A Travellerspoint blog

Cairo - Learning Arabic in the Beit of Sighs

I didn't expect to be back on this theme so quickly, but after a frank exchange of views, where Hagar made it very clear that I'm painting her in a bad light, by insisting that she spends 90% of our lessons sighing at my incompetence, she wants it made clear, that I too, spend 90% of our lessons sighing at my incompetence.

But the fact of the matter is I scored 100% on my latest homework. 'Nuff said.

Hasnaa has been creative with her homework in as much as she told me to take photos of shop fronts, so I could later translate them into perfect Arabic. Only partly successful, as I render a translation into something I've started to call Arabish. Today's task is to go to a specific shop and order a fruit juice (either Strawberry, Orange, Mango or Sugar Cane. My favourite is anything but the orange as I struggle to say it).

Although most days I feel as if I'm mired in linguistic quicksand (think Anthony Quayle in Ice Cold In Alex - if you haven't seen this film SHAME ON YOU!), I do have minor breakthroughs, and occasionally I put a string of words together (known a s a sentence), which leads to a whoop of joy, from me as well as Hagar and Hasnaa. Progress. Of a sort!

Posted by johnward 12:15 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo - Learning Arabic & Hagar's Sigh

Life? What's it all about? For me, at the moment, its about learning enough Arabic, so that when I order chicken I don't get a puzzled look and am delivered of a pair of socks, and a banjaxed knee.

Today was my first lesson in the building in Tahrir Square and a fine building it is, all Poirot - ee with a fantastic, old fashioned grill work and wooden panelled lift and a door keeper who eyed me as if I was here to steal if not the gold from his teeth, then, the fancy inlay work which I'm sure is there somewhere.

The last time we met my two tutors, Hagar and Hasnaa, they were playing linguistic tag with me, one to the other, befuddling me with all sorts of weird and wonderful apocrypha concerning the Arabic language. Well the befuddlement continues, though in my defence, I have to say that it is over 30 years since I've sat in a classroom and have started to exhibit the memory skills of an empty bucket.

However, today saw either a new low or new high in my destruction of the Arabic language; I suspect the latter. I'd probably been asked 'What is your name?' to which I replied something like 'Yes, I would like a pet monkey very much', when Hagar let out a sigh that would have filled a ship's sails and blown it from Dover to Calais and then, I'm fairly sure, her head hit the table with a bone jarring crash that could be heard in Aswan.

Fortunately (for me at least) our two hours were up and I moved down the corridor to Hasnaa. Hasnaa, you remember, likes to make me sing the alphabet and then force me to butcher the language even further by talking to other members of staff who are there at the time. Today was no different; Mervat and Hamid were the victims of my efforts, but they both behaved admirably.

As somebody said in a movie 'Tomorrow is another day'.

As far as the banjaxed knee is concerned, it has little importance, I just like the word banjaxed - its not used enough. In any language.

Posted by johnward 06:01 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

Cairo - Learning Arabic, Tag Team Style

Don't connect the alif to the left

Forty - five years ago, I remember watching World of Sport waiting for the wrestling to come on - the Silver Fox, Dickie Davis would hand over to Kent Walton, who was stuck in some God forsaken part of the country, Wolverhampton probably, and he would say 'Welcome fight fans...' and off we would go! It was the era of Mick McManus, Les Kellet, the masked ninja, Kendo Nagasaki and my particular favourites the Royal Brothers, tag team extraordinaire! I'm not sure they were actual brothers, I'm not even sure if they were even related; but they were the good guys and they rarely, if ever lost. They were quick, ruthless, put the bad guys down and could play to the gallery. It hardly mattered that the whole thing was fixed.

All this came flooding back as I was watching some Brazilian tag team wresting on tv the other day and it occurred to me that this is how I live at the moment; for five days a week, 9am - 1pm, Hagar and Hasnaa, my two tutors, pass me around, battering me with short vowels, long vowels, aspirants, the 28 letters of the alphabet and their individual sounds (which changes dependent on where they feature in the word), the damma, kasra and fateh, which are the accents above and below letters that also change their sounds. I may also add here that Arabic letters not only change sound but shape dependent on whether they feature at the beginning, middle or end of a word and there is also an initial shape to remember. All in all, there are over 80 shapes and several billion sounds to remember and don't get me started on the elephant in the room, the 29th letter of the alphabet, the lem/alif, which behaves like an embarrassing drunk uncle at a family wedding.

From 9 - 11, Hagar puts me through my paces, regardless of how I try to sidetrack her. When I make a schoolboy error (think of the stupidest schoolboy you can - I'm nowhere near that standard), there is a definite roll of the eyes followed by

No problem. Take your time. It will all make sense. Eventually.

There was one memorable moment when Hagar, after a particularly trying hour, sent a not so silent prayer heavenward.

Then Hasnaa takes over for the final two hours (I have a picture of Hagar having to lie down with a damp towel over her eyes). Hasnaa likes to make me go and talk to the rest of the staff, who no doubt can hear the dread tread of the condemned man approaching. Hasnaa also likes to sing her way through the lesson. This, inevitably is not a solo performance, so the pedestrians below are treated to an event that would empty an abbatoir.

Both Hagar and Hasnaa have incredible patience (and resolve), so I am making progress, shwey, shwey. At the end of four hours I'm drained, my jaw aches from concentrating, my eyes roll randomly in my head and it's time to go for a coffee, before I do it all again tomorrow.

Posted by johnward 06:27 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo - #Hashtag Economics#

Unemployment is high in Egypt, in fact the country has just been downgraded from B to B- by one of those organisations who seem to have a lot of power but no responsibility.

This downgrade is the result of that old standby, 'the present political situation.' Unemployment is particularly high amongst recent graduates, who can find few jobs that meet their newly elevated status (I think that's probably part of the problem; feckless bunch, graduates).

However, there are at least three occupations that I can think of that have improved Cairo's streets over many years. The first is the rag pickers that can be seen everywhere, salvaging waste from bins and recycling much of what they take. It's a full time, professionally organised business operation, going back decades. The city itself cannot cope with the amount of rubbish it produces, so they have an arrangement where the private sector step in. Without them, Cairo would have smothered under its own detritus somewhere in the last century. It's also a job for life and probably better paid than a graduate's salary.

The second group are the unofficial guardians of parking spaces for Cairo's drivers. There are over 10m people in Greater Cairo, all seem to have a car, all seem to be on the road at the same time and all are looking for that convenient parking spot on the street. Crossing the road here, can be a terrifying and strangely life affirming experience (life affirming, if you survive, naturally). Cairo has all the problems of a city where car seems to be king; downtown Cairo often seems in a state of permanent gridlock, officious traffic cops and of course, nowhere to park. This is where the park and guiders come in - each seem to have their own territory and they operate using a combination of high brain function algebra and trigonometry with an arcane, almost magical command of space that allows them to guide and cajole a brand new Merc into a gap designed for a SmartCar. Failing that, they simply roll the cars around them backward and forward until the required space appears.

The third group certainly been around for a shorter time than the others, not quite two years yet, but their contribution has, if anything had even more impact on the country - these are the permanent residents of Tahrir Sq. Although protesting is not strictly a job in the conventional sense, the camp at Tahrir has people whose commitment and dedication, certainly borders on the professional. At the moment, those heady days of 2011 are very much in the past (as is also the high chance of being shot and killed) and parts of Tahrir smell of piss and shit, I get the feeling that there are those prepared to come out of retirement if needed.

What got me thinking about all this was an article in today's Daily News Egypt, an English language broadsheet published in Cairo. This city is like most places in the Middle East - there is very little social or legal protection for workers and often people need to create their own opportunities and to fill a niche in the market place. A new website has been launched in Cairo called E17asheshbkam.com which translates as something like 'how much is the hashish?' Basically it provides up to date information for the highly illegal drug throughout the city. By putting neighbourhood details in, you can find the current price of a little of what you fancy at the click of a button.

The newspaper piece went onto say that the whole thing could be an enormous hoax, and the website could not be contacted for a comment. Even if its not true, I like to think some enterprising Cairene thinking about software, hardware and a user friendly interface, probably whilst sitting in a university tutorial, working for that degree that seems to, more often than not, lead nowhere, apart from a plane to a new life somewhere else.

Posted by johnward 02:05 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo - 'Eventually I will get to Alexandria'

Referendum Saturday

Today is Referendum Saturday, actually, next Saturday is also Referendum Saturday, but more of that later. If the eyes of the world are otherwise engaged, there are plenty of people in the Middle East looking to Egypt to see how the vote goes - a Yes vote will consolidate and to a certain extent, re legitimise Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. A No vote, well I'm not sure what will happen then.

Today I chatted with Ashraf, whose family live about 120km from Cairo; he lives considerably further away, Moscow to be exact, where he has a business, a family and a house. He's been there for a decade or so, the result as far as I understand it, of a falling out with the previous regime. Decidedly a case of absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

He's here on business and flying home, as he now considers Moscow, on Christmas Day. We looked at some of the tv coverage of the queues of people ready to vote (today it is the turn of Cairo and the surrounding area to vote; next Saturday the rest of the country follows suit), and he said 'Ask any of these people why they are voting yes or no, and very few will be able to tell you. They want everything now. If some of them get everything they want, that means most will get nothing. They don't understand.'

Originally opposition parties wanted two months to examine the new constitution. They got 15 days, and the vote was to be on successive Saturdays. A cynic might say that although this follows Friday prayers where much of the political arguments are rehashed and voting patterns 'decided', the two events aren't related.

Ashraf, like Mohammad, wants no role for religion in Egyptian politics and deplores the action of the Brotherhood of equating a No vote as a thumbs up for Satan, although he will concede it is an effective political strategy. He used the analogy of a trip to make himself clearer; if he wished he could fly to Alexandria, or take the train, or one of several desert highways, or even walk. The fact is that there are many ways to achieve one's goal, and not all of them are the right way. Whether its planes, trains or automobiles, Ashraf has built a new life for himself in exile and he's looking forward to getting home. By plane.

Posted by johnward 02:55 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo - Mohammad's Depression

3642km and four hours later I've arrived in downtown Cairo. Throughout the flight, passengers are kept updated on the plane's progress by a battery of figures and statistics on an interactive map - how long we've been in the air, our altitude and air speed, the distance travelled and the distance yet to go (sounds like a Robert Frost poem), the outside air temperature, the position of obscure but no doubt interesting shipwrecks, geological features such as Pliny's Trench and Herodotus' Crevasse. All that was missing was how long the human body would last in the event of a catastrophic decompression in the cabin, but you get the picture.

Along with Pliny and Herodotus, I can now add Mohammad's Depression. Mohammad is the owner of the hotel I'm staying at for the next three months and he has the blues. He voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, but didn't expect events to take the turn they have. He is confused and increasingly bemused by what is happening around him. He tells me that the Brotherhood seem incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question (welcome to my world) and more worryingly is abusing the electoral process for tomorrow's vote (Saturday) on the Constitutional Referendum. There are vast swathes of the Egyptian electorate who are illiterate and 'unsophisticated', and they also feel marginalised. It is to these people that the Brotherhood are speaking when they say a No Vote in the referendum is a Vote for Hell to devour the country. From a western perspective this would appear absurd, but it is an effective political strategy (How Mitt Romney wishes he'd been born Egyptian).

Mohammad believes Morsi is a decent man but out of his depth and surrounded by people who are manipulating him and the country. The media muddies the waters by giving mixed and therefore confusing signals, which simply adds to Mohammad's stress levels. I tell him that political change is always difficult, but I think what he's really saying is that under Mubarak, whilst life at some basic level was unfree and corrupt, everything seemed simpler - you knew where you stood. Mohammad's greatest fear is that the Brotherhood are losing control of the streets, the politics and the country. He dreads what could fill this political void; not western loving liberals, but the Salaafists, who represent everything that the West, and many Muslims, characterize as Islamic extremists. By comparison, even Morsi and the Brotherhood would appear acceptable.

For Mohammad, life has just got more complicated. He has argued with his 16 year old son, who supports a yes vote tomorrow, as does Mohammad's wife and five year old daughter. I fear Mohammad may have lost the only battle that really matters to him.

Posted by johnward 04:26 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

West Bank - Qalqiliya

''It's the water, stupid''

A couple of weeks ago, a French Parliamentary report was published that focused on the use of water as a weapon on the West Bank. In fairly robust terms, water, or more specifically, Israel's control and the distribution of that water, was described as

a weapon serving the new apartheid...


The report goes onto say

Some 450,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank use more water than the 2.3m million Palestinians that live there...In times of drought, in contravention of international law, the settlers get priority for water...the separation wall being built by Israel allows it to control access to underground water sources and to direct the flow westward.

And that brings me to Qaqiliya. I paid a return visit to the city two days ago to meet up with a friend Suhad, who was going to show me around and tell me her story.

Qalqiliya used to have some of the most fertile soil anywhere in the West bank and as a result produced some of the best citrus fruit crops in the country. Those days are pretty much behind them. For a town that used to rely on agriculture for employment, Qalqiliya now has the second highest level of unemployment in the West Bank, 'bettered' only by Khan Younis in Gaza.

And for Suhad it is down to one thing: The Wall and what flows from it. The Separation Wall zig zags across the West Bank like a drunk, often cutting off Palestinian farmers from their land and families from their homes. Qalqiliya is different from many of the other communities affected by The Wall, because it is surrounded on three sides, which makes access to the town difficult, but easy to control.

Many people will have seen images of The Wall, and some may have wondered why it was built. In the summer of 2002, in the context of continuing attacks on civilians in Israel during the Second Intifada (some of which originated from Qalqiliya), the Israeli government began construction of a separation barrier (“The Wall”) – a complex series of walls, barriers, trenches, and fences – within the western border of the occupied West Bank. Much of The Wall's route does not coincide with the 1967 Green Line, and at one point near the town, The Wall is located something like 12km east of the Green Line. (My italics)

Whereas the border between Israel and the West Bank used to be the internationally recognised Green Line, the border has now become, the almost universally condemned Wall. Security was, and is the reason successive Israeli governments have given for the construction of The Wall but the reality seems to be, that it is little more than a land grab and as equally importantly of what lies beneath the land, the water.

I asked Suhad when she first knew what was happening around Qalqiliya. She said 'You have to understand that we were under curfew for days and weeks. If people left their house, they were shot. Women were shot in their kitchens making coffee. We didn't know what was happening. It was only when we could leave our houses that we could see what had happened.' And by then of course, The Wall had been built.

In order to build The Wall, land belonging to Palestinian farmers was confiscated. Compensation is offered, but as Suhad told me, 'The money offered is very little and if we did accept it, that would legitimise what the Israelis have done.' What also has to be remembered is that on the West Bank side of the Wall is a 300 metre No Man's Land, that required citrus orchards and olive groves to be ripped up. Nothing is permitted to be grown in this area over a certain height and local people have been threatened with having their homes demolished, as they fall within the prohibited zone. And this is a prohibited zone that appeared decades after the houses were originally built.

I was shown a house that falls within the 300 metre exclusion zone; a fine two storey, solidly built affair, with an, as yet, unfinished third storey. The building is likely to remain unfinished, as the owner used to invite Internationals to his roof, as it offered a great view over The Wall. This was frowned upon by the Israeli military, who sent a letter to him saying that unless he desisted, his house would be demolished. As things stand at the moment, he is prohibited from going on to his roof as well.

We drove to the checkpoint that is now the (un)official border between Israel and the West Bank at Qalqiliya. Here Palestinian men, if they are aged over 40, have a large family and have no history of activism in any of the resistance movements, can pass across into Israel, for a days work. The checkpoint opens at 6am and the men start queuing at 4am.

It's basically a corrugated shed divided by bars that leads upto the first security gate of three, that people have to pass through before they emerge on the other side. It's a grim place, functional, with shadowy figures behind the smoked glass windows of the tower that rises above the main building. But humour is to be found; there is a sign listing the rules and regulations concerning passing through the checkpoint which finishes by saying ''Enjoy Your Transit''.

As we were leaving, some of the few remaining fruit growers arrived, laying out boxes of fruit and some of the largest cabbages I have ever seen. These would be bought by the men returning from Israel, as food is cheaper this side of the wall. Suhad tells me that before the wall went up, Israeli buyers would come to Qalqiliya, buy the produce, slap a 'Produced in Israel' sticker on it, and export in to Europe.

If The Wall is a device for snatching the best land for Israel often for the expansion of existing, or construction of new settlements, it is no good without water. This area of the West Bank is particularly fertile and that is due to the large amount of water aquifers, many of which now lie on the Israeli side of the wall, a resource to which the Palestinian farmers have no further access, without Israeli granted permits. The permits allow farmers to visit and cultivate their land but not without passing through checkpoints that involve production of paperwork for the farmer, his livestock and vehicle. Like farmers the world over, the farmhouse and the land are contiguous, but here that doesn't matter. To access the land a farmer will often have to make a trip of several kilometres to the checkpoint that allows him access.

Suhad was born in Qalqiliya. Her family still have land her (on the wrong side of the Wall), which is now all but useless. She is angry, she is bitter, but she channels all those feelings into her role as a guide for visiting Internationals (as foreigners who visit the West Bank are called) and tries to show the devastating economic, social, psychological and political damage the occupation has dealt on her city.

Entire streets, which once had flourishing business' have become economic wastelands; social deprivation due to the collapse of the local economy and as a result of Israeli conditions for Palestinians working in Israel, has increased and there is an entire generation of young Palestinians who have known nothing but ever present soldiers, military incursions, arrests, arbitrary lockdowns, sometimes for weeks at a time and the daily humiliation of seeing a parent being subjected to searches and interrogations as he crosses a checkpoint.

Many weeks ago, I spoke to a man in Jerusalem, who had served almost 20 years in prison for planting a bomb in Jaffa Street. He said to me then that the youngsters in the Old City, who are subjected to the harassments of the soldiers, are the stone throwers, or worse, of the Third Intifada. He also said that he fears for the psychological safety of the soldiers themselves, who carry out orders, that from what I've seen have turned them into young men and women who are casually contemptuous of the Palestinians at best or at worst, see Palestinians as the constant and perpetual enemy within that needs to be banished from the land or destroyed.

When In started blogging from the West Bank, I wrote that this was not going to be a 'balanced' record of my time here, but it was going to be fair. By that I meant that I would try and tell the story of the ordinary, average, normal, everyday, Palestinians I meet, who struggle to get their story across or their message out, to a largely indifferent or hostile world, of what it is like to be under military occupation since 1967. To some that will appear one sided. If so, this is not the blog for you and there are plenty of places to get the Israeli narrative.

Some of the worst disappointments Palestinians have suffered have been at the hands of their own. They have been let down or abandoned by a succession of Arab governments and leaders; Palestinian refugees in Arab countries are in most cases treated as second or third class citizens, with few or no rights or legal protection. They have been let down by their own leadership, who have either missed opportunities or been seduced by the prestige and trappings of power and of being welcomed in European capitals or Washington, but rarely deliver. Drive or walk around Ramallah and see the wealth that some enjoy or as Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian entrepreneur described them, 'Audi Happy Ministers'; I suspect if peace broke out tomorrow and the aid money was reduced there would be some very unhappy people.

And most that I talk to think they have been forgotten by the wider international community, especially America, who always seem to come down on the side of Israel and their conditions for peace whilst at the same time, successive Israeli governments allow and encourage the expansion of settlements, which to Palestinians remains the stumbling block to any meaningful peace discussions.

My interest lies in Suhad and Louis and Jehad and Ayman, all trying to build a life for themselves and their children, often under the most brutal and soul destroying conditions, when the simple, daily chores of life, often become something filled with uncertainty or life threatening, and yet they persevere. As someone said to me, he resists simply 'by being'. If you come to the West Bank, try and visit Qalqiliya and Suhad. Spend some time in her company and see what happens when the far removed world of international politics comes crashing to ground in the centre of your city.

Posted by johnward 05:34 Comments (0)

West Bank - Settler Bad Boys

It's ''A Messianic Thing''

This is not going to be a history of the Settlement movement (to our collective relief I'm sure), but let us take a quick trip back to the heady days of 1967. The Six Day War had been won, the Old City of Jerusalem had been annexed and it was time for a political reckoning.

I think there is a misconception that the Settler movement is the crazed love child of rabid right wing zealots and God; it isn't. It was under a Labour government that the settlers began to move into the West Bank and it was that government with a sly nod and a wink, that said 'Off you go, we won the war, so there's nothing to stop you.''

Winning the war and annexing the Old City linked modern day Israel directly to its Old Testament past and a precedent was now set for future settlements, usually backed up with useful scriptural quote.

In 1968, Hebron was occupied by settlers and it was a Labour politician, Yigal Allon, who visited Hebron and said

There have always been Jews in Hebron, the cradle of the nation, until they were violently uprooted...It is inconceivable that Jews be prohibited from settling in this ancient town of the patriarchs[quote]


All this is best summed up by Abba Eban, who by and large, strikes me as an eminently sensible man,with a large degree of insight; 1967 was a turning point in Israeli history because it saw ''a sudden passing from vulnerability to omnipotence'' and ''produced an intoxication...''

Eban, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time, explained that although 1967 and its aftermath was a military salvation, with massive political gains it was a total psychological failure, because the victory was interpreted providentially and messianically.

Once it became a messianic thing, the government and parliament were no longer sovereign

Which brings us to now. A couple of weeks ago I visited Hebron, courtesy of the Alternative Tourist Group, which as its name implies gives an alternative and to my mind, more accurate and realistic view of what's happening on the ground in the West Bank.

There are dozens of settlements on the West Bank, with thousands of inhabitants; some are economic settlers, those who want a cheap home, with good schools and facilities for their families. The majority are ideological, there because the Old Testament tells them they are re populating the ancient land of Judea and Samaria (and the government makes it financially attractive). Settlers have been tolerated because they speak to a wider feeling held in Israeli society, something that harks back to the days of the early pioneers who arrived as a people without a land in a land without a people.

Most settlements occupy the high ground (at least physically if neither morally or legally)- ridges and hills that look down on Palestinian villages, towns and cities. Hebron is different, because it is in the heart of the old city, where the streets are too narrow to allow anything bigger than a donkey or handcart to pass and settlers have taken over the buildings above the shops. As a result, the shopkeepers have had to erect a metal cage above their heads, as the settlers drop rocks, household waste and in more imaginative moments, so I was told, shit and piss onto the heads of passersby below.

Hebron is a large city, the largest on the West Bank with a population of 165,000 Palestinians, 500 or so settlers (based in the old city and the settlement of Kiryat Arba) and something approaching 2,000 soldiers, there ostensibly to protect those settlers from the wrath of the Palestinians. It is the city of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, home and the last resting place of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca and their son, Jacob, which makes it a holy site for both Jews and Muslims with a fair sprinkling of Christians thrown in for good measure.

The West Bank is divided into three areas, A, B and C. A is ostensibly under the direct control of the Palestinian Authority, B is under joint Palestinian and Israeli military control and C is under sole Israeli control. Hebron is divided into H1 and H2. H1 equates to Area A and H2 corresponds to Area C. This demarcation was introduced in 1997, three years after Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Arba, ran amok with a machine gun, killing 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahim mosque and wounding dozens more, before he in turn was killed by a mob. Goldstein is now a poster boy for the Settler Movement at large.

As I said earlier, Hebron is a large city and was once a prosperous city. No longer. Restriction of movement, curfews, closure of business' and the creation no go areas for Palestinians have seen the city decline. Needles to say, settlers have carte blanche to go where they like and seemingly to do what they like, without let or hindrance.

Jews in the Territories, even when they riot and use violence against Palestinians or the army, are usually accorded what amounts to immunity by both the military and judicial establishments

Aeyal Gross, Haaretz

Take a walk along Shuhada Street, once the bustling heart of Palestinian Hebron. Apart from the army controlling access to the mosque and synagogue and armed settlers taking a stroll down to the supermarket. If I understand correctly, Christians, but only Internationals (that's someone like me) can come along here, Jews from where ever they may hail (but not necessarily all Israeli citizens as 20% of them are non Jewish) are welcome, but no Palestinian (including Christians) and no International Muslims.

Whilst walking along Shuhada Street I bumped into a trio of middling age Israeli women and we had some lunch together. They were from an organisation called Machsomwatch,

a movement of Israeli women, peace activists from all sectors of Israeli society, who oppose the Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinians' rights to move freely in their land. Since 2001, we have conducted daily observations of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, along the separation fence and in the seamline zone, on the main roads and on out-of-the-way dirt roads, as well as in the offices of the Civil Administration (DCOs) and in military courts. We regularly document what we see and hear. The reports of these observations are published on the Machsomwatch site, and sent to public officials and elected representatives. Through the documentation which discloses the nature of everyday reality, we are attempting to influence public opinion in the country and in the world, and thus to bring to an end the destructive occupation, which causes damage to Israeli society as well as to Palestinian society.

They were an impressive threesome - they didn't think they were doing any thing exceptional or out of the ordinary, their main motivation it seemed to me, was that somebody from Israel needed to say

What is happening here is wrong and we will not tolerate it any more


The reason that settlers and the settlements are in the news so much at the moment is that they have gone and blotted their collective copybook, which is quite an achievement in a country, where to an interested observer, it seems that being a settler grants you immunity from prosecution for almost anything. It's like having a Get Out Jail card, but without ever having to do the jail bit.

Last month 50 or so, and here we have a wealth of description to choose from - 'activist' 'hilltop youth' 'misguided youths' 'anarchists' - nothing more than a 'radical element' within the wider settler community - chose your own euphemism, and many did - attacked an IDF post, injuring the Deputy Commander of the Ephraim Brigade.

Gideon Levy, who writes for Haaretz and is not everybody's cup of tea, although he is certainly mine, wrote a piece called -


Good Morning, Israel. You've woken up. Years of rioting against Palestinians, uprooting of trees, vandalism, arson, destruction, dispossession, theft...but one rock to the head of a deputy brigade commander, Lt Col Tzur Harpaz, made all the difference. An all out riot. Jewish terrorism. There are militias in the West Bank, settler-terrorists in a no man's land. And all this due to a rock that drew a few drops of sacred Jewish blood.

He goes on to say

You can't chastise those young people after years of not only apathy toward their parents misdeeds but also the warm embrace of most of society and sweeping support from the IDF and every Israeli government. You can't speak about them as brotheer - pioneers, give them huge budget allocations, promise they'll be allowed to remain where they are for ever, view them a slegitimate, not to say principled, segment of society, and then suddenly turn your back on them, condemning and attacking them. And all due to a rock... The violent demonstartions at the Ephraim Brigade base are the opposite of anarchists, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called them. They just want to preserve the existing order, just as most Israelis, led by the Prime Minister, do...

When something like this happens, the IDF being attacked by fellow Jews, you don't want to be left standing on the sidelines with condemnation

Rightist group Im Tirtzu also condemned the attack and called to punish those responsible We call for the investigation and severe punishment of those people who adopted the ways of Arab terrorists and activists from the extreme left (my italics), a statement said

Haaretz 13/12/11

With a certain amount of schadenfreude, Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace bloc, took out this ad in Israeli papers:




And, if you are in any doubt where Gush Shalom stand on the threat of the settlers, you can find this on their website:

Settler leader Katzover no longer pretends to support democracy
Benny Katzover, one of the founders and prominent leaders of the settler movement, takes off all masks. He declares himself in clear and unambiguous words to be a sworn enemy of democracy, striving to dismantle and destroy the democratic regime in Israel and replace it with a "Jewish" dictatorship of a nationalist – theocratic – racist character. Katzover no longer sees any need to pay even lip service to democracy, as he and his friends did for many years. He now speaks openly and brazenly, without apprehension of being hurt by this candor. He sees and feels that the liquidation of democracy has now become a tangible and realistic option on the Israeli public agenda.

Finally, with a piece of bad timing that's hard to credit, some rabbis from the West Bank released a letter to the Jerusalem Post:

Anyone who faces a danger to their life, including being pelted by stones or other dangers, must be allowed to open fire against the attackers without having to worry about being tried or having their weapon confiscated

This was written in support of members of the IDF or settlers who open fire on, and kill protesting Palestinians and this followed the death of a young Palestinian protester called Mustapha Tamim at a place called Nabi Saleh. Once the attack took place on the IDF by the settlers, it wasn't long before accusations of double standards were to be heard, from all sides, including Israelis.

The wild eyed, extremist settler youth who set mosques alight and have now started to attack IDF soldiers are indeed terrorists, and need to be hunted down as such

Jeff Barak, Former Editor in Chief of Jerusalem Post - quoted in same

The restraint of the brigade commander and his deputy (who came under attack) is worthy of praise... But if I was in the position of the deputy commander and they were throwing bricks at my head and endangering my life, I would shoot them. You shoot terrorists.

Uri Saguy, Former head of Military Intelligence

I personally saw the people, the rioters, that threw stones at our soldiers and commanders. I have not seen such hatred of Jews towards soldiers during my 30 years of service

Maj Gen Avi Mizrahi, OC Central Command

The reason settlers are important is that successive Israeli governments have encouraged them covertly, by simply ignoring their excesses and in many instances, criminal behaviour or, like in the case of the present government actively encouraged the expansion of settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1993 there were 116,000 settlers in the West Bank; by 2011 that figure had risen to 300,000 and that doesn't include the thousands of settlers in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian areas are coming under increased pressure from government and hard core settlers.

Land here is finite and the land being used for illegal settlements is land that Palestinian leaders want to use for a future Palestinian state. Israel rejects those claims and the settlers take that as encouragement to take more and more of what doesn't belong to them.

Recently I stayed in Bethlehem with a Palestinian family who live across the valley from an Israeli settlement. Some years ago, whilst one of the daughters was at home alone, machine gun fire from the settlement hit the house. The gunfire wasn't aimed at the house specifically, it was random and hit several homes in the street. The family returned home to find the young girl traumatised by her experience, to such an extent that almost a decade on, she has behavioural problems, learning difficulties and a speech impairment.

Her father, a veteran human rights activist, is almost philosophical now. In the past he has been humiliated and attacked by soldiers and settlers, but this will not stop him from saying what is happening to him, his family and people is wrong.

In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman from the New York Times used a quote to describe Lebanese factional politics -

When I am weak how can I compromise?When I am strong, why should I compromise?

and I fear this, is the situation the Palestinians find themselves in now. They may have growing international opinion on their side but Israel holds all the cards and it holds the American ace up its sleeve, particularly in an election year.

Settlers are a group convinced that what they do is God's will. They feel both right and righteous and I fear this makes them particularly dangerous. When all is said and done, the problem is quite simple -

Israel wants all the land while the Palestinians want some of the land. It is no longer an issue of security. If Israel is not secure now, when will it ever be?

It is they, the settlers, with government connivance, who are setting the political agenda in the West Bank and until the issue of the settlements is resolved, there is no prospect of peace in this wretched country.

I was taught always to see all sides of the argument, to be balanced, especially when talking about politics and religion. Always allow the other side the right of reply, give them a chance to put their side of the story. It seems to me that the Palestinian story is getting harder to tell, whilst the Israeli version is accepted without very few, if any questions asked. There is a difference between being balanced and being fair and from now on fairness wins.

Posted by johnward 04:08 Comments (0)

West Bank - Parkour - Jenin Style!!

Freerunning in Jenin

Before I arrived in Jenin I knew precisely six things about the city: I knew that in 2002 it had been the centre of some of the fiercest fighting between Palestinians and the IDF; I knew there was a large refugee camp; I knew it had a theatre and I knew that one of the founders of that theatre, the charismatic Juliano Mers Kharmis had been murdered outside the building in early 2011; I knew it had a cinema and I knew where I was going to stay.

That, I'm sorry to say, was my sum total of what I knew. What I didn't know was that Jenin now boasts a fledgeling and extremely enthusiastic Parkour team.

I visited the theatre after making contact with Jonatan, another of the co founders. He invited me along for lunch to meet him, his family and some of the volunteers who work with him at the theatre. Hopefully there would be something going on that I could stay and photograph and Jonatan worked his way down his list of what was happening that afternoon, 'There's Parkour and some performers from the circus in Ramallah coming at 2.30...' That was enough. I'd been hooked on watching Parkour ever since I'd seen some clips on You Tube a few years ago and it really came to world attention when the makers of Casino Royale used that incredible chase scene in the opening minutes of the movie.

Parkour, Free Running call it what you will, originated in the dreary, 1960's Parisian suburbs in the late 90's and now is a worldwide phenomenon that I believe may be demonstrated in and around the Olympic site in London in the run in to the games. In Jenin, things are at a more modest stage. Mia an expert in street theatre based in London and now working at the theatre, is putting on a performance that includes a whole range of skills from stilt walking to stunt stick fighting and wanted to incorporate the grace, athleticism and commitment that is Parkour. This is where Chris, an instructor from London, comes in.

He arrived here less than 10 days ago with the brief to turn some enthusiastic youngsters into a team that can run, jump, spin, pivot, and climb over a series of obstacles in the most fluid, graceful way possible, in order to move from A to B. When I joined Him, Mia and a dozen members of the team in a small garden area of Jenin, it was Day 5of their intense training schedule. We were also joined by David, a film maker from Dublin and a long term collaborator with the theatre. And I have to say that he showed a nifty move or two climbing into a tree in order to film the workout.

The training area at first glance wasn't too exciting. A small park / garden area with some fountains, walled flower beds, concrete benches to sit on ringed by some trees. It was also next to one of the busiest roads in Jenin and directly outside the local PLO offices, which were guarded by increasingly bemused police officers. But for Chris this was perfect. He said that if this environment was available in London it would be packed with Parkouristas (I have no idea if this is the correct term, but I like it) on a daily basis.

I wasn't totally convinced but he was, and that was the important thing. He quickly got the team going through a series of exercises that not only warmed them up but by constant repetition of moving in a certain way, reaching for a hand hold in a particular fashion, trained and tought the body how to work. They jumped into trees and descended with varying degrees of success; they learnt how to jump, to my eyes at least, gaping chasms with style (and safety) and to come to a dead stop teetering on their toes; they stretched, they bent, they reached and they grabbed and loved every minute of it.

To me theatre is not something I've particularly enjoyed. I went at school, saw a couple of plays here and there (I did meet Al Pacino after a production of American Buffalo in London but that's for a different time and place) but I would never find myself in the situation of internal angst over 'Which theatrical powerhouse production shall I see tonight.' That is never going to happen. Theatre in the UK can be prohibitively expensive, you may have to travel to London (with ensuing costs), possibly stay the night as there's no public transport after the show finishes etc. etc. I know there is really good rep and regional theatre and matinees are affordable, but I simply can't be bothered. I see it as high brow and elitist, and it's unlikely that opinion will change!

The Freedom Theatre is not there for the benefit of Tarquin or Tabitha (cliché but it works for me), it is there for children, teenagers and adults who have spent the entirety of their lives, under a military occupation and at times, a particularly brutal military occupation. It is for people who have either had very little or what they had they lost and rebuilt (often more than once). It provides a place where creativity is welcomed and encouraged and nurtured. And that is what Parkour was all about. These are youngsters who live in the city, some of the surrounding villages or the camp - a place subject to military incursions and arbitrary arrests, which happened just a week ago, when some members of staff were arrested then released by the military authorities. Jenin is a socially conservative city and Mia explained to me how big a deal it was even training out on the streets, outside the PLO HQ, attracting the stares and comments of interested passers-by or the aforementioned police officers. This is huge stuff.

She and Chris take their responsibility and time here very seriously. They know that the foundations they lay will be built upon by either themselves or future volunteers to the project.

The session ends after a couple of brutal hours and we return to the theatre, where the circus performers have been waiting patiently for us to get back; along with a theatre full of 10 year old school kids who have come along for the show. Who says theatre can't be fun?

I would recommend taking a glance at some Parkour on You Tube (there's a free running group in Gaza as well) or look at John Wreford's images of Parkour in Cairo www.wreford.photoshelter.com.

ps great lunch as well...

Posted by johnward 23:02 Comments (0)

West Bank - Jenin

Lunch With Tariq

I went for lunch to a small sandwich shop. Being lunchtime it was busy and there were no free tables. One man, eating alone gestured that I should take a chair at his table. After the usual round of welcomes, we started chatting. Tariq is in his early 30's an ophthalmic surgeon in Jenin and grabbing a quick bite to eat before heading off to Nablus to carry out some routine operation.

He was born in Jenin, studied in Paris and has now been living and practising here for the last six years. He spoke extremely fondly of his time in France and he obviously missed it very much. He told me at one point he almost married a French woman which would have given him the opportunity of an EU passport, but he wanted to come back to Jenin. Actually, it was something more than that; he had to come back - this is where his skills would be most needed most without doubt, but the need to be here was something more visceral.

Like other Palestinians I've met who have studied abroad and returned home, it wasn't easy for him at first. After all, moving from a sophisticated world capital to what is essentially a small rural backwater in the northern West Bank, which if people have heard of at all, its likely to be described as one of those pesky 'hotbeds of terrorism' or perhaps the large refugee camp that's here or even less likely, the Freedom Theatre, that helps local youngsters.

It's fair to say it was a culture shock returning to Jenin after five years in Paris, but without doubt, it is here that he belongs. He told me that he fears that the answer to Palestine's tragedy is no longer in the hands of Palestinians - in reality it never was - but I think he meant that his leaders have run out of ideas and the world has essentially forgotten about them. In 2002 the refugee camp in Jenin was at the centre of some of the hardest and brutal fighting of the Second Intifada and the city, particularly the camp is still subject to Israeli military incursions. Tariq said the time of the Intifada was incredibly difficult but he feels the most powerful form of resistance for him is simply 'being' and being here. He was telling me that the Israelis can do what they will, the rest of the world can ignore us, but none of that really matters in the end because. 'I am not leaving. This is my home and her I stay.'

He wasn't melodramatic or even particularly emotional when he told me this - it was a simple declaration, that he will not be moved from his land or his home.

He then said: 'I have to go to Nablus now, but I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Jenin and as you are my guest, I will pay for your lunch'' and with that he was gone.

Posted by johnward 21:38 Comments (0)

Jerusalem Sin-drome

It's a medical fact - long term exposure to Jerusalem can send you over the edge, stark staring mad, crazy as a box of frogs - chose your own euphemism. Temporarily at least. And it helps if your already peeking over the edge of a personal religious abyss.

Jerusalem Syndrome, medically acknowledged a a genuine psychotic and behavioural condition, is triggered by people's proximity to so much religious fervour. There is enough passion here to go around, so don't worry that you might miss out. If you hear the calling to be an Old Testament hero or a New Testament prophet, this is the place for you brother (or sister)!

If you think Scripture isn't been adhered to strictly enough, here is the place to smite those slackers. The only price you have to pay in 21st century Jerusalem is a stay, temporarily, at the pleasure of the Municipality's excellent mental health facility, where two weeks of rest seems to do the trick.

People who sin seem to vex a particular brand of ultra muscular Christians (although both Jews and Muslims have succumbed to JS), those so immersed in Bible Study and convenient conspiracy theory, that the here and now is little more than an inconvenience en route to the perfect hereafter. But they seemed determined to add me to this particular love train, whether I want to go or not.

I have it on very good authority, courtesy of Texan ex drug gang banger, that early 2012 is pretty much it for planet Earth. The heavenly shit is about to hit the fan. the Anti Christ is getting ready to rumble, and those of us who wish to be saved had better have our affairs in order, or at least ordered that special Rapture last supper. There is A Second Coming but no Second Chances.

Jerusalem has always attracted extreme people with extreme views and the personality of the city doesn't help anyone. There are some Ultra Orthodox Jews who shun everything post 18th century, apart from mobile phones. Their latest thing is to insist that women sit at the back of buses if they have the temerity to use the same public service as a Haredi man. There are the members of the Settler Movement who are taking over vast tracts of Palestinian land, and not content with violently abusing anyone who resists their illegal (under international and Israeli law) actions, they have now branched out into attacking the Israeli army, which didn't play well amongst the political elites and chattering middle classes. Palestinians simply shrugged and said 'welcome to our world'.

Then there are the Latins, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, the Ethiopians, the Armenians, the Anglicans, the Lutherans... all competing for their piece of holy real estate . Add into this spicy gumbo, the Christian Zionists and Evangelicals, and you can see why Jerusalem attracts people who, if not actually on the edge, are teetering precariously close.

My Texan friend, from Laredo way (it sounds like the intro to a particularly mawkish country song) explained it to me this way: Israel should never have won any war since 1948 that it has fought against surrounding Arab nations. The only way it could have happened was if God was on their side and this can be proved by the use of a complicated mathematical formula, which is something like this -

Multiply the Books of the Old Testament by the 10 Commandments, divide by the 12 Apostles (if you care to drop Judas this still works), subtract the amount of the sayings of the Prophet found in the Koran and finally add 666. The result is 3.2 which is the exact percentage the US State Department gave Israel of surviving, intact, the 6 Day War of 1967. God was on their side. I prefer to put it down to better training, better equipment and a will to win.

But those who appear craziest are often in the know and then won't I look foolish.

Posted by johnward 20:45 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Jerusalem - View From A Cafe

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem

19th December 2011

Just inside Damascus Gate is a small cafe called Rimon Hiro. It sells pretty good mint tea, so so coffee with a hint of cardomon, Israeli and Palestinian beers, fruit juices and nargile. It's a third generation family owned business, doing its best to survive extremely difficult times. One thing it does have going for it, is an unparalleled view of the happenings and comings and goings of Al - Wad Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

It's a street of clothes shops, small cafes, pharmacies, fruit and veg stalls and small booths selling the latest in mobile phone gadgetry. It's also alive with people from early morning until evening when the Old City becomes abandoned, inhabited by only the people that live within its walls.

From Damascus Gate, Al - Wad slopes downhill to a fork in the road. Take the left hand option and you will find yourself walking along the Via Dolorosa and drifting towards the Western Wall and the Haram as Sharif. To the right is Souk Khan As - Zeit, the market of olives. Follow this and you will find yourself in the Christian Quarter and at one of the holiest sites for Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Al - Wad also has a semi permanent military presence in the shape of four or five Israeli soldiers, who take up position for the day just a few feet from Rimon Hiro. Al - Wad is a pinch point in the Muslim Quarter, as its the only access and exit point for the Damascus Gate.

On most days you can find Ali Jiddah sitting in the cafe, drinking coffee and smoking. Everyone seems to know him; he is constantly greeting people, a quick hello, good wishes and another sip of coffee. Ali Jiddah is also well known to the soldiers, as he served seventeen years in an Israeli prison for a bomb attack in Jerusalem in 1968. He is second generation Afro Palestinian, his father, originally from Chad, settled in Jerusalem where Ali and his family were born and continue to live.

The soldiers seem absurbdly young. None of them are older that 21, and the chances are they are just 18 or 19. One is so small, his uniform is an uncomfortable fit. They are bored. They fiddle constantly with their uniforms and bits of kit, readjusting straps, moving flak jackets to a more comfortable position, tipping their green berets either forward over their eyes and almost immediately moving it backwards across their heads. They smoke constantly, drinking coke from plastic cups. One finds a cigarette lighter and sets fire to one of the cups. It breaks the monotony.

''Watch this'' says Ali.

Three men, the oldest in his mid 20's have been stopped by the soldiers. One of their jobs is to check Palestinian ID cards. If you are a resident of Jerusalem, you are issued with a blue card. If you live on the West Bank, a green one. If you are found in Jerusalem with a green card, you better make sure you have written permission.

The three men are questioned, produce their documents and calls are made to make sure there ae no warrants out on any of them. They are given the all clear and are sent on their way.

A few minutes later a youngster, no more than 10 or 11 deliberately brushes past one of the soldiers. It is provocative. For a moment the two simply look at each other, neither sure what the other will do. The soldier, who is only 10 years older than the boy, lets it go.

''Watch this. Look at the men in the black suits and the woman selling vegetables''

Sure enough, approaching from the Gate are two officials from the Municipality. The elderly woman is selling food from three boxes in the middle of the street. She is from the West Bank and doesn't have permission to be here. She has already spotted the men and is trying to gather her goods together. They move her on.

A toddler, no more than three years of age is being led by the hand by his father. The boy is crying, demanding to be picked up. Once he's lifted into his father's arms he stops crying. He reaches into a plastic carrier bag and pulls out a plastic toy machine gun. He points the gun at the soldiers; they either don't notice or chose to ignore it.

''Watch this.''

A teenager is stopped, questioned and searched. He seems both frightened and frustrated. He is dismissed, casually, indifferently.

''Watch this''

Another teenager has been stopped. Ali knows him.

''They will take him to the wall now'' He is escorted away towards the gate and up a side street out of view.

''They will try and provoke him, make him do something'' says Ali. A few minutes later, the boy returns along Al - Wad and rejoins his friends. Nothing has happened.

''Watch this''

The first man I saw stopped earlier in the afternoon, has been stopped, searched and sent on his way for a second time. The soldiers have changed since he first passed through. He must have that kind of face.

Today Ali is an alternative guide within Jerusalem, showing people with more than a casual an interest in Israeli/Palestinian affairs what is happening from a Palestinian perspective. He may have regrets about what he did back in 1968, I don't know I didn't ask him. He doesn't hate Israelis but hates the occupation. He said that both the occupier and occupied are permanently damaged, psychologically by what is happening around them. The soldiers, who are barely out of their teens, return home after their tour of duty, suspicious and aggressive. Their Palestinian counterparts are angry and frustrated by what Ali describes as ''daily humiliations.''

He says he is optimistic about the future.

Posted by johnward 09:24 Comments (0)

Israel 1982

Tomorrow I'm heading to Tel Aviv for the first time since 1982. So much has changed - I'm flying easyjet rather than El Al, the kibbutz I stayed on no longer takes volunteers, it has, in essence been privatised; today there is a Palestinian 'entity' I can visit, Gaza is in lockdown, barriers (or walls depending on your political viewpoint) have been erected and I get the impression that Israeli society is more fractured and disunited than ever about the future of any realistic peace process.

When I arrived in 1982, Israel had just sent its army into Lebanon, Sabra and Shatilla were still to happen, Rabin, Netanyahu and the emergence of a hard right political coalition was still in the future, and life for me was to be 4 months of sun, booze and milking a flock of 600 sheep fom midnight to 4am. Happy days!

Today, I'm older, hopefully wiser and much more disheartened by whats happening in the Middle East. And yet... as the Arab Spring shows danger of entering the Winter deep freeze, I cannot help but be heartened by whats happening in this part of the world and the impact it may have on any Israeli/Palestinian talks.

1982 was an important year for me - some scales fell away from my eyes, I spoke to one group of people, who from their perspective were under 24/7 attack and another group who had seen their land, rights, past and future disappear in short order.

That mindset seems to have remain unchanged in the past 30 years and yet...

Posted by johnward 04:38 Comments (0)

The Moon's almost a Balloon

Goreme, Cappadocia

The day after I arrived in Goreme, I took Yasin’s advice and was up just after 6am to see the sunrise and the balloons take to the sky.
It was dark; it was chilly. All I could see from the pension rooftop were vague, conical shapes dotted around the landscape. These were the fairy chimneys, sculpted by wind, rain and snow from the soft, volcanic tufa rock that makes up this landscape. It was still too dark to see any balloons, I wasn’t even sure in which direction, apart from up, I should be looking.

All I really needed to do was follow the line of 4x4’s and minibuses as they made their way down the main street, making their final pickups from hotels and pensions, and shipped today’s passengers to a series of take off sites scattered around the edge of town.
By 6.30, it was light enough to make out the buildings and roads and the minaret of the mosque and only 200m or so away were half a dozen balloons lying on their sides. Then, almost simultaneously, the pilots hit their burners and WHOOOSH! Long fingers of flame began to heat the air in the balloons canopies and they began to inflate. From where I was standing, the balloons looked like gigantic, sluggish fireflies, flashing in the night.


Across a dozen or more launch sites, some several kilometres away,, people had climbed into baskets, preparing for an experience that would give them a unique perspective on a unique landscape.

I’m not sure what I expected to hear when I took my flight 24 hours later. I thought the wind, the birds, chit chat from other passengers. You hear all that, and dogs barking as you pass over a village or a flock of sheep. What I hadn’t realised was how loud the burners were when ignited or the heat they generate; it was almost like being exposed to an open fire with nowhere to retreat to.


The other thing I hadn’t anticipated was the constant chatter from other pilots as they gave each other information about wind speed and direction, cloud cover, the possibility of rain and conditions on the ground. All this was transmitted via the walkie talkie, our pilot, Ali, kept strapped to his chest. It was like being at the centre of a busy air traffic control tower, the main difference being the ten foot of naked, but controlled flame that ignited next to my ear every few minutes. The balloons in Goreme can only go up and down and the pilot can only control their turn, although I have to be honest and say, that’s all I thought balloons could do anyway.


Yesterday, flying conditions from a passenger’s perspective were perfect – blue sky, able to see for miles. Today was different; low cloud, fog and damp. So although we wouldn’t have the views what we did have was an altogether different experience. As the cloud was low, Ali kept the balloon close to the ground for some of the time, miraculously guiding it around, over and past fairy chimneys, rock formations and hills We hovered over farmhouses and villages and passed so close to the tops of trees, I reached out and plucked a leaf from the topmost branch. To me at least, it was a demonstration of how manoeuvrable balloons are and how skilful the pilots are.

It’s not uncommon to have 40 balloons in the air at the same time, so the potential for an accident, seems high, and despite the pilot’s skill, there is something of the unpredictable about flying in a balloon.


It was only the day before I saw a balloon land in the middle of the street, somehow missing the houses and causing the cars to go around it! And it was the next day that I saw two balloons become ‘glued’ together, neither able to break away from the other as the prevailing wind forced them in the same direction.

All in all it was well worth it. You do have to weigh up the pros and cons but a flight should not cost much more that 100 euros for just over an hour in the air. I asked myself the question ‘could I afford to do this at home?’ and the answer was probably not, so for me it became a no brainer.


Posted by johnward 07:29 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Alaaedin Sane

Konya, Turkey

Leaving Adana, the bus heads west along the coast, before turning north and back into the Anatolian heartlands. The further you head into the mountains, the increasingly spectacular the scenery. It's difficult country and I would imagine a tough place to eke out a living in the winter, which is barely two months away.

Once again, the sign of central government investment in the area is apparent. New roads are being built and old ones improved; to make life easier for the local people, to open up the area and fulfil its tourist potential or to make sure that the army can move quickly through these hills? Probably a combination of all three.

I'd read in a guide book that Konya was seen as 'backward' - whether by themselves, by outsiders, whether this meant socially, culturally, morally, wasn't made clear. What is true is that over the years, Konya has felt deprived of support from the centre; perhaps this goes some way to explain the new roads. I'm willing to admit that I approached Konya in a state of mind, that had been influenced by these comments, so I was really keen to find out more about the city and the people.

The approach to the city gave me my first clue that perhaps things were not as they might have seemed. The bus arrived via a six lane motorway, passing shopping centres and countless reatail units, allbusy even into the late evening. Now while its fair to say that miles of tarmac, shopping centres or multipe shopping opportunities do not represent the zenith of human achievement, neither is it an indicator of 'bacwardness'.

Soon after I arrived at the Yassin Hotel, just a few steps from the Azizye mosque and bazaar, I had a chat with the owner’s son and told him Konya really wasn’t what I was expecting. Naturally enough, he asked what that was and I told him about the comments in the guide book. He said nothing for a few moments, and then simply said ‘’Well as you can see, it’s simply not true.’’


It didn’t help that I couldn’t really articulate what I did mean; it was the use of the word ‘backwardness’ that had thrown me and planted images in my mind, mostly clichéd, of shanty towns, slums and poverty. But of course poverty comes in many forms - of opportunity, of ideas, of freedom – it’s not necessarily confined to a lack of money.

After the Topkapi in Istanbul, Konya is the second most visited tourist attraction in Turkey – or so I read. And at first glance it’s difficult to see what might attract people to Konya; of course the people who come here are on the whole, pilgrims from across the Muslim world, who come to see and worship at the shrine of Celaleddin Rumi, later known simply as Mevlana.

Rumi was born in central Asia in 1207 and moved to Konya with his father after he had a vision; vision or not, it was a circumspect move as his home town of Balkh was visited by the Mongols who massacred the population. Even then, Konya was a cosmopolitan city and Rumi became a leading mystic or Sufi. In 1244, Rumi met the man who was to become his spiritual mentor, Shams - i – Tabriz, a wandering dervish from Persia. Rumi already had followers of his own and some, jealous of the older man’s influence over Rumi, murdered him. Devastated by this, Rumi withdrew and composed the masterpiece of Persian devotional poetry, the Mathnawi. It deals with the soul’s separation from God – known as The Friend – as a result of our earthly existence, and the power of the yearning to bring about a reunion, either before or after death.


Now known as the Mevlana, he advocated his followers to pursue all manifestations of truth and beauty, to avoid ostentation, practice infinite tolerance, love and charity; he condemned slavery and supports monogamy and a more prominent role for women in society and public life. Naturally this does not sit well with more traditional Muslims, either in the thirteenth century or the twenty first, so seeing so many pilgrims in Konya was uplifting.

Mainstream Islam doesn’t embrace the use of music and dance within its teaching; Mevlana on the other hand did and the sema (which is the whirling ceremony) is a means of attaining freedom from earthly bondage and an abandonment to God’s love. Its ultimate purpose is the reunion with God.


I visited the shrine twice, both times in the company of several European tour groups, but mostly with hundreds of devotees of the Mevlani. Being neither Muslim, nor a follower of Sufiism, I can’t say that I felt anything spiritual move me at the shrine, but what is undeniable however is the passion and devotion felt by his followers and pilgrims. Many were already praying outside the shrine as I passed them and inside many were overcome by the experience of being as close as is possible, to the physical remains of Mevlani.

It’s almost impossible to unmoved by a faith that advocates:

‘’Come, come whoever you are, whether you are fire worshippers, idolators or pagans. Ours is not a dwelling place of despair. All who enter here will receive a welcome here.’’

It’s easy to forget that when you go along to your ‘Turkish Night Out’ which often includes a demonstration of the Whirling Dervishes, that for centuries, the Sufi sects were powerful players in the Ottoman empire, both politically and socially. In 1923 they were outlawed by Ataturk, one reason being that he felt their continuing influence could seriously undermine the secular basis of the new Turkish Republic. Today the shrine in Konya is open and packed with pilgrims and tourists, images of Dervishes are used by the tourist board as an attraction to visit the country and the Mevlani Museum in Istanbul, although undergoing some restoration work at the moment, attracts people interested in Sufiism from all over the world. Their rehabilitation seems complete.

Konya is more than the Dervishes. It welcomes foreigners warmly, perhaps because apart from the Dervish festival in December, it doesn’t see many throughout the year. There are three fine mosques to see; the Azizye, the Alaaedin and Selimye and a bazaar to lose yourself in for half a day. The biggest mosque of the three is the Alaaedin Mosque and the guardian is happy to show you around. Although he can’t speak English and I can speak no Turkish, it seemed to work and I found out what I needed. A small donation is expected. Alaaedin Keybubad, ruler of Konya and a good part of eastern Asia Minor, came up the hard way. Although the son of the previous ruler, he had an elder brother, and, as is the way of things, he inherited the throne and exiled his younger brother as a potential threat.


As is also often the way of things, the brother died and Alaaedin inherited after all, becoming a patron of artists and scholars (including Rumi) and establishing Selcuk control in the area until the 14th century.

One evening I went out to eat and found a restaurant that just seemed to be winding down for the evening. There were only a couple of local people there, finishing off their cay before going home. I got talking to one of the owners who spoke good English, having ‘been sent on a course, ten years ago.’ Very soon I was the only person left and we chatted away about Turkey, military service, the restaurant and an area I was slightly reluctant to get into, religion. He asked what religion I was, I told him none. That seemed to confuse/bemuse/appall him in equal measure, because we went onto other subjects. By now another couple of customers had arrived, so he went to serve them. About twenty minutes later, he walked back over, say down and asked me to explain to him ‘your no religion’. I said that although I come from a Christian country hat I didn’t believe in any religion but was interested in finding out more about them all. This seemed to please him immensely because we went on to talk about the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and how they all found a grip in the same soil. Having said that, there is still great animosity within Turkey towards Israel following the killings of Turkish citizens after the Gaza flotilla was stormed by Israeli commandos.

The irony is that until that point, Turkey and Israel were staunch allies, sometimes to the detriment of Turkey’s relationship with other Muslim countries in the region. This was the only time I saw Yildiz really angry. When I asked him about the good relationship with Israel prior to the killings, he wasn’t interested in discussing it further. So we covered religion, geo politics, the climate, the position of minorities within Turkey as defined by accent (Yildiz wasn’t a great fan of the Thracians either) and the lamb was great.

I don’t usually talk about the practicalities of travelling in Turkey, but this time I think it’s worth telling saying that Konya’s otogar is 15km outside the city. There are no servis buses to run passengers either to or from the bus station, but there is a dolmus, which can take anything up to an hour to complete the journey – so allow yourself plenty of time.

Posted by johnward 07:23 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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