Tag Archives: travel

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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Filed under Chilcot, Iraq, Life, Syria, Travel, Uncategorized

A very short rant

Things I don’t mind passing on:

going to the beach

Sydney Opera House bar

Temple Bar

London’s Oxford Sreeet

Ulla Dulla (don’t ask)

Westfield Centre or any shopping mall

That’ll do for starters. Hey, just noticed – New York City got off lightly.



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Listowel Travel Writing Workshops

Listowel: Travel Writing Workshops

There’s nothing like chatting to another travel writer to feel the feet itching to get out on the road. last week, I sat by a glowing log fire, going at it hammer and tongs with Dervla Murphy, she on the beer and myself on the hot whiskey. Turns out we’d both been in Cape Town on that memorable day when Nelson Mandela made his first speech in the new, democratic parliament. She’d been there writing a book (travel writers do it on the hoof) while I had been there as an international election observer. Two people, different stories.
It made me wonder – what is it that makes a travel book sparkle? Right now, I’d say it’s the people you meet on the way. It’s people who give life to a place and it’s the people who will endure.
My last book is about Syria, an unhappy place right now. But if there’s any ray of hope, it’s the one that says the people of Syria – wherever they are – who keep the flame burning because it’s they, the people of Syria, who walk through my book. They were the ones who invited me in for a cup of tea, who passed me from one hotel ( think family-run hostel) to the next, who fixed my bike and/or my lumpy mattress, who listened patiently to my basic Arabic…
So, for the travel writing workshops at Listowel Writers Week, among other things, we’ll be zooming in on overheard conversations, on what people wear, how they walk, the food we are offered and who cooks it. We’ll observe the differences between men and women in some cultures ( including Ireland) and how the travel writer fits themselves into these differing scenarios.
If you’ve already signed up for the workshops ( May 28,29,30) maybe write a few paras concentrating on this aspect of travel writing and email them to me by May 23rd. But no pressure.
But if you haven’t signed up, then it’s not too late. Give them a ring in Listowel on 00353(0)68 21071 or check out the website: http://www.writersweek.ie
Any which way, 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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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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My House in Damascus…

Diana Darke has written about the lovely house she bought in old Damascus. Here’s a link to my Irish Times  review of her book:



While so many commentators and journalists write about Syria, the victim and zoom in on the death and destruction of that great country, Darke affords the Syrians she meets the dignity of being individuals. Well worth a read…. .


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What to do if you get lost

Dava Sobell, author of that great book Longitude told me about her maps and gender theory.

Ask a man the way and he’ll  give maplike instructions: Left at the traffic lights, carry on for mile, then take a right and immediately another right  till you come to a fork and take the righthand one…  And so on.

Ask a woman, and she’ll say something like: Go as far as the letterbox, then turn where there’s a chemist shop and walk on for about ten minutes till you come to a school and turn left there…

You get the picture. Women tend to notice street furniture more than  men. What do you think?


Anyway, if you’re lost there’s always the last resort: a map which is the equivalent of RTFM. Simon Garfield’s great book explores all aspects of maps and mapmaking.


In 1824, the British decided to map Ireland largely with the aim of measuring boundaries for tax purposes and from  this we get townlands. (My former home in Donegal was in the townland of Corkerbeg.)

The man who did great work on this was Thomas Drummond who devised a light that could be seen in murky, misty weather such as you sometimes get in Donegal and other coastal areas. What he used  was a small pellet of lime ( calcium oxide) which could be seen up to 100 miles away. Lots  more of interest in Garfield’s book. And while you’re up, check out Brian Friel’s play Translations which is about the Ordinance Surveying of Ireland at that time.

These thoughts came to me yesterday when I was doing some work on my current project – the old butter roads of Ireland.

I  have a marvellous map dated 1686 which shows, with drawings,  the cattle being milked, the butter being churned and then being taken in wooden firkens to Cork for export.

All this looking for maps and notes led to this, part of my collection of everyday maps:

IMG_2005 And this is only some of them.


Of course, if you ever get lost, you can always ask. In most countries now it’s kilometres but in Ireland watch out for the Irish mile. What’s an Irish mile, you’ll ask. It’s a measure of distance ( not used now, you’ll be glad to hear ) that is 1.27 whereas an English or statute mile is 1, All to do with the difference between a rod and a perch – but let’s not go there. Or, if we do, let’s work it out as the crow flies.



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