooden cudgels, with which they are about beat any protester they catch. Note the police are blithely ignoring them, letting them get on with scaring the heck out of me.

Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.

What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.

###

The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.

My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.

If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.

This kind of protest is allowed. Outside the union, not on Habib Bourguiba.

But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.

(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)

But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.

But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.

I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.

But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.

I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.

Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.

Sidi Bouzid’s memorial to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Or the first Tunisian revolution?

Tunis: Police Attack Peaceful Martyrs March

I was walking around the central market in Tunis this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: “Never forget why they died – Freedom and Dignity”. The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.

We marched on past the central market and across Habib Bourguiba – the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.

A quiet gathering outside a union building in Tunis.

That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.

I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.

Still, though, the protest didn’t look like much. There were no angry young men – from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.

But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn’t seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, a crowd gathered to watch the events. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.

The kettled protesters. Outside the cathedral in central Tunis.

The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter’s pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders – this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.

Chanting, whistles, cheers. And police brutality. On Habib Bourguiba, Tunis.

And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.

Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the batons on helmets and the canisters’ explosions. Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restuarants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.

We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas – to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?

Aftermath: Protesters, press, police.

Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occassional running police, the occassional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.

Kids throwing stones. Police throwing tear gas canisters. Place Barcelone, Tunis.

But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?

I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn’t know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important – like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries – when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food. This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn’t provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.

But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government’s response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the town of Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution. Today was Martyrs’ Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.

But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.

So much has changed in Tunisia? The next day, I tried to find out why this violence happened and what’s next for Tunisia.

Cycling to the Sahara: Tunisia after the revolution

The louage driver slaps my hand and gives me a toothy smile. “Ahh, 2011!” he says, then gives me directions to the giant hand-cart.

I’m in Sidi Bouzid. It’s a town in central Tunisia. A working town, like any other. It reminds me of Sfax, only smaller and with zero tourists and zero tourist appeal.

Except for one rather odd monument.

A statue of a fruit and vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid.

In 2010, a streetseller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building in Sidi Bouzid. Whatever the truth of his grievance, it was enough to spark riots. These riots blossomed into revolution. And this revolution evolved, mutated and spread: most dramatically into Egypt, most violently into Libya and most notoriously in Syria, where civil war is still bleeding.

So this is the post you’ve all (probably) been waiting for: the revolution one. I’ve waited this long because I didn’t want to make any snap judgements and because I wanted to wait until I’d come to the place where it all began: Sidi Bouzid.

Mohamed Bouazizi: a proud portrait on a rather battered post office.

On the other hand, I could have waited forever to write this post because, frankly, there is no judgement I can make that won’t be so bereft of truth as to be called empty. I’m an outsider, I don’t know what Tunisia is really like after the revolution. I can only say what I see.

I did go to Tunisia while it was still under Ben Ali, in 2008, but that was also only for a month. You can’t get more than a vague sense of a place in a month. So I’m comparing vague sense with vague sense in this post. Furthermore, I have a real problem collecting evidence. The evidence of my own eyes is almost totally without context and the evidence given by others, by Tunisians or by expats, is hard to filter.

These caveats given, I shall proceed with my judgement: what is Tunisia like after the revolution?

Better placed than me to comment on post-revolution Tunisia: a curious tortoise.

Tunisia post-revolution is a democracy. Under Ben Ali, it was also a democracy. The only difference is that now more than one political party is allowed. Ha.

Democratic elections were held comparatively quickly after the revolution, in October 2011, and the current government is dominated by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda recently announced that the first clause of the Tunisian constitution should remain as it is: in other words, they will not be introducing Sharia (Islamic religious) law. The constitution still demands, however, that the president be a Muslim (a feature shared by 98% of the population).

That there was some doubt as to the future of Sharia law in Tunisia is something I have encountered on my trip. In Sousse, I ran into a Salafist rally held on the walls of the old medina. It was startling to see the infamous black and white flags of hardline Islamism flying over the moderate Tunisian skyline. And the locals seemed about as taken aback as I was, with many of them taking photos or film, like tourists.

Salafi flags over the medina in Sousse.

These rallies have been held all over the country, including one of 10,000 in Tunis. But even so, I met a chap who told me that of the 10 million people in the country, perhaps as many as 9.5 million opposed the Salafis. At the rally in Sousse, there were about 200 people and about fifty of them were shouting themselves hoarse in support of the speakers. The women were segregated, although not especially effectively – I saw a slightly bewildered fat white man in a baseball cap emerge from the tightly packed women in full Islamic dress. The rally was bossed by heavyset men in smart cropped beards, many wearing khaki military waistcoats and jackboots. It’s the kind of dress code I recognise from BNP rallies in the UK.

So the question of Sharia law has been answered for the moment, but for how long? The young man I spoke to in Sousse was utterly disbelieving that such a thing could ever happen in Tunisia. But the truth is that Islamist parties now have a legal platform on which to stand in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, they were effectively silenced. It remains to be seen whether, allowed the freedom to campaign, they will be rejected or whether their calls for religious law will be heard sympathetically, as an effective alternative to Western political and economic domination.

“Stay standing, people of Tunisia – everyone is proud of you.”

Two anecdotal changes post-revolution are a reduction in litter collections (litter was already a huge problem in 2008, this makes things worse) and an increase in petty thieving – the ‘catastrophes’ my motocycle chaperone talked about. I myself have noticed two further changes regarding freedom of information: the newspapers are no longer filled with Ben Ali’s fat face and the internet browser I’m currently using has hardcore porn saved as a bookmark.

One post-revolution change that I can certainly attest to is the massive drop in tourist numbers in Tunisia. I’ve met about a dozen other tourists, hotels have been almost totally empty and, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here during Tunisian spring holidays, I’d have felt very alone at times.

There are hopes that this summer will see an increase of tourists compared to last year – but last year was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and in 2011 tourist numbers were down over 30%. That means 3,000 jobs lost. That means more people like Ali and Walid taking to hard drink.

In Sidi Bouzid, there are still streetsellers peddling their carts, there are still beggers outside the mosque, the cafes and streetsides are still packed with young men smoking and old men slapping down cards or dominoes, under- or un-employed. Mohamed Bouazizi’s market still runs, selling post-revolutionary fruit – appetites ignore politics. And of course there’s still the governor, the police and the Garde Nationale, but they’re on our side now, aren’t they?

The infamous government building. The blue banner reads: ’17th December Tunisian revolution of freedom and dignity.’

Turning to more optimistic matters, I think there is an essay to be written about graffiti and freedom. There probably already has been. People graffiti when they are no longer scared and there is definitely more graffiti in Tunisia, post-revolution. Most of it is basic paintwork slogans, like ‘EST’ – a reference to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, one of the big football clubs here. But I have seen more political slogans, most memorably ‘Fuck the police’ (not, I presume, solely a reference to NWA) and ‘Ben Ali a l’enfer’ – ‘Ben Ali go to hell’.

Around the revolutionary monument in Sidi Bouzid, there is more peaceful, commemorative graffiti. It has been left untouched, despite decorating the walls of the local police station and the notorious government building outside which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.

Revolution, liberty, blah, blah, blah.

It should be said in conclusion, to echo my comments at the start of this post, that no conclusion, no judgement is final. Tunisia is still in the delicate phases of post-revolution. One point of note, though, is that these phases have been calmer than those in Libya or even in Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign that Tunisia has more to lose than these other countries. Perhaps it is a sign that, despite the oppressions of Ben Ali’s government, in general things were not so bad.

For a country situated between Algeria and Libya on the continent of Africa, Tunisia is well-developed, well-educated and the people here have it better than many. Tunisia has a literacy rate of 88.9%, compared to Egypt’s 66.4%. Tunisian GDP per capita is $4,200, while in Egypt it is only $2,700. Tunisia might not have the raw wealth of oil-rich Libya, but it does have a society worth preserving, seen in the friendly smiles of the people I pass on my bicycle.

The very least that can be said of the revolution is that power is no longer coalesced in one man, as it was in Ben Ali and in Habib Bourguiba before him. A servant to his country until the very end, Ben Ali fled the revolution for Saudi Arabia, charged with corruption, theft, money laundering and drug trafficking.

No doubt Tunisia is better off without him. But only a couple of days after my trip to Sidi Bouzid, I came face to face with the reality of protest in post-revolution Tunisia.

Cycling to the Sahara: Cemetaries of Civilisation

A grave is sacrosanct. A graveyard, hundreds of individual lives marked by their death, even more so. But most sacred of all are the ruins of an ancient city. These ruins are also a graveyard, not of individual lives, but of an entire civilisation.

The cemetary of a civilisation. Sbeitla, Tunisia.

Graves and graveyards are for remembering. They’re not just convenient places to put dead bodies, away from the living. A gravestone remembers a life after the body is decayed. For the survivors, it is a reminder of the person who lived.

But after a couple of generations that gravestone no longer reminds anyone of the person who lived, but instead inspires an awe of brevity, how important each moment is and how irrelevant. It teaches us that there is something beyond ourselves, a future in which we are long forgotten. That is the power of just one gravestone.

An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetary of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.

In hundreds or thousands of years archaeologists and historians will pick over the bones and stones of our ruins. And it will take hours of scholarly argument for these archaeologists and historians to decide something so simple to us as how the twenty-first century toilet evacuated its waste. To us, it’s almost natural to press down on a lever after we’ve taken a shit. But imagine the future philologist’s delight when he discovers that the contemporary technical word was “flush“.

So imagine the civilisation that’s vanished here. Look at these Roman baths, look at the plumbing under the floor. Can you imagine how it worked?

Roman baths, showing the underfloor heating. Or so we’re told.

Or can you recreate this Roman olive press? Would you even know it was a olive press if I hadn’t told you (and if I hadn’t been told)?

A what? Looks like a bird bath to me.

Can you imagine what the forum was like? Not that it was a market place, where people traded goods, but how people behaved here. What did Romans talk about? The three temples that stand at the head – what went on there? Were people allowed to sit on the steps to watch the hubbub below? Did children play hide and seek among the columns? Or was Roman discipline so tight that they wouldn’t dare?

The Forum. Home to a market and a civilisation.

Once you start interrogating the stones like this, it’s endless. Were the roads smooth, or unevenly paved like today? Did they have problems with litter? Did the citizens greet each other in the street, like in modern Tunisia, or walk on by, heads held down like in London? Who was the best tailor in the city? The best butcher, baker, candlestickmaker?

Where were the rough ends of town, where the footpads and cutpurses roamed? Did old men sit outside their doors and fall asleep in the sun? Were there rats? Or, intriguingly: did they build a museum to an even older civilisation?

These things would have been known and understood from birth by everyone who lived in this city. But we have no idea, no clue whatsoever, we can only guess. Not only their houses and baths are destroyed, but their customs, their habits, their fashions are also gone, completely eviscerated, just as ours will be soon.

And this is why we keep ruins in their cemetaries, why we tend the stones and the paths, why we walk slow, to contemplate our long past and brief future.

Three arches we look through. Past, present and future.

Cycling to the Sahara: On Speed*

An artist’s impression of me on a bicycle.

After flying cross country – Jerba to Tozeur, three days, 15mph average – I was starting to think that I’d earned that kind of speed. My feet were spinning round like happy hamsters on the wheel, I was fit and strong and I was working hard. I earned that speed, dammit.

But the past two days of grinding, creaking roule has reminded me that for long-distance cyclists speed isn’t earned; it’s given. My muscles haven’t been working any less hard in those two days, I swear, but somehow I’ve only managed to average a paltry 11mph.

In this way, cycling less represents driving or even walking as a mode of transport: it is more like sailing. All I can do is put my ship out on the ocean and make sure the sail is up. Everything else, everything else that dictates the speed I travel at, is out of my hands.

For a cyclist this means the wind speed and direction, it means the quality of the road surface and it means the topography through which you’re cycling. All of these things have a greater impact on the speed of travel than how fast I pump my legs round.

A pleasant sight for sore legs: straight downhill.

For example, if I’m grinding along at 10mph into a headwind (as I have for the last two days), then sure I could pedal faster and sprint my speed up to 13mph, but as soon as I collapse back onto the saddle, I’ll be back at 10mph, exhausted. But if the wind would only drop for a second – all of a sudden I’ll be doing 15mph without even trying.

Same goes for hills. Uphill, sometimes I’m down as low as 6mph. Downhill on a good road can be well over 30mph. But if the road surface is bad, then there’s no point risking a fast descent if the pay-off is a broken front fork – or worse. And so downhill can be slow too. Even a slightly less than perfect road can kill you for 2mph.

So speed isn’t earned; it is given. And I’ll be grateful for whatever I get.


* Please note: I am not actually on speed. I am on levothyroxine. Quite enough.

Cycling to the Sahara: Freewheelin’ Jerba to Tozeur

This is going to be one of those fun round-up posts that you all love. Mainly because I’ve got horribly behind on posting. You all think I’m in Jerba still don’t you? Ha! Fools. You should be following me on twitter, then you’d know the dark truth.

I cycled through some of this. East of Matmata.

Another reason why I’m going to save you all the hassle of reading words is because I went back to Matmata and I don’t like to repeat myself. If you want, you can re-read my Matmata Motobylette Man post because I met him again. This time he even offered me a go on his motobylette! I declined gracefully. My legs were still vibrating from climbing the vertical cliff-face onto which Matmata apparently clings.

And some of this. On the road to Douz.

The very next day, I cycled from Matmata to Douz. The road was very straight, very long and rather dusty. I cycled straight past the main road turn-off for Ksar Ghilane – you know, the nice sealed road that I could have taken from Matmata instead of this one. Here I also met some soldiers, apparently confounded by my use of bicycle.

The main purpose of going to Douz, though, was to bring you this photo:

To arrive here! (again). The Sahara.

So there you have it: cycling to the Sahara.

What now?

Some more cycling? Okay then. This time heading north, up to Kebili and then across to Tozeur.

Scared because I’m fleeing the double-headed camel arch in the background. Not because I’m cycling and photographing at the same time.

But before I bring you the star of today’s show, let me share with you one of the road hazards of Tunisia: the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule. These are glass bubbles drilled into the road, just where a cyclist would want to cycle if they didn’t want to get run over. They look like this:

A Tunisian cyclist-death nodule.

But what is particularly cunning about the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule is their unpredictability. After three weeks of careful study, I can tell you that they appear and disappear with a disorder matched in complexity only by chaos theory. And of course, being glass, many of them are smashed, creating a nice cyclist-puncture-death hazard.

To give you a further glimpse of the fatal dangers I face in a desert, here’s a picture of a dead donkey. I don’t know what he died of, but there is an empty beer can resting right next to his rotting gullet. Was he desperately gasping for a last drink – any drink? Or was alcohol abuse the cause of death? We may never know.

Alcohol abuse kills.

But finally to today’s star show: the Chott el-Jerid, otherwise known as the place where “Luke Skywalker contemplated the two moons in the first Star Wars movie”. That’s what my guide book says anyway. I have no idea what that means. To me, it is otherwise known as “that bloody great sea of salt,” which I think is a much more apt description.

Seriously: as far as the eye can see: salt.

Salt. A lot of salty salt salt.

I know it is salt because I stuck my hand into the ground, grabbed myself a lump and tasted it. Salt. Here was more salt than you could imagine. Yes, even more than in a fish and chip shop.

Handful of salt. Grabbed out of the ground under my feet.

Of course, the Tunisian’s aren’t stupid. They don’t stick their hands in to mine this stuff, they have big salt grabbers to get it for them. And Tunisia is the world’s 34th biggest salt producer. An entirely underwhelming statistic given the magnitude of this lake.

Big salt grabbers.

In some parts, the lake does actually have water in it. I’m told that this is because we are still in winter. In the summer, not much water hangs around here.

A little lake of salt.

And so we arrive to the present moment. Consider yourself caught up with. For those of you following me on twitter, you will know what this lump of meat is:

Meat.

The rest of you know what to do.

Cycling to the Sahara: Dinosaurs in the Rain

If you’re ever cycling from Ksar Hallouf to Tataouine, look out for dinosaurs. They can really nip your ankles.

Extinct meets endangered: T-Rex vs cyclist.

If you’re ever cycling from Tataouine to Jerba, look out for the rain. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a desert and it’s been raining. All day.

If you’re ever looking around the Roman ruins of Gightis, watch out for the “hands-on” guide. Uncomfortable invasion of personal space inappropriate in an underground Roman cistern.

A hole into which you should not be tempted. Unless you want to be pressed up against a wall and shown crumbling concrete.

And if you’re ever on Jerba, look out for two clowns called Ali and Walid. They drink beer fast and they don’t like to pay for it.

###

So now I’m on Jerba. It was nice to get on a ferry to the island. Especially a FREE ferry. However, I was under the impression that I only had 10km to cycle across the island to Houmt Souk, Jerba’s main town. So I was horrified when I found out it was 21km. Up hill, into a headwind, on ripped-up roads. The last 8km or so was drifted with sand too, so I had trucks blowing grit into my eyes, my mouth.

But finally I arrived: Paradise Island’s Pearl of the Mediterranean. Me, I was totally underwhelmed. It looked pretty ugly. To be fair, though, I arrived through the bus station. No bus station is ever that nice. Not even in Paradise.

Perhaps not pretty, but one of Tunisia’s two cycle paths.

I am feeling the slave / master reflex a little in Jerba. I am holiday, I should be in total command of my time. But I worry that I should be visiting all the souqs, the fish market, the beach, the synagogue, the fort… And suddenly I’m not the master at all, but a slave to my guidebook.

So instead I go for a tea and an omelette sandwich at a resolutely local cafe.

The cafe is frantic. People urgent, hands pressing an argument, flying prose. Flick of lighters, suck of cigarettes. Short coffees, sugar, go faster. Even the two old men sitting in front of me are apparently having a desperate, life and death conversation about the kind of fabric the cafe chairs are made of. I blame it on the dust. Dust makes everything a little chaotic.

The cafe just happens to be on the main road from Houmt Souk out to the Zone Touristique, where most of the European tourists stay. Lots of taxis are passing, filled with young men and women in revealing clothes, on their way back to the beach. The cafe has suddenly filled up, surrounding me claustrophobically. So I decide to join the young things out on the beach.

Or I try to. I take the road for 10km, but only get as far as a rocky shoreline, blown about with plastic bottles and old crushed cans of beer. Cardboard boxes stick into what ever thin strip of muddy sand there is. Somewhat underwhelming for Paradise, but the sun’s starting to set so I should head back.

Me in a happy drunk’s hat. Shortly before meeting less happy drunks.

Then Ali comes up to me. He seems nice. Tells me the beach is another 10km away. He speaks some English so we chat for a bit about my bike trip. He likes the rips in my shirt sleeves – air-conditioning! Then he introduces me to his brother, Walid. Walid is way more sketchy, he’s erratic and seems convinced that I can speak German. I can not.

Ali and Walid invite me for a drink, a tea or coffee. I tell them I’ve got to get back to Houmt Souk before the sun sets. But I finally, fatefully, agree to a quick cup of tea.

They take me to a hotel bar, but we leave pretty quick. Ali tells me that they didn’t serve tea. This seems unlikely, but fine.

So we go into another bar, where Ali and Walid have a long argument with the waiter, who seems to have some objection or other. Sensing something fishy, I walk out of the bar, back to my bike and – lo and behold! – the waiter has no more objection.

Ali spins a spurious story, saying he’d been trying to procure us an outside table, so I could watch my bike in safety. I ignore his lies and the waiter brings out two beers for the brothers and my tea. And the bill, which I think a little odd. Then the waiter asks for the money upfront. I ignore him. This was a mistake.

At last! The beach? AKA Scene of the crime.

I drink my tea quickly, seeing the sun set. Ali downs his beer and suddenly looks very unwell and very drunk. The waiter brings out two more beers and another bill. He again asks for the money. I say I’ll pay for a tea.

There then follows “a scene,” in which I voluminously object to paying for the brothers’ beer and they insist this is normal practice. The waiter, meanwhile, looks slightly upset.

Unfortunately, I only had a ten dinar note, so the waiter simply gave me change from 8.800 – the cost of the first two beers and the tea. Rather than cause more of “a scene,” I decided to cut my losses there. I am always acutely aware that one vicious blow from the back hand of an irate drunk could cause irreparable damage to my precious bicycle and would rather be down 6 dinar than a bicycle.

I did, however, give the waiter a stern talking to. He shrugged his shoulders and said that Ali had said we were friends. In fairness to the waiter, he did argue with Ali at the start and did ask for money up front.

As I left, Walid had the cheek to ask for a tip for the waiter. Ha!

But, don’t be mistaken: this is not what Tunisia is like. This is resortland, this is where tourists mean money. And when the tourists don’t show up, as they haven’t been since the revolution last year, that means there aren’t any jobs. And when there are no jobs, seems like a lot of kids want to drink beer – but can’t afford their own supply. So what do they do?

###

No, Tunisia is not like this. Tunisia is hot-faced kids working hands like magic wands over street stoves, serving up chapatti filled with salami, cheese, egg, onion, tuna to families and friends. That’s what I love.

Tunisia. Chapattis.

As a side note, being a David abroad has got harder. To people all over the globe, I used to be David Beckham and this time I’ve occasionally maintained my footballing greatness with David Villa, but overwhelmingly it’s been David Cameron.What is sad is that they don’t realise how grievous an insult this is.

Cycling and the Sahara: Ksar Hallouf

Things I’ve learnt today: a prostitute in Medenine costs approximately 78 dinar per hour (about £33). That’s 13 dinar for ten minutes, which is apparently all you need if you’re a Tunisian teenager.

But before we come to that, I feel I should share with you some appellative angst. As you can see from the title of this post, I’m not really sure what to call my little bike ride now that I’ve been to the Sahara. I’m still cycling and I’m still in the desert – and I will be for some time yet, as I intend to pop over to Douz, which is known as the gateway to the Sahara. So how can I be cycling back from the Sahara if I’m yet to arrive at its gateway?

The day started brightly, with me being chased across a desert by a 4×4 containing a deluded campsite owner. He thought I hadn’t paid for my tent. I had. Luckily, this simple assertion was enough to convince him and I continued on my way (into a headwind).

Deluded campsite owners aside, you’ll be pleased to hear that my route out of the Ksar Ghilane was vastly more comfortable than my route in. I hereby recommend the route from Bir Soltane to Beni Khadeche. Only about 10 miles of it is bone-shaking track – and none of it was anywhere near as bad as the best of the Matmata to Bir Soltane version.

Joyous track of painless wonder.

And after that: sublime. The road swerved through a valley dropped with mountains, lined with flowers, filling my nostrils with their sweetness. At this point, I should roll out a few evocative flower names to tantilise your senses. But all I know is that there was a purple one and a yellow one and they smelt good.

The only point of anguish on the road was when my left sandal slipped from the pedal at about 10mph. The pedal continued its mechanically ordained trajectory, racing down and round to bite mercilessly deep into my achilles tendon. Blood bursts in abundance. Another scar for the collection. Like a Roman chariot with scythed wheels, my pedals have sharp metal spikes. I’m sure the manufacturers would argue that they are for extra grip, but I’m convinced the designer was a malicious sadist.

Shuddering to a eye-watering halt, I notice then that my front basket had torn through its moorings and was now dangling, like a ten-year-old’s milk tooth, by a single strand.

But nothing can distract from the beauty of a good bike ride.

Ksar Hallouf, palmerie.

And so I made it in good time to Ksar Hallouf, a pretty little palmerie perched in a valley. To describe a ksar as a granary would be both factually inaccurate and a gross misrepresentation. A ksar is a fortified village, but it is true that often the distinctive architectural feature of the ksar are its granaries.

At Ksar Hallouf, the fortified part of town is up a gigantic mountain, far above the little palmerie where the townsfolk live now. I only mention this because I was led to believe that you could stay overnight in the granaries up there, so hauled my bike and all my possessions up this vertical cliff-face. When I got to the top, drenched in sweat, a guardian appeared to inform me that all the only accommodation was down below in the palmerie.

The granaries of Ksar Hallouf.

Back down in the palmerie, I stayed with Saada and Mahamad in their little pension, fancifully reconstructed ancient granaries. Mohamad is 20 and the seventh child of 3 brothers and 3 sisters. After lunch, he took me on a walk in the mountains above the oasis.

Mahamad on top of a ksar, with a legha.

As we walked, we talked. Nothing was off the agenda: house prices, football, drugs and of course the prostitutes of Medenine. He’d only been to her once – it was too expensive. Not as expensive as the other option, though: getting married. A wedding costs 4,000 dinar and involves feeding about 300 guests. A cheap house for the newly weds would be about 10,000 dinar. He’s going to have to wait ten years at least before getting married – and that means ten years before any regular sex. He listened with jealous wonder as I told him how it was in England.

Berber shepherd sleep hole.

Mahamad showed me where the berber shepherds sleep and where they keep water in underground gullies. He showed me two more ruined ksour (plural of ksar). Mahamad picked a bunch of herbs for tea and taught me all their names in Arabic. Taught might be a bit of a strong word, for it implies some sort of retention in the mind of the learner. He cropped me a strip of palm tree to use as a walking stick (in Arabic, a legha – I remembered that one). He also gave me a pair of flints used by berber shepherds to make fire and a porcupine spine.

Allah.

Then he told me that the police have all the marijuana at the moment and asked me if I could bring him a girl from England next time.

I tried to explain that there’s usually more to it than that.

Cycling to the Sahara: Ksar Ghilane (Happy)

So without further ado, and before you all start thinking that I’m having a miserable time worrying about the hideous environmental impact of tourism, here is the Ksar Ghilane happy post.

I’M IN THE FREAKING SAHARA!

The Sahara.

Hurrah.

(Or, as some of you have noticed: I was in the Sahara. But because there is no internet in the middle of the world’s greatest desert, these words, although conceived in the deepest Sahara, were not uploaded for your delectation until now.)

So I cycled all the way from my house in London (ahem) to the Sahara desert (ahem). Okay, so I only cycled from Caterham to Vernouillet and then from Tunis to the Sahara. But still.

Anyway, my point is that it really isn’t far. If you count only miles in Tunisia then I’d be on about 500 miles. That’s nothing! And it includes a totally unnecessary detour of about 80-120 miles around the Cap Bon. Theoretically, you could catch a train from London to Marseille (careful), hop on a boat (careful) and cycle to the Sahara in a week.

What I’m saying is: you should do this.

No, not this. This is just an artfully placed camel.

The Saharan desert is like nothing else on earth. Despite all the tourist petrol rubbish, it takes only a few steps out into the dunes, out into the great sand sea, to feel like the first annointed saint, the first man on the moon, the last man on earth.

Whatever. If you aren’t interested, you aren’t interested. I’ll entertain you instead. By showing you some pictures of men riding on horses. Upside down.

Man riding horse. Upside down. At high speed, I should add.

You see, I appear to have landed in Ksar Ghilane at the time of the Spring Festival. I’m not convinced this is a good thing, especially when my afternoon siesta ( = post-cycle wipeout) is interrupted by a loudspeaker turned up way past 11. Somewhat grumpily, then, I crawl out of my berber tent to learn what the fuss is about. But it would take a heart of iron not to be charmed by the sight of a six-week old baby in the arms of a tuareg horseman riding through the oasis. At 40mph.

Men holding hands. On horses. At high speed.

Aside from the attractions of the desert (4x4s notwithstanding), the attractions of men showing off on horseback and the attractions of European men in tight shorts with their guts out, the oasis also boasts a hot spring. Despite its name, the hot spring is actually luke warm. It is also slightly mineral and very sandy.

Spring. Steaming.

When I ventured into the luke-warm shallows, the spring was populated by impertinent schoolboys from Douz. Impertinent only by English standards, I should add. All Tunisians are impertinent by English standards. Everyone here asks me if I’m alone. I thought one kid was saying hello. “Alo? Alo?” he said. “Hello!” I replied cheerily. “No, a-low!”

A musical interlude.

But the oasis is a small place – everyone knows that I am alone. There’s only one long-haired, stripily-tanned Englishman in this place that I’ve seen. It’s just that they can’t believe it. They think there must be a story behind it. Perhaps my wife is ill. Perhaps she is following behind. Perhaps she is waiting for me in Douz. No. I am alone. Totally alone. Will be for the whole two months. And I’m on a bicycle. Yes, a bicycle with pedals. No motor. Yes I am cycling on it. Through Tunisia, yes. And then back through France to London. Yes alone. Totally alone.

Alone. Upside down. In the Sahara. Hurrah.

Cycling to the Sahara: Ksar Ghilane (Moany)

This should be some sort of triumphant Saharan-arrival post, but I forgot to take a photograph of me and my bicycle in the sand, so you’ll just have to wait a while for that.

Instead, I’m going to moan on about the misery of petrol-based transport and overweight European men in tight shorts.

To which I think we can all say: yuk.

Ksar Ghilane is an oasis on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the great sand seas of the Sahara. It is a miracle. It is also a tourist hot spot, being both easily accessible (if you don’t cycle) and astonishingly beautiful.

Free hot springs at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

I have been to Ksar Ghilane once before, in 2008. In four years it has developed a great deal. I don’t remember seeing so many campsites or so many vehicles or so many petrolheads and tourists last time. Beer, bikinis, men in tight shorts, guts out. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also costly for the sustainability of the oasis. Water is tight and Europeans (me included) loooove water.

But despite the plentiful supply of Europeans, I feel more alone here in Ksar Ghilane than anywhere else I’ve been so far, for two reasons.

Firstly, all the other tourists are in big groups, roving gangs of Italians, Germans and Tunisians all trying to look cool. The employees aren’t much better it seems to me, all sunglasses and crazy stubble beards.

Secondly, everyone else is into one thing and one thing only: pissing about on petrol machines. Quads or bikes or 4x4s. It’s disgusting. Even people you might expect to have an appreciation for the sanctity of the desert. I spoke to one teacher whose eyes lit up recalling her morning on a quad bike. “It’s addictive,” she said. When I said I didn’t like petrol meachines, she admitted that they did rather break the serenity. No shit.

4x4s at Ksar Ghilane.

I resent the noise of the engines, I resent the smell of the diesel, I resent the damage that you can see scarred into the sand. But these people are on holiday, the locals are earning a living and everyone is having fun. Unthinking or uncaring, I know not which.

And, to be fair, driving about on dunes is fun. It is right there, petrol fun: speed, beauty, excitement. It makes you laugh and cry out with thrilling excitement. And the buzz stays with you.

But there’s not much more you can say for it than that. It’s a thrill. It’s not going to teach you much and it costs the environment, but it’s a thrill.

Swarming invasion of quad bikes.

Walking in the desert, by comparison, is a quieter sort of thrill. There is the thrill of being amongst the dunes. There is the thrill from the silence (while it lasts from the 4x4s and quads and bikes). There’s the thrill from the emptiness and the magnitude. And it costs comparatively little.

Walking in the desert doesn’t give you the exhausting, exhilarating thrill of quad bikes. It gives you a vibrating thrill of awe in the sublime joy of nature. You could get the thrill of quad biking on the Oxfordshire downs (and people do: swap sand for mud, sun for cloud and Tuareg for chavs – it’s the same damn thing). The desert does not add much to the quad-biking experience because desert beauty is quiet and difficult. Quads take that away. Walking, on the other hand, does not.

Walking through the dunes.

So I walked across the dunes to a ruined fort. Most people come out here in 4x4s, quad bikes or motorbikes. I remember driving here in a 4×4 myself in 2008, staggering round half asleep, scared my camera would stick up in the sand, taking photos through a plastic bag. It seems absurd, sad even. But I walked here this time. It only took about 45 minutes.

Not many others walk here. But why not?

Only when walking can you see the flowers close up, precious gifts of the spring. The sandfall trickle down the dunes, dispersed by your feet. Unexplained hard nodules of sand butting out into the wind. The trails of the scarab beetles and sand ants, propped up on huge stilt legs. The tracks of camels, occasional footprints. Sadly less than occasional tyre tracks. Dunes so big you disappear into them. The cool of the shade-side sand. The heat as your leg sinks into the dune slopes. The sun working on your imagination. The dunes like waves on the sea, making it impossible to tell how far you still have to go. The fort disappearing into the distance, seeming further away than ever.

Desert flowers.

Then suddenly it’s there in front of you. And you see the 4x4s gunning their engines to drive up the steep sand slopes, so nobody even needs to walk up the last 25 metres.

4x4s. Camels. Walkers.

Sermon over. Next time: Happy post.

Cycling to the Sahara: The Road to Ksar Ghilane

Matmata: another man with a 4×4 offers me a desert Safari.
‘No, thanks,’ I reply. ‘I’m cycling to Ksar Ghilane on my bicycle tomorrow.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You know the best way is down this road. More direct than the main route.’
‘Really?’ I ask.
‘Yes, yes. Over the jebel, then – ‘ he makes a motion with his hand as if it’s all down hill from there.
I’m slightly nervous as the road he indicates is not marked on my drawn-from-space road map. So I ask: ‘Is it signed?’
‘Yes, yes. It is direct to a roundabout, turn right and arrive Bir Soltane – after that Ksar Ghilane.’

So, always happy to avoid a main road, I vow to follow his advice.

The next day, it takes me approximately ten minutes to recognise the truth of Tolkein’s aphorism that short cuts make long delays.

Less a road, more one extended pot hole.

The “road” that led over the jebel was, well, I think even a 4×4 would have had trouble to be honest. I certainly didn’t see any attempting it. To cross it on a fully-laded touring bicycle was nerve-shredding. As the front wheel stacked into deep road-scars, I’d wince as the back wheel crunched down with the full weight of my baggage. Every moment I expected to hear the crack of spokes snapping. Up hill was dragging slow, but the down hills were only more dangerous.

And – is it signed, my arse! Unless by “signs” he meant “old men on donkeys” of whom I encountered two, both appearing at critical moments. Once as I pondered turning back at the sight of miles and miles of up and down hills tracked only by treacherous washed-out roads, pot holes the size of meteor craters. And the other when I reached the “roundabout” of my guide’s description. Is it signed? No it is not signed. At all. It’s a T-junction with a choice of east or west. That’s it.

But at least the road surface after the junction is better. If I could reach the road surface, that is. Unfortunately it is covered in an inch of sand, so the bike can only manage about ten metres of swerves before I have to dig the tyres out of the dune. Still, I’d rather swerves than the potential death of the pot holes.

I tell a lie: there was ONE sign. But look at that sand!

This “road” to Ksar Ghilane is also guarded by ten dogs. Thankfully, they were only barkers, not chasers. I think they were gobsmacked to see a cyclist to be honest. Only one shepherd’s dog put in a half-hearted chase.

I didn’t get lost at any point on this “road”, but I think that is only because to be lost you must have had some idea of where you were in the first place. I didn’t see more than ten people all day – a few flocks of sheep and two camels – but not many people who could guide me.

Huh? Is this the Sahara or the Cotswolds?

When I saw a shepherd boy on a donkey, I dumped my bike at the side of the road and marched across the sand towards him. He climbed down off his donkey and started over to me. We met in the middle.
“You are alone?” he asked, after comfirming that this was indeed the road to Bir Soltane. “Very difficult,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

The “road” surface was mainly spine-crunching stones about the size of a baby’s head. Every bounce and crack a brief panic at the idea of getting a puncture – or worse, that my wheel spokes would snap at the strain. The surface and the care that I took with it meant that I couldn’t exactly enjoy the view. After the mountains, it would be fair to say that there wasn’t much view to enjoy anyway.

Stark. Featureless. Bumpy.

Every now and then I’d cross a waterless wadi, turned into a sea of gravel. I’d need to push across, of course.

After “cycling” through this god-blasted land for 26.08 miles at an average speed of just 8.1mph, I finally reached the main road to Ksar Ghilane, where the 4x4s roar.

Hurrah – only another 28 miles to go! Into a 14mph headwind.

I’ve never been so glad to see a proper road in my life.

Cycling to the Sahara: To MP3 or not to MP3?

Long-distance cycling will always, at some point, become an arduous task. Whether it’s Tunisia’s flat expanses of eye-watering desert or the hard shoulder of the A1, there will come moments when every turn of the pedals seems a pointless trial of will.

Long, straight, dull.

At these moments, it is tempting to push aside the present and to try to make time pass faster by plugging in your headphones and listening to something totally dislocated from now.

The juxtaposed sound of Bob Dylan crying about racial murder in Louisiana or spiral rhythms dropping from the decks of a DJ in Bristol can bring an odd comfort to cycling on a bleached-out main road in Tunisia, as trucks torment me with their dust-devil exhaust pipes, the sun soddens my shirt and the squeaky crank of my sand-choked chain drills into my brain.

But dislocating by MP3 is not all good. Music focuses the mind on the subject or the mood of the song. This is great if you are in trouble (I whole-heartedly believe that Nashville Skyline saved my life when I was cycling through northern France with a broken bike at 4am in the morning), but where would your thoughts take you if you were cycling in silence? What could you learn, what could you understand for yourself?

I haven’t used my MP3 player the last two days – not even on the 136km main road from Sfax to Gabes. I preferred fantasy and my own thoughts. At the risk of sounding like I’m going insane, I have conversations. Not just with myself, but with my friends. These are real conversations: they make me laugh. I wouldn’t possibly laugh out loud if I was just making up these conversations on my own. No, my friends are there with me, telling jokes.

In Tunisia, it also feels rude to have headphones on, certainly when going through towns and villages. Every person you pass on the road expects and offers a greeting. It is hard to greet someone when you’re listening to heavy metal and conversation is impossible.

I shall keep my MP3 player. If nothing else, it is good for blocking out the snoring coming from the hotel room next door. But I am certainly using it far less on the road. The birds are calling to me…

Cycling to the Sahara: Matmata Motobylette Man

Story goes: I cycled to Matmata, a small town dug into the ground on the way to the Sahara. In the seventies, George Lucas sprinkled tourist-gold over the town by filming Star Wars there. Henceforth the town was cursed to be a place of pilgrimmage for cultic cinema-goers wishing to see the spot where a fictional character wasn’t born.

Matmata le jour.

For me, it was a nice spot to stop after a big day of cycling the day before. So I sat on a wall overlooking a green-coated wadi, watching the sun fall between two palm trees as the mosque gave the dusk call to prayer.

A young man barks up on a motobylette behind me. A motobylette is essentially a bicycle with a motor gaffa-taped on the back. He greets me. I flinch, instinctively.

I flinch because it is customary in Matmata for locals to tout tourists for business. It is all part of the curse. This business involves invading the privacy of various put-upon residents for the purpose of ogling their homes / Star Wars sets, ostensibly on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tataouine. I hope this makes sense to some of you readers, because I had no idea what they were talking about.

The Millenium Falcon. Oh no, it’s a bicycle. And my foot.

The other business is desert touring. Everyone here seems to own a stable of camels, horses, 4x4s, quad bikes, motorbikes and numerous other conveyances to rent for the purpose of desert safari. These propositions are usually fairly swiftly dealt with.
“You want tour of desert?”
“No thanks, I’m going there alone.”
“Oh, you have 4×4?”
“No. I have a bicycle.”
“Ah, yes, okay – I put bicycle on car and into Sahara.”
“No, I’m cycling there myself.”
At which point the proposition usually founders.

Good cycling terrain.

Anyway, once the propositions are over, quite often these men just want to chat.

So the young man on the motobylette told me that he was from the Gdouma clan and that I was staying in the Gdouma clan area of Matmata. Apparently, the Gdouma clan are found only here in Matmata and in Senegal. And in Canada, but mainly in Matmata and Senegal.

Why? I ask. And so motobylette man tells me the story of the Gdouma clan.

A long time ago, a Gdouma man travelled to Matmata across the Sahara from Senegal. He fell in love with the beautiful Matmata women and stayed. He married and had children and his children had children and their children had children and so on. Over the years, the Gdouma skin grew whiter and whiter, until today they are indistinguishable from their neighbours. Now the motobylette man lives just 14km from where the first Gdouma man arrived all those years ago.

I ask him if he’ll ever go to Senegal, to visit his ancestors – he could take his motobylette. He objects, saying he’ll run out of gasoil – Tunisia is not a rich country, it has no gasoil. So sell the motobylette and take a camel, I say. He laughs. I’m not joking. He says he’d rather go to Canada, but the government won’t let him.

An old man rolls up at this point and sends motobylette man off to buy some bread. The old man sits down on the wall next to me.

A few minutes later, motobylette man returns. He failed to find bread for the old man. There’s only one baker in town and he only bakes enough bread for the inhabitants of Matmata, about 2000 people. If it runs out, it runs out. At the moment there are a lot of Tunisian tourists here because of the holidays and they’ve eaten all the townspeople’s bread! Part of the curse, again.

The old man gets up and goes off to the shop to buy flour so that his wife can make bread at home. You see, the man and the wife work together to make bread. The man buys the flour and the woman bakes, motobylette man tells me.

He’s never seen Matmata so green, not in 14 years. Normally there is very little rain, but right now there is a dusting of green over everything. Shrubs sprouting everywhere. Purple and yellow flowers rooting and blooming – from nowhere, it looks like. Later, someone tells me that twenty days ago it even snowed in Matmata. I don’t believe that, but the next morning, when I see the town hung with mist, I think perhaps it’s true.

Snow?

Motobylette man says there are few European tourists here at the moment, perhaps because of the economic crisis. And if there is crisis in Europe, he says, then in Tunisia there is death. And he laughs. He tells me that he is guide, but also not guide. I think he means he is an unlicensed guide. Most people here work with tourists in one way or another. You can see there is nothing else here, motobylette man says: no agriculture, nothing. We must do better, he says. Then he invites me for a coffee or a tea, but for me it’s dinner time.

As I go to my earthwork hotel, the old man walks past with his bag of flour.

Matmata la nuit.

Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going. Continue reading Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

Cycling to the Sahara: The Vanishings of Kasr el-Jem

Was it an elaborate hoax, devised to ensnare gulled travellers? Or could it be a mirage in the minds of weary-sickened tourists? And yet The Internet insists it exists… The hoax runs deep.

I arrived in el jem very hot and sweaty (as expected). I cycled immediately to the only hotel in the town. According to my guide book, the only point in its favour was that it was easily found, being located directly next to the train station. This didn’t bode well for a comfortable stay (“surly” was the epithet the guide book chose), but at least a stay I would have.

I did indeed easily find the train station. But of the hotel there was no sign. Even after three tours of the curious architectural sculpture that adorns the square in front of the majestic train station, I still couldn’t find the damned surly hotel.

Not a hotel. Neither can it be called a sculpture. It’s just a piece of masonry.

So I asked a local, who was just falling off his moped. He nodded and shook his head and waved his hand around, seeming to indicate a complicated set of cycling instructions. “No, no,” I insist, “the hotel is near to the station!”

A friendly English speaker intervenes at this points and translates the terrible truth: the surly hotel has closed down. Its easy-to-find location was clearly not enough. “But happily,” he goes on to translate, “there is another hotel a little way out of town, just two or three kilometres.” Excellent news. “What’s it called?” I ask. “Ksar el-Jem, the Palace of El-Jem.” And the man gives me detailed instructions: head for the main road to Sousse (the one I had studiously avoided on my way in), past the gas station and it’s right there – two or three kilometres only.

And so I set off.

With bear cycling instinct, I find the road to Sousse first time. Borne on the same strong wind that I’d fought my way through to get here, I am highly gratified when I fly past a gas station after about 2 or 3 kilometers. But I see no hotel, palace or otherwise.

I stop and ask a group of people inspecting a broken down moped, a moto they call them. One of them claps me on the arm and points further down the road. “Hotel? Yes, yes. There is: two or three kilometres – on the left.” I thank him and press onward. As I fly past the crossed out el-Jem sign, I decide that the first man must have meant two or three kilometres out of town.

I cycle on and on, seeing nothing remotely like a hotel. In fact, they appear to be farm buildings, wheat silos and the odd mechanics. I must say it doesn’t look promising, as the dust scuds into my face from the barrelling rumble of construction lorries and the sun sinks its teeth into my neck.

Then I pass a huge billboard announcing: Hotel Club Kasr el-Jem, and showing off its keyhole swimming pool. Truth be praised! There’s no indication on the billboard of where the Kasr is, but I must be on the right track. And so I faithfully persist in pedalling.

I end up cycling four miles without seeing a hotel. I stop and ask a soldier who’s just climbed out of a coriander truck. He shakes my hand, happily, repeating after me: “El-Jem, el-Jem,” while pointing redundantly down the road back to the town. I guess he doesn’t understand I mean Kasr el-Jem, the hotel.

I shout over at some workmen who had been wolf whistling at me. One of them saunters over, smiling sheepishly. I ask him for Kasr el-Jem. He seems to understand me, but still points back down the road. “Two or three kilometres. Yes,” he says, firmly. Okay. This is possible, I have come a long way down this dusty road. So I start cycling back towards town. Perhaps the hotel was in the building where that billboard was. It looked like a wheat processing plant, but you never know…

So I stop at the billboard to ask some farm workers. “Buongiorno!” they shout back, confusedly. I ask them for the Kasr el-Jem hotel. “Yes, Kasr el-Jem – two or three kilometres,” they say, pointing in the direction of el-Jem. Hmm. I’m beginning to get a little pissed off with this hotel, so I vow to ask every single person I see.

I stop at a café, just inside el-Jem city limits. “Kasr el-Jem? Yes!” he says, promisingly. He stops smoking a dead chicken on a barbeque, leads me onto the road and points back the way I’ve just come. “500 meters,” he says. Well, I think, that’s so specific that it must be right! “With a door like this,” he adds, indicating a huge blue studded door ahead of us. 

With my tail up and a close eye on my odometer, I cycle back out of town again. I stop at the first building I see with a huge blue studded door and wheel my bike inside the compound. It doesn’t look promising, I have to say – motorbike and car parts litter the ground. Some are fixed up on the outer walls of the white pasted building. It could be décor?

So I shout over to a couple of men working on a car. One of them comes over. “Kasr el-Jem hotel?” I ask, in my best Arabic. He waves his hand back in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres,” he says. I slap my cycle helmet in disbelief. “Impossible!” I refuse to accept his judgement and repeat myself in a kaleidoscope of every language I know: “Hotel Kasr el-Jem, nuzul Kasr el-Jem, l’hotel Kasr el-Jem!” But he is adamant, flapping his hands towards the town: “Yes, yes! Two or three kilometres!” I shake my head. He leads me to the road again and firmly shoves me in the direction of town. “Two or three kilometres!” I look at him hopelessly one last time. “On the left or on the right?” But he doesn’t understand: “No, straight on. Two or three kilometres.”

So I give up and have to cycle back past all the helpful people who tried to direct me to this damnedably mythical hotel.

Cycling to the Sahara: Farmyard Animals

Yesterday was supposed to be a short day. Starting early from Sousse, I should have arrived at my destination by about lunchtime with plenty of time to mosey around the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem.

The amphitheatre at El Jem. From below.

But given the nature of this trip so far, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I only arrived at my destination at 22.30, 70km from where I expected to be.

On the plus side, I did get a guided tour around a Tunisian farm, near Ghanada.

This is me and Ali. He insisted I take photographs of all his animals. So I did.

There were sheep. And peacocks.

And geese.

And a cow (mother). And a calf. Indulging in some light petting.

These chaps were fricking awesome. Hamdi picked me up of the side of the road and near dragged me in for a cup of tea. He introduced me to Ali (above, with his seven month old calf, his ‘marriage’) and Khaled, a young fella who worked for the Garde Nationale and drove a tractor.

They fed me yoghurt fresh from their cow (above), bread fresh from their oven and an enormous egg fresh from one of their geese (above) and we all watched the National Geographic channel together. Then we went on a tour with the camera around their thousand tree olive grove and inspected all the animals. Love this place!

Anyway, I apologise for the somewhat episodic nature of this post, but here is the news in brief:

Hammamet

Disasterous room. The shower instantly floods its feeble curtain, flows merrily into the bathroom, seeps under the door frame and out into the wider bedroom beyond. This seems to come as standard in Tunisian hotels, but this particular shower comes with a cold tap that you can’t turn off. It turns ON all right, but not off. So I had to switch off at the mains, which means that I can’t flush the toilet – unless I’m also having a shower.

Furthermore, the TV when switched on makes a whirring noise, gives off a sparking flash and then nothing. And only two lights work. Otherwise it’s great. Oh and there are no windows, except onto a closed-in courtyard. And the muezzin sounds at about 5.30am. And I wake up freezing cold at midnight. Otherwise…

Traffic

There is an immense amount of heavy goods traffic in Tunisia. I don’t understand it, but they seem to be building vast cities at every turn. However, I have found it is possible to enjoy choking in the dust of a truck or lorry – my favourite are the ones carrying huge bubls of fennel. The air is most delightfully fragrant in their wake. My least favourite has to be the ones stacked with crates of chickens. The stench of poultry excrement lingers most persistantly.

Cheering Crowds

I love cycling in Tunisia. People honk horns joyfully and give me the thumbs up or wave. One driver leapt out of his seat and started blowing kisses at me. Too many people stare sometimes, but there is a wonderful reflex in Tunisian people that, once greeted, they must reciprocate. So all I do is wave or salaam and they return with a smile.

The Saha-who?!

In Haouria, I first told a Tunisian of my evil plan to cycle to the Sahara. A waiter asked me where I was going on my tour. I told him around the Cap Bon. He nodded. Then I added: ‘I hope to cycle to the Sahara as well.’ ‘The Sahara?’ he queried. ‘Yes!’ I replied. He just slapped his forehead and brought me a free plate of French fries.

Next time, I promise to introduce some characters, including Yasser the drunk from Gabes, Wa’el the drunk from Lebanon and Mohammed the drug-dealer from Sousse. Lovely chaps, all.

Cycling to the Sahara: Two Coffee Cups

I arrived in Hammamet exactly the way I expect to arrive in every single town that I come to: sweaty, tired and slightly bewildered.

On arrival in any town, therefore, primary goal number one is to find a hotel, where I can stable my bicycle for the night and give myself a thorough wash down. Quite often, I’ll even pull up outside town to look at the guide book for my target hotel. It doesn’t look cool to be head-in-book in a strange new town (for the importance of looking cool, see yesterday’s shabaab story).

This is all preamble, to introduce you to primary goal number one: find a hotel. I shall now go onto demonstrate its tragic flaw, by means of the parable of the two coffee cups, a true story.

Arriving in Hammamet, sweaty, tired, slightly bewildered, I’m heading for the Dar al-Shabaab, the Maison des Jeunes, the Youth Hostel. Everything is going fine (except the bit where a shabaab gets down on his haunches to tinker with my brakes – I have no idea what that’s about). Quite according to form, I zip straight past the youth hostel and cycle on for about a mile (up hill, into headwind) before realising. But eventually I do find the place and – it’s full.

As I slink back to my bicycle and my uncool guide book, a young Tunisian woman of about eighteen approaches me and suggests I try the tourist information office: “They have a list of all the hotels and how much they cost,” she tells me. “Thanks very much,” I say, trying to look cool, “but I have a guide book.”

She shrugs and crosses the road to a café, her mother now in tow. I note the address of another cheap hotel and start to wheel my bike into the road. Then the young woman approaches me again: “Would you like to join me and my mother at the café for a drink?” I obviously look uncertain, because she feels compelled to add: “Just to talk a little.”

Now my immediate reaction is negative, standard social anxiety. I push against this snap-reaction: social anxiety is exactly the reason I should say yes – go where the danger is! But my brain wrestles back: No, primary goal number one, remember? So I say to the woman, in my blunt French: “I want to find a hotel.” She says “Okay” and returns to the café. I last see her sitting down at the table, looking over at me.

It doesn’t take me long to realise that I’m a chump and I really should have said yes and hang primary sodding goal number one. How many more times on this trip is a young Tunisian woman going to ask me to take a coffee with her and her mother? Never again, most likely. And it’s only three thirty; I could just as easily have found a hotel at four thirty. And what’s the worst that could have happened if I’d said yes? She and her mum might have ganged up and raped me? Seriously! Chump.

But anyway, I cycle on, find a hotel and take a shower. I’m wonderfully clean, but still a chump. So I hasten back to the café, thinking up words of schoolboy French to reintroduce myself. My excitement mounts as I draw closer, mind working up scenarios of hospitality and good humour.

But all in vain. By the time I get back to the café, only half an hour after leaving them, all that is left are two empty coffee cups.

I took a photo to remind myself: never leave two empty coffee cups, leave three.

Gone.

Cycling to the Sahara: Beards and the Shabaab

For the sake of my future security on this trip I think I need to grow a big manly beard. You know, the kind that big manly adventurers are wont to port.

This is not because I feel that I am deserving of the adventurer’s big manly beard, nor in fact do I mean to suggest that I am currently engaged on a big manly beardy adventure. Far from it: the sun is shining and the roads are flat. No, the reason I am desirous of a big manly adventure beard is because today I was the subject of sexual advances from a shabaab on a moped who thought I was a woman.

Undeterred despite being disabused of this fact – had he not seen my leg hair? – the desperate youth went on to suggest that man-on-man sex was better anyway. I politely declined this further invitation, whereupon he stole my walkman from my top pocket. Slightly distressed, I appealed to his better nature, whereupon he stole the bag from my front basket and drove off.

I feel that none of this would have happened had I been sporting a big manly beard. This impudent youth would never have dared rob a real beard – a beard that spoke of death-match wrestles with grizzly bears, a beard that hinted at dark days hacking through tarantula-infested jungles, a beard that sung songs of violent tempests and nightmarish sandstorms overcome by sheer force of will and beardy fortitude.

In this moment of desolation, as I watched my camera, books, passport and typewriter disappear down a hill, I cursed my razor and howled bloody vengeance on all fresh-faced highwaymen on mopeds.

Before I let this tale get too dramatic, I should point out that the shameful youth only drove a little way down the hill, before turning around and handing me back my bag and walkman. ‘I’m just playing with you,’ he said with a cackle. Playing or no, I think a beard would have helped avoid this unsettling occasion in the first place.

What helped me recover was the nice old man in a van who stopped up the road, turned around, checked that I was okay, then proceeded to tail me up the hill for a mile or so just to make sure.

So the truth is that Tunisians are still awesomely friendly. The problem comes when this awesome friendliness meets rambunctuous testosterone frustrations in the shabaab, who smile even as they torment you.

But what harm was done by this little escapade? None that I can see, only lessons. I learnt how vulnerable I really am on a bicycle. I learnt that perhaps I should tie down my bag to the basket. I learnt to appreciate how much I am relying on the unremmitting kindness, relentless patience and righteous morality of every person I meet, everywhere I go.

I also got a nice little story and isn’t that the purpose of life, to collect nice little stories?

Bir Mroua: A story in itself. Yes, that is a blue supermouse.

(Finally) Cycling to the Sahara!

I have a few early observations about cycling in Tunisia, which I shall set down here as amusement for those wise enough never to do such a thing and as warning for those stupid enough to try.

1. There are some red lights that Tunisian drivers obey. This came as something of a shock, I must confess. Obviously, as in any country, this doesn’t apply to taxi drivers.

2. The biggest risk for accidents comes from pedestrians. As the sacred cow in India, the Tunisian pedestrian is apt to wander into the road without warning, causing sharp braking all around. Other risks include taxis swerving kerbside to pick up passengers and the presence (in Tunis) of tram rails, neatly tyre-width sized for maximum danger.

3. There are other cyclists in Tunisia. But in this country, bicycles are mostly used for going the wrong way up one-way streets.

4. Despite this, I did notice that in Tunisia, one cycles on the right hand side of the road.

5. Tunisian sense of distance isn’t highly developed. I asked a local: “How far is the Olympic stadium?”
(The Olympic stadium at this point is at most 3km away – I checked on a map later.)
Answer: “10 kilometres.”
In fairness to the chap telling me this, he probably understood:

6. If you are cycling without a map and without a compass, expect to ride at least three times the distance to your destination, probably up hill, certainly into a head wind. This applies not just in Tunisia.

7. Thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia, alcohol-wise, there is very little to fear from smashed bottles of Heineken on the side of the road. However, thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia’s finances, there is plenty to fear in the form of pot-holes, unifinished road-works and mysteriously dumped piles of cement.

8. An important aspect of Tunisian driving etiquette is a sort of conversation undertaken by use of the car horn. Unfortunately, with just a bicycle bell, I’m only talking to myself.

9. A blonde, long-haired, white man on an apparently modern bicycle is an unusual sight in Tunisia. I’m not sure if they were admiring glances, looks and stares, but the general opinion was “w’allah!”

10. Other than these observations, cycling in Tunis is not unlike cycling in London. One needs ones wits and a healthy dose of good fortune to come back alive, but when one does, great celebrations are in order. Put celebrations on stand-by.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Boats

Getting hit over the head by a palm tree is new for me on this trip. But one thing isn’t: public transport delays. You read my earlier piece about trains, right? Okay, well do me a favour and read it again, but this time wherever you see the word “train” or “trains”, insert the word “boat” or “boats”. You can do this using the search and replace function in Word or OpenOffice.

Doing this will save me the bother of writing a whole new post about the universe’s conspiracies to prevent me from getting to the Sahara. This time the universe decided to detonate a WWII bomb in the port of Marseille, which is frankly ridiculous, even by the universe’s standards. This delayed us for a slightly enervating five hours. As if that wasn’t enough, when we finally did make it (almost) to Tunis, an Italian cruiser had the temerity to be in port, delaying us for a further hour.

Waiting. Observe the bicycles in transit on the van. I mistakenly take this as a good sign.

We finally arrived in Tunis at about 3.30pm, a full 31 hours after I arrived at the port of Marseille on Saturday morning. Still, I managed 9 patisseries on Saturday alone (5 croissants and 4 pain au chocolat), saving one pain au choc for Sunday breakfast, squeezed down between bouts of extreme nausea. I’m not sure why, but as soon as I got up that morning, I might as well have been on the Nemesis at Alton Towers. I remedied things by going back to sleep.

Aside from the tragedy/farce of my public transport difficulties, the journey itself was pretty good. Particularly after I found the bar, where they were showing the Six Nations rugby. I don’t even like rugby, but it was fun hearing Frenchmen swear every time Italy fumbled the ball in their match against Wales.

Unfortunately, this oasis of entertainment on an otherwise make-your-own-fun kind of boat was not long-lived. At half-time in the following Ireland-Scotland game suddenly the TV flashed to black. We look at each other, the guys sitting around watching. Then: disco lights snap on, tangoing drunkenly over the wooden dancefloor in front of us. Surely not? It’s only five to seven – surely too early for a disco?

Nope. A man goes behind a desk and starts setting up what can only be a DJ booth. The men around me stay staring at the blank screen. Nothing happens. No one else is laughing. We sit, flat faced. We will be entertained now, for it is seven o’clock. We will be entertained.

A beat starts over the speakers. The DJ has glasses and a bald patch, wearing a terribly unfashionable Puma t-shirt. He pulls out some CDs and nervously tweaks the volume of the music. The disco lights, pink and green dazzle and tease a trio of white-haired grizzled Frenchmen with tiny espressos and firmly folded arms. Not impressed.

The waiter is the only one crossing the dancefloor. I wonder what people would make of it if I went up and danced? I suspect that I’m the only non-French or Tunisian here. I’ve seen a few other independent tourists with the French version of the same Lonely Planet guide I have. That’s encouraging. It’s not all Tunisians and televisions, although it seemed like it when we were loading up the boat. Everyone seemed to have a van or a car, creaking on its axles under piles of households wares of all kinds. Blankets, televisions, fridges, bicycles, grandmothers – the lot, all tied down with string.

The DJ stops the record and slaps another one on abruptly. Kind of low key grind, slow steady beat. A deep voice sings something soothing in English. The DJ keeps himself busy, too scared to look up, knowing he’s being observed in shock and horror by his audience. He feels the pressure, puts his arms hands down either side of his CDs and takes a heavy sigh.

It looked like it was going to be a good match too, 22-14 to Irish at half-time. But this is business time. The DJ claps on his headphones and twiddles.
‘I want you just the way you are…’ someone croons.

Goodbye Europe.

I decide to leave this entertainment and proceed to make my own fun, as instructed. I observe the following about my person:

I am from Cholsey, but…
I have lipsalve bought from Liverpool;
I have a book bought from Paris;
I have shoes bought from Hamburg;
I have a bottle of water bought from Koln;
I have a shirt bought from Bangkok;
I have a bicycle bought from London;
I have a plug converter bought from Cairo;
I have dates bought from Reading;
I have socks bought from Vernouillet;
I have croissants bought from Marseille;
…and I am in the Mediterranean.

Right. Not all fun you make yourself is strictly fun, is it?

Things did get progressively less dull with nightfall. I climbed up to the top deck, unrolled my sleeping bag and slept under the stars. It was fitful and a little cold at times, but at least it was peaceful.

A decent sight to fall asleep to.

In amongst the fun, there was a lot of sitting around and I had the opportunity to observe my ship-mates. Most of my companions were Tunisian men and it was quite fun watching them form conversational groupings here and there, including me sometimes whenever they needed some light entertainment.

There were women on board, but the two groups didn’t really mix. At one stage, I found myself eavesdropping on four military men talking about Syria, Iran and Israel up on deck. All I could think was: shame no women are here to talk some sense into them. Everywhere I look it’s the same: groups of men talking earnestly together. I like guy-talk as much as the next man, but I can’t imagine talking politics without ever getting a female perspective. What a dull (and dangerous) way to see the world.

Tunis. Eventually.

Anyway, we did eventually make it to Tunis (in your own time, Mr Italian cruiser) and the first thing a real Tunisian from Tunis said to me was (in French): “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

At least I think that’s what he said, because I was too busy sorting my pedals out after the port authorities had seen fit, not only to x-ray my baggage and metal detect myself, but also to x-ray my bicycle. I can tell you right now that bicycles are not supposed to go into x-ray machines and it was promptly chewed up and had to be surgically removed by a none-too-careful customs inspector. There was a cat prowling along the customs tables. I assume he was in charge.

Wheeling out of the arrivals lounge was fun, though. A rank of taxi drivers greeted me, seeing my blonde head bobbing across to them.
“Taxi…” they all shout, but the word fades in their throats as they see my bold stallion wheeling alongside me. Then: “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

A massacre you haven’t heard of yet: Camp Ashraf, Iraq

What is Camp Ashraf?

Camp Ashraf is a community of 3,400 Iranian exiles and refugees who fled their country in the years following Iran’s Islamic revolution. It is located 60km north of Baghdad, in Iraq.

http://ncr-iran.org/images/stories/2009/ashraf/asharf_map_300.jpg

Who lives there?

The camp is famous (or infamous) as a centre for the banned Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK). It has been described as the Iranian opposition’s “headquarters”. The PMOI supports free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. The PMOI also advocates a free-market economy and peace in the Middle East.

In 1979, the PMOI were targeted in Iran by the new theocratic government of Ayatollah Khomeini. The PMOI fought back with their own terrorist attacks on the Iranian Islamic government. In the face of continued repression, the PMOI leadership eventually fled, first to France and then to Iraq where they established Camp Ashraf.

The PMOI were welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. Iraq, with Western backing, was at that time engaged in war with Iran. Saddam funded and armed the PMOI at Camp Ashraf: they had a common enemy in Iran.

Following the overthrow of Saddam, the US forces took responsibility for the security of Camp Ashraf. They granted the inhabitants “Protected Person” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Since the end of the US occupation, however, the Iraqi government has moved closer to Iran, putting the future of Camp Ashraf in doubt. The UK government takes the view that the Camp Ashraf “Protected Person” status no longer applies because the country is no longer in a state of war.

The PMOI were designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, as a show of support for a (comparatively) moderate Iranian government at the time. The PMOI were also listed as terrorists by the EU in 2002, but this ruling was overturned in 2009. The PMOI are no longer considered a terrorist organisation by the EU or by the UK.

In May 2005, a Human Rights Watch report claimed that the PMOI were committing severe human rights violations against former PMOI members. This claim has been repudiated by the PMOI and a number of independent authorities, but the charge still stands.

There is no question that – as with all political groups across the world – there is much fault to be found within the PMOI. However, it would be a grievous mistake to confuse the protection of Camp Ashraf with politics. This is a mistake that could cost many lives.

The massacre of 2011

In April 2011, following a similar attack in 2009, Camp Ashraf was attacked by Iraqi forces. At least 47 residents were killed in these attacks and hundreds wounded. To compound these atrocities, the camp is currently under an Iraqi blockade, which prevents medical supplies from reaching the wounded. As a result of this blockade, at least 12 injured residents have died from treatable wounds in the past year. As recently as the 11th of January 2012, Iraqi forces prevented the entry of five special beds for paralysed patients.

The commander responsible for the 2011 massacre is being investigated by a Spanish court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against international community.

The attack was documented in gruesome detail by the residents, sometimes recording at the cost of their own lives.

The massacre of 2012?

The Iranian government has been pressing Iraq to close Camp Ashraf, as its residents and the PMOI pose a direct ideological threat to the current theocratic regime in Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded favourably to this pressure and vowed to close the camp by April 2012.

“Iraqis consider the [PMOI] as terrorists and criminals and don’t want this criminal group to remain on their soil… In April there will no longer be a Camp Ashraf.”

– Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Maliki had previously promised that he would close the camp by the end of 2011. This threat has been postponed thanks to a last-minute arrangement with the UN. The UN was granted a six-month extension by Maliki, during which time the residents of Camp Ashraf will be transferred to a former US military base (ironically named “Camp Liberty”) and have their refugee status assessed by the UN.

On the 29th of December 2011, the first residents started to move to the new camp, as a “gesture of goodwill” according to PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi. However, these people have been prevented from transferring their assets and vehicles to their new homes. Furthermore, only a small area of the camp has been allocated to the refugees and cooking and water facilities are far worse than at Camp Ashraf. Camp Liberty is at risk of becoming a prison, surrounded by Iraqi police and armed forces.

Given the Iraqi government’s record of massacre at Camp Ashraf, it is hard to imagine that the closure of the camp will pass off without bloodshed.

What can be done?

To prevent a massacre, there must be independent monitoring of the camp. Until 2009, this was the responsibility of the US forces based in Iraq. With the end of the US occupation, that protection is no longer there and Camp Ashraf is at the mercy of the Iraqi military. The people of Camp Ashraf have no means of physical protection.

The people of Camp Ashraf do not have UN refugee status. They do hold protected persons status, conferred under the Fourth Geneva Convention by the occupying US army. However, this status only applies under conditions of war. Therefore the people of Camp Ashraf have no protection under international law.

The removal of these two protections, physical and legal, means that the people of Camp Ashraf are  increasingly vulnerable.

The solution is clear: for the UN to confer refugee status on camp as a whole and, in the meantime, to station a monitoring team on the ground to prevent a massacre. Then every member of the camp could be granted asylum in a democratic country – and not sent back to Iran to face punishment from the regime there. However, this simple solution is complicated by the status of PMOI as a terrorist organisation in the US.

Furthermore, the UN process of according refugee status will take a long time. The people of Camp Ashraf don’t have a long time – they have only weeks, until April. In April, remember, Prime Minister Maliki has promised the end of Camp Ashraf, one way or another.

The Iran Liberty Association, the writing of this article and a metaphor

The Iran Liberty Association is a group that aims to promote human rights in Iran and to support Iranian refugees. They are very active on the streets of London. Five years ago, I was approached by a man from Iran Liberty on Tottenham Court Road, asking for my help. I must have given this man my contact details because, earlier this week, he phoned me back to see if we could meet up.

So I went to see him and, as we sat in the sunshine of Camden Lock, he told his story of Camp Ashraf. He showed me a video of the 2011 Iraqi attack on Camp Ashraf and he explained how the residents of the camp needed help raising funds to expedite their case at the UN, to bring their story to the world’s media and to help prevent another massacre. He emphasised the importance of the people at the camp, describing them as intellectuals and defenders of freedom who formed the backbone of Iranian opposition to the oppressive regime in Tehran under President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs.

There has been some suggestion on Internet message boards that Iran Liberty and Camp Ashraf are somehow fabrications, that they are a way of extracting money from unsuspecting wooly-headed liberals. A cursory investigation will convince even the most cynical that Camp Ashraf does indeed exist, is home to Iranian dissidents and is being targeted by Iraqi forces at the behest of the current government in Iran. Sources as diverse as The Daily Mail, the BBC and Amnesty International attest to this.

I am unable and (at least partially) unwilling to become too deeply embroiled in the political battles of a country so far from my own, that I understand so little, but I did promise that I would tell people about Camp Ashraf on my blog. This is where this article has grown from.

Also at our meeting was a gentleman who’d flown from Paris to contribute to the urgent Camp Ashraf campaign. He was a writer and poet, far more experienced than me, and he gave me as a parting gift a short story of his. I hope he won’t mind if I share a quote with you.

The story is about a man who is staring into a goldfish bowl at a tiny little fish. The man watches as the fish explores his bowl, with its seaweed, pebbles and shells. But the little fish seems agitated, not quite content with his home. Day by day, hour by hour, the fish grows bigger and bigger and he starts to see the bowl as more like a cage than a home. Eventually, the fish grows so large that the bowl can’t contain him any more. The man watches on as, with an almighty push of his fully-grown fins, the fish breaks clear of the water and out of his cage-bowl:

“The cage turns upside down. Its water pours into the room. You’re busy flapping your wings. The water completely covers the room. It rises. It reaches the ceiling. When you’ve leapt through the windowpane, the sky is blue. You are lost among the clouds. And now I’m swimming in the waters of the room. I rise up. I move down. I near the walls of a glass and stare at someone who is staring at me from the other side. My fins are growing larger.”

The metaphor is strong, I think. For me, it shows how, when one group gains power and freedom, they may well drown their neighbours, but they also show the way.

Palestinian Jokes: No Laughing Matter

There’s a Arab proverb that says: “I laugh, therefore I exist.” So here are some jokes from Palestine, proving that they do – still – exist.

The Hebronites

The Palestinians tell jokes about the Hebronites in the same way that the English tell jokes about the Welsh, or the French about the Belgians. Here’s one that is (apparently) a true story:

There’s an old man living on his own in Hebron. His only son has been arrested and is in prison in Israel. The old man desperately wants to plant some potatoes in his garden, but he doesn’t have the strength any more and, with his only son in prison, there’s no one who can do it for him.

So he writes to his son, saying, “I want to plant some potatoes in our garden, but I don’t have the strength to work the soil any more. What should I do, son?”

The son gets the letter in prison and writes back, saying: “Whatever you do, do not go anywhere near the garden – I hid weapons there!”

When the old man gets the letter, he’s shocked and doesn’t go near his garden. In the meantime, the Israeli army have found out about the letter and, the next morning, the old man wakes up to find hundreds of soldiers in his garden. They dig up every inch of the soil, searching for the weapons – but they don’t find any.

Mystified, the old man writes to his son again: “The soldiers came and dug up the garden, but they didn’t find any weapons, now what should I do?”

The son writes back: “Now you can plant your potatoes!”

Have you heard the one about the Christian Hebronite who converted to Islam? One day he met a Muslim Imam and the Hebronite said to him: “If you can show me how clever you Muslims are, I will convert to Islam!”
“Okay,” said the Imam. “Do you have any children?”
“Yes, I have one child.”
“Is it a boy?”
“No,” said the Hebronite.
“Then it must be a girl!”
At this the Hebronite bowed down, crying, “Oh Allah! You’re powers are truly great! I convert to Islam!”

There was once a Hebronite called Abd Ali who owned a shop in Ramallah. One day he got a visit from the police. They pointed at his shop sign – “Abd Ali and Associates” – and asked, “Who are your ‘associates’?”
“Oh, it is just me, it is only the name of my shop, that’s all.”
The police shouted at him: “That is dishonest!” and then beat him up.
Abd Ali was so humiliated that he left Palestine and went to Saudi Arabia, a very devout and strict nation. This time he was very careful about his shop sign. He called his shop: “Abd Ali, the One and Only.”
He was decapitated.

Political Jokes

“We’re living through a big joke!”

(This was not a joke.)

One day in the market a man loses his father… so he buries him.

A boy asks his father for two shekels for a return bus trip to a checkpoint.
“One shekel should be enough,” his father says, “you’ll be coming home in an ambulance!”

The French President, the US President and the Palestinian President all appear before God. They each approach him in turn, presenting their dearest wishes for their countries.
The American President says, “I wish for those cowardly French to commit troops to the War On Terror.”
God replies, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the French President approaches God and says, “I wish those damned Americans would stop killing for oil!”
God answers, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the Palestinian President approaches God, very humbly and says, “I only wish for a Palestinian state.”
God replies, “Well that will never happen in MY lifetime!”

A dentist from Gaza goes to an international conference on wisdom teeth. A French dentist comes up to him and asks: “How do you extract wisdom teeth in Gaza?”
“Well,” the Gazan dentist replies, “first we use a scalpel to make an incision into the neck, then we break the jaw and drill into the gum. Then we get some pliers and pull the tooth out from below.”
“My god!” the French dentist exclaims. “Why so complicated?”
“Because in Gaza, you’re not allowed to open your mouth!”

Just a Joke!

This was told by a giggling school-girl – naughty!

A man rushes home, quick, quick, quick.
Grabs his wife, quick, quick, quick.
Runs to the bedroom, quick, quick, quick.
Switches off the lights, quick, quick, quick.
Makes a tent in the bed, quick, quick, quick.
Says: “Look at my watch – it glows in the dark!”


I got all of these jokes from the excellent short film (No) Laughing Matter that was shown at the Palestine Film Festival in London yesterday. If you ever have a chance to see this film, then do so. You can see a teaser below.

(No) Laughing Matter – teaser

A Tribute to Juliano Mer-Khamis

Two and a half weeks ago, on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, another political activist was assassinated: the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Juliano Mer-Khamis (29 May 1958 – 4 April 2011)

Juliano was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Israeli father and always declared that he was both 100% Jewish and 100% Palestinian.

His mother, Arna, fought in the Palmach during the first Arab-Israeli war, but turned her back on Zionism and became a peace activist. Juliano himself enlisted as a paratrooper in the IDF, but was thrown out for refusing an order to force a Palestinian man from his car.

In Israel, Juliano identified himself as a Palestinian; in Palestine, as a Jew. This was typical of his brave and confrontational character.

He was a “beautiful and energetic man” who, according to his friend and colleague Stephan, was dancing on the tables the night before his assassination to celebrate the première of his latest project. Juliano had intense passions, exemplified by his love of food: a cup of olive oil for breakfast and a glass of Black Label at night.

The Freedom Theatre

Edward Said urged upon us the importance of narrating the Palestinian story, and that’s exactly what Juliano did through his films, his plays and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

Juliano’s ambition for the Freedom Theatre was to “give these children a piece of normality.” The theatre didn’t only tackle political inequality, but also women’s rights and religious intolerance and the theatre quickly became a centre for liberal thought in Jenin. The theatre works on three levels: theory, art and (political) action.

As an example, Juliano’s recent production of Alice in Wonderland managed to tackle women’s liberation, free will and resistance as well as putting on a great show. Juliano made Alice a Palestinian girl who is forced to marry by her family and seeks refuge in Wonderland.

According to Juliano, “art and politics are one,” and his attitude was: “you can’t free the land without freeing the mind.” That made Juliano himself a cultural freedom fighter.

Juliano’s tragedy

The tragedy of Juliano’s life is that he was well aware of his vulnerability, but naïve “to the point of fantasy,” according to his friend Ala. He confided to him: “I will only leave Jenin with a bullet in my head…” Three years ago he gave this extraordinary interview on Israeli television:

Juliano wouldn’t have wanted to be called a martyr of freedom, but that is what he was.

Juliano was shot down by a Palestinian from Jenin, the very people he was struggling for. Juliano’s colleague at the theatre, Ala, talked about how this betrayal had damaged his unconditional affection for the camp. He said he was like a father who is angry at his eldest son for fighting with his youngest. Nevertheless, he will cover them both with the same blanket at night and give them the same kiss. “I kiss you Juli,” Ala said before breaking down in tears at the memory of his friend.

The ongoing threat

Juliano was shot not because of his failure, but because of his success. The Israeli press might be wallowing in schadenfreude, celebrating the fact that a Palestinian peace activist was killed by a fellow Palestinian, but Juliano’s Israeli friend Uli doesn’t remember that discourse in the press after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.

However, the Freedom Theatre today is very weak. They have some support in Israel, some support in Palestine and some support abroad, but it is fragmented and threatened on all sides. When Juliano’s body was carried away, students from the theatre lined the streets and applauded – but Jenin refugee camp wasn’t with them. The threat to the theatre remains.

http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/


This is a review of An Evening in Honour of Juliano Mer-Khamis at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London on Wednesday April 20th.

The speakers were:

Stephan Wolf-Schoenburg, an actor and teacher at the Freedom Theatre. He was a close friend of Juliano’s and a witness to his assassination.

Ala Hlehel, an author, translator, and filmmaker. He is the editor-in-chief of Qadita.net

Udi Aloni, a filmmaker. He was a friend of Juliano and was working on two films with him at the time of his death.

Osnat Trabelsi, a filmmaker and founder of Trabelsi Productions. She was a colleague and friend of Juliano’s.

Cairo: Selected Parks of Zamelek

Further north from Opera are the grounds of the Zamalek club, open only to members, the sly and the persistent. But my favourite garden in these parts is the Aquarium Garden Grotto. The grotto is a fantastical place, whose aquarium has long since dried up, leaving its friendly bridge to curve over nothing more than a tiled hole in the ground.

The centrepiece of the garden (in Arabic, a hadeeqa) is an artificial hill, which soars (if one uses one’s imagination) above the grime of the city. Better still, is the grotto that has been carved out of the plastic hill. But the main attraction for the lovers who gather here is the shade provided by tall palms, on the grass beneath which they can hold hands, talk and pick at lunch.

Not so peaceful is the corner devoted to the young of Zamalek. A collection of recreational furniture clamours for their attention and their squeals and screams carry far beyond the high fences.

For the Khedival sum of two Egyptian pounds, you can gain entry to a more tranquil hadeeqa a little further along the Corniche el-Nil. Here the palms trees block out Cairo’s hot and high-rise buildings, while fountains thrum out a cooling rhythm amid carefully-tended beds, where marble cobras rear up with impotent anger at the flowers.

That extra guinea buys me something else, too. Benches: nice, wooden benches, scattered around the gardens, as you would hope. The Aquarium Garden Grotto is all very whimsical, but its benches are arranged in a circular sort of formation, so that the two sexes can eyeball each another. It’s a little confrontational for my liking.

Another bonus of this hadeeqa is its coffee shop. Before I get a chance to sit down properly, an urgent waiter in a bow tie is upon me. After we share the necessarily florid greetings, he reveals his purpose:
“You sit down; you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – no, thank you,” I say, politely.
“Yes – you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – yes, very kind – but no, thank you.”
“Yes, yes. This – ” he (rather improbably) indicates the bench – “coffee shop. You drink.”
As far as I could see, this was a bench. “But I’ve already paid to come in here!”
“Yes for – ” and he mimes the act of walking with his index and middle fingers.
“No – that’s ridiculous!”
“Yes – you must drink!”

Besides the fact that I’m not thirsty, I am footsore and I don’t want to give up my comfortable bench. I look around, somewhat desperately, for some help breaking this rather awkward impasse. But no one is watching us. Everyone else in the garden seems to be in a couple, arm-in-arm on the benches, gazing into each other’s eyes… Oh – there’s the answer!

“But the other people,” I say, triumphantly, “they don’t have drinks!”
And it’s true: arm-in-arm, none have the threatened tea, coffee, orange (which, in any case, strikes me as a slightly distasteful combination).
“Yes they have!” he says, with unlikely optimism.
“No! Look – no one has a drink.”
Suddenly, the waiter smiles and gives me a high-five, walking away, laughing.

If you know how to stand your ground, Egypt is a fun place. Now, having won that round, I think I will just have a little walk around, after all.


I walked there in January 2009. I wonder what it would feel like now.

The End of the Era of the Dictators: Who’s Next?

Yesterday, a metaphor broke out over Trafalgar Square, as dark clouds rolled away over Egypt and the gloom of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year tyranny was dispelled in the bright winter sunshine of people power.

Amnesty International’s Rally in Solidarity with Egypt in Trafalgar Square

First Ben Ali in Tunisia after 23 years, now Mubarak in Egypt after 30 years – who’s next? The speed of the fall of these dictators is astonishing. The Tunisians deposed Ben Ali in 28 days; the Egyptians have ousted Mubarak in just 18 days.

Anatomy of a Revolution

We can see from the two time-lines below, that the response of both the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes has been both predictable and doomed to failure.

The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes both responded to the just grievances of their people with increasingly desperate threats, violence, cosmetic governmental reshuffles and sweet-talk of a childish “just five more minutes!” variety. But persistence, fortified by the justice of their cause, has won the day for the people.

Tunisian revolution time-line

  • 17 December – Self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia sparks nationwide protests.
  • 28 December – Ben Ali calls the protesters “extremists and mercenaries”.
  • 29 December – Ben Ali reshuffles his government.
  • 6 January – Tunisian lawyers launch a general strike.
  • 8 January – Six protesters killed by the Tunisian police.
  • 13 January – Ben Ali announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 14 January – Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia, after 23 years in power.

Egyptian revolution time-line

  • 25 January – Widespread protests in Egypt.
  • 29 January – Mubarak reshuffles his government.
  • 1 February – Mubarak announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 1 February – Mubarak calls some of the protesters “outlaws” and calls their protests “unfortunate clashes, mobilised and controlled by political forces that wanted to escalate and worsen the situation”.
  • 2 FebruaryViolent clashes between anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak provocateurs.
  • 10 February – Mubarak denies he will be stepping down, but will be handing more powers to his deputy.
  • 11 February – Mubarak resigns, fleeing to Sharm el-Sheikh, after 30 years in power.

What’s Next?

How the hell do I know? But all my wishes are for a peaceful return of power to the people of North Africa and the Middle East. They deserve it.

The Revolt in Egypt: Causes and Consequences, a brief review

Yesterday, I went to the King’s College London Middle East Research Group seminar on the causes and consequences of the revolt in Egypt.

I only stayed for two of the speakers, Dr Ashraf Mishrif and Dr Michael Kerr, because, well – just because.

The Economic Causes of the Egyptian Revolt

Dr Ashraf Mishrif made a prediction: either Mubarak would announce his resignation; or he would assume more powers to deal with the revolt. In other words: even the ‘experts’ haven’t got a clue where this revolt is going to end up.

Ashraf went on to talk in more depth about the economic causes of the revolt, safer academic territory.

In the last three or four decades, there have been a number of economic policies put in place by regimes in the Middle East in general, and in Egypt in particular – and they have all failed. The two economic reform programmes promoted under President Mubarak have had only limited success.

The years 2006-2008 showed solid growth at 7%, but this has not been felt by the majority of the population. Poverty has grown in absolute terms: from 17% in 2002, to 19.8% in 2010. There is also high inflation in Egypt at 11.8% and high unemployment at 9.8%.

And it’s not just in Egypt that we see this economic crisis: in Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and many others. Even the Gulf States have high unemployment, at around 9% in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example.

The Egyptian regime refused to allow opposition groups to help plan these economic reforms – and this was a big mistake, politically and economically. The result has been that the regime has bound themselves to only a small segment of the Egyptian business community and the 7% growth has benefited perhaps as little as 10% of society.

During this time of growth, the Egyptian government also failed to put in place an effective social security system for the unemployed. This all meant that, from around 2004, workers and unions were rioting against the unfair and precarious economic situation. This unrest spread to the youth and to the middle classes, resulting in the present revolt.

What is the Egyptian Revolt?

Dr Kerr argued that this was not a revolt against Mubarak, but a revolt against failed Arab nationalist politics.

The revolt is certainly not (yet) a popular revolution. Only 2% of the population have been involved in the protests. Why might this be? Fear: of what the regime might do; but also of what might replace it. The Egyptians only have to look across at Algeria and at Iraq for frightening examples of what happens when revolts go wrong.

The revolt is not an Islamist movement. The relative silence of the Muslim Brotherhood shows that they are not seeking a leadership role in this revolt. It also shows how effective the regime has been in restricting the Brotherhood.

The Consequences of the Egyptian Revolt

There is the strong possibility, Dr Kerr believes, that the Egyptian government will paint personality change to look like regime change.

We’re not on the cusp of big change in Egypt.

The problem with the revolt is that there is no obvious or credible alternative in Egypt. The regime has played its cards very cleverly by, for example, injecting a small number troops into the crowds to raise tensions and to pit the Egyptian people against each other. This has caused the US to flip and flop in their response to the revolt: they only want to protect their interests.
You can trace political unrest in Egypt back to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. The US foreign policy towards the Middle East has changed twice in the last ten years, from supporting the status quo under Clinton, to the interventions of George W. Bush – and now back to supporting the status quo under Obama. The Egyptian government have been using this to their favour.
The Egyptian people are not able to agree on what they might want to replace the regime: all they want is simply to be rid of them. The lack of a plan is not surprising, given how quickly the revolt rose up and spread. No one predicted this: 

this came out of the blue.”

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 is also not a particularly happy example for the protesters to follow. The gains of that revolution have been largely reversed. The pendulum has swung back towards Syria and the US appear to have accepted this, returning their diplomats to Damascus.

“The Egyptian regime could still claw back their position of three weeks ago.”

What follows the departure Mubarak is unclear. If there is a general strike, then the US will be forced off the fence and will have to support a regime – perhaps militarily – that protects their interests in Egypt. Egypt is too important a support for US influence in the region for them to let it go.

Will the revolt in Egypt set off a domino effect? Yes. However, the Syrian government won’t fall: it is more credible than the Egyptian regime. In the Gulf, the distinction is that they have a lot of money. If the regime there is foresighted, they can use some of this money to put in place social reforms that would keep the population from revolting.

To conclude: this revolt came out of the blue, driven on by the youth through technology and beefed up by the international media. But, Dr Kerr warned, the media is fickle. Once the televisions are switched off – what then?

“A revolution can disappear if you switch your television off.”

Review of Shirin Ebadi: The Role of Women in Promoting Peace in the Middle East

This is a review of a lecture given by Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 February 2011.

When she came into the room, Shirin got a rapturous welcome from the crowd, packed into the stairwells, in the aisles and on every seat. The international press, students, alumni, her family – all were here. She was introduced by Baroness Kennedy, President of the Board the Governors at SOAS, who called her a personal heroine.

Shirin qualified as a judge but, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a menial clerical position. She battled for many years for her position and eventually was allowed to practice law in her homeland in 1993. I was reminded of the long battle that Nelson Mandela faced to practice law in South Africa under Apartheid. Thirty years ago she was just an Iranian woman trying to make her way in the world, but her life was taken over by exigencies, by circumstances, and perhaps she had no choice but to become a heroine, in defence of her own life.

And so we listened to this human heroine, in translation.


Who is Responsible?

“The Middle East is in turmoil and the people ask, “Who is responsible?””

There are three reasons for the current turmoil, Shirin says. They are, in increasing level of importance:

  1. The Palestine-Israel conflict.
  2. The intervention of outside powers in the region, the US/UK in Iraq, for example.
  3. The lack of democracy and widespread human rights violations.

1. The Palestine-Israel Conflict

“Until there is peace here, there will be no order in the Middle East.”

The Oslo Agreement is just a document on paper, Shirin says. Radical extremists on both sides prevent the Oslo Agreement from being fairly applied. Violence from one side, leads to worse violence from the other side. In addition to its immediate effects, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a source of other conflicts, for example between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis has also been exploited by governments.

What role can women play?

Women are opposed to the continuation of war. Palestinian and Israeli mothers have formed the Committee of Mothers for Peace. They negotiate dispute resolution between Jews and Muslims, always with the question: how long must we mourn our children?

However, in political peace negotiations, their voice is not heard. It is the war mongers who “negotiate”, but peace negotiations will bear no fruit without including women. Women may not have political positions in Palestinian politics, but they are the voice of civil society and are very important. The peace negotiations collapse because they exclude feminist movements. 50% of the world is female. You can’t ignore 50% of the world and hope for peace.

2. The Intervention of Outside Powers.

The Middle East is resource-rich and avaricious nations want their resources. The excuse is always to “advance democracy”, but the result is always a rise in Islamic fundamentalism – and the first target of Islamic fundamentalism is always the rights of women.

What role can women play?

Women in Iraq have set up committees to try and create working opportunities and training. Iraqi women are struggling, not only against the Islamists, but also for their national sovereignty.

This intervention by foreign powers stems from the main reason for the current turmoil in the Middle East: a lack of democracy.

3. The Lack of Democracy.

If the Middle East had strong democracies, they would not allow foreign powers to intervene in their domestic politics. It is crazy that Saudi Arabia spend $60bn on purchasing weapons from the US when their own people don’t have welfare. Sadly, for various historical reasons, countries in the Middle East do not have real democracy.

Even supposed “democracies” are not true democracies and their leaders are not fairly elected. For example, in Syria, the presidency is now hereditary, Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father Hafez. In the UAE, there are no elected parliaments; they are appointed by the king. The same is true in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. The only exception to this is Turkey, who do have a better level of democracy.

Iran claims it has elections every two years and that this makes it a democracy. But in all the elections, candidates must be approved by the “Guardian Council”. Any criticism of the government will result in the candidate being refused the right to stand for election. The Guardian Council is made up of twelve members: six directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six others elected from a selection chosen by a man who is, in turn, hand-picked by the Supreme Leader.

For the elections in June 2009, three hundred names were put forward, but only four were approved by the Guardian Council. All four had previously held important posts in government, including one previous prime minister.

Therefore the most important problem in the Middle East is the lack of democracy.

The End of the Age of Dictatorships

There has been a patriarchal culture in the region for years and women suffer. There are also large gaps between the social classes. Many are deprived of their rights. Freedom of expression is also limited.

But for how long can dictators rule by military coercion? Now, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the people are asking for their rights. The age of dictatorships is over. Thanks to technology, people are getting closer and are able to organise. Look how quickly the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and now the same will happen to Mubarak and then in Jordan and Bahrain.

The protests started in Iran many years ago, the latest episode was seen in June 2009. Millions of people protested peacefully, but were met with violence and bullets. You can see all of this on YouTube. Then the government lied about what happened; they said that the bullets were fired by protesters. Many journalists were arrested to clamp down on the real news getting out. Reporters Without Frontiers report that Iran has the highest number of journalists, writers and bloggers in prison.

The economic situation in Iran is dire at the moment. Economic growth in 2009 was 1.6%, lower than Afghanistan and Iraq. So, despite the violence, the people haven’t given up. The government has increased executions: from January this year, there has been an average of two people executed per day. But the voice of protest is heard louder every day.

When the Egyptian people started to protest, the Iranian government said: “Listen to your people!” But what about when the Iranian people protest? The Iranian government says that there must be free elections in Iraq – can we have them too, please?

What role can women play?

“The rights of women and democracy are two sides of a balance.”

You can’t be democratic and deny 50% of people their rights. Women’s rights are the forerunners of democracy.

The feminist movement in Iran is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East. It began a hundred years ago with the constitutional revolution, while Turkey was still under the Ottomans and there was still a Czar in Russia. The strength of the movement is also explained by the fact that there are many highly-educated women in Iran. More than 65% of people at university are women. There are female professors and senior administrators.

But the laws passed after the revolution are discriminatory against women. For example, the value of a woman in law is half that of a man.

“My brother would get twice the compensation that I would if we were involved in the same road accident.”

The testimony of two women is worth the same as that of one man. A man can have four wives and divorce without reason. It is very hard for a woman to get a divorce. A married woman needs the permission of her husband to travel.

These laws are simply not compatible with the level of education in Iran. For example, the current health minister is a woman: does she need her husband’s permission to travel abroad to take Iran’s seat at the World Health Organisation? What if he refuses? The legislation is not compatible with the society, therefore the feminist movement is widespread.

There is no leader of the movement, there are no regional branches, but it is present in every home that believes in equality. And the movement is stronger for this: there is no one person to imprison or assassinate. That a woman can be arrested for “seeking equality” only makes the movement stronger. Results do come, too: for example, in 2004, the custody law was amended in the woman’s favour.

In my opinion, the Green Movement used the feminist movement as a role model. There are no leaders to depend on, it is also a horizontal movement. Women have also been at the forefront of the Green protests.

Democracy can only be achieved through peaceful means, not through guerilla warfare. The Committee of Mothers in Mourning meet every Saturday and carry photos of their children and simply look at each other in silence. They throw birthday parties for people in prison so that no one will forget them, held in their homes in order to evade street protest clampdowns.

Iranian women’s groups sent messages to Egypt and Tunisia, urging women to make sure they protect their rights. Just getting rid of a dictator won’t make everything fine. Another could take his place, perhaps he might have a different ideology, but it is the same dictatorship.

In Tunisia, the secular society is relatively strong. Women are now saying that they want equality. Rashid al-Ghannushi says he is not another Khomeini, but still Iranian women must warn them of the possible dangers of revolution.

“I am confident that democracy and peace will come to the Middle East.”

Facing Disaster In the Middle East: Do We Have Only Bad Options?

This is a review of a talk given by Stephen Kinzer on the 10th of January 2011 at LSE. I should make it clear at the start that Kinzer was talking specifically about US foreign policy. He was talking, not of justice, but of what would be in the interest of the US.

The Bad Attitude of US Foreign Policy

When the US took over the dominant position held by the British Empire in the Middle East, they learnt the wrong lessons. One lesson they didn’t learn was: if you can’t adapt to changing conditions, you’ll lose your authority, both political and moral.

In the dying days of British influence in the Middle East, they hauled Mohammad Mosaddegh, Prime Minister of Iran, before the UN Security Council in a dispute over British oil interests in Iran. It didn’t work.

The US have shown a similar attitude in their dealings in the Middle East. “We don’t like to take advice,” Kinzer says. The US like to think that they, uniquely, “get it,” and that other countries, including countries in the Middle East, just don’t get it.

This attitude was effective during the Cold War. The US exerted immense influence and were able to coerce other countries into doing things in the interest of the US – even when it was against their own interests. That time is OVER – but the policy hasn’t changed and it doesn’t work anymore. We can argue about the details, but the Middle East is not going the way of the US. It’s a worse place for the US now, no doubt.

One thing we can learn from history is that empires rise and fall; and they only survive if they are able to adapt. If the US is unable to adapt then their time at the top will soon end.

Partners

If the US is unable to dictate any longer, what should they do? Stephen Kinzer argues that they must look for partners with whom the US can act in concert and to whom the US can turn to for expert advice in the region. The US must abandon the idea that they alone know what is right for the Middle East.

So who are those partners? There are two criteria that the US must look for in potential partners:

  1. A society that looks like the US. In other words: not the Saudis!
  2. A states whose long-term strategic goals are similar to theirs. In other words: not the Saudis! The brand of radical Islam funded by the Saudis all over the globe are turning out a generation of “lost boys, chanting the Qur’an and hating America”. Incredibly, the US are financing their own assassins.

The Problems with the US-Saudi Relationship

Social similarities and like-minded long-term goals are not the only things that determine foreign policy. The US and Saudi are inextricably linked by oil and defence contracts. The US gets 11% of its oil from Saudi. The Saudis spend a huge amount of money in the US. They recently negotiated a $60bn deal for arms.

They also spend their money very cleverly, splitting it between many different states. This means that Congress or the Senate find it hard to oppose Saudi policies because so many states have a vested interest in Saudi. Massachusetts, for example, has 100,000 jobs reliant on defence. No Congressman would dare oppose the Saudis for fear of losing those jobs. In this way, the Saudis wield influence over the US political system.

Stephen Kinzer identifies two other countries that do satisfy both of his conditions for partnership with the US.

1. Turkey

Firstly, Turkey have been a NATO ally for over 50 years. In the last decade, though, Turkey has also adopted an intriguing role in global geo-politics. They are trying to be deal-makers and peacemakers. They are friends of both Iran and the US; friends of both Georgia and Russia; friends (perhaps until recently) of Israel and Hamas.

How have they managed this?

  • Through the success of their capitalist system.
  • It’s a role reminiscent of their Ottoman history.
  • The recent rise of devout Muslims in government increases their moral position in the Middle East.
  • Significantly, they have challenged US foreign policy recently, over Iran and Gaza, for example. This greatly increases their political legitimacy in the Middle East; they are not just NATO’s lapdog anymore.

And all of this is good for the US. It makes Turkey a credible voice in the Middle East.

Instead of supporting Turkey in their new deal-broker role, the US killed a Turkey-negotiated deal with Iran. The US gave Turkey a slap on the wrists and said that the deal was full of holes. No doubt that it was, but they shouldn’t have killed it dead, they should have accepted the help and used the flawed deal to build something better.

Turkey has an ambition to be in the top ten economies in the world. They are currently at number sixteen. If they want to get into the top ten, they need a stable neighbourhood. 80% of foreign companies in Iraq are Turkish, for example. It is firmly in Turkey’s interest to broker these peace deals and the US should use that interest. If the US don’t do more, then Iran and Turkey could form their own geo-political block without the US, possibly with India as well. There is no golden rule that says that only the US can form economic blocks.

However, Turkey does have serious domestic challenges to face: problems assimilating minorities; historical grievances; and ultra-nationalism. These domestic problems will necessarily restrict their influence in the region, but their rise has been a great story.

2. Iran

This was Kinzer’s curve-ball and he knew he had to justify his choice for more than Turkey.

Iran’s social affinity with the US

  1. Iran has a vibrant, dynamic democratic civil society, in contrast to most of the rest of the Middle East.
  2. They’ve had a constitution for a hundred years.
  3. If you can peel away the religious rule, Kinzer says, they could be more democratic than Turkey.
  4. Iran is “the most pro-US country in the world,” Kinzer says, referring to US popular culture. The people of Iran are as open to US influence as the regime is closed.
  5. Farsi is the fourth most popular language on internet, incredible considering the size of the nation and the supposed “closed” nature of the society. Kinzer told an anecdote about Sean Penn visiting a market in Isfahan and an old market-trader, who spoke no English, asked him what it was like to be married to Madonna!

Iran’s long-term strategic goals

Iran also has strategic goals very closely allied to the US – if you ignore emotions.

  1. Iran is a big enemy of radical Sunni groups, like the Taleban. These groups are in fact funded by our current supposed allies, Pakistan and the Saudis! Iran would be a natural ally of the West against this type of terrorism.
  2. Iran has a huge ability to stabilise Iraq. In fact, Iran could be our ticket out of Iraq – if they are reassured that a stable Iraq would not be used as a launchpad for a US invasion of Iran.
  3. Iran could have the same influence in Afghanistan also.
  4. Iran also wants to keep Russia out of the Middle East.
  5. The Iranian oil industry needs massive investment of the kind that only the US can provide.

Kinzer goes further and says that there is no US goal that can be achieved without Iran: the Palestine-Israel conflict, a nuclear-free Middle East, ethnic conflict in Lebanon, etc..

The problems with Iran

Of course there are great problems facing any potential US alliance with Iran.

  • The US have their policies set.
  • The US and Iran have had a dysfunctional relationship for a long time.
  • The US still feel wronged after the 1979-1981 US Embassy hostage crisis. The US are feel that Iran got one over them and they’ve never been able to hit back. This is a clear example of emotion getting in the way of sound diplomacy.
  • The current regime in Iran is also a concern for the US. Kinzer points out that we don’t fully understand the machinations of the Iranian political system, but that Ahmadinejad doesn’t hold the final decision and power. 

    Rapprochement might not be easy, but the US could at least try.

    The problem with current US policy is that it is restricting Iran down to one issue only: their nuclear ambitions. The US want Iran to surrender their highest card, but that’s never going to happen – it makes no sense.

    A way forward: The Shanghai Communiqué

    Instead of demanding this, the US should do something like they did with China in 1972 in the Shanghai Communiqué. This was a short document that contained:

    1. Everything the US didn’t like about China.
    2. Everything China didn’t like about the US.
    3. A promise to negotiate over these issues rather than use force.

    This kind of document clears the air and opens the agenda for progress in negotiations. There is one further block to US negotiations with Iran: human rights. Perhaps the Helsinki Accords are a better model than the Shanghai Communiqué.

    The US need concessions from Iran, but that will only happen if Iran feels safe. Turkey have advice for the US here: compromise. India is also saying this. These countries want to help the US, but they don’t want to listen.

    Kinzer admits that closer ties with Iran would not be an easy sell. He argues that, although the US would prefer to wait for evolution in the Iranian regime, the need for negotiations is too urgent to wait, so they should try anyway.

    Why would Iran promote stability, when it is against their interests?

    Kinzer points out that stability is in the eye of the beholder. What is stability for the US in Iraq, for example, strikes Iran as destabilisation. The US handed Iran the great prize of Iraq; they would never have been able to take Iraq without the US invasion. But the US must now recognise the reality that Iran is the regional power.

    Why would Iran change its anti-US stance?

    Kinzer gave a number of reasons why they might:

    1. Iran needs security, like any country. That is the reason Russia negotiated the Helsinki Accords.
    2. A change in stance could increase the current regime’s popularity.
    3. The popular Green Movement has only bad options at the moment. The best they can hope for is the current regime to become less isolationist. So such a move would have widespread support.

    Kinzer warns that the problem with making these kind of deals with the elites is that they are usually unpopular with the people, so any deal transfers some of that unpopularity to the US as well. The most important thing that the US must avoid is doing anything that would make it harder for the US and Iran to negotiate in the future!

    Will it happen? Confronting “Pathologies”

    One potential problem with Kinzer’s vision of US partnerships with Iran and Turkey is that both Iran and Turkey have a history of dominating the Arabs. Because of this, the Arabs of the Middle East might react badly to perceived influence from those countries.

    However, Kinzer points to the fact that Iran and Turkey support Hizbollah and Hamas, popular Arab movements in the Middle East. The US, on the other hand, have bet on unpopular despots, like “Pharoah” Mubarak in Egypt. The Iranian and Turkish approach simply has to be more popular.

    Unfortunately, the kind of rapprochement needed with Iran will only happen if the US can face other “pathologies” in their political mindset. Kinzer is talking here of the “pull of Israel.” Israel is what separates the US from all its allies, he says, even the UK. But, at the moment, Kinzer can’t see this political mindset changing.

    The relationship between the US and Israel, Kinzer says, is like that between “me and a drunk-drive friend.” We want to help him steer better. Kinzer says that the US should tell Israel, you must change or:

    • Either we’ll recognise the state of Palestine. 
    • Or we’ll recognise the sovereignty of Israel over the whole territory and Jews will become a minority in their own land.

    Only the President can decide this sort of change in foreign policy  – and it is the kind of thing that would only happen with a second term president. Obama, however, is not looking like he wants to make any changes to US foreign policy. Obama himself has little experience with foreign affairs and the people around him are very conventional.

    The Problem of Israel

    Israel, Hamas, the blockade of Gaza, the West Bank settlements are all fundamental to the problems in the whole Middle East. All of the region’s problems are interwoven, which might make you think they are too complex to untangle. But it could be that a break in one place might cause others to break through.

    Israel and the radicalisation of the Middle East

    The West Bank Israeli settlements and the Israeli treatment of Gaza have radicalised the whole of the Middle East – in fact Kinzer is surprised that Palestine hasn’t radicalised MORE. This is why Turkey has become so popular in the region recently; for their response to the Gaza blockade, particularly during the Gaza flotilla debacle. It is not anti-Semitism, it is a response to an injustice.

    Hamas have to be involved in any negotiations. The US aren’t good at facing hard truths, but they must face this. The truth is that Hamas are in trouble from even more radical groups who are asking, “Why are you not attacking Israel every day?” The longer the US fail to negotiate, the worse things will get. And why don’t they do anything? The US government’s intimacy with Israel, which distorts what should be a rational diplomatic decision.

    Israel on self-destruct

    Israel has been pushed in a self-defeating direction by its own policy. Through their own actions they are destabilising the region, but it is impossible for them to defend their position with force forever. Geographically and demographically they are in a losing position. Their only chance of long-term survival is regional stability and normalisation of diplomatic relations with their neighbours.

    The Israeli and Iranian relationship

    Kinzer considers an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to be unlikely. Iranian nuclear capability is further off than previously thought. During an off-the-record conversation with an Israeli chief of intelligence, Kinzer was told that, while everyone thinks Israel is scared of Iran nuclear weapon because Iran might bomb Israel, that is only half right. Israel do fear Iran getting nuclear arms, but not for that reason. The true reasons are that a nuclear Iran might set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that Iran would gain immense intimidatory power.

    Kinzer’s response is that nuclear armament will happen; perhaps not in Iran just yet, but other countries around the world will get nuclear weapons at some point. Given that inevitability, we must learn how to deal with it when it does happen.

    He suggests that Iran could approach Israel themselves, instead of trying to negotiate through the US or the UN. Iran, Kinzer says, are better placed to approach Israel directly than any of the Arab nations. Most Iranians, despite the rhetoric of their government, have tremendous respect for Jews, tremendous respect for their history, their education and their contributions to world progress.

    Conclusions

    The US must change their current foreign policy. Their “global management” role is not economically sustainable. The Global War on Terror, farcically renamed “Overseas Contingency Operations,” is extremely expensive. The US spends $1 trillion a year in Afghanistan alone; there are 75,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany – why?

    The US political “pathology” is possibly changing. The Israeli blockade of Gaza and the West Bank settlements are changing US public opinion, led by US Jews scared that these actions are fuelling global anti-Semitism.

    Kinzer expresses his frustration with Israel over the case of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel. Israel wants the US to pardon him; “they want a favour, after kicking the sand in our faces!” This perhaps illustrates the frustration that the US intelligentsia feel towards the perverse political decisions of the Israeli government.

    Kinzer states the questions facing US politicians today:

    1. What should the policy be? Kinzer likes to think he has outlined one set of options.
    2. How do we sell it to the people? A much harder proposition.

    Stephen Kinzer finished with a challenge to the US political leadership, taken from Rumi, the Persian poet:

    “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”


    This was an excellent talk, covering a complex topic with clarity and humour. It was particularly strong for the solutions that it offered. It was good to hear a US commentator who was able to see a future that served both US interests and also the interests of peace.

    Secular Jews, Religious Jews and Arabs: The Zero-Sum Game of Israeli Multiculturalism

    This is a review of a talk given by Professor Menachem Mautner, a political and legal theorist from Tel Aviv University, on the 1st of February 2010 at Oriel College, Oxford. Again, apologies for the lateness!

    I would like to make quite clear at the beginning of this review that Professor Mautner discusses Israel exclusively. He does not refer to the problems between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His concern is the problems facing Israeli society.

    Israel’s Multicultural Society

    Since the 1970s and the end of Labour’s hegemony in Israeli politics, Israel has been a multicultural society. But there is a war of cultures going on, the society is divided in two ways.

    The War of Cultures 1: Secular Jews vs Religious Jews

    Secular Jews, by which Professor Mautner meant “liberal western” Jews and religious Jews, by which he meant “traditional, Judaism” Jews have twice come close to civil war.

    1. First when settlers were withdrawn from Gaza and Northern Samaria. There was a lot of opposition to this move: 20,000 police and soldiers faced off against the settlers.
    2. Secondly, during the al-Aqsa intifada riots, in the face of retaliation by the Arabs.

    The Jewish enlightenment of mid-19th century Germany marks the beginning of the opposition between the secular and the religious Jews. From the 1930s to the 1970s secular Jews, represented by the Labour movement, were in political hegemony. Their values were secular, democratic, modern and western.

    By the end of the 1970s their power had waned and in 1977 there was a political turnabout in Israel and Labour lost control. Since 1977, there has only been 6 years that Labour were in hegemony. In the 1980s Labour institutions lost power and they have never properly recovered.

    The War of Cultures 2: Jews vs Arabs

    20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. By 2020 it will be 23%. Israel is clearly bi-national, but Jews deny it. The 1992 constitutional laws describe Israel as Jewish and democratic only. Arabs are allowed rights as individuals, but not collectively.

    • Arabs are excluded from significant political decisions on foreign policy and defence.
    • Israel doesn’t recognise any Arab holidays as public holidays.
    • There are separate cities, neighbourhoods, institutions, newspapers, schools etc. for Arabs in Israel.
    • In all indices – literacy, development, life expectancy, etc. – Arabs rank significantly lower than Jews in Israel.

    This is an explosive mixture, Professor Mautner says, that could lead to a violent struggle.

    But solutions are on the table. In 2006/07, Arab-Israeli intellectuals produced a policy paper, ‘Arab Vision,’ outlining a bi-national state like Switzerland, Belgium or Canada.

    A Zero-Sum Game

    But there is a connection between the two divides: it is a zero-sum game.

    • If the secular Jews move towards the traditional Jews, the Arabs suffer.
    • If the secular Jews move towards the Arabs, the traditional Jews will revolt.

    And this situation will only get worse. The demographics are changing: 50% of school children are from either ultra-orthodox or Arab groups. Israeli society is becoming more polarised between the two groups at the extremes.

    There is nothing unique in the Israeli multiculturalism. What is unique is that the pressure on the system comes from the centre, not the fringes. The problems faced by Israeli society are more like those faced by Turkey, Egypt or Algeria, not Canada or Belgium.

    Although secular and liberal, the government funds ultra-orthodox groups who oppose these values. As a comparison, the Bob Jones University in the USA was stripped of its tax-free status by the Supreme Court because of their racist admissions policy. Israel will never do something like this, Professor Mautner says: it would cause a revolt by the religious Jews.

    The Outlook

    There are essentially two types of religious Jew in Israel: the ultra-orthodox Jews and the religious Zionists.

    • Ultra-orthodox Jews reject Western values and ideas including democracy and liberalism. They would support a theocracy which excludes women entirely.
    • Religious Zionists, on the other hand, take their ideas from the West as well as from tradition. They go to universities, the theatre and opera. They are democratic and have a religious feminism. They would object to a theocracy and would support liberal politics. They hold the key to the future character of Israel – but which way will they go?

    Individualism represents a real danger for the multicultural state. It could polarise opinion and the common good will suffer. Professor Mautner proposes that republicanism could prevent this, if all citizens are able to deliberate over the common good with no exclusion. Labour republicanism has been strong, but it excludes the Arabs. Now it is weak and they can’t cultivate a shared idea of the common good.

    Israel needs to actively pursue a Rawlsian liberal regime representing pluralism and tolerance, an inclusive liberalism, not a universal liberalism.

    Specific Measures for the Future:

    It contrast to some of the theorists I’ve heard speak, Professor Mautner outlined seven specific proposals to bind Israeli society closer together and to make the country a safer and more democratic state for all its citizens.

    1. Establish a constitutional court

    The constitutional law is currently developed by the Supreme Court, but this is now viewed as biased. A new constitutional court would be staffed by lawyers representing the major cultural groups so that it is no longer divisive.

    2. Reshuffle the education system

    Currently there are five types of schooling, secular, religious zionist, Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. They rarely intermix. Israel needs mixed schools, some already exist, but it needs more.

    3. Change the 1992 laws about the nature of Israel

    It is a nation for all Israelis, not just Jews. Israel should become a “Jewish, democratic and Israeli state.”

    4. Include Arabs in national symbols

    Including the flag and the national anthem.

    5. Include Arabic as a national language

    On a level with Hebrew.

    6. Acknowledge the implications of multiculturalism

    Respect for a people means a respect for their culture. Most Arabs are versed in Jewish culture, but not the other way around.

    7. Use the example of 10th and 11th century Spain

    Where the Jews enjoyed a golden age under Arab leaders.


    It was a blessed relief to hear someone put forward concrete, rational proposals for the better integration of Arabs into Israeli society. It’s going to be a long and hard road to travel – overturning institutionalised racism, such as that outlined by Professor Mautner, does not happen overnight – but it will be worth it, for all concerned.

    The Making of Modern English Anti-Semitism

    This is a review of a talk given by Dr Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, at Oriel College, Oxford University on Monday 1st March 2010. Apologies for the lateness – it’s been lying dormant in my notebook for almost a year now!

    This talk was given as a warning. Dr Julius was keen to point out rising anti-Semitism in left-wing universities. This talk was given at the beginning of “Israel Apartheid Week,” in which many British universities, including Oxford, took part. Students and their professors are dangerous because, presumably, they are intelligent and their words and opinions carry great weight. This new rise in anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, has developed with the recent rise in anti-Zionism, particularly after the invasion of Gaza in 2008.

    The Four Types of English Anti-Semitism

    Dr Julius referred to the “amnesia of Anglo-Jews,” they have forgotten the long history of anti-Semitism in this country. There are four types of anti-Semitism to be found in English history.

    1. Medieval anti-Semitism

    Medieval anti-Semitism reached its zenith (or nadir?) in England in 1290, when King Edward I ordered the total expulsion of the Jews from England. This expulsion was an utterly original English idea, lethal and exterminationist in conception. It was the first national expulsion of Jews and other European nations followed suit (France in 1394 and Spain in 1492, for example). However, Dr Julius does say, in “defence” of the English, that the idea had reached its moment and could have happened elsewhere.

    2. English literary anti-Semitism

    Dr Julius argues that only in England has literary anti-Semitism reached canonical status. He cites the examples of Chaucer (The Prioress’ Tale), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) and Dickens (Oliver Twist). The plot of each of these dramas, Dr Julius says, is basically the same. There is an innocent (usually a child), who is tricked by a conspiring Jew, there is usually murder or blood involved, but then a “miracle” saves the innocent and the Jew is punished.

    Dr Julius argues that this English literary anti-Semitism continues to the modern day, with writers like Tom Paulin, most notably his poem Killed in Crossfire published in The Observer newspaper in 2001. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/18/poetry.features1]

    3. Quotidian or social anti-Semitism

    This type of anti-Semitism flared up in England in the 17th century and limps on today. It takes the form of condescension toward and disregard for Jews. It is something one can live with, Dr Julius says, but is demoralising.

    4. Anti-Zionism polluted with anti-Semitism

    This developed in England from 1967 onwards. It is when opposition to the Zionist project of the Jews, i.e. the state of Israel, becomes tainted with anti-Semitic, i.e. racist, views. It can be secular, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

    The purpose of all this anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, is for its function. It is a useful tool, it gives an answer to any problem: just blame it on the Jews.

    The Problem of the Holocaust

    “The Holocaust has blinded us to modern anti-Semitism.”

    The Deborah Lipstadt trial, in which the right-wing historian David Irving lost a libel case for denying the Holocaust, seemed to show that the threat to Jews still comes from neo-Nazi right. Dr Julius emphatically denies that this is so. The Holocaust, he says, has distracted us from the real threat – the left.

    Dr Julius cites five reasons why the Holocaust has given us an entirely incorrect image of the average anti-Semite:

    1. The Holocaust totalised anti-Semitism

    The Holocaust defined antisemitism as wanting the elimination of all Jews. Today, however, anti-Semites recognise “good Jews” (those running Israel Apartheid Week, for example) and “bad Jews” (those who still who cling to the Zionist project).

    2. The Holocaust was state-sponsored

    This is not the case with anti-Semitism today – in the West, at least.

    3. The Holocaust spoke German

    Anti-Semitism became associated with a particular national source or paradigm. The Holocaust equated anti-Semitism with the Nazi genocidal type.

    4. The threat came from the political right

    This is not the case today; the threat is also from the left. Liberals find it hard to understand the national character of Judaism, which leads to anti-Semitism.

    5. The Holocaust made us think anti-Semitism was genocidal

    That is, thankfully, not the case with English anti-Semitism today.

    Anti-Semitism in the UK today

    Dr Julius sees 1967 as critical in the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK. The increase in Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories between 1967 and 1973 led to the famous / infamous 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. The 1982 Lebanon war did little to enhance international opinion of the Zionist project and concomitant with the rise in anti-Zionism, Dr Julius detects a rise in anti-Semitism.

    This anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism gained strength after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the growth of radical Islam in the UK, empowered by the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall in the same year marked the final collapse of the socialist project and led to increased hatred of the US and Israel from the political left.

    Dr Julius sees the response of the political left to Israeli actions in Gaza, particularly the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement of the trade unions, as “exorcising deep-rooted anti-Semitism.” He also warned that, if the Conservatives won the 2010 UK elections, then things could get worse, as Labour are pushed to the left, back to their traditional power base.

    In the discourse of the political left, Dr Julius sees Jews portrayed as having a demonic quality. The boycott movement characterises Jews as Nazis, a characterisation that is familiar from medieval times, when Jews were called “pigs”.

    But, believe it or not, Dr Julius is optimistic. He says that the dominant English norm is pro-difference, and against any divisive racism, such as anti-Semitism. He says that the empowerment of Muslims is very recent, only since 1989, whereas Jews have a history in the UK going back a millennium.

    Conclusions

    Dr Julius says that historiographical battles have to be fought. He cites the book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh as important for undoing the “Nakba narrative” of the Palestinians. This book essentially blames the Arab elites for betraying the Palestinian people by refusing all negotiations with the Zionists.

    Dr Julius believes that the boycott movement should be fought, in general politically, but where necessary using the unions’ own rule book to block racist policies.

    Dr Julius also argues that Jewish anti-Zionists have got it wrong. Jewish anti-Zionists are a feature of contemporary Jewish politics. From the 1800s to 1945, Jews fell into one of three political camps:

    1. Assimilation: Jews should be individuals in individual states.
    2. Revolution: through socialism, Jews will find equality.
    3. Zionism: the Jews need their own state.

    Dr Julius says that after the Holocaust there was “no politics” until 1967. Then the question became: what is Israel’s future? That is when Jewish anti-Zionists really came to the forefront of Israeli politics. But Dr Julius argues that their diagnoses and prognoses are wrong and because of that they are unwittingly colluding with the anti-Jewish project.

    One of the proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to reform Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories into one state, not as it is now, “a Jewish and democratic state”, but as simply “a democratic state”. Dr Julius describes this proposal as “rubbish”.


    This was an interesting talk. I must confess that I don’t subscribe to his opinion that anti-Zionism goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Anthony Julius was born in 1956, only 8 years after the birth of Israel. He was 12 in 1967, a very impressionable age.

    I’m not saying that some anti-Zionists aren’t also anti-Semites. However, the state of Israel has been around long enough now for most people to be able to distinguish a Jew from an Israeli and, importantly, an Israeli from the state and government of Israel.

    Norman Finkelstein on Gaza and Israel’s Sinister Conspiracy

    “I’m no prophet…” says Norman Finkelstein, slayer of myths and self-hating Jew, before proceeding to unveil a monumental international conspiracy: the impending Israeli invasion of Lebanon, due, according to Finkelstein’s crystal ball, in the next 12-18 months.

    It was interesting hearing this Rottweiler of verifiable fact and reason succumb to the seductions of speculation. but Finkelstein said that this plot was sufficiently serious to risk his being wrong for the sake of doing something, rather than staying silent and watching it tragically unfold.

    The aim of Israel’s plot, according to Finkelstein, is simple: the decapitation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, the real purpose of the conspiracy is slightly more involved (and sinister).

    The following article is a review of a lecture Norman Finkelstein gave at Imperial College London on Friday 29 November. It presents the argument he gave there, rather than my personal views. 

    I have supplemented the lecture, where necessary, with additional material and links to external sources. It’s pretty long, about 3000 words – but I promise it’s worth it!

    Why does Israel need a Sinister Plot?

    Okay, okay, not a plot, not a conspiracy – call it a ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ if you don’t like those words. But remember, international political conspiracies of this order do happen.

    In 1956, Britain, France and Israel conspired in just such a manner against Nasserite Egypt in order to regain control of the Suez Canal. The plot was only uncovered because it was unsuccessful: US President Eisenhower gleefully catching the two old colonial powers with their pants down and administering a slap with his New World Order cane.

    Israel needs this ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ to restore her ‘deterrent capacity’. What does this mean? It is a fabulous military euphemism for ‘Arab fear of Israel’.

    The last ten years have seen a succession of Israeli military defeats and humiliation: the Arabs are getting uppity; they must be slapped down.

    A Brief History of Israeli Humiliations

    May 2000: The Israeli funded South Lebanon Army is finally defeated by Hezbollah. Israel withdraw to their side of the UN designated border.

    January 2006: Hamas win the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, much to the displeasure of Israel and the West. Incidentally, this is the first time ever that an Arab government has been democratically voted out of office and a new government democratically voted in.

    July 2006: Israel invades Lebanon. This operation can only be classed as a military defeat for Israel – or at best a Pyrrhic victory. They invaded in order to disarm Hezbollah and they failed in this objective. Their only morsel of success was that the threat of another invasion was a sufficient deterrent to prevent Hezbollah from intervening in Gaza in 2008/2009.

    The result of these reverses was that Israel still had not restored her ‘deterrent capacity’ within the Arab world. And so they turned their weapons on their favourite shooting gallery: Gaza. Surely here they would be able to score a resounding military victory?

    The Myth of the “Gaza War”

    Following the victory of Hamas in the PLC elections, the US, Israel and various dissident Palestinian factions attempted a coup, successful only in wresting control from Hamas in the West Bank. This coup failed in Gaza because elections do mean something: a mass of the populace supported Hamas.

    In a fit of pique, Israel tightened the blockade, hoping to starve them out. This didn’t work either. Unfortunately, in June 2008, Israel and Hamas had agreed a ceasefire, so Israel needed a pretext to mete out the punishment these democrats so richly deserved.

    On 4 November 2008, a quiet day in the news – oh, aside from it being the day of the most compelling US Presidential election since JFK-Nixon – the ceasefire was broken by Israel, trundling bulldozers 250 metres into Gaza and killing six Palestinians in a bizarre tunnel offensive.

    This, of course, provoked a response from Hamas and, sure enough, the rockets were fired and Israel had their pretext to invade.

    And so, on the 27 December, the 22-day ‘Gaza War’ was launched and Israel had their triumphant ‘victory’.

    But what kind of a war was this?

    • What kind of a war is it where not a single battle is fought?
    • What kind of a war is it when the supposed enemy sit tight in their bunkers until it’s all over?
    • What kind of a war is it when you launch (over) 2300 air-strikes and return with no planes even slightly damaged?
    • What kind of a war is it when you attack at night, rendering yourself totally invisible to the enemy because they don’t have your fancy night-vision goggles?
    • What kind of a war is it when the casualties are 100:1 in your favour?

    Luckily, this isn’t just here-say or Hamas propaganda. We have evidence given by Israeli soldiers as well, recorded in the ‘Breaking the Silence’ testimony. You can browse this testimony at your leisure and make your own mind up.

    Insanity?

    As a side-entertainment, Finkelstein urged us to search for the word ‘insane’ on the ‘Breaking the Silence’ website. Here’s that search.

    And if you can’t be bothered looking for yourself, here are a selection of ‘insanities’:

    “We are hitting innocents and our artillery fire there was insane.”

    “Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window.”

    “After the man-search they conducted a weapons search and suddenly saw a little 3-year old kid lying terrified under a bed and let her go. What insane luck he had, not getting killed.”

    “This was the general attitude in the army: Go in with insane fire power because this is our only advantage over them.”

    “There is a majority of voters who are so desperate or agitated because of the situation, that they are willing to elect him, and thus to grant legitimacy to his insane views.” [Talking about the election of Ariel Sharon.]

    “He said we were going to exercise insane fire power with artillery and air force. We were given the feeling that we were not just being sent out there, but with enormous security and cover. He did restrain it and say, ‘It’s not that you’re out to carry out a massacre, but…’

    “Sometimes the border-police battalion commander – who was a complete lunatic. He was insane. He would tell me: ‘shoot here, shoot here, shoot here.’ And I shoot in all directions, without regard to anything.”

    These quotations have a somewhat similar scatter-gun effect, but they give you a broad idea of the disproportionate nature of the assault.

    So was it a massacre?

    There are no internationally agreed standards on the definition of war or otherwise, but Finkelstein’s conclusion is unequivocal:

    “This wasn’t a war; it was a massacre.”

    Furthermore, he adds that:

    “Anyone who says it was a war in Gaza is – intentionally or not – an instrument of the Israeli government.”

    The high number of civilian deaths (762-926 by NGO estimates, 55-65% of the total) are often explained by the ‘human shields’ excuse: the Israelis couldn’t avoid civilian casualties because of the unethical fighting techniques used by Hamas.

    The truth about human shields in Gaza

    Unfortunately for this convenient line of argument, Amnesty International, the world’s most respected human rights organisation (I think), found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, although, interestingly, they did find evidence that Israel did.

    “[Amnesty International] found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.

    By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’.

    This is from page 75 of the report.

    Just to be clear, Amnesty International considers both sides of the conflict to be consistent violators of human rights.

    An assault on civilians, not a military war

    It is also interesting to note that, during this so-called ‘war’, Israel found the time to destroy the only flour mill in Gaza and twenty-two out of the twenty-nine cement factories in Gaza.

    That was a real pity because the Israelis also left behind 650,000 tonnes of rubble. It’s almost as if they wanted, not to knock out the threat of mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza, but to raze the land to the ground and leave the people no chance to rebuild their homes.

    Re-writing history

    Far from being a heroic military victory to crow about, the history of this event is already being effaced. It was too one-sided, too easy a victory and the world noticed. Now the Israeli government would like us to remember that nothing at all happened in Gaza in 2008/2009.

    Just recently, on the 20 November 2010, the New York Times had this to say: “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been largely drained of deadly violence in the past few years.”

    The newspaper did later publish a correction and amended the original article, saying that they meant to refer only to violence in the West Bank, but they still insist that: “the dispute is calmer than it has been in years.”

    The battle for ‘humanitarian crisis’ status in Gaza

    As this newspaper article might suggest, the international response to Gaza was rather phlegmatic. The blockade, let us remember, was and still is illegal. It is a form of collective punishment, a war crime under article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention. This diagnosis was supported by the UN Human Rights Council, who called the blockade an illegal action.

    Furthermore, it had precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as reported by Oxfam and other relief agencies in March 2008, before the Israeli invasion.

    There followed, in 2010, a bizarre argument between Oxfam and the Israeli government about the level of ‘crisis’, with supporters of Israel triumphantly producing a restaurant menu from Gaza that boasts steak au poivre and chicken cordon bleu. As if this would somehow ameliorate the destruction of the year before.

    The Mavi Marmara Incident

    And so on to the Gaza flotilla raid of 31 May. According to the Israeli’s own admission, they were not expecting any resistance. And rightfully so, I would agree. This was a flotilla of peaceniks and humanitarian hippies, was it not?

    • But why then, Israel, did you board the ship in the dead of night, at 4:30a.m. if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
    • Why did you use tear-gas if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
    • And if you were expecting resistance, then why not simply disable the engine, or physically block the boat from reaching the port?

    The only logical answer is that Israel wanted a bloody conflict, perhaps not of the order that saw seven Israeli commandos injured, but still. A bloody conflict would, perhaps, rally Israel’s allies to her side against these flotilla-terrorists.

    Unfortunately, the Mavi Marmara incident became a national humiliation. The commandos botched the raid: they were supposed to look like the elite force that Israel considered them. Instead three commandos were captured by an enemy armed with iron bars and the raid turned into a bloodbath.

    This failure, combined with the public exposure and diplomatic crisis of the Mossad assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January 2010 in Dubai, embarrassed Israel in the full glare of the international media and stung their national pride.

    Or as one Israeli general put it:

    “It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

    The Sinister Plot

    And so, after all this, the Israelis still need to restore their ‘deterrence capacity’ – and these reverses mean that this time it must succeed and, furthermore, it’s got to be more spectacular than ever.

    Thus the need for our grand international conspiracy:

    Hezbollah must be decapitated and Lebanon shall be invaded in the next 12-18 months.

    This isn’t just idle extrapolation by one half-cocked anti-Zionist. There is some recent concrete evidence to support the hypothesis.

    On November 8, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the UN that Israel were going to withdraw from the Northern (Lebanese) half of Ghajar, a village on the border between Lebanon and the (Syrian) Golan Heights, which are currently occupied by Israel.

    The Secretary-General of the United Nations got very excited and called this action an ‘important step towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 1701’.

    Why does Finkelstein find this so ominous? It sounds positively docile, doesn’t it? Well, not quite.

    This action concludes Israel’s obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The onus is now on the Lebanese government. But they have a slightly more arduous task: they must disarm Hezbollah.

    This condition is going to be nigh-on impossible for the Lebanese government to fulfil and, when they fail, Israel will have the perfect pretext for invasion, blessed by the UN.

    The Turning of the Screw

    What follows, Finkelstein says, is speculation, but it is all too believable. Luckily for us it is easily monitored because it will all take place in the public eye.

    First the UN Security Council will soften the target for Israel by creating disunity in Lebanon. They will start to put pressure on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah according to Resolution 1701. They’ll threaten sanctions and embargoes when Lebanon can’t and don’t comply, raising international ire against this ‘rogue state’.

    Secondly the media will start to point the finger at Hezbollah. Ever heard of Rafic Hariri? No, nor had I. But soon, everyone will. The CBC TV channel in Canada are launching a three-part special on ‘Who Killed Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri?’ They conclude, naturally, that it was a Hezbollah political assassination, rather than an Israeli-inspired one.

    There is a BBC special in the making as well, all leading up to the first UN International Independent Investigation Commission indictments for his murder in March 2011.

    Oh – who was he? He was Lebanon’s Prime Minister until 2004. He was assassinated in 2005. These media stories, as well as pointing the finger at Hezbollah and fuelling international hysteria for an Israeli invasion, will also stoke Sunni-Shia tensions within Lebanon, further weakening the target.

    Why Bother with the Conspiracy?

    But why bother with this great international conspiracy? Why not just invade and be done with it?

    The answer to this is simple: to keep Iran out of the conflict. Israel needs the support of the UN so that the only combatants are Hezbollah and themselves. The only reason that Iran did not intervene in 2006 was because they didn’t need to: Israel was defeated.

    This time Israel refuses to be defeated; therefore Iran will be compelled to enter the conflict. Thus Israel needs the support of possible UN sanctions to keep Iran in line.

    Unfortunately for Israel, after the Mavi Marmara incident, it is not entirely clear if Turkey will also play along with the sinister plot. It is essential that they do to keep the ‘integrity’ of the plan intact, and thus Israel will attempt to draw their sting. By paying them off probably.

    Once the ground is prepared, once the target is softened up, once Iran and Turkey are neutralised by the UN, a pretext for invasion will be found. It is not hard to imagine possible scenarios.

    Israeli newspapers are already suggesting that Hezbollah might launch a coup in Lebanon. The source of this idea? ‘Secret intelligence’ – just like the ‘secret intelligence’ that led to the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967.

    The Invasion

    When the invasion happens, Finkelstein even knows what it will look like. He knows because we’ve been told.

    It’s something called the ‘Dahiya doctrine’.

    This sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but in fact means the total pulverisation of civilian areas. In 2008, IDF Northern Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot elucidated:

    “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there.

    From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”

    Unlike the war in 2006, this time Hezbollah missiles will be able to reach Tel Aviv. But Finkelstein argues that Israel is not too bothered about home casualties: they will only add to the perceived legitimacy of their case for war.

    Is there a Way Out?

    Finkelstein wasn’t just here to feed our love for sinister international conspiracies. He urged us to find a way out of the current impasse in the Middle East.

    He sites the example of the Mavi Marmara again. While it didn’t succeed in breaking the blockade, it did at least sting the world into denouncing the blockade – after 3 years of almost total silence.

    This shows the power of you and I to change world opinion. The Mavi Marmara was not a delegation from a government or an international human rights organisation or a bunch of lawyers from The Hague. It was a motley crew of human rights activists, like you and I.

    Opinion, Finkelstein reckons, is changing. The mainstream is starting to take notice of the injustice of the Palestinian situation.

    To conclude his lecture, Finkelstein offers us two platforms on which we can all stand to support the Palestinian case.

    1. Stick to the Principles

    The Palestinians, like everyone on the planet, have rights under international law. There is no need to forfeit any of them in the name of negotiation.

    These rights are:

    1. For their own state in a united West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem.
    2. For the complete removal of the illegal Israeli settlements on this land.
    3. For refugees to be allowed their right of return and their due compensation.

    2. But be Reasonable

    It is paramount that we show Israel and the mainstream of public opinion that there is a way out, that we don’t have to be talking about this conflict for ever more.

    At the moment, Israel is fighting like a dog with nowhere to run. We need to give her an option that allows her to withdraw with dignity and safety.

    Norman Finkelstein ends his lecture with an optimistic quote, passed on to him by Edward Said, the sadly departed post-colonialist scholar and acute advocate for Palestinian rights. It was a quote from the poet Aimè Cèsaire:

    “There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.”

    UK Jewish Film Festival Review

    I am not Jewish. For me, it is hard work hacking through the thorny tangle of Jewishness. What am I to make of the Holocaust, murderous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism? What am I to make of the foundation of the state of Israel, Israel’s wars of independence and expansion and the on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? What am I to make of the failures of the peace process, the battle for Jewish demographic supremacy in Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA and the UK? The global Jewish population is tiny, only about the size of the London commuter belt, but there is no question that ‘Jewishness’ captures the world’s imagination in mysterious ways, polarised, quite often, between fear and hatred, and blind defence behind the shield of history.

    Thankfully, the UKJFF tackled ‘The Jewish Question’ head on with a tongue-in-cheek short before each of the films. It was a telling of the famous ‘So, Mrs Cohen…’ joke (google it) by various comedians and celebrity Jews, including David Baddiel, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Vanessa Feltz and Rabbi Lionel Blue. We’re forced to examine the joke: is the humour inclusive or exclusive? Is the joke anti-Semitic? Funny? Just plain bad? Is it okay to laugh? The film ends with the Victor Borge quote, ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,’ and the ice is broken.

    The feature films, particularly Diplomat and Protektor, tackle intensely Jewish narratives: modern social problems in Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the stories themselves are not necessarily Jewish, they are universal tales of love, loss and redemption.

    Diplomat is a superbly-shot documentary film about immigrants to Israel from the USSR. Over one million Jews have immigrated into Israel since the breakup of the USSR, drawn by the promise of a better life among their own people. In a country with a total population of only 5 million in 1991, absorption of these immigrants represented a serious social difficulty, and it continues to this day. The film follows the lives, loves and losses of a few hundred Soviet immigrants who were temporarily housed in the five-star Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. Now, over fifteen years later, temporary has become permanent. There’s a war veteran with a hundred medals on his uniform, an elderly dancer with an obsession for hats and a man who roams the hallways with a cat draped over his shoulders. A former Soviet piano virtuoso is now reduced to playing for tiny audiences in the hotel. ‘Here my life ended,’ he says. ‘Israel is a prison sentence. I did feel good once in Israel – when I was under general anaesthetic.’ This bitter-sweet tone goes through the film. We spend time with a young violinist who lives in a room with his grand-mother and dreams of studying under an Italian master, but is ashamed of his old violin. The hotel fixer secures a grant of $10,000 for him, but shortly afterwards his grand-mother dies and the film ends with him packing her life into boxes.

    Protektor is a film about the Holocaust, but it is much more than that: it is a story of trapped lives and forced decisions. A Czech radio announcer chooses to become the voice of the Nazi occupation to protect his Jewish wife, his wife chooses obliteration over the claustrophobia of mere survival, another employee of the radio station chooses to marry a Nazi official, but her former boyfriend chooses execution over collaboration. Deals are made and broken, relationships are forged and betrayed and lives are survived or destroyed as events spiral out of the characters’ control to the film’s inevitable tragic end. The scenario may be unique to Jewish history, but the moral ambiguity of the decisions forced on the characters and their blurred lines of loyalty are only too human.

    Broken Lines, slated for a wider release in 2011, is lovingly filmed against the backdrop of our very own Finsbury Park. A young Jewish man, obsessed with the death of his father, the failure of his parents’ marriage and the trap of his own impending marriage, transfers his obsession to a young waitress, herself locked in a stunted relationship. The two lives are drawn together in a tight embrace as the characters struggle to break free of the past and to move forward into a brighter future.

    This was an appropriate film to finish the series with because it was the least obviously ‘Jewish’ and the most obviously ‘human’ story. When I consider ‘Jewishness’ in the future, from crass Jewish jokes, to social upheaval in Israel and the Holocaust, I will remember that these are, above all, human lives.


    The UK Jewish Film Festival is in London, 4-21 November 2010. On tour around UK January – March 2011. I saw Diplomat (Israel, 2009); Protektor (Czech Republic, 2009); and Broken Lines (UK/Canada/USA, 2008).

    A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

    Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

    A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

    Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

    The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

    There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

    Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

    I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

    I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

    There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

    At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!

    The Gaza Freedom March report

    In December 2009, over 1,300 international peace activists arrived in Egypt expecting to travel through Egypt to Gaza and to break the siege. The march brought together all kinds of groups: feminists, Vietnam veterans, worker’s unions, Palestinian solidarity groups, Israeli journalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – our diversity epitomised by Hedy Epstein, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor.

    The Gaza Freedom March was organised by The International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza. This organisation was formed after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in Winter 2008-09. The coalition conceived this march as part of a broader strategy to end the Israeli occupation by targeting nonviolently its flagrant violations of international law from the house demolitions and settlements to the curfews and torture. But, on our arrival, the Egyptian authorities prevented us from gathering together as a group and revoked our permits to travel to Gaza.

    We protested the decision: some members of the march went on hunger strike, 300 people from the French delegation made an encampment outside their embassy for a week. Eventually, one of the groups who helped organised the march, CodePink, opened dialogue with Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian President. After some negotiations, it was announced that two buses would be allowed to go to Gaza. This made a mockery of the stated reason for our detention in Cairo: our security. Furthermore, the Egyptian foreign minister made an announcement to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had vetted the members of the march and these 100 were the only people who had genuine humanitarian aims for Gaza. Having been involved in the chaotic process by which the list of the 100 was created, I can state categorically that this was not the case. I was telephoned in the evening of the 29th of December and told I had 5 minutes to provide two names of people who would represent the United Kingdom. This was farcical: I had no particular mandate to speak for everyone who came from the UK – I just happened to be the person they had the telephone number of.

    This process created a rift among the marchers; in many ways the Egyptian government played the game very cleverly. They gave us just enough room to make our protest, but ensured that it didn’t spread beyond the confines of our visit. Then they drove a wedge between the organisers who accepted Suzanne Mubarak’s offer and the vast majority of the marchers who were angry that not everyone would be allowed to go to Gaza.

    As it happened, I ended up on the bus bound for Gaza. As we sat in the bus waiting to leave, one of the organisers of the march in Gaza called. He said that he didn’t want us to come like this; the march was supposed to be an act of solidarity and shouldn’t be divisive. Hearing this, I got off the bus, much relieved.

    After another day of protests in Cairo, I decided to get the night bus to Israel to see the conflict for myself.

    Living expenses: Egypt 2009

    !!! Disclaimer: Some of these prices are subject to negotiation with your vendor. They are guidelines only. However, I do not claim to be that great at haggling so these are neither as cheap as you can get, nor as expensive as you can pay. I try to buy from markets aimed at the local inhabitants but still expect to pay a premium for my tourist status.

    Travel

    Taxi

    Zamalek to Maadi, Cairo 25LE
    Cairo Airport to Zamalek 75LE (should be marginally cheaper, therefore, to down-town)

    Train

    Cairo Metro ticket 1LE
    Cairo-Aswan 109LE
    Edfu-Cairo 98LE
    Aswan-Edfu 17LE
    Elbalyana-Cairo 85LE

    Accommodation

    Hostel in Downtown Cairo, 2 persons, no bath 120LE, with bath 140LE
    Hotel in Zamelek Cairo, 1 person, with bath 190LE
    Hotel Aswan, 2 persons 80LE
    Hotel Edfu, 2 persons 150LE

    Communications

    Internet 5-10LE per hour
    Mobile Phone SIM card 90LE

    Food & Drink

    Market Fruit and Vegetables

    1kg tomatoes 0.50LE
    1kg Guava 3.50LE
    1kg Melon 5LE
    0.5kg Peppers 1.50LE
    1kg cucumbers 2LE
    1kg bananas 3LE
    1 egg 0.50LE
    1kg oranges 1-2LE
    1kg Apricots 5LE
    1kg carob 24LE
    1kg peanuts 13LE
    1kg pumpkin seeds 26LE

    Take Away Food

    1 Taamiyya in pitta (Felafel) 1.50LE
    1 pot Koshuri 2LE
    Omelette 3LE
    Fuul 1.50LE
    1 Maison Thomas Sandwich 25LE
    1 fiteer 11LE
    1 large kebab 8-10LE

    Restaurant Food

    Penne al’Arrabiata and drink, Didos, Zamalek 20LE
    Salad at Al-Azhar park 18LE

    Drinks

    1 large bottle of water 1.50LE
    1l mango juice 12LE
    1 cup of tea 1.50LE
    1 cup of coffee 1.50LE
    1 mango juice 1.50LE
    1 orange juice 0.50LE
    1.5ltr Asab (sugar cane) juice 3LE

    From the Bakery

    1 piece hot fresh bread 0.05LE
    1 leavened bread roll long 0.25LE
    1kg biscuits 10LE
    1 chocolate croissant 1.50LE

    Tourism

    Ibn Tulun Mosque entry 5LE
    Normal park entry 1-2LE
    Al-Azhar park entry 5LE

    Other

    Cigarettes 8.50LE
    Sheesha (apple flavour) 2LE
    Postcard small 2LE, large 5LE
    Print 1 page text 1-3LE
    Small bag of Ariel washing powder 1LE

    The Man on the Train

    The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
    ‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
    ‘I have’

    He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.

    He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
    ‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
    ‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
    ‘London-On-Sea.’
    ‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
    ‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
    I’m not too good on conversation.

    Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.

    Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.

    ‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
    He replies: ‘Lebanon.’

    The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.

    Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.

    ‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
    ‘… Gosh.’
    ‘Yeah. It is bad.’

    At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.

    ‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
    ‘Your family?’
    He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’

    He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’

    I look down at my bottle of water.

    ‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.

    ‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.

    ‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.

    ‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

    He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.

    ‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.

    ‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?

    ‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’

    He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’

    ‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
    ‘They want to flatten them?’
    ‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’

    ‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
    ‘Bombed?’
    ‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

    ‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’

    ‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
    ‘Smaller than… a football.’

    ‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.

    ‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.

    ‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

    I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’

    He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

    We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

    ‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’

    I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
    ‘I hope your family are alright.’
    ‘It is life, my friend.’

    He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

    I wish I’d asked his name.


    This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

    The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.

    It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.

    Travel expenses: Spain & Morocco 2005

    In the Spring of 2005, I travelled to Spain and Morocco to study Spanish and tour el-Andalus and the land of the Moors. These were my travel costs:

    Flights (to and from Spain):

    £84.48

    Spanish travel costs:

    £1055.06
    39 days @ £27.05 / day
    Travel primarily by coach: Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid, Gibraltar

    Spanish language school (including accommodation):

    £356.50
    14 days @ £25.46 / day

    Morocco travel costs:

    £177.91
    14 days @ £12.71 / day
    Travel primarily on bus and train: Tangiers, Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, Essaouira, Fes, Chefchaouen