The Flame Trees of Beirut

“It was like being bitten by a beautiful dragon fly whose wings were of such splendour that the victim did not even feel the nip in the flesh.” Robert Fisk – Pity the Nation Lebanon At War.

 

My first impression of Beirut was how much like Haifa in Israel it looked. The city tumbling down from the surrounding hills, buildings almost falling into the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

Beirut was so much like Haifa that in the days preceding Israel’s aerial bombing of the city in 1982 the pilots used Haifa to practice its raids using that city as its dummy for the real thing.

The bombing of Lebanon by Israel and the subsequent slaughter of innocent Palestinian refugees in the camps by the Lebanese Phalanges shocked the outside world. Reporters and photographers sent harrowing scenes back verbally and visually that the west could not fully comprehend. And perhaps we could never understand.

The country continued over the years to be a hot spot for conflict and its capital  bombed to oblivion meant the hedonist city of Beirut was a place no longer on the tourist trail. My constant trips to Israel meant that even when peace was restored I could not visit.

And those that did visit said the city was destroyed, buildings left abandoned, bombed, burnt and razed to the ground. And of course the kidnappings and hostages all added to the reputation of Lebanon not being a place for your average traveller.

In the 21st Century, a country that had in Biblical times provided the cedar trees for Solomon’s Temple to be built in Jerusalem now had the monumental task of rebuilding its capital from the rubble.

And of course that is the first thing I noticed on my walk around the city, just how many abandoned buildings there were. And it was difficult to establish with any confidence which conflict had caused their destruction.

The hotel where I stayed near the famous Corniche abutted onto a cluster of such buildings. One hidden behind the veil of a huge overgrown flame tree was possibly from the Ottoman times, the wrought iron bars on the windows had rusted beyond repair.

The flame tree hiding the building was blooming later then many in Beirut. Probably because it was in virtual shade from the surrounding buildings. Over the week the leaves turned from pastel yellow, to orange and vibrant red.

Behind this ghostly beauty was an old apartment block. Three storeys high, it too had all the signs of being abandoned in a rush. Wooden slats on all the glassless windows had been virtually bleached white by years of sun and wind. One home at the top had geraniums growing from the window box. Spots of red like blood splayed across the peeling paint of the wall.

At dusk bats would flitter through the open doors and windows, flapping up into the balmy evening air. Sometimes they would fly close to where I stood on my balcony. Harmless little creatures, surviving in a place that once saw an aerial attack of a far worse and deadly kind.

I wondered did all of the occupants of the building make it out alive, running away before the attacks, or did they stay and endure hoping to survive? And what happened to them? Where did they go? Where are they now? What kind of life do they and their families have now?

Another building which appeared empty was an office block. The age of the building suggested that perhaps this was abandoned in a more recent conflict. It still had all the glass in the windows intact. Curtains hung yellow and dusty in some rooms. But at night there was always one room illuminated. Had someone set up home there? Electricity was obviously still connected, and perhaps running water. Was he security, or was he just someone who lived where he knew he would be left in peace?

Buildings like these are dotted all around Beirut. Some like the Holiday Inn have gaping holes in them from where the firing burst open the walls. The concrete edifice that the local calls The Blob, peppered with shell fire and bullet holes. Buildings left to ruin alongside the new rebuilds.

For many the re- building of Beirut is a great thing but I couldn’t but help think as they rebuilt the city, they were trying to re write their history, just like Haifa in Israel, slowly creating a sanitised city devoid of all the trapping of humanity. By my hotel there were old Arabic shops alongside a new air conditioned super market that sold new trendy products.

Many places I walked I felt I could have been in Brighton in England. The Arabic past not obliterated but absorbed by a Western conception of how the city should be. The souks of Beirut are now pristine tents set up in St Georges Bay selling designer items, pretty shiny things with no trace of the country’s heritage in their makeup.

There were on days when I have to confess I took a bus just to go to the outskirts of the refugee camp at Sabra. Just to look across that invisible line to see where a nation of persecuted and oppressed people lived. Just to remind myself I was in a country situated in the Middle East, between Syria and Israel.  That God forbid I wasn’t in Brighton.

This was the city where Israel in an attempt to obliterate a nation of people helped the Lebanese Phalanges in the slaughter of innocent children, women and old men. Have they chosen to forget?

By the end of my week in Beirut workers were putting the finishing touches on a new shiny tower block that overlooked the Corniche. Potted Palm Trees were being placed strategically along the entrance to the building. Yes I know what you are all thinking Potted Palm Trees in the Middle East!

I was vaguely reassured by the site of an old bombed out wreck of building next to it, plants that had gone wild and were slowly escaping down the balcony to freedom.

 

Next week Miss Walton gets accidently kidnapped by two bus drivers and taken up into the hills of Lebanon!

The Epsom Suffragette.

When I was nine years old or perhaps older, I went on a school trip. We did not go very far in those days for a day trip just meant a few hours out of the classroom.

I am assuming it was to the Bourne Hall museum in Ewell, for I do not recall another museum in the area. And I do remember waving to black cab drivers who waved back and tooted, so I was in the vicinity of my home town of Epsom of that I was sure.

Once in the museum, the teacher, a young Scottish woman gave us a list of Do’s and Don’ts.

I ignored them, we  had never connected as pupil and teacher and so I saw absolute no reason to listen to her now in the confines of the museum.

My eye was drawn to some old black and white photos, enlarged and framed on a wall, just before the entrance to the main exhibit, the subject of which escapes me. I marched with purpose to the photos. One in particular caught my attention. As a precocious reader I could immediately make sense of the words below the bottom of the frame, typed in black on a white card, “Derby Day 1913”.

The photo was clearly a snap shot of race day on Epsom Downs, yet something was decidedly wrong about this event. Or the event of that particular race day. The black and white photo captured something that only happened once in the history of the race.

The body of a horse lay on the ground and two crumpled bodies of what looked like people sprawled alongside the animal. One, if you peered really closely was in a white dress. Male or female was not apparent but horses were racing past their bodies, perhaps trying to avoid trampling them or just so fired up by the race they did not know what was laid in front of them like some un holy sacrifice.

Of course now Derby Day 1913 is well-known, for this was the day Emily Davison sacrificed herself to the Suffragette movement. A hundred and five years on and Emily Davison is big news.

Eventually my teacher dragged me away from the photo, muttering about, “Why do you always have to make things difficult. Why don’t you listen to me? I am your teacher.”

I am safely assured I did not reply with, “Because you don’t like me. And I don’t like you. And you always try to make Caroline the star of the classroom.” But I did think it, I know of that.

The photo stuck in my head throughout the rest of the day trip, three hours out of the classroom. If you are wondering what the exhibit was that we had come to visit, I am sorry I will have to disappoint you for I do not remember. I can only say I know it was not King Henry VIII and Nonesuch Park. For that day trip we had a whole day out of the classroom and went to the park. And I know everything about King Henry and Nonesuch and indeed Elizabeth his daughter.

Back to the suffragettes. You would have thought being born and bred in Epsom that as a child we would have heard more about the tragedy of Derby Day 1913. But we didn’t. Emily Davison, was it appeared written out of the history books both locally and politically.

Once my father had recovered from the news that I had tried to drown Caroline – one of my classroom, not friends, in the Bourne Hall springs, he did answer my question about Derby Day 2013.

“A young woman ran in front of the Kings horse he was called Anmer and, Emily, she died.”

“Why?”

“Because the horse trampled on her.”

“No, why did she run out in front of a horse?”

“She was a member of a group of women, who were demanding the vote for women.”

It was here that I realised something. As a nine-old, or thereabouts, in 1973 women had the vote.

But back in 1913 women had felt they needed to kill themselves to obtain their right to vote.

I did not think about this for many years. Then whilst studying in 6th form college I began to learn about social revolutions. The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Oh boy did I love social revolutions.

And one girl who I had formed a friendship of sorts said to me. “That woman who threw herself under the Kings horse at the Epsom Derby, she was part of a social revolution.”

Here was someone else who had heard of that woman. Spoke of her in a historical context, as part of a movement that changed the social world of women, not just here but globally.

But the Suffragette movement saw still not really talked about and very few history books in my school or college had any mention of the women who ultimately changed the rights of women and their standing in society.

It is only now in 2018 at the age of 54, that I have seriously thought about Emily Davison.

For many years the few historical sources have described her death as a suicide. Suggesting that she was not of sound mind. Perhaps this was true, no one will ever really know. But her actions revealed the strength of feeling by many women at not being treated fairly or equal by the male counterparts.

If today someone was to ask, “If you were born in the 1900’s, what would you have become?”

I know without much thought the answer, “I would have been a part of the Suffragette movement.”

Before those who don’t know me start rolling their eyes round and round in disbelief, and saying “Oh please, seriously.”

Those that do know me are almost shouting, “Yes and if she had been part of that movement, women would have had the vote way before the end of WWI.”

Would I have tied myself to the railings of Parliament? Fight with the local constabulary? Thrown bricks through the posh houses in town? Tried to blow up houses where local MP’s lived? Hell yeah, why not?

Would I have starved myself whilst in prison? To be force-fed gruel? I may have baulked at the tube being forced down my throat, but to be fair I was force fed porridge as a child once, so I am sure I would have survived.

Interestingly enough other women aided the force-feeding of the suffragist women. One poster of the movement shows three women holding down a struggling woman so a tube could be pushed down her throat.

But as to stepping in front of a horse running full pelt across the Epsom downs, (owned by the King is actually for me irrelevant,) they run flipping fast! I have to say we all have our limits. I have a great love and respect for horses so I would have to say no, no chance of me running in front of one whilst it’s running in the Epsom Derby. Or to be fair any race of any description that involved horses.

I would have hoped that once I had fought for the vote for women excluding the race at Epsom, that the fighting spirit in me would have carried me into war. I would have become the 1st woman to fly a spitfire in battle.

But, it is here that my imagination runs away with me, it happens when I put an ink pen across paper. I am not a product of that era, I was born in 1963, the time of free love and the sexual revolution.

So fast forward over 100 years to the world we women live in today.  One of the things that seems to be written about the suffragists just recently is the request to have them pardoned.

What are we having them pardoned for? Their fighting spirit? Why are we pardoning them for this? Do you think those ladies, some who lost their children to adoption for that fight, want to be excused? Hell NO! It is a cop-out. So do we then pretend they were not beaten, imprisoned and denigrated by society?

These women are the reason why all women today can vote. And for that, I am grateful.

My first vote was when Margaret Thatcher came into power. My father and my mother did not question me or persuade me who and which party to vote for and I did not tell them who I voted for. But I voted! My right as a woman.

I thank the Suffragette ladies that their suffering means I can vote. I do get annoyed when young women say they didn’t vote.

But the ones I get really annoyed with are the women who say, in a really simpering voice, “I don’t vote, my husband votes for both us.”

Seriously what was the point?

A woman died under the Kings horse and you come up with that crap!

I thank the ladies of the Suffragette movement. I vote every time I get the option. Because of them I can be whatever I want to be.  Perhaps in another time and another place fighter pilot may have been a reality, perhaps intrepid explorer may have been an option.

Stories are now coming out about the brave lives many of the women of the suffragette movement went on to live. In fact I am sure one of them went on to fight in WW2 – not in a spitfire but she fought none the less. Hardly surprising for they were brave and had a fighting spirit that today many young women, do not have.

But in the 21st Century celebrations – don’t pardon the Women of the Suffragette movement, congratulate them, respect them and salute them!  They I am sure would be right pissed off if you told them, “You are pardoned.”

In 2018 my thoughts will be of my father who as a London cabbie, “worked” the derby.

Derby Day is always a day for me to remember him driving up and down Ashley Road in that black snake of cabs.

I will perhaps, as I drive across the downs think of those that have gone and remember a woman nearly written out of history that is now back on the front page!

I will always vote and will always encourage young women to vote.  Please do not say, “Oh they (the political parties) are all the same, for it is in your power to change the course of your political and social history.”

Women died for you, they starved for you, they tied themselves to railings for you and they fought for you.

Please don’t say, “Oh I can’t be bothered.” Even if you turn up and vote by spoiling your paper, you should.

 

 

The boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.

Phillipe’s grandfather Pierre had been buried one year, but Elodie his grandmother could still be heard sobbing at night in her room.

Phillipe grieved for his grandfather, but he knew it was not the same as the grief his grandmother was going through. Yes he had been an important character in Phillipe’s life but not for 65 years. Elodie was now without her soul mate after 65 years together.

One day he came up with an idea to try and cheer his grandmother up. He would take her back to the city where they had met and fell in love. The city made famous by the star crossed lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca.

At first when he mentioned it to his family, they were doubtful, especially his wife Peggy. “How will that help her? She has not been back there in over 50 years. How can you taking an old frail lady to Casablanca help her with her grief?”

Phillipe thought about it for a moment and then said, “The memories will bring her some joy if nothing else.”

His father was doubtful too, “Casablanca, it’s not the city she grew up in. She won’t remember it. But maybe just a trip away will do her some good.”

When Phillipe suggested the journey to Elodie, he was sure he saw for the first time in a year a sparkle in her eyes. “Yes, yes I would like that. Casablanca, that’s where I met your grandfather. He was so handsome in his army uniform. The Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” A dreamy look had now crept across her face.

His grandparents story had although not been as stormy as the lovers in the film Casablanca, it was fit for a film with the same title.

They had met in 1953, France had just deposed the Sultan Mohammed. It was to be a time of change for the country of Morocco. The evening after they met Pierre was sent by the French to Algiers. But he came back to Casablanca for Elodie. And eventually after living in France they came to England.

When Phillipe began to make plans for the trip he encountered the first stumbling block. He was looking for a suitable hotel and was thinking somewhere need the boulevard where his grandparents first met. He typed the name into google and nothing came up, not in Casablanca anyway.

He frowned, Elodie had been so adamant about the name. Perhaps after independence, street names were changed. Perhaps it was now a more Moroccan sounding name.

He asked Elodie exactly where was the boulevard. And she became vague, In the Ville, near the port, near the park, close to the square. Phillipe was more confused than ever, it sounded by his grandmothers’ description near to everywhere but close to nowhere.

Not to be defeated Phillipe wrote by email to the Casablanca tourist board. Their reply although polite, was pretty final. “There was and never has been such a road called the Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc. We do have the Boulevard Mohammed V, Boulevard Victor Hugo, Boulevard Des Almohades and Boulevard Moulay Youssef.”

Phillipe decided they would just go and maybe once there it would all become clear. He even thought that perhaps it was something to do with Mohammed V, perhaps he had an aviary of white birds and they all died so the name of the road was changed. Or perhaps it’s one of the streets with the art deco buildings the white buildings that looked like tiered wedding cakes.

At the last minute Phillipe’s nephew Jonathan asked if he could come. “I want to trace my roots.” He sagaciously said. Phillipe smiled at the thought. At the age of 11 he was sure the boys’ roots were not yet that deep to be traced too far. But he would enjoy his company anyway.

So with high hopes of making his grandmothers days just a little bit more bearable, Phillipe, Peggy, Elodie and Jonathan flew to Casablanca.

Phillipe was surprised at how French it all looked. Not really Moroccan at all. Cafes just like you would find in Paris were everywhere, all with groups of men sitting outside chatting and smoking. There were not he noticed that many women in the café’s and remembered how his grandfather had said once. “This is a man’s domain, no woman would have the nerve to go in one of those places.”

Peggy would though, thought Phillipe and smiled. How things change.

They had booked their hotel near the medina  and it was from here that Phillipe hoped his grandmother would begin to remember things and places. He tried not to be too disappointed when as they drove in the taxi from the airport into Casablanca, Elodie had said, with a total look of bemusement on her face, “What City is this? This is not Casablanca.”

Peggy had looked across to her husband and had softly said, “I told you so.”

The receptionist in the hotel had given them a map and directions to some of the main sites. She told them also that the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe” was under rejuvenation. Phillipe thanked her and they strolled round to the nearest café. Peggy and Elodie had a few tuts and cold stares but other than that they were left alone.

Phillipe spent many hours in café’s asking the waiters and the customers did they know of the “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” And each time a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders and the affirmative, “Non”.

One night they went to eat at “Ricks Place”. That ironically did exist. A place from a film about a man and a woman, neither of which really lived, loved or existed. Yet Ricks place was there in bricks and mortar. And yet the place of his grandparent’s first meeting, two people who had lived, loved and existed was still as elusive as a genie from the lamp.

Elodie did recognise a few places and mentioned how the Place Mohamed V did not have a fountain the last time she had been there. They sat feeding pigeons just as evening was coming on and the fountain suddenly lit up and music began to play. For the first time in ages Phillipe saw his grandmother smile. The trip was worth it he mused if only for that precious moment.

They were coming to the end of their trip and Phillipe had resigned himself to failing on finding the Boulevard de l’oisseau blanc. When suddenly Jonathan, who had been on his phone shouted out, “I know where it is. I have found it. Come on, follow me.”

There was a few minutes of furious activity where coats and hats were found and Elodie was unceremoniously taken out of the hotel back onto the street. And the three of them followed Jonathan, who was now in a rush. “Slow down Jonathan. Elodie can’t walk that fast she is old and frail. Slow down.” Peggy admonished.

Jonathan slowed his rush marginally but then speeding on ahead again, then stopping for the three of them to catch him up. Phillipe noticed they were heading towards the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe”. There was boarding up showing how the Park would look after the rejuvenation. A picture which showed animals suggested there would be some kind of zoo.

Jonathan then stopped at the beginning of a road, a place called Boulevard Moulay Youssef. An avenue that cut through the park lined with a few café’s. Phillipe was confused. It was a street made less ordinary by the avenue being lined with trees. Parked cars all the way along, suggested just another street in the city, nothing unusual. He could see the bulldozers and piles of earth further down and the entrance to the park blocked. But then it became apparent to him. How had he been so stupid? Of course it was now immediately obvious.

As Jonathan led Elodie under the first few trees, there was a sudden activity up in the higher green branches. A flapping of wings and a collective squawking. And then there rose into the air a flight of white Ibis.

Elodie was already back in 1953. She was now dragging Jonathan under the trees. She was smiling and her hands reached up in the air. Phillipe could hear her saying. “See here this café along here that was where I met him. He was so handsome in his uniform.  His hair so dark. His eyes laughing and gay.”

Phillipe saw the birds hovering in the early morning air. As they flew the sun caught the tips of their white wings and they burnished copper and gold. He thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

But then when he looked at Elodie he saw something more beautiful, his grandmother was happy. If only for a few minutes that would stay with him for his lifetime. Her face transformed with joy and the memories that were now flooding back to her. He watched as she led Jonathan his young nephew down the, “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.”

Some nights I dream of Palmyra

“The most effective way to destroy people, is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”     George Orwell

In December 2016 ISIS retook the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and began the systematic destruction of its temples and magnificent buildings.

 

A soldier is stretching up into the needle like fronds of a palm tree and picking at something hidden by the foliage, the tree is heavy with a bunch of fruits hanging like huge ancient sundried grapes the colour of old leather, but  they are dates, he hands a few to me. They are sweet and taste of the sun and of sand.

In the distance gun shots can be heard. I flinch, my shoulders twitch. The soldier in turn shrugs his own shoulders and continues to eat the dates.

I had not invited him on my early morning walk, he had found me, or had I found him? I cannot tell for although it seemed a strange place to meet a soldier, it now with the sound of the gun fire seemed completely acceptable.

I showed him a photo of a desert strawberry tree in my guide book. He smiled and nodded and walked me to the rim of the oasis of date palms. I was sweating heavily by then but the effort was rewarded with a strawberry tree. A cacti tree with red fruit like a strawberry. I smiled, he smiled, pleased that he had had made me smile.

The sun was appearing across the desert landscape, the sky had gone from indigo blue, to purple and would soon be burnt the colour of oranges before the sun was clear above in what would be the bluest of heavens.

And then would come the heat, which I was trying so desperately to escape. But for now we walked back along the Colonnade, my feet tracing the steps that once Zenobia had most certainly taken. Shadows retreated and advanced as we walked.

Zenobia the warrior queen, she who took on the Roman Empire. But ultimately the might of Rome destroyed her. There are paintings of her being dragged back to Rome, head bowed. But I wonder if this was just propaganda. That she had in fact needed to be dragged back screaming and kicking.

Yesterday as I had walked round the city with my Syrian guide he had said when the words Roman city was mentioned, “This is not a Roman city this is a Syrian city.”

And when he spoke of Zenobia it was as if he was talking fondly of a distant Aunt. The kind when you heard reports of her escapades you are secretly proud.

Zenobia, even the name has morphed into “xenophobic”. Somebody who has a hatred or mistrust of someone not of their land or of their religion. And yet Zenobia had a great tolerance of religious minorities in her city.

It was as if even in the 2nd Millennium BC, history was rewritten to ensure that a woman was erased from all the books on bravery, was even described as rejecting her sacred Palmyra but it was not so, she ultimately was the victim of manipulation and cowardice from the rulers of Rome. A Rome ruled by men, but with women manipulating events through sex and children.

The brickwork of the ancient remains were the colour of burnt apricots and seemed to be absorbing the faint rays of the advancing sun, and then there was the soft bleating of goats. The sound became louder and was accompanied by the gentle hissing of a child encouraging the flock to continue walking. The udders of the female goats wrapped in plastic bags where already droplets of condensation were forming from the animal’s heat inside the bags.

The soldier stopped to light a cigarette. He offered it to me. I shook my head at him. He gave a noncommittal shrug. He inhaled deeply on the cigarette. We continued to walk to the end of the colonnade. I wrapped a cerise scarf round my head to protect myself from the already blazing sun and placed my sun glasses on my nose, deflecting the glare.

The Syrian Desert was still the colour of muted heather in an autumn England. High on a hill a few miles outside of the city was an Arab castle. I would have like to climb up to it but knew it would be too arduous a trek in this heat.

So far my companion and I had spoken very little. We continued our stroll, meandering though the Temple of Nebo, the god of oracles, of wisdom and of writing. And the gun shots were closer. I glanced through my sunglasses nervously but the soldier seemed unperturbed by the noise as did the little goat shepherd and his flock.

Only me, the tourist seemed bothered by the sound of gun fire. A cloud of dust rose up across the purple landscape. The land of Jiins, magician people were travelling across the desert. Genii from the lamps were running amok.

Sand rose up in a small whirl and I breathed in the heat and the dust. I felt the gravel in my mouth and my throat.

I glanced across to the hills and thought I caught a glint of metal. Reflections similar to when a few days before we had been driving along the border between Lebanon and Syria. I was sure I had seen men sitting with guns directed at Syria, but had persuaded myself this was not the case.

The sound of distant engines that drew closer and then the site of men in 4 x4’s. Some sitting atop of the vehicles, guns cradled like babies across their arms. Cloth wrapped round their heads, and like me they were sporting sun glasses. By the looks of them I suspect more designer then mine which I had got from Specsavers. Dark sun burned skin, and cigarettes hanging casually from their mouths. They had an air of aggression to them.

A feeling of unease crept into my stomach. Although Palmyra had once been on the caravan trail for merchants and travellers, that, my history book told me was in the second millennium BC, this was now the 21st century AD, July 2011.

The Arab Spring in Tunisia had come and gone. The March protests here in Syria had also seemed to end before they really began. As I had journeyed round Syria the country seemed relaxed and a silence hung in the air that felt like peace.

The vehicles violently stopped, their tyres vomiting stones up into the air. And then a moment of calm. Before the men all jump down on nimble feet and knees, brandishing their guns.

The soldier spoke gently to them, but even I could see they were not placated. He seemed to fall before the gun had even been fired, but of course I know that was not true, that was just my memory playing tricks on me.

Warriors of the past and the present converge at the cross roads of this city, like once merchants and travellers would stop to discuss the latest news. East meeting West. I gaze up to the relic of the funerary temple and hear the sound of the fronds of a palm clicking in the breeze.

 

I look away from the soldier on the ground. My vision blurs and the ground feels like it is moving under my feet. I stop breathing trying not to believe what has happened.

And the sun beats down like a blood orange seeping life from the ground. I breathe once again and the pain almost takes my breath away. I do not run, I cannot hide.

I wait for the shot to kill me. My eyes are hidden by my tortoise shell sunglasses. Hopefully they will not see in my eyes what I am really thinking. I look up along the colonnade, high on the hill is the castle I will never walk to. There are worse places to die I think.

One of the young men stands close to me and snatches my glasses away, for a moment he flinches. And I wonder what it is that has shocked him. Anger, contempt, resignation, cowardice? What does he see?

I think to myself will they shoot me straight through my heart like they have the soldier? Or will mine be a slow death? Will the first bullet hit my shoulder? Will my knee caps be blown open and I have to drag myself to where? I resign myself to the fact that I will have a slow death, but decide I will not drag myself anywhere, I will die under the shadow of the row of apricot pillars of the colonnade. Or will the Temple of Nebo be my silent and ancient witness?

How apt that would be? A writer bleeding to death at the steps of the God of wisdom and of writing. I will hear the flap, flap of the palm trees fighting the wind. I will die in a place of beauty. I brace myself for a slap or the sound of a bullet. Perhaps like the soldier I will fall before the bullet hits me.

But they leave me standing by the soldier’s body. A look of derision on all their faces. Some laughing. But the man who took my glasses off and looked into my eyes does not laugh and as the vehicle he climbed atop of drives away he turns back to look at me – no derision on his face, something else, confusion perhaps. I do not know for he is too far away for me to read his face.

When the last vehicle has disappeared out of sight an elderly man appears from out from one of the pillars of the colonnade. On rickety legs and an equally rickety stick he walks towards me and beckons me to follow him.

I follow, and as I do the boy shepherd runs towards us, his goats momentarily without a leader wander towards rocks where desert plants have sprouted. The goats nibble at the stems.

I am taken to the one café nearby, where the old man explains what has happened to the prorpeitor. In true Syrian style food and coffee and water is placed in front of me. I feel no need to eat but drink the cardamom laced coffee. My hands shake as I draw the cup to my mouth.

Soon more soldiers will appear to take the soldier away. I assume I will be questioned, the only witness myself and perhaps the old man who appeared as if from Hades.

Now Palmyra often called the Venice of the Sands, an oasis of date palms and gardens has gone. Like Ozymandias- look on the works of ISIS and despair. The Temple of Ba’al, one of the iconic symbols of ancient Syria, destroyed and reduced to rubble. Zenobia may still haunt the rocks and colonnades of her once beautiful city but it is now a mere shadow of what had stood the test of time until 2011.

I was to learn that within weeks of the soldier being shot in cold blood. The organization that spread fear, hatred and blood shed through the Middle East and eventually to Europe, destroyed anything cultured in Syria and worse killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

They had resurrected a medieval philosophy and run amok through the landscape of the 21st century. A landscape as old as murder was once again drenched in blood. With total impunity ISIS tried to rewrite history.

But many like me remember. Like me those with eyes saw and have waited. Those that survived will not rewrite history the way these men want it to be rewritten, ISIS will fall and be nothing more than a record mentioned in a history book full of better deeds then brutality and madness.

Perhaps Palmyra will rise again if only to her knees. Her slender arches may not reach into the blue heavens again. But memory is now perfectly captured in photos. ISIS cannot take this way. ISIS have said Syria is not for the Syrians, Iraq is not for the Iraqis. And yet I remember my Syrian guide saying with pride, “Palmyra is not Roman it is Syrian”. “Zenobia was a warrior Queen who tolerated all religions. She was not a Roman Queen she was a Syrian Warrior.”

Sometimes in the cool of a summer night when a breeze blows through my open window I dream of Palmyra. I remember the soldier picking dates from the ancient palm trees. I was told days after his murder, he often walked through Palmyra in the early morning.  Before being a soldier he had studied ancient Syrian history at University. To him there was nowhere more beautiful then Palmyra in the world.  He had said he wanted to be buried at the site of the Theatre.

“All man’s deeds are seen by someone higher, all man’s words are heard by someone better. Yes our cities are built for Allah to see but that is not what we will be judged by. People remember, they pass their stories onto to others. Good deeds, good words. That is how the world will remember.”

He did not get that wish to be buried by the theatre but I hope that perhaps his soul rest nearby.

Last night I dreamt of Palmyra. And I wrote one story, one that with photos may not be destroyed. That one man will not be remembered just as soldier but as a Syrian, a man of learning and of compassion.

I feel the hot desert wind caress my cold skin. I can see a strawberry tree standing as reaching towards heaven, blood red shoots heavy on the branches. A solitary soldier is walking through the old theatre, along the colonnades towards the temple. The only sound is the palm leaves clacking in the wind.

The last story teller of Marrakech.

For centuries the square called Jemmaa el Fna in the city of Marrakech had been a place for the art of storytelling to thrive. People who could not read or write and did not have TV or computers, would come and sit and listen to a story being told and played out by a hlaykia – a story teller.

Now the new modern age of TV, Facebook, and computers means they have become virtually redundant. For me the thought of not reading the written word is unimaginable. I am sure in years to come there will be campaign for the last author.

Whilst on a recent sojourn in Morocco I was unwell. Fortunately I had enough books for me to just sit back read and also to write and so here is a very inferior modern story that I hope captures the spirit of the story tellers of Marrakech. For those wanting to read a more traditional example I recommend – Richard Hamilton –The last story tellers.

 

The rich baker of Azemmour.

 

Once upon a time in Azemmour, there was a young boy called Moulay. He dreamed of being rich. He lived in a small house inside the walls of the Old Portuguese Medina of Azemmour with his mother and his six brothers and sisters. He was happy enough, but he was restless and wanted more.

Often he would row his small wooden boat along the canal called Wadi Oum er Rbia, at the mouth of the estuary he would think of how he would sail a boat right through the white tipped waves of the Atlantic ocean and make his way to Europe. Where he could work and become rich.

He had heard of a city called London. That city had a river too but it had rich people’s boats sailing on it. And the whole of London had rich people living there.

Moulay began working in the communal bakery when he was twelve. This was a place where all his neighbours would bring their bread for the baker to bake their daily bread. Every one took their dough there, for people in the Medina did not have ovens to cook. They cooked meat on open braziers outside but bread was always taken to the baker.

Moulay worked hard, but his head was in the clouds. He still dreamed of London and being rich.

One day the owner of the baker came to Moulay with a very generous offer. “I have watched you these past few years and you work very hard Moulay. I have only daughters, no sons to pass my business onto. I am old and soon will not be able to work. I want you to have my bakery. I offer you my eldest daughter Fatimah as your wife. And then the bakery will become yours.”

Moulay knew that this was a very generous offer. Fatimah was pretty and very kind natured and would make a very suitable wife. But Moulay loved the younger daughter Rashida. She was more beautiful than Fatimah if not as kind hearted.

Whilst Moulay pondered over the request, one of his cousins paid a visit from Casablanca, that very French city further up the coast. His cousin flashed his cash and began to flirt with Rashida.

Mohammed took his cousin aside one day and whispered in his ear, “Rashida is too pretty for you, it will have to be a rich man for her.” This was something that Moulay knew was true he wished it wasn’t true but he knew Rashida was what the Europeans called – High Maintenance.

“But,” Mohammed continued, “I know how you can become rich, so rich you could afford two wives like Rashida.”

Moulay was all ears, money soon to be his, lots of it too.

“You have to be very brave and be able to sail a boat.” Mohammed said.

Moulay could sail a boat no problem. As to brave? All doubts were quickly dispelled about his courage at the thought of achieving his dream of being rich.

“What do you need me to do?” he replied to Mohammed, a growing feeling of excitement rising in him. He was up for the adventure.

“My boss has a very precious cargo that needs to be taken to Europe. I will arrange the time and place for you. All you have to do is sail the boat across the sea to Spain. Moulay thought that was easy. A boat can be sailed across the stretch of Mediterranean Sea no problem he deduced.

So one cold dark winter morning, Moulay left his mother and his siblings and headed further up the coast line to where he was told the boat with the cargo would be waiting for him.

But when he got there he was shocked and immediately had second thoughts. There was the boat low in the water, heavy with the cargo of people. Illegal immigrants headed for Europe in the hope of a better life.

Moulay nearly said, “No.”. But the lure of the money and having Rashida as his wife swayed him.

They were not going to sail across the Mediterranean Sea, as he had expected. Instead they were to sail up the north Atlantic coast and then to the south west coast of Spain.

The first few hours of sailing were easy. By now the sun was up and a cool breeze seemed to be pushing them to the direction they needed to go. I few of the men – for they were all men he had now established – were sea sick but that was to be expected.

But then a storm of such magnitude began and the waves were higher than the boat. Many of the men fell overboard; they quickly sank beneath the cruel sea. Their cries all but obliterated by the sound of the angry storm.

But somehow Moulay sailed on, driven now just with the will to survive and to hit land any land.

And so the boat did eventually hit land – the South West coast of the country called Spain. There was a lorry waiting for them to take them through Spain and France to Calais.

Moulay had not planned to go with them, not really for he had only planned to sail the boat to Spain. But he thought, Allah has got me this far. I will go on in the lorry to France.

The lorry did not stop very often and soon the water they had been supplied with was gone. The smell of the bodies all crammed in together was insufferable, and just when Moulay was about to give up, the lorry stopped one last time and opened up the doors.

The last surviving men staggered and fell out and began their last part of the journey to England.

Moulay in a semi delirious state noticed that the weather once again had changed. There was no blue sky and sun. Just grey skies and dampness, the continual drizzle of rain.

But he told himself, all would be OK once they reached London.

So hiding between the legs of sheep headed for England Moulay finally arrived in that country where dreams were made, where everyone was rich. But Moulay was not driven to London, he was driven further north to a place he could not pronounce. A place called Lincolnshire.

And here for several months he worked over 18 hours a day six days a week. For what even he knew was a pittance. And the misery of being on a farm, in the middle of nowhere nearly broke his resolve.

There was no sun to warm his bones. The caravan he lived in with 10 other men was cold and damp and soon began to smell.

In the short moments of sleep. He began to dream of Azemmour. The town where the sky was always blue and where a breeze from the Wadi carried the smells of cooking and the sound of laughter from the Medina. There was no call here for payer from the muezzin, just the call to work like dogs.

And so one night when he had woken up having dreamt of the smell of fresh bread from the bakery. The bakery that had he said yes would now be his.  Moulay prayed to Allah for help. He was not sure that he was praying in the right direction but he was sure that Allah would forgive him that one small transgression.

And Allah answered his prayers. “You must put your trust in authority Moulay.”

He pondered on what this meant. But then he knew. So he got up, and although as usual it was raining, he walked out of the farm, before the dogs were even up to bark a warning to the farmer.

He trudged through a field of heavy mud. And kept walking till he came to a road that was tarmac. Walking the road he came to a sign, with two arrows.  One with a long name he couldn’t read, but in brackets the number 25, and the other with a shorter name that he still couldn’t read with in brackets the number 15. He chose the direction with the shorter name and the smaller number and continued to walk.

Soon he could see the sprawl of a town or a city and he pushed on towards the place. Before he had made it to the outskirts of the town, a police car pulled up alongside of him.

He did not struggle, he climbed into the back of car willingly. And so without a passport, money or any form of identification Moulay took the long road back to Azemmour.

When he returned home, thinner, older and very much wiser, his mother cried that she thought he was dead. His sisters cried that they thought he was dead. His brothers cried they thought he was dead. And his cousin, rather less enthusiastically greeted him and with less joy said, “I thought you were dead.”

When he went to the bakery, Fatimah was still not married, she smiled a welcome to Moulay and her father shook his hand. He went to say, “I thought….”

Moulay interrupted him and sadly said, “Yes. I know you thought I was dead.”

Rashida had married Mohammed and was now pregnant. And although still very beautiful was now even more high maintenance and still not so kind hearted as Fatimah.

A year later he married Fatimah and became the owner of the bakery.

The only time Moulay thought of England again was when a grey cloud sailed across the blue skies of Azemmour. Or sometimes when a tourist walked past his bakery and stared in with curiosity. He would shudder at the memory of his time in England. He never spoke of his time in the country where the sun did not shine. He was grateful that Allah had helped back from the ends of the world and now looked forward to his future with less money but richer by far in many other ways.

The reindeer diaries.

Day 1

There would be no shame in drinking the urine of the reindeer; for it is from this that I will begin my journey. Being from the Khanty tribe we know the power of the great hoofed creature. An animal swift and vigilant and an animal capable of flight. I do not know when my ancestors first saw the dances the animals usually enjoyed after eating the mushroom we call the “flying fungus” but it has become a usual part of our lives to see these dalliances. When those velvet soft snouts first catch the smell of the mushroom, they become excited and snort the ground and their hooves stomp gently round the heavenly fruit.

And so on my first journey into the world of the reindeer, it was best for me to drink the urine of an animal who has already consumed the fungus, for the potent toxins would be eliminated and I would be safe from harm.

 

Day Five

I held the reindeer skin container to my lips and tilted back, the amber fluid was still warm as it trickled down my throat. It was not as some people in the towns and cities would think, an unpleasant taste for it tasted of the tundra. There were hints of marjoram, sage and wild strawberries, but the woody taste of the fungus prevailed. It did not take long for the affects to course through my veins. There was a feeling that my body was rising from the ground, not very high, not on this first journey, but I felt like I was suspended, like on the day as a child when I played with my friends in the woods and we hung from the boughs of trees. But the strangest thing was the feeling that I had grown in size, larger and muscular, whilst retaining the same sense of weightlessness. My head felt like the roots of trees were pushing through my skull. Yet I knew I was stronger and I wanted to race upwards towards the highest trees in the nearby woods.

 

Day 15

Today I ate the dried flying fungus. The shaman beat the drums made from reindeer hide. He beat the drum to call the spirits of the reindeers ancestors. “Driving the reindeer” it is called. And this time I could feel the strength of the fungi. I levitated high above the ground, level with the trees and when I looked down I could see my shaman catching the soul of a reindeer. I saw him call the spirits of the eight great wolves and they led the spirit of the reindeer to him. But still I did not fly. Still I did not become one of those vigilant and swift creatures.

 

Day 19

 

Today I flew, really flew, the power of the reindeers surged through me. I donned the mask with the antlers and the coat of velvet grey.  I moved fast, so fast above the earth, I am sure I flew as far as Finland. For when I looked down all was white and a reindeer herd as large as I had ever seen was moving across the landscape. I wanted to stay there suspended above that glorious sight but the drums of my tribal shaman beat loud and I was called back to earth.

 

Day 24.

 

And now tonight, is the culmination of my yearnings. Tonight I will meet the king of the flying fungus. Tonight I will lead a sleigh that will fly across the northern hemisphere. The lord will be dressed like the “flying agarics” in red and white. I will have the strength to fly high above the houses of the cities in the northern hemisphere and “Shaman Santa” will then take his gifts to all those who still believe in the old ways and climbing down the  smoke holes of the new brick houses, will share his gifts of “flying fungus” to the believers.

I know this is what my destiny is. The lone Northern star will guide me and I will guide the other reindeer for Santa. The glow from my breathe through my nostrils will glimmer red and I will act like a beacon in the night. But I know this will be my journeys end for I cannot go back, I will remain with all the other spirits, for the gift of flight is only for those going to the next world. Once you have flown with Shaman Santa then all earthly things become a place once visited never to return.

My memory of earthly things will be like snowflakes landing on a reindeers back, quickly gone as the heat of the animal’s bodies absorbs the tiny particles of snow.

Unwrapping the Palestinian flag

The world we live in today is not the one I grew up in, but in many ways, it has not changed.

As a child the IRA would plant bombs in rubbish bins, so rubbish bins disappeared in public places. However, we did not really live in fear of terrorists attacks. They were for many of us an annoying wound on the arm, which would occasionally open and bleed.

Although the atrocities like the Warrington bomb, or the Chelsea Barracks nail bomb shocked us as a nation we did not really change our way of life, and we did not see ourselves as a country constantly under attack.

Other countries, other people lived in fear, survived constant attacks, and lived through civil war on a daily basis. Countries like Israel.

I first travelled there in the days when I still thought it was shocking to realise how easy it was for a desperate man to take control of a bus and drive it down a ravine, as easily as a shepherd boy leading goats down the valley. How easy it was to take 16 lives in the blink of the eye without a bomb, without a knife, but with the same searing hatred of a suicide bomber.

Living in Israel was a compete revelation to someone from a country like England. In the first few months the outbreak of what was to become known as the Intifada began and we watched from the side-lines how a nation coped with constant conflict, where two groups of people cannot be reconciled, cannot live together in peace.

I have, over the last 30 years re- visited the country many times and nothing has changed. In the light of Trumps incendiary claim that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The violence continues. A photo of a dozen armed IDF soldiers surrounding one unarmed Palestinian youth took me back to the days where young girls would be shot and killed for throwing stones at settlers, at how a nations over reactions have de humanised one group of people, how life for many is cheap.

On one trip two years ago, I travelled to Israel and stayed in Haifa a city in the north. I was planning to do research for the sequel to my novel Jewish Days Arab Nights. Although there were outbreaks of violence down in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I did not think this was unusual. Palestinians lived under curfews and brutality from the Zionists and would rise up and retaliate when they could.

One day whilst watching a news report about the wave of stabbings occurring in Jerusalem, I decided to forgo the plans to go into that city for the day and instead to take the train from Haifa to the old crusader city of Accra.

When I first arrived in Israel in 1987 there was not a train route up the coast from Haifa to the Old Crusader City, my last trip had been by bus, so I was looking forward to the coastal train ride.

It was a day like any other, soldiers going or coming from their shifts climbed on with the bags and their guns casually hanging over their shoulders or placed between their feet. This was always something that shocked me, the casual way soldiers carried their guns in public, the same we in England would carry an umbrella in case of rain.

As the carriage doors closed and the train pulled away, one of the young soldier girls sat in an empty seat opposite me. She was a skinny pale blonde girl, and she mainly stuck out because of her paleness. How she had avoided the Israeli, sun I could only assume was by hiding in a dark dungeon somewhere.

The soldier girl unzipped a bag and began to apply her makeup. At first, I merely glanced out the corner of my eye, but it was when the girl began to apply the vibrant red lipstick, that I started to feel uneasy.

She was making herself glamorous for a days’ work in the army. To do what? Was she one of those girls who would be playing spot and shoot? A disturbing way of killing people by computer, like a game, but unlike a computer game someone was often killed and did not get back up for level two.

It was a job given to the girl conscripts, and they ultimately just pressed a joystick and killed whomever they thought was suspicious, even an innocent man digging up potatoes in a field.

Her face once complete was pretty and the rosebud lips where of course begging to be kissed by some young male conscript. The girl glanced at herself in her small mirror a look of disdain creeping across her face. Her final touch was a beauty spot she applied with a pencil. She was complete, dressed to kill.

I felt I had to look away. Uncomfortable at the contrast of ideas going round my head, a heavily vamped up girl and killing innocent people.

The girl who sat next to me had a parcel on her lap. As the train moved further away from Haifa station, she began to un- wrap the package. I could see it was a piece of material.

Firstly, I saw the green, then the black and the white and then I saw the smaller red triangle. The girl was un-wrapping a Palestinian flag.

I frowned at the little red triangle in the middle of the stripes, remembering something. The red flag like a warning at a beach or a danger, danger of drowning.

I heard someone shout, thought I heard the word, “Saboteur. Saboteur!”

Then I saw the gun held out at arm’s length, aimed towards me, no, not me, the girl with the flag. I froze; I did not crouch down like the rest of the passengers. I just stared at the site of the gun, something I now realise I had never seen aimed at me before.

The boys’ hands were shaking but I had no time for my brain to compute that, because a noise exploded in the carriage and I felt something fly past my face, butterflies wings on fire I thought. The girl next to me screamed and held her hands to her ears, the soldier with the rose bud lips crouched further down on the floor. Trying to crawl under the seat. A smell like a November 5th firework pervaded the air. Hanging like an accusation in the confined space of the train carriage.

The bullet hit the side of the window frame and ricochet up to the luggage rack above. People were pointing at the girl, then to the fabric, and then to the soldier. They spoke in Hebrew but I guessed what they were saying. The soldier had shot at her because of the flag.

Someone had pulled the emergency cord. I sat and watched the aftermath unfold, saw how quickly the passengers went from panicking back to stoic resolution, how we all just sat and waited.

Someone spoke to me holding out a hand. I mumbled, “Lo Ivrit. Lo Ivrit.”

“Are you OK Madam? Are you Ok?”

I stared unable to comprehend her words even in English. Finally, I managed to exhale and say, “Yes. I am fine. Really I am fine.”

How terribly British I would think later back in my apartment. How terribly British. To say, “Yes I am fine. Thank you. I am fine.” Just been bloody shot at but I am fine!

Part of the Palestinian flag was draped across my legs and the young soldier across from me who I had watch put her war paint on earlier. She who had been the first to hit the ground, the edge of the flag covered on of her shoulders like a shawl.

There had actually been very little panic considering the situation a group of people experienced. Fortunately only one bullet had been fired, the gunman had been quickly subdued, by his – what would you call them? Colleagues? Friends? I don’t know what you would call them. Where they from the same platoon? I did not know and would never know.

The train was driven back to Haifa station, and by then an army of police had descended and where waiting to take the “terrorist” away. Except of course it was quickly made apparent there was no terrorist, just a young girl un- wrapping the Palestinian flag and a young boy who had misread the situation.

That was all he was, a boy, who had been given a gun by a faceless Government official in the name of national security and he thought that made him a man. Now he was standing there shaking and sobbing, a wild look on his face. The girl who unfolded the Palestinian flag stood calmly watching. Her lips closed as if she knew that whatever she said would be wrong, misinterpreted or would make the situation worse.

One of the police officers spoke to me in English. I told him what I knew. What I had seen. I told him how shocked I was that a soldier could just open fire in a public place like a terrorist.

He shrugged his shoulder and said, “These things happen. This is Israel. This is the life. She shouldn’t have waved the Palestinian flag.”

“She didn’t.” I corrected him. “She merely unwrapped it.”

Once again, the officer shrugged. I was used to the tough Israel way of speaking, but his indifference still unnerved me a little bit. “As you obviously are not hurt I will get someone to take you back to your apartment. Where are you staying?”

I knew there would be no further communication from the Haifa police. That was that, nobody had died nobody was hurt. What will happen if I was to suffer from PTSD? I almost asked and then thought better of it.

“I can walk thank you.” I coldly replied. “I am staying across the road.”

I was literally a four , maybe five-minute walk away. From where I was standing, I could see the date palm trees that lined the small street where my apartment balcony looked down on.

I walked back through the army of police cars and vans that were slowly preparing to depart, now that they knew nothing more was required of them.

Why did she unwrap the flag I wondered? Was it a gift that she did not realise the importance of until it was too late? On the other hand, had she played a clever psychological gambit? Not an act of violence but an act of defiance? Defiance thinly veiled in a flag.

As I walked, back to my apartment the sun was now at its zenith. I could feel the heat burning my skin. Just a five-minute walk and Israel was leaving its mark on me.

What of course was less apparent at the time but would stay with me longer then the suntan on my face was one young girl’s innocent or not so innocent act of unwrapping the Palestinian flag on a train  from Haifa to Accra.

I lay down on the bed my head was banging and I felt a faint burning on the side of my cheek. When I washed my face later that evening, my cheek was stinging; looking in the mirror, I could see a very fine line, a burn mark. It was a sobering thought to realise how close the bullet had been to my face.

That evening I switched the TV on for the news. There was no mention of the incident on the train in Haifa. There had been stabbings, shootings and riots across Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Scenes of Palestinian youths being surrounded and kicked down onto their knees by armed Israeli soldiers. In one incident, a youth had stabbed two Israelis before being shot dead by armed police. I recognised Jaffa Gate and remembered my first walk through in to the old city back in 1987. Three days later the uprising called the Intifada began.

No nothing had changed. The world we live in now is just the same as the one that I grew up in. It is not the world. The people in it need to change.

For many months after I returned home, my hearing was badly affected by the incident, speaking on phones in my job as a credit controller became challenging. I was constantly straining to hear a voice down the line that would have previously been very clear. However, I remained silent about it. I felt I had no right to complain for I had gone to the terrorist capital of the world, Israel/Palestine. Now of course with the wave of terrorist attacks we live with here it is apparent we do not need to travel far to be affected by random acts of violence or even perhaps the innocuous action of unwrapping a flag on a train.

I would never know what happened to the girl or to the soldier. I trawled through many newspapers and internet news sites, nothing, there was no mention of the incident on the train again. Until now.

In the light of recent events with Trump, I see the Palestinian flag on the news, and on Facebook, and I am can see the little red triangle, in the middle, like a warning to swimmers at sea. Danger.