There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

On the Current Troubles: Part 3 Bahrain

I haven’t been to Bahrain, so perhaps I should not comment, but…..

Ten years ago Lynne and I were sitting in the lounge of a Tehran hotel waiting for the tea we had ordered. Two Arab men came in, sat at the next table and also ordered tea. A minute later a tea-laden waiter arrived and looked hopefully round the room. The two men beckoned him over but before he deposited his tray I politely pointed out that we had been waiting for ten minutes or more.

The men apologised, the tea was passed to us and a conversation developed. We introduced ourselves and they said they were Bahraini businessmen. One said he had lived in Wales when he was a postgraduate student at Aberystwyth University which, coincidently, was where our daughter was studying. With a link established - and he clearly knew Aberystwyth well - the conversation became more open and free flowing.

What, they wanted to know, were we doing in Iran? We said we were on holiday. They were incredulous. Nobody, they told us, comes to Iran unless they have to. They then asked Lynne how she was managing with all the clothing she was required to wear. She was forthright about the discomfort, even in the cool of an air-conditioned hotel, but wisely left the religious/political issues to one side. One man said his wife often accompanied him on business trips, but would never, ever to come to Iran. We should visit Bahrain, he said, it is like Europe on the Persian Gulf. There is freedom in Bahrain, and you can do whatever you like and wear whatever you like.

And there are indeed freedoms in Bahrain. At weekends swarms of European expats cross the causeway from Saudi Arabia, drawn towards the relatively relaxed and permissive atmosphere of Bahrain like moths to a flame. But there are not freedoms for everybody, nor indeed are these the freedoms many Bahrainis want to exercise. And Bahrain is more complicated than that. A Sunni monarchy has ruled over a Shiite majority since the eighteenth century, so alongside political freedom Bahrain raises issues of long-standing sectarian bitterness.

Would Sunni Saudi Arabia tolerate a Shiite state, even a tiny state of half a million people, off its coast? Would Iran seek to encourage it, and further seek to destabilize the Saudi regime? Is the corrupt and autocratic Saudi regime one whose stability we should encourage?

I offer no answers; I merely seek to understand the problems.

On the Current Troubles: Part 2 Libya

The Great SPLAJ – the ‘Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ is a very different country from Egypt. It is twice the size but has one eighth as many people, and the presence of oil has ensured that those people are, on average, four or five times wealthier their Egyptian cousins. The Egyptians are almost all Arabs, while the Libyans are a much intermarried mix of Arabs and Berbers  - along with a few Tuaregs and smaller minorities.

The Waterfront, Tripoli

We visited Libya in 2006, flying to Tripoli and on to Benghazi before driving back to Tripoli along the coast, then south to the oasis town of Ghadames. Ghadames is 300 km south of Tripoli; another 1000 km of desert lie beyond. Most of Libya is uninhabited and uninhabitable, with the vast majority of Libyans living in cities along the coastal strip.

Our trip concentrated not on politics but on the remarkable remains of the Greek cities near Benghazi, - Ptolomais, Apollonia and Cyrene - on the Roman remains near Tripoli - Leptis Magna and Sabratha – the Berber towns of the Jebel Nafousa and the oasis of Ghadames. But politics can never be completely ignored.

Migrant workers await employement
while the Colonel looks elsewhere, Derj

Libya’s relative wealth drags in migrant workers, few of them legal. On the Egyptian coast road through Mersa Matrouh and on to Alexandria, it is common to see packed minibuses, their height doubled by a precarious stack of household goods, bringing Egyptian workers home from Libya. In Zliten, a distinctly edgy town 200 km east of Tripoli, we sat discreetly on a park bench beside a roundabout and watched a hundred or more migrant workers, mainly from south of the Sahara, squatting on the pavement, the tools of their trade before them. Occasionally a Honda pick-up would drive round the circle, blowing its horn. Men ran towards the truck, a lucky few would be selected and taken away for a few hours much needed work. Libya has no minimum wage and these were desperate men willing to work for almost nothing; unemployment among Libyans is high.

Looking up the Colonel's nose
Al-Kabir Hotel, Tripoli
Unlike Hosni Mubarak, Colonel Gaddafi set out to generate a personality cult. He intended to make his little green book as ubiquitous in Libya as Mao’s little red book once was in China. He failed, but every Libyan city has its quota of banners bearing his image draped down the sides of buildings. His stance is invariably ramrod straight with his head held back and his nostril flared, reminiscent of Mussolini (Libya was ruled by Italy from 1911 to 1943). No doubt, he believes the pose exemplifies nobility and power, I merely wonder why he wants me to look up his nose.

Gaddafi is unstable and erratic, which is perhaps why his personality cult never took off. The people fear him, with good reason, but we saw plenty of evidence that they do not respect him. When we started joking about the images of Gaddafi, 'A' (our much travelled Berber guide whose experiences included a spell cooking pizzas on Tyneside) was quick to join in. T-shirts bearing the colonel’s image are widely available, but I never saw anybody wearing one. When I bought one the stallholder was well aware that the purchase was made in a spirit of irony rather than awe, and made no effort to hide his contempt for Gaddafi. One floor of the otherwise excellent Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli is dedicated to Gaddafi memorabilia; his green book translated into many languages (and unread in most), his 1957 Volkswagen, and more photos than even his mother could bear to look at. M, who showed us round Tripoli, sneered as he told us about it. When we got there, the gallery was closed. The museum official charged with conveying that information seemed embarrassed that it existed at all.

The Berber town of Kabaw in the Jebel Nafousa

The Libyan people are largely good-natured and philosophical. They have never had much say in who their rulers are, so they merely shrug their shoulders and get on with it. Many laugh at Gaddafi behind his back, but opposition is neither easy nor safe, so they have tended to work round the problem; that was until last week.

Hosni Mubarak was a bureaucrat whose regime became old and sclerotic, Muammar al-Gaddafi is much more of a classical tyrant. He will fight back harder than Mubarak, and with fewer scruples but, as we have already seen, he cannot rely on personal loyalty.  It is time for the Libyan people to consign this monster to the dustbin of history. As A might say, Haway the Berbers.

Lynne at the mudbrick fortified granary of Qasr al-Haj

Sunday, 20 February 2011

On the Current Troubles: Part 1 Egypt

This was intended to be a blog about travel, not politics, but, like it or not, the observant traveller is confronted by politics at every turn.  I like to think that having been somewhere I have some insight into that place, and the teacher that lives on in me cannot stop himself giving the world the benefit of that insight – regardless of whether the world wants it.


So the inevitable happened and Mubarak has gone. I expected him to hang on longer, but after a spectacularly ill-judged speech, there was little the military could do except ease him out.

Despite the expectations of some members of the press, the ‘Tiananmen Square’ solution was always a non-starter, and for two good reasons.

Firstly, the Chinese army is professional. Joining up is not easy and some resort to bribery - as much as 50 000 Yuan (£5 000) or so I have heard. Even the humblest private regards himself as being part of an elite. The Egyptian army has its professional elements, there is an overlarge officer corps and a preponderance of generals, but the boots on the ground are conscripts. Every Egyptian male has to serve his two years, and bribery is a way of keeping out of the army, not getting in.

Away from the Coast and the Nile Valley
 Egypt is pretty empty

Secondly, Beijing is not China. Beijing may be a mega-city, but its 13 million people represent 1% of the Chinese population, and its influence is balanced by other meg-cities – Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres distant. Estimates of Cairo’s population vary, but a conservative figure of 8 million would represent 10% of the Egyptian population. Another 5 million live in Alexandria, a three-hour drive away across the densely populated Nile delta. A substantial proportion of Egyptians thus live within easy reach of Cairo. Ordering an inward looking elite, whose members come from far away, to break up a localised insurrection is one thing, persuading conscripts to fire on their own fathers and brothers is another.

The important question is what happens next? At the worst, the army insert their preferred candidate (as they did with Mubarak, and Sadat before him) and confirm him with a fraudulent election (as they did with Mubarak, and Sadat before him). Egypt would then be back to square one, the revolution would have been for nothing and the people might, or might not, have the energy to do it all again. Best case is that the army organises free multi-party elections and Egypt emerges as a secular liberal democracy.

I hope it is the latter, but if I was inclined to gamble (which I’m not) I would put my money on the former, or at best a fudge somewhere between the two. I would hope that western governments would champion the cause of democracy, but discreetly – stridently telling Egyptians what to do would be worse than saying nothing.

Hosni Mubarak apparently believed the revolution was fomented by foreigners, probably the west and/or Israel. The Israelis, having appointed Iran as the regional bogeyman, saw Iranian hands behind this – and every other (to them) unwelcome event in the region. They were both wrong.

Abu Sir, a small town a few kilometres south of Cairo
The apparent difficulty for Israel and America is the Muslim Brotherhood. The name alone is enough to frighten them, but although the Brotherhood may be the best organised opposition party, their electoral strength is untested, and their radicalism varies greatly depending on the spokesman. Some on the American right (Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter to name but two) believe democracy in Egypt should be opposed because Egyptians cannot be trusted to elect the ‘right’ government. Apart from being morally offensive, this approach puts debatable short-term American gain before long-term gain for the whole world. The sensible and moral approach is to encourage democracy, then work with whoever emerges as the choice of the Egyptian people. We owe them that, at the very least.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Cairo Before the Revolution (which might as well have never hapened)

[update at end]
We spent a week in Cairo last July. It was hot, dusty and crowded, but there was no sign of a revolution. Not since 1980 have we spent more than a day or two in the city, so we saw many changes, some expected, others more surprising.

The 6th of October Bridge
The Cairo of 2010 is a much tidier and neater city. It has far to go before it gleams like Seattle or Guilin, and you still need to watch your feet to avoid falling into holes or tripping over protruding cables, but at least it no longer resembles a building site after a typhoon. The traffic is calmer too, though a first time visitor might find that hard to believe. The standard of driving has improved little, but modern road systems impose a hint of discipline, and the donkey carts that roamed the streets following a set of rules entirely of their own, have (almost) all gone. You no longer see the foul-smelling heavy green rubbish carts, pulled by tired horses and driven by boys as tired as their horses and malodorous as their cargo. I do not know how modern Cairo deals with its waste, but I hope the sons and daughters of these rubbish boys are now at school, where they ought to be. Dress has changed, too. In 1980, my memory claims that only a minority of woman wore headscarves and there were no veiled faces. Now headscarves are almost universal, while veils are not uncommon. Men, on the other hand, have overwhelmingly taken to western dress, while thirty years ago about a quarter wore Arab costume.
Our hotel room faced the Nile, but the other side of the building overlooks the 6th of October flyover and the bus station beneath. Although the main action in the last few weeks has been in Tahrir Square, two blocks south, we have seen many television pictures of crowds milling, or charging, under the flyover, and of tanks creating barriers from overturned vehicles. Never have rooms on the ‘wrong’ side of the Ramses Hilton been so popular.
We did not see the pyramids, except in the distance. We visited them in 2009 and 1980 (and in 1965, in my case) so this time we looked at some of Cairo’s less ancient – though still old - monuments. We could not, though, resist the lure of the Egyptian museum, just beyond the bus station, and prominent in recent TV pictures. The collection is disorganised but magnificent. Building work has started on a new the museum and after the move I hope it will still be magnificent but better organised.

The Mohammed Ali Mosque
Cairo Citadel
Cairo’s citadel sits on a rocky outcrop some 3 km southwest of Tahrir Square. The fortified complex was begun by Salah al-Din (Saladin) in the twelfth century, though its crowning glory, the Mohammed Ali Mosque, was built between 1824 and 1848.
Inside the Mohammed Ali Mosque
Cairo Citadel
From outside the mosque there is a fine view over Cairo to the pyramids beyond - at least there was on a clear day in 1980, last August the pyramids had disappeared into a smoggy haze. The huge interior was filled with tourists, not all appropriately dressed, and has become a secular space. The nearby medieval mosque of Sultan al-Nasir still feels like a religious building and features a magnificent gold and marble mihrab.

The Mihrab and Minbar in the Sultan al-Nasir Mosque
Cairo Citadel
After coffee, where the waiter attempted to pass off an obsolete 25 piastre note (worth 3p) as a 25 Egyptian Pound note (worth £3, if there was such a thing) we inspected the police museum. We saw the cells where the British had once incarcerated Anwar Sadat, and a model of the ‘battle’ of Ismailiya Police Station in 1952, in which Lynne’s father played a small role as a national service squaddie.

The Prison Cells
Police Museum, Cairo Citadel

We spent more time haggling over the fare to the Ibn Tulun mosque than we did in the taxi. Built in the ninth and tenth centuries, this massive mosque has an unusual spiral staircase around the outside of its stumpy minaret. The huge central courtyard, open to the sky, is impressive in its simplicity, and also in its quietness – we had the place to ourselves. (For more about the Ibn Tulun Mosque, click here).

Minaret, Ibn Tulun Mosque,
Built against the outer wall of the mosque, the Gayer-Anderson House is actually two old houses knocked together by Major Gayer-Anderson, a retired British soldier who lived there from 1935 to 1942.  He filled the houses with antiques, including several ornate harem screens, and with a little imagination you can convince yourself you are really in seventeenth century Cairo. The roof terrace, which served as a set in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, affords a fine view of the Mohammed Ali mosque.
The Citadel from the Gayer-Anderson Roof Terrace

Cairo’s metro is cheap and surprisingly clean and efficient. The lines were designed to link Cairenes with their places of work and are generally of less use to those heading for tourist sites, but four stops south from Tahrir Square is Mari Girgis (St George’s), the gateway to Cairo’s Coptic quarter.
Mari Girgis

Some 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians. Pope Shenouda III has lead the church since 1971 and overseen a revival while keeping good relations with the country’s Islamic leaders. The bomb that killed twenty-one worshippers in an Alexandrian church on New Year’s Eve showed that extremists do exist, but the vast majority of Egyptians, Christian and Muslim, favour peaceful coexistence.
In 1980 the Coptic quarter was a warren of narrow streets and high walls, with hidden entrances into ornate churches. Now the visitor is greeted by the extensive grounds of the Coptic Museum and the remains of the Roman castle. The excellent museum covers the long history of the Copts in Egypt, while more literally covering the ground that was home to many thousands of Copts for several hundreds of years.

The Coptic Quarter
There remains a small area of narrow streets where you can visit the church in whose undercroft the Holy Family stayed after the flight to Egypt. The Nile now runs 300m away, but used to wash the walls of the castle and, by a happy coincidence, the very spot where the original Moses basket was plucked from the bulrushes lies just behind the church of the Holy Family. You may believe all this, if you wish.
Where Moses was found in the bullrushes (allegedly)

It is sad to see the whole quarter becoming museumised, but it was inevitable. The Copts have chosen to move out of their medieval ghetto - and who can blame them?

Central Cairo offers few eating options, but nobody visits Egypt for the cuisine. Ignoring the overpriced international food at the major hotels, we followed the Rough Guide’s recommendations.

The dimly-lit Estoril, down an equally dingy alley, provided good food at modest prices. The other customers seemed to be expatriate Europeans, while at the brighter Felfela just north of Tahrir Square there was a more mixed crowd of younger middle class Egyptians and foreigners. I can recommend the stuffed vine leaves, spiced meatballs and several variations on the theme of pigeon.

The nearby haven of peace that is the Café Riche serves an older clientele. The future president, Gamal Nasser, plotted the overthrow of King Farouk here in 1952, while last weekend Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, retreated to the café from the mayhem outside. Lynne and I used it more than once as a refuge from the midday sun. A waiter in a long blue robe would produce a satisfying bowl of lentil soup and a cold beer, and serve them with a smile.

Sharia Talaat Harb near the Café Riche

All these places serve alcohol but, as Cairo is largely an Islamic city, they are the exception rather than the rule. The restaurants used by most Egyptians are cheap, often crowded, but can be good. At Gad, on 26th of July Street, we walked through the busy take-away and up the stairs to the packed restaurant. I had a long wait for my chilli dusted Alexandrian style liver. It was excellent, but Lynne had finished her fish before I could take my first forkful.

Abou Tarek, which claims to be Cairo’s best kushari restaurant, is also crowded and you expect to share a table. There are two dishes, kushari and fuul, which should be eaten by every visitor to Egypt, but are often missed. Kushari is a mixture of noodles, lentils and rice topped with caramelised onions. Served with a spicy tomato sauce, the combination of sweetness and carbohydrates make it the ultimate Egyptian comfort food. Fuul beans are similar to dried broad beans. Boiled until they start to disintegrate they are the breakfast of choice for all Egyptians, whatever their status. Fuul is also popular in Sudan, where for many poorer people it is not just breakfast but lunch and dinner too. In the morning it is eaten with a hard boiled egg or cheese. I like fuul best lightly crushed, mixed with raw onion and feta cheese and sprinkled with sesame oil and chilli, though perhaps not at breakfast.

Hot and noisy, with the continuous blare of car horns, Cairo seemed frenetic but not rebellious, though Egypt is, obviously, a police state. Travelling outside the city involves negotiating regular police roadblocks. Every crossroads has an armed guard with at least one man kneeling behind a heavy metal shield. Parts of Alexandria seem to have more policemen than ordinary citizens. The government is not particularly corrupt, by the standards of its continent, but low-level corruption is endemic. Repression is felt most by the politically aware and Egyptian democracy is not about getting out the vote but controlling the count. With healthy economic growth discontent was muted, but Egypt is not immune to the world’s problems, and people have started to notice what they are missing.
Looking down from the Citadel
Mubarak will go, he is after all, 82, but that may not happen before September. Egypt may contrive an orderly transition to democracy, or the army may impose their man in the usual fraudulent election.

Harem Screens, Coutyard of the Gayer-Anderson House,
It is not up to foreigners, or their governments, to tell the Egyptian people what to do, but we should be quietly cheerleading for democracy. The Americans, having bankrolled Mubarak for years, are wavering, reluctant to see the back of a man who brought stability and a pro-American foreign policy. They seem worried by the thought of democracy and in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood; it must be the name, everything the Brotherhood have said over the last few weeks has been a model of moderation. Some American commentators even appear to judge the merit of any potential new government on how good it will be for Israel, not on how good it will be for Egypt.

To support another son-of-a-bitch just because he is ‘our son-of-a-bitch’ would be deeply hypocritical and morally wrong. I think it would also be politically shortsighted.

I hope that when this is over Egypt will emerge with a robust liberal democracy, it is what the people deserve. Whether or not that happens only time will tell.

Update (Jan 2012): This post was written during the 'Arab Spring' about a visit in August the previous year. There may well have been a revolution since - well at least Mubarak has gone.
Uncouragingly, the recent elections seem to have been free and fair - a first for Egypt, but the question of whether an elected parliament will be able to wrest meaningful power from the military is still unanswered.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Cannock Chase - not for the first time

I will not write about Cannock Chase every time I spend a day there – I would soon run out of things to say. We are fortunate to have a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on our doorstep, but at 26 square miles it is one of the smallest, so the variety of day walks is limited - and as most of the Chase is coniferous woodland it is not always easy to tell one route from another.

From the Punch Bowl to the Stepping-Stones
This Saturday was not my first visit to the Chase since the Chip Walk in December, indeed I was walking there the day my grandson was born (sorry, I had to crowbar that in somewhere) but there is a reason to write about this walk. According to weather records, the average low on the 20th of December and 5th of February alike is 2°C (with a high of 7°), but average figures don’t tell the whole story. At 9.00 am on the 20th I clocked a temperature of - 13°, at the same time on the 5th of February it was +11°, 24° degrees warmer. The Chase was in a very different mood - but Mike still wasn’t wearing shorts.


Mike and Alison not discussing the rugby

From the Punch Bowl to the stepping-stones over the Sherbrook is familiar territory, and the subsequent climb up Heywood Slade - though a path we had not taken before – looked no different. I took the opportunity for an in-depth discussion with Lee about the previous night’s rugby. He was gracious in victory (for a Englishman) while I had to admit Wales were lucky to be finish only 7 points adrift.

When it was not actually drizzling, the air was full of moisture. The white-carpeted paths and crystalline hoar frost of December had given way to brown mud and dull green trees.  We pressed on, joining Marquis Drive near Rifle Range Corner and then following the route of the Chip Walk; a swift tramp down to the railway and across Hednesford Road before the long, steady climb to Rugeley Road.

Flanders 1916? -  I exagerrated, so what?

The wild life had decided to stay indoors. Most days you expect to glimpse some of the 800 resident Fallow Deer and often a fox or two. All we saw was a squirrel and several dozen mountain bikers. Francis said that a great shrike had been reported near Rifle Range Corner, but we missed it – not that I would recognise any sort of shrike, even if it perched on my nose. We did see a tree full of siskins, but it would take a hardcore ornithologist to find that exciting.

Between Rugeley Road and the Horsepasture Pools forestry vehicles had churned the usually dry Chase into a facsimile of 1916 Flanders. Nobody was shooting at us, so we picked our way carefully through the mud and then up Hare Hill to Upper Longdon, where the Chetwynd Arms provided a sandwich and a couple of pints of Batham’s excellent Bitter.
The sunken lane from Upper Longdon
We left Upper Longdon along a sunken lane and eschewed the Chase for a while in favour of field paths and the customary viewing of Rugeley Power Station.
The Glory that is Rugeley Power Statiom

Francis produced his compass and
emphatically pointed the way

Back among the trees at Chetwynd Coppice we ran into navigational difficulties. The problem on the Chase is never finding a path, it is selecting the right one among many. The numerous rights of way are sometimes narrow but usually signed, the even more plentiful forestry tracks are larger, appear on the map, but are unsigned, and then there are unmarked, unmapped trails created by local usage. Arriving at a parting of ways, Francis produced his compass and emphatically pointed the way. The chosen path soon wandered off the bearing, while one we had rejected turned on to it, but that was hidden by the trees.

We reached the top of a small disused quarry. A new compass bearing persuaded us to walk down into the quarry and then the fencing made us climb back up the other side.

Stile Cop

Finding a path going the right way, we hauled ourselves to the top of Stile Cop then back across the Rugeley Road and down into Miflins Valley. The steep valley side is the home of serious cyclo-cross trails with suicidal looking ramps and jumps. Given their severity and the muddy conditions we were not surprised to see nobody using them.

We slogged back across the Hednesford Road and up to the Birches Valley visitor centre, where we had cunningly left a car, arriving around 4.00 pm. We finished in full daylight, unlike the Chip Walk. The day’s higher temperature had not been predictable but the longer daylight had, the days having lengthened cam ceiliog* (to quote my friend Anne’s friend Elin) since the shortest day.

It was a good day’s walk, but I preferred the December cold to the February damp; not only is it much prettier but though a walk can warm you up, it can never dry you out.

I may or may not write about the Chase again, but I will certainly continue to walk there. Sitting on a 100 metre high pile of sandstone pebbles (Triassic Bunter, to be precise) it is superbly well drained. The rest of Staffordshire is famous for its clay (hence the pottery industry) so it is impossible to walk field paths in winter without dragging several kilos of real estate round on your boots. Familiarity with the Chase breeds not exactly contempt, but a lack of respect. I should be grateful to live so close to a place that is magnificent, even in the wet and sullen mood it affected on Saturday. Given the government’s current plans for selling off forestry [update; plan abandoned, a victory for common sense], it is important to ensure that unrestricted access to all parts of the Chase remains available to everyone.

* For non-Welsh speakers (which includes this long exiled Welshman) ‘cam ceiliog’ is the span of a cockerel’s stride.