Tunisia – Desert Dreams

Caravan Club of Tunisia

‘After the revolution we thought all the young people will have jobs.  But it’s just the same.’ exhaled Walid.  We walked on through the dunes, Walid  barefoot, wearily leading the camels, our happy band of trekkers following.  100km across a sandy finger of the Sahara’s Grand Erg Oriental lay our destination, the fort and oasis of Ksar Ghilaine – a popular tourist route for dilettante desert explorers.

Campfire Philosophy
What has this Democracy done for us?

Tunisia’s 2011 ‘Jasmine Revolution’, the first popular uprising of the ‘Arab Spring’, saw a coalition led by the previously banned Ennahda (Renaissance Party) take power.  However, for many educated young Tunisians the new Islamic government has yet to deliver.  ‘What is happening in Tunis now, it’s just the Islamic who find jobs, mostly in the government,’ continued Walid.  As in other Arab countries the secular youth, those best educated, most connected and a primary catalyst for change appear to feel sidelined.  ‘My mother, my father, they pray.  Not me.  I do believe, but it’s in the background,’ Walid sucked in air through his teeth, looking at me questioningly. ‘OK, so not fight, not kill but people should be able to do what they want, that’s freedom,’ he concluded.

Tunisia’s economy is not all dates, pottery and tourism.  Petroleum, hi-tech computer components, parts for Airbus aircraft and vehicle manufacturing, all contribute to a varied GDP.  However, in a global downturn jobs are hard to find.  ‘I graduated in IT four years ago,’ says Walid in disbelief.  ‘Mostly I’m worried that if I keep doing this,’ tossing a look over his shoulder at the camels, ‘I’ll forget my job.  Things will have moved on.’

Dune Roaming

A common escape path favoured by disillusioned young people the world over is to marry a foreigner.  However, for Walid this is a step too far.  ‘You know there are more than one million Tunisians in France.  It’s difficult to go legally.  Maybe marry a French woman, but I have 25-years and only the older ones are interested…  I have a friend who has done this.  When he visits with his wife I say to him in Arabic, “Why are you with this woman?” He says he loves her.  Come on…  It’s not for me.  Maybe later.  Who knows?’

Almost exactly 70 years ago Winston Churchill described the first Allied victory in North Africa as ‘not the end… not even the beginning of the end but… perhaps the end of the beginning.’  Maybe in time history will look upon Tunisia’s revolution and those others in the Arab world in a similar light.

This week’s eye-catching links, in no particular order:-

  • If you’re intrigued by a desert experience, Exodus’s Sahara Desert Trek is to be recommended.  You’ll need to be reasonably fit, not too attached to such tissued fripperies as soft beds and personal hygiene, and not allergic to sand or camels.  A penchant for couscous, though not essential, is an advantage.  Here’s the link – http://www.exodus.co.uk/holidays/tmu/overview
  • Railsavers (http://www.railsavers.com) is offering motorail services from Den Bosch, close to the Dutch/Belgium border, to Koper, Slovenia (not far from Trieste, in Italy) next summer.  If you can be flexible on dates there are some real bargains on this new route, as well as on existing services to Alessandria and Livorno in Italy.
  • I left Haiti 6th December 2009 having researched a magazine and newspaper travel commission.  The 12th January earthquake tossed those stories onto a spike, whilst in Haiti any aspirations for a tourism renaissance were lost amongst the dust and rubble.  Three years on Paul Clammer’s new guidebook provides an up-to-date vision of a Haiti, a destination that whilst challenging, is again one of the Caribbean’s most rewarding for adventurous travellers.  Here are some extracts from Haiti http://www.bradtguides.com/extracts-haiti.html

From each according to his need, to each according to his ability…

Ecky Thump
Ecky Thump..!

I was invited to dinner the other day by some folks not long moved up from Buckinghamshire.  It’s happened before.  A neatly turned out Sasha or Duncan meets my wife alone, presumably decides she sounds quite jodhpurs, ponies and private schools and is charmed by a false sense of shared values.  Sight unseen they extend a bony finger of social largesse to include me, which is where things start to unravel.

Even as we crossed their threshold, bottle of Sainsbury’s Cava and Costco mints in hand, I detected disappointment that my vowels fell into the NQWWW category – Not Quite What We Want.  I’m hardened to this.  My own speech has never fitted in, from Secondary Modern in the North West which I endured whilst being ‘rite posh’, to nine years in London as a token ‘northern git’.

Hanging up coats, we took seats in the lounge.  It transpired the Sashcans still had their house in High Wycombe, hinting to me at expatriate impermanence, as though they’d be ready on the tarmac with bags packed ready to board the last flight out when the inevitable UN evacuation was ordered.

Whatever happened to the Tooting Popular Front?
Power to the people…

Over an array of nibbles we discussed public transport in Northumberland, or rather the lack of it.  I cited recent homework asking my daughter to describe a journey to St James’ Park by bus and train.  Being ‘in travel’ I’d decided to assist, discovering that the twenty mile odyssey took 15 and a half hours, comprising a three and a half mile walk to the bus stop and in a cruel twist an occasional obligatory overnight next to the Metro at Callerton Parkway’s Premier Inn.  I mentioned little old ladies, isolated and lonely, too doddery to drive even if they could afford to, marooned in villages where they’d lived for decades.  Perhaps rashly I made the case for public transport providing a service rather than earning a profit, a suggestion obviously akin to wearing a flat cap, eating a chip butty and lighting up a ‘tab’ whilst clog dancing The Internationale.   ‘Why should we pay for your transport?’, came the astonished response from Duncan’s visiting sister.  The pros and cons could have been argued but the  subtext was plain – Why should we who are comfortably enclosed in the fat of the Home Counties care a jot for anyone else, particularly those for whom bath, path and laugh are a bridge too far?

I felt suddenly tired.  My glass was refilled but even meltingly-ripe Camembert and five types of cream cracker couldn’t resuscitate the evening.  Time to head home, after all, the whippet would need a walk before bed.

This week’s links…

Kelvin McKenzie’s piece in The Telegraph in which he bemoans subsidising folk from the rest of the country… http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/9717537/Kelvin-MacKenzie-overtaxed-South-needs-its-own-party.html#

It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to appreciate this Goodies clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJxGi8bizEg

A fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain that seems to suggest that sales, PR and mob-think may have gone too far… http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

Tony Hawks on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue attempts to keep up with Psy’s Gangnam Style – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p011txtf

Carole Cadwalladr suggests a new name for the world’s least favourite airline in this Guardian piece – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/02/ryanair-needs-a-new-rude-name

Distant Guns

The Durg

Down the lane, after a week off-limits the track around Kirkharle’s lake has reopened following ‘baring off the sward’.  It’s a process that sounds intriguingly pagan, certainly a phrase to file away, but it involves a few dozen sheep nibbling till narcotised on grass they’d normally only dream of – if they dream at all.  Anyhow, the lakeshore’s munched to the quick and the sheep have departed leaving only their spoor.  The ‘durg’ (a Geordie dog) is able to roam free, the red mist of woolly pursuit averted.  Sitting in the sunshine on a thoughtfully provided bench I feel a tad underemployed.  There’s a lot of it about apparently.  The ‘durg’ seems deliriously happy just widdling its way around the lake.  Lacking the same level of urinary control I’m unable to explore a similar path to fulfilment.  From across the water drift reports of ruddy-faced chaps in mustard cords giving the pheasant population a proper pasting.  Though as gunfire grows more intense it strikes me that semi-automatic assault rifles are not best suited as sporting weapons and instead it’s the army practicing to defend our liberties at Otterburn Ranges.

Time to get back to my inbox…

In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s an aggregator of items that recently caught my eye:-

Not in Our Name – Innocence Lost in Arabia

I must admit to feeling thoroughly depressed at the violence accompanying protests across Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  Watching video previously posted by murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens describing his enduring relationship with the Arab world only serves to emphasise the nihilistic aspect of his death.

Not in Our Name

Certainly the US lacks the moral high ground in the Middle East, a fact that many in the West need to be reminded of, but a reality of common currency amongst the region’s populous for decades.  To be clear, from an Arab perspective US foreign policy is synonymous with perpetuating despots and arming a belligerent Israel, either in the cause of economic self-interest, strategic advantage or domestic political expediency.

Comments posted following editorial on the protests don’t bode well.  The usual zealots splutter, up to their necks in a rising tide of bile, yelling from opposing shores of a sea of ignorance.  Then, perhaps more worryingly, there are the ideologues, trenchant, calm and annoyingly confident.  Why?  Because God is on their side you silly…  And finally, liberal voices from Christian and Muslim intelligentsia, preaching understanding, trying to build bridges across the religious divide – though it’s impossible not to ask yourself who is responsible for the divide in the first place?

Certainly the provenance of the straight-to-video film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, cited as a catalyst for the embassy protests is far from clear.  The ‘producer’, one ‘Sam Bacile’ (too close to ‘imbecile’ to be true) doesn’t exist.  ‘Jimmy Israel’ and ‘Steve Klein’ are also quoted as being involved, at this rate it won’t be long before ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are credited as Associate Directors.  In common with most of those involved in the protests, I haven’t seen the trailer or the film, if it even exists – the actual insults it contains, whether scripted or dubbed have transcended news to become unassailable articles of faith.

The angry reaction by the young men of the Arab Street is as frightening and tedious as it is predictable, but mobs are never pretty.  ‘Death to Obama!’ – really guys, given the Republican alternative, be careful what you wish for.

Who benefits from this polarisation?  Revolutionary change in North Africa came not as the result of radical Islamic epiphany.  Though the incomplete nature of some ‘revolutions’ is rightly questioned, in the first instance it was Arab youth, energised by information and secular idealism that kicked out long-entrenched bogey men.  However, years of repression have stifled the growth of democratic political structures, and post-revolution the mosque and the military are left as the only functional national organisations, the latter weakened by association with the ancien regime.  In 1979 the Iranian middle classes didn’t help oust their corrupt and dictatorial Shah in order to become subject to an equally corrupt and humourless religious cabal – but it happened, and too easily democracy can become theocracy.

Abu Faris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011
Abu Farris talks, I listen. Benghazi May 2011

I’m reminded of an encounter I had in May 2011, in a suburb of Benghazi known as Ras Abaydah.  Sipping coffee in a ‘neighbourhood watch’ tent I spoke to local teacher Abu Farris.  ‘None of the Arab leaders know the meaning of freedom,’ he declared, ‘None of the Arab leaders know what ‘people’ mean.  None of the Arab leaders know what a President is, they just read it, they have no respect at all for this word “freedom”, everybody feel it.’  Though his delivery already verged on the polemic he was just getting started…  My cup was topped up, Abu Farris left his untouched, ‘You know, I believe that the West planted this… this creature (Gaddafi) in Libya in 1969.  All Arabs believe that these leaders were planted by the West.  This is why Al Qaida, Bin Laden or somebody the same makes a lot of trouble.  Not because we hate the West, but because we know that the West planted these leaders.  It is now their duty to throw these leaders away.  Just let us get rid of them, once we get rid of them, then the West will be forgiven by the Arabs.’

I hope he was right.

Class Struggle

Good Afternoon,

A few weeks ago I was at Newcastle Airport, sitting at the gate ready to board a Jet2 flight to Heraklion, surveying the wealth of tattoos, false eyelashes and celebrity hairstyles, and suddenly feeling all of my 46 years.

Dwell Time
Dwell Time…

Unlike most other low-costs Jet2 should be congratulated for assigning seats during check-in in an effort to avoid the boarding scrum, a phenomenon revealing the true contempt in which some airlines hold their passengers.  That said, gate staff still must engage stealth mode close to boarding time lest sudden movement cause a stampede of eager passengers and result in the death of someone disadvantaged by being polite.

On this particular day the game was up, a plane load of punters smelt fear and rushed forward as one, only to then stand shuffling pointlessly in line, fiddling with their self-printed boarding passes – proof that CSE origami was worthwhile after all…

These days getting on a bus is more civilised than taking a low-cost flight and it’s not all the result of exploding underwear fetishists, and the legion dangerous idiots with guns, knives and nail clippers.

As regional airports go, Newcastle is one of the best yet surely there are ways that don’t cost the earth for airlines and airports to make flying economy a pleasanter experience.  BAA is being forced to sell Stansted by the Competition Commission and Ryanair has expressed interest – don’t all clap at once.  Surely a case of being careful what you wish for…

If anyone has bright, ideas feel free to comment – I’ll post suggestions here.

Have a good week.

Website of the Week  – This piece of radio is from 2010, and you may have heard it already.  However, there’s little to touch an Irishman when he’s inspired, so listen and enjoy the Republic’s President Michael Higgins as he exhorts Tea Party ‘shock jock’ Michael Graham to ‘be proud to be a decent American rather than just being a wanker whipping up fear…’   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5OWRRJh-PI

Bulgaria – Land of the Lev

Until recently Bulgaria was pushing hard to embrace all aspects of the European Union, including adoption of the common currency, the Euro.  That was then.  The Euro zone crisis has forced a reassessment.  As with many former Eastern Block states the post Communist honeymoon has long been overtaken by the harsh daily reality of free market economics.  Newly critical perspectives on both past and present are sometimes cynical, one-sided and solely supported by hearsay, but nonetheless they are common currency.  Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel again through Bulgaria.  The following text recalls two encounters with local residents that together offer a snapshot of contemporary life.

BorovetArriving at the ski resort of Borovets in the Rila Mountains, I check into my hotel before taking a turn around the town.  Flurries of white flakes swirl in the icy breeze and it’s difficult to stand on the compacted snow. It’s 17 below, unseasonably cold even for a Bulgarian winter, but despite this the lower slopes are busy with skiers.

Borovets’ planned development started with a few state-owned hotels during the Communist period, and ended with the advent of capitalism, when the gaps in between were filled by a hodgepodge of log cabin emporia.  Many of these are bedecked by strings of flashing lights and non-too-subtle advertising promising ‘All Day Breakfast’, ‘Kiddie Karaoke Corner’ and ‘Exotic Show’ – though, it has to be said, not all in the same hut.

Numbed by cold I search out some warmth, mounting the steps to a cabin remarkable for its plain exterior.  Inside the waiter is dressed formally in a waistcoat, white shirt and black trousers.  A radio plays, and of the other tables only one is occupied by chatting Bulgarian girls.  A fireplace glows comfortingly with a mountain of wood embers, and nursing a generously frothy Zagorka beer, I start to thaw out pleasantly.

A heavily built Bulgarian man enters and perhaps because he’s also alone, sits close by, soon engaging me in conversation.  I ask him about life in Bulgaria.  He hesitates and pulls a face, as though he’s chewed something bitter.  ‘We have a big problem with gypsies, that nobody wants to talk about.’

‘You’re telling me’ I think, and brace myself for a sustained salvo of bar room polemic.

Meat, cheese and wine‘It was the Socialists’ fault,’ he says.  ‘Gypsies travelled during the Ottoman time, there was a bridge between Europe and Asia and it was safe to do so. The Socialists made it so no one could travel, even between neighbouring states.  The gypsies didn’t know what to do.  And now the government just gives them money and welfare.  They’re fucking like rabbits, having seven, eight kids – it’s a business.’

‘A business?’ I ask.

‘Their weddings are not official so the women are paid by the government as single mothers, whilst there are very poor Bulgarians, working and paying tax that supports these gypsies.’

‘So does everyone feel the same about them?’ I query, looking for some balance.

‘Look, for sure at every Bulgarian wedding there will be gypsy musicians.  No one wishes gypsies harm.  But no one likes them.’

I sip my beer – it’s starting to taste a bit flat.  Then, the lights flicker and the radio dies.  The waiter lights candles.  The chatting girls continue chatting.  Outside, a dog limps by in the snow.

Further south in Sandanski, close to the Greek border, there’s no snow or ice.  The area’s sheltered position fosters a renowned microclimate and its bubbling mineral waters have for years drawn those in search of cures.

Thermal WaterAmongst modern décor, stylish furniture and fashionably uniformed attendants I meet Dr Lilia Bakalova at one of the town’s swish new spas.  Built to pamper those who’ve prospered in the new Bulgaria, it’s a far cry fry from facilities once prescribed to Bulgaria’s proletariat.

‘What’s it’s like to be a doctor here?’ I enquire.

Before 1989 you had to be a member of the Communist Party to advance your career.’ She says. ‘I was lucky.  I travelled abroad to promote the benefits of our mineral waters.  I saw life elsewhere and wondered why it was so different.’ She leans forward tossing me an incredulous stare.

‘Aren’t the hospitals better now?’ I ask.

‘Sick people are sick people, all over the world,’ she says. ‘Certainly, we have new machines and drugs.  However, it’s my opinion that the mental health of the population is poorer now, because of stress.  Before everything was secure.  We had enough.  Now it’s a struggle.’

‘And the future?’ I venture.

‘Professional people are not well paid,’ says Dr Bakalova.  ‘Since we joined the EU they have all moved abroad.  But my life is here, and as you see I work extra hours at the spa. And you know, Greece is only 20 kilometres away. I was there yesterday.  Since the crisis they’re having lots of good sales…’

Driving to Aleppo

Team Desert Bradts
After a full two hours of exhaustive preparation we were off...

In November 2011 as part of the Petra Challenge I drove from Newcastle to Jordan, crossing from Turkey into Syria and staying in Aleppo. Later, continuing onwards via Beirut and Damascus to Amman.

Driving a British car across Syria’s land border is at the best of times potentially problematic. In the middle of a period of domestic unrest when foreigners are viewed with increased suspicion it’s a process many would consider foolhardy. However, despite this myself and co-driver Chris Tweddle, found our way through ebullient traffic to Syria’s most historic, if well-worn, hotel.  Since then events have rather overtaken the humour of my recollection, but anyhow here’s what happened…

Jostling in an unruly queue, I wait. Laughing, untidily uniformed immigration officers contemptuously process passports, consult lists, and draw hard on their cigarettes. ‘What is your job?’, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ – I answer truthfully if not completely. Even so, the laughing stalls, replaced by uncomfortable stares. My heart shifts a gear. Bang. ‘Welcome to Syria.’ I’m in.

If only it was that simple. The bureaucratic paper chase of vehicle insurance, carnet, and painstaking columns in venerable double-width ledgers that close with a thump, never to see the light of day again, has only just begun. Two hours later we ease away from border control. Aleppo, Syria’s second city, lies 40km south through the darkness.

Foreigners generally conclude that Arab drivers have instinctive knowledge of horn etiquette and the subtle skills necessary to squeeze five cars into two lanes. Indeed, though Syrians are friendly and welcoming, once behind the wheel the genie is out of the bottle and their three wishes are that you hurry up, move over and get out of the way. Foreign plates and a steering wheel on the wrong side confer no special status.

I have a broad idea where to find Aleppo’s historic Baron’s Hotel. That said, upon the second circuit of a now-familiar traffic–choked square it’s time to seek assistance. Stepping into the night, I ask the way in basic Arabic. A wide-eyed, bearded youth engages with me. He rubs his finger and thumb together hopefully and I offer a two Euro coin, and then another… ‘I drive, you follow,’ he says. I jump back in the car and describe what’s afoot to my colleague, Chris. ‘See that poxy white van, the one that sounds like a chainsaw?’, he nods, ‘Well, don’t lose it.’

Thaks you Fuji Heavy Industries
End of the line...

An adrenaline-fuelled, heart-stopping rollercoaster ride ensues, complete with honking horns, belching exhausts, near collisions and a catalogue of Highway Code contraventions. Then, the van pulls over. The driver jumps out, stretches out his arms and in a grand gesture and swings around towards Aleppo’s magnificent mediaeval citadel – precisely not where we want to be. A passer-by asks in English if he can help. He speaks quickly to the white van driver, there are nods of understanding, and we’re off again, helter-skelter through the seething maelstrom. I strain to recognise streets as we drive, but can’t pin anything down. ‘There it is,’ cries Chris in disbelief. Our dragoman stops, dismounts and beaming broadly kisses me on both cheeks – he’s delighted, as we are.

Inside, the Baron’s feels like a cantankerous elderly uncle’s townhouse. A décor of dignified decline is characterised by a yellowing BOAC route map on one wall, an original pastel-coloured Orient Express poster on another, along with a tattered map of ancient Syria. The hotel’s similarly authentic manager welcomes us in carefully enunciated unhurried English. ‘I’m the manager, Armen. We’re rather quiet at the moment so I’m able to offer you a very special rate on Lawrence of Arabia’s room.’ I recount having a beer in the hotel bar a couple of years ago. ‘Yes,’ he looks at me resignedly, ‘I think you would have found us a little busier then.’ I fill in the register and ask if the bar is still open. ‘Well,’ says Armen, obviously embarrassed, ‘As it’s been so quiet we have given the barman a holiday, but I’m sure we can find someone to serve you satisfactorily.’

Armen disappears into a back room. A lady in her 70s hands over a heavy key fob. She looks worried. ‘I’ve grown old with this hotel you know. Even during the war it wasn’t like this. This is a cold war. Some people they say by Christmas it will all be good. Alhamdulillah – By the grace of God’

Benghazi by Bus

Power to the people...
Power to the people - on the road to Benghazi - May - 2011

Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.

Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.

Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…

Benghazi 12th May

Benghazi - May - 2011
Benghazi – May – 2011

‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’

On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.

Benghazi corniche - May - 2011
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011

Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.

‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’

Benghazi 13th May

Najib - Benghazi - May - 2011
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011

The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.

Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’

Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’

‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’

What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’

Arab Spring

At the risk of appearing … er … irresponsible, and being shot down by those with greater knowledge I’m minded to vent my spleen.  Right now I’m feeling guilty.  If I were  Libyan I’d feel betrayed.  Downwind of continuing debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dazzled by the speed of events, the international community is transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming disaster.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Barack Obama hides behind righteous UN prevarication, too afraid his legacy may be tarnished by hypocrisy to be decisive.  Along with the usual suspects, despots and dimwits to a man, China and Russia, co-authors of ‘Corrupt and Antidemocratic Regimes for Dummies’, are playing their usual mannered game of passive self-interest.  And taking advantage of this moral vacuum Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich mediaevalist monarchy, has invaded its neighbour to facilitate the crushing of a popular movement for peaceful political modernisation and liberalisation – not in our backyard…

In the UK, political capital is made by opportunist opposition politicians rubbishing failed attempts by William Hague to do more than just talk to a revolutionary Libyan leadership – I’d call that a cheap shot.  The Arabs were betrayed by the French and the British once before, and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since.  On this occasion France and Britain, though impotent, appear at least unafraid to promote justice.

The 2011 Arab Spring may have sprung too soon, nipped in the bud by a late frost of violent repression.  While the world’s good men do nothing Libya’s stage is being set for an inevitable future conflict – echoes of Iraq and the betrayed uprising following Gulf War 1 are unavoidable.

Live Every Day

Live every day as thought it's your last, and one day you'll be right.
Live every day as though it's your last, and one day you'll be right.

A stooped old woman leans on her zimmer, eyes unfocused, mouth flapping like a clockwork tortoise – I doubt she knows where she’s going or why.  From an adjacent ‘activity’ room a painfully earnest piano hammers out All Things Bright and Beautiful, the chords mixing with an odour of stale urine that manages to overpower even repeated applications of shake ‘n vac.  I wheel my mother along the carpeted corridor past an inaudible flickering television playing to an audience of unoccupied high-backed winged armchairs.  ‘Thirlmere’, room 24 – we’ve arrived.

An efficient dark-haired woman with tombstone teeth ‘assesses’ my mother.  ‘So, you’re 86 Marjorie, how many grandchildren have you got?’, ‘Where were you born?’, ‘Did you have any pets, you know, before?’, ‘Do you want to be resuscitated?’ I can see my mother is bamboozled, and not a little irritated by these enquiries.  Perhaps she is railing against the superficial interest in her well being.

Two weeks respite care is what’s planned.  My sister is with me.  It is she who found my mother after the stroke, she who moved in to look after her, she who has borne the brunt of disrupted sleep and is now on the edge of reason.  To her the care home is a lifeline, to my mother it’s death row.

We leave together passing a marooned quartet of geriatrics.  Thinning hair, thickening ankles, slumped to their sides or heads down asleep.  They’re all women, presumably men for once have done the decent thing and died a decade or so earlier.

The next day my sister calls.  She’s distraught, exasperated, angry even.  My mother wants out.  I speak to Mum.  ‘It’s full of sick folk who’ve lost their marbles.  It’s depressing.  They say it’s all very nice but it’s all top show, they cut corners.  They wanted to serve us tea in plastic beakers last night.  I said no thank you, there are some nice china cups in that cupboard I’ll have one of those.  It’s depressing.  I’ll just have to manage at home.’

I drive over to Cumbria to pick her up.  ‘Sorry she didn’t like it.’ Says the receptionist as she hands over the bill.  They’ve charged for the full week despite Mum’s stay being six nights, ‘It’s all done automatically, by computer’ I’m advised – so ‘effing what I’m thinking.  ‘Thank you.’ Mother is just pleased to be leaving.  ‘See you… er later.’ Suggests the receptionist.  ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ Replies mother.

My sister is moving out.  It’s the right thing to do.  A full care package has been instituted; visits at 5.30am, 8.30am, 11.00am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.00pm, 8.30pm, 12.30am.

Life goes on.

PS Apple’s Steve Jobs gave an inpirational speech to Stanford graduates not too long ago – ‘How to live before you die’ – see it here –   http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die.html