Thursday, February 28, 2008

Very quick post just to be an annoyance,

Above are the pictures that got me lifted in Hebron. I just wanted to put them up on the interweb as a way of expressing a heartfelt "fuck you" to the beardless dickheads of the IDF.

Final post coming soon.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Tel Aviv, Israel

Back in Tel Aviv after a great time in Jerusalem. I fly to Blighty tomorrow so tempus fugit and I will have to write most of my Israel post from the UK. My notes have reached 6 pages and, unless I want my last moments of my trip in a webcafe I will have to relate only a small part of my time here in this post.

The little anecdote I will now post comes from a fun day out in Hebron. The Occupied Territories are one of the most screwed up places I have seen and it was there that I had myself a little adventure. In Hebron I acquired the trendy lefty equivalenbt of an Olympic Medal: I got detained by the IDF. Let me explain.

Shabat in Jerusalem is interesting for 10 minutes then the empty streets get boring. Therefore I made my way to East Jerusalem and got into a minibus for Hebron. I was off to see the mother of all settler vs Palestinian flashpoints.

Getting there was quite quick as the checkpoints are one way only. Me and my Quebecquoise travel buddy made our way to the market in order to go to the Tomb of the Patriarch. She was semi reluctant to come but I coaxed her and she decided to join me. Her decision was to prove very useful to me later on.

The souq in Hebron is similar to most Arab souqs around a tourist spot. It is quite normal until you look up. What you see is mesh. Mesh and debris.

The mesh is there as the settlers near the Tomb of Abraham like nothing more than to tip their garbage and hurl bricks at the Arab shopkeepers below who try and eke out a living out of the dwindling number of tourists coming here. One othe other side of the row of houses live some of the most crazy bastards ever. These wankers are the epitomy of settler wrongness.

Rarely on my trip have I met people and detested them. The banality of life ensures that when you see someone they are often semi normal. You might know they are cunts of the first order but the shortness of your encounter won't be dramatic enough to make the leap from intelectual distaste to emotional loathing. Not so the settlers of Herbon.

In a way I think I have been contaminated by what emanates form the highly protected colony next to the Tomb of Abraham; hatred. Hate is all these people have. They hate the Arabs for existing and they make sure everyone knows it. They throw bricks and march through the Arab areas singing racist songs, all of them armed and ringed by soldiers. They teach their children to hate and spit at those that live there who aren't Jewish enough. They even hate the hundreds of conscripts keeping them alive.

Israel is a modern democratic state and they should do what such entities do with nutters like the settlers. This would be to evict them, try the leaders for countless assaults and place their children in care for willful endangerment. What Israel has done is put loads of soldiers so that these wankstains can keep hating and make life even more misrable for the Palestinians of Hebron.

A part of me wonders what would happen if these crazy arseholes got their wish. Would they be happy if, by some monstrous act, an ethnic cleansing of Hebron would leave them and their ilk all alone in the city? Will they suddenly get on with normal lives or would they find it dificult to spend a day without hate?.

We walked under the chicken-wire obscenity for a while and then, after several checkpoints, we finally got to the Tomb of Abraham. I knew that we couldn't enter on the Jewish side because of Shabat but I doubt I would have wanted to mingle with these cunts anyway. Hence we removed our shoes, my companion covered her hair and we entered the supposed resting place of the guy acknowledge and revered equally by all 3 of the local faiths. A point of theological unity that has to be divided physically as the Jews and Muslims cannot be in the same room together in Herbon.

Abraham is known for the truly scary nation that God is a bit of bastard. God decided to play with him a bit and told him to kill his son. At the last moment God stays the hand of the poor Abraham and tells him he was just fucking around.

Less funny and more horrid is the recent bloodletting of the Ibrahim Mosque. No God stayed the hand of Baruch Goldstein in 1994 when he walked into the mosque and slaughtered 29 muslim worshippers and injured hundreds of others with his gun. It was enraged Palestinians who stopped the massacre by beating to Baruch to death, not God. The settlers have built a memorial to this psycho as if to prove just how fucking vile they are.

After the visit we went back to the market and bought a few trinkets from the shopkeepers living there. That being done we were invited for the traditional Arab tea and long chat. We were quite clear that we thought the settles were insane dickheads and this led to an invitation to a rooftop to get a look at where these people live. We went up, had a look and I took a few piccies. That's were it all started to go wrong.

We then went into a room under the rooftop for tea, ciggies and a funy face comptetion with the kids of the guy who owned the house. As we walked out we were confornted by an IDF patrol from the next rooftop (the one we were on was one of the few not "requisitioned" byTsahal). They shouted and pointed their guns and told me to stay put. I asked them why and they responded by asking me why I was taking pictures of one of the worlds' most infamous settlements.

This was not new to me as the IDF in the Territories seem to require their soldiers to ask really stupid questions. My favorite being the idiots who asked me "Why are you travelling with these people?" on a fucking Sherut of all things. I thought this was a standard case of stating the bleeding obvious to guntoting teenagers but they had different ideas.

They surrounded us and spent 10 minutes shouting, pointing weapons and radioing. After that they informed me that I was nicked. I asked why but they didn't respond. I said that if I was being detained I wanted to talk to my consulate asap. They radioed some more and told me I could do that when they handed me over to the police. I followed them with some apprehension but no real fear. As a backup I told my mate (in French) to contact the British consulate if I hadn't reappeared within the hour. I had now been lifted by the soldiers of Zion.

The soldiers then led me down a house they control and I ended up right in the heart of the settlements. I then spent half an hour being glared at and insulted (this is a presumption as I don't speak Hebrew) by passing settlers. I also annoyed the solders by pestering them for a precise charge for my detainment. To be fair they relaxed a bit and tried to be chummy and even cracked the odd joke. I wasn't in the mood and told them that armed people holding strangers at gunoint are never funny so they could stop trying.

I knew that they had to be careful with me. I am not a Palestinian and if an unbruised Brit is what they take that is what they have to hand back. In addition a couple of guys from some NGO that monitors abuse walked by and said they would check up on me at the local nick (a bad place to be by local accounts). I killed time by taking in the sun and watching the crazy people telling their sprogs that I was yet another person to be hated. Suddenly, I heard the magic word "consulate" amongst the Hebrew and I was turned lose. I then had to walk through the settlement with beardy crazies looking at me.

I was someone astonished at the speed of my release and also somewhat bemused that, for all this bollocks about taking pictures of "sensitive" stuff they hadn't even looked at my camera. When I finally made it back to the Arab area it was all made clear to me.

While I was being sarky to the squaddies my companion had decide not to wait for an hour and got busy. She is the perfect travelling buddy as she is hippyish enough to go with the flow yet switched on enough to know what to do when things go wrong. She immediately call the British consul and they got to work. However, this was not the only step taken to help me.

The Palestinians we met tracked down some women for another NGO that sends elderly Christian ladies to get in the way of the IDF. These formidable and brave women know the ropes and they made a few phone calls of their own. Finally the impromptu "Save Arabin from spending a few hours being bored in a police sation" committe was fortunate to intercept the UN.

As luck would have it a Yank delegatiojn from the UN was passing by and the Palestinians made sure the many females working for my release would get to inform these diplomats of my fate. Therefore, despite all the many abuses they live and witness, the Palestinians of the souq and their NGO pals thrust my Montral friend in the path of the UN to explain that some guy she knew had been nicked by the IDF.

I was told of this upon my return amidst handshakes, ciggies and cups of tea. A part of me feels sorry for the soldiers. They had only taken up post in the past 2 days and I supect they were being zealous. I wonder what they felt when, 15 minutes after they took me down from the rooftops, various people started to call their CO. However the part of me that feels sorry for me is dwarfed by the part that says "fuck them". If they don't want pictures taken of military outposts in the Occupied Territories then they shouldn't bloody build them.

This farcical episode of my life will proably be recalled with great gravitas in a pub especially if silly lefty women are in earshot but there is one thing that is truly worth noting. That thing is the fact that Palestinians had been worried for me. This is truly amazing.

Let's be quite clear. I was never in serious danger of anything. I had done nothing wrong and I have the immunity that white people from rich nations have. I got a small taste of Palestinian life but I only licked the icing. I didn't experience the violence, disposessions and humiliations that they endure. The men and women of the souq knew this. They knew that I would have a fun story to tell over beers , that I could tell my tale of my time in the hands of the IDF; a time where I was confident of my wellbeing. Yet they still cared.

That's what is worth writing about. These people are ruled harshly by a foreign military power so that some fundamentalist crazies can stay there in the hope all the Arabs will leave if they hate enough. Shops closures or property seizures for trivial reasons and curfews are frequent for the Palestinians who commit the crime of existing near a religious shrine. They are reminded daily that Israel will protect even the worst amongst their citizen at their expense. Yet they cared for a passing stranger whose birth has given him the protection they so desperately need. I feel as if a person with broken legs had crawled over to me to put a band-aid on a graze I got.

I don't want to build up this post as some sort of tale of personal enlightentmet or a metaphor for an incredibly complex conflict. All will do is tell you what I saw on both sides of a row of houses crested with razor wirte.

On one side I saw kindness for strangers, empathy for dissimilar human beings and an astounding capacity to find a place amongst personal suffering to worry about the comfort of others. On the other side I saw hate and stupidity. That is what I saw one sunny afternoon in Hebron.

Take care,


Monday, February 11, 2008

Jerusalem, God's own UFC cage

Made it! Fucking made it! Jakarta to Jerusalem, Indonesia to Israel, Jaksan Jala to Jaffa Gate. I crossed the finish line. I fucking rule!

For conflict history junkies it doesn't get any better than this place. It's always been a scrapping spot and it's guaranteed to continue being so. There will always be a reason to fight over the "City of Peace" (beyond irony). For the scornful atheist, Jerusalem conviniently gathers 3 major religions and their pious worshipers to snigger at in a small walkable enclosure. I am a very happy bunny.

I got to the Jaffa gate after a walk from the Hebrew Uni and gave myself a victory cheer as I passed through. This was not very smart as some of Jerusalem's many gunslingers started to take interest in me. This was not my last fuck-up of the day. I managed to leave my pocketknife in my backpack even though I knew I was going to the world's favourite flashpoint.

The boys at the Dome of the rock refused me entry because of it and the offending item had to be stashed in a nearby Yeshiva. The Wailing wall guards didn't care but then again there are so many armed soldiers there that I would be amply dead by the time I found and unfolded by puny weapon. For some reason there is no metal detector at the Holy Sepulchre. Maybe the authorities have decided that Christians follow JC's message of peace despite historical evidence to the contrary.

By coincidence I visited the sites in the same order that they appeared on earth to give a message of love and peace that would be universally ignored. Here goes:

I first went to the famous Wailing Wall. Visually it's not that impressive as it is, well, a wall. What makes it fun are the people there. Tourists with paper kipas mingle with pious Jews praying and stashing little messages in the cracks of the masonry. Chicks have a separate area and they don't get to see the tunnels which made me ponder the weird notion that gawking sightseers such as myself are welcome to Judaism's holiest place but Jewish women must be to the side. The whole hullaballoo gets an occasional boost of energy as a Bar Mitzva party bring the new man amidst great cheer and lobbing of sweets. Fantastic stuff!

I was fortunate to have with me an American Yeshiva student that could answer some of my questions about the paraphernalia and rituals of the prayers although he couldn't tell me what happens to the pieces of paper when saturation point gets reached. He also sorted me out with a free lunch and a place to hide my dangerous cutlery. Mercifully he was of a cynical disposition hence I could joke away.

After the Wall we folowed a trio of nuns to the place where Christians claim their boy wonder was nailed up, buried and resurrected. I'll pass over the convenience of thinking someone was executed and buried at the same spot. In short it is a church of medium beauty. Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of evidence of the wonderfully petty bitchfighting that the various resident reps of Christianity's branches are famous for.

Fistfights ending in hospitalisation have happened over trivial crap like doors left open and chairs moved into the shade. There is a ladder there that hasn't been shifted for over a century as this would provoke another brawl. As the Christians couldn't be trusted to act like grown ups where the Sepulchre is concerned the key to the church as been in the care of a Palestinian family for eons. I wonder if the custodians aren't tempted to give the keys to one group, set up a camera and make "When monks fight" DVDs. It could be a nice little earner. I'd buy it for one.

After another stroll through the narrow medieval streets and their shlock shops we returned to the place that the Jews and the Muslims find so Holy. This time we went to see the Mahomedans' erections and my companion broke some Rabbinical decree to the effect that Jews cannot go to the Temple Mount untill someone builds a Temple there (from the same guys who declared that walking through metal detectors does not break Shabat) . Security is tight there and you have to walk up a covered ramp overlooking the wailers. Said ramp holds a few IDF gunslingers and a big stash of riot shields. Charming.

I'll give the Muslims cred for having the most aesthetically pleasing site of Jerusalem. The dome of the rock has fantastic tilework and a big shiny roof. They have also put some nice gardens there. However, Allah's lot do get some minus points as they won't let kaffirs inside the Dome or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Infidels also have to get out of the grounds whenever it's prayer time or nearby.

This post is a victory/gloat post of sorts so I'll end soon. More will follow. I will return to the Old City and use Jerusalem as a base for visiting Masada as well as trying to get into the West Bank to see the flip side of Israel. After that I will do a more ponderous post. For now though I will simply drink a few beers in honour of myself and my success.

Once again, I rule!

Take care,


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tel Aviv, Unnoficial Capital of Israel

The location header of this post is a good indication of how screwy this place is. Tel Aviv is seen by most of the world as the capital of Israel yet the Israelis say that Jerusalem is. This place is going to be interesting. However, first things first.

Before entering the Holy Land I had an extremely tiring funrun from Damascus to Tel Aviv via Petra. As Petra was my only overnight among the Hashemites I won't be doing a Jordan post. I will however mention Petra as it is a fantastic place to see.

Due to it's position in the middle of a great sandy fuck-all it, the Nabathean city hasn't been superceded by too many other buildings from other cultures save for a few Roman temples. The Romans did their usual thing of twocking something good, tweaking it a smidgeon, and passing it off as their own. On this one the Nabatheans get the 'spect as they were masters in the art of property location.

The viist of Petra kicks off with a 2 klick walk down a very narrow gorge. It's supposed to be there for religious reason but methinks there are more practical considerations. Potential invaders are bottlenecked and the defenders can pull a Thermopylae on them. That being said it does serve well as one of the visual and psychological tricks so beloved of the god squad.

As you turn a corner in the gorge you are suddenly confronted with a temple carved into the wall. This is the Pharaoh's Treasury, the most famous of Petra's many, many carved buildings. The nekulturny amongst you will know it as the showdown set in the third Indiana Jones movie.

Basically it's fecking huge and displays an odd combo of highly detailed renovations and barely recognisable bullet ridden originals. The holes are linked to the name of the place. Local lore had it that the place was where the Pharaoh stashed his dosh despite having nothing to do with either treasure or inbred Egyptian despots. The bedouin where just as keen as Indiana Jones to find the wealth of the Treasury and they undertook many searches over the centuries. Unlike the world's coolest archeologist they didn't faff about with codes, books and traps. They just shot up the place in the hope something would start glittering.

The Treasury might be famous and well worth a peek but it's not my favourite Petra place. I was very fond of the Monastery as it is just as grand as the Treasury but requires a steep 45 minute hike uphill to get there. The tour groups don't make it there early as they need to round up enough donkeys to hoist their flabby bottoms up the mountains. This ensures that the place is wonderfully quiet untill noonish. You can find a high spot in the surrounding rocks and look at the thing without having to listen to the oohs and aahs of American retirees confronted with this real history thing. That and the sound of a zillion japanese cameras.

Petra becomes truly awesome when taken as a whole. Due to Nabathean austerity or comprehensive Bedouin looting there is bugger all to see inside the buildings except for the rock itself that has interesting hues of red, brwon, yellow and black. This gets quickly boring though and the visitor is left with spotting something up a hill and debating whether or not it's worth the effort to getting up there.

Petra is wonderfully unsupervised and spread out hence it's great for wannabee explorers such as yours truly. The further you go the more desert solitude you can get and the higher the risk of slipping of a ledge. Tourists do snuff it up here and I suspect the roaming somewhat degrades the sight. One day the Jordanians will twig on to this and ask the superbly uniformed camel corps guys to do stop having their photo taken and do some warden work. This will put me in the club of those who were there before people like me fucked it up for everyone.

Anyhoo, made my way to Aqaba and from there I crossed into Israel and got the legendary Israeli welcome. This was a funfilled 3 hours of intermittent questioning, searches and lots of raised eyebrows at my Iraqi visa and the name Arabin. When they finally let me go I found out that transport to Eilat was down for some reason so I had to walk 3 klicks to the bus station. By the time I was on a bus to Tel Aviv through the Negev, I wasn't all too fond of the Chosen People.

I got here and did what most people do in TA; go on the piss. Tel Aviv is pretty much like a european city on the Med and about as interesting. It's made me realise that getting back to normal life is going to be tricky. Watching a bunch of wiggers playing drums and juggling on the beach made me long for a more exotic/fucked-up place. My only true fun here is annoying the birthright kids (Jewish youngsters from around the world who get a free trip to Israel) and the kibbutz volunteers by telling them how nice the Syrians are.

I will depart this annoyingly normal place and go to what is in a sense the final destiantion. Tonight I will have completed my Jakarta to Jeruslaem trip. I will be seeing other things in Israel but in my mind Jerusalem has all things going for it. Expect a vey long post.

Take care,


Monday, February 04, 2008

Damascus, Syria

Back in the big D after a quick return to Aleppo, a brief stay in Hama (big giant waterwheels and general small town peacefullness) and a fun day getting to, and away from, the Krak des Chevaliers.

This erratically spelled fortress is the top dog of all crusader castles by virtue of being fecking huge and the most famous hence its presence on the "things Arabin must see" list. Once again it's a hard sight to describe and you really have to be here to fully appreciate it. My inability to convey how cool a place is is doubly frustrating as I have a soft spot for fortresses.

It must be said that places of worship tend to be more easy on the eye than military ones in the same way designer dresses look nicer on a woman than uniforms (British WPCs excepted as they're well fit). It's the primacy of function over form that make defensive structures uglier than places of prayer but also, for me at least, more expressive.

By now I have seen a lot of buildings erected by godsquads of various persuasions. I found a lot of them quite beautiful and have even been awestruck on occasion. The problem is that I have a huge disconnect with them. Being proudly faithless I don't really understand why they went to all this effort. It's a bit like the self inflicted calvary women endure to conform to some notion of beauty. I appreciate the result but I don't really get why they bother.

Military installations are easier to figure out. Why and how the buildings are can easily be worked out. All you have to do is put yourself in the role of someone trying to conquer the place. The Krak quickly reveals why it was built and how well. The potential invader mutters a silent "fuck" at the vast array of moats, towers, murder holes, false leads and other assorted deathtraps. It might not be as pretty but it makes sense.

Of course, having been to the Krak I am now sorely tempted to make some analogy with the West's current foray into the Middle East. I will keep it brief as there are many ones floating around the interweb. I remember when Bush the Lesser slipped up and mention the War Of Terror as a crusade. The poor sods paid to justify his inability to speak in even one language had to work very hard that day. He backpedaled in the fear that this word would anger and unsettle many Muslims.

I have a different take on the matter. It's not the Muslims who should have been unsettled; it's the denizens of the West whose ears should have pricked up. The Crusades were by and large a collection of failures. The most successfull ones didn't even leave a truly lasting legacy and the fuck-ups outnumber the successes by far, whether it be idiotic peasants or children marching off to their deaths, horifying pogroms or grandstanding nobles bickering with each other. When you consider what the Muslim world at the time, the Crusades were hardly a blip.

The only ananopgy I am willing to make is one that the Krak helps illustrates. It was pretty much the height of defensive enginneering at the time and was reputed impregnable. In the tactical sense it was but it fell none the less as the knights realised they had lost the bigger battle for the Middle East and scarpered to Tartus. Being bloody good at fighting and having the best kit doesn't compensate for lack of local support and blithering ignorance.

My cheap shot at the Bushies over I guess I will get on with my overall Syria post as tommorow I will be in Jordan. I suppose I should explain what I was doing in Syria beyond tourism. I was looking for someone.

I was searching for a specific man. I know him well and so do you. We've seen him on TV a lot. He shouts a lot in a guttural language. He wears a beard. He burns flags and embassies. He speaks some words we can understand like shaheed, jihad and Allah Ackbar. He hates us and he wants to kill us. He even wants to die while doing so. He believes he will get 72 virgins if he dies slaughtering us on our way to work. He's nuts and he's our enemy. He gives us no choice but to kill him.

I figured this chap would be in Syria so I tried to see if I could locate him with the same regularity as our beloved members of the press. I confessed I failed miserably.

What I found in Syria was a bunch of truly sound people. Syria is the backpackers' darling for a good reason. Here you are never alone unless you want it. Here you are never truly lost as people will immediately spot you trying to read the street signs and guide you to wherever you wish to go. The is little of the hustle that make other places in the area tiresome. When people here invite you for a cuppa or offer to help you it is very rarely in expectaion of dosh.

A few anecdotes can illustrate this. My first taxi in Damascus was free as my co-passengers wanted to welcome me to Syria. I can't even count the amount of free coffees I got as the owners of a place or nearby patrons with whom I had exchanged pleasantries footed the bill. In the Krak I left my rucksack by the door as one Syrina had told me it was safe and that was good enough for me.

The man on the telly was also absent in the hundreds of politics chinwags I have had here. This is somewhat of a national sport here and newcomers are welcome. I'm not talking about cute "Boosh, he bad man" crap either. This is intense stuff with facts brought forth, counterpoints encouraged and perspectives discussed. Maybe he was the guy bringing the tea and was too busy.

The point I am overdramatically trying to make is that Syria is one of the most misrepresented places I have ever been to. The great quest for ever simplified and fast news distorts a lot of things but here the vilification takes the piss. My faith in journalism was a puny and illtreated creature to start off with. My travels have already caused it to be roughed up somewhat. In Syria, it has been taken outside to the pub car park by a large skinhead called Gary and has been kicked nearly to death.

For fairness sake I should point out that not everything is cute and cuddly here. Syrians may be great folk but their rulers are not and this is not a free society. I won't go into what Syria is up to in Lebanon or the truly piss poor human rights record. My personal experience has revealed a dark side of this place.

Syrian hospitality and honesty is enforced as well as customary. In the rare times I have had a wee bit of argie bargie with a local, the fear was somewhat palpable. My macho side would like to believe that a tall foreigner using variolus declinations of "fuck" caused the other sod to know the true meaning of fear but this is not the case. I learned that being on the wrong end of a complaint from a ferengi can get a local 6 months in jail, no questions asked. This knowledge has restrained me from going too mental at the few devious Syrians I encountered (taxi drivers) as I don't mind some punishment meted out for attempting to rip me off but not half a year in a Syrian nick.

I have also been doing a lot more editing of my draft posts. I usually make some modifications from the first scribbled-in-a-cafe version to the one on the web but here I have been much more active in my self-censorship. I have had to remove stuff for reasons other than style, length or not wanting my family to know all I get up to. My time in Syria and the willingness of locals to engage with foreigners have produced a slew of blogworthy anecdotes. This time I have had to be very carefull with the detaisl as some of it could land locals in serious shit. It's tempting to spin some tale of booze, weapons and/or crazyness to harp up the image of the dilletante drunk in weird climes but this could end up being read by one of Assadthe Second's many pitbulls. It's not me they'll nail for giving a bad image of Syria.

Other minus points to Syria are the dificulty of boozing and the strangely high numbers of gingers here. I should also specify that when I mention Syrians interacting with me I mean Syrian men. You can't talk to the lasses here let alone coax them into the sack. Nowhere's perfect.

My next stop should be Petra but when I post next is uncertain. My planned fun run across the Middle East has forced me to select the places I wish to see badly and prioritise harshly. Hence Jordan now gets narrowed down to Petra. I will be moving a lot and fast between Damascus and Tel Aviv so when I will have the time and energy to blog is up in the air.

I am also a bit gloomy today as I have bought a plane ticket back to Europe. I find it difficult to laugh at the irony that my favourite area so far is the place where I am the most constrained by funds. My consolation is that a part of me does not see this as the final point of a truly amazing period of my life. I will get back to this in my last post but, to paraphrase Churchill, I have the feeling this is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning.

Take care,