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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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.




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Crossing the road

First fix is in the coffee shop.  Regular cappo. Newspaper headlines not too bad. England won the cricket. No cartoons of politicians’ various arses. So far so good. Then work calls so time for the first challenge:  getting back across the busy road again. No lights at the pedestrian crossing so we are dependent on good offices of car drivers. Some glide along carefree as a lark at dawn, ignoring waiting pedestrians. Despite the fact that lights at next crossing are red, six cars press on. Then one, seeing the red lights ahead, stops and waves me across to the mid-road island. Great. Better still, the bus as the second and final section also waves me across. I feel myself carried forward on a surge of drivers’ goodwill  and think if I were to rise up on my toes and flap the sleeves of my jacket I might even fly the rest of the way home.

Then again, that might just be the effects of the caffeine.


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It was an unusually sunny spring day and perfect for my plans: a two and a half hour train journey from Oxford across the border into Wales with the journey ending  in Cardiff,  a city I knew precious little about. Not that that mattered. My mission was simple:  to the find the statue of Wales’s most famous son. And everyone would know where that was, wouldn’t they? The Welsh are famous for being famous. After all, there’s Dylan Thomas, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church. There’s even the Prince of Wales himself.

There was no tourist office at the rail station so I asked at the first window: “ Could you tell me where I’ll find the statue of your most famous son, please.” When the  woman shook her head I moved on quickly. No point in adding to her embarrassment. The next ticket clerk shook her head apologetically. “ Don’t know about a statue but there’s a lot about him at the hospital.” And rightly since Nye Bevan was the founder of the National Health Service, Britain’s greatest humanitarian achievement ever made and all the  remarkable as it was introduced while Europe was still recovering from WW2.

As a champion of the poor and committed to nationalisation, Nye Bevan was disliked by the Conservative Party. During the war, he had pushed for support for the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany which is why Churchill called him “a squalid nuisance.”

The election following WW2 brought the Labour Party to power allowing Nye Bevan, on July 5  1948,  to introduce the National Health Service.

It’s a short walk from the rail station to Cardiff Castle – an architectural confection built by the Bute family from Scotland who made their money from Welsh coal – and there  I found a tour bus which took me round the city where we saw the new housing developments at the docks which consisted mainly of service companies now that there is no coal to export.

The tour guide had lots to say about the way in which the city had benefited from the Bute family. They donated various buildings and sums of money to Wales and in particular to the city of Cardiff, Not so much though about the way in which succeeding Bute family had prospered as coal magnates. Right now, in 2019, we are on the 7th Marques of Bute though the third one was the one most financially active,  making him one of the richest men  in Europe.

Strangely, although the Marques of Bute was mentioned three times, the guide never once referred to Nye Bevan and the institution that has made him famous.

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12 July, 2019 · 3:07 pm

Bayt Baytuk

Arab Hospitality: The art of giving and receiving

Where – P21 Gallery 21/27 Chalton St NW1 1JD

When – Saturday June 29 at 4 pm till 5 pm.Everyone welcome and especially to join in the discussion.

I’ll be  talking about the great hospitality I have enjoyed when travelling through some Arab countries including Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Western Sahara.

In some cultures, we have lost the art of receiving gracefully. In Souk Saruja, in Damascus, for intance, I bought a bag of olives  and being in a hurry, asked the stall holder to give them to me quickly.  However, noticng the oil was leaking from the bag,  he took it back from me and put  that bag inside another bag. Then he tied not one knot but two in the bag. The delay was almost unbearable.  Another delay.  But as he handed the olives to me he smiled and I realised how ungracious it was to be in such a rush to get what I wanted when he was going about his job in such a mannerly fashion.

In Palestine, I was invited to lunch during my lunch break. (I was a volunteer teacher in Hebron.)

Lunch went on quite a while  and each time I got up to go the hostesses begged me to stay and have some more, while I in turn begged to be allowed to leave and get back to my class. But without success.  Then, when I was becoming  anxious and slightly annoyed another teacher (from Hebron) stood up, shook his little coffee cup a few times and left. So that, I learned, was all you had to do.Simple – once you knew.

There are lots more of these small cultural behaviour clues so if you can please come along on Saturday to Gallery P21 and share them with us.


Mary Russell


Till then….







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A night to remember from July 2014!

Bopping by the Isis on a warm summer’s night.

Great evening at Oxford’s Isis Farmhouse music festival of Americana – well, that’s what the organisers called it. The Isis is a fine pub on the river Thames, lying on the towpath leading to Iffley Lock. The only way for punters to get to it is by walking along the towpath. I arrived late because  I couldn’t face drinking from 7pm till 11 pm. ( Can’t do that any more without falling over.) BTW,  the Thames is called the Isis where it flows through Oxford.There’s also the Cherwell and between the two rivers is Mesopotamia. No kidding.

Headlining last night were West Oxford’s very own Knights of Mentis who just get better and better.Their drummer was a TCD (Trinity College, Dublin) man – who told me two others in the band had been at Trinity too. Who’d have guessed it? I told him I was the spelling Csar of Twitter and I suspect he half believed me. I half believe it myself.

The whole band is great but I fly the flag especially for the keyboards player who does blues to die for. And within the year I vow to have had him and his partner perform blues in a pub near you. ( Don’t worry, Knights, only borrowing him. )

They are a great band to bop to and the exercise I got was far better than my bootcamp session earlier in the week.

Fell into conversation with another dancer who said he’d wanted to get up and dance but held back. Then he saw me dancing and decided to give it a go. I think the sub-conversation there was: if that woman can get up and make a show of herself then so can I. So he did…

All over at 11pm ( UK pub licensing hours) followed by a perfect  walk back along the towpath to Donnington Bridge and our taxi home.


If you enjoyed reading this post, maybe have a look at my website:

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Levellers Day, Burford. 2019

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May 17, 1649 in Burford, a small market town 20 miles from Oxford, a group of soldiers were gathered in the churchyard. They were soldiers in Cromwell’s New Model Army just back from Ireland where they had been waging war against the Royalists and Dissenters there, some of whom were Irish.

Among the people in Burford were Levellers, a group of soldiers who aspired to freedom of speech, civil liberties and  religious freedom. Among their grievances was the fact that they had mot been paid for their time in Ireland.

Fearful this unrest might spread, Cromwell ordered the Levellers, now imprisoned in Burford Church, should be decimated.  Traditionally, this meant one in ten persons would be executed though at Burford it was one in a hundred. Which is why  Corbet James Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private John Church were executed then and there.



It is to mark the death of these three men that Levellers Day is held each year. The address will be given this year by the President of the Bakers’ Union. Associated with Levellers Day has been Parliamentarian Tony Benn and his classmate playwrite Ian Rodger  whose plays have included The Peasants’ Revolt and Cromwell at Drogheda.

Others who continue to contribute to Levellers Day are members of the Peace Movement, of the Lab movement, local trades councils and the Workers Educational Association ( WEA).

Music on the day will be provided by the Oxford-based Sea Green Singers when everyone is encouraged to join in –  words and music provided, This part of the day will end with a rousing chorus of the  Internationale.



Events in Burford start Saturday circa 11:30. Trade Union banners very welcome.

“May God Defend the Right!”

To learn more about Cromwell and the birth of democracy in England, check out the Putney Debates.  To learn more about the Levellers, read Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down.


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