Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Growing up in the ‘Country of Men’: Libya under Colonel Gadaffi

"In the Country of Men" is a novel set in Tripoli during the rule of Colonel Gadaffi. It is not however, primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon.

The story begins in 1979, eight days after 9 year-old Suleiman’s neighbor, Ustath Rashid, "vanished like a grain of salt in water" after being carted off by Revolutionary Guards. Suleiman's baba, Faraj, is away on a business trip, and his mother is getting over an "illness." But when Suleiman goes shopping with his mum, he sees his baba downtown, wearing unfamiliar sunglasses and disappearing into a strange building. Nor is his mother's illness anything so straightforward as a cold.

His mum is only "ill" when his dad is away, Suleiman explains. She gets her "medicine" in bottles wrapped in black plastic bags that the baker keeps hidden under his counter.

On those nights, Suleiman is afraid to leave her alone, and she regales him with stories, like his hero Scheherezade. Only instead of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, his mom, Najwa, tells him about how, at 14, she was forced to leave school and marry an older man she had never met as a punishment. Her crime was holding hands in a cafe with a boy.

But much of what Najwa tells her son is difficult for a 9-year-old to bear. "The things she told me pressed down on my chest, so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them. I didn't want to break my promise – the promise she always forced me to give, sometimes 30 times over in one night, not to tell, to swear on her life, again and again...."

And when Suleiman can't hold the words back she reproaches him, saying, "I beg you, don't embarrass me.... A boy your age should never speak of such things."

Although a compulsive storyteller while drunk, Najwa has little patience for Scheherezade. "Scheherezade was a coward who accepted slavery over death," she snaps at the son she calls her "prince," retelling the final chapter with feminist fury, as Scheherezade gathers her three sons about her and begs to live.

" 'To live,' she repeated. 'And not because she had as much right to as he, but because if he were to kill her his sons would live "motherless" ... My guess: five, maybe ten years at the most before she got the sword.' "

But in daily life, Najwa makes the same choice as the scorned queen.

"Here it's either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave," as she explains to Moosa, an Egyptian friend whose business schemes (Polish tires, chickens) are a source of much amusement. She drinks because she's terrified: Suleiman's father is a political dissident. During his "business trips," he writes the prodemocracy pamphlets Suleiman and his friends see people ripping up on their doorsteps.

Now that their neighbour has been interrogated on live TV, Najwa is certain that Faraj will be next. She burns all his books (except one that Suleiman hides in his own room) and hangs a giant picture of "The Guide" on their wall. And when Faraj doesn't come home, she bakes a cake and goes to a high-ranking neighbour to beg for the life of the man of whom she once fainted at first sight. Matar's writing is strikingly poetic. He brings as much detail to a boy's whimsical thought of mulberries as a crop planted by angels to remind Adam and Eve of paradise as he does to a public execution. And that detail helps to bring to life a place where the TV programs shift from interrogations to a still life of pink flowers, and where people are hanged in stadiums from basketball hoops, to the cheering of crowds.

While it's never a good idea to read too much autobiography into a novel, author Hisham Matar does share certain characteristics with his narrator. Both were 9 when they left Libya – although Matar was accompanied by his parents, and Suleiman is sent abroad alone. Matar's father was also a dissident, although he was not politically active until after the family was living in Egypt. In 1990, his father was kidnapped from Cairo and returned to Tripoli, where he was imprisoned and tortured. The family hasn't heard any news since 1995.

"Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that's why many feel it must be anxiously guarded," Suleiman writes years later from his home in Cairo, where his "stray dog" status means that he can't return to Libya and his family isn't allowed to leave.

The too-hasty coda is the only weak part of the novel. The grown-up Suleiman glosses over the experience of exile in a way that seems at odds with the sensitive, confused child he once was.

That said, "In the Country of Men" is an eloquent and absorbing account of life in this benighted country during a particularly dark period of its recent past....

From Libya’s Tripoli International Airport (now back in action after the civil war), I pay the princely sum of £96.60 for a flight on Tunisair to Tunis’ Carthage Airport in Tunisia. The flight takes 1 hour and 10 minutes, leaving at 3.25pm, but I arrive in Tunis at 3.35pm due to the hour’s time difference, for the next leg of my round the world trip...

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Taxi to Cairo: Viewing Egypt from the Back of a Cab

“Taxi” is an interesting patchwork of a novel by the freshly-minted Egyptian journalist-commentator-filmmaker cum writer Khaled al-Khamissi. The fifty-eight chapters that comprise this unusual book represent fifty-eight separate taxi rides taken by the narrator, who is merely the guise of a thinly-veiled al-Khamissi. This work is, in some sense, an ethnographic novel in that it attempts to portray the working lives of Cairo's 80,000+ taxi drivers through punctuated scenes (chapters) which are a cross-section of that part of society.

Al-Khamissi's portrayal of the Cairene cabby is definitely sympathetic though not patronising. While giving due credence to the unique social and political perspectives that taxi drivers maintain by virtue of their near-constant physical presence on the maddening city streets, he does not shy away from revealing some of the wackier encounters with those drivers who spout conspiracy theories, conservatism and tales of faux poverty.

There are moments of knowing and astute political irony in Taxi. An example of the meta-critique of Egyptian government that pervades the book occurs in chapter seven, where the driver laments Egypt's arcane statutes regarding seatbelts and the myriad laws and tariffs and cost of it all to be borne by the poor taxi driver. At the end of that particular encounter after mentioning how he skirts the law by only installing a decorative rather than functional seat belt to appease the authorities, the driver tells the narrator: "We live a lie and believe it. The government's only role is to check that we believe the lie, don't you think?"

Mr. al-Khamissi works hard at being representational of the whole of Egyptian society through the work of the commentary and dialogue offered by his characters. Yet in his desire for a complete cross-section of Cairo taxi culture all of the offstage laboring by the author began to seep into the text. The first twenty-five episodes are interesting and insightful but they eventually began to feel like a gimmick and came perilously close to monotony. If it were a television series it would have been canceled after half a season.

But it is not episodic television, it is is a book, and its annoyances do not detract from its originality as an interesting new voice in pop-Arab fiction. The chapters provide often captivating nuggets of insight into the concerns and ebbs and flows of daily life in one of the world's largest cities, and most important countries. A helpful glossary in the back is included for readers less familiar with details of the culture.

Jonathan Wright's English translation of the colloquial Egyptian Arabic is good though a bit uneven. Yet Wright is to be commended for taking a frenetic text and rendering it into something readable and perhaps appealing for an English-speaking audience. We ought to have more popular fiction in translation and not just higher-brow literary novels (“Taxi” has been on Arabic language bestsellers lists for more than a year).

Credit to D. Chaudoir for this review.

In reaching my next destination, again, I go for the flight option, given the overland issues in this region. Therefore, for around $300, I take an 8am Royal Jordanian flight from Cairo International Airport, arriving back in Amman, Jordan at 10.15am (allowing for the time difference). After a short stopover there, where I take a quick lunch break, I am on the 11.40am flight to Tripoli, touching down at 1.45pm, and visiting Libya courtesy of “In The Country of Men” by native author Hisham Matar, of which more in my next post…

Friday, 9 March 2012

Leap of Faith: the Queen of Jordan’s Memoirs of an Unexpected Life

The Jordanian book on my journey is an autobiography of Queen Noor al Hussein (born as Lisa Halaby into a distinguished Arab-American family and raised amid privilege in the US, while visiting her father in Jordan she was casually introduced on the airport runway to King Hussein. After a whirlwind, secret courtship Lisa Halaby became Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan).

The sub-title of this engaging book is Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. For a young American woman to marry an Arab king was indeed unexpected but not entirely unpredicted. At a farewell dinner at a restaurant in Tehran, an acquaintance told Lisa Halaby her fortune in the traditional Middle Eastern way, by reading her coffee cup. He turned over the cup, flipped it back, and studied the patterns within. "You will return to Arabia," he predicted. "And you will marry someone highborn, an aristocrat from the land of your ancestors." That man turned out to be King Hussein of Jordan.

Halaby was born into a prominent Arab-American family. Her father, Najeeb Halaby, was a successful businessman and public servant but a demanding and difficult individual. The father's relentless perfectionism could not be reconciled with the mother's quest for family peace and the marriage was dissolved.

As a child Lisa was earnest and introverted, a loner by temperament, and she was to remain impatient with small-talk and gossip. Part of this social awkwardness, she confesses, is rooted in her relationship with her father. One of the positive results of growing up in this "moderately dysfunctional American family" was self-reliance. Lisa joined the first freshman class at Princeton to accept women, graduating in 1974 with a degree in architecture and urban planning.

Leap of Faith is the story of her remarkable journey into Hussein's heart and their 21 years of marriage, ending with the king's death in 1999. For Hussein it was evidently love at first sight. For the young, independent-minded American woman, the courtship, over long evenings in the palace, involved some doubts. The king was a widower with eight children from three marriages and a reputation as a playboy. "I will not deny that the idea of being his fourth wife, or anybody's fourth wife, was troubling to me," she writes. But the king was an assiduous suitor and would even sing to her. Though she was not as drawn to the Swedish group Abba as he was, she was charmed when he would croon "Take a chance on me".

Having accepted the royal proposition of marriage, Lisa Halaby changed her name to Noor Al Hussein, the "Light of Hussein". She also converted to Islam and began in earnest to learn Arabic. The love affair with Hussein developed into a love affair with his desert kingdom.

As well as being an intimate portrait of a marriage, Leap of Faith reflects a deep commitment to the people, culture, and natural beauty of Jordan. "I had found myself spellbound," writes Noor, "by the serene expanse of desert landscape washed golden by the retreating sun at dusk. I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sensation of belonging, an almost mystical sense of peace."

There was precious little peace, however, to be found inside the royal palace. Noor knew she had to make some adjustments to her new environment but she found the lack of privacy irksome and unsettling. Court officials were ubiquitous and they constantly intruded on her private space. Over the years she came to realise that some of this dissonance was cultural - "the difference between a western sense of privacy and personal space and an eastern emphasis on communal identity and space". This was a characteristically charitable explanation for the conduct of the courtiers.

Noor also had to fight to carve out a meaningful role for herself. Many in Jordan thought a queen should be a glamorous figure on a pedestal, perhaps engaged from a distance in charity work. Noor had no intention of being a mere figurehead and spending her time simply opening bazaars and expositions. On the contrary, she wanted to be involved in tackling real problems.

Through the United Nations and other organisations, Noor became involved in issues that were important to her, such as global peacekeeping, refugee assistance and the Land Mine Ban Treaty. Most of her time and energy, however, were taken up with work in the areas of women's and children's welfare, human rights, health, education, and the environment.

She became acutely aware that all these problems, tackled in isolation by individual ministries and charities, were fundamentally inter-related. Her role, as she saw it, was to serve as a catalyst for consensus-building and action. In 1985, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation was established. Its aim was to provide strategies for sustainable development and integrating efforts to tackle these problems in a concerted manner.

While King Hussein supported his wife's domestic initiatives, he himself was mainly preoccupied with foreign affairs and more particularly with the quest for peace in the Middle East in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. Politics thus became a constant companion to Queen Noor throughout the 21 years of her marriage.

She is a highly sophisticated political animal with strong liberal leanings, and a perceptive judge of personalities. In writing this autobiography, she relied not just on her memory but also on a journal she kept intermittently. Her book contains fascinating accounts of encounters with American, Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders. It also sheds a great deal of new light on inter-Arab relations and on the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One theme that crops up again and again in Noor's narrative is the frustration and anger she feels in the face of American double standards towards the Middle East. From Jordan she began to see the land of her birth through new eyes - and the image that America projected was not a positive one.

Noor had grown up believing in America's commitment to freedom, justice, and human rights, but she gives many examples of Washington's failure to uphold these principles in its treatment of Jordan. She complains, with justice, that America's support for Israel has too often been at the expense of Arab human rights and in violation of international law and United Nations resolutions.

Throughout the 1980s Noor undertook several intensive speaking tours in America, grueling two-week marathons of speeches and interviews. The American media offered few perspectives on the Middle East other than that of Israel. Noor was uniquely placed to educate her fellow Americans about the problems of the region but it was an uphill struggle.

The warmest reception Hussein received in America was in 1994 when he and Itzhak Rabin went to the White House to issue the Washington Declaration, ending the conflict between Jordan and Israel. Members of the Jordanian delegation could now see first-hand the magical hold that Israel had on the American political psyche.

On at least one issue Noor was at odds with her husband and the leaders of her adopted country: press freedom. From the first years of their marriage, she lobbied her husband and his key officials to reconsider personal and institutional freedoms. The press in Jordan, though privately owned, was effectively government-controlled. Truly independent reporting did not exist. A combination of conservatism and insecurity made the rulers wary of allowing the people to read dissenting opinions. By her own account, Noor's pleas fell on largely deaf ears. In this respect she was a bit like a lighthouse in the desert: brilliant and illuminating but of little use to her immediate environment.

However, politics aside, there is also a very human story here; and the final chapters that deal with the King’s death after a long struggle with cancer are genuinely moving.

All in all, I felt this was a fascinating insight into a rarified element of Jordan – whilst not representative of the day to day lives of most ordinary citizens, did at least give an insight into the wider politics of the country and, through Queen Noor al Hussein’s work with various charities, an insight into some of the wider issues affected the country’s populace…

From Jordan I head to Egypt. Whilst this country has been making international headlines of late due to its political and government issues; I shall be taking a change of focus and spending my time there in the company of various Cairo cabbies, through fictional monologues contained in the book, “Taxi” by native author Khaled Al Khamissi.

Having researched overland routes to Cairo from Amman, it seems all of these involve travelling back into Israel and out again, which given the problems encountered in my last two trips I decide to avoid! So, once again I take to the skies with Royal Jordanian airlines and fly from Amman Queen Alia International airport, leaving at 9pm, and arrive 1 and a half hours later at Cairo International Airport at 9.30pm (allowing for the hours’ time difference); for the princely sum of US $239. The travel to my final destination in Egypt is easy – I just get into a taxi!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Israel: Amos Oz finds Poetry in a Sea of Humanity

On arriving at a book to represent Israel, I was in two minds. One cannot consider Israel without considering Palestine and the wider Middle Eastern ‘problem.’ However, whilst I chose a book on the conflict’s impact upon Palestine in my previous trip as I felt this was a story that needed to be told, I felt that maybe more would be achieved by - rather than a mirror story set in Israel – picking a work that went beyond the conflict and into a more personal account of this country. As such, I am delighted that I came across “The Same Sea” by Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most renowned authors, and one who has been heavily involved in his nation's issues, critical of the wrong turnings on the road to a settlement, and ever hopeful of a humane solution.

In this respect, you might say that “The Same Sea” is the most timely of books to come out of Israel. Not because it addresses the issues of conflict, but rather, as Oz suggests at one point here, because it steadfastly does not: 'At times like these, quiet is the most precious commodity in the country,' his narrator observes. 'And let there be no misunderstanding, I'm talking about quiet, definitely not about silence.'

“The Same Sea” is a novel in verse - though some of the poetry is possibly lost in translation. Nevertheless, the presentation - brief chapters of varying length (and form), each a 'poem' in and of itself but, as different threads of one story, all connected - is very effective, and makes for an impressive whole.

The story is fairly simple. The central character is Albert Danon, a recently widowed accountant. His son, Enrico (called 'Rico') is travelling abroad - in the Himalayas when the book begins, then making his way through South-East Asia - reluctant to return to Israel. Rico's girlfriend, Dita, gets ripped-off by a film producer (she's written a movie script) and turns to Albert for help - and moves in with him. Albert fixes things, and the movie producer turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. Albert still misses his wife terribly. Dita's presence in the household is welcome but also causes him some inner turmoil - and then there's the other woman in his life, Bettine, who feels more strongly for him than he does for her.

Even the narrator pops up:

The fictional Narrator puts the cap back on his pen and pushes away the writing pad. He is tired. And his back aches. He asks himself how on earth he came to write such a story. Bulgarian, Bat Yam, written in verse and even, here and there, in rhyme.

It's all fairly simple, the short episodes moving back and forth among the characters, looking towards the past, present, and future. Yet for all that - or because of all that, because of the glimpses rather than detailed, continuous narrative, and the somewhat lighter touch of poetic rather than prose renderings - it is a completely gripping tale, these lives and what happens to them all of great interest. In true-life form, the story meanders back and forth, among the characters and in time, the everyday and the exceptional easily mixed, occasionally confused, yet with Oz never trying to explain too much.

“The Same Sea” seems almost unambitious, and yet in these small, intertwined fates and in this presentation is a more powerful and effecting work than many far longer novels. Very impressive, highly recommended.

(Complete Review)

And so, happy to have found such an extraordinary - and unexpected - gem on my travels, I leave Israel for neighbouring Jordan. I also leave fiction for a while as the next work is an autobiography of Queen Noor al Hussein (born as Lisa Halaby into a distinguished Arab-American family and raised amid privilege in the US, while visiting her father in Jordan she was casually introduced on the airport runway to King Hussein. After a whirlwind, secret courtship Lisa Halaby became Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan).

Having gone through the palaver of travelling in and out of Israel and Palestine over the past few weeks, I decide to pay a bit extra and fly direct to Amman in Jordan for my next leg. I take a Royal Jordanian flight from Tel Aviv Yafo airport at 8.25 in the morning (for US$281) and 45 minutes later I am touching down in Amman, the capital of Jordan…

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Palestine: A Graphic Account

If the mention of comic books still calls to mind images of caped crusaders and anthropomorphic mice, the graphic front-line reportage of Joe Sacco should upend your preconceptions. While the comic-book form typically deals with fantasy of a lurid and questionable kind, Sacco's cartoons address the extremes of an altogether different world - our own.

Originally published in 1993 as a nine-issue comic series, ‘Palestine’ is an illustrated account of the cartoonist's visit to the Occupied Territories during 1991 and 1992. Focusing on how private lives are impacted by public policies, Sacco depicts a retaliatory loop of routine horror, while navigating the region's infernal history and political sensitivities. Now republished in a single 300-page volume with a new introduction by the critic and historian Edward Said, Palestine remains, in light of recent events, as pertinent as ever. With luck, the graphic novel format will afford some measure of contact with booksellers beyond the ghetto of specialist comic stores and introduce Sacco's work to the wider audience it undoubtedly deserves.

Drawing on first-hand experiences, extensive research and more than 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews, Sacco has gained access to unusually intimate testimony, giving space to details and perspectives normally excluded by mainstream media coverage. The enthusiasm and frequency with which Sacco is hauled into the homes of those he meets - to listen, take notes and drink endless cups of tea - underlines the desperation of the people he encounters; their hopes are pinned not on political promises but on telling their stories to a stranger who writes comic books.

Although the critical response to the American edition of Palestine has been overwhelmingly positive, a number of stridently Zionist web sites have, perversely, accused Sacco of 'Jew-bashing' and his Seattle publisher receives the occasional piece of hate mail. Yet Palestine is a remarkably even-handed work and essentially humanist in tone: 'What can happen to someone who thinks he has all the power? What becomes of someone when he believes himself to have none?'

The original Palestine comic series won the 1996 American Book Award and the illustrations have since been exhibited across the US. The book's imagery is vivid, memorably atmospheric and faithful to the landscapes and cities of Palestine. It also evokes an almost surreal routine of bureaucratic harassment, roadblocks and tear gas, punctuated only by moments of mordant humour.

Despite the careful characterisation of those around him, Sacco's cartoon self is slightly unreal - a grotesquely exaggerated figure, complete with enormously elastic lips - a formlessness that, curiously, invites identification. However, his draughtsmanship is perhaps best demonstrated by his complex crowd scenes, with their differentiated faces, pointed detail and disjointed snippets of overheard speech and interior narrative.

Although Palestine is both visually engaging and a labour of artistic love, at its heart lies a commitment to hard-edged journalism and a challenge to the objectivity of the Western (and particularly American) media: 'I came from the standpoint of "Palestinian equals terrorist". That's what filtered down in the course of watching the regular network news.' Sacco makes no pretence of the observer's invisibility and depicts his own initial disbelief of reported detentions and torture. Nor does he shy away from revealing his own ambiguities as a visiting Western journalist. (As a street demonstration threatens to erupt into violence, we see him bolstering his confidence by repeating to himself: 'It's good for the comic, it's good for the comic.')

With Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco has assumed the unlikely role of the pre-photography war artist, while exploiting the narrative and textual devices of the comic book. Others have employed the comics form to tell political, non-fictional or biographical stories, among them Steve Darnall, Marjane Satrapi and Ho Che Anderson, but Sacco's work is unique in its scale and ambition.

Approaching such daunting topics with a disreputable and supposedly juvenile medium may seem futile, even absurd, yet Sacco's greatest achievement is to have so poignantly depicted contradiction, oppression and horror in a form that manages to be both disarming and disquieting. Palestine not only demonstrates the versatility and potency of its medium, but it also sets the benchmark for a new, uncharted genre of graphic reportage.

(edited review from The Observer, Sunday 5 January 2003)

From Palestine, I make my way back through the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Rafah Border Crossing to Egypt, as described in my previous review – just in reverse! Once back at Cairo I get a Royal Jordanian flight to Tel Aviv in Israel (for US$311), leaving at 15.30 and arriving 21.45 in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport (after a brief stopover in Amman in Jordan).

From the airport I take a taxi to Bat Yam, a city located on Israel's Mediterranean Sea coast, on the central coastal strip, just south of Tel Aviv, where I commence my next leg of my round the world trip with “The Same Sea,” a poetic novel by renowned Israeli author Amos Oz….

Monday, 16 January 2012

In the Lebanon: Loving Beirut (but not the book I’m afraid…)

Lebanon, and its capital city Beirut, has long been a source of fascination for me. As a young child growing up in the UK the news stories of this particular war torn country, for some reason made an impact which has always stuck with me. I was especially curious on this journey to read about the real experiences of people actually living in Beirut – a city that has gained an almost mythical image of anarchy and chaos in the West: people still refer disparagingly to local run-down or crime-ridden areas by saying “it’s like Beirut”…

As such I really wanted to like “Beirut: I Love You,”, the next book on my journey. But I’m afraid I didn’t…..and I did try!

It is not that the book is all that badly written, and there ARE some interesting insights into life in Beirut, but I just could not get on with the narrator; who comes across - in my opinion – rather too much like a self-absorbed and rather unsympathetic teenager.

Perhaps it is just me and for fairness I shall cover this book via the publisher copy on the book:

“This is the story of Zena, a young woman who has fallen under the spell of a city that threatens to engulf her in war, grief and love affairs. In the streets armed militias carve out their territories, while ragged construction workers rebuild the city. Refugees sleep five to a bed as bleach-blondes wend their way to the next drug-fuelled supernightclub. At any moment, the bombs will start falling. Meanwhile, Zena and her best friend Maya must try to make sense of their lives amidst the craziness, and negotiate the city's many obsessions including cosmetic surgery, husband hunting and Kalashnikovs. As honest as it is forgiving, this artist's memoir pits love and art against the ever-present threat of war.”

Other readers have seemed to like it, so I won’t discourage you from giving it a try. Just wasn’t my cup of tea I’m afraid…

And so I make my way from war-torn Beirut to another war-torn area – Gaza in the Gaza Strip area of Palestine. Whilst only 175 miles away, the regional issues of politics, war and terrorism make this one of my most difficult and frustrating trips…

The Gaza Strip has three crossing points; two are designed for civilian entry and exit. The first, ‘Erez’, is controlled by Israel and is under near-total lockdown. The other, ‘Rafah’, borders with Egypt and is essentially under Egyptian control.

The Rafah Border Crossing (‘Rafah’) is open at least 5 days per week and is the size of a small airport terminal. On each operating day, Palestinians and internationals attempt to enter and exit the Strip. Egypt caps how many entrances take place per day at around 500-700.

For Palestinians, entry and exit via Rafah is renowned as one of the most cumbersome and bureaucratically difficult crossing points in the world. Rafah also represents an often difficult crossing for internationals too, as I soon find out….

The first part of my journey is straightforward enough: I fly Egyptair from Beirut to Cairo in just one and a half hours for $206. Having already done my research on this journey I have realised that I need a pretext to enter Gaza. As the situation stands, you cannot simply visit Gaza for ‘tourism’. My cover for travelling is as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to help document human rights abuses. Please note: whatever the purpose of visiting, you need a signed letter from a notable Gaza-based organisation (like ISM) to personally invite you for a set period of time. This organisation is sometimes referred to as your ‘host’..

You then, via email, submit your personal details, the dates of your planned visit and the letter of invitation from your host to the Egyptian embassy in London. Within 2–3 weeks you will receive a permission letter from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry; this permission letter permits you to use the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing..

On arriving at the airport I purchase an Egypt entry visa (£10) in order to pass through the passport control stations, then take a taxi from Cairo’s airport to the centre of Cairo (for about £20). .

After a night’s rest in Cairo (cheap hotels start at around £10 per night) I take a taxi from Cairo to the Rafah crossing - this long-distance journey usually takes 6 hours so I hire a private driver, costing £50 (I use one recommended by my hotel). My driver, like many others, starts the journey early - at just after 3am - to arrive at Rafah as the crossing opens at 9am (stopping two-thirds of the way through the journey to have breakfast at a cafe-restaurant). .

On arriving at Rafah, I show my passport, the Egyptian permission letter and the Gazan-based organisation invitation letter to the guard at the gate. I wait for about 40 minutes while they authenticate my documents, and then I am ushered through the crossing through the gates..

I follow the flow of pedestrians and enter the Egyptian side’s Rafah terminal building. I go to the Passport Control desk and get a non-Egyptian entry form, fill it in and get it stamped (for about £10) then take the entry form, passport and two (permission and invitation) letters back to the Passport Control desk. My details are checked once again. Then after an hour my name is shouted out by a Passport Control agent. .

I am then given back my passport stamped with an Egypt exit stamp, I proceed through the terminal building, passing through another Egyptian guard desk; my passport is checked for an exit stamp and a guard reads my permission and invitation letters. I then need to pay £15 before I the Egyptian side’s terminal for an exit ticket..

Again following the flow of pedestrians, I purchase a coach ticket (£5), and board the coach, which takes me through to the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing. .

I then enter the Palestinian side’s terminal building and present my passport and two letters to an officer at one of the passport control booths. .

I sit down with security officers who ask me to be seated while they ask few questions on the purpose of my visit, the location of my Gaza accommodation and which Gazan will kindly act as my trip ‘guide’ person. It takes about 30 minutes to satisfactorily verify my story; the officers place a telephone call to my guide to validate my story and alert him of my arrival and invite them to the terminal (my ‘guide’ is someone I previously organised to act as such from the host organisation that ‘invited’ me to Gaza). On receiving the telephone call, my guide enters the terminal building and also answers a few questions..

We both then complete a form about my visit, and I also fill in an exit registration form, informing the authorities of the date on which they should expect to receieve me at the border to exit into Egypt. On the forms’ completion I then continue through the terminal. .

I have now successfully entered Gaza Strip!.

I then take a private taxi onwards to my destination in Gaza, courtesy of Joe Sacco, and a fascinating graphic novel, “Palestine,” exploring the first Intifada in Palestine in the early 1990s…

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Tales of a Middle Eastern Hedgehog: Stories from Syria

“My mother went to visit our neighbour, Umm Bahaa, but refused to take me with her, on the pretext that women visit women and men visit men. So she left me alone, promising not to be gone more than a few minutes. I told my cat I was going to strangle her, but she paid no attention and continued grooming herself with her tongue.”

Thus we meet the five-year-old narrator of The Hedgehog – my stop-off in Syria - who introduces us to his world: his house (with the djinn girl who lives in his bedroom), his garden (where he wishes to be a tree), and his best friend the black stone wall. This tightly told novella confirms that Zakaria Tamer remains at the height of his powers into the 21st Century (having published his first stories in 1957). The twenty-seven short stories that follow were first published in the collection Tigers on the Tenth Day. Economical and controlled, they deal with man’s inhumanity to man (and to woman) and showcase the author’s typical sharply satirical style.

The stories are full of childish reasoning, as when he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up and he explains he wants to become a thief:

I'll steal from the poor and give what I steal to the rich so that everyone will become rich, and not a single poor person will be left.

And when he finds his older brother's stash of magazines with pictures of nude women (the wall told him where they were hidden ...) he wonders why his brother pays for magazines to see: "what I see for free when I'm at the public bath with my mother."

The remaining stories in the collection are much more varied, describing often harsh conditions and circumstances, but generally with a somewhat satirical edge. Some are very blunt, as in the effective allegory, 'Tigers on the Tenth Day', which describes how a tiger is tamed and concludes devastatingly:

On the tenth day the trainer, the pupils, the tiger, and the cage disappeared -- the tiger became a citizen and the cage a city.

In 'Death of the Jasmine' a woman becomes a teacher, but her class of seven-year-olds are preternaturally (and predatorily) adult - even while retaining elements of their childishness; it ends creepily with them pulling her clothes off as she lies on the floor and:

a frenzied sense of alarm suddenly seized her as the small teeth began gnawing her flesh and striking against solid bone.

Though the stories are short they tend to be very dense, too, and it often isn't clear from the start where Tamer will wind up going with his tale. Violence - political and personal -, sex, and politics mix in many of them, often to surprising effect. A story such as 'The Smile', in which a boy walks in on his mother having sex with a stranger and also imagines being executed is a typical impressive riff in the space of a single page.

Often unsettling, and rarely with anything like a conventional happy ending, Tamer's stories are weightier than most, and give an interesting, personal, sense of the traumas and tribulations of a wider Syrian society. It is timely that the inevitable outcome of such a repressive regime, in the form of public revolt and lethal government crackdown, is playing out daily in Syria on TV screens across the world as I read this book… it also shows that Syrian culture goes far beyond the stereotypical images of Middle Eastern conflict that we are shown via the media.

From Syria I travel to another country that has had it’s fair share of trauma (as have most in this region) – that of Lebanon, with the memoir “Beirut: I Love You” by Zena el Khalil.

For this trip I decide to take the quicker (and cheaper!) option of going overland. I head to the taxi station in Damascus and pick out three other people who look like they are waiting to head across to Lebanon.

The Syrian taxis that ply the 127-kilometer route between the two cities are almost all 1974 Dodge Coronets painted yellow. Some shine with new paint, others look like they're falling apart, but either way, ingenuity has kept them on the road.

The shared taxi costs a mere $10 and the trip over the mountains takes about 2 hours…the border stop off - where I get my Lebanese visa and pay my $10 Syrian exit tax - is surprisingly quick and easy, and in no time I am in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.

An Iraqi in Cyberspace: The Baghdad Blog

In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the major international news channels invested many millions of pounds to guarantee the quality of their coverage. Ambitious young journalists flocked to Iraq, to make their names by reporting the dramatic events in Baghdad. Yet it was a twenty-nine-year-old Iraqi architect, posting a weblog in English ("blogging") from a middle-class Baghdad suburb, who became one of the most authentic voices chronicling the build-up to war, the invasion and its chaotic aftermath. Salam Pax, in a witty, sometimes catty monologue, managed to do what the combined weight of the international media could not. Using a cheap computer and unreliable internet access, he documented the traumas and more importantly the opinions of Iraqis as they faced the uncertainty of violent regime change. My book for Iraq, “The Baghdad Blog,” collects those blog entries together to form a diary of this key period.

"Blogging" was once an obscure activity dominated by those with too much time on their hands and an unhealthy obsession with the internet. Computer geeks would write weblogs detailing the minutiae of their lives, their day-to-day activities and strident opinions. This was a closed, insular and self-referential world, largely concerned with the consumption of popular culture as seen from a darkened bedroom. This is how Salam Pax's own blog began - as a letter to an absent friend.

His early dispatches from Baghdad were dominated by his enthusiasm for obscure pop music and his personal trials and tribulations. But as the US invasion became imminent, the blog was transformed. Pax, increasingly angered by the presumption of Western media who professed to speak for Iraqi public opinion, converted his chronicle, detailing with skill and insight a Baghdad on the verge of war.

The Baghdad Blog then became a window on a population living under tyranny. Risking certain death if discovered, Pax describes the attitude of his friends and family towards the US but also to Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship. For those seeking to understand Iraq, Pax's narrative, straightforward and sincere, is revealing.

If decision-makers in London and Washington had taken the time to consult Pax's musings before the war, their understanding about the country they are now failing to control would have been greatly enhanced. The dominant theme of the blog is mistrust of US motives. As early as October 2002, Pax berates his fellow bloggers outside Iraq who demand that he welcome the coming invasion.

Excuse me. But don't expect me to buy little American flags to welcome the new colonists . . . . how does it differ from Iraq and Britain circa 1920? The civilised world comes to give us, the barbaric nomadic Arabs, a lesson in better living and rid us of all evil (better still, get rid of us Arabs since we're all evil).

Having suffered American indifference in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War, when George Bush Sr urged the population to rise up and then left them to their fate, Iraqis have little time for US claims of altruism.

Informing this cynicism is a tenacious Iraqi nationalism. In popular punditry Iraq is all too frequently described as hopelessly divided by race, religion and clan. Yet any visitor to the country over the past decade has been confronted by an active and pervasive nationalism. Born of the eight-year war of attrition against Iran, it was solidified during the impoverishment caused by sanctions that followed the invasion of Kuwait. Iraqis now take a militant pride that their country survived all that the international community could throw at it. Pax laments the betrayal of this nationalism and all who fought for it, first by Saddam Hussein and then by what he sees as the quasi-colonial invasion of US forces. In late March this year, as he and his family watch Iraqi troops surrender, they are caught between the shame of seeing their own troops give up and a relief that in doing so they managed to save their own lives. Ultimately Pax and his family want Saddam to be consigned to hell, but quickly to be followed by George Bush Jr.

This sense of nationalism, combined with a deep scepticism about American motives, has proved the pre-war predictions of Washington-based exiles to be inaccurate. US troops were not welcomed into Baghdad by hordes of flag-waving Iraqis, but instead by a sullen mistrustful population. Pax argued that "No one inside Iraq is for war (note I said 'war', not 'a change of regime')". And in a comment that must now resonate with Tony Blair, "I think that the coming war is not justified . . .. The excuses for it have been stretched to their limit, they will almost snap".

Explanations for the nationalism that has increasingly come to haunt the occupation are not hard to find. The Baghdad Blog is full of moving examples of the damage done to Iraqi society during the twelve years of sanctions. A young couple that Pax knows became engaged but were unable to get married for lack of money. Finally they each resorted to selling one of their kidneys to raise the $500 needed to build two extra rooms onto the paternal house. Pax goes on to detail the stupidity of sanctions. They "had no effect on Saddam and his power base, (instead) turning us into hostages in a political deadlock between the Iraqi government and the US government". The result was a population swept up by bitterness and poverty that increasingly turned to the certainties of Islam and the mosque.

Despite setting up numerous offices around Baghdad, publishing party newspapers and spending large sums of money, the two main exile groups, the INC and the Iraqi National Accord, have not put down roots in society. Pax treats the exiled opposition with disdain, ridiculing their grandiose meetings in the run-up to war as irrelevant. Once back in Baghdad in the aftermath of the ceasefire, his attitude to them hardens:

What is it with these foreign political parties who have suddenly invaded Baghdad? Do they have no respect for public property? Or since it is the "season of the loot" they think they can just camp out wherever they like and -- ahem "liberate" public buildings. Out! Out! Out! Liberate your own backyard. You have no right to sit in these buildings.

In a highly armed country, Pax describes the rioting and disorder that swept his home city:

To see your city destroyed before your own eyes is not a pain that can be described and put into words. It turns you sour (or is that bitter?). It makes something snap in you and you lose whatever hope you had. Undone by your own hands. Close your doors. Shut your eyes. Hope the black clouds of this ugliness do not reach you.
Pax laments the actions of his fellow Iraqis who steal or smash up public property, "destroying what is theirs".

But he reserves his bitterest indictment for US troops, who stood by while this happened:

If I open the doors for you and watch you steal, am I not an accomplice? They did open the doors. Not to freedom, but to chaos, while they kept what they wanted closed. They decided to turn a blind eye. And systematically did not show up with their tanks until all was gone and there was nothing left.

Finally, by the middle of June, Pax is describing those events that have now come to dominate our television screens, the daily killing of US soldiers by the shadowy forces behind the insurgency. The attacks might be disorganised and sporadic but they achieve the desired result, making it nearly impossible for the American administration "to do anything good or to keep their promises or change people's sentiments. The 'coalition forces' don't feel safe and we don't feel safe either".

Since the publication of The Baghdad Blog, Pax has continued his intermittent chronicle of life in Baghdad under occupation on his own website
( As usual it is well written, highly informative and traces the themes that come to dominate coverage of Iraq. Salam Pax realistically concludes that US forces cannot now withdraw. His great fear is that, having made this mess, they will wash their hands of it prematurely, leaving Iraq to slide into further chaos: "What we all agree upon is that if the Americans pull out now, we will be eaten by the crazy mullahs and imams. G. has decided that this might be a good time to sell our souls to the (US) Devil".

It is often said that journalists get the chance to write the first draft of history. In the US-led regime change in Iraq, the most insightful dispatches were not written by the crowds of well-resourced international journalists sitting in the air conditioned comfort of five-star hotels, but by a scared and irreverent middle-class Iraqi. He was communicating to the world from his bedroom, reporting the feelings of people just like him, Iraqis badly treated by their own government, the United States and the international community. Let us hope he has the chance to report better news in the future.

(Review by Toby Dodge, TLS, Sunday, November 2nd, 2003)

My next stop is Damascus in Syria – a country that has seen its own turbulence of late…the book for this stop “The Hedgehog” is a short novella and collection of short stories by reknowned Syrian author, Zakaria Tamer.

For my journey I shell out the princely sum of £444.80 for a one-way, nine and a half hour flight from Baghdad to Damascus.

Not as straightforward as it could be; this involves leaving at 13.00 from Baghdad airport on an Egyptair flight to Cairo. After a 2 hour connection I take another Egyptair flight to Amman, the capital of Jordan, from where I catch a Royal Jordanian flight that deposits me one hour later in Damascus, at the civilised time of 18.20…