Tag Archives: Damascus

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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My review in The Irish Times: The Fall of the Ottomans

‘Tis all a chequer board of nights and days where Destiny with men for pieces plays.”

The words of the Persian poet and mathematician,Omar Khayyam, written nearly 1,000 years ago, could not be more apposite to Eugene Rogan’s detailed account and analysis of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

By the time the First World War started, the Ottoman Empire was in a parlous state. When the Sultan Abdulhamid II came to the throne in 1876 – of the two who had preceded him, one had cut his wrists while the other left office after three months – he was seen as a young reformer who introduced the idea of parliamentary democracy. However, when the first elected parliament refused to support his jihad against an increasing Russian threat, he cast democracy aside and took over the reins of government himself. Two years later, following unrest in the Balkans, the Treaty of Berlin relieved the Empire of two fifths of its Balkan territories and led to Cyprus being controlled by the British, Tunisia by the French and Egypt handed into the care of the British.

It was this chaos, augmented by the Sultan’s autocracy, that led to the 1908 Young Turk Revolution which, like many revolts, looked like a good thing at the time. But, five years on, after the Italian/Turkish war – when Italy sought to occupy the Libyan hinterland – the 1913 Treaty of London resulted in the Ottomans losing a further 60,000 acres of territory and four million inhabitants. This was devastating to a regime which, following the end of the Byzantine era, took on the role of “the greatest Islamic empire in the world” but which, by 1914, was now diminished beyond recognition.

Small wonder, therefore, that Ottoman victories such as that at Gallipoli smelled so sweet to a population whose morale was at an all-time low.

Eugene Rogan, an American of Scottish extraction, took a two-year sabbatical from his post as Director of Oxford University’s Middle East Centre to work on this book. His previous book, The Arabs, is a detailed study of a complex people and this latest publication is every bit as kalaidescopic, reminding us of “. . . the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman Empire, where Arabs, Kurds, Greeks and Armenians had as much claim to an Ottoman identity as the Turks did”.

In 1914, there were 100 million Muslims living under British imperial rule, with 20 million in the French Empire and a further 20 million in the Russian Empire, all of which meant that loyalty within the ranks of the colonised could never be taken for granted. The various jihads issuing from Istanbul were problematic to Muslims in distant lands when mobilisation was paramount. So, while the Ottomans, in their recruitment drive, instructed their village headmen to use “drums, joy and gladness”, their German allies set up a camp for Muslim PoWs in Berlin with the aim of encouraging the mainly North African prisoners to break from their former colonial masters and join the Ottoman army. Within the camp was built an ornate mosque funded by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.

Elsewhere, conscription was draconian, with people forced also to contribute cash and goods to the war effort. (In Damascus, a Singer sewing machine was accepted as currency.) The Ottoman Turks did not trust the Ottoman Arabs. Also not trusted, especially by the Young Turks, were the Ottoman Armenians, who, suspected of siding with Russia in the belief that they might fare better under a Christian empire than an Islamic one, were persecuted.

Here I have to acknowledge a particular interest as I once spent a few days pedalling along the Euphrates to Deir ez Zour, in Syria, and visited the church erected in memory of the thousands of Armenians who perished in the forced march along that same route. The church has now been desecrated and is in the hands of Isis.

Perhaps the best example of cultural/religious differences in this war of civilisations occurs in Rogan’s account of another major Ottoman victory: the siege of Kut. This prosperous town, situated on a bend of the river Tigris, lay 100 miles south of Baghdad, in present day Iraq. Occupied by the British, it was attacked relentlessly by the Ottomans in a siege that lasted four months.

By the end of January 1916, the British troops were living on half rations. Hindu soldiers refused to eat meat while their Muslim comrades refused to eat horse meat. “With fewer calories in their daily diet, Indian soldiers suffered the effects of exposure to the cold and damp, took ill, and died in greater numbers than the carnivorous British soldiers.”

A message from the besiegers proposed the British should surrender and while this was rejected, the British commander Charles Townsend, sent word to London that if he were not relieved by April 17th, he would be forced to surrender. In reply, Kitchener arranged an aerial drop of 2.500 pounds of food which amounted to little more than five ounces per head. Twelve days later, Townsend surrendered. The siege had lasted 146 days and cost the lives of 13,000 of his men including 6,988 Indian soldiers. The Ottomans declared the day of surrender, April 29, a day of national celebration.

Like a salesman displaying his fearful wares, Rogan sets out the intricate details of a war fought on so many fronts (the Ottomans had more than 7,500 miles of borders and coastlines to protect) and with the theatre of war roaming over Europe, Africa and Asia, events inevitably interconnected. In May 1916, seven Syrians were hanged for treason in Marjeh Square in Damascus while in Dublin, that same week, James Connolly, also found guilty of treason, was the last to face the firing squad, in Kilmainham Gaol.

But though Rogan documents the military successes of the Ottomans, the fact remains that, in 1920, they were in a worse position than they had been at the beginning of the war. By the terms of various treaties, Arab lands were to be partitioned, Armenians and Kurds were to be given their own territories, the Bosporous passed out of the control of the Ottomans and, as Rogan writes, “the Ottoman Empire was effectively reduced to those parts of central Anatolia that nobody else wanted”. And so it was left to Kemal Atatürk, the hero of Gallipoli, to pick up the pieces, fragments of which are still with us. As Rogan writes in his closing pages: “In the Middle East more than in any other part of the world, the legacies of the Great War continue to be felt down to the present day.”

Mary Russell’s most recent book is My Home is Your Home: A Journey Round Syria

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Love in a hot, hot climate

“He folded me in his arms and carried me across the room to the bed… I was still in my nightclothes.”

I’ll be talking about three women who fell in love with the romance of the desert.

Dublin’s Rathmines Library.  May 13 at 18:30  See you there?

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Love in the desert. Coming?

Midnight at the oasis? Sent your camel to bed?

I’m giving an illustrated talk about  three women who fell in love with the romance of the desert. (The fourth was nearly me).

Hint: Damascus figures big in this marvellous story of three women who found what they were looking for, more or less.

At Dublin’s Rathmines Library. Monday May 13. 18:30.

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Baghdad Diary

Extract from My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.
Recounting a night-time taxi drive across the desert from Baghdad to Damascus one month after the destruction of the Twin Towers and prior to the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
Later that night, skimming back to Damascus across the desert towards the Iraqi/Syrian border crossing, the midnight-blue sky is dotted not just with stars but with the lights of spy satellites moving steadily and quietly through the darkness. Their equipment allows them to monitor conversations taking place five kilometres below them, though I have no inclination to talk. The visit to Baghdad has sobered my thoughts. The stricken city makes me think of a beautiful butterfly pinned down by military hardware, the velvet of its brightly-coloured wings wilfully smeared across a fleeting second in its long history. The shape of Iraq may change, its borders will once again be redefined, sliced into, pared down. Men will be tortured, women raped. Its natural resources will become the spoils of war, to be plundered by self-regarding saviours operating under the guise of democracy – and with the avid participation of some Iraqis themselves. But the plain people of the country will remain steadfast to their ancient and precious history which others have so carelessly disregarded, cherishing, amidst the roar of aircraft and of explosions, their language, their land and their children’s heritage. It is they who will keep the spirit of Iraq alive, they and the writers and poets who give them voice.
Now that I am familiar with the routine, things move faster at the border crossing. A female customs guard takes me to a small cubicle devoid of furniture except for the broken iron frame of a chair. We smile sadly at each other. She is young and pretty and when she raises her hand to admire the necklace round my neck – an inexpensive bit of beading – I am slow to pick up the message and she, though impoverished by a system not of her making, is too well-mannered to spell it out. I still, to this day, regret that I didn’t undo the flimsy clasp, take it off and give it to her.

At 4am light is starting to seep across the sky as the taxi reaches Damascus and drops me close to al Ward Hotel. Marwan answers my knock on the door, rising sleepily from the mattress where he spends the night guarding the hotel entrance. I make my way up the stairs to the roof where I find a mattress to rest on. But though I’ve travelled all through the night, counting the pulsing satellites as they moved across the sky seeming to keep pace with the small taxi as it moved through the desert, sleep won’t come.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the glory that I have left behind. Haroun al Rachid was known as the Peacock of the World, the Shadow of Allah on Earth, Lion of the Impassable Forests, Master of Spears, Gardener of the Vale of Islam. When he went to the mosque, he dressed all in black but rode an all-white steed which earned him the title the Rider of the Spotless Horse.
His palace, which shone white in the moonlight and pink in the sunlight, was hung with brocade from Damascus. Persian rugs covered the marble floors. In Zubediah’s garden was a gilded tree on which sat golden birds which sang when a key was turned. The palace roses were nurtured with moonlight and moistened with dew. When his son, Mahmoud, married, pearls rather than confetti rained down on the bridal couple and guests were showered with balls of musk each one containing a note entitling the guest to either a piece of land or a slave.
This was Baghdad’s golden age when music, poetry and the sciences were cherished, when the tables of Ptolemy were re-examined and the earth’s circumference assessed at a time when, in Europe, it was still thought to be flat.
Arabic words like zenith and nadir made an appearance on the world’s linguistic stage as did alchemy and alcohol. The concept of nothingness as a number – cipher or zero – was developed and given a shape: 0. It was a time of mathematical magic which could encircle the emptiness, of oceans curving away below the horizon, of poets who drew words out of the air like threads of shimmering silk. It was a time when intricate patterns of Islamic design expanded ever outwards into a universe whose boundaries, to this day, still remain unexplored.
As I lie watching the night sky lighten, the muazzin from al Ward mosque begins his call: the prayer, Salat al Fajr, said between dawn and sunrise.
The muazzin is an old man but his voice has the sweetness of a boy’s and is the aching cry of someone yearning for his beloved. I think of Baghdad where, curiously, I failed to notice even one call to prayer. And I think of Jawad lying in her husband-less bed, listening out for her father-less children, waiting for whatever the future may bring.
Word has it that the US military, supported by the UK, is massing to strike Afghanistan and then Baghdad in its tireless search for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Does she know this, I wonder. Does Jawad know that powerful war planes, precision bombers, bunker busters, with their lethal dose of depleted uranium, will soon be aimed at her children? That heavy-booted soldiers with little education may march into her beloved city charged with the task of capturing hearts and minds?
And from far away, I hear the anguished cry of a political leader, a Jewish carpenter from Galilee, first heard in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago just before he was silenced by his colonial masters: “Forgive them, Lord,” he cried, “for they know not what they do.”
For me, it’s not forgiveness I feel, but rage.

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My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( http://www.maryrussell.info) .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home http://www.maryrussell.info which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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Some pictures from Damascus and one from Baghdad

I came across these the other day.  Each tells it own story.

PU20110818-0001 This is the gentle old man who owned the tiny sweetshop opposite my hotel in Souk Saruja. He sold sweets and biscuits mainly. In the picture, he’s wearing his cap. He put it on specially after I’d asked if I might take a picture of him. Every day, just before mid-day prayers, he shut up shop and walked slowly up the narrow street to the local mosque which was called  the Mosque of the flowers. This was a very peaceful part of Damascus.


PU20110818-0002 This man had a little independent business selling hot coffee from his bicycle. he had a small woodburning stove in the front basket. You can see the fine chimney taking the smoke away. The canvas carriers held fuel for the stove. He had wraps of paper for the coffee and the sugar and a water container as well.

I thought his whole arrangement was great. He is master of his universe. I did wonder if he needed a licence to trade. Probably an unofficial one. The man is standing by the wall of the old city of Damsacus, capital of Syria.



PU20110818-0003 This is Baghdad.  It’s on the wall of Baghdad’s oldest university which is older than Oxford – by a few years.

The decoration show the swastika and is an indication of Iraq’s ancient cultural ties with India where the swastika originates.

I was in Baghdad shortly before the US and the UK invaded Iraq under the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

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