A Travellerspoint blog

Arabian Adventures 3

Hello once again from Arabia,

I've been to a few more places this year and in February visited Cairo, the Arab world’s and indeed Africa’s biggest city, it’s also the biggest in the world I hadn’t been to so was really pleased to be able to visit. As a teenager I visited the South of Egypt around Luxor so it was interesting to get an older perspective and see what I made of the country as an adult.

Cairo itself wouldn’t rank as the most beautiful city I’ve been to. By far. Absolutely filthy and clogged in awful permanent traffic jams, it’s the sort of city the phrase ‘urban hell’ was devised for. Egypt experienced massive rural to urban migration in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the city was simply unable to cope with the influx of people; people ended up living in cemeteries and underneath motorways as the city became notorious for its pollution and other problems.
The infrastructure has been improved a bit since then but large swathes of the city still feel fairly ‘temporary’, particularly in poorer residential neighbourhoods as the buildings are deliberately built with no roofs to avoid paying tax on them and there’s little to no beautification of public spaces. The rich live in swanky compounds away from the chaos of the city a
nd as with other megacities in Middle Income Countries like Sao Paulo and Mexico City the rich poor divide felt unpleasantly stark here.
The city itself was less satisfying than I thought it was gonna be, whilst Old Cairo is interesting to walk around in for a couple of hours, the central area around Tahir Square (site of the protests in the Arab Spring) was just extremely dirty with several major roads running through it. Even doing a cruise on the Nile was not as pleasant as it sounds as the city is just not very attractively built and has fewer points of interest than I imagined. The one big exception to this being of course the mighty pyramids; an unmistakable sight from all over the South of the city, the sheer size of them can’t fail to awe and wandering round them trying to appreciate how they were constructed 4,500 years ago is the definite highlight of Cairo.

Desperate to get out the city, we took a flight to the Sinai peninsula for a real change in atmosphere. Actually part of Asia rather than Africa, Northern Sinai has become quite dangerous near the Israeli border as the army are fighting an ongoing insurgency against Islamic terrorists. The Southern part however is much safer with the beach resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and several others offering welcome Winter sun to European tourists. We went to the city of Dahab which offered a great combination of sea and mountains. We went snorkeling in the cold but very cool Blue Hole to see some of the famous Red Sea marine life then went on a 2 day trek up into the mountains to climb Mt. Sinai. Where Moses (allegedly) received the 10 Commandments it was quite an easy hike in truth but in stunning scenery of parched red sandstone mountains as far as the eye could see, it certainly had the feeling of somewhere important in human history. After spending an utterly freezing night near the summit we headed down to the warmth of the coast and our flight back to Cairo.

Speaking to Egyptians it’s not a very happy place right now with some parallels of Britain of how divided the country feels. After overthrowing one longstanding military dictator (Mubarak) in 2011 after briefly and unsuccessfully trying democracy they’re now back to another military backed dictator (Sisi) who seems to be tolerated and loathed in equal measure. Egypt is by far the biggest Arab country and certainly the most influential in terms of culture, after Mubarak was overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood came to power and there was a fear that Egypt was becoming could go down the route of Syria or Iraq and become dominated by Islamists or even Daesh. Therefore many feel the coup by Sisi was necessary to stop the country going down this route. However, lots of people were utterly contemptuous of him and the whole process of how he came to power so the country is extremely divided and everyone is very aware of it, a bit like how Britain has changed since Brexit.
Overall, it wasn’t the easiest place to travel in but certainly somewhere I’m pleased to have seen and get a bit more perspective of living in and understanding the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi and Jordan

I write this from Madaba in Jordan where I spent the last 2 weeks.
Madaba is a small town outside the fairly forgettable capital Amman where we began and ended our trip here in Jordan. Whilst it’s scruffily built, it has a real charm and hides a secret in its 5th century churches and incredibly well preserved early Christian mosaics. As with most spots in Jordan, fascinating history is never far away.

Before arriving here though we made a quick stop off in the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. Whilst Dubai is by far the more famous, Abu Dhabi is much larger, wealthier and more powerful. Within the UAE, it calls the shots, including the lamentable embargo on Qatar .

It’s certainly not as flashy as Dubai and lacks the standout sights like Burj Khalifa or Burj Al Arab but as in Dubai I found myself really admiring it. Unlike in Qatar the infrastructure is largely finished and the city just ‘works’ with an efficient bus system, lots of parks and vegetation and a more mixed economy than the oil and gas stereotype. It’s based on a fairly ugly peninsula with fairly non-descript islands dotted around but it still has a couple of cool sights to see in the amazing national masjid and the controversial Abu Dhabi Louvre. All in all a very pleasant city and definitely somewhere to recommend as a stopover.

Jordan however I would probably pick as the best place in the Middle East to go ‘on holiday’; manageable distances between sights, friendly people and a good tourist infrastructure make the country feel very ‘easy’ to travel in and the range of history and variety of landscapes to see is just outstanding.
Before heading to Jordan’s most famous sights further South, we warmed up by visiting the incredible Roman city of Jerash. Nicknamed the Pompeii of the Middle East it’s a huge Roman city that got abandoned after a couple of earthquakes but is still remarkably well preserved. Whilst there’s no one building to compare with the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, it has several points which are jawdroppingly impressive such as the 6,000 seater theatre and huge colonnaded main street. The landscape around it is upland agricultural land and almost feels alpine but the next day we headed East and saw a completely different side of the country. Rows of crops and trees were replaced by vast expanses of sand as almost the entire Eastern half of the country is empty desert. It was here that the Islamic Caliphs from Baghdad built castles and much later TE Lawrence roamed around fomenting the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans in WWI. The road heads Eastwards and I felt a strange sense of foreboding about the road as it headed into the desert as it leaves the safety of Jordan, into the heartlands of Daesh territory in the Syria/Iraq border region.

It felt good to head back to the more populated regions and we next drove South via some incredible Crusader castles. Whilst it’s an era that doesn’t seem to get taught too much in schoolsI find it a very rich period to study with several sliding doors moments in the history of the ‘old world’ and the religious makeup of the world. Investigating the remains of Baldwin and Saladdin’s castles with the backdrop of the Great Rift that Jordan sits on was extremely satisfying.

Our next stop of Petra was however, definitely Jordan’s crown jewel for me and would have to rank as one of the greatest architectural sights I’ve ever seen. ‘Rediscovered’ by the Swiss explorer Burckhart at the beginning of the 19th century it rose in Western consciousness when featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it was deservedly chosen as one of the modern seven wonders when put to a public internet vote in 2007. I’ve now been to all of them and whilst to a lesser extent Machu Picchu and certainly Christ the Redeemer don’t deserve to be there (democracy doesn’t work) Petra really is a thing of wonder. As you descend the main highway off the Jordan plateau a mesmerising set of sandstone formations arises in the distance; when the road stops you have to continue walking and as you slowly move through the narrow, twisty canyons with walls some 100m high, out of seemingly nowhere the incredible treasury suddenly reveals itself and leaves all first time viewers simply speechless. Petra was created by a civilization called the Nabateans who weren’t around too long (300years, then destroyed by earthquakes/Romans) but my word what a wonder they have left. Whilst stumbling on the treasury is the most famous part of a Petra visit there are some 800 tombs, temples and sacrificial altars carved out of the beautiful pink sandstone. In what would have to rank as one of the most intense sightseeing days I can ever remember, around almost every corner there was something incredible to see and I found myself marveling over the patience and craftsmanship required to carve such incredible monuments out of the sandstone some 2000 years ago. A truly unforgettable experience.

After such intense sightseeing some relaxation was needed so we headed down to the Gulf of Aqaba and did some lovely snorkeling and swimming in the sun. You have to go to a private beach to do this though as still conservative Jordan doesn’t really go in for swimming costumes and displays of flesh.
Worried about getting soft we then headed to the famed Wadi Rum, another iconic playground of TE Lawrence. Whilst the desert in the East was vast, almost featureless plains of sand in Wadi Rum it’s very different; the sand feels more like an ocean but dotted with plentiful islands of sandstones which rise up steeply and create wonderful vistas. At certain times (particularly at sunrise and sunset) the rocks give off beautiful colours and it’s an extremely photogenic and atmospheric place to be. Whilst it’s billed as ‘the authentic’ Bedouin desert experience I think it has lost a bit of that feeling as there are now so many tourists visiting and the camps needed to support them have changed the landscapes. Unfortunately litter can be seen a bit too frequently in the area and the night skies that I’d heard so much about were somewhat contaminated by the light pollution from the bulbs of the various camps but it’s still a wonderful place to see and explore.

We then did the long drive back North to the Dead Sea and got to see yet another fascinating landscape in the Jordanian kaleidoscope. The road from Aqaba by the Israeli border starts off flat but then starts to descend and the temperature gradually climbs. Agriculture starts appearing and the area is surprisingly well populated, albeit it’s a tough life. Like in Israel, Jordan earns a lot of money from the Dead Sea creating Bromine, Magnesium, potash and other minerals but these industries along with the intense agriculture have created serious water problems. Jordan now ranks as the 5th most water deprived country in the world with just 77cu meters per person (anything <500 = water scarce) as a combination of rising population, massive depletion of rivers and underground sources has meant that by some estimates in as soon as 20 years Jordan could run out of water completely. It was sad seeing the effects of it in Azraq in the East as a huge wetland oasis in the desert has now shrunk to just 1/10 of its former size and the Dead Sea is shrinking at an almost unbelievable rate. In the hotel we stayed at it was now a 5min walk down to the water as the hotel built in the 1990s was now no longer on the coast. There is a plan to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to replenish it and Israel has agreed to send desalinated water to Jordan in exchange for their continued political support but there’s no doubt the population is having a disastrous effect on the landscape.

The Dead Sea was however a wonderful place to finish the trip and effortlessly float in the dead still waters. Dotted around the lake are various Biblical sites to visit including questionable claims to Sodom, Gomorrah, Lot’s Cave and Mt Nebo (where Moses ‘died’) but a better one for where Jesus was baptised in the Jordan. The river really isn’t very big or impressive and seeing it in the flesh it was incredible to think such a varied and interesting country is named after something so small!

All in all, a wonderful place to visit and an excellent holiday destination.
From Madaba,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 20:40 Archived in Jordan Tagged egypt abu dhabi Comments (0)

Arabian Adventures 2

Kuwait

Definitely somewhat less spectacular than Oman was Kuwait. I went there to visit an ex-colleague of mine and can safely say that of the countries I’ve been to it’s definitely one I would recommend that ‘you can skip’.
It was the first of the Gulf states to develop and the caricatures of sheikhs richer than Croesus buying up fleets of luxury cars they would never drive and London palaces they would never step foot in was largely due to the country’s rapid ascent to wealth in the 1950s, ‘60s and particularly after the oil crisis in the ‘70s. It was obviously hit very hard by the first Gulf War in 1990 and since then has almost tried it’s best to stay in the shadows of global events.
Whilst there are a few points of note such as the iconic Kuwait Towers and the 10km long corniche, as I returned to my hostel in my first evening there my overriding feeling was Christ (or Mohammed? )what a boring place! There’s no culture, no sporting events, no nature (it’s effectively a city state in the desert) and virtually nothing going on of any interest. Put it this way, the top rated thing to do in Kuwait according to Trip Advisor is visit a shopping mall, which sums up the country nicely.
Unlike in the UAE or Qatar the ruling royal family are seemingly disinterested in taking any part on the global stage and have struck an unwritten deal with the population where no one is expected to do any work but it doesn’t matter as they quietly sit back watching the petrodollars and returns from the very successful sovereign wealth fund roll in. The population are happy to pay South Asian migrants to do anything resembling hardwork as they live tax free, are granted free land to build houses and even foodstuffs like bread and eggs are subsidized. They’ll then take ample holidays shopping in London or Paris living the definition of a cosseted life.
Much of the infrastructure was built in the ‘80s and ‘90s and is starting to look very dated; as you walk past dusty playgrounds and abandoned theme parks it imbued the place with a deep sense of decadence tied in with a gradual sense of inertia. It’s difficult to see it changing any time soon and I would ultimately judge it as one of the least memorable countries in the world to visit.

Lebanon

From Kuwait I flew to Lebanon and even at the airport was hit by the contrast between the two countries. The space and ease of Kuwait’s airport was replaced in Beirut by overcrowding from refugees and strict security guards; something that would be a theme of visiting Lebanon. If Kuwait is lethargic and dull; Lebanon is intense and fascinating. Whilst it’s a tiny country there’s a huge amount to take in and trying to describe it coherently I found very difficult.
Beirut as a city was more pleasant than I expected; once known as Paris of the Mediterranean (or the East) the long running civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s involved urban warfare and residential bombing raids and so coined the phrase beloved by Mums looking at children’s rooms worldwide of “It looks like Beirut in here”.
Much of the city has now been cleaned up and particularly in the city centre, it feels like you’re in a European city with clean streets flanked by gallerias selling high end brands bought by the very fashionable population milling around. In GDP terms it ranks second behind only Israel in the region and sun kissed by a glorious climate with outstanding cuisine, it could be a truly wonderful place to live.
However, you’re also very conscious that the quality of life is not shared by all and this is still a very divided city and country.
Demographically Lebanon would have to rank as one of the single most complicated countries in the world with the Islamic/Christian population roughly split 50/50 but also divided on ethnic, tribal and linguistic lines in a way that is very difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend. The civil war reflected these divisions but Lebanon’s situation is made even more complicated by ongoing external conflicts with Israel and the nearby wars in Syria and Iraq. Despite heavy military aid from the West to the army and a huge UN peacekeeping force trying to keep a lid on things, there is a definite air of tension everywhere in the country and the fear that an unexpected spark could kick off the tinder box again.
Whilst some parts of the city such as the Old French Christian quarters are very pleasant, in other areas such as the Barajhneh Palestinian refugee camp life is near unbearably hard as over 20,000 people cram into a space a little over 1km sq. Lebanon doesn’t really know what to do with it’s refugees from Palestine as around 500k have lived there since the Nakba in 1948. Lebanon doesn’t want to give them residency let alone citizenship as they would have to give them services and benefits that the Lebanese population are unwilling to grant. It could also destabilise the hard fought peace as the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians are Sunni Muslims and by granting them citizenship it would tilt the balance inexorably in favour of Muslims. Therefore they unfortunately stay in a limbo state where they’re crammed into permanent refugee camps, cannot get jobs or take part in Lebanese society and are supported by the UN at great expense. The situation has persisted for 70 years with no obvious solution and seeing the poverty and lack of basic sanitation or even hope in the refugee camps is a truly humbling experience.
Outside of Beirut, Lebanon is home to some outstanding sightseeing with the ancient Phoenician cities of Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon trumped only by the almighty Roman city of Baalbek in the North East. The huge Temple of Jupiter is the best preserved Roman temple anywhere and the 95m high columns and amazingly well preserved frescoes present one of the best architectural sights I’ve ever seen. I think only the location prevents it from being more famous internationally as it’s in a pretty dangerous location near the Syrian border with its endless rows of refugee tents and various army and Hezbollah checkpoints.
Hezbollah’s presence in the country is controversial; funded by Iran and seen by the West as a terrorist organization, monuments and posters of martyrs are ubiquitous in the Muslim areas and the paramilitary presence leads to a feeling of a state within a state. Whilst the Catholics are generally wary of them, the Muslims I spoke to saw them as defenders of both their community within the country but also as a bulwark against the hated Israelis to the South. They did provide a wonderfully quirky attraction in the mountains near the Israeli border called MLEETA. It’s a museum cum propaganda vehicle where the spoils of war captured from the IDF like tanks and missiles are displayed and gloated over as well as the hillside tunnels and hideouts they used in the guerilla war in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Fascinating to see and walk around, although with the country at relative peace it was difficult to see what their raison d’etre is now.
Whilst it’s not a big place geographically (maybe a 3hr drive North to South), getting around Lebanon isn’t easy. There’s no public transport and the clogged highways has led to one of the worst traffic and pollution problems in the world. After a week of noise, fumes and people I was desperate to get away from things but it’s almost impossible to get away from people in Lebanon. Even up in the mountains you’re always in sight of towns and villages as the extremely fertile soils and pleasant climate led to a naturally densely populated area. However, swollen by 500k Palestinian and around 2m Syrian refugees out of a population of just 6m, it’s now the 4th most densely populated country in the world. Almost all the famous cypress trees have been chopped down and virtually all viable land is used for agriculture so there isn’t really anything resembling wilderness. The best I could do was a relatively quiet valley called Qadisha; it’s home to the most important sites of the Christian church in Lebanon and is a UNESCO listed site. Dotted with wonderfully calm monasteries carved out of the cliff sides amid rolling streams, a hike in the clean air down the valley felt like a vital recharge in this hectic, intense country.
Thinking about my time in the country over shisha that evening I felt very lucky to have visited and had the opportunity to experience the amazing culture and hope the country stays at peace into the future.
From Beirut,
barney

Posted by carlswall 04:57 Archived in Lebanon Tagged kuwait Comments (0)

Carpathians and Balkans


View Carpathians and Balkans on carlswall's travel map.

Hello from Kosovo!
After a couple of adventurous Summers off the beaten track in Africa, this year we decided to do something a bit easier by swapping the yellow flats of Qatar for the green forested mountains and bright blue lakes of South Eastern Europe.
We flew into Romania’s pleasant second city of Cluj-Napoca in the heart of Transylvania and was pleased to find the area really lived up to its reputation. Transylvania literally means through the forest and it was a gorgeously evocative and atmospheric landscape.
Blessed with fantastic produce and an easygoing pace of life, the country has a real bucolic charm which isn’t found frequently in Europe any more. You’d wake up every morning and without fail the landscape would be covered in a haunting fog. The Carpathians rise very steeply and almost without exception are thickly forested and home to Europe’s largest population of bears and wolves. It leaves a slightly frightening feeling as you hike around, like you could get lost or walk into something you don’t want to round the next corner. Of course Transylvania was most famously home to Vlad the Impaler and the Dracula legend based on him and all over the territory there are magnificently ruined mountaintop castles and spookily abandoned watchtowers adding to a sense of medieval mysticism as you travel through the area.
Unfortunately medieval is a word that can apply to too many aspects of life in Romania as the country has an odd feel to it, like it operates on different speeds.
Flush with EU development funds, all over the country are signs of development as you see new infrastructure projects going up and Romanian manufacturers successfully undercutting their Western European competitors. The country has managed to record impressive economic growth of upwards of 5% since it joined the EU but at the same time though, and in several different ways the country feels a long, long way behind other European countries and in some ways it’s staggering that it was accepted into the EU in the first place. For example it’s not at all uncommon for Audis and Mercedes to be stuck behind horse drawn carts carrying hay or refuse, even in the outskirts of major cities. The capital Bucharest had it’s heyday in the early 20th century and modelled on Baron Haussman’s designs got the nickname Paris of the East. Now however, the impressive buildings are simply falling apart and with the ubiquitous huge Communist era defunct factories and steelworks that dot the landscape it’s an ‘urbexor’s dream destination.
At different times, the country has been settled by Hungarians, Bulgarians and Saxons amongst others and they have all left agreeably identifiable communities dotted around. However, one group who absolutely have still not ‘settled’ in Romania (and the other countries on this trip) are the Gypsies. In London, Romanian Gypsies are known for sleeping rough by Marble Arch, fleecing tourists on the Embankment and a whole range of low level criminal activity. Seeing how they are expected to live in Eastern Europe it’s easy to understand how they’ve got to that stage. The EU made a very strong push to improve the quality of life for them throughout Europe a couple of years ago but discrimination is still rife against them as they struggle to access education, healthcare and any ability to get a job and generally ‘contribute to society’. Going through some of the Gypsy villages it was incredible to think people in the EU still live like this as everything from their ragged clothes to the poorly constructed hovels they lived in was just shockingly bad and pretty tragic to see. They hang around the edges of life e.g. at bus and train stations and everyone else is equal parts wary and contemptuous of them. It’s easy to see why they feel there’s nothing for them here.
We left Transylvania via the magnificent Transfagaran road that cuts through the Fagaras mountains. It was built at a cost of at least 40 dead soldiers over 10 years as a bizarre vanity project by Ceausescu before he was executed and was ranked by Top Gear as the best driving road in the world. Whilst there are others in Northern India and the Andes that might disagree with that, there’s no doubt that as you climb up 40 hairpin bends up to 2000m the view is pretty spectacular as the clouds clear beneath you.
Less attractive was the view entering Bucharest as endless Communist era apartment tower blocks seem to form a ring around much of the city. As with many other former Communist cities in Russia or Central Asia it did seem to fit the belief of no money or attention spent on private space e.g. homes but plenty on public spaces so at the same time there are some beautiful gardens, parks and squares in the city to enjoy.
Shortly after we left there was a major protest in one of the main squares at the government which quickly turned violent. Whilst the stats show that Romania is making excellent progress since joining the EU, critics say much of the economic growth is due to remittances from abroad and despite various EU attempts to limit corruption, it’s still a major problem in the country. At 20m Romania is a bigger country than most people realise but a full fifth of the population live abroad with this number only increasing at the perceived lack of opportunities in the country. Whilst it feels like it’s moving in the right direction it still has an undoubtedly long way to go.
After leaving the Carpathians we continued onto Bulgaria and the very different destination of Varna on the Black Sea coast. When Communism ended and the country started opening up, Bulgaria has seemingly always been tipped as the ‘next big thing’ in terms of travel destination and whilst it’s never exploded in popularity in the way that Czechia or more recently Croatia have, it’s definitely crept up in popularity and it’s very easy to see why. A fantastic variety of landscapes including mountains, forests, vineyards and coastline as well as a couple of interesting cities within a relatively small area make it a great choice for a 2 week holiday. When you throw in friendly people, an excellent climate in both Summer and Winter and wonderful value for money (a beer costs a pound!) it’s a cracking place to be.
Our first stop of Varna reminded me of Odessa further up the Black Sea coast in Ukraine where I visited a few years previously; the beachside location and huge parks gives it an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like a big city and the chic population and opera house add a surprising air of sophistication too.
Bulgaria is home to some of the ‘oldest’ history in Europe with the archaeological sites in Varna showcasing the first worked gold in the world and the remains of the 8,000 year old oldest settlement in Europe in the quirky second city of Plovdiv being particular highlights. This ancient history has helped give the country a pleasingly cosmopolitan feel. Located at the Southeastern end of the continent as well as being on the coast, it was predictably conquered by pretty much all the big Ancient empires, including Persian, Mongol, Rome and Greece. In later years it was conquered by the Ottomans and has obvious Russian influences too but there have also been periods when South Eastern Europe has been dominated by the Bulgarians too so it feels both culturally unique but also with a wide range of other influences.
We next headed into the mountains and thanks to an impressive range of cable cars and chairlifts built for the ski seasons, it’s easy to get up into the higher mountains. We joined hundreds of other Bulgarians in a rite of passage as they peaked Mt. Musala, the highest in the Balkans at 2,925m but my favourite hike was up to the magnificent Rila Lakes. After climbing up to 2,500m you reach a point where you can see 7 lakes below you in a truly beautiful sight. It was made extra special by a gathering of the local ‘White Brotherhood’ sect (a mixture between yoga and New Age beliefs) below. Dressed all in white, they formed a huge circle and sang and chanted for a few hours to give the experience an ethereal quality.
As with Bucharest, the capital Sofia wasn’t really a highlight but the country seems to be a little more settled. Whilst it has similar problems of a brain drain and depopulation in rural areas in particular, the country feels a bit more developed with a more up to date infrastructure and a population that seem to be pretty optimistic about the future.
After leaving Sofia we headed onto gorgeous Macedonia which has been in the news a lot this Summer as it may finally be changing its name to Northern Macedonia and ending the long running dispute with Greece. Since Yugoslavia broke up in 1992 Macedonia has had to go by the slightly ridiculous moniker of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because Greece won’t let them call themselves ‘Macedonia’.
The northern part of Greece has always been called Macedonia and is the homeland of Philip II and Alexander the Great. Later on, when the Ottomans conquered SE Europe, they gave the name Macedonia to a much larger area including present day Macedonia and part of Southern Bulgaria. Hence, today many people call themselves Macedonian but ownership of the term is heavily disputed.
The row had rumbled on for over 25 years and has been a real impediment to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO but earlier this Summer the two leaders agreed on a deal for the new name and hopefully the young republic can move on.
Perhaps in part due to their lack of international recognition, Macedonia definitely flies under the radar but they’ve made an interesting attempt at rebranding in the capital Skopje. With its nondescript history and ‘between places’ location, it was somewhat reminiscent of Astana or Ashgabat in that they’ve spent a lot of money giving facelifts to buildings in the city centre and most eye-catchingly have erected dozens of big statues. Aside from Skopje born Mother Theresa there are plenty of Greek heroes (done at least partially to wind Greece up) and means the city is certainly not boring to look at, although it does feel very contrived.
Outside the city though there is no need to rebrand as the countryside is blanketed with gorgeous green forests and Balkan peaks. My favourite part though was undoubtedly the beautiful blue twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes; they straddle the tri border area with Greece and Albania and are a marvelously relaxing area. We spent our days climbing nearby mountains, kayaking in canyons, checking out the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ in Ohrid (there are 365 churches) or just relaxing on the wonderful beaches. As with Bulgaria I couldn’t help but feel that with it’s natural charms it will grow in popularity and if it joins the EU will surely open up even further.
We were then delighted to finish our trip in the ‘disputed’ country of Kosovo which turned out to be a really pleasant surprise. Growing up in the late ‘90s in London Kosovans did not have a good reputation. Due to the fighting against Serbia, several thousand arrived in the UK and were a controversial addition to the population; heavily blamed by the tabloid press for a spike in various crimes including people trafficking and muggings, I remember being quite wary of them as a teenager.
When NATO intervened to stop the war many returned to Kosovo and if they stayed in the UK, they gradually started to assimilate into Britain and 9/11 happened and the press developed other ethnic targets.
In Serbian culture Kosovo is considered one of the founding locations of their civilization after they won a pivotal battle in the 14th century against the Ottomans there. There had always been an Albanian population but gradually their numbers increased and about 200 years ago overtook Serbs as the majority community. During the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s few Albanian Kosovans wanted to stay as part of Serbia but Serbia was not prepared to let it go under any circumstances and in 1995 the two sides started fighting. Whilst not as bloody as the earlier Bosnian war, an estimated 10,000 were killed with plenty of war crimes committed by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Supported by Albania and NATO, the Serbs were fought off and as they retreated, Kosovo started to stabilise and eventually and controversially in 2008 declared independence.
Heavily supported by the likes of USA, Germany and Britain it’s now recognised by 113 countries but plenty of countries including Spain, China and of course Serbia don’t recognise Kosovo as they fear for their own separatist regions doing the same. Therefore Kosovo stands as one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries in the world; recognised by some countries and organisations e.g. UEFA but not by others e.g. the UN.
Being ethnically Albanian it is a Muslim country but is probably the most relaxed Muslim country I’ve been to. Alcohol flows freely and dress codes are a world away from the Arabian peninsula, in fact aside from the occasional noise of the azan or masjid on the streets you could be in any Eastern European country.
As both the youngest country in Europe but also the youngest population (nearly half the population are under 25) it’s a surprisingly cool place to be with trendy artists, bars and cafes lining the capital Pristina. The population are extremely friendly and aiming to build up their country, seemed very proud to welcome tourists and show them their culture. That said, the situation hasn’t completely calmed down, Serbia has absolutely not given up their claim and the election of a recent right wing government that has threatened potential military action means that NATO forces will not be leaving any time soon. There are still pockets of Serbians in Kosovo and going past them on the bus is almost like entering a militarized zone as heavily armed NATO troops behind barbed wire protect them from any revenge attacks by the Kosovans. As we passed through I got talking to a Kosovan back visiting who’d lived in London since being forced to leave in ’98 and he was quite forthright on the subject. “We’re not Kosovan we’re Albanian. We called the new country Kosovo to stop the Serbs declaring war again but we’ll always be Albanians and they’ll never accept us here”.
The creation of Kosovo reminded me a bit of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucuses and the failed attempts to broker a permanent solution to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The US has recently proposed a land swap but time will tell if the plan is accepted by any party and many feel that mono-ethnic states should not be a goal in the 21st century anyway.
We finished our trip on our final day by taking a wonderful trip to a bear sanctuary, one of several that have been founded in the region in the last few years. Thanks to the perfect terrain, SE Europe still has quite a lot of bears and for centuries they’ve been captured and used as a tool to make money by people forcing them to ‘dance’ in town squares or as ‘curiosities’ to poke and tease outside of restaurants. Thanks to the EU and pioneering work by several charities these have now been completely stopped but the rescued bears need somewhere to be rehomed and so several sanctuaries have been created. Whilst some of the bears sadly show signs of mental illness, the majority seem completely recovered it was wonderful seeing them play around and going swimming. In gorgeous forest by a big lake, the happy, rejuvenated atmosphere of the bear sanctuary felt like the perfect place to finish a lovely month.
From Pristina,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 01:45 Archived in Romania Tagged bulgaria macedonia kosovo Comments (0)

Life in Qatar

After living in Qatar for 2 years I thought it would be a good time to note some of my observations of the country and living here. I’ve somewhat lazily separated them into the Good, Bad and Ugly. In order of how much I notice them:

Good

1. Vision 2030: Growing up in Britain things didn’t really seem to change very much, or if they did it was gradual enough to barely notice. In Qatar I feel very lucky to see the country being almost literally built in front of you. In the short time I’ve been here many of the major roads have been built and the Metro system is coming online. Whole new cities are being built and the CBD skyline has been developed to be one of the most impressive in the region. Whilst much of the construction is for the 2022 World Cup, they do have the longer term plan of making the country and economy self-sufficient by 2030 as they slowly move away from being reliant on oil and natural gas. The fast pace of change gives the country an air of vibrancy and excitement which reminds me of China and means I always look around myself with interest at what’s happening.

2. Luxury Living: One of the things that attracted me to moving here was the fact that it was the richest country in the world and I basically wanted to see how the other 0.1% lived, and it hasn’t disappointed. People watching is outstanding and interacting with Qataris is fascinating as they never want for anything and can choose to do virtually anything money can buy. When you go out it’s to 5* hotels (there’s nothing else) and the quality of service and design of things are outstanding. I’ve never taken any interest in cars but car watching has become one of my favourite pastimes as from my balcony a stream of Maseratis, Bentley, Aston Martins and Ferraris stream past. In short the quality of life is amazing and it’s easy to see why many people stay around for a few years.

3. Holidays: Qatar, along with many Islamic countries is very generous with holidays. Whilst I’m paid for 12 months a year, I actually feel like I only work for 8 months of it. A long Summer break as well as Christmas and Easter holidays go down very well but Ramadan is maybe my favourite time of year. For a month, everybody is on reduced hours and not all that much work is expected of you. It costs the economy a huge amount but it’s something to really look forward to with special events on in the evenings. Afterwards the Emir will grant generous holidays during Eid, for example I’m writing this in an Eid break which was originally going to be 5 days but the Emir benevolently decided to give everyone 11 days instead. 

4. Multiculturalism: Qataris make up just 12% of the population ranking only behind UAE as having the highest proportion of immigrants. This means that there are people from almost literally all over the world contributing to the country. Whilst that does have it’s own issues (see Bad section) it means that the different languages, flavours and culture of the world meet in an Arabian setting which I really enjoy living amongst.

5. Weather: It’s never cold and a high percentage of the time it’s sunny. It really does make a difference in terms of the quality of life and how you feel on a day to day basis.

6. National pride post embargo: Whilst I’m absolutely not a fan of nationalism I have really enjoyed seeing how Qataris and other residents have rallied post embargo (see in Bad). The Saudis and friends were hoping for the Qatari state to implode and residents demand regime change but the absolute opposite has happened. Huge murals of the Emir’s face appeared on both public and private buildings everywhere and people even put up banners, posters and car stickers stating their support for the country.

The expat community has similarly got behind the Emir and supported the country through the blockade. The most memorable example of this was at the tennis tournament where the Emir (who was an excellent player in his youth) appeared on court, he then received a standing ovation from the entire stadium which was composed almost entirely of expats.

In many ways the embargo has been good for Qatar as it’s forced the country to become more self reliant with the farming industry in particular growing impressively quickly. The authorities invested quickly and thanks to imported cows, chickens and use of A/C and smart water use, we now get all dairy and meat locally with a decent percentage of our vegetables too.

7. Al Jazeera: I always thought it was a great broadcaster and living here has just reinforced that view. Their documentaries on how Israel is trying to capture the Labour Party in the UK and match fixing in cricket were particular highlights but it consistently tells good stories from ignored people and places.

8. Sporting events: It’s not London but I have seen Djokovic and Murray at the tennis, MSN when Barcelona played a friendly here and all the best squash players in the world. Maybe the highlight though was the World Cycling Championship finishing line being visible from my balcony.

Bad

1. Social Segregation: Whilst Qatar is very multicultural, mixing of people happens much less than it should and I’d go so far as to say that Qatar has one of the most extreme social hierarchies in the world. Different nationalities only tend to get employed (and in some cases are only allowed) to do certain jobs and this helps the authorities to manage the country but also stop potential problems like trade unions forming or unrest against the government. Therefore at ‘the bottom’, Indians/Nepalis work in construction, Ethiopians drive taxis, Kenyans are security guards and Filipinos do service sector jobs working as cleaners, maids and in shops. Much better off are Arabs from Egypt, Jordan and other countries who tend to do slightly better admin and services jobs, they might also work in the police or health services. Much better off again are European and American expats who tend to work in things like engineering and finance. At the top though are Qataris who live way up in the clouds. For a long time they didn’t tend to actually ‘work’ and would be parachuted into a ‘supervisory role’ in public ministries (where underlings would cover) or would buy businesses and count the profits as employees would do all the work. The government is trying to change this but when you grow as a multimillionaire and can do whatever you want, it’s difficult to develop a work ethic.

Therefore as an ‘expat’, I’d consider myself an isolated ‘middle class’, miles better off than the ‘workers’ but miles away from the Qataris.
You have very limited opportunities to mix with people outside of your ‘class’ beyond chatting to taxi drivers or cleaners and when you also throw in the most extreme gender split in the world (there are 5 working age men to every woman) there can’t be many less integrated societies in the world.

2. Bullshit jobs: Another thing to add about the nature of work is how much productivity varies across work sectors. Construction workers have it hard, working in the heat, they earn little money and their quality of life is low as they live in dorm accommodation maybe 6-10 guys a room and have little social freedom. They’re given limited holiday or even free time and they’re as single males are not even allowed in public areas like malls. The idea is that they earn for 7 or 10 years and can support their families and eventually start their own businesses or get married and buy a home etc. Nonetheless it’s undoubtedly a hard life.
In contrast, a lot of the service sector jobs and particularly security jobs don’t really produce anything and just seem a waste of manpower. Labour is very, very cheap so restaurants and shops will employ too many waiters or shop assistants and they end up just standing around a lot. In the ‘richer’ parts of the city there are security guards everywhere who do pretty much nothing all day apart from stand around. For example, to enter the car park in my building you need to be buzzed in by a security guard who sits in a booth all day. Quite why we can’t just let ourselves in doesn’t make sense to me but the Qatari population are used to a very high level of service and demand people to do these sorts of jobs. The sheer waste of manpower and knowledge of all the better things they can be doing with their time is very frustrating to see.

3. Embargo: Whilst I stand firmly with Qatar on the issue and they have taken steps to not let it impact the country too much, there’s no doubt it makes life a bit harder. Certain foods are more expensive/difficult to get hold of but the big thing has been travel. Etihad and Emirates stopped running flights and to get anywhere now is either very expensive as only Qatar Airways is still running or awkward and time consuming via Turkey or Kuwait. Therefore only a few destinations are still an option in the region which is a major frustration.

4. Early mornings: When I leave Qatar one thing I will be delighted to leave are the early mornings. Whilst I finish work at 2.30pm I have to get up at 5.30am and I’ve simply never got used to it. Whilst I enjoyed drinking coffee in the UK, here I simply have to have a cup to jumpstart me in the day or I simply can’t do the job. I’m not a morning person.

5. Driving: When I first arrived in Doha the roads were a real shock. As such a high percentage of the population hail from the sub-continent, they've unfortunately brought their driving habits with them. Drivers regularly text (or just surf the internet) whilst they're driving, constantly speed and take crazy risks whilst overtaking. The difference between here and India though is that most of the cars here are high powered and can go very fast. Perhaps worse still are the local drivers who don't even have to take a test and are largely immune from police action against their conduct. This all gets worse during Ramadan as no one eats all day and lose concentration easily. As new roads are being built and education programmes launched the situation is improving but the net result is a high death rate on the roads as well as the feeling that potential disaster is never too far away.

6. Nights out: Whilst you probably haven’t gone to the Middle East for nightlife, it is still nice to go out and socialise. Problem is that all bars are attached to 5*hotels and aren’t cheap (a tenner a pint is not unusual). If you go to a club, nights out can easily end up costing 3 figures and aren’t necessarily value for money. You can sort of get round it by going to the happy hours but they run at inconvenient times or be female (many places do free drinks for ladies due to the gender imbalance). Alternatively you can go to brunches which cost about 100 quid for unlimited food and drink. They are fun but you know they represent everything wrong in terms of treating your body and the world responsibly. There’s not a great range of music played in clubs either and ultimately have had only a limited number of memorable nights out.

7. Weather: Whilst it’s never cold, during the Summer it’s simply too hot to do very much and trying to play sport or even go for a walk just doesn’t work. It can get up to 50 degrees with very high humidity and a bizarre side effect is that a lot of people actually get a vitamin D deficiency. During the Winter it’s not cold but it can be overcast and just very dusty, which also isn’t fun. The best of time is Spring and Autumn where the temperature is perfect.

8. Roadworks: The flipside to seeing a country built is the delays and dust that go with it. To be fair this factor has improved dramatically in the time I’ve been here but Qatar is a long way from being ‘finished’.

9. Lack of local news: Whilst Al Jazeera does great international work, they broadcast virtually no news at all about Qatar, as in not even a weather forecast. There are a couple of local papers but they’re produced by the government and don’t really tell the ‘news’. As it’s not a democracy there’s no accountability for government decisions and ministers never talk about what they’re doing and why. There was an independent news source but they got shut down after publishing something the government didn’t like. Therefore there is a sense of unreality here as even though I live here I have got literally no idea what is happening with the embargo for example. You hear rumours about things but not actual news. This can be frustrating but people put up with it a) because the country is 88% immigrants and don’t care that much and b) the quality of life is so good so we can live in blissful ignorance.

10. Greed of expats: Finally, all immigrants in Qatar are here at least in part to make money (there’s no income tax) and improve their situation in their home country as and when they return. That’s as true for Bengali cleaners as it is for me. However, I’ve gradually noticed that a lot of expats have had the green eyed monster take over a little bit and (particularly after a few beers) smugly boast about how much money they’ve made. In a British context at least, everybody seems to want to buy up as many buy to let properties as they can and act as landlords. Many times I’ve had to sit through tedious and self-satisfied conversations about rent yields and profitability of their investments. Whilst Dubai is famous for it, lots of expats here are unattractively money oriented.

Ugly

1. Natural Landscape: Qatar would be in the running for the least interesting country to look at in the world. It’s the second flattest country in the world after the Maldives and pretty much the entire surface area is just flat yellow desert with no vegetation. There is a small area in the South near the Saudi border with some smallish sand dunes and there are some mangroves on the East coast but I’m clutching at straws to describe almost anything of note. Even the coastline is surprisingly uninteresting as the Persian gulf is very calm but is also so saline that you can’t really swim in it and there’s virtually no wildlife. Whilst you can go desert camping, there are no national parks and there are no hikes you can do or anything really different to see on a weekend.

2. Human attractions: These are better but there’s still not much to see. There is a Unesco World Heritage site called Al Zubair fort but it can be politely described as being in ‘the intake which aimed to give as many countries as possible at least one’. There’s also a couple of museums which are quite good and a ‘cultural quarter’ though not much really happens there. My favourite place is the Souq which is a traditional Arabian bazaar and is always fun to wander round. There are also lots of malls and restaurants but these got very samey pretty quickly.

Overall, I do love living here and love the quality of life but ultimately I’m not sure that’s enough to keep us here long term. There is a degree of frustration that the athletics world champs and of course World Cup are coming in a few years but I just don’t know if I want to stick around in the country that long. We will see.

From Doha,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 10:40 Archived in Qatar Comments (0)

2 conflicted spaces

This Spring I visited a couple of zones of conflict in the Mediterranean so thought I’d write an email describing them.

First up was sun kissed Cyprus/Northern Cyprus in February.
After flying into Northern Cyprus (Turkish side) our first stop was the central city Nicosia, which is unique as it’s the world’s only divided capital city.
Greeks and Turks have both lived on the island for a long time but the Greeks have always been in the majority. In the early 1970s Turks made up about 20% of the population but were quite thinly scattered across the island. In 1974, in a display of needless machismo, the junta that ruled Greece at the time decided to invade (and run the country themselves) and the Turks responded by counter invading to protect Turkish Cypriots. After a few months of mid intensity fighting, a peace treaty was signed but with the island now split into a Greek South and Turkish North (not internationally recognised).
Whilst Nicosia didn’t have too many stand out sights, by far the most interesting aspect of being there was the atmosphere of the demilitarized zone that has formed right in the city centre. Whole chunks of the city have been either abandoned or turned into military posts and quite often you’d turn into an unsuspecting looking side road only to be faced by soldiers with guns and signs warning you that trespassers will be shot in several languages. Probably not a good place to absent mindedly get hammered methinks.
We then headed to the South coast and the pretty port city of Paphos. There are some great archaeological sights and once you can get off the beaten track in the Akamas peninsula some really impressive coastal scenery.
The highlight in the South was definitely climbing the highest peak Mt. Troodhos. Whilst you can’t get to the summit itself (British military installation) in February it was a great experience as the mountain is high enough to be covered in knee deep snow. There’s an extremely popular ski resort near the top but once you get away from that into the pine forests you almost feel like you could be in Scandinavia or the Alps as the perfect blue skies meets the green and white of the snow covered trees. Absolutely wonderful and not what you’d expect to find in Cyprus.
The problem I think I had with travelling in Cyprus was that it’s just really hard getting away from tourist developments. There are billboards virtually everywhere on the highways advertising property developers in a variety of different languages and it felt like the island’s economy seems to be based on a giant ‘laundromat’ model as Russians, other Eastern Europeans and even Chinese who’ve made their money through dubious means invest in the country and in return get a shiny Cypriot (read EU) passport. On top of endless dodgy Russians there’s also a huge number of annoying, generally fat and stupid British baby boomers, who bought and sold houses at the right time to live out a very comfortable retirement in the sun. Aside from creating an eyesore landscape of endless white duplexes, sprawling out from the dull cities, dodgy Adidas clad Russians and Daily Star reading Brits drinking pints of Carlsberg do not add much to the culture and I think they have sold their soul a little bit.
The North I definitely enjoyed more as I felt it still retained an old world charm about it. That said it’s also sold it’s soul somewhat as unexpectedly Northern Cyprus revealed itself to be a bit of an adult playground. The target market seemed to be Muslims from nearby countries (Turkey, Lebanon and beyond) but also from further afield in Central Asia as several impressive casinos have been built and are even joined by strip clubs in this Muslim country. Wandering round one of the casinos on a midweek night was a bit of a surreal experience as the designer clad patrons nonchalantly tossed around $100 chips and the whole place positively reeked of illegality somewhere in the system, but in an otherwise quiet coastal area.
To get around you pretty much have to rent a car but you’re rewarded as stunning coastal and mountain scenery is joined by some lovely cities in Famagusta and Kyrenia. There are some particularly good crusader era castles to climb up to and the bizarre ‘Blue Mansion’ owned by an eccentric lawyer/arms smuggler was a particular highlight. It’s much more sparsely populated than the South and in large parts of it not much is really happening until you come across another inevitable army installation of course.
The conflict in Cyprus and indeed the division as a whole felt a bit pointless as most Cypriots on both sides would actually like to reunify. Last year was a major blow to the process however as years of negotiations ending up collapsing after Turkey interfered and refused to remove their army presence from the island. As Erdogan pushes an ever more pro-Islamist agenda many on the Turkish side feel they’re losing their own much more relaxed culture as he tightens his grip on power. Pointless, expensive and misguided machismo started the conflict and even 45 years later continues to fuel it.

Whilst I enjoyed Cyprus it also me realise that I like more of a challenge when I’m on holiday. I don’t think I’m ready for the days of renting a villa and enjoying the sun as the main focus of a holiday so, looking for something a bit more on edge, this Easter I headed to the land of Israel. Or is it Palestine? Or Canaan? Or Judea? Or ‘The Holy Land’?
I don’t really know but as the different names above suggests, it’s one of the most contested places in the world. Travelling there has been an extremely thought provoking and stimulating experience, but I also pretty shocking too.
After getting quizzed for well over an hour by 3 different security agents at Tel Aviv airport (a Qatari ID + some unusual stamps in the passport “Where is this Somaliland”? will do that) I was very relieved to get into the country and headed straight to the Holiest of Holies, Jerusalem.
I arrived just as Shabbat (Sabbath) was breaking at Easter/Passover and being in Jerusalem at this time is an eerie feeling. Virtually everything shuts down with no shops open or public transport running. Jews also aren’t allowed to drive a car and it’s a surreal feeling in the dusk as you’re in the downtown of a city of nearly a million people but with virtually no noise. With the exception of some background automated noises like pedestrian crossings or the hum of street lights, there are no signs of life beyond the occasional Orthodox Jew in their extraordinary 17th century Eastern European outfits scurrying to get to synagogue.
The whole city is built from the same material called Jerusalem stone and in the silence, as you get closer to the Holy city a unique air of expectancy grows, I could easily see why so many people get ‘Jerusalem fever’ when they visit. It’s the most important city in the world to both Christians and Jews and third to Muslims (after Mecca and Medinah) and all (very pious) communities are easily identifiable walking around the narrow streets. To allow everyone to coexist peacefully, the old town was split into 4 quarters, a Christian one, an Armenian (also Christian) one, a Muslim one and a Jewish one where each community can live how they choose. They are all fascinating in their different ways and I thought it would only be right if I saw a range of devotion in action.

When I reached the old city I went and watched the eerily quiet Good Friday evening service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus alleged tomb location) and then afterwards went to the Western Wall (alleged last remaining part of the Jews 2nd temple) to see Orthodox Jews much more active prayer rituals. The following day I got through the heavy security up to the Dome on the Rock (allegedly where Mohammed ascended to heaven from). Even though they were thronged with pilgrims, looking round them and other sites like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives had an almost transcendental quality to the experience; like you were there but due to their importance to the different faiths and to human experience, being there just didn’t feel quite ‘real’, like you couldn’t quite believe you were in the place where Jesus/Mohammed etc. had been. This feeling of unreality was a sensation I would feel later on in Israel/Palestine and underpinned much of my time there.

After leaving Jerusalem I headed North and spent a fairly hardcore 2 days hiking the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It connects up important places in the life of the big man and whilst it was tough going with all the weight on my back it was a wonderful way to connect up the landscape and gather an understanding of how Christianity started. Some places e.g. Nazareth have changed a bit since the Bible and are now fairly ugly sprawling towns but other places, notably on the Sea of Galilee still retain a degree of bucolic charm and it again felt surreal walking in the footsteps of the disciples.
Israel really is ground zero when it comes to organized religion on Earth. Aside from its importance to the Abrahamic faiths, it’s also home to a couple of secondary faiths including Druze and Bahai. The Druze are quite secretive and won’t let you in to many of their temples but in Haifa (Israel’s third city) the Bahai spent about 20 years designing and landscaping a set of quite magnificent terraced gardens. They’re set out over 19 gorgeous terraces and rise several hundred metres up Mount Carmel. They were made a Unesco World Heritage site almost immediately and dominate the landscape in a way that I can’t recall one feature dominating a city so much.
Aside from religious sights there’s a wonderful range of other cultural sights which connect up large swathes of human history. From seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum to the Crusader and Napoleonic war port of Acre and even up to the amazing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem it’s probably the fullest trip I’ve done in terms of trying to pack activities in. I was getting up and out by no later than about 7am and averaging around 30,000 steps a day which gives an indication of how intense a trip it was. My favourite historical sight however was definitely camping out and then hiking up the infamous ‘snake path’ to the incredible Roman era mountain top fortress at Masada on the Dead Sea. Somewhat reminiscent of Caribs Leap in Grenada, trapped by Roman forces, after a desperate last stand, rather than surrender, the 1000 Jewish rebels elected to commit mass suicide and Masada has become a byword for Jewish independence and freedom. When you reach the summit and look out over the spectacular views as with so many places it’s Israel it’s an incredibly evocative place.
Unfortunately I got stuck in a couple of places as during Passover transport becomes a real headache in Israel. Whilst I got to see the amazing standstill of traffic in Tel Aviv on Holocaust memorial day, over the 2 weeks I was there on 3 days there was no transport running at all and on another 3 were running a very reduced timetable so it was quite frustrating at times.
That felt like very much a ‘First World problem’ though as I next ventured into Palestine. Many tourists only really visit the somewhat ‘neutral’ spaces of Bethlehem and Jericho but in terms of understanding the conflict I found the countryside and main city of Hebron to be far more illuminating.
One of the most noteworthy things I found about travelling in Israel is just how fertile ‘the land of milk and honey’ now is. Israel are virtually world champions of irrigation engineering as through ingenious use of drip feeds and other technologies they have successfully ‘tamed’ much of the land and are now almost self –sustainable for food. It has come at a great cost for the Palestinians though.
When you cross over into Palestine one of the first things you notice is how much lower quality the land is compared to Israel. Green fields of crops and bovine pasture get replaced by scrabbly hillsides which can support sheep/goats and little else. There are however, pockets of greener land but these are almost all behind barbed wire fences and have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) defending them nearby. Controversially, lots of hardcore Zionist Jews have moved into Palestine as they feel it’s ‘their land’ and by a variety of methods have slowly but surely taken over the best quality land.
Israel has gradually diverted water from the Jordan river (less than 5% now reaches Palestine) and other sources into Israel and what’s left for the Palestinians is almost not worth having.
Whilst the idea of a 2 state solution is very popular in the West, to some extent it ignores just how much the population has changed since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Even when Israel was created as a home land for European Jews in 1948 the population was under a million but its numbers have swollen 10 fold since then. Much of it is ‘by design’ as Orthodox Jews are encouraged to go forth and multiply and are subsidised by the government to an almost comical extent. In Jerusalem and other Orthodox communities you see couples with endless numbers of kids tagging along everywhere as they have around 7.5 children on average and the country as a whole is the most fertile in the developed world at over 3 per couple.
On top of this, immigration has continued apace and whilst some stories are almost heroic (e.g. Operation Solomon) much of the increase is due to the nearly 2 million Russians who moved in post USSR breakup. In many areas you’re more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew as anyone with Jewish heritage has a ‘right to return’ to Israel but many of the Russians were only grandchildren of Jews and were essentially economic migrants. Israel is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world and when you consider that most of the Southern half is the Negev desert it’s almost inconceivable to see how an agreed 2 states could be even remotely fairly apportioned. Israel has recently finished a huge series of desalination plants and some have optimistically reckoned that much of the Jordan river can be allowed to flow back to Palestine and allow it to become regenerated but I think population pressures dictate that a 2 state solution that both sides are happy with is now infeasible.
I found a similar story of contested space in the main city of Hebron; home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) it is claimed by both Jews and Muslims and there’s a persistent air of tension in the city. To travel across different neighbourhoods you have to (very slowly) get through various IDF checkpoints as Israel has tried to clear the city centre of Palestinians and replaced them with Israeli settlers. On ‘security grounds’ the IDF have kicked Palestinians out of their homes and shut down most of the commercial centre of the city. On a visit to a refugee camp and speaking to some Palestinians they are under no illusions that the Israelis are gradually trying to suffocate life out of Hebron and Palestine generally. The current government of Netanyahu makes little secret of their desire to own all of Palestine and there are now over 3million Palestinians in Jordan alone. By slowly removing agricultural and any other economic opportunities for the Palestinians, they are hoping that the rest will simply gradually give up and leave. As one guy in the refugee camp said to me: “They were in the diaspora for 2000 years so they do not mind playing a long game but this is our home and we will never give in”.
I finished my time in Tel Aviv and once again the sense of unreality of travelling in Israel hit me. Full of artisanal coffee shops, interesting Bauhaus architecture, tech start ups and hippies smoking weed everywhere, in many ways it felt like a city the Guardian could describe as the ‘ultimate urban experience’. Everyone has dogs and are very chilled out and ‘happy’ but to me it brought up visions of the Capitol and their splendid isolation from the other zones in the Hunger Games.
In many ways Israel is an incredible achievement, from it’s legal system to it’s creation as the homeland of Jews after the Holocaust to the regeneration of Hebrew and the construction of a super strong national identity, there is a lot to admire… but it’s also one of the most unfair places on the planet where the country is basically run on an apartheid system. Most towns or cities are either Arab or Jewish but even in ‘mixed’ cities like Haifa the two communities don’t really mix; from childhood they attend different schools and are brought up to regard the creation of Israel as either the greatest event in recent human history or the ‘nakba’ (literally ‘The catastrophe’). This is then followed by national service for Jews and living in a police state for the Palestinians.

Things kicked off in Gaza when I was in the West Bank (but when has Israel/Palestine been ‘quiet’?) but entering Palestine via endless checkpoints and barbed wire fences didn’t feel dangerous, just deeply annoying. I’ve often found that the one of the things most frustrating about conflict zones is realising just how much money, time and effort is wasted on the military when it could be better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions are spent on the Palestinian side as the UN and European charities help offer limited support, but its dwarfed by the absurd extent to which Israel is ‘financially doped’. Thanks to the super powerful Israel lobby in Washington, it receives over $3bn a year in aid from the USA alone (way more than any other country) and it’s even written in American law that the contribution can only go up. This doesn’t even taken into consideration private Jewish contributors from around the world and the money is used to both metaphorically and literally build a wall blocking out the Palestinians.

Like most nationalities, Israelis vary a lot, for every ultra Zionist settler you’ll get several more easy going socialists who have no desire to harm the Palestinians. However, over time the 2 state solution has been largely shelved and the country has now settled into a ‘treatment is better than cure’ mindset. By putting up with having heavily armed soldiers posted everywhere (even in places like bus stops) it’s a price they’re willing to pay and by building huge border walls around Palestinian areas they’re effectively keeping the problem out of sight and out of mind rather than attempting to solve it.
The quality of life in Israel is now one of the highest in the world in many ways but this full knowledge of but ignoration of the problem is why it felt like they were living in the Hunger Games.
Whilst life in the West Bank was overcrowded with poor quality services (the streets for example were filthy) it could be a lot worse. Gaza’s population density is over 5,000 per sq km and ringed by the border wall and the naval blockade in the Mediterranean there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the ‘biggest open air prison in the world’. I can’t really imagine just how tough life must be there and felt at least somewhat hypocritical for visiting Israel and contributing to the economy etc.
With its wonderful wide ranging landscapes, unique culture and incredible history, it’s one of the most thought provoking places I’ve ever been to but I also left with very mixed feelings. Whilst Cyprus felt like a slightly unnecessary conflict and hope that at some point in the future things could change, no one seems to have any ideas on how to move the conflict forward in Israel and the great/awful reality for the two communities looks like it will persist.
From Tel Aviv,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 09:28 Archived in Israel Tagged northern cyprus palestine Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 63) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »