Amman Full Circle

January 24, 2010

Amman 23rd December 2009

Full circle. What a year ! Returning to a city I had adopted as home last year, with a mission so different in size, scope and character from the one I went out with on 1st January. Then I was on my own, a stranger in town, untried as a teacher. A teacher of organic gardening and compost making. A teacher of refugees from Iraq. Not knowing where I might live, how long I might stay.

Now I come in a convoy for the relief of Gaza, with friends, proud to show them the home which adopted me. Knowing I’m only here for a day.

The mission today is as one of a group. We come from York, from Bradford and the North, from the remainder of England, from Scotland, Wales, Ireland North and South. From Belgium, Switzerland, Italy. From the USA, New Zealand, Malaysia. Since Istanbul a huge Turkish contingent driving an extra 62 vehicles. In 18 days on the road we have formed strong bonds – a vigorous, passionate family of wilful individuals. Somehow, in small miracles, we have learned to live with one another’s different ways, to make something bigger than each of us could on our own amount to.

It is all about expressing solidarity with the dispossessed, with refugees or victims of war. Iraq or Gaza, our better natures demand a human response. Dozens of reasons for doing nothing appear, present themselves as obstacles, and discourage action. But the story of the convoy is that once each of us has taken the plunge we find amongst our new friends the strength to overcome the obstacles and set-backs.

We are really trying to practice solidarity in its original, primeval sense: we are all vulnerable, strangers in a strange land, unarmed, easy prey for predators. But we keep together, we look out for one another, we build a society on wheels.

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Bridge not wall: mid-November 2009

November 25, 2009

I am lucky enough now to be living within spitting distance of the Yorkshire Ouse. It’s about 300yards wide where it runs through York, and at the bottom of our street is a strip of green space below the rows of terrace houses which straggled south of the city centre. Horse chestnuts, massive leaves now in carpets of gold, willows, runners, walkers, dogs, ducks, geese. I join this parade of life from time to time, for instance a daily minimal 10-minute jog to replace the dog-walk I used to do. The run includes a quick there-and-back across the Millennium Bridge, built at the turn of the century just for walkers and cyclists.

But no running on Sundays. Today I try to keep special: a stroll down to the bridge, and instead of using it, tramping across, I pause to relish its beauty.

A beauty not just of structure but of setting: I love its green banks, the waters which pulse with the coming and going of rains miles away in the north and west, the sky and the trees. A woman is walking her dog from west to east. I pause, and for a moment I am at peace.

Spanning the river between Fulford and the South Bank, this lovely structure is a symbol of our commitment to building friendships between our city and the people of the Gaza Strip

In this scene, which includes myself, I sense a metaphor for the whole endeavour which is the Gaza convoy. The bridge is about both art and engineering: somebody had to have the artistic flair to design its sweeping curves, and the engineering know-how to build it and make it safe and minimise maintenance. And before that someone had to have a vision of a city with cars and lorries taken down a notch or two in the transport pecking order, uniting the two banks in humane ways of movement. To realise that vision some people, probably a committee, had to go through a series of bureaucratic hoops – consultation, dealing with objections, applying for funds, managing contracts.

It is prose and poetry.

This past month we have had plenty of prose preparing for the Gaza convoy: getting our personal registrations done on-line, scanning in our passport and driving licence details, chasing a best deal on insurance for the ambulance, organising flights home. Not to mention checking out and buying the ambulance itself, getting it fully serviced, getting used to its handling. Raising cash and seeking sources of supplies. In many ways, though, poetry has kept on creeping into the process.

Example: for many practical reasons it has made sense to link with the nearest neighbours who are coming on the convoy, based in Bradford. Not least because some of them have done it before. But these meetings have gone way beyond the practical: they have been energising, we have sensed the drive and commitment which comes from over there – they draw support from a wide net around the city.

Example: we have an invitation to York’s mosque, to show off the ambulance and invite the congregation to support us. The sermon at Friday prayers was inspirational. The giving was of course useful, enabling us to select best-quality goods so as not to insult our hosts in Gaza. But the scale of the giving was inspirational too, reminding us of our huge privilege in being able to go.

Example: we have arranged a press call just outside York Minster, ambulance parked on the precinct of the Church of St Michael-le-Belfry, thanks to the good relations one of our group has with the vicar of that church. Professor the Baroness Afshar of York University’s Department of Politics is to cut a ceremonial ribbon and launch our public fund-raising campaign. And just as we think we have taken all the pictures a group of five boys from the mosque arrives. They have been collecting for play equipment, for their own needs as a small community within a community. But when they heard about the needs of the children of Gaza, and about our convoy, they chose to donate to us instead. Humbling.

It all adds up to giving us a huge sense of responsibility – to the peoples of both York and Gaza – to get the vehicle ready and take it safely across. But it also gives us wings: with such support we can do so much more than we could have done alone.

Growing Hope and Linking York to the Middle East

November 2, 2009

This is an item I wrote for our local paper.  Nothing very new in it except about the Viva Palestina convoy which is one of my main activites these days.

This time last year I was frantically busy selling up and closing down my house in Haxby, to go and live in Jordan teaching organic gardening to refugees there.  Twelve months later I’m back in York, setting up a new home in Fulford  –  but at the same time pulling out all the stops to go back to the region.  And this time it’s a journey with a very tangible mission: to deliver a modern ambulance loaded with medical and other essential supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip.

I had an overwhelmingly positive response to my teaching.  Refugees from Iraq, Palestinians from the refugee camps in Jordan, and low-income Jordanians came to learn how to grow their own food, using simple, achievable sustainable techniques such as making active compost heaps.  And it was a two-way process: they taught me what works and does not work in the region, and how the growing season is influenced by rainfall as much as by temperature; and I was able to transfer lessons about water conservation, especially after visiting some pioneering projects across the River Jordan in Palestine. 

 I had studied Social and Therapeutic Horticulture at Askham Bryan College.  I learned there to measure success not just by the size of the harvest.  It was just as much a question of whether the refugees were making a meaningful use of their time, whether they were bonding together as a group, practising team-work, gaining in self-confidence.  And the results were positive, I felt: the students wanted their courses to continue, they were proud of what they produced and enjoyed sharing it, they socialised regardless of whether they were refugee or host community, Shia or Sunni.  When I met them off-duty they always asked me to share a glass of tea with them.  There were a half-dozen spin-off projects, like selling compost boxes to well-off people who wanted to do organic gardening; or helping to get off the ground a garden project for people with learning difficulties. 

I made many friends there, people who were genuinely sorry when I decided to leave.  But we had found an excellent replacement teacher, an Iraqi soil scientist who had been interpreting for me.  Reluctantly, for he spoke with passionate love of his country, he has decided to make his home long-term in Jordan  –  having seen former colleagues murdered because of the work they had been doing. 

The shadow of violence like this loomed over the sunny and positive work we were doing.  It was most intense when I first arrived, in January of this year.  That was when the Israeli Government launched its massive assault on the Gaza Strip  –  an assault which included unpunished war-crimes, according to the UN’s investigator, Richard Goldstone.  On Day 3 of the course I was teaching, news came in of 42 people being killed at a UN school in a refugee camp.  In Jordan as many people as not are of Palestinian origin, and of these a large proportion have kin in Gaza.  They all felt a strong sense of solidarity with the people of Gaza, keeping in touch daily and making unprecedented efforts to collect money and goods and send relief by road.  By the end of January the fighting had ceased but 1400 Palestinians and 14 Israelis had died. 

Throughout the rest of my time in Jordan this sense of loss, of an un-healed wound, pervaded all our serious conversations about building for a greener and more prosperous future.  Ismail, who also did some translating for me, has a daughter whose home was at Rafah on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.  Buildings nearby were bombed to bits, leaving her home so shaken it was dangerous to live in.  She and her family carried on there as long as possible  –  because, as she said, where else was there that was safer ?  eventually, though they did move out and stay with relatives.  Last I heard they had not been able to secure enough building supplies to restore their own home. 

One note of hope on this issue was, in March, the arrival of the overland convoy Viva Palestina.  This brought much-needed relief.  It was not just the supplies and the vehicles which meant so much to the people.  It was also the sense that someone cared enough to organise transport and make the journey.  There was another breach in the siege in July, when an American convoy arrived, again to great joy  –  and not just from the people of Gaza but throughout the Middle East as readers of the Arab press and followers of media such as Al Jazeera saw what was happening.   So when I read about another convoy going from London in December I was determined to be on it, if I possibly could.

Fortunately friends still in York had the same idea.  They had already held fund-raising dinners and registered with the organisers, Viva Palestina, a registered charity (no. 1129092).  Another supporter had raised hundreds of pounds with a collecting tin in his shop.  On my return we got together to plan what we needed to do to be ready for departure.

We have now bought an ex-Health Authority ambulance.  It is getting serious: we still have to raise as much money as we can, to cover the costs of fuel, ferries, insurance and return flights as well as supplies.  We will be travelling via London, Istanbul, Syria and Jordan, and entering Gaza through its border with Egypt.  We expect to arrive on 27th December. 

It is obviously difficult in the space of a short article to explain what is driving us to undertake this journey  –  it is certainly a tough time of year to be crossing continental Europe and Turkey !  For me, after my year in Jordan, it is largely a gesture of friendship with a people who are friends of the friends I made  –  a way of repaying some of the welcome and hospitality they gave me.  The people’s needs are still acute after last winter’s war.  Rebuilding is severely hampered by Gaza’s land borders being tightly controlled and air and sea connections closed.  I recently heard from a doctor working with Medecins Sans Frontieres.  He says that so many months after the conflict people who bore up well during the actual fighting are suffering the after-effects: mental illnesses, emotional distress leading to apathy or nervous behaviour, as well as physical symptoms such as abdominal pains and diarrhoea.  Many are not eating or sleeping properly.  Amputees do not have adequate prosthetics.

The list of needs is a very long one.  We are taking the best advice about priorities from people on the ground there, as well as from people who have been on the previous convoy.  Although there will be a huge back-up group, both in York and nation-wide, we are limiting the numbers driving to two or three so as to make as much space as possible for goods.  We will concentrate on medical supplies but we may be able to take some donated goods too, such as notebooks for schools.  More information about the convoy is available on the web-site: www.vivapalestina.org

We will use the best technology available to us to keep York people informed of the progress of the convoy as we make our way across the winter landscapes of Europe, Anatolia and the Middle East.

Jordan Pilgrim returns to England

October 11, 2009

It is  a hinge time.  The end of September, the start of October.  The end of summer.  The start of a new growing season in Jordan.  On the roof of Rainbow House new leaves shoot from the thorn tree, a pink  flower blooms.  In England, leaves take on the colours of fall[1].  And I am at a hinge in my life: looking back at a year that has seemed like five in experience, demands, rewards; looking forward to a new life in my native land, uncertain as ever what it will hold but hugely strengthened by this time away.

The strengthening comes from the people I have encountered, people in Amman and beyond, people back home who have been supporting, encouraging.  Leave-taking has been a slow, sweet sad affair.   People said I touched their lives and were warm in their thanks for my being among them.  That was kind.  The truth is that these encounters were exchanges: we traded our experience, knowledge, hopes,  wonder, humour as well as sharing our daily tally of frustrations, disappointments, aggravations.   Such trading and sharing is the foundation of friendship, and I hope that some of these people who live so vividly in my heart now will remain friends even in the other worlds, the other futures we are all separately moving on to.  Even if just one or two, it is quality that counts.

I would love to celebrate the warmth of the welcome I have had in Jordan, a welcome which persisted from the first to the last day, a warmth to every exchange.  One reason perhaps why each day was exhausting  –  the openness and evident care for me from people I dealt with demanded a response, something more than the kind of smile we might exchange  with a check-out operator in a supermarket here in England.  My response never seemed quite enough, I always felt a little English reserve there, even a little resentment at being made to answer, “where are you from ?” twenty times a day.  But some of my friends say I made a good difference to their lives  –  and I take that to heart.

No measurable, appreciable difference to the life of the nation.  The nation, alas, is collectively blind to the fact that its young men are smoking themselves to early graves.  Nobody talks about it.  And there are hordes of young men with nothing to do.  This is on the agenda, there is a huge USAID programme for youth, channelled through JOHUD the umbrella charity descended from one fostered by the royal family.  In my best times, and objectively there is something in this, I have felt good to be part of an effort to do vocational training, to up-grade the skills of a few hundred young (and not-so-young) men, and equip them to work in the economy of this country  –  or wherever they go as migrants or refugees.  But no-one seriously questions the origin of the hordes of young men, the high value placed on having a half-dozen sons.  Family planning is something else nobody talks about. 

The difference to me and my life ?  Immeasurable !  There is often a tension between living for today  –  which you must do, because it is the only certainty, and to deny its reality is to deny life itself;  and planning for, making yourself fitter for tomorrow  –   which you also must do, because tomorrow will come round like an express train and flatten everything you have, everything you stand for, unless you see it coming and give it respect.  I got all strung out living for today, living within my means (which gave some satisfaction, not drawing out from a diminishing pot in England), not being on the dole, doing a dozen little things so my house-mates did not need to worry about them.  I thought a bit about the next years of my life, made lists of what I wanted to do; sorted out somewhere to live, decided against making Jordan my home.  Made some notes for a CV in case I ever wanted someone else to employ me. 

But gone now is the hands-on gritty reality of living in Jordan, of navigating the city’s streets without too many times a day tripping headlong on those broken pavings or just-for-fun bits of iron which stick out of the pavements; of chatting to or navigating for or arguing with taxi-drivers; of refusing black bags when out shopping, and juggling notes and coins so as not to be left with nothing but a 50-dinar note for the next day’s petty expenses (shop-keepers have no change, and taxi-drivers, if they have any, will short-change you if they think they can get away with it); of making arrangements by phone and it taking half a dozen more phone calls before the arranged meeting, for work or social reasons, takes place.  Gone too the joy of actually meeting a friend; or of spontaneously with a house-mate starting to cook something rather dull and adding one found ingredient after another, and a spice or a herb, and ending up with a dish fit for a banquet; or of yoga at sunrise on the roof, the citadel sunlit in the east, the cuboid houses opposite still in shadow while we bask in rays; of siestas tuning out the city’s noise and waking to the clatter of children’s roller blades and banter, squeals and games, and the raucous paternal afternoon call to prayer.

I could go on.  I will go back, as there are so many friends and projects dear to my heart that I want to return and will them to succeed.  I have an agenda back in UK of a dozen things I can and should do to help and support those projects and friends.  But the time itself has gone, this year of total immersion in Jordan.  Kiss it goodbye, with fondness.  Even this hinge time has run its course.  Time to live in the now of life here in York, and to look forward.  As Ewa would say:

 “Co bylo i nie jest nie pisze-ze vrai jest.”

 “What was and is not, we do not write as being true (any longer).”

 1st – 4th October 2009

 


[1]          .  I prefer the graphic simplicity of that word to the ponderous Latin of “autumn”  –  thank you, Americans, for preserving it thus.

Ramadan reflections

September 22, 2009

Raindrops in my coffee cup. Full daylight. I have already been down-town and come back with fresh bread. Breakfast not suhour. I sit on the swing in my garden and read about the threat to all corals in the world through rising sea temperatures and increased acidity due to more carbon in the seas. Time, high time, to widen the perspective from my month of concentrating on a particular form of religiously inspired self-denial. But there must be something to take forward from my absorption in this fast. Did you start on the road to converting to Islam, Nicholas ?

No.

So what if anything did it teach you, this month ?

  1. There is something powerful, paradoxically empowering, in accepting an external discipline, a restraint or denial – it does encourage you to contemplate the Divine.

  2. What is remarkable about Ramadan is its observance by masses of people – by such a huge community, so many hundreds of millions. It’s not just for hermits and eccentrics. People in all walks of life. A leveller.

  3. It is a highly social thing – both the fasting and the iftar. How much extra hardship it would be to observe if on one’s own, a refugee perhaps or a student in a non-Muslim country.

  4. It shows that ingrained habits, to which the body has become wedded, can be broken.

  5. Ban the snack !!!

  6. Confidence in your ability to observe your own religion’s rites should not cause you to despise the rites and beliefs of others. Tolerance please !

  7. Subdue the ego, merge it with others – hardship is easier to endure if shared. So why not share the indulgences too, the good times and the triumphs ?

  8. However well you practice any religious rite, be careful not to use piety as a screen against the needs of others, or as a step-ladder so you can look down on them.

  9. Probably the month of Ramadan is a net gain for the environment: the day-time self-denial is amply off-set by night-time indulgences, of course. Huge amounts are consumed, and there is all that social pressure to throw out the old and put on the new. But my hunch is that, because both fast and feast are socially moderated (one big plus is that alcohol is not in the mix at all), there is an element of social restraint in the feasting. You don’t eat as much in company as you do on your own. This restraint is absent in a westernised, solo-ised, snacking culture: a couch potato can just go on and on and on eating bags of crisps and throwing out the packages. Someone needs to do a carbon-footprint study of a typical Jordan family (i.e. parents, aunts, uncles and seven or eight offspring) – (a) for a normal month and (b) for Ramadan. I’m just giving you my hunch as to what the conclusion would be.

Just back (third day of Eid) from a screening at a friend’s house of the film “The Age of Stupid”. As such strong images can do, it’s given me a new sense of urgency. And perhaps absolutism. No faffing around with academic studies like the one suggested in 9 above. Get on with living within our environmental means, from tonight. And, alas for someone as naturally reticent as me, it means shouting about what we are doing to get our life-style right, and being brave enough to protest when we witness environmental bad behaviour – even when, especially when, committed by otherwise “perfectly normal respectable” people. Which brings me to my last reflection so far on Ramadan:

It is possible to break ingrained habits of consumption – and to do so on a mass scale. People give up day-time smoking for Ramadan, the same people who are impervious to health promotion campaigns. People do the fast as an integral part of a religion which offers the believer salvation of his or her individual soul. So if we want to get people to change their environmental bad habits we should learn from how this mass social force enables people to make a counter-consumer choice. We cannot with certainty offer salvation of the soul, life after death. People are not persuaded by the offer of hope that their grandchildren will have a habitable planet. But most people like to be looked up to, to have an honoured place in a society they feel at home in. Ramadan teaches me that to campaign for changes in behaviour, don’t target individuals: go for changing the social norms we live by.

Oh dear. I think that means bring on the ad-men. And ad-women. Perhaps instead bring all preachers of all faiths to an environmental “Sunday School”. Get them to persuade their flocks.

Enough words for now.

Ramadan diary – day 29

September 20, 2009

Right through to the end of the day we are still unsure if this is to be the last day of fasting. It is a question of when it is possible to see the graceful crescent, or hilal, of the new moon. This is typically a day after the astronomical new moon, when it is totally blanked out by the earth. It might be that Eid, the first non-fasting day, would be Monday. Well, last day or not, we need our iftar fix of soft drinks and hummus and fool and salad and chips and falafel. Where better to go than Hashem’s, the legendary passageway café down town, where kings and celebs share tables and platefuls with everyone else ? And everyone else has the same idea. (I did not see any kings or celebs, but how many would I recognise ?) So it is crowded and spilling out over the pavements for yards up and down the street; but thanks to two of our number being really well in with the staff there, and the staff being really well versed in the art of the possible, we find a niche. I could not believe five people could have a well-supplied meal, and plenty of drinks, on a table the size of a folded-out tabloid. But we did.

And I could not have asked for more sympatico company on such an occasion. A feeling that we have done something unusual, swum against the current for a while, binding us to one another.

Earlier in the day I met the wake-up drummer, on his collection rounds with an escort of children. His name is Abu Rayyan. I wondered if 2 dinars was a bit stingy. But our local neighbours assure me 1 is quite enough. I will never forget his haunting beat and austere rhythmic song.

By the end of the evening, after kanafe (stringy soft warm sweet) and self-brewed coffees at an antique coffee shop across the street from Hashem’s, we’re all in Eid mode. I suppose we should have gone to a light-free mountain-top to check it out. That’s what good folk were doing across the Atlantic: check out this site from the Hilal Sighting Committee of North America: http://www.hilalsighting.org

Their conclusions when I checked were:

Shawwal 1430H Report written by Web Master

Saturday, 19 September 2009

There are no authenticated Hilal sighting reports from mainland USA or Canada on September 19. An apparent sighting claim near New Orleans, LA was unreliable on the basis of incorrect time, shape and location. Negative reports were received from Florida, Texas, California etc. The Astronomical Data also predicted that Hilal would not be sighted by naked-eye in mainland USA.

Thus we complete 30 days of Ramadan and celebrate Eid ul Fitr on Monday, September 21, 2009. This decision was reached unanimously by the Hilal Committee and the final decision was made by the Ameer of the Committee – Maulana Ghouse Nadawi in California.

Well, I am happy to trust the judgement of Old World authorities on such matters. Especially as I can go to bed without worrying about waking up in time for suhoor. To bed but not to sleep: this town has begun to party. And as I said a month ago Amman (Ramadan Foretaste) knows how to party !

Ramadan diary – day 28

September 20, 2009

At this stage of the month it is definitely as much about consumption as about fasting. Both around noon and later, before and after iftar, downtown Amman is choked, heaving with people buying and buying. Food, clothing, sweets, toys. We’re looking for curtains, but are overwhelmed by the onward rush of people with more urgent needs.

Perhaps “needs” is too strong a word. Is this social pressure to give a way of subverting the serious message of Ramadan ? Is the Muslim world going to lose its soul-feeding festival to the body-feeding demands of commercialism, in the same way that the Christian world has lost Christmas ? We would have to talk more to more families to know this. Of course we all need to eat. And of course we would hate to deny young Omar his toy truck. Or Farrah her gaudy, frilly party frock.  But do we need to swallow this, from a Benetton-style multi-poster campaign in both Jordan and Lebanon: “Everybody deserves new clothes” ?

Farewell tonight to two of our number, returning to France after bringing such cheerfulness and culture and courage to all our doings. They have deeply immersed themselves in this city, this country, this region, and have made such interesting connections. Determination and hard work on the language have paid dividends. But parting is such sweet sorrow !

Ramadan diary – day 27

September 20, 2009

Beirut to Amman. Taxi-driver chain-smoking. I wrap a towel round my neck (still a bit feverish) and wind down the window. Have drunk plenty of water for suhoor, but simply dry bread to eat. Tiresome and dull journey, but mercifully trouble-free. You just pay your 52 dollars transit visa and don’t forget (as I did, spending too much on tempting boxes of crystallised fruits) the 500 Syrian pounds exit tax.

Iftar on my own, up on the roof of Rainbow House. The lemon juice which looked irresistible to the thirsting soul turns out far too sticky-sweet for more than a glass-full. But this alone-ness is simply a passing shadow. Residents and friends and former residents one by one return or visit, eat, drink. Smoke. Chat. We catch up on news of travels and doings, just like a family.

This youth, this energy and openness. They don’t know what are the consequences of all their daily dealings, as travellers or as workers, with all the people they come across. I don’t know. It changes them, us; it changes the people we come across. But consequences ? It’s like trying to predict the next pattern in a kaleidoscope.

Air travel is such a scald on the planet’s fragile skin. We have to find better ways of doing it. But my solo Mercedes taxi-ride today was not exactly cheap in carbon terms. If we can just smooth those border crossings. I would fight and never give up the fight for the right of people to move, in sustainable ways, across any border they want to !

Ramadan diary – day 26

September 20, 2009

A feverish night in Tyre. I ought not to have done so much swimming ! I take a deep breath and look for some inner strength, as well as for my towel and trunks which I’d left outside on the terrace. I have an appointment in Beirut at 11, and – eternal pessimist – give little credence to those who said it would take just two hours to get there. (They were right.)

The meeting was at the American University of Beirut, known to all as AUB, an enclave of English-language academia with fees of 35,000 dollars a year. Lovely landscaped grounds stepping down from Bliss Street (all coffee bars and student book-shops, my rumbling tummy be still !) to the sea-hugging corniche. They have huge spreading trees of the ficus genus here, non-native – so my host tells me – but none the less impressive. Also a banyan, with roots carving up the spaces between branches.

There was another giant ficus just below my hotel, in a much less smart part of town. Here is a Beirut unable to decide whether to pleasure me with louche decadent western disco music, or stiffen my sinews with strident Islamic sermons, or summon me back to the road with the roar of traffic. So the city just belts me all night with all three kinds of noise. Ah, but do I miss those ding-dong bells !

Earlier in this neighbourhood I had an altercation, which ended quite friendly, with a young man of the Khatayab (or Qatayab ?) party, whose headquarters I had in ignorance walked past. Also in reflex, having just avoided impaling my foot on its spines, I had shifted out of the way a metre-length anti-vehicle puncture strip strewn across the pavement. He insisted it was his right to put it across the pavement, and it was by gracious permission of his party that I was allowed to walk on the pavement at all. To avoid the risk of being punctured by this device I should walk in the road. Hmm. I think we need to discuss apple pie and higher things rather than get bogged down in knotty detail. Does Qatayeb believe in peace ? Of course, he said. Well, let’s leave it there.

Gardens of St Nicholas. Fine, French-style buildings many in need of restoration. The Pigeon Rocks (those iconic skerries just west of the city, with wave-worn holes that you can swim around or gaze down on from the corniche). I’m very selective in my sight-seeing. Most impressive of what I did see, especially at night with its floodlights, is the new-looking Mosque of Mohammed Al Amin: blue dome, vast size, multi-minaretted, multi-angular, multi-level. Think 21st century Aghia Sophia. I simply sat and watched as worshippers went in, men from the east and women from the west. And moved to view it again from the west. And again from the north.

The rest of the night I am like a lone wolf patrolling the streets to find anything affordable to stave off tomorrow’s pangs: hot chocolate and cookie, can of 7-up, hot dog and another can of 7-up, lentil soup, fried eggs, salad, mineral water, bread, olives, ore water back at the room.

This city means so much to the world. Standards and values confront each other here. Today, tonight, I am far too fragile for it. Pack up and go.

Ramadan diary – day 25

September 20, 2009

Buses from Tripoli to Tyre, via Beirut and Sidon.

They say that one effect of fasting is to heighten the emotions. Maybe that was one reason I was so moved by what I saw in Sidon. Nothing more than people working, stone by stone, on the restoration of an ancient souq. But nothing less than that either. You could not, by wave of magic wand or unlimited money, short-circuit the labour of these masons, here today, painstakingly putting back into habitability an intricate network of vaulted ceilings. Cleaning out debris. Letting light through into cavernous interiors. Linking these ancient (Frankish era) monuments with the living city a little up-hill, with its narrow stairways, doorways, balconies – domestic life being played out in private.

At Tyre (Sour in Arabic, صور) I have a great room, with windows like portholes facing west to Gibraltar, north to the light-house. A little terrace outdoors. Sheer drop to tiny beach and rock pools to swim in, protected by a reef from the surging sea. I swam there late afternoon, among rock crabs and schools of fish and Roman columns. No sound all night but that surge and roar on the reef.

UNIFIL troops all over the city’s periphery. Nepalese were the ones I said hello to. It looks like a bright and cheerful posting, but what is their mission ? To get between the warring parties. Until the Israelis tell them to get out of the way. I trek past them to more sands, shared with a few local people and busy sand-crabs, making zig-zag dashes from hole to hole.

Despite my sense of oneness with them when dipping amongst them on my swim, I did indulge myself, for solitary iftar, in two ultra-fresh fish for dinner. The restaurant’s proprietor, not Muslim, had good English, having served a year in London working for one of the Queen’s couturiers. Affable and courteous to me, he had no time for Ramadan or Muslim observance. It seems that even in this small city, which has seen so much war and is so exposed to Israeli jets, it is possible to see half your neighbours as “other”, and to judge them as if a different species from those you identify with. Is that what all this praying and fasting leads to ?