Category Archives: Syria

Visiting the birthplace of Syria’s much loved philosopher poet.

Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a  local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:

I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.

Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.

Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.

In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.

From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.

If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.

The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”

Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home



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Filed under Books, journalist, Kurds, literature, Observer newspaper, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized

Blackwells Book shop presents some good talks.

Blackwells in Oxford are offering some interesting talks on various subjects – and which are all free!

I went to one last week about travel writing or, to be precise, how to be a travel writer .  The speaker was promoting his book which was a howto on that very subject: how to write about travel and, possibly, make some money while you’re at it.  All good practical stuff  on how to write a travel blog, how to write a newspaper travel feature, how to write a travel book. It was inevitable that, having written a book about women travellers and explorers ( The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt) I should be disappointed though not surprised to find female travel writers, including Ireland’s own, Dervla Murphy, were rarely mentioned in the discourse and this in Oxford, Gertrude Bell’s own university town. Sara Wheeler appeared briefly in a photo shown at the beginning of the talk  but  that was it.  What we did hear were the entertaining anecdotes and quotes about Redmond O Hanlon, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Rory MacClean and many more – all of them excellent travel writers.

But where oh where were the dictinctive  female voices of travel writers like Ella Maillart, Alexandra David Neel, Christina Dodwell, Ann Davison, Mary Kingsley,  Hester Stanhope and the sublime Jane Digby.

When my book Blessings  of a Good Thick Skirt was published in 1986, it filled a gap for there was hardly anything then published neither about women travellers and explorers nor by them.  Now, 33 years on, the ratio of male to female  travel writers is pretty much the same as it was then.

Perhaps this is a sign of changing times with fewer women setting off on a quest in their mid years. If this is so then that is as it is. Meanwhile, we can feast on a treasure trove of travel writing  from those who have gone before and who are still travelling, giving us travel writing which will energise and inspire. Pick up that book and get going.


The Travel Writer’s Way by  Jonathan Lorie is published  by Bradt.




Filed under Books, daydreaming, journalist, Life, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized, walking

Young Syrian has refreshing viewpoint

Seventeen year old Nujeen  Mustafa, a Kurdish Syrian asylum seeker. is a tough nut. With the help of her sisters, she fled Syria last yeat, negotiating the  3.500 mile sea and overland journey in her wheelchair.

Interviewed in the Guardian recently she offered a refreshing view on the Harry Potter book: “Harry Potter is such a lifeless book, there’s too little emotion and too much display of power… it makes every boy in the world think they are the chosen  one.”

Clearly,  the hype failed to reach  Manjib, a town in northern Syria.

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My interview with Saddam Hussein’s ambassador

Near Abu Nawas Street, there are some interesting new buildings – a staggered landscape of concrete with curves, arches and perpendiculars in grey stone. Close to is a lovely old Ottoman house with broad steps leading up to a fret-worked balcony and double-doors.

Inside, I meet Dr A K al Hashimi who is small, rotund and slightly bald, the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. Educated in the US, his conversation is peppered with deliciously irreverent references to “Bush the Father, Bush the Son”, so that we both know exactly where we stand.

Previously, he was ambassador to France, a glittering diplomatic post that indicated his high standing with the Great Leader.

His office is expansive, his polished desk huge, the small shrug accompanying his smile, gracious. I dress him in a peacock-blue gown, place him on a divan covered with crimson silk and surround him with dancing girls. Then I pull myself together and accept the tiny cup of black coffee he slides towards me across the shining surface of his desk. I am here, after all, to hear about the sanctions.

“My dear Mary, ” he says, “ I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions. So, ” and he sips delicately from his own minute coffee cup, “ what we have here are the Uniteds – States, Nations and Kingdom – who are carefully and ruthlessly manipulating one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world. They are doing this in the name,” and he pauses, “of democracy.”

The word hangs in the air between us, swings to and fro. Defies definition.

“What about the invasion of Kuwait?” I begin but he waves my interruption aside dismissively.

“This has nothing to do with Kuwait.”

He smiles, refills my coffee cup, drinks himself before starting to recite facts and figures to support his claim.

“They control our oil output and, in that way, delay production.”

I rack my brains for figures related to this: the US, I know, uses 21million barrels of oil a day and half of that has to be imported. Fuel security is therefore a big issue for America, as it is for all of us.

But Hashimi has the bit between his teeth and demands my attention: “Listen, the UN – and remember, Iraq was a founding member of the UN in 1945 – the UN Resolution 661 allocates us 41bn US$ for health over 10 years but only 46% actually reaches us which amounts to 150m dinar per year and divide that by twelve, share it out among 24 million Iraqis and it’s less than 50c per person per month.” He shrugs. “Then we have the dual use restrictions. We can’t have this and we can’t have that because it might be used to make a bomb. A bomb? What bomb? Take, for instance, a pump. A pump is categorised as dual purpose so we can’t get any replacement parts for our failing electricity system. But electricity is health. So, our sanitation schemes suffer, we get polluted sewage, our children get dysentery and they die. ” He shakes his head and looks hard at me, determined I get his message: “It all results in a degree of deprivation that did not exist before.”

While he takes another sip of coffee I try to work out the rush of figures. Do they add up to what he says? I’ll have to check later because he’s returned to the dual use issue: “My dear lady, dual use? What is not dual use? Look at your pen. It can be used to write a feature for your newspaper or a love letter. Or it can be used to write an equation for a nuclear weapon,” and he smiles but with his mouth only.

“You know, we used to be the most important country in the region,” he continues, “not like some corner of Africa or South America and we always had good business partners. But they are turning away now. The international community wants to make us one big refugee camp run by the UN. So, everyone is getting nervous because we are becoming more aggressive. Especially the Americans so they say things about us – that we are a military dictatorship. Are we? Can you see riot police on our streets? Or check points everywhere? Are there armoured personnel carriers in Baghdad? Have you seen any? Are people being killed on the streets?”

I shake my head. It’s true. I haven’t actually seen any of these things.

“They have ruined our economy. Before, 3000 dinar would buy you a big car. Now, as you know, all you get is a bunch of false flowers. Do they think Sadaam Hussein is a one-man show? Of course he’s not. He has support, people behind him. He’s leading a whole economic and educational system. No, capitalism thrives on crises not on stability and that’s what it’s all about.”

Suddenly, like a machine that has run out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons.Weapons of mass destruction. What can Iraq do to show that it doesn’t, that it is not a threat?”

Extract from my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria

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Fallujah, Chilcot and the right to silent protest.

Fallujah. First time round.2004

When Fallujah was attacked and bombed by US forces in 2004, I later joined a friend in standing outside the House of Commons on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Between us, we held a sheet on which was written in red paint the number of civilians killed during this first battle of Fallujah.

The number was something in the region of 600 people, all Iraqi, all civilians.

Our presence on the pavement was a silent witness to these deaths. No leaflets were handed out and I made no attempt to engage people in a discussion.

Nevertheless, at the end of the afternoon, I was charged under the newly passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.

This law was one of the more repressive Acts introduced during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister which sought to curb the individual’s right to protest.

You have to wonder what it was Blair feared that he had to go to such ridiculous measures to stop people speaking their minds.

Perhaps we’ll find the answer in the Chilcot Inquiry.

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Did you hear Simon Schama on BBC Radio 4 talking about the Temple of Bel? Here’s what I saw

The Temple of Bel is an electrifying 200 metre square rectangle of towering pillars, altars and divine mystery. At its centre is the sublime Propylaea, the huge vestibule fronting the inner sanctum with a majestic stairway, 35 metres wide, leading up to its eight-pillared entrance. To the left of the Propylaea is the altar on which the animals were slaughtered and to the right the pool where the priests washed the blood from their hands and cleansed their death-dealing axes.
Though much of the Temple is in ruins – it is, after all, over two thousand years old – it is still possible to sense the noise and feel the thronging presence of the huge crowd of people gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the sacrifice and of the priests in their ceremonial robes and head coverings going about their sacred tasks. With blood regarded as the essence of life, the practice of sacrificing animals, camels, bulls and rams – though rarely pigs – was an important activity since, during the ritual, the priests spilled the animals’ blood on the altar thereby returning it to the gods to whom all life belonged.
Naturally, brought up in a religious culture which daily re-enacts the death, 2000 years ago, of a political activist in Roman Jerusalem whose followers believe they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the sacrificed man, I was intrigued to see what the people in this Roman outpost got up to at the same time.
As I make my way to the Temple entrance I notice, in the main outer wall, just by the little wooden ticket hut, a tunnel which disappears under the wall and reappears on the inside. Through this tunnel were driven the sacrificial animals already washed and decked out in coloured ribbons in preparation for the killing ceremony. If the animal to be sacrificed was a bull, his horns were painted gold. Once through the tunnel, he was then driven up a ramp to the waiting priests.
But for the ceremony to be performed in an official manner, more was required than ribbons and gilded horns. Care had to be taken that the animal displayed no fear as it was led to the slaughter. If it did, then the sacrifice was considered to be polluted and had to be repeated with a different animal. To avoid this, someone had the job of bending the beast’s head downwards in a visible display of humble acceptance of its fate. If this proved to be a problem, the beasts were first stunned with a blow from a heavy stick.
Once the animals were killed, they were cut open and their entrails examined. If no abnormalities were found, the sacrifice was deemed to have been accepted by the gods. Occasionally, the priests were given the liver of the animal to “read” for portents of good or evil. At that point, the carcass was cut up and the heart and lungs set aside as offerings to the gods while the rest was given to the people to be consumed later at a festival banquet. The heart and lungs were then carried up the wide steps to the Propylaea and into the inner sanctum where, to the right, there is still a stairs leading to the roof where the actual offering to Bel was made.
I sit on a warm stone to gather my thoughts and make a few notes and within minutes, one of the ticket men approaches to stand watching me as I write. His artless curiosity is at first disconcerting and then annoying.
“I can’t write while you stand there,” I whinge.
“I’m sorry,” he says immediately and moves away leaving me to feel, as always, regretful for my surly attitude.
I return to my notes and, book in hand, mount the steps that lead into the inner sanctum where, in recognition of the fact that Palmyra was both a major trading city and a powerful military outpost of the Roman Empire, its walls – those that are still standing – reach 18 metres high. (The average height of room in a house these days is about 2.5 metres.)
The inner sanctum is a wide hall with what looks like a large ingle nook fireplace at each end but which turn out to be altars to other, lesser deities. Though Bel was the leader of the pack, the Palmyrenes had a few local gods as well: Yarhibol, god of the sun and Aglibol, god of the moon. There were caravan deities too: Samas was one, his symbol a camel.
Going up to the south altar is a set of shallow steps which lead to a niche where a small statue of Bel was usually displayed. During ritual processions, it was taken from here and paraded round the Temple.

The ceiling of this altar alcove puzzles me. The guide book speaks of a burst of acanthus and lotus leaves, of a zodiac circle with Jupiter/ Bel in the guise of an eagle in a starlit sky presiding over the celestial movement of the planets and thus regulating the destiny of humans. But the ceiling is black with age and smoke for, as often happened in Syria, local people moved into these sacred places and made them their own. In his book “Palmyra”, Iain Browning has an aerial photo of the Temple showing it crammed with flat-roofed, mud-brick houses packed tight as commuters on a Tokyo train and crowding right up against the inner sanctum. This happened because people intermittently made their homes here until, in 1929, the French occupying powers developed the neglected town of Tadmor half a mile away so that the Temple area coucld be cleared of the raggel taggle bunch of local Arabs.

As the Roman Empire declined, so too did Palmyra’s importance until, in 634 CE, it was taken by the Muslim army whose leaders overlaid a mosque upon the existing stones, steps and pillars. Allah is said to be the god of all gods but the attempt to superimpose one religious building on another was in vain for Islam was dwarfed by the Temple of Bel who still reigns supreme in his awesome building while all that remains of Islam is a mihrab and a Sufic inscription dating back to 728 CE.

I rest for a while on a fluted fragment of a fallen pillar, ornate with carved grapes and twisting vine, and shield my eyes which are blinded not only by the brightness of the mid-winter sun but also by the grandeur of the Temple. The silence, thick as heat, is broken by a sudden flap of pigeons’ wings and a small, white feather drifts down onto my notebook. By my foot is a rusty soft drink can and beside it a piece of wire snaking upwards from the sand. I follow the wire with my eyes but it ends a few feet away with no apparent reason for its existence.

The driving heat of the sun nails the day to the buff-coloured earth and the encroaching desert smothers the ghosts of the people who once came here to worship their gods. Solitude lies like a shroud across the sand.
A flock of pigeons wheels across the sky before settling on top of the temple wall. Halfway up the wall, a homely tuft of grass grows out of a niche. Higher up, much higher up, a series of large romanesque windows, empty and blind, frame a neat section of blue sky across which, Chirico-like, a puff of white cloud floats.
Much of the temple is built of huge squares of granite brought from Egypt though the pillars that loom over me are made of local grey sandstone. I get a sudden flash of a Holywood film I once saw in which the blind Samson – played by Victor Mature – pushing against the huge pillars of the Temple, brings it crashing around him. The Palmyran pillars, as enduring as as the Great Wall of China, have stood here for two thousand years but what if they suddenly toppled down upon me? This could be the year they fall, disturbed by a distant earthquake, a shifting of the sands. By a movement of the gods. Nervously, I stand up. After all, who could have foreseen the toppling of the Berlin Wall?


If you liked this, please read more extracts from my book about travelling round Syria:

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Here’s what a desert sandstorm is like…in Syria.


From somewhere outside Madam Olga’s little hotel comes a disembodied click: the microphone is on and the muezzin starts his familiar evening call to prayer.

When I eventually descend the stairs to the street, I am disoriented. There are no familiar landmarks. The sign advertising the hotel has disappeared, the corner is no longer a corner: one of its sides has gone. I pause to get my bearings. A red fog hangs over everything, veiling the city. Car headlamps emerge and recede like huge, disembodied eyes. Footsteps are muffled and voices quietened. I turn right and then think I should have turned left. I walk to the end of the street into a major thoroughfare and find it frighteningly silent, empty of people.

This may be a city of high fashion and smart restaurants, of prosperous businessmen and well-heeled women, a city with an impeccable history of high culture but it is also an Arab city whose souks are thronged with women in long gowns, some veiled, the crowds jostling to share the narrow space with overladen donkeys, with village women carrying their shopping on their heads, with men in keffiyehs and fierce moustaches pushing market trolleys piled high with tomatoes, potatoes, courgettes, spinach. It is a city proud of its cosmopolitan connections with Paris and Rome and London but it is also only a breath away from a biblical place of black goat-skin tents, a desert of sand and stones and stunted trees where people squat by the roadside waiting for time to pass. A place where a sandstorm can blow in without warning, changing the landscape of the city, covering it with a film of fine red dust like a memory that can never be forgotten.

From my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.

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