Monthly Archives: August 2013

Egypt: travel writing.

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I was seven years old when we fly from Cyprus to Egypt. One bright morning our plane landed at Cairo. The airport was not big or impressive. The ceiling was notably low but the pale tiled floor was clean. We stood around the carousel for a long while waiting for our luggage. Eventually my parents decided that the bags were not coming.

We walked out into the greeting area and met the skinny youth who was to take us the the Sheraton Hotel. I shall call him Ibrahim since I do not recollect his name. He was smartly dressed and boasted a contemptible moustache. He must have been about 19 but to me he was a man. We piled into a minibus and had a quick introduction to the choked up midday Cairo traffic. Ibrahim was a Canadian of Egyptian origin. He has lived in Saudi Arabia for a while when his father was a professor of Medicine. Ibrahim spoke flawless English.

He had come back to Egypt to visit his relatives and been nabbed by the authorities. You have not done your military service. I am a Canadian! Once an Egyptian – always an Egyptian. I came here on a Canadian passport. We will have that – until you complete your national service. Ok, ok – I will do my six months in the army and then you let me go. Fine.

Ibrahim was still waiting to begin his military service and was frustrated by how long it was taking to get going.

The frenetic honking of horns to no apparent purpose was a theme of driving through Egypt. I saw odd patches of open country. It was pure sand. I noticed the police wore spotless white uniforms and black berets. How did they manage to keep their clothes pristine in a fairly dirty city?

The other image that has stayed with me form this first journey through Egypt’s megapolis is this: a middle aged man sitting on his snazzy motorbike with his jacket on backwards grinning maniacally. I thought that was hilarious. He was going to be a mad man on his bike, or so I thought.

Palestine: travel writing.

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Many years ago I travelled with my family to Palestine. We had a Palestinian driver named Elli. My father first heard this as Ali but he was mistaken. Elli was a Christian and spoke tremendous English. We drove into Palestine and back into Israel. We weaved in and out of the two countries. Palestine was fully occupied by Israel at the time to the difference was not so blatant. 

My recollections of Palestine are of a land that is greener than you might expect for the Middle East. The land undulates and has a goodly sprinkling of stones. There edifices are seldom more than a couple of storeys high. We passed through many drab towns with low, dull, nondescript buildings. Battered Toyota pickup trucks seemed to be the main vehicle on the road. Men mostly wore Western dress but women mostly sported Arab raiment.

We visited Bethlehem. The place where Jesus was born is a long, wide basement room. It is bare and astonishingly unremarkable. How can anyone be sure that this was the actual room? This building must have been constructed centuries after the supposed event. Bethlehem is a town of bland and raffish streets. 

Swaziland: travel writing.

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I was about five years old when we drove up the winding red dirt road, up into the deep green hills of Swaziland. Gullies plunged away beneath us. Thick vegetation crept up the precipitous hillsides and clear streams gushed below. There were very few cars around. Almost everyone in Swaziland is black. My memories of my few days there are necessarily pessimistic as I cast my mind back a third of a century. The people I glimpsed as we sped past were mostly in traditionall attire – biege in colour. There clothes looked as though they were fashioned from gunnysacks. There were numerous mud huts with wattle coming out the top. We stayed in a chalet that was similar to these rude buildings. That is all I recall about this small kingdom.

I am glad that Jim Davidson will not face charges.

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Jim Davidson is a British comedian. He is overly fond of strong waters, several of his former girlfriends have said that he hit them and his racially themed comedy is not my cup of chai. A few months ago he was arrested when he landed at London Heathrow Airport. He was questioned about allegations dating back 25 years and more. He was accused by a few women of touching them in ways they did not want through their clothes. 

The police investigated and the Crown Prosecution Service have announced that he will not be prosecuted because it is unlikely that he would be convicted. Patently there was a feeble case against him. Even if there had been a persuasive case against him I would not have wanted him to be charged. These allegations are so old that it is hard to credit such claims. Why not make the allegation there and then? They were adults when the so-called incidents took place.

If something happened it was no doubt disagreeable for the ladies concerned and perhaps a little scary. However, there would be no justice in punishing someone so long afterwards for what were trivial offences. I have had gay men do similar things to me. Just forget it – drop it. 

Dreams: embarrassment and eroticism.

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I dreamt I was in Baku. I was on the hill by the Wolf’s Gate. I was walking along the street in the day. I suddenly realised that I was stark naked. I dropped to the pavement and crawled along. Later I covered myself with a sheet. Luckily no one seemed to see me. 

This perhaps reflects a worry about going to Central Asia and trouble that could recur.

I dreamt of being in my former flat. There was excreta in the rooms. I knew it but did not see it. There were other men and women around. I pictured that arch bitch Besti in her beige outfit. 

Later I was in a swimming pool with a teenager girl who had glasses and mousy coloured hair. I had congress with her in the water.

I then saw myself being hugged by a woman of about 30. She was average height and physique. She had dark blonde hair.

Judge Nigel Peters got it right.

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There was a case before this learned judge. A 41 year old man copulated with a 13 year old girl. On the face of it this is a distasteful thing to do. The age gap is great, the girl is below the age of consent and it is unedifying to think that she was exposed to the the possibility of pregnancy and STDs. 

Robert Colover, prosecuting, admitted the girl was predatory and experienced. This was a coup for the defence. Colover has been suspended from prosecuting. The judge said he took into account the girl’s looks when passing sentence. The offender was given a one year suspended sentence. The judge’s remarks are being investigated.

It is worrying that the judge and the barrister are being investigated for their comments. These men showed broadmindedness, compassion and commonsense. No one, so far as I know, has questioned the accuracy of their remarks. The factors they alluded to should impinge on sentencing.

It is for the judge to pass sentence and not leader writers in bigotted newspapers. The judge has heard the case. The Attorney General had referred the case and the sentence may be increased. I suspect this is due to the unpopularity of the decision in this case.

I knew a girl named Poppy – who is the same age as me. She told me that at the age of 14 she would go to nightclubs and get picked up by men and brought home by them. As the admission age was 18 at such clubs they of course assumed we was easily over the legal age which is 16. She would get into bed with them and then tell them her age. They would desist. It is very possible for an underage girl to instigate such encounters and for the man to be honestly unaware of her age. She can be tall, well-developed, wear makeup and a push up bra.

I want to prevent crimes of this type occurring. I want to discourage people under 16 from endangering themselves and entrapping adults. Injustice it not the way to achieve this. The good judge was fair. His valour and wisdom ought to be lauded and not dispraised.

What will happen over Syria?

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I think that The United States will support the British motion before the UN Security Council asking for authorisation to take all needful steps to halt the mass slaying of civilians in Syria. These needful steps mean armed action. Beijing and Moscow will veto this. France will probably vote in favour of the resolution. It would only take one permanent member of the UN Security Council to block it.

I suspect that the United States would still go ahead with air strikes or more probably missile strikes. The United Kingdom will probably desist due to majority opposition to such a move. The same is true of France.

Obama will order missile strikes for a few reasons. The ostensible and hopefully the chief reason for so doing is to discourage the Assad tyranny from repeating its horrific chemical atrocity. It will also be to demonstrate to others that red lines will be enforced. The White House publicly warned the Syrian Government not to use chemical weapons or it would be penalised. Assad’s main financial backer and supplier of arms is Iran. For Iran this civil war in Syria has become a proxy war against the West but also against Sunni governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Iranian Government may have urged Assad to do this so as to test the will of the US Government. Military action in Syria will also make the American people even more war weary and even more sceptical about the possibility and the sagacity of taking on Iran over her alleged nuclear weapons programme.

I do not think the missile attacks will alter the outcome much. In 6 months Assad will control almost all of Syria and the insurgents will be on the run.

Is it folly to launch missiles at Syria?

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There was a chemical attack in Syria a few days ago and several hundred people died as a result. Most of those who perished were civilians. But who launched the chemical attack? So far as I know forces loyal to Bashir Al Assad have chemical weapons and the rebels do not. Assad’s Government is adamant that it did not use chemical arms  and that it was the insurgents who were behind this barbaric act. It seems highly probable that despite these protestations it was the Syrian Army that used these poisons. Let us examine Damascus’s record for veracity. This is the self same regime that claimed that the protests in 2011 were from the very outset armed terrorists; Assad himself said he had never told his forces to be brutal; this same government further claimed that free and fair elections were held in 2012. Al Assad and his gruesome crew have no credibility. This is not to say that his enemies are all cuddlesome. 

What is the right response? Foreign countries sending troops into Syria to oust Assad, control the country, hold elections and establish a government with broad support is a task that would be incredibly tricky. This script reads remarkably like what happened in Iraq in 2003. Other responses include air strikes and missile strikes.

We have to ask what the purpose of the attacks would be? It would be to punish the regime and discourage them from committing massacres in the future. It would teach a lesson to all those inclined to do the same that it would be very unwise. 

In Libya France, the United Kingdom and the United States functioned effectively as the air force of the rebels. This tipped the balance in favour of the uprising. Bearing in mind that some of the rebels in Syria are certainly Al Qa’eda fighters this means that Western governments are very unlikely to wish to assist the rebels like this. 

Air strikes involve a risk of pilots being killed or worse captured. This is worse because the air crew will be hostages and they will be paraded on TV to humiliate their countries. Damascus may well say to stop further air attacks of these people will be slain. A brave leader would not give in to such threat and would press on with attacks even if the hostage were killed. I fear leaders are too pusillanimous now. 

Missiles strikes are a safer option because there is almost no risk of casualties on the side of those launching the missiles. But the effectiveness of such attacks would be limited. This is the most probably strategy to be employed by the US Government, the French Government and Her Majesty’s Government. 

Let us examine the risks of military action. As has been established there is virtually nil chance of Western countries dispatching ground troops to Syria. Some sort of aerial bombardment will probably ensue. 

This will degrade the Syrian Armed Forces but only a little. It will anger Damascus and her allies in China and Russia. The outcome of the civil war is almost a foregone conclusion. This blog has been predicting for two and a half years that Assad will come out on top. There are times when I had doubts but now I do not. By slightly weakening Assad the war will only be prolonged. 

Assad will win and will probably be spoiling to hit back at Western countries. His supporters in Beijing and Moscow will say that a breach of international law has been committed. They will deny that their darling in Damascus can have used chemical weapons. Air strikes or missile strikes might deter him using such weapons again though. 

The case for an aviation campaign against the Syrian military or missile strikes is not a strong case. There are good reasons to desist. On balance I think it is best avoided. 

I realise that there are dangers attendant upon refraining from punitive action against the Ba’ath regime. Assad may be emboldened he and those of his ilk will repeat their ghastly crimes with more chemical attacks. His paymasters in Teheran will take not. I am still not convinced that military action even of a limited kind is prudent, popular, legal or likely to succeed in its own terms. 

South Africa: travel writing.

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I was five years old when we boarded a South African Airways jumbo in London. The plane was almost full but I remember nothing about the passengers. It was the 1980s and apartheid was still enforced in South Africa. For those of you who do not know what apartheid was let me briefly explain. In Afrikaans it means ”apartness”. It was a doctrine that different races must be kept separate in so far as possible. Whites, blacks, Indians worked together but could not live together, socialise together or go to school together. Were people of different races cheek by jowel on the plane? I do not remember.

No African country would permit South African planes or planes flying to or from South Africa to use their airspace. We had to touch down in the Azores to refuel.

I remember being brought up to the cockpit to meet the pilot. In those days this was allowed. Due to the threat of hijacking this would never be permitted now.

I have only patchy memories of my six weeks in South Africa.

We spent some time in Cape Town. For me it was a city of manicured lawns, palm trees and the glory of the Indian Ocean. I have an image in my mind of a broad a flat park by a major road. The flowerbeds were tended by a black man in overalls. The city was calm and agreeable. Oddly, I have no recollection of Table Mountain.

We stayed in a hotel which was many storeys high. My father had some leather ankle boots to which I took a fancy. There is a photo of my standing nude and proud, arms folded behind my back, shod in these brown boots and crowned by a child’s size London policeman’s helmet. These days it would be seen as a depravity. My parents regarded it as an innocent and humorous snap.

On television I saw a bearded black man reading the news. I could not comprehend a word. For the first time I realised that a language existed other than English.

I was drawing pictures with felt tips. I had the notion to draw them in eighteenth century soldiers’ uniforms and to sketch a horse drawn carriage. There was a pale pink pen which I called skin colour. Then it occurred to me that not everyone’s skin was that colour. I drew one of the men in a dark brown pen.

In the dining room all the diners would be white and all the waitresses were black. This did not strike me as unusual. I had seen very few black people in my life up to that point.

We went to the circus several nights in a row. One of the circuses was walking distance from the hotel. I remembered going via an underpass late at night when the streets were empty. The Big Top was full of people – all of them white of course. The performers were also white. I remember an elderly couple doing the trick where the woman is placed in a trunk and sawn up. I sat mystified. I wondered if she somehow got out of the trunk and into the ground. There must have been animal acts but I do not recollect them.

We walked down near the harbour area. There was mention of Robben Island and my father remarked that a famous prisoner was held there. I did not catch the name at the time. Years later I realised he had been alluding to Nelson Mandela – later he became the President of South Africa.

We went into a dive shop. My father bought a blue and yellow dive bag and a lot of equipment. The moustachioed shopkeeper was a man of few words. The bag was rock proog, water proof and everything else proof – so the shopkeeper assured my dad. My father turned to me and quipped ”but is it George proof?” The shopkeeper revealed that he could smile.

We drove through the Kruger National Park. This was up near the border with Mozambique. I dimly remember endless tall yellow grass and some wild animals. Nothing so memorable as an elephant was sighted.

In a toy shop I acquired a yellow rubber giraffe whom I named Jimmy. That was the grounds of alliteration. He has a wire inside him so I could twist him into peculiar forms. In the car I said that I needed to go to the loo. My mother looked at my kindly and asked if I really needed to. I informed her that that had been Jimmy speaking.

We went to Durban. There was a white stone building that was a museum and we wandered around that. There was mention of witch doctor exhibition. The world witch petrified me and coupled with doctor – a word I usually found reassuring – the sensation of terror grew even worse. I dared not gaze upon the dummy of the witch doctor. Somehow I perceived he would be a black man. This was not part of the reason I was scared of the sorcerer.

We went to the beach quite a lot. I remember seeing the shark nets far out. My father said that the loneliest man in the world was the further one out when the shark bell rang. There really was a bell by the lifeguard’s tower and if the dorsal find was sighted then the lifeguard would clang the bell to signal to the swimmers to get out of the water while they still had all their limbs.

My mother, my sisters and I all toddled down some not so well worn path to a beach. I do not remember where my father was that time. There were low but thick brownish bushes all along the steep hillside. We saw some strange, small creature toddle out of the undergrowth a few metres away. To this day I do not know what it was. My mother took fright but did not run off. We discussed it 20 years later. It was dun in colour and a quadruped. I do not think it was a carnivore. Was it a waterhog or giant anteater? We did not see the face.

On one occasion down by a small harbour I was walking beside my father. That sunny day a black boy walked by us carrying an octopus. My father asked him some amicable question such as if the child was going to cook the octopus. The boy was about 10 and only smiled timidly and made no reply. Quite possibly he did not speak English.

We stayed in a sort of camp once. There were many wooden chalets. Some boys several years older than me had Robin Hood costumes of which I was very jealous.

I remember another such chalet hotel on a plain by the sea but flanked by steep hills. A black security guard always took ramrod straight at the gate. He wore a white solar topee. He was fairly old and had few teeth. Because of this in later years I wondered whether some black people approved of apartheid. This man had been guarding us in an all-white hotel. Racially exclusive or racially mixed – many hotels have security guards so that had little to do with it. Most black South Africans were poor and this man may not have been able to secure other employment. It was of course wrong to surmise that he approved of apartheid just because he took this job.

Once we drove along the craggy coast and took a trip to a sandy beach. Large grey boulders sat beside the strand and hills rose abruptly to our rear. A gaggle of children in a uniforms of shorts, T-shirts and caps sat in knots. I was told by my parents that these children were orphans. A few adults were supervising these upbeat kids. Every last one of them was white. In those days beaches were assigned to one race or another. It is astonishing to think that this all happened in my lifetime and I am not that ancient.

 

We visisted my mother’s relatives in Pietermaritzburg. There was a large hospital by a hairpin bend in a verdant part of the country. We spent the day in their large bungalow. My mother’s aunt Eileen lived there with her husband Gabriel. Gabriel was known – as many men from Ireland with that name – as Gay. Gay had not had quite the same meaning when he was a child in the 1920s. Gabriel had studied in a seminary. As the cream of the crop he went to Rome for his last year of study before ordination. His parents travelled from Ireland in the 1930s to Rome to witness their son achieving the ultimate honour for a Catholic boy at the time – to become a priest. The night before he broke the news to his parents that he could not go through with it. He later qualified as a doctor.

My mother’s cousin Tony was there. Big Toe they sometimes called him in allusion to his innate corpulence. Fat Tony I called him. This bizarre bohemian happily read me stories.

Milk was to be collected. I wanted to see it. I went with a cousin to see. Around the corner on a muddy street.