Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet

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]

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

Historical and social memory, and indeed, remembrance and commemoration, and their opposites, forgetfulness and letting go, are intrinsic to our human story. Often our interpretation of history, and our historical narrative, is a version of what we want rather than what actually existed. And hence, the enduring, enthralling, captivating, and almost existential power of invention, if not quite myth, in the telling of our national stories. It is of particular potency amongst people who have for one reason or another left their native land and reside in another.

It is to varying degrees applicable to all migrants – myself included as a migrant to Australia in the Seventies, and my parents, as working class Irish immigrants to England in the late Nineteen Forties – but it is most poignant and melancholy with respect to exiles and refugees.

“We cannot imagine, us in our safe, comfortable, connected anglophone worlds the pain of exile. We cannot begin to imagine. No amount of empathy and Saint Paul’s exhortation to walk a mile on the shoes of The Other. For thousands, tens of thousands, hundred of thousands, millions even, there is no going home. For there is no home.  “Crying for home”, as Van Morrison so lyrically sung it, the idea of homecoming is a chimera, a forlorn hope. Van the Man could, can, and will forever be able to go home, just as I, an immigrant and the son of immigrants can go home. I can return to my father’s town, my mother’s town, my home town, and London Town”.  From In That Howling Infinite‘s No Going Home

I live in a our country town in northern New South Wales, and work as a community volunteer with Yazidis – mostly Iraqi Kurds but also Syrian. These were the ethnic and religious minority that suffered egregiously at the hands of Islamic State ( and indeed have suffered throughout history at the hands of Muslims who regarded their ancient religion and its rever bee for the mystical Melek Taus, The Peacock Angel, as akin to devil-worship. It is salutary to listen to their stories and to understand how they cleave to their history, faith and culture, and also, hold onto their pain as they adapt to living in Australia. I am conscious of their terrible homesickness, and the pain that they feel because for them, there is no going home – home for many of them no longer exists. I have Bosnian friends from once cosmopolitan Sarajevo who endured the Serbian siege and still have family in Sarajevo and Belgrade. They visit their relatives often but their Bosnia, their Sarajevo, their childhood and youth, indeed, are gone forever.

For the exile, the refugee, the involuntary migrant, their’s is a yearning, a longing, an absence of belonging – an existential homelessness and rootlessness, that is almost like a phantom limb. It is a bereavement, a loss, a spiritual and cultural death that could qualifies for descriptors drawn from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: (Shock and disbelief), denial, anger, bargaining, depression, (testing) and acceptance.

One way the refugee can assuage his or her anguish is through writing. Chicago librarian and writer Leslie Williams notes: “The literature of exile encompasses bitter, impassioned indictments of unjust, inhumane regimes, but also includes wrenching melancholy for lost homes, lost families, and a lost sense of belonging. The pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home echoes across centuries of exile writing” (read here her The Literature of Exile).

It is from this perspective that we look at the poetry of Syrian Palestinian poet Ghayath al Madhoun. His work is the fruit of two exiles. His father fled Palestine for Syria  in 1967 after the Six Day War, known to Palestinians as al Naksa, ‘the setback’. and the occupation of the West Bank, and marrying a Syrian from Dara’a in southern Syria. He settled in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. Occupied by rebel militias and ultimately Syrian and Russian forces during Syria’s civil war, Yarmouk was devastated and Madhoun fled to Europe, washing up in Stockholm, Sweden, where he now lives and writes.

Yarmouk camp,.Refugees wait for UNRWA food-deliveries February 2014

Of his life as a Palestinian in Syria, he wrote:

How beautiful life would’ve been
if I had an ID card in my pocket.
I’d travel with it to my mother in Daraa
without explaining to the policeman from Idlib
the difference between the Palestinians of 48 and the Palestinians of 67 —
or I’d just lose it as my friends do.

In Sweden, he was a stranger in a strange land – “like an olive tree at the north pole,” he once said. However, the irony is that while he was struggling alone with the northern ice, he became, after the Syrian exodus, a host in the house of exile. In I Can’t Attend, he writes:

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence.

In an excellent overview of modern Syrian poets, Waeed Wahesh writes that for Madhoun, exile Is a personal war.

“Ghayath al Madhoun’s poetry is full of paradoxes, news, and scientific and historical information. It’s crowded with names. It’s a poetry with appetite for saying. It wants to argue, but it doesn’t want to do that immediately. It conjures more the tools of modern art, especially installation art. A poetic narration comes out of a cluster of vocabulary and miscellaneous meanings. This narration combines magic and real, eastern and western, question and answer.

al Mahjar – or émigré – poets carried on their shoulders a renaissance burden, and their poetry was characterized by nostalgia, but they didn’t present examples of the environments and the struggles they went through at these exiles. This is what we find in the writings of the author of “Each Time the City Expanded, my Room Became Narrower.” His poetry faces, especially in his two latest books, questions entangled with the idea of European centralism. We who followed him to the north can see the reality of this struggle. The stereotypes faced on this journey can be summarized as follows: Islamophobia; anti-Arabism; hostility toward Palestinians by Israel’s supporters; the hostility of citizens – who may not have animosity toward Islam or Arabs – toward immigrants; and the resentment of previous generations of immigrants regarding the new ones, based on fear of losing their privileges. Furthermore, if a person survived all of this, then there is the impassable bump: the hatred toward the eastern men. Being an eastern man in the west means you despise women and seek to assemble wives like slaves.

On the edge of these sharp blades, the poet stands in confrontation, and converts this conflict into poet material, inquiring about the Palestinian’s rights and condemning the Mediterranean Sea, which has turned into a “predatory animal.”

Despite all the political background, al Madhoun doesn’t write political poetry. He writes about a life he knows. It’s true that its trait is violence, terrorism, oppression and asylum, but it’s true also that he searches for a horizon of possible life”.

Madhoun’s entry in Wikipedia is unusually lyrical”:

“The central themes in al Madhoun’s poetry, which has been translated into numerous languages, are war and destruction, death and fight, exile and homesickness. The speaker is a witness to violence and demise and, as the only survivor, lends his voice to the dead … The protagonists of the poems are the victims of the Syrian civil war, the injured, people fleeing and seeking asylum, and those who remain in the war zone. The complex, prosaic poems are nourished by the rich imagery of Arabic poetry as well as the traditions of European poetry. “Cruelty, brutalization, and love are just as universal in al Madhoun’s texts as the language of poetry. They impressively demonstrate that the Palestinian refugee from Syria is much closer to us than many would like to believe” (Deutschlandfunk). »His poems are carried by graphic vividness, absurdity, and great stylistic sensitivity”.The FAZ wrote: “He is the great poet of a great catastrophe”.

We present I Can’t Attend in full below, in English and also in the original Arabic. We also republish two other poems by this excellent poet.

In the poem, we meet the exiled poet as a stranger in a strange land, enjoying all the benefits of an advanced, heterogeneous Scandinavian country but constantly thinking of his homeland and endeavouring to justify to himself why he cannot return. The exile can never shake off a pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home.

The obvious reason for his exile is the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year, which has shattered his country and scattered its people across the globe – and which has killed many of his friends. He now has a a northern girlfriend who he suggests has caused him to forget, though but for a while, for the memory of his life in Damascus and his family there.. He gives us a pathetic excuse – who will feed his fish when he is away.

He is terribly homesick and suffers from grief and depression, and also, survivor’s guilt. He has this deep longing, a wrenching melancholy for his lost home, his distant family, his sense of identity and belonging. He feels guilty about his exile,  It is as if the line between what was, what is and what shall be is blurred, as if he has become a non-person, a living ghost indeed. He fears that he will lose his connection with home, that he will loosen and loose the threads that bind him to his home – his memories.

But the war is forever in his thoughts, Its imagery shapes his prose poem, and he feels the immense loneliness, dislocation and uncertainty that is part of being a stranger, a dark-skinned Arab stranger at that, in a Nordic Land. There is, after all no place like home, and but home is far, far away. He juxtaposes the two societies:“Slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death”. There is a paradox at the heart of a western society, a society that protects you from being killed by others but is unable to protect you from yourself.

The poem concludes with a litany of excuses as to why he is in Sweden and not in Damascus. These become more and more fanciful, more and more mystical, magical realism indeed. He no longer speaks his own language. His old self is disappeared. It is as if he has died inside.

See also in In That Howling Infinite on the theme of exile and loss: Songs for a wounded city – Beirut, Fairuz and Nizar Qabbani, Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout, and, in Arabic, تصور عودة الفلسطينيين – فن إسماعيل شموط

For Damascus

I Can’t Attend

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence. Emigrants, travellers, refugees go by me, genuine inhabitants, bogus inhabitants, tax-dodgers, alcoholics, the newly rich and racists, all of them crossing in front of me as I sit in the North thinking of the South, composing spurious stories in order to cover up my absence and explain how I can’t attend.

Yes, I can’t attend, for the road between my poem and Damascus is cut off for postmodern reasons: these include the fact that my friends are ascending to God at a rapidly increasing rate, faster than my computer processor, while other reasons relate to a woman I met in the North who made me forget the taste of my mother’s milk, and some are connected to the fishes in the fish tank, who won’t find anyone to feed them in my absence.

I can’t attend, for the distance between my reality and my memory confirms that Einstein was right and the energy produced by my longing equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

I can’t attend but I can be absent, yes, I can be absent with great skill. I’ve become an expert in recent times and I’ve acquired a diary where I make a note of the times I have to be absent and I have memories that haven’t happened yet.

I can be absent as if I have never existed, as if I am nothing, as if air has never entered my lungs, as if I’ve never had enemies before, as if I’m concentrated memory loss, a coma transmitted like a contagious disease.

I can’t attend as I’m currently busy with the cold war I fight daily with isolation, with indiscriminate shelling by darkness, with systematic depression, with the attacks of loneliness that target the kitchen, the checkpoints that stand between me and summer, the bureaucracy caused by the separation of the legislative and executive powers, the routine procedures of the tax department. You’ve talked to me at length about the war, now let me tell you a little about the peace that I enjoy here in the North. Let me tell you about gradations of skin colour, what it means when people don’t know how to pronounce your name, about black hair, about the democracy that always favours the rich, the health insurance that doesn’t cover your teeth because they aren’t part of the body. Let me talk to you about the tasteless vegetables, the flowers with no smell, the racism masked by a smile. Let me tell you about the fast food, fast trains, fast relationships, slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death.

Will you believe me if I say to you that my shoes are tired, that inside me is a wolf I can’t restrain once he’s smelt blood? Will you believe me if you see on my body the marks of the bullets that have hit my friends there, while I’m sitting here in front of a computer screen? Do you believe in coincidence? My absence is a coincidence planned with extreme care, a well-considered random act. I’ve discovered by coincidence that it’s no coincidence that coincidences happen, and in fact the coincidence is when they don’t happen. The point is, will you believe me if I swear to you by music? I swear by music that a European residence permit prevents us from being shot but makes it more likely that we’ll kill ourselves.

Fine, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you why I can’t attend. It happened on a summer’s evening when I met a sad woman on my way home. In her hand she carried a forest and in her bag a bottle of wine. I kissed her and she became eleven months pregnant…

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. Damascus caught me in bed with another woman. I tried to put things right, to say what happened was a spur of the moment thing, nothing more, and it wouldn’t happen again. I swore by everything, by the moon, fireworks, women’s fingers, but it was all over, so I fled to the North.

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a child I didn’t know anything about the market economy. Now, after I’ve become a citizen of a first world country, I don’t know anything about the market economy.

This isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was intending to come, my suitcase collided with an item of breaking news and my language was smashed to bits, the passersby grabbed hold of the pieces and I no longer had a language…

That isn’t what is stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m dead, yes, I died several years ago.

That isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth…

Translation: Catherine Cobham

I Can’t Attend

لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

غياث المدهون

في الشمالِ، بالقربِ من سياجِ الله، مستمتعاً بالتطورِ الحضاري وسحرِ التكنولوجيا، وبآخرِ ما توصلتْ إليهِ البشريةُ من أساليبِ التمدن، وتحتَ التأثيرِ المخدرِ الذي يمنحهُ الأمانُ والتأمينُ الصحيُّ والضمانُ الاجتماعي وحريةُ التعبير، أتمدَّدُ تحتَ شمس الصيفِ كأنَّني رجلٌ أبيض، وأفكرُ بالجنوب، مختلقاً أعذاراً تبررُ غيابي، يمرُّ بجانبي مهاجرونَ ورحالةٌ ولاجؤون، يمرُّ سكانٌ أصليونَ ومزيفونَ ومتهربونَ من الضرائب، كحوليونَ وأغنياءُ جددٍ وعنصريون، كلُّهم يعبرون أمامي وأنا جالسٌ في الشمالِ أفكرُ بالجنوب، وأؤلفُ قصصاً مزيفةً كي أُغطي على غيابي، وكيفَ أنَّني لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

نعم، لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالطريقُ بين قصيدتي ودمشق مقطوعةٌ لأسباب ما بعد حداثية، منها أنَّ أصدقائي يصعدون إلى الله بتسارعٍ مُضطردٍ أعلى من سرعةِ مُعالجِ كمبيوتري، وبعضُها يخصُّ امرأةً قابلتها في الشمالِ فأنستني حليبَ أمي، وبعضها متعلقٌ بحوضِ السمكِ الذي لنْ يجدَ منْ يطعِمَهُ في غيابي.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالمسافةُ بين واقعي وذاكرتي تؤكِّدُ أنَّ أينشتاين على حقّ، وأنَّ الطاقةَ المنبثقةَ من اشتياقي تساوي حاصلَ ضربِ الكتلةِ في مربَّعِ سرعةِ الضوء.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، لكنَّني قادرٌ على الغياب، نعم، أستطيعُ الغيابَ بمهارةٍ عالية، وقد أصبحتُ محترفاً في الآونة الأخيرة، وصارَ لي أجندةٌ أرتِّبُ فيها مواعيدَ غيابي، وصارَ لي ذكرياتٌ لم تقعْ بعد.

أستطيعُ الغياب، كما لو أنَّني لم أكنْ، كما لو أنَّني عَدَم، كما لو أنَّ الهواءَ لم يدخلْ رئتي من قبل ولم يكُ لي أعداء، كما لو أنَّني فقدانُ ذاكرةٍ مُرَكَّز، كما لو أنَّني غيبوبةٌ تنتقلُ بالعدوى.

لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فأنا الآنَ مشغولٌ بالحربِ الباردة التي أخوضها يومياً مع العزلة، بالقصفِ العشوائيِّ للعتْم، بالاكتئابِ الممنهجِ وغاراتِ الوحدةِ التي تستهدفُ المطبخ، بحواجزِ التفتيشِ التي تقفُ بيني وبين الصيف، بالبيروقراطية بسببِ فَصْلِ السلطاتِ التشريعيةِ والتنفيذية، بالروتينِ في دائرةِ الضريبة، لقد حدَّثْتَنِي طويلاً عن الحرب، دعني أحدِّثك قليلاً عن السلامِ الذي أنعمُ به هنا في الشمال، دعني أحدِّثك عن تدرجاتِ لونِ البشرة، عن معنى ألَّا يعرفَ الناسُ أنْ يلفظوا اسمك، عن الشَّعر الأسود، عن الديمقراطيةِ التي تقفُ دائماً في صالحِ الأغنياء، عن التأمين الصحِّي الذي لا يشمل الأسنان لأنَّها ليست جزءاً من الجسد، دعني أحدِّثكَ عن الخضار التي لا طعمَ لها، عن الورودِ التي لا رائحةَ لها، عن العنصريةِ المغلفةِ بابتسامة، دعني أخبركَ عن الوجباتِ السريعةِ والقطاراتِ السريعةِ والعلاقاتِ السريعة، عن الإيقاعِ البطيءِ والحزنِ البطيءِ والموتِ البطيء.

هل ستُصدقني إنْ قُلتُ لكَ إنَّ حذائي متعبٌ، وإنَّ في داخلي ذئباً لا أستطيعُ كبحَهُ بعد أن اشتمَّ رائحة الدم، هل تصدقني إنْ رأيتَ على جسدي آثارَ الرصاصاتِ التي أصابتْ أصدقائي هناكَ بينما أنا جالسٌ هنا خلفَ شاشةِ الكمبيوتر، أتؤمنُ بالمصادفة، إنَّ غيابي مصادفةٌ مخططٌ لها بعنايةٍ بالغة، خبط عشواء مدروسة، ولقد اكتشفتُ مصادفةً أنْ ليس مصادفةً أنْ تحدثَ المصادفة، إنما المصادفةُ ألَّا تحدث. المهم، هل ستصدقني إنْ حلفتُ لكَ بالموسيقى، أقسمُ بالموسيقى أنَّ تصريحَ الإقامةِ في أوروبا قد يباعد ما بيننا وبين الموتِ بالرصاص، لكنَّه يقاربُ ما بيننا وبين الانتحار.

حسناً، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، سأخبركَ لمَ لا أستطيعُ الحضور، حدثَ ذلك في إحدى أمسياتِ الصيف، حين صادفتُ في الطريق إلى البيت امرأةً حزينة، كانتْ تحملُ في يدها غابة، وفي حقيبتها زجاجةَ نبيذ، قبَّلتُها فأصبحتْ حاملاً في الشهر الحادي عشر…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، لقد أمسكتني دمشقُ مع امرأةٍ أُخرى في الفراش، حاولتُ أنْ أُصلحَ الموقف، وأنَّ ما جرى نزوةَ ليس إلا، وأنَّها لن تتكرر، أقسمتُ بكلِّ شيء، بالقمر، بالألعابِ النارية، بأصابعِ النساء، لكنَّ كلَّ شيءٍ كانَ قد انتهى، فهربتُ إلى الشمال…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حين كنتُ طفلاً، لم أكنْ أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصاد السوق، الآن وبعدَ أنْ أصبحتُ مواطناً في إحدى دول العالمِ الأول فإنَّني لا أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصادِ السوق…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حينَ كنتُ أهمُّ بالمجيء، اصطدمتْ حقيبتي بخبرٍ عاجلٍ فانكسرتْ لغتي إلى قطعٍ وتناهبها المارة، ولم يعدْ لديَّ لغة…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، أنا ميِّت، نعم، لقد توفيتُ منذ عدةِ سنوات…

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.   

… كيف أصب.حتُ

سقطَ حُزنُها من الشرفةِ وانكسر، أصبحتْ تحتاجُ إلى حزنٍ جديد، حين رافقتُها إلى السوق، كانتْ أسعارُ الأحزان خياليةً فنصحتُهَا أنْ تشتريَ حُزناً مستعملاً، وجدنا حزناً في حالةٍ جيدة، غيرَ أنَّهُ واسعٌ قليلاً، كانَ كما أخبرَنَا البائعُ لشاعرٍ شابٍ انتحرَ في الصيفِ الماضي، أعجبَها الحزنُ وقرَّرنا أخذه، اختلفنا مع البائعِ على السعرِ، فقال إنَّه سيعطينا قلقاً يعودُ إلى الستينياتِ كهديةٍ مجانيةٍ إن اشترينا الحزن، وافقنا وكنتُ فرحاً بهذا القلقِ الذي لم يكنْ في الحسبان، أحسَّتْ بفرحتي فقالت هو لك، أخذتُ القلقَ في حقيبتي ومضينا، مساءً تذكرتُ القلق، أخرجتُهُ من الحقيبةِ وقلَّبتُهُ، لقد كانَ بجودةٍ عاليةٍ وبحالةٍ جيدةٍ رغم نصفِ قرنٍ من الاستعمال، لا بدَّ أنَّ البائعَ يجهلُ قيمتَهُ وإلَّا ما كان ليعطينَاهُ مقابلَ شراء حزنٍ رديءٍ لشاعرٍ شاب، أكثرُ ما أفرحني به هو أنَّهُ قلقٌ وجودي، مشغولٌ بحرفيةٍ عاليةٍ وفيه تفاصيلُ غايةٌ في الدقةِ والجمال، لا بدَّ أنَّهُ يعودُ لمثقفٍ موسوعيٍ أو سجينٍ سابق، بدأتُ باستعمالهِ فأصبحَ الأرقُ رفيقَ أيَّامي، وصِرتُ من مؤيدي مباحثاتِ السلام، توقفتُ عن زيارةِ الأقاربِ وازدادتْ كتبُ المذكراتِ في مكتبتي ولم أعدْ أُبدي رأياً إلا ما ندر، صارَ الإنسانُ عندي أغلى من الوطنِ وبدأتُ أشعرُ بمللٍ عام، أمَّا أكثر ما لفتَ انتباهي هو أنني أصبحتُ شاعراً.

Massacre

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. ‘They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot’ and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals. Genocide isn’t appropriate for my friends, as it’s an organised collective action and organised collective actions remind them of the Left that let them down.

Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers. Massacre is the only one to grant them asylum regardless of their backgrounds; their economic circumstances don’t bother Massacre, nor does Massacre care whether they are intellectuals or poets, Massacre looks at things from a neutral angle; Massacre has the same dead features as them, the same names as their widowed wives, passes like them through the countryside and the suburbs and appears suddenly like them in breaking news. Massacre resembles my friends, but always arrives before them in faraway villages and children’s schools.

Massacre is a dead metaphor that comes out of the television and eats my friends without a single pinch of salt.

Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham

المجزرة

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يأكل أصدقائي، يأكلهم بلا ملحٍ، كانوا شعراءَ، وأصبحوا مراسلين مع حدود، كانوا متعبين وأصبحوا متعبين جداً، “يعبرون الجسر في الصبح خفافاً “، ويموتون خارج التغطية، إنني أراهم بالمناظير الليلية، وأتتبعُ حرارة أجسادهم في الظلام، ها هم يهربون منها إليها، مستسلمين لهذا المساج الهائل، المجزرة أمهم الحقيقية، أما الإبادة الجماعية فهي مجردُ قصيدةٍ كلاسيكيةٍ يكتبها جنرالاتٌ مثقفون أحيلوا إلى التقاعد، الإبادة الجماعية لا تليق بأصدقائي، فهي عملٌ جماعي منظم، والأعمال الجماعية المنظمة تذكرهم باليسار الذي خذلهم.

المجزرةُ تصحو باكراً، تحمّمُ أصدقائي بالماء البارد والدم، تغسلُ ملابسهم الداخلية وتعدُ لهم الخبز والشاي، ثم تعلمهم قليلاً من الصيد، المجزرة أحنُّ على أصدقائي من الإعلان العالمي لحقوق الانسان، فتحتْ لهم الباب حين غُلِّقتْ الأبواب، ونادتهم بأسمائهم حين كانت نشراتُ الأخبار تبحث عن عدد الضحايا، المجزرة هي الوحيدةُ التي منحتهم اللجوء بغض النظر عن خلفياتهم، لم يهمها وضعهم الاقتصادي، لم يهمها إنْ كانوا مثقفين أو شعراء، إنها تنظر إلى الأشياء من زاوية محايدة، لها نفس ملامحهم الميتة، وأسماءُ زوجاتهم الأرامل، تمرُّ مثلهم على الأرياف والضواحي، وتظهرُ فجأة مثلهم في الأخبار العاجلة، المجزرة تشبه أصدقائي، لكنها دائماً تسبقهم إلى القرى النائية ومدارس الأطفال.

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يخرجُ من التلفزيون، ويأكل أصدقائي دون رشة ملح واحدة.


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.

From In That Howling Infinite’No Going Home

Tel as Sabi’ – Tarkeeth’s Anzac Story

The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. 

The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously. 

The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War. 

The rest, as we say, is our history. 

The Anzac Trail

Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert. 

Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth   millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements. 

It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous  charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017. 

Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle. 

Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth 

As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.  

In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Tarkeeth Forest, where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River.  Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf

Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there. 

On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’. 

Tel as Sabi 1917, showing Ottoman trenches (AWM)

Chris Fell and the battle of Beer Sheva

As told in Short Stories – a tale of Twin Pines:

in his ebook The Twin Pines Story, Lloyd Fell tells how his father served as a mounted machine gunner with the New Zealand forces in the Gaza campaign of late 1917. His war record reports that he was one of the machine gunners who fought through the day before the famous charge to knock out the Turkish machine guns on the strategic Tel al Saba, east of the strategic desert town Beersheba.

The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.

As Jean Bou wrote in The Weekend Australian:

“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”

Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the  the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade. 

See also, : The Taking of Tel el Saba

In In that Howling Infinite, see also, Tall Tales, Small Stories, Obituaries and Epiphanies,  The Watchers of the Water, and Loosing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

 

Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
An old  Irish blessing

You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Joni Mitchell, Coyote

On the road

A recent story in Haaretz brought back memories of my hitchhiking days.

Whilst hitching has lost much of its allure in the west, it remains very popular in Israel. From my very first visit, There are always young people waiting by the roadside – it has always been so for young conscripts travelling home on leave, and motorists have traditionally been comfortable with picking up soldiers waiting with their rifles and kit bags (all non-Haredi or ultra orthodox Israelis must complete national service when they reach 18, and are required to carry their weapons with them at all times if these can’t be securely stored). It is also a popular mode of travel in the occupied West Bank where settlers regard hitching a ride as a political statement of sovereignty and freedom to travel through all of HaAretz, “the land”, and as an economical means of reaching scattered and often isolated (not to mention illegal under international law) settlements. Many drivers regard picking up fellow-settlers as a political and religious duty.

Hitching in the West Bank

This attachment to hitchhiking harbours a strong sense of community, but also, a delusion of safety –  it can and does have deadly consequences. For example, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives at the bus/hitching stop at the Alon Shvut settlements in Gush Etzion and subsequently murdered. The atrocity precipitated Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli bombardment of Gaza which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and the kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. But that is not what this story is about …

In the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as an edgy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist contemplating whether to pull over or to drive on. For some, it also carries undertones of bludging and of indigence, although in rural areas like where I live, during these straightened times with high youth unemployment and poor public transport, many young people hitch out of necessity.

But the practice flourished for several decades, particularly during the fifties and sixties when few people owned vehicles and catching a ride with a friendly stranger was means of adventure as well as a mode of travel. Hitchhikers did so for a variety of reasons – a combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability.

More than just a means of transportation, it was also about social interaction and the opportunity for conversations with strangers. Jack Kerouac, American beat poet and secular patron saint of hitchers. begged to differ. In his seminal On the Road, a book revered more than read, he whinged: “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you are going all the way and don’t plan to stay in hotels”.

In his recent Roadside Americans – the rise and fall of hitchhiking in a changing nation, North Carolina historian Jack Reid writes: “The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars”.

Allons! the road is before us! 

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.
Strong and content I travel the open road.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

I was thumbing lifts before I’d even heard of Jack Kerouac,  It seemed like the easiest and cheapest thing to do when cash was scarce  and modes of carriage were few, and the open road and the horizon beckoned.

.In the days gone by, when money was tight and adventure beckoned, I hitched all-over England – visiting friends in far-flung towns and villages, attending music festivals and anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and often, simply for the joy of travelling and exploration.

Looking back, my hitching was destination focused,  getting to where I wanted to go and the route that would take me there rather than exploring the highways and byways, the towns and village in between and the folk therein – although I would take in appreciatively the landscapes and cityscapes I would pass through. The roadside and the adjoining nature strip, were, on the other hand, a world of their own. Between rides, standing at a place I’d never been and to which I would not return, I’d note the micro-milieu – the grass and the wildflowers, the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded bottles and butt ends, the empty cigarette packets and the candy bar wrappers. Vehicles  whizzed by and I’d observe their type and frequency to calculate when I’d likely be picked up. And then, destination in mind’s eye, like stepping into a cold pool,or breaking into a run, I’d extend my arm and raise a thumb, gingerly at first and then with bravado.

Living on the northeastern edge of Birmingham,  close to the motorways heading north and south, I’d simply pack a bag, walk to the nearby roundabout, and put out my thumb. It was, after it own fashion, a kind of commuting between hometown domesticity and the great beyond.

When first I roved out, the M1 started on the outskirts of London at Watford, and ended between Coventry and Rugby. The Coventry Road in south west Birmingham was my launching pad. Watford Gap services was like a transit lounge, as was Newport Pagnell. The large road sign Hatfield and the North was a landmark on the road to home. Daytime, nighttime, the wee small hours, in spring and summer sunshine or winter rain, it didn’t really matter – the M1 never slept.

In time, the road system extended and the M1-M6 link lay just a hundred metres in front my family home. One summer, I worked on that section of the motorway as an “on the lump”  casual navvy. No workers comp,or occupational health and safety in those days. Helmets and gloves were optional. My blood, and that of many others, including some who clocked one fine summer morning and never clocked off, is in that  concrete.

As a sixth former, I’d often hitch to “swinging” London for the weekend, to explore the capital and visit folk and jazz clubs, kipping in shop door-ways and underground car parks under cardboard and napping wrapped in newspapers, and eating at Wimpy bars and Lyons teas houses.

A few years later, whilst at Reading University,  the M4 began near Maidenhead and finished at Chiswick, and every few weekends, I’d stand opposite the cemetery in eastern Reading and hitch a ride to London and back – for sit-ins, marches, happenings at The Roundhouse, free open-air concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park), and to hang with my London girlfriend.

The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm

When first I roved abroad, I thumbed my way from Budapest to Athens via Yugoslavia and thence back to Blighty, and the following year, on a side-step from the famous hippie trail, from Beirut to Aqaba and back via Petra and Wadi Rum. I slept a night in Petra itself – in those days, a deserted and un-restored hideaway for fugitive Palestinian  fedayeen after the Black September intifada. For reasons that I can not fully explain, I took my future first wife down the same road two years later, including sleeping out among Petra’s Nabatean tombs. And this was to be the end of my gypsy ways and hitching days. They lasted eight years. Thereafter, the famous “open road” was replaced by planes and trains, buses and cars – and one agonizingly crippled Ford transit van (to … an old saying, when life gives you a lemon, you’d wish you’d’ve been willing to spend more on a reliable motor).

If you’ve taken all you need from this post already, off you go … What follows now are an assortment of self-indulgent reminiscences of my hitchhiking days.

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Travellers’ Tales

Well I left my happy home
To see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends
With the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road
And many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman

The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre. Marc Bolan

And what should they know of England …

There’s always a first time. We’d all like to daydream that we’d be picked up by Joni Mitchell, like she picked up that scallywag Coyote on her sublime Hejira album. Mine, alas, was as as stocky sixth former with long hair (long for those days) and horn-rims, heading down to London to meet meet up with school chums for the CND Easter March (that was a first too). Standing at the roundabout where the M1 and the world began, having already thumbed from the Coventry Road roundabout opposite the old Swan public house at Yardley, It wasn’t long before a Rolls Royce pulled up. “WTFl!” is what I’d say today A handsome bloke with shades and sideburns who looked like Englebert Humperdinck asked me where I was heading. “London”, I replied. “Of course – where else? Get in”, he said. It was all the way to Marble Arch with pop star Don Fardon – whom I’d never heard of at the time – he later entered the hit parade with a cover of John Loudermilk’s song Indian Reservation. Not a good song, I would say – with many similarly empathetic ballads, it is long on heartstring-pulling  and fucked on imagery and lyrics. If you want to listen to a good song, check out Bruce Cockburn’s evocative Indian Wars and the Australian Goanna Band’s anthemic Solid Rock.

Henceforward, that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street, and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and and there were alwsys drivers on the road  at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, there were always folks willing to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curios people wondering why a young  man would hitch the highways in the middle of the night.

It is now early spring of 1968. I’d repeated my last year at Grammar School, and with assignments completed, an amenable headmaster let me take a week off to travel. This time, I headed northwest across Brum to Darkaston, near Walsall, and what was then the beginning of the M6 – it ended at Lancaster. Travelling through Lancashire, Cumbria and the Lowlands, I reached the outskirts of Glasgow by nighttime. Hitching across the city, I was picked up by a young couple who insisted that I spend the night at their place – they reckoned the green scarf I’d worn around my hat was a risky proposition in that part of sectarianist Glasgow. I loved that old brown fedora; it traveled with me all over England, to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Middle East until it was stolen along with my harmonica at Wadi Musa, near Petra. Next morning, I was on the road to Edinburgh, crossed the silvery Tay of bad poet William McGonagall fame, transited the granite city of Aberdeen, and by nightfall, I was on the road into Inverness, where I slept by the roadside and woke up covered in snow. Next morning, I was on Culloden field, and thence, continued on my journey. It took me through the Great Glen where I’d caught a local bus that delivered the mail to isolated homesteads, a journey so slow that I was hallucinating mountains and braes for days, and thence to to Loch Lomond and beyond, southering homewards.

The brown fedora, Giza 1971

During my first year at the University of Reading, I kept on hitching – many more journeys to London and back and day trips to nearby Oxford and Windsor. In a cold and rainy April, with first year exams done, I headed east to London and north to the Humber and the port of Hull, to drop on a good friend who had dropped out of uni and to visit an former school chum. In a student share-house near the university, I took my first mescaline trip to the soundtrack of Roy Harper’s 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”.  For 1,200 blissful seconds of cosmic consciousness, I found the meaning of life down that wonderful rabbit hole – and had forgotten what I’d found when I’d resurfaced the next morning. Peyote is a very colourful hallucinogenic. I still recall the Fantasia images that passed before my eyes as Roy sang:

Daffodil April petal hiding the game
Forests of restless chessmen life is the same
Tides in the sand sun lover watching us dream
Covered in stars and clover rainbows downstream …
Under the toadstool lover down by the dream
Everything flowing over rainbows downstream
Silver the turning water flying away
I’ll come to see you sooner I’m on my way

As I headed back down south, the wet and windy old weather changed and as I rode through rural Oxfordshire, all a sudden, the sun came out for behind dull English clouds and and Springtime came in verdant glory – as doomed young Robert Browning once declaimed

Oh to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

On arrival at my digs in Reading, there was a note from friends telling me that they’d headed off to Devon to spend a weekend with a fellow student’s farming family, and that me and my friend Jean should join them. So within minutes of arriving home, we were off into the west. Navigating Bristol where, I recall for no apparent reason, that on impulse. I’d bought a copy of The Beano comic) and Somerset. Late that night, we arrived in the tiny town Cullompton in the heart of rustic Devon. After some now forgotten but fun times, including a trip to the seaside and getting blotto on local cider, we hitched home. I don’t recall too much of the journey except that it took us through Basingstoke.

Cullompton 1969

One glorious English summer I arranged to meet up with my late pal Dave Shaw in Cambridge, where he was attending a summer school at the University, and go to the celebrated Cambridge Folk Festival. I clocked off from my work on the motorway, got home, just ten minutes away – I said we were close! – showered and packed, and headed to the Clock Garage roundabout and put out my thumb. I took the M1 to London’s North Circular, and cut across to the A10 (there was no M11 in those days) and, And, my stars were alignment on this night ride, arrived at Dave’s digs in time for breakfast.I don’t remember much of the festival bill, but American folk diva Odetta was singing, and also, our idol, Roy Harper, England’s high priest of angst.

I had to leave Cambridge around Sunday lunchtime, after Roy’s last set, to return to Brum for work on Monday. Rather than head back down to London, to save time – a quixotic idea when you are hitching – I decided to cut cross-country to connect with the M1 at Newport Pagnell – in those days before GPS and route planners, a cheap, creased road map from WH Smith was the best we had, plus a good sense of direction, fair weather and loads of luck. And such are the movements of the cosmos, that my one and only only ride took me to, yes, what was then the bucolic village of Newport Pagnell. It was one of those summer evenings in England, when the days are long, the air warm and languorous, and the light, luminous. Birds were singing and church bells were ringing for evensong, and in my mind’s ear, I’d like to imagine that cows were lowing and sheep were bleating. One could almost feel an ode coming on. So there I was, once more, at the services on-ramp, hitching a ride to Birmingham , and hopping aboard an old Land Rover for what was the slowest and noisiest ride ever – which took me almost to my door.

… who only England know

The above header is the second half of Rudyard Kipling’s well known if oft misunderstood poem The English Flag, in which the old Imperialist exhorts his insular countrymen to go forth and conquer … In later and less jingoism times, it has been given a more benign slant, along the lines of the adages like “travel broadens the mind” to which I readily subscribe, or as Cat Stevens was to sing at the time “the road to find out”.

And so it was during the holidays before my final year at Grammar School that I tried my thumb on the Continent. With another school pal, I hopped across La Manche to Belgium with the idea of hitching to Amsterdam. Why we chose Belgium, I can’t recall, but my brother had been there shortly before and he reckoned it was a great place for art and architecture (that was his thing – he scored a rare First in architecture at Uni and went to become the chief architect for Nottingham City Council, designing the international ice rink in partnership with Jane Torvill of of skating icons Torvill and Dean fame). We did a lot of beer and chips and saw a lot of great art and architecture in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – and we visited the Waterloo battlefield, as one would. As for the Netherlands, we got as far as Antwerp but gave up on Amsterdam after a long day of futile thumbing. We were, however, adopted by a young Belgian lass who took us home to meet her ma and pa. We enjoyed a  bucolic Sunday picnic on the banks of a tributary of the Scheldt before heading back to Oostende and England. In retrospect, I regretted that hadn’t turned south south and set a course for Paris, a  pleasure which would have to wait several more years.

My next “big hitch” was by happenstance in Eastern Europe. I’ve written of this before in In That Howling Infinite in Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Therein, I recalled how I’d flown to Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet Invasion for Czechoslovakia, only to have the flight diverted to Budapest in Hungary.

“Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –  westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade. In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb”.

My Balkan and Aegean adventures included that aforesaid sleepover in Novi Sad; sleeping by the highway south of Niš where I was awoken in the middle of the night by military police who reckoned I was a security risk; being propositioned – solicited more like – by a gypsy girl whose favours I forsook as she mustn’t have showered for a week; picked up by a Greek lorry-driver near the famous pass of Thermopylae who insisted we skinny-dip in the aquamarine Adriatic; and heading out of Thessaloniki on the road to Macedonia (the Slav one), I was picked by a bus load of frisky young Greek conscripts – I jumped out quicksmart into the night.

By the time I reached Zagreb, I’d had enough of the road and took the train to Vienna and thence to Calais and Albion. But, as I wrote in Tanks for the Memory, my southwards diversion to the Mediterranean fixed my gaze on other pastures and inspired  a lifetime interest in the Middle East. For that is where I roved next: “… the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled: You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the famous well-trodden Hippy Trail to India”.

My final hitching hejiras were played out in the Levant – an Indian traveller I’d met in a Cairo youth hostel had told me that if I thought the slums of Cairo were bad – and to a naive Brummie, they were – I should see those in Kolkata. So that is what I resolved to do. Leaving Egypt, I found my way to Damascus by way of Beirut, with a side-trip to Israel via Cyprus, and on a quixotic notion, I resolved to visit Aqaba, and also Petra, the ancient “rose” city. Back then, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. I’d recalled Aqaba from the film Lawrence of Arabia; and I’d been told that Petra was a “must see” by a fellow traveller in my Damascus hostel. So, I set off south, to Dara’a, a border town where Lawrence was allegedly captured and buggered by the Turks, and which was, in recent times, the spark that ignited the Syrian civil war.

The Jordanian border lay just beyond Dera’a, but all traffic thereto was forbidden – the Syrian and Jordanian army had just fought a desultory tank battle in one of the many ricochets of the latter’s suppression of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after the failed Black September intifada the year before. The border checkpoints were still open, however, to traffic from Jordan only. So I walked across a kind of no man’s land, past tank tracks and the occasional military wreck. There was a large concrete marker at the actual borderline, with “welcome to jordan” on one side and “welcome to Syria” on the other. It was a surreal space. It’s was twilight and high summer. The air was hot and still and there was almost total silence. No birdsong, an imperceptible warm wind. And of a sudden, there was a buzzing of flies which which swarmed all about me and the marker. I walked on and before too long, passed through passport control with a tourist visa, and thumbed a ride to Amman, the capital.

I slept that night on the outskirts of Amman and continued on to Ma’an, the jump-off point for the village of Wadi Musa and Petra. Onwards then to Aqaba where, having paddled in the sea and walked about the town, I headed back straightaway the way I’d come, to Ma’an, Amman, Dera’a and Damascus – from whence I took the fabled Nairn Bus across the desert to Baghdad. From there, I traveled by bus through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and finally, by train, to Delhi and journey’s end, Kolkata, in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a refugee crisis that was a prelude to the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

If you never go, you’ll never grow 

With that, I’ll conclude these travellers’ tales, observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by accident, misadventure or malignancy.

As noted in opening paragraphs, there was the “combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability” .

Back in the day, hitchhiking in Britain and on the continent was taken for granted and hitchers were commonplace, even if the practice was frowned upon by the straighteners and the fearful. In the Levant, it was a rare thing. Passers-by would often ask what I was doing, and why I traveled thus. Saving money, I’d reply, I was on a budget and had a long way to go – which was indeed the case in the days when credit cards had yet to be invented and the cash and travellers’ cheques in your body belt were all you had to get your thousands of miles. But you come from a rich country, they’d say, adding that there were cheap service-taxis and buses, and that it was dangerous and there were men out there who would rob you or do you harm. Yes, but I have a long way to go. A policeman in Jerash in northern Jordan served me Arab tea and cakes and sat me down on a bench outside the police station whilst he flagged down a driver he considered to be a decent man.

Like those Israelis hitching between towns and villages in Israel and between settlements in the Occupied Territories, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.

So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved.

Also in In That Howling Infinite, read: Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my lifeBack in the Day ; and A Window on a Gone World

Hitching in the West Bank

Song of the Open Road

Walt Whitman

1
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.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

2
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

3
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.

4
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.

5
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

6
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?

Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

7
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

8
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

9
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

10
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.

The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.

(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)

11
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

12
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

13
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.

Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

14
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

15
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

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

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

Tangled 2 – Libya’s bloody circus rolls on

UN-sponsored talks have produced a new interim government for Libya aimed at resolving a decade of chaos, division and violence by holding national elections later this year. But with myriad factions loathe to surrender influence they already hold, and with foreign powers invested in local allies, the new government may rapidly come under pressure. The appointment of a new government may also do little to change the balance of military power on the ground, where armed groups rule the streets and factions remain split between east and west along a fortified front-line.  

Some Libyans have been critical of a process which they view as being managed from abroad and which they fear will allow existing power-brokers to cling to their influence. “It’s just a painkiller to portray Libya as stable for a while. But war and tension will certainly come back sooner or later so long as militias have power,” said Abdulatif al-Zorgani, a 45-year-old state employee in Tripoli.

“Déjà vu all over again”

A year ago, In That Howling Infinite published Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East Back then, Libya held poll position for its multitude of active players and, to use that Shakespearean script note, “voices off”. A year on, borrowing again from the Bard, there are continuing “alarums and excursions”. 

Libya has long been a jigsaw puzzle of competing interests –  tribal versus urban, Islamist versus secularist, revolutionary versus old-regime, localist and regional players, Middle Eastern and European – all prepared to tear the country apart for in pursuit of their own political and economic interests – which include, as is often the case, oil and gas. Their contortions get more and more torturous. 

It was reported year last year that that more than 1400 Russian mercenaries had been were deployed in 2019 by the Wagner company, a Russian military outfit headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had deployed in Libya to assist warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its push against Libya ostensibly internationally recognized government. It was joining troops hired by Haftar’s backers, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and included mercenaries from Sudan’s brutal Jamjaweed militia – aided and abetted by several EU members and French, Italian and sundry other arms suppliers. 

Wagner’s sell-swords included a good number of Syrians – sundry rebels and jihadis left high, dry and unemployed by the Syrian regime’s ongoing ‘reconquista’ – which is, as we know, bolstered by the Russian military – including Wagner’s fighting men, who include in their number many Muslim Chechens from Russia’s subservient neighbour. 

When Haftar’s offensive stalled outside Tripoli, Libya’s capitol, last June, it was reported that more than a thousand of the Russian and Syrian mercenaries had been  pulled back from the front lines and taken planes to who knows where. This “retreat” was precipitated by a Turkish military intervention that has helped block an assault on the capital. 

The Turkish contingent is comprised of numerous specialists and advisers, artillery and aircraft, and a contingent of, surprise surprise, hirelings drawn from the same battered battlefields of northern Syria. Those same jihadis and rebels in Wagner’s pay. 

Many Syrians sell their services because it is the only way they can feed their families in the war-battered economy of the regime’s Syria, and the besieged enclaves of the disparate rebel forces. It reported that these mercenaries, zealous and reluctant alike, have also been deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent brief but bloody war between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan. Recruits on both sides in both conflicts are reportedly complaining that they are not being paid what they were promised nor on time. 

Haftar spend time late last year in Egypt conferring with his patron and mentor, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over possible next moves. There is speculation now that whilst Haftar’s backers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his martial abilities, they are reluctant to relinquish their influence in this politically and economically strategically area leaving the field to an ambitious Erdogan. They may, indeed, be surreptitiously looking around for a new dance-partner. 

As COVID-19 infections continued to rise, and as Turkey and Russia vied for influence in this strategically important corner of the Mediterranean, there were incoherent mumblings that the that the USA might be about to throw its MAGA cap into the crowded ring, This did not however eventuate, and there are indications that the new administration may be reluctant to involve itself in torturous proxy wars involving disreputable Arab and other despots. 

Nevertheless, Libya’s nightmare continues. As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

In That Howling Infinite, see also; Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East and A Middle East Miscellany

Here is a good  analysis of this unwinnable civil war:  The citizens of Libya are suffering – All sides have to take the blame for this bloody stalemate

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved

That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

O Beirut – songs for a wounded city

When venerable and remarkable cities are hurt, we feel their pain. The world felt it when Sarajevo was besieged for four years; when New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; when the heart of the antique city of Aleppo was destroyed in 2012, and when Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was burned in 2019. And there was also Palmyra, the “Queen of the Desert” ( see In That Howling Infinite’s The Tears of Zenobia, 

So too with Beirut, once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki ripped the heart out of Lebanon’s historic capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate, the stuff that brought down the Alfred C Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Hundreds perished and thousands were injured, whilst the port and its adjacent neighbourhoods, a crowded inner-city of apartments and cafes, were devastated. Lebanon’s people, already roiled by economic ruin and political paralysis, the trigger for months of civil unrest (see In That Howling Infinite’s Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada) and the chains of COVID19, blamed their corrupt and incompetent rulers and the archaic sectarian dispensation that kept them in power. Caught up in the cogs of Lebanon’s crooked system, the search for the perpetrators, justice and closure will grind on for years. Meanwhile, the dead have been buried, the wounded will recover, limp on or succumb, and the psychological damage will endure.
When the port went up, many Beirutis were cast back into what must have seem like a time tunnel, a harrowing vortex of memories and traumas inherited from the fifteen-year long civil war – a conflict that has left wounds that ache still (see In That Howling Infinite’s Pity The Nation (there is an extract from this at the end of this post).

Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared YouTube videos featuring songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – and most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people: “From my heart, peace to Beirut, and kisses to the sea and to the houses, To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman”.  Listen to it below, and to a lovely cover by a young Lebanese teenage – and yes, the tune is indeed Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez.

Beirut-born Fairuz, already a renowned singer and songstress, celebrated and adored throughout the Middle East, chose to remain in her home-town throughout the civil war. But whilst she continued to tour the world as a performing artist, she declined  to sing in Lebanon, refusing to be seen to be as taking sides in the political and sectarian conflict. As a national, unifying and consoling figure, she sang Li Beirut in a charity concert for the victims of the explosion, and for the wounded city itself.
For much of the past year, I have been refreshing my Arabic under the mentorship of Ya’rob, a Syrian and former refugee from America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Working on my reading, I have spent time translating Arabic songs and poems into English – primarily Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Fairuz herself – and English poems and songs into Arabic for the benefit of my teacher – these have included my own, WH Auden, and Leonard Cohen, and even Redgum – in a study of Australian icon and bad boy Ned Kelly, I translated Poor Ned!

And lo’, here was Qabbani’s poem Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya – O Beirut, Mistress of the World, a bitter soulmate of Fairuz’  Li Beirut.

Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī was a Syrian diplomat, poet, writer and publisher. He is considered one of the most revered contemporary poets in the  Arab world and is acclaimed as Syria’s National Poet. His poetic style combined simplicity and elegance in exploring themes of religion and Arab nationalism, and controversially, in the Middle East, of love, eroticism and feminism. It may say something about Arab culture, and it’s moralistic constraints, that Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish used his craft to navigate similar waters – although   never have had the opportunity to have had an Israeli lover like his contemporary (the inspiration for oud master and jazz great’s Anouar Brahem in his excellent The Astounding Eyes of Rita.

Ya Beirut, Ya Sit al Dunya was was published in 1978, three years into the fifteen year long Lebanese Civil War. In it he eloquently and emotionally described the malign impact that the Arab world was having on Beirut, a beautiful and historic coastal city that for centuries has been a cultural and economic entrepôt between east and west.

In Arabic, the title can read O Beirut, Lady of the World, But figuratively, it could be seen to imply that the city was indeed the “mistress’ or prostitute of the Levant, used and abused by many outside powers. “We confess, he wrote,”that we were envious of you, that your beauty hurt us … that we offered you a dagger in place of flowers … that we hurt you and exhausted you, that we burned you and made you cry, that  that we weighed you down with our sins”. Fairuz was less brutsl but no less angry when she asks of her city: ‘how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke.  “She has became alone at night, alone with the night.”

Contemplating Ya Beirut, I was reminded of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s famous poem, Pity the Nation, published posthumously after his death in 1931, a sardonic and incisive commentary on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home in our liberal democracies wherein ‘populism and post-truth, allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news’ are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise. See In That Howling Infinite‘s Pity the Nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion. It came as no surprise that in the Age of Trump, onetime beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s clone, also titled Pity The Nation, was circulating widely in anxious progressive circles.

I reproduce each of these poems and songs below, in English and also in Arabic. As I was working on this post, I recalled a song by Bruce Springsteen that echoed them in their blend of bitterness and optimism – My City In Ruins. Indeed, the play-out of Bruce’s song, “Come on, rise up!” is almost identical to the last part of Qabbani’s poem: “Rise from beneath the rubble like the almond flower in April. Rise from under your grief. Rise!”  So I’ve reproduced Bruce’s song too, with a video thereof.
© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Qabbani’s and Fairuz’ are presented in the original Arabic; the translations are a blend of my own and the work others that I believe best reflect the imagery and intent of the writer. The Arabic versions of Gibran’s poem and of Springsteen’s song are my own, word, grammar and narrative-checked by Ya’rob. He also checked the English translations for faithfulness to the original text.

“That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Mad Man

O Beirut, O Mistress of the World
O Beirut,
O Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us
We confess now
That we gave you no justice, no mercy
That we misunderstood you and were not sorry
That we offered you a dagger in place of flowers
We confess before the just God
That we hurt you and exhausted you
That we burned you and made you cry
That we weighed you down with our sins
O Beirut
Without you, the world is not enough
We know now that your roots run deep within us
We know now just what was done by our hands
Rise
Rise
Rise
Rise from beneath the rubble
Like the almond flower in April
Rise from under your grief
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
Rise from beneath the rubble
Rise in honour of the forests
Rise in honour of the rivers
Rise in honour of the rivers and the valleys
And of humanity
Rise in honour of humanity
Rise O Beirut
Rise
The revolution is born in the womb of sorrows
O Beirut
O Beirut

 يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا

يا بيروت
يا ست الدنيا
يا بيروت
نعترف أمام الله الواحد
أنّْا كنا منك نغار
وكان جمالك يؤذينا
نعترف الآن
بأنّْا لم ننصفك ولم نرحمك
بأنّْا لم نفهمك ولم نعذرك
وأهديناك مكان الوردة سكيناً
نعترف أمام الله العادل
بأنّْا جرحناك واتعبناك
بأنّْا أحرقناك وأبكيناك
وحملناك أيا بيروت معاصينا
يا بيروت
إن الدنيا بعد ليست تكفينا
الآن عرفنا أن جذورك ضاربة فينا
الآن عرفنا ماذا إقترفت أيدينا
قومي
قومي
قومي
قومي من تحت الردم
كزهرة لوز في نيسان
قومي من حزنك قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
قومي من تحت الردم
قومي إكراماً للغابات
قومي إكراماً للأنهار
قومي إكراماً للأنهار والوديان
والإنسان
قومي إكراماً للإنسان
قومي يا بيروت
قومي
إن الثورة تولد من رحم الاحزان
يا بيروت
ا بيروت

Pity The Nation

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

رحم على الامة

ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
ارحم على الأمة التي تعتبر المتنمر بطلاً
ويعتبر منتصرها رائعا.
ارحم أمة تحتقر الشغف في أحلامها
لكنه يخضع لها عندما تستيقظ.
ارحم على الأمة التي لا ترفع صوتها
إلا عندما تمشي في جنازة
وتفتخر فقط بين أطلالها
ولن تنقذ نفسها عندما توضع رقبتها
بين السيف والكتلة.
ارحم على الأمة التي فيها رجل الدولة وهو ثعلب
والفيلسوف مشعوذ
فنه من الترقيع والتقليد
ارحم على الأمة التي تستقبل حاكمها الجديد بصوت عالٍ
ويقول وداعا له بسخرية
فقط للترحيب بآخر من خلال الاحتفال الصاخب مرة أخرى
ارحم على أمة حكماؤها أغبياء السنين
وأولئك الذين لا يزال رجالهم الأقوياء في المهد.
ارحموا الأمة منقسمة
وكل قطعة تعتبر نفسها أمة

To Beirut
Fairuz

To Beirut,
From my heart, peace to Beirut
And kisses to the sea and to the houses,
To a rock shaped liked the face of an old fisherman
She is wine from the spirit of the people
From its sweat, she is bread and jasmine.
So how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke

Glory from the ashes of Beirut
From the blood of a child held in its hand,
My city has extinguished its beacon,
She has closed her door,
She has became alone at night
Alone with the night.

You are mine, you are mine.
Oh, embrace me, you are mine
My banner, the rock of tomorrow, the waves of my travels.
The wounds of my people have blossomed
The mothers’ tears have blossomed
You, Beirut, are mine
You are mine
Oh, embrace me
You are mine.

 يا بيروت

فيروز

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ
هي من روحِ الشعب خمرٌ
هي من عرقِهِ خبزٌ و ياسمين
فكيف صار طعمها طعم نارٍ و دخانِ

لبيروت
مجدٌ من رمادٍ لبيروت
من دمٍ لولدٍ حُملَ فوق يدها
أطفأت مدينتي قنديلها
أغلقت بابها
أصبحت في المساء وحدها
وحدها و ليلُ

لبيروت
من قلبي سلامٌ لبيروت
و قُبلٌ للبحر و البيوت
لصخرةٍ كأنها وجه بحارٍ قديمِ

أنتِ لي أنتِ لي
أه عانقيني أنتِ لي
رايتي و حجرُ الغدِ و موج سفري
أزهرت جراح شعبي
أزهرت دمعة الأمهات
أنتِ بيروت لي
أنتِ لي

Tell me, tell me about my country
Fairuz

Tell me, tell me about my country,
Tell me, O breeze blowing through the trees before me
Tell me stories of my family and of my home
Tell me a long story about me and my childhood sweetheart.

O breeze blowing through the laurel garden,
I beg you, come and play with me in my house
Tell me if he still remembers me in my country
Does he wait for me in the evening in my country
In these few hours happiness, tell me,
Habibi, tell me.

I beg you, tell me how are the olive trees
And the boy and girl in the shade of the windmill
And the almond trees and the earth and our sky
It is our our country, and our love
Blooms in these ungenerous times
Habibi, tell me

احكيلي احكيلي عن بلدي

فيروز

إحكيلي إحكيلي عن بلدي إحكيلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عالشجر مقابيلي
عن أهلي حكايي عن بيتي حكايي
و عن جار الطفولي حكايي طويلي
يا نسيم اللي مارق عا أرض الغار
حلفتك تجي تلعب عندي بهالدار
خبرني ان كان بعدو بيذكرني
ببلدي و عالسهرة ناطرني
بساعات الفرح القليلي حبيبي إحكيلي
حلفتك خبرني كيف حال الزيتون
و الصبي و الصبيي بفيي الطاحون
و اللوزي و الأرض و سمانا
هو هني بلدنا و هوانا
زهر الأيام البخيلي حبيبي إحكيلي

My City In  Ruins

Bruce Springsteen
There’s a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
My city of ruins
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
While my brother’s down on his knees
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city of ruins
My city’s in ruins
Now with these hands
With these hands, I pray Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength Lord
With these hands
I pray for the faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I  pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your love, Lord
With these hands
I pray for your faith, Lord
With these hands
I pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up
Come on, rise up

مدينتي في اخراب
بروس سبرينغستين

هناك دائرة حمراء بالدم
على الأرض المظلمة الباردة
مدينتي الخرائب
الشباب في الزاوية
مثل الأوراق المتناثرة
بينما أخي على ركبتيه
قل لي كيف أبدأ من جديد؟
مدينتي في الخراب

مدينتي في خراب
الآن بهذه الأيدي
بهذه الأيدي أدعو الله
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل الإيمان يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل حبك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل إيمانك يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
أصلي من أجل القوة يا رب
بهذه الأيدي
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض
تعال ، انهض

Postscript

Lebanese author Dominique Eddé has written: “We know more or less what constitutes Lebanon, but we don’t know how it works. If we had to send into space a country capable of containing the world, Lebanon would fit the bill. If we had to send one that did not contain what is needed to make a real country, Lebanon would also be the answer”. (See Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada

In April 2015 In That Howling Infinite  published a piece on Lebanon’s’ fifteen year long civil war. Named for Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem, it was entitled Pity The Nation.  It ran thus:

The Lebanese Civil War broke loose forty years ago this month. A cold war fuelled, by aggregating hostility between the Palestinian refugee community, a militarized state within a state, and their reluctant Lebanese hosts, became hot with deadly clashes between Palestinian and Maronite militias. Sects, clans, families, and the political parties and militias that gathered about them, went for their guns, the hounds of hell were loosed, and the massacres began.

In a Levantine echo of the Thirty Years War that raged through Western Europe from 1618, cities were destroyed and the countryside ravaged as armies, militias and gangsters fought over the fallen body of a divided and devastated land. Muslims fought Christians, Sunni fought Shi’a, Maronites fought Orthodox, Druze fought Muslims and Christians, communists fought nationalists, and Palestinians, at one time or other, fought everyone, including other Palestinians. And all changed partners and enemies in a bloody danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery.

This Hobbesian “war of all against all” drew in outsiders. Syrians, who during the course of their intervention, changed allies and adversaries as their political and strategic aims and interests mutated, and ruled the country until, implicated in the assassination of popular former prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, beat an undignified retreat (whilst never quite relinquishing the levers of power). Israelis, threatened by guerrilla attacks in the Fatah land of southern Lebanon, ostensibly invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian military machine, and as the midwife in the birth of the Shi’a Hezbollah, waded with eyes wide shut into a quagmire that many have viewed as their Vietnam. Americans and French, who intervened with the aim of separating the warring sides and pushing them towards a ceasefire, departed in the aftershock of Hezbollah bombs that killed hundreds of their servicemen. And United Nations Blue Berets who serve and die still in the hostile borderlands.

The war raged for the next fifteen years, staggering to an end in 1990 after claiming over 150,000 lives and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of others, including over 100,000 permanently handicapped. Nearly a million souls fled their homes, and some 76, 000 remain displaced to this day, now forgotten in the midst of the new and greater Syrian diaspora, whilst tens of thousands emigrated permanently. There are still some 17,000 “disappeared” who may be either still in Syrian or Lebanese jails, or more likely, in one of hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across this tiny country.  

 

Tangled! – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

The paradox of piety observes no disconnect
Nor registers anxiety
As the ship of fools is wrecked
So leaders urge with eloquence
And martyrs die in consequence
We talk in last and present sense
As greed and fear persist
E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill

At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,  joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.

This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflict  that they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.

A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.

But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):

Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.

So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. 

And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now? Clear as mud! 

It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

Libya

We begin with  Libya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s: Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran).  Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle – Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).  

On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).

And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.. 

As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

Syria

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already! 

On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –  hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust. 

And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).

Yemen 

On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence. And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.

Afghanistan

Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …

On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots. 

And on the sidelines,  miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”. 

So, what now? 

More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.

As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also; A Middle East Miscellany

A postscript  from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’

‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

The tears of Zenobia – will Palmyra rise again?

The National Museum in Damascus is a magical place.

It’s most amazing exhibits are its smallest, the tiny alphabet of the bronze age city of Ugarit from the 4th Century BC, said to be the world’s first alphabet, and its largest, the interior of second century synagogue from the Greco-Roman city of Dar Europa on the Euphrates.

The museum has not only survived Syria’s war unscathed, and for a long time closed to safeguard its contents, it has been reopened for almost a year. Whilst this is wonderful news, reflect on the memory of Khaled Mohammad al Asaad, renowned Syrian archaeologist and historian, and Director of Antiquities in Palmyra who was murdered by Islamic State in August 2015 for endeavouring to protect Syria’s archaeological treasures, and reflect also on the destruction of the World Heritage site for which he sacrificed his life.

Palmyra, the ancient and venerable ‘Pearl of the Desert stands in an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus. This once great city was in its day one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, at the junction of trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Although a vassal of Rome, it was the capital of the third century Palmyrene Empire, and of its famous queen, Zenobia. She led a revolt against the Roman Empire, expanding her domain throughout the Levant and conquering Egypt, and ruled until 271, when she was defeated by the Romans and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian.

Palmyra contains monumental ruins from the 1st to the 2nd century, its art and architecture spanning several civilizations, combining Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. There are few remnants of the ancient world that compared wit it. Ba’albek, in Lebanon, maybe; Ephesus, in Turkey, possibly; and also, Apamea, in western Syria between Hama and Aleppo. Palmyra’s treasures hide in plain sight. For all the world to see and wonder.

When Da’ish captured Palmyra and Tadmor, the adjacent town (it’s name means ruin in Arabic) al Asaad refused to flee and though tortured for a month, refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. He was then publicly beheaded, his remains displayed amidst the ruins he has spent his life preserving for us, for humanity, for history. His murderers declared in a sign hanging from his body, that he’d did because he had overseen idols and had attended infidel archaeological conferences as his country’s representative.

Da’ish then proceeded to dynamite Palmyra’s monuments.

Four years on and the suffering of the Syrians continues unabated. The so called-civilized rulers of the so called-civilized world stood by and watched, first with fear and loathing, and then opportunistically and strategically as innocent Syrians were savaged by all sides in a war of all against all. For want of will and resources, and party to the proxy wars that are still being playing out between neighboring states and heat powers. Whilst the territorial Caliphate is no more, thousands of of the murderers and desecrators have melted into the Syrian and Iraqi deserts to carry on their atavistic struggle.

What is happened in Palmyra is no worse than what has happened in many Syrian and Iraqi towns and villages during the last nine years.

We now confront the fact that whilst the recent destruction of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral encouraged a deluge of plutocratic philanthropy, the great and good of the western world, having expressed horror and outage at Islamic State’s destructive iconoclasm, are not demonstrating such open-pocketness when it comes to the reconstruction of Syria’s ancient and priceless archaeological heritage. The reason, it is said, is because the Assad government, victorious in its vicious and bloody reconquest of the country, is subject to international economic sanctions. Neither aid for the destitute and displaced nor the reconstruction of ancient monuments is forthcoming on the scale theses crises require.

Expensive, inspirational 3D representations of Palmyra’s lost monuments in London, Paris and New York are no substitute for for actually funding the reconstruction of the real thing.

We republish here a timely feature from the Sydney Morning Herald addressing this melancholy irony. It recalls many of the places we visited when we were last in Palmyra. We drove in from Damascus on a long desert highway that even in peacetime, had mukhabarat checkpoints and also boasted The Baghdad Cafe where we took refreshment, and departed a few days later on the Homs road. The feature photograph was taken from the breakfast room of our  hotel in Tadmor – which the author says is now destroyed. The picture below was taken from Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle above Palmyra. It was a magnificent vantage point for a panoramic view of the ancient city, and also for watching the most spectacular sunsets over the Syrian desert. It is now a military outpost.

In ages far beyond our ken,
These stones weren’t set by mortal men.
In friendly fields and foreign lands.
They say these walls were by giants’hands were raised.
But few, few remember when.
With mortar mixed with blood and soil
And leavened thence with sweat and toil.
The masons and the muscle
All are bones, bones, dry bones,
And nothing else remains.
Their histories are carved in stone.
Their mysteries are locked in stone.
And so the monuments decay
As lonely sands stretch far away,
And hide the stones.
Paul Hemphill, Ruins and Bones

The article follows our small photo gallery.

Read also, in In That Howling InfiniteRuins and Bones, a tribute to al Asaad, and to Palmyra, and all, The Rubble Of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier, published in The Atlantic, 5th September, 2014.

And more on Syria in In That Howling Infinite:

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Palmyra – will she rise again?

Chris Ray, Sydney Morning Herald,

All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.  Damascus museum archaeologist Houmam Saad 

Islamic State barbarians almost destroyed this World Heritage-listed site. Its wonders can be saved – so why is there such little international will to do so?

“Your heart will break when you see Palmyra,” says Tarek al-Asaad, looking out the window pensively as we cross the wide Syrian steppe on the road towards the ancient city. For Tarek, Palmyra represents a deep reservoir of sorrow that includes the public execution of his father Khaled, a renowned archaeologist and historian. Khaled had been instrumental in achieving Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1980. The world stood by, horrified, while the fanatics of Islamic State, also known as IS, took to its majestic monuments with explosives and sledgehammers 35 years later.

We stop at a roadside store, where a young boy with old eyes is gathering aluminium cans to sell for scrap. Inside, soldiers of the Syrian Army guzzle sugary vodka drinks and beer. It’s May and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when Tarek eats and drinks nothing from dawn to dusk, but the young conscripts are on leave and in a mood to celebrate. Tarek buys supplies for his first night in Palmyra since he fled the city in 2015 for the relative safety of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and the same view two years later.
Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and in 2016. Getty Images 

Tarek’s father, Khaled al-Asaad, was 83 when he was beheaded by IS. He had devoted more than 50 years to uncovering, restoring and publicising the remnants of this historic Silk Road hub that reached its peak in the third century. Tarek, one of his 11 children, grew up in the modern town of Tadmur next to the site. “Every day I would rush out of school to ride in the wheel-barrows and buckets that carried the soil from the diggings,” he remembers. Khaled retired as Palmyra’s head of antiquities in 2003 but stayed on as an expert much in demand. Fluent in ancient Palmyrene, a dialect of Aramaic, he translated inscriptions, wrote books and advised foreign archaeological missions. Meanwhile, Tarek, now 38, a nuggety, full-faced man with a ready smile, ran a successful tourism business.

We’re travelling towards Palmyra from the western city of Homs, through undulating pasture sprinkled with crimson poppies. Bedouin herders, austere and watchful, graze flocks of long-haired goats and fat-tailed sheep. Soldiers hitch rides on passing trucks through concrete-block settlements edged with green rectangles of wheat and barley. Roadside military checkpoints mount extravagant displays of patriotism: the double-starred national flag is painted on concrete barriers, oil drums and blockhouse walls while banners depict Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad looking resolute behind aviator sunglasses, or waving to crowds. Sentries who inspect identity papers are relaxed and happy to banter. “I hope the fasting is going okay for you?” asks a driver. “We’re not fasting, we’re kuffar [non-believers],” jokes a guard,  alluding to the jihadist insult thrown at adversaries.

Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale green tussock. Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed earth crowned with barbed wire. Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint is heavily guarded and businesslike.

A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops were reportedly killed this month. While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks. This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009, drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert oasis. Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war. As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?

Palmyra’s Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain. It is the city’s still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale gold to burnt orange in the setting sun. We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look. At the Grand Colonnade’s eastern end, the great temple of the Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins – though its portico somehow survived IS’s explosives – and the ornately carved triumphal arch is a pile of massive blocks. The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the city’s crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination of Roman and indigenous building styles. The theatre’s finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.

On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art and architecture. That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target for modern-day fundamentalists. Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything they found. Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating opponents.

An Islamic State-released photo showing the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple.
Islamic State-photo of the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple. AAP

IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and between December 2016 and March 2017. During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to leave. “I phoned my father and begged him, ‘Please leave; Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,’ Tarek says. “He answered, ‘I’m glad you got away, but this is my home and I’m not leaving.’”

After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures that Tarek says never existed. After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword in front of an assembled crowd. “He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs out from under him,” Tarek says. An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet. A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as “director of idolatry” at Palmyra and represented Assad’s government at “infidel” conferences abroad.

Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported more than 50,000 people in Tadmur. Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters. Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat in Damascus, where he manages a cafe. Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery, with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant. Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed, a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government soldier. “Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,” he says. “We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families will return.”

UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art – particularly its expressive funerary sculpture – as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman, Persian and even Indian influences. As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyra’s two-storey museum. With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad as museum director. They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm. They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind. UNESCO has praised Syria’s wartime evacuation of more than 300,000 exhibits from the country’s 34 museums as “an extraordinary feat”.

We walk to Palmyra’s museum. Khaled’s former workplace is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown out and the foyer roof holed by a missile. Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare save for a few statues and bas-reliefs. They are minus heads, faces and hands – desecrated by IS cadres enraged by “idolatrous” objects, Tarek says, adding: “They even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over them with a bulldozer.”

I find only one intact exhibit – a portrait of Khaled (pictured) by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed had been lost. Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic. Tarek doesn’t know how it survived or who put it in the museum. “Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have destroyed it for sure,” he says.

Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish.
Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish. Alex Ray 

No fewer than 15 employees of Syria’s museum network have suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaled’s murder made world headlines. The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils. Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian themes. In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers on a “hope-raising mission” led by a Sydney Anglican priest, “Fighting Father” Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing to help at-risk youths. Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city.

“The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,” he told me in Sydney. “Most were very poor and had never known anything but war, so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out street. Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew a curious crowd.”

Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope of painting Khaled’s portrait somewhere in the country. He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra. They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate – prematurely, as it turned out – Palmyra’s liberation. The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.

Cornish chose the door of the theatre’s electrical room to paint the man he calls “a hero who sacrificed his life for what he loved”. A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact him. “Luke’s painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind gift to our family. We think of him as our friend and brother,” Tarek says.

But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed his painting was lost, too. “I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, but having it blown up by IS is something else,” he says.

A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum.
A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum. Getty Images

Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the threatened properties. In Syria’s case, UN support has been limited to the restoration of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff. A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard the portico of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has failed to attract support from potential donors. At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyra’s damaged exhibits. It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget. “We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs to the world, not just to Syria,” says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra museum director. He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service can’t afford to employ workers and buy machinery. Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist Houmam Saad: “All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.”

More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up to promote Syria’s imperilled heritage. They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern. One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyra’s triumphal arch in London’s Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C. Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history: “Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking historical structures does little more than salve the consciences of outsiders whose nations have encouraged – even funded and armed, then walked away from – the conflagration that grew to overwhelm Syria.”

Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged in its present boundaries only in 1945. Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote national identity and social cohesion. In 2018, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged this heritage as “a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue”. She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syria’s historic sites “when conditions allow”. That could mean a long wait.

The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid until a “genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated by the parties” is achieved. The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what it called the “deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the Syrian regime of violence against its people”. A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and called for “intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality”.

Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send $28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Children’s Villages International last year. Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems, so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank account. However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says, adding: “I made the mistake of using the word ‘Syria’ on the transfer description.” The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the restrictions have “contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people” by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps. Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy reported in 2018.

What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syria’s endangered antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppo’s Great Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016. The mosque’s 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years until it collapsed during fighting in 2013. Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked by a towering crane. Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers. They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosque’s vast courtyard. Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility: “We all understand we are doing something very important for the soul of our city and our country.”

Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad, the President’s wife – so the project has considerable clout. Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable as Palmyra’s. The minaret’s 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from many angles so that photogrammetry – the science of making three-dimensional measurements from images – can help to determine where every stone fits. Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original: “An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but the public must not,” engineer Tamim Kasmo says. However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry outside government control, in Idlib province. As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted, Idlib harbours “the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world right now”.

The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East.
The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East. Alex Ray

 Palmya’s giant stones are as white as old bones when we leave the site one evening at dusk. Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly begun by the prophet Muhammad. Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol he’s been carrying in his belt. He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries the weapon because local roads can be dangerous. All the town’s hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.

At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains. A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of the Temple of Bel complex. From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates, with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.

At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered with mud. “I was here all winter, but at least it didn’t snow,” he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior. I ask about the night’s gunfire. “It was only the army practising,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a medieval citadel on its summit. A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.

Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds Palmyra’s oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years. The source of the city’s historic wealth, it has watered settlements here since Neolithic times. The spring’s revival has come too late for Tarek’s family orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died. But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder of the world.

Rojava and the Kurdish conundrum

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)”  Donald Trump 7th October 2019

The history of the Kurdish people has long been one of abandonment and betrayal. Recent events (October 2019)  bring to mind American baseball great Yogi Berra’s famous line: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.

In line the promise to his base to pull American troops out of costly and interminable wars, President Donald Trump has decided to act on his earlier commitment to withdraw the US’ meagre but deterring force in north-eastern Syria, and hand Syrian lands controlled by the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to Turkey, the Kurds’ long-time, inveterate enemy.

Already straining at the leash, President and would-be Sultan Recep Tayyib Erdoğan has his troops ready to go. With apparently declining political fortunes, he needs to shore up his nationalist credentials at home, and also eyes this part of Syria as a dumping ground for some two million Syrian refugees that Turkey no longer wishes to look after. Trump has warned Turkey that should it behave badly, like use disproportionate force or indulge in a bit of ethnic cleansing, the US will “destroy and obliterate” its economy.

So far, so … predictable, really. It replays the standard trope of the current US administration: the US is great because it crushes all before it.

Many are questioning POTUS’ “great and unmatched wisdom”. The US’ European allies and the Democratic Part are aghast at Trump’s move. The Pentagon warns that a Turkish invasion – for this is what it is – will further destabilize the region. And many of Trump’s staunchest Republican allies have broken their hitherto closed ranks with their Dear Leader and declared that a US withdrawal would be “catastrophic” – no mincing word here! – not only because it betrays their allies, sending an unfortunate signal to the US’ other friends and dependents, but also that it would be a steroid boost for the scattered, defeated, but not quite demoralized, still active and dangerous cadres of the Islamic State.

This is no rhetorical exaggeration. The SDF bore the brunt of the fight against ISIS in this theatre, and lost thousands of its its soldiers men and women both. Presently, they are guarding rend of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their wives and children, and continue to combat instances of Islamist resurgence.

Should push come to shove – a likely prospect – Kurdish forces, whilst well-armed, experienced and motivated, are no match for the Turkish Army. Which leaves Syria’s Kurds with few practical options, none of them pleasant. One is to abandon the indefensible plains and withdrawing their traditional mountain heartlands – essentially, back to square one, but living to fight another day. Another is to do a deal with Assad’s regime. That would be a pact with the devil. Assad, backed by his Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah allies and auxiliaries, are bent on reuniting the shattered country and restoring Syrian, Arab dominion.

Things might not go all Turkey’s way, however. As Borzu Deragahi writes in The Independent, “… the risks for Turkey are  many. From the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to the Iranian role in Iraq, to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s backing for a warlord in Libya, the region is dotted with open-ended and expensive entanglements that end up backfiring”. . And the last time a country was given a green light to invade its neighbour did not end well – as Saddam Hussein discovered in Kuwait in 1991. It was, indeed the start of all our present nightmares. 

As the following article explains, Syria’s Kurds are are trapped between the Turkish hammer and the Syrian anvil. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Rojava and the Kurdish conundrum

Media coverage of the Syrian Kurds is largely a romantic narrative of brave and plucky soldiers -particularly photogenic female fighters and a selfless cadre of idealistic foreign fighters – in an egalitarian para-socialist, anarchist-lite reimagining of the Paris Commune overcoming poor odds against a resilient and vicious barbarian foe, threatened by traditional enemies to their rear, and about to be betrayed by their fair-weather allies. Some on the left cleave to a narrative that conforms with pro-Assad, Russa-aligned reportage that views any opposition to the legitimate Syrian government and its popularly elected President Bashar al Assad as either criminal or deluded, and a cat’s paw of western interests.

With US policy with regard to its erstwhile Kurdish ally in constant flux – some would describe it as floundering – here is a brief discussion on what or may not happen next. As is often the case in Middle Eastern affairs, and particularly in sad, shattered Syria, it may well be redundant tomorrow. 

But first, how did we get here?

Past

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group spread across northern Syria, southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. At the end of World War 1, with the disintegration of the multinational Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, the Kurd’s representatives joined delegations from many other small nations demanding their own independent states. Unlike those in Eastern Europe, the Kurds were to be disappointed. Britain and France has already determined to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, and with Treaty of Sèvres of 1922, Kurds were subsumed into the new states of Syria and Iraq. Kemal Ataturk, having ejected Greek and other forces from Anatolia and established a unitary Turkish state, had no intention of allowing the Kurds in the east their own patrimony. And neither did the Persians (the country did not adopt the name Iran until 1935). 

For almost a hundred years, the governments of Iraq and Syria, Turkey and Iran, for reasons  strategic, economic, political and nationalistic, resisted the demands of their Kurdish citizens for autonomy let alone nationhood, and indeed actively discriminated against them. Dissent and rebellion were suppressed, often brutally, well into the 21st Century. 

The Turkish and Iraqi armies have waged war are against their restive Kurdish populations for decades. After the second Guif War (the Kuwait one),Iraq Kurds were able to establish an autonomous statelet aided by a US underwritten no-fly zone. The Kurdish PeshMerga forces sustained the bitter fight against a seemingly unstoppable Da’ish after Iraqi forces had fled the field and extended military and administrative control beyond their own territory. Syria’s Kurds were able to exploit the chaos of the civil war to establish autonomous cantons in the north-west aground the city of Afrin, and in the Syria-Turkey borderlands in the northeast, now known as Rojava. Having borne the brunt of the fight against Da’ish, armed by the US and aided by allied air power and special forces, they earned the ire and suspicion of Turkish prime minister and now president Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who for his own political purposes, had broken a longstanding truce with Turkish Kurds, branding them as terrorists, he maintained, in cahoots with their equally terrorist Syrian confrères. 

Taking advantage of the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with al Qaeda-aligned opposition forces in the northwest and a US policy vacuum with respect to Syria, and with the tacit approval of Syria‘s Russian ally, Turkish forces occupied Afrin and its surroundings. The US reliance on the Kurdish militias who bore the brunt of the fight against Da’ish in northeastern Syria, and the presence of a small US force have deterred Erdogan from moving against Rojava. Until recently, that is, when US President Donald Trump declared that the US would soon withdraw its 2,000 ground troops from Rojava, leaving the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attack. Erdogan assured him that his forces would not move against Rojava … yet. The outcry among America’s allies was immediate. How could the US treat its allies so? What message would this send to potential allies in the future? The US would be handing Syria to Russia and Iran. Da’ish was not dead yet and would be reinvigorated by a US retreat and a conflict between Kurds and Turks. Backtracking somewhat, Trump has now threatened Turkey with economic destruction should it attack the Kurds. 

This then is the current state of play. 

Present

The Kurds are caught between a Turkish rock and a Syrian hard place, they can fight (they’ve a large, experienced, well trained and well-armed army, an esprit de Corp that few others possess) or they can deal – with Assad, that is, because Erdogan won’t play – for a degree of autonomy within the Syrian fold. The US might offer a no-fly zone which will interdict warplanes and choppers, strafing and barrel bombs, but wouldn’t stop tanks and infantry from manoeuvring with impunity. Kurdish forces would probably hold those off, and meanwhile others might be tempted into the fray. The resulting ground war could see neighbouring armies, Russian mercenaries and western special forces bogged down like the Americans were in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan. 

In their presently autonomous ‘commune’ of Rojava in north eastern Syria, the Kurds are not in the strongest strategical or geopolitical position. It has a sizeable Arab population in, and Turcoman also, and many are not too happy to be governed by Kurds. Divisions are ethic, racial, and tribal as much as political, and there are reports that Kurdish soldiers and administrators have been a tad heavy handed. Arabs and others will no doubt be pining for Assad’s comradely embrace before long. The Kurds themselves are divided amongst themselves, often between families and clan, and rival militias, and have been for generations. In Iraq, for example, two extended families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, have dominated Kurdish politics and have fought  each other since Iraq was created in 1922, often siding with the Iraqi government against their rivals. The provincial capital of Kirkuk in northern Iraq was occupied by Barzani-controlled forces during the successful offensive against Da’ish, but was recently taken by Iraqi forces with the help of pro-Talabani Kurdish soldiery.

Rojava, furthermore, is landlocked, and strategically placed between Turkey, Iraq and western Syria, and there are oil reserves and agricultural land that Syria would want back. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey all loathe the idea of an independent Kurdistan and indeed, could work together to enforce a blockade and ferment discord within.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is backing Assad’s campaign to reconquer all of Syria, and that includes Afrin, now Turkish occupied, and Rojava, which is currently being watched over by the US, and eyed-up by Erdogan. But Assad’s forces are currently preoccupied with retaking Idlib province from al Qaida and other Islamist groups and eliminating Da’ish hold-outs near Hama and in the south, so right now, they are not ready or able to move on either Afrin or Rojava. 

The Turks are quite aware that the Russians are reporting to Putin and also to Assad, and have been kind of warned off by the US, so they might be cautious. The Russians are in effect a tripwire. If the Turks occupy Syrian land, Assad will have to move against them – as will his Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah allies. He is probably already contemplating a move on Afrin, and if the Turks threaten to to occupy Rojava, he will have to move against them there too. And he has a brigade of battle-hardened troops just south east of there at Dier ez Zor. 

When push comes to shove, Turkey has a well-equipped NATO army, but it has limited battle-experience – fighting a historical Kurdish insurgency doesn’t count, and it’s officer corp has been decimated and demoralized in the wake of the failed “coup”. Assad can field a depleted but experienced, Russian-supplied army backed by Hizbollah and Iranian fighters. The Russians know this, the Americans know this, and one would assume that Erdogan knows this – unless he is totally blindsided by his sultanate ambitions.

Future

Academically, this Is all very interesting – but to the Kurds in Rojava, quite scary. They are the small guys and the fall guys in this geopolitical game. They fight hard and well and they fight to win what they can, but they also want to live to fight another day. They are used to betrayal and are probably inured to it. It has been their lot since World War 1 when they turned up at the peace conferences asking for a country of their own just like those other small nations who came into being in Eastern Europe.  

So they will deal with Assad – to save their skins, to save their towns, their homes and their families. They will endeavour to hold out against any Turkish offensive, buying time and perhaps, buying some for Assad too whilst he rolls up the rebels in the west and south. And whilst they hold on, they will bargain for a degree of autonomy, amnesty, and aid. 

This is where Russia can call the shots. There is in reality no good way forward for the Kurds, but there is a possibility that the worst can yet be avoided if Russia, keen to maintain it’s influence in a post-war Syria, can mediate an arrangement between Damascus and Ankara. 

Turkey’s bottom line is a border with Syria not under the control of the YPG/PKK, its erstwhile mortal enemy. Despite Erdogan’s jingoistic drum-beating, he probably does not want to occupy Syrian territory nor provoke confrontation with Assad and his allies. Assad wants a Syria free of Turkish (and, indeed NATO) troops and a return of his mandate and mukhabarat to all parts of the country, including the Kurdish north. He can live with the YPG, but only in its “proper” place: as a vassal, defanged, compliant, and a useful ally against Ankara.

Can and will the Kurds trust Assad? Never! After seventy years as second-class citizens in Syria, who would? One can but hope that the analogy of the Paris Commune is just that – an analogy only. That quixotic intifada ended tragically for the communards

Will all this come to pass? Who knows. The situation, the players, the circumstances change moment by moment. A few days ago, The Independent’s knowledgeable Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote: “The only solution in northeast Syria is for the US to withdraw militarily under an agreement whereby Turkey does not invade Syria, in return for the Syrian government backed by Russia absorbing the Kurdish quasi-state so hated by the Turks and giving it some degree of internationally guaranteed autonomy. Any other option is likely to provoke a Turkish invasion and two million Kurds in flight – a very few of whom will one day end up on the pebble beaches of Dungeness”.  As I was saying …

See also in In The Howling Infinite A Middle East Miscellany and East 

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