The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup,  Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy River and reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Colombian history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968

In the dark times will there also be singing?

“In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Berthold Brecht

This selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon of Liverpool around the theme of “undefeated despair” reminds me of Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

” My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?”

Also by Gerry Cordon, a commemoration of the centenary of the death of war poet Wilfred Owen : Dulce et ducorum est.

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9hth14hokI

 

That's How The Light Gets In

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath…

View original post 1,467 more words

The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra

No Going Home

Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief, and The Refugee’s Journey] 

Just imagine …

Millions are on the move  – , and you are one of them.

Lebanese American BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas says well:

I often get asked why my family never left or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behindNo ones first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while youre away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.                                                                                                         

Kim Ghittas, The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis, Foreign Policy 19th October 2015                

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come;  then we’ll come from the shadows. Leonard Cohen, The Partisan 

I pity the poor immigrant whose strength is spent in vain, whose heaven is like ironsides, whose tears are like rain.  Bob Dylan, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Just imagine …

What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. You job, your school. Your loved ones, your friends, and your play-mates.

What if you have to sleep with your shoes on so you are ready to run if your enemies are approaching your village? And then you have to flee your home and climb the mountain to escape, helping your youngsters and old folk up the rocky slopes in the summer heat, and there is nothing to eat or drink, and nothing you can do except wait for capture or rescue.

What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you?

Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps, dusty border towns or urban slums. And there you stay, with other tens, hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands in like dire straits.

Until one day, you are selected for humanitarian settlement in a strange land at the other end of the earth.

That day may never come; so, impatient, frustrated, desperate, you use your family’s savings to pay smugglers and traffickers who prowl the desert and jungle camps like predators and the port cities of Turkey, Libya and South East Asia.

So you take to the seas in frail boats and brave the the deep and dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Indian Ocean.

You might only have enough money for one passage, so you go on ahead and hope to send for your kin once you have reached safe haven.

You may be one of fortunate ones who make it – not one of those cast ashore, lifeless flotsam and jetsam like baby Aylan on his golden beach.

You are now one of tens of thousands in a river of desperate endeavour.

You walk the long miles of the unwelcoming highways of Eastern Europe to a German or Swedish sanctuary. You might end up in a detention camp in Italy or Spain, stranded in the Calais Jungle, or the harbours of Java and Sumatra.

Or else, you are parked in a hot and hostile makeshift camp somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn.

Just imagine …

You have fled the terror of the warlords and the militias, the holy warriors and the ethnic cleansers.

You discover that the border camps of Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Afghanistan, Thailand and Malaysia, Kenya and Namibia have their own ecology of hardship and handouts, rape and robbery, beatings and bribes, illness and neglect, cursory and desultory treatment by overworked and under-resourced aid workers, and shake-downs by the criminals who thrive in these places and the cops who take a cut and turn a blind eye or else enforce punitive directives from politicians, parliaments and bureaucrats.

There, you and yours’ attempt to rebuild a semblance of a life-before amidst the tents and the shanties, the dust and the sewage, the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. A mosque to pray in, a school for the children, games of football or backgammon for idle youth and menfolk.

You try to keep the children warm and fed and free of mortal illness; you try to keep the spirit alive in a time of anxiety, fear, threat, loss, and confusion, a time of hopeful emptiness and of empty hopelessness.

Zaatari-refugee-camp 3 July 2013

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan July 2013

Just imagine …

You are one of the lucky few selected for settlement in the fabled, unknown ‘west’.

New lands, under foreign skies, different constellations, so far away it might as well be the moon.

You now dwell among strangers. You neither speak their language nor comprehend their ways or their foreign gods.

You have no friends or family to call on in time of need.

You must rebuild the basic buildings blocks of a normal life – where even the idea of a normal life has now changed utterly.

The houses, the streets, the shops, the money even – are all new.

The things you took for granted are no longer there, and in their place are new ways and means.

New systems and processes – social, welfare, health, education – with new rules and ways of getting things done. Going to the doctor, to the bank, to government offices.

Understanding  that policemen and soldiers are not people you have to pay off or flee from.

Learning English.

Finding a home.

Getting the kids into a school.

Finding a job when your qualifications are not recognized, and work-ways are different to what you know.

The laws are new, the language is new, the way people dress and behave, talk, walk and eat is new.

Many new things are fascinating, tempting.

Others, confronting and insulting to your morality and values.

Some are alien, even, beyond your comprehension.

Codes of behaviour, dress, decorum, politeness, are new. Less formality, respect and deference; open displays of sexuality, affection, and rudeness that would not have been tolerated, permitted even, at home.

You don’t understand what makes the locals tick – their mannerisms, their speech, their body language, their concept of time and space, even.

And you are shocked and frightened by their hostility. Not all – just a noisy and troublesome few who talk quietly amongst themselves, or hurl abuse, or march through city streets with signs that scream, “go back to where you came from!”, “go home!”

Home?

There is no home.

Home is far, far away.

So far away, it might as well be on the moon.

Just imagine…

This is the new. And you still bear the cross of the old. The world you left behind is still with you.

You miss your family, your friends, and the comfort and support you all gave each other.

You miss your old life. The streets, the sounds, the smells. The weather and seasons. Your job, your status, your school, your neighbourhood.

You yearn for street and shop signs you could read, voices you understood on the radio and television, on the street, and on the buses.

You hate having to try and make yourself understood to officials and doctors, desk clerks and shop assistants, and even the supportive and ever helpful case workers whose mission is to help you get through all this.

You are homesick, and lonesome; you feel isolated, helpless, dependent.

There is a terrible ache in your heart and a rift in your soul.

And then there are the scars that won’t and perhaps can never heal. The psychological and physical effects of the events and experiences that forced you to flee your homeland.

Conflict and violence, intimidation and discrimination, torture and brutality, even. You have flashbacks, bad dreams, anxiety attacks, and actual physical and mental pain and anguish.

They say that PTSD is endless. There is no cure …

Just imagine…

You are a stranger in a strange land, and there’s no going home

See also:  Hejira

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.   Psalm 107

 

Home

Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive
and you are greeted on the other side
with
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?

the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
i’ve become.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us.  But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!

There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.

This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.

Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru.  But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .

Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.

Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.

Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.

Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.

These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.

But situation in Africa is as dire.

More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.

By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.

Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.

And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.

As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.

There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.

The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.

Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.

Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.

And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.

Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.

And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

 Australia and Refugees

Of all displaced peoples, 17% of them are being hosted in Europe. According to recent data published by the UNHCR, Germany is home to the most refugees by far in Europe – 1.4 million in total. By comparison, France and Sweden have 402,000 and 328,000 respectively, and the UK, 122,000.

Australia’s contribution to the world’s refugee problem is but a drop in the ocean. But we have a long established humanitarian refugee settlement programme for people officially recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and selected for third-country settlement in Australia.

Our humanitarian migration intake for 2016 -17 was the highest year on record. The intake of 24,162 was some 10% of our broader migration program which saw 225,941 permanent additions to the Australian population, and included the special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees (an estimate 12,000 places over several years).

The figures are 17,500 in 2017-18 and similar in 2018-19, whilst Scott Morrison has pledged to freeze the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next term. Under the policy there will be an overall target of 60 per cent of the offshore component for women, up from 50.8 per cent in 2017-18. The Government will also push to increase the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants being settled in regional Australia from a target of 30 per cent to 40 per cent in 2019-20, whilst insisting that new arrivals will only go to areas where there is strong community support.

 Coffs Harbour 

Coffs Harbour is one of several refugee intake towns in NSW, along with Armidale, Newcastle, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga. It’s medical and educational facilities have….

Coffs Harbour hosts several organizations dedicated to helping former refugees settle in Australia. They arrive in Australia on specific humanitarian visas and become permanent residents the moment they are admitted into the country. – and hence cease to be refugees.

SSI looks after them when they first arrive in Coffs Harbour. North Coast Settlement Services, a division of Saint Vincent de Paul Society, takes over once SSI’s work is done – after between six and eighteen months depending on a family’s needs, whilst the privately run Sanctuary organization assists settled migrants with such matters as family reunion and employment. An ancillary NSW government agency, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), assists new arrivals with psychological support, and particularly, the effects of PTSD. STARTTS services include counseling, group therapy, group activities and outings, camps for children and young people, English classes and physiotherapy

Settlement Services International

I spend two days a week as a volunteer with Settlement Services International, a Sydney-based community organisation that administers the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP) which supports refugees from the moment they arrive at the airport, provides essential support and information to assist refugees settle in Australia and empower them to gain independence and build strong connections in their new communities. SSI helps with the needs of new arrivals and the challenges of settling in a new country. Its aim is to enhance self-reliance with a focus on English language skills, education and job readiness.

SSI administers the Humanitarian Settlement Programme in several centres in regional NSW, including Coffs Harbour, Newcastle and Armidale. In all three areas, SSI has teams of staff on the ground who work with refugees, humanitarian entrants and their local communities to help new arrivals to through their initial settlement. The SSI team includes case managers and volunteers from the local community and from the refuge community itself

SSI’s work includes meeting and greeting, arranging temporary accommodation on arrival; orientation, including familiarization with Australian ways, our services and institutions, and getting around Coffs Harbour; basic official matters like Centrelink, banking, and health services; English classes at TAFE and enrolling children at schools; dealing with real estate agents, rental leases and looking after their rental properties.

 Where do our clients come from?

When first volunteering, I worked for Anglicare. New arrivals were largely from Myanmar and Congo – mostly Christians – and from Afghanistan. Many of the latter came to Australia under the “woman at risk” programme – mothers and children with no father. Whilst all are Muslim, many were Shia Hazaras, a Turkic people persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. Since SSI took over from Anglicare in September 2017, whilst Burmese and African families continue to arrive, the emphasis has been on Yazidis from Iraq and Syria, and particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they endured enormous suffering and hardship at the hands of the Islamic State. Considered infidels by Da’ish, they were targets of a campaign of genocide from 2014. More than five thousand were killed, and some five to seven thousand were abducted and enslaved – mainly women and children. Such was the danger that the UNHCR and the Australian and other governments took whole families straight out of the war zone rather than from camps outside Iraq.

The Yazidis

Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, and their language, Kurmanji, is Kurdish. Their society is hierarchical and endogamous. Their religion, Yazidsm, is a monotheistic religion and has elements of ancient Mesopotamian faiths, including ancient Persian Mithraism, and some similarities to the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because Yazidis believe in reincarnation and turn to the direction of the sun when praying, it has been thought – erroneously, that the religion has its origins in ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.  They believe in the one god, the creator of all things, who delegated the ongoing management to a heptad of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Malek Taus – the Peacock Angel.

Malek Taus has in the past been associated, by Muslims and Christians, with Iblis, Satan, and the fall of proud Lucifer. This misinterpretation has led, historically, to Yazidis being perceived as devil worshipers, and thus being subject to persecution and pogrom. The atrocities of Da’ish were only different from past assaults and massacres in their scale and longevity.

 Volunteering

Whilst case managers specifically look after the new arrivals, they depend upon a team of volunteers to assist them in a wide variety of tasks that we locals take for granted. for example: taking new arrivals them to medical or bank appointments, showing them how to use the bus network, setting up accommodation prior to arrival, minding children whilst parents attend appointments, and even helping folk to purchase use lawn mowers – there are few lawns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a volunteer, past and present tasks have included walkabouts to familiarize new arrivals with Coffs Harbour, accompanying clients to house inspections when seeking new rental accommodation, and assisting with rental application forms; sending important documents like birth, marriage and education certificates to Social Services’ translation service for official translations; helping clients to apply for bus concession cards, school bus cards, and children’s sport vouchers; and assisting with NBN plans and connections. I have fixed broken cupboards, replaced light bulbs, checked out washing machines and kitchen stoves. and taking families to school interviews.

As I can get by with spoken Arabic and can read and write the language, and as i am reasonably proficient with computers, I have helped with online applications and prepared resumes. I have shown clients how to budget their money, and have run a class on how to set up and use smart phone calendars to help them make and keep appointments. On occasions, I am asked to just drop in on clients to see how they are getting on, and sort any basic house problems.

My most rewarding experiences have been: assisting case managers at the airport when the clients first arrive. It’s a very emotional moment for all involved; Taking families who have never seen the sea before to the seaside; helping a clients get a job; and helping STARTTS run a youth group for children and young people by registering the young attendees

How I got into this

Since my twenties, I’ve had an interest and, indeed, a passion for the Middle East, its history and politics, its people and culture, its languages and religions. I’ve travelled often to the region, and have studied it formally and as a hobby. I learned standard Arabic in the seventies and worked in academic and government research. Though I took a very different road for two decades, I returned to Syria in the noughties and got back into Arabic  both standard and colloquial (two relatively distinct languages).

On retirement, I wanted to do volunteer work, and by happenstance, Coffs Harbour was a refugees intake town with several organizations dedicated to assisting new arrivals. At first, I used my knowledge of Arabic script to assist Farsi-speaking Afghans, and then the Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis arrived. Though their native tongue is Kurdish Kurmanji, and few could speak English, many spoke Arabic. SSI had several Arabic speaking support-workers, and some new arrivals had good English and now work as Arabic and Kurmanji speaking support staff, I am able to step in when they are already booked. Who’d ever have thought I’d be able to use and grow my Arabic in Coffs Harbour.


 The Refugees’ Journey

Who is a migrant?  Who is a refugee? Who is an asylum seeker?

Migrants

A migrant is a person who makes a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Before they decide to leave their country, migrants can seek information about their new home, study the language and explore employment opportunities. They can plan their travel, take their belongings with them, and say goodbye to the important people in their lives. They can continue to phone friends and family, or write, email or Skype them without fear of adverse consequences. They are free to return home at any time if things don’t work out as they had hoped, if they get homesick or if they wish to visit family members and friends left behind.

People who choose to migrate for economic reasons are sometimes called “economic refugees”, especially if they are trying to escape from poverty. But they are not recognized as refugees under international law. The correct term for people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is “economic migrant”.

However, the displacement of people caused by such economic circumstances, or by natural disasters like flood, drought or extreme weather, can contribute towards political, social and ethnic tensions that can precipitate refugee crises. Effective and timely external assistance from neighbours and donor nations will often help to avert this. Aid is therefore provided in an effort to keep people in their homes or in their home countries.

Refugees

The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

Refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced persecution. Their concerns are human rights and safety, and not economic advantage. They leave behind their homes, most or all of their belongings, family members and friends. Some are forced to flee with no warning, and may not be able to say goodbye to friends and family, and may never be able to contact or see them again.

Many refugees have experienced significant trauma or been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Their journey to safety is fraught with hazards, many risking their lives in search of protection. They cannot return home unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.

Location is all important. During civil unrest and conflict, people may be forced to leave their homes, but do not leave their country. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often referred to as refugees. But, whilst refugees and IDPs may flee for similar reasons, their legal status is very different. Whilst remaining within the borders of their home countries, IDPs are legally under the protection of their own government, even in cases where the government’s actions are the cause of their flight. A person cannot be recognized as a refugee unless they are outside their home country.

Asylum Seekers

These seek protection as refugees, but their claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed. Many refugees have at some point been asylum seekers, that is, they have lodged an individual claim for protection and have had that claim assessed by a government or UNHCR.

Some refugees, however, do not formally seek protection as asylum seekers. During mass influx situations, people may be declared “prima facie” refugees without having undergone an individual assessment of their claims, as conducting individual interviews in these circumstances is generally impracticable (due the large numbers involved) and unnecessary (as the reasons for flight are usually self-evident). In other cases, refugees may be unable to access formal status determination processes or they may simply be unaware that they are entitled to claim protection as a refugee.

It is important to note that refugee status exists regardless of whether it has been formally recognized. People do not “become” refugees at the point when their claims for protection are upheld – they were already refugees, and the assessment process has simply recognized their pre-existing status. People become refugees (and are entitled to international protection and assistance) from the moment they flee their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, as stipulated in the Refugee Convention.

What causes a person or a people to flee their home country?

 The most common causes are war and civil unrest, persecution for political or religious beliefs, or ethnic and racial identity, and human rights violations by government authorities or rogue militias. There could be extreme political instability and fighting; assassinations of people associated with certain political or social groups; arbitrary arrest and torture, mutilation and degradation that can happen without warning; routine sexual violence towards women and girls; forced conscription of child soldiers, forcing families to flee to protect their children; and conscription for slave labour. Governments are unable to protect their citizens, and may actively participate in violations, leaving people with no place or person to turn to for protection.

Often people will hang on, hoping things will improve. Flight is the last option because it means leaving everything behind – home, possessions, jobs, education, family and friends, language, culture and identity. People are often forced to flee with very little warning, no time to collect identity documents or precious things, or say farewell to family, friends and neighbours. They may have to travel long distances, often on foot or in small boats, and through dangerous territory or waters. They may go for long periods without food and water. They may become in danger of being intercepted, robbed or recruited, raped or killed, imprisoned or repatriated.

 Life in the Refugee Camps

The fortunate might reach a camp or other place of relative safety. In the camp there may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

The Role of the UNHCR

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations to protect refugees and help them find solutions to their plight. It has over 4,000 staff in 120 countries and an annual budget of about US$1 billion. In addition to legal protection, UNHCR now also provides material relief in major emergencies either directly or in partnership with other agencies.

Refugee protection is covered by International Human Rights Law, and this sits within a broader framework of international law. The agency responsible for the oversight of international human rights law is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

Refugees are accorded certain rights under international law, including

  • The right not to be sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger
  • The right to receive public relief and welfare support at the same level as nationals
  • The right to access education and health care
  • The right to work
  • Entitlement to be issued with identity papers and travel documents

The role of the UNHCR is to

  • Safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees
  • Ensure that every person can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country
  • Promote long-term solutions to the refugees’’ plight utilizing the options of voluntary return, local integration in the country of first asylum, or resettlement in a third country
  • Ensure that refugees are treated appropriately by countries that have signed the UN Convention
  • Ensure that refuges are given the same rights as nationals of the countries they are accepted into
  • Protect refuges from being forced to return to their home countries if it is likely they will be persecuted
  • Promote the reunification of families
  • Take into account the special needs of particular refuges classes, e.g. women and children

UNHCR’s “durable solutionsfor refugees:

  • Voluntary repatriation, the preferred long-term solution – going back to the country of origin when it is safe for them to return country. Voluntary repatriation is encouraged if it is safe and reintegration is viable. Indeed, most refuges prefer to go home as soon as circumstances permit and a degree of stability has been restored.
  • Local settlement and integration is the next preferred option – making a home in the country to which they first fled. Such local settlement may e spontaneous with new-comers establishing a new community. Integration is facilitated there are common ethnic groups or co-religionists. However, there may be a political affiliation between the government of their homeland and the country of first asylum which may lead to continued harassment and persecution.
  • Resettlement in a third country – often as a last resort, when refugees can neither return home nor remain in the country of first asylum, and are then selected by the UNHCR and sent to a third country to start a new life. Some eleven countries offer resettlement on a regular basis: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the USA.

Refer: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/fact-sheets/international-issues/durable-solutions/

Whilst the UNHCR strives for “durable solutions”, the reality of the global refugee problem is that many countries hosting refugees embrace “non-durable” solutions such as:

  • “Warehousing” – refugees remain indefinitely in a camp where freedom of movement is restricted, basic supplies are scarce and there are few opportunities for any meaningful activity
  • Involuntary Repatriation – refugees are sent back to their country or origin while it is still unsafe. Sometimes refugees are forced back; sometimes they return because this is the “least bad option”
  • Secondary Movement – refugees themselves attempt to get to a western country in which they can lodge a claim for refugee status. This often involves clandestine travel using people smugglers and it can be very dangerous.

 Settlement and Arrival

Refugees are selected for settlement in Australia by the Department Immigration and Border Protection, in conjunction with the UNHCR. Before arriving in Australia, humanitarian entrants are required to go through security and health checks.

The Australian Cultural Orientation program (AUSCO) is provided to humanitarian visa holders who are preparing to settle in Australia. The program provides practical advice and the opportunity to ask questions about travel to and life in Australia. It is delivered overseas, before they begin their journey. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is currently contracted to deliver AUSCO on behalf of the DIBP.

The average length of time spent in a camp or in a place of first refuge is 17 years, and migrants may have little experience beyond this. Children may not even have known their home country. Many will have experiences extreme instability and uncertainty. Being selected for resettlement can be an overwhelming experience, and can include feelings of intense elation on one hand and fear and anxiety on the other.

Under such circumstances, a person may not always be aware of the potential difficulties of resettlement. On arrival, feelings can quickly move from elation and joy to culture shock, resentment, dislocation and confusion. It can take months, years even, for new arrivals to understand aspects of their new country and adapt to it.

Much of above material is taken from:

Back In The Day

I was in love with Dusty Springfield. In the drear tea-time of my adolescent soul, I worshiped her truly, madly, deeply. Tiny girl, big hair, panda eyes, hands moving like a beckoning siren. I just had to hear “da da da da da da” and then “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so…” and I was hers for the next two and a half minutes. Until…

It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was ‘Wishin’ and Hopinby you know who. Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss,  guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” Bob had arrived, and I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty.

dusty

I bought a guitar. A clunky, eastern European thing. I tried ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but what came out was unrecognisable. My dad said he’d break it over my head. One day, that tipping point was reached. It sounded indeed like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or something similar. I was away, and the rest, as they say, was hearsay.

Young Bob

On a  high of hope and hype, so it all began. With a heritage of Irish rebel songs and folksongs, and the ‘sixties folkie canon (but never, ever ‘Streets of London’). Sea shanties, a capella Watersons, Sydney Carter’s faith-anchored chants, ‘The Lord of the Dance’ being the most beloved (a song now and forever burdened with the curse of Michael Flatley). Across the pond, young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary decanted fine old wine into new bottles, and during the Easter CND march in London in 1966, billeted in an old cinema in Southall, a first public ‘performance’ with Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man of the Traveling People”. The journey had begun, and, as the father of America poetry had crooned, “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose”.

And it led beside strange waters. “Marc Bolan warbled “My people were fair, and had sky in their hair, but now they’re content to wear crowns stars on their brows“. But didn’t they all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked amongst us. We thoroughly understood and empathized. And we marveled at the Scottish bard who could pen ‘The Minotaur’s Song and ‘Job’s Tears‘, and then run off with Old Father Hubbard. Then Roy Harper, the high priest of Anglo angst, sang ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.

Unicorn(Album)

‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’ played in every wannabe poet’s bedsit. “Come over to the window, my little darlin’. I’d like to try and read your palm“. What a pick-up line, so fitting for the generous times that were the ‘sixties. Others might sigh over the agonies of ‘The Stranger Song’, and ‘The Stories of the Street’. But I preferred the drollery of “Sometimes I see her undressing for me; she’s the sweet, fragrant lady love meant her to be“. And the wondrous punch-line of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2‘, that gorgeous tribute to the peerless Janis: not what happened on the unmade bed, but “we are ugly, but we have the music”. Bob segued from folk to rock, carrying with him many if not all of acolytes on the joker man’s journey from “Oxford Town” to “Desolation Row”. To this day, people ponder the meaning of Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”‘ and marvel at “The ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face“.

HangmansBeautifulDaughter

Read on in the full Introduction to In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013.  All rights reserved.

The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel

As I relate in my earlier post, ‘Amazing Grace – There’s Magic In The Air : “from the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash and treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views”.

Planning our recent visit to Jerusalem (we were there in May 2014, just two months before the recent events – in 2019, see below) I wanted to book a hotel that was both historical and conveniently close to The Old City. I also fancied the idea of staying in a pilgrim hotel so we could witness at first hand the excited comings and goings of the faithful (see my post ‘Messianic Carpet Rides‘). The New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate, was just the ticket. And we struck solid gold! Stepping down from the Nesher bus on the road outside the famed Walls of Jerusalem and  the Citadel (see: Once in Royals David’s Citadel), we looked up towards the Jaffa Gate and there, right above us was the imposing facade of the New Imperial Hotel

The Jaffa Gate, in the western wall of the Old City (not to be confused with the ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Kotel’ so revered of Judaism), has traditionally been one of the busiest entrances to Jerusalem. Its Arabic name is Bab al Khalil (Gate of the Friend) a reference to Abraham, forefather of both Arabs and Jews. The wall bears the inscription in Arabic: “there is no god but Allah, and Abraham is the friend of Allah”. Topographically the Gate provided the easiest access, so it’s approaches provided a most convenient camping ground for the many invaders who sought to conquer the city. These included Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Frankish Crusaders, Turks, and finally, the British. Caliph Omar Ibn al Khatab entered through this gate after Jerusalem’s capture by the Muslims in 638AD. As did General Allenby, commander of the British forces which captured Jerusalem in December 1917.

Just inside the wall, there were fields of winter wheat until the late nineteenth century; and in summertime, the empty fields became dumping grounds for carcasses of donkeys, camels and horses. The Turkish authorities moved this ‘cemetery’ outside the wall, and what was forever the main thoroughfare, became the location for important commercial institutions, including the Banco de Roma, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the German bank of Johannes Frutiger, the Austrian Post Office, The Thomas Cook Tourism and Travel Company, and the studios of a number of Jerusalem’s famous photographers.

And also, several hotels catering for the growing tourist industry, including the Mediterranean Hotel (now called The Petra), and in 1884, the Grand New Hotel, built on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to the Thomas Cook Tourist Handbook in 1876, the Mediterranean was “the best in Jerusalem”. Travelers were however wont to damn the Med with faint praise, and soon began to write about the really new, really ‘grand’ hotel with great facilities, round arched windows, high roof pedestals topped by Grecian urns, imposing entrance staircase, and balconies looking right out over Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. See the pictures below from the end of the 19th Century,  showing the square in all variety of citizenry and costume.

Omperial 4 Imperial 2

The place comes with a history. During construction, builders uncovered what was believed to be the Pool of a Bathsheba. It was said that Uriah’s wife was bathing thereon when spied upon by a randy King David. David subsequently sent Uriah off on a suicide mission to clear the way for his own passions. The historical record is confused here. Leonard Cohen and the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme apparently got it wrong. They both placed her up on the roof. The Bible says he saw her from the roof.

The view from the rarely frequented roof terrace of the New Imperial itself, whilst not quite as picaresque as the vision that tempted the poet king, offers a splendid vista of the cupolas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock – not to mention a fine peek at the battlements of the Citadel. On the western side, we look out over West Jerusalem and what was the old Arab neighbourhood of Mamilla, now totally rebuilt with a lux shopping mall, the rectangular bulk of the King David Hotel, once the HQ of the British military and bombed by Irgun terrorists in June 1946, and the iconic YMCA tower.

 Imperial 5

Anyhow, there is still an ancient cistern beneath the hotel. And also, part of the second wall. There are Roman tiles signifying the HQ the Roman Tenth Legion, and part a column erected by the legion, bearing a votive inscription honouring Emperor Augustus’ Legate, Marcus Julius Maximus. It stands there today as a pedestal for a street lamp, in the mews near the hotel front door and right in from of Versavee Restaurant and Bar, where the writer and his companions ate good Jerusalem fare and downed Israeli wine and Taybeh Palestinian beer.

Roman Colomn outside the New Imperial Hotel

Roman Column outside the New Imperial Hotel

Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple (Herod might have murdered most of his nearest and dearest, but he was fitted up for the massacre of the innocents!). So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore,  in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: cross the square, turn right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days. But, the wrong side of town! (See Nova Via Dolorosa).

I digress…From rom our hypothetical balcony, we could watch the comings and goings of the conquerors: the entry of the Roman Titus’ legions; Omar Ibn Al Khatab entering al Quds on foot; the arrival of the First Crusade at the Gates of Jerusalem; the exit of the crusader garrison and the Christian inhabitants when the city fell to Salahuddin (portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven).  And thence, Mamlouks, Seljuks, and Ottomans. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stayed at the hotel on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898. His bust still sits in the entrance hall. This is when The Grand became the New Imperial! Kaiser Bill came in style. No walking for him. The wall between the Jaffa Gate and citadel was torn down and its moat filled in on orders from Sultan Abdel Hamid II to enable the Kaiser and his wife and their huge entourage (looked after in grand style by Thomas Cook Tourism & Travel) to motor into the Old City (again, read Sebag-Montefiore’s  amusing account).

Twenty years later, General Allenby and his British Army marched through the gate. The good general entered on foot just like old Omar. It would be fun to imagine that he made his proclamation of the liberation of Jerusalem from one of those balconies (probably the big one in the centre, which now serves the office of the present proprietor Walid Dajani); but the reality is that he marched right past the hotel, veered right, and ascending the imposing steps of Kings David’s Citadel, deliver his oration there (although he may have indeed lodged at the New Imperial during his brief sojourn). He spoke of how the Holy City had now been freed from the Turkish yoke, and that, safe in the bosom of His Majesty’s forces, the Palestinians, in all their diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would enter a new era of health, wealth and happiness. If he was aware of the nefarious dealings of Messrs Sykes and Picot, and the arrangement made by Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann, he did not let on. He left the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.

So we enter the Twentieth Century, with its momentous political upheavals, the hotel having several changes of management but remaining largely unchanged, with its balconies, and its grand entry staircase. Walid Dajani’s father, Mohammed, took a “protected” tenancy” of the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1949, In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding venue. It was damaged during the 1948 war, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, it was used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the Dajani family, the tenants of the property. It is, as far as we know, still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a status that ten years ago gave rise to a curious controversy about its future status, and in 2019, to a High Court appeal of its sale, and that of The Petra Hotel, to a shadowy right wing Jewish group – see the link below.

And thence to the present, with Sayyid Dajani greeting us like long-lost relatives, “ahlan wa sahlan bil Quds”.

© Paul Hemphill 2014.  All rights reserved

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

Imperial 7

https://howlinginfinite.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/amazing-grace-theres-magic-in-the-air   http://www.iaa-conservation.org.il/Projects_Item_eng.asp?subject_id=10&site_id=3&id=112  http://www.academia.edu/3677136/The_Mediterranean_Hotel_in_19th_Century_Jerusalem                    https://www.timesofisrael.com/greek-church-to-appeal-against-sale-of-old-city-hotels-to-right-wing-group/

 

 Imperial 1