Tag Archives: Syria

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

http://wp.me/p1Frlu-2K

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What went on in Palmyra?

 

 

The camel trains that passed through Palmyra  were enormous, often numbering  2000 with a further 300 donkeys used to carry surplus baggage. The caravans carried oil, spices, grain, straw, salted fish, wax, dyed fleeces, wools,bronze and marble statuary, wine, skins, fresh and smoked meat, slave girls, almonds, pottery and much else..

Life in the desert was dangerous especially for those not familiar with the trade routes.  In winter, the camels could go for maybe three months without water but in summer the margin of safety shrank to two weeks.The caravans, therefore, were usually led by an experienced horseman whose job it was to locate water supplies and wells en route, making sure that water skins were adequately filled for the next stage of the journey. If not, there would be many bones left to whiten in the desert sun, vultures circling overhead marking the spot.

Guides too were needed for the sandstorms that blew up without warning brought the whole caravan to a halt, leaving everyone except the most experienced guides disorientated. Thus the traders, camel drivers, merchants and guides of Palmyra were considered the best of their kind and moreover, because they were used to travel and to dealing with foreigners, they were adept at adapting to Greco-Roman and Persian languages and customs.

Small wonder then that Palmyra was such a coveted if distant outpost of the Roman Empire, one that had to be watched in case its rulers should get ideas above their station and strive to extend their boundaries of power.

 

Palymyrans lived well. The main avenue  was lined with some 375 colonnaded pillars  built of porphyry, the capitals decorated with  acanthus leaves,  pomegranates and pine cones, the whole column  gilded with bronze. The theatre had special raised seats for senators and visiting dignitaries.  The Tariff court, with its huge rectangular doors was imposing and its baths and banqueting halls spoke of prosperity and power

Along the colonnaded streets, the pillars still have the brackets which once supported statues of local notables – judges, merchants and owners of khans. One such man had no less than fourteen statues erected in his honour and a look at the tax system reveals just how carefully life was monitored.  Slave owners were taxed according to the age of the slave  and whether or not they were to be exported. It cost 25 dinarii to bring a camel load of aromatic oil  into the city  and 13 dinarii for a donkey load. If the oil was transported in alabaster containers it cost more than if  it came in goatskins the latter being of inferior quality. Prostitutes were required to pay a  monthly tax which was based on the equivalent value of one night’s work.

Water rates were charged at 800 dinarii per month for, in the desert, water is a most precious commodity but  with up to 1000 animals in a camel train each carrying a profitable load this tax provided a regular income for Rome..

There was little doubt, therefore, that the people of Palmyra were seen as influential merchants with Syrians generally regarded as the leading bankers of the region to the point where an exasperated  Juvenal made the often quoted complaint that “the Orontes ( Atissi)  is encroaching on the Tiber.”

But Rome benefited greatly from Palmyra’s prosperity and it was the Emperor Hadrian during his visit to Palmyra in 129CE who recognised this by conferring on the city the title of  Hadriana thus granting it free status,  the ensuing and lavish celebrations paid for by a local entrepreneur.

And while the male citizens of the upper classes went about their business in the senate and the market place, their wives and daughters also conducted themselves as only highborn women can. Slaves were employed in abundance with the clear distinction between freeborn and slaves underlined by the varied use of the veil – as important in pre-Islamic society as now.

Highborn women as well as women given the status of official concubines were expected always to veil themselves while  slaves were forbidden to do so.  There was even a code – the Ashur Code – which laid down strict rules about the veil in which, as usual,  women of lower status  came out worst: “ A harlot must not veil herself…he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest  her, produce witnesses and bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall not take her jewellery away but the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty times with staves and pour pitch  on her head….”

This is from my book on Syria. Have a look at it by clicking here:

http://www.maryrussell.info

 

 

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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:

http://www.maryrussell.info

http://wp.me//p1Frlu-2k

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No one leaves home: a poem for refugees

No one leaves home….

I’ve just been to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet in London’s National Theatre production. It’s currently being beamed round the world as part of the NTLive series of plays.
Cumberbatch gives everything he’s got. And then a little more. If you haven’t seen any of these stage to cinema productions, check out your local cinema to see what’s on offer and if Hamlet is there, try to see it.
The play ends with the main characters lying dead on the stage and Fortinbrass ordering a military salute for Hamlet.
“Let the soldiers shoot,” he says as the drums roll.
When it all ended,  I sat silent and stunned by the horror, thinking of war generally and especially of the country now being torn apart, its citizens decimated by war: Syria.

But this was only a play and so the actors came back on stage, holding hands, smiling, bowing as we, the audience, applauded. It had all happened a long time ago, after all.

And then something unexpected happened. Benedict Cumberbatch stepped forward and began to speak asking us to think of the children of Syria left dead and injured by the war there. Or drowned as they tried to escape.
I have to say I was very close to tears that, having played this demanding role and being on record as saying that after each performance he always felt exhausted and very hungry, Cumberbatch should step out of his role and speak up for the children of Syria.
Further, he went on to quote a short poem by Warsan Shire, a British/Somali woman writing about refugees fleeing across perilously dangerous waters to what they hope will be a safe place.

Here’s the poem. It’s called No One Leaves Home.

No one leaves home unless
Home is the mouth of a shark.
You have to understand
No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.

Cumberbatch asked the NTLive audience – the film is being shown worldwide – to contribute financially to helping the children of Syria. This can be done by contacting Save The Children or via UNICEF.
In Dublin, Hamlet will be shown again on October 27, January 6 and June 8.
You can Google NTLIve to find out where the film is being shown near you.

By June, many countries will have welcomed some of the Syrian refugees they have undertaken to help – as well as refugees fleeing other dangers.
So, if you go to see the NTLive production of Hamlet in the next week or months, why not contact your local Save the Children or UNICEF office and offer to support Cumberbatch by rattling a few tins. Oh and, enjoy the play as well….

Mary Russell’s latest book is “My Home is Your Home. A Journey Round Syria.”

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

Aleppo.

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.

http://www.maryrussell.info

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Palmyra – were you there?

It’s 08.30 and the day is warming up. A few young boys in blue overalls collect the bits of paper and soft-drink cans that litter the side of the road. Their hearts aren’t in it but they carry on, bending, picking up, bending again. This is the road to the other part of Tadmor – Roman Palmyra – and the authorities want it to look good, to show that they care about what is undoubtedly the greatest first century place of worship in the Middle East.

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 from 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 were 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 ones 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 was 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?

From my book 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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