Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I am the Captain of the Taxi - To the Tune of Amazing Grace

There are moments in life that are just laugh out loud crazy. And in this case slightly alarming. The high speed run from Amman to Queen Alia Airport this afternoon was with a very pleasant and energetic driver who told me he was ten years in the Jordanian Army, retiring as a Captain and for the last ten years he has been Captain of the Taxi. All worked out through broken English and he producing photos of his Army time while we wandered from lane to lane at 120km/h in an old Nissan that was having problems with its transmission at that speed. Both hands off the wheel. Sometimes when conversations falter these drivers put music on. Usually Arabic or sultry Lebanese. But in this case, in mid conversation he popped a tape on and shouted with glee – “back in the Army, scotch (sic) teacher”. At which point martial pipes and drums music blared forth and killed our conversation dead. Now he was just a dangerous driver as he conducted with his right hand and kept time by slapping his knee with his left, occasionally shouting “parade ground” interspersed by a droning hum or a tuneless whistle. As we neared our destination, after marching all over the parade ground in his mind for thirty minutes, the swirl of Amazing Grace came on. He slowed up to tell me how Queen Nor used to love Amazing Grace played by the bagpipes and that once she asked him to make sure it was played at a certain ceremony. The details were lost on me. I told him it was a song about how amazing God’s love is to his people even when we misbehave. He shouted “yes”, turned up the volume and struck his imaginary baton in the air as he hit the gas again. In the end it was only a Hummer at a checkpoint that momentarily quelled the pipes, but as we swung into the terminal Mull of Kintyre was winding up. As he left me kerbside I could hear it blasting from his cab, barely drowning out his tuneless whistle. And his baton was still waving. I hope he got back in one piece.

Taxi Story - The Jordanian

(In Jordan. To and from Jerash). Hello, my name is Ishmael. You want to go to Jerash? At this time of the day? OK, no problem, no problem. You want to visit craft store for souvenirs? You have enough souvenirs. OK. No problem. Did you know Ismael was related to Ibrahim in the Bible? It is an ancient name. I live just outside Amman. Look at all this countryside. In 1967 all these market gardens and this little valley was home to a million Palestinians displaced by the war. You want to look at that castle? OK, we are going to Jerash. No problem. Here (in Jerash) are all sorts of things to look at and I will show you where to start and will wait until you finish looking. Please don’t hurry. I am happy to wait. Did you enjoy that? It is a special place isn’t it? I brought my wife up here two months ago just to remind ourselves how special it is. When you live here you can forget. I have nine children. I am very lucky to have all good children. And very lucky that they can all do the things they want without worrying about their future or living like those Palestinians had to in 1967. The peace with Israel was the best thing that has happened to our country. My two eldest daughters have been in university. One studied biology and is now getting a job. The other is in her first year at university. All my other children are in school. The youngest is twelve. Two of my children were twins. Two of my daughters are married and each has two girls. (Laughing) I am a grandfather. It is a good thing and I like it very much. Do you mind if we pull over and buy fruit? Thankyou. Here, you will like these figs I have bought for you. It is Ramadan and I cannot eat until sundown but please, have these figs. Let me wash them first with this bottled water. And please, take this rhumahn (phon: = pomegranate). My wife will be happy with these eggplants and fruit, because all the family get together at Ramadan and they eat a lot. It is cheaper to buy fruit and vegetables on the side of the road than to buy in Amman. Thankyou for your talking. I have two nieces in Wollongong. One day I will visit Australia too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Jerash - Roman City

Since the time I was a kid I wanted to walk around Roman ruins. There was something magical about all those columns. It was a desire fuelled even more when, for a year at high school, we studied Roman art and architecture and columns and plinths, capitals and inscriptions in detail. A year of Ancient (Roman and Greek) history at university kept the interest alive. And in their own quaint way the pictures of Asterisk and Obelisk continued to pique the fascination. Fortuitously I arrived back on a day with all the offices shut and a few hours of sunlight left. I grabbed a taxi driver (so to speak) and directed him to Jerash. No side trips to souvenir shops run by a distant cousin. To Jerash only. No, it’s not too late in the day. Heaps of time. Less talking more driving.

Jerash is a well preserved and partially restored Roman city on the outskirts of Amman. I happily wandered its streets for hours (and the driver seemed content to wait which was very decent of him). Here are the wide colonnaded streets, pavement still cut by chariot and wagon wheels. Here too the little lanes into roofless houses in high density apartment dwelling we would be very comfortable with. Cellars. Temples. Fountains. A hippodrome. Two amphitheatres still in working order and used for performances today. Shopping centres. Churches. An earthquake in 790 AD pretty much ended this city – all those blocks of stone resting on columns must suddenly have looked like a liability when the earth started moving.

But there are other durable pieces of stone work that can only be admired for their creativity and ingenuity. With some of the buildings stripped down you could see how they hung ceilings and floors two or three stories high – with a lot of cantilevering. There is a remarkable dedication in stone to the nymphs, a collection of fountains placed in a wall, fed by water down two kilometres of piping. The piping has gone, the fountains remain. Even the way the stone was dressed was mimicked in Victorian stone masonry 1500 or more years later and you can see the same style of work in London, Sydney, Philadelphia (which incidentally used to be the name by which Amman went by). Those cut pavers, the apartments with their cellars and an old well hint at real people walking around this place. They have an eerie presence still. Most poignant were the fallen stone decorations, on which you can still see the chisel marks of the masons. Nearly 2000 years dead yet his handiwork is still visible. As I was caught by the sight of it lying in the dust of centuries I thought of our yearning for immortality – a universal desire across all time to be able to spend all time crafting what we can do best. How disappointed that mason would be to see his work thrown down like this. Or would he be happy to know we are thinking of him? Happier still no doubt if he was still plying his craft.

970,000 American Casualties. Is Iraq Worth It?

Naturally even departing Baghdad is extraordinary. How many international airports require you to pull over on the approach road, empty your magazines and then dry-fire your weapons to demonstrate nothing is “live”? No others spring to mind. Then drop your bags on the road outside, in a large concrete revetment while a bomb dog crawls over your gear. Then imagine a third world mess inside - at least in terms of organisation and graft. 8kg underweight (baggage that is) and I am still up for USD25 for excess baggage. But if you want out of here…! I happily paid up. All of that will sort itself out in the end. I am normally a very patient traveller but by the time I got to Jordan and endured my ninth bag check I was feeling very irascible. Even after being dropped off at the aircraft in the Baghdad heat there was a pat down and bag check. You do what you have to do.

To answer the question, the short answer is yes. Not only from a personal business point of view but also from a broader perspective as well. This place is on the mend but there is no denying it has a way to go. And it is on the mend because local Iraqis are resolved to mend it. Be they the occasional and too infrequently met local, the public servants or the young diplomat I met in the queue waiting to check in this morning. He and a few others were off to Rome to do a course. He has high hopes for Iraq and his belief in what was possible was heart warming and encouraging. People like this make the effort worthwhile I think. Interestingly we discussed the convulsions that have been at the root of the building of other nations. Starting with the US – which is “united” at the cost of more than 970,000 of its citizens dead and wounded. Can you imagine that body-count being reported in today’s press? About the same number of Americans killed by each other as perished in WWII. (And as a footnote is it not interesting that the US had a 12 year Reconstruction period after its civil war? We all want Iraqis to sort themselves out in a couple of years!). Japan. France. Even present day Russia. Vietnam. India. South Africa. The Balkan states. If we could forge nations in other ways we could and should. But sometimes it happens in the worst way. We parted with a handshake (when I was called to a spare seat on an earlier flight (not everything that happens in Baghdad is bad!!)) and a controversial observation – he cocked one of his eyebrows at me and wryly noted that none of their Arab brothers were coming to their aid – it was all the Christian states who were helping, and he said Iraq would always remember its friends. This young man has an interesting diplomatic career in front of him to say the least. But it is that freedom of expression that comes with all other freedoms that we all want to see in Iraq. He said something he would not have dared utter five years ago. Now he feels free to voice his views to a stranger. If we can achieve that, without him eventually becoming a casualty for his forwardness, then Iraq’s people are worth it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Baghdad Rooftop Reflection - with some help from the Frogs

At about 11pm a half moon hangs in the sky. I’m sitting on a flat roof reclining in a dusty poolside recliner (though there is no pool), in a hot breeze. Just listening and watching. It is still but not quiet. This city does not sleep. But it is a softer city in this dusky light. Frogs among the eucalypts rhythm their quiet and indolent blues. Distant mosques broadcast their calls and prayers in a melodic tone that is beguiling, a soft chorus that hints at more civil and ordered things. Of better things. The normal city background rumble of traffic adds its background hum. Flares drift down through the trees. Silent, and betraying an unheard and unseen helicopter. Occasionally the drone of piston engines carefully buzzing their surveillance, also unseen. Drifting in and out of the peaceful stillness. Which is broken every now and then by Pumas or Blackhawks thundering in pairs over the house, roaring in then fading out swiftly. Leaving us again to the mullahs and the frogs. A civil airliner flashes its strobes as it lazes its line north, unlike the unseen military jets that occasionally bore through the sky. In and out much more quickly. I am out of here tomorrow and I find myself up here in a reflective mood. There is nothing like being here, if only briefly, to appreciate just how critical the momentum needs to be maintained in getting this place on its feet. It can be done, and it is a work well underway. There are moments when you worry about the place, as we did this afternoon when four or five “booms” carried to us on the wind. Initially we thought they were artillery but eventually decided they were bombs. Unlike hearing them in the news, these carry a clear personal message – that someone has been hurt, and for no reason. Somehow those blasts now seem a lifetime ago as I sit up here under the moonlight and soak up the evening. The frogs are now the constant background theme, far better than the murderous noises heard earlier and throughout this visit. I am hopeful that with some perseverance Malik and others like him will soon be able to relax and get back to their rooftops in the evening, the “booms” being only a bad memory from a distant era. I certainly pray so.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Lizard Kills a Stereotype

Shouts and commands from behind a walled compound yesterday had me carefully checking over the roof balustrade. It all sounded a bit urgent and well, commando-ish. The wall encloses a large park like area and through the trees I could see AK47 armed, headband wrapped men dashing forward and heading our way. I had to decide whether this was a training exercise or whether I should be thinking about making myself scarce. Just at the point I was thinking I needed to scamper someone called a drink break. Phew.

On another boundary a short time later the complete antithesis (there is a word for CT) with squeals of terror mixed with laughter getting my attention. That had me intrigued and when I checked it out I could barely contain my own laughter. There has been a lot of construction work next door and the place has been busy with burly, deeply tanned men, most of the them large and muscular, pouring concrete, shaping steel and sweating their hearts out in the sun. The site is now largely done and painters have been in. These blue singleted, bearded, tough men were squealing like 6 year old school girls (that stereotype remains) as they tried to get out of the way of a lizard. One of the men had managed to catch the reptile and was chasing his colleagues with it. They were all flapping their hands in horror, squealing and trying to get to vantage points such as truck decks or cabs. Any stereotype of construction workers, Arab or otherwise vanished in a heartbeat. And at the end the lizard was carefully let down in a shady pool of water, no doubt terrorised by his adventure with these guys. In a land of indiscriminate death it was nice to see the lizard get off lightly.

Another Blogging Traffic Tool - Maybe Worth A Look

I don't normally have the patience to bother messing around with the tools that supposedly promote, expose, advertise or otherwise make claims to broaden the readership of this blog. On the other hand something that claims to do all those things without me doing much more than inserting some html is worth at least a shot. And for no cost. Click here to be taken to Blogrush and a video that explains it better than I can and in less time than I could.

("Mandela's") Answer for Iraq

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? And who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people wont feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to be the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others."

Nelson Mandela, Inaugural speech 1994

Postscript: 22 Sep. Always check and double check your sources. When I finally got to check Nelson's addresses here and here seems these words were not there. A further check suggests they should be attributed to Marianne Williamson from a volume called "A Return to Love." (Kind of ironic since I would not ordinarily cite someone writing in this genre.) But then I have not been able to check that source either. I'll leave the words here since they caught my ear when thinking about Baghdad and still have relevance, regardless of author.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Obscenity We Don’t See or Feel – Is Still an Obscenity

I was going to leave off writing about Baghdad for a spell – it becomes a bit self absorbing after a while. Then this morning a bomb rattled the windows. As I got to the roof only seconds later to get a fix on the location a second one went off. The smoke from the first was starting to disperse in the stiff breeze but soon the smoke from the second was roiling up. Ten minutes later the whole sky was smudged by it. My point of reference is the GBU10s and GBU12s, dropped onto air force weapons ranges. As I went out onto the roof I thought to myself “that felt like a GBU12” – 500lb of “bang”. In the event I don’t think there was that much explosive but it was 5km away and still rattled the windows.

It is a sobering thing to watch as you realise you are witness to someone’s day being ruined – all for nothing as Malik would say. But it is sobering for other reasons as well. The delight at watching aircraft fly around now becomes a guilty sin. Being on the edge and feeling alive is now at someone else’s expense. At the expense of real people I have met in the street. And you feel equal measures guilty and equal measures angry for what the incident becomes to everyone else – meaningless or irrelevant. A non event. A tree falling in the forest unheard. The booming crump and the shuddering glass never makes it to most of the on-line papers around the world. Heck, it barely makes the coverage of those carrying Iraq news. The BBC carries a small article. I confess I am surprised that only 7 people are killed, 20 are wounded. The blast felt bigger than that. People bombed lining up at the hospital to identify dead relatives. Obscene, cowardly, diabolical. I am offended by that. But also by the normalcy such a “small” blast has become. By the fact that no one else in town turns their head (no doubt relieved they were not incidental to its maw). I am offended for these victims that the press got it wrong – there were two blasts. And the lack of human touch in the press – who is that man, and what is his story? His pain? And what are we doing about it? The memorial stain of smoke over the sky is an obscenity as well, in part for its brevity. Who of us in our own cities would tolerate a stain like that? No, I thought not. But here it has become part of the grist of life and barely stirs a ripple. An inexplicable sadness for that knots my stomach for the day. I don’t know what else to say.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Name is Malik and I Live in Baghdad

My name is Malik and I drive to work each day in Baghdad. I leave my house in the suburbs. There are palms and olive trees, and a small patch of grass outside my house. The house is walled in like many houses in the Middle East. But I have grown up in a fenced and gated community all my life. It is hard to get out of the habit but right now it is best not to drop my guard. I am careful to look up and down the street as I leave to see that everything is normal. I drive an old Datsun, with dented panels, some shrapnel holes in the trunk and three bullet holes in the passenger door. The windscreen is damaged where a rock hit it, and it is running retread tyres. I had not seen them here when Saddam was around but these days getting parts for cars is hard and I have to use what I get. The steering is wobbly but I can’t afford to get it fixed. I get nervous driving along the street when we get to a checkpoint. All the traffic banks up. Anything can happen here. Suddenly a convoy of armoured Fords, probably carrying a VIP, needs to cut through the traffic. An American soldier indicates what he wants me to do by throwing his rifle into his shoulder, leaning forward and pointing at me. I stop. He keeps pointing. I back up. There are hundreds of cars behind me. I can go no further. I hope he does not shoot. People in cars around me get out and put their hands up. Just in case. They take no chances with the American. He is a young man. Young men with guns are more dangerous than old men with guns. You don't see many old men with guns. The Fords pass and we are allowed to creep forward. I do not look at the American in his armour and wrap around shades. He looks past me at all the other cars. I drive past Iraqi police cars and SUVs. Some of them have ZSU23-2s mounted on them. I was in the Army but Bremmer sacked me along with all my buddies and I have no money. But I recognise all this equipment. Some of it ex military no doubt. My goodness, Russian twin 23mm cannon, designed to shoot down aircraft. To control traffic? If they hit my car retreads will be the least of my worries. Lots of police with all sorts of machine guns and made up armoured cars. In Somalia the US military called them “technicals” – SUVs with a 50cal or something on the back. What are they pointed at? What are they protecting? I have no idea. I drive on and past a locked down Bradley. It looks dormant but who knows who is in there and what they are watching. I get past all that checkpoint stuff and drive through a roundabout with lots of traffic. That makes me nervous too. Things go bang here. I watch another collection of Chevy’s take no chances and block off the traffic so their central vehicles can race through. It is efficient. But the locals here are left to their own devices if something goes bang. I was in the Army but now I sell shirts on the edge of the round about. I cannot afford glass in the windows and have to rely on a steel grill to keep things secure at night. Shops on either side of me are the same.Open, and with only simple goods to sell. No one parks in front of my store. But few want to stop anyway. Or walk past. Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere else. Stopping can be fatal. The shirts are all carefully stacked in their plastic boxes. At the beginning of each day I wipe all the sand and dust off the plastic. With no glass in the window I do not bother running the airconditioner, although even if I did I have no idea how I could pay for it. I sweep the footpath clean and greet old Mahrus next door. He is an old man and respected around here. He stands in the doorway of his shop. But it is empty. So what else can he do? I don’t know his story except he lost family in Saddam’s time and like all families here now he has lost even more loved ones in the last three years. They say there is no family untouched by the recent madness. It is criminal, not religious. We are Sunni and Shia married in the same house for years. Lots of Iraqis live together like that. Old Mahrus comes down here every day and stands in his doorway and watches the world turn on the roundabout in front of him. I say hello and he smiles at me from under his grey beard and moustache and Kurdish style headgear. His name means “protected by God”. Maybe that is why he keeps smiling. I wish we could fix up the front of our shops. All the cement rendering has been blasted off and the bricks look shabby. One day perhaps. At least nothing has gone bang here for a while. Maybe this period of quiet will last. They are talking about dropping the curfew. That will help. Or will it? People die in the night. For no reason except they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my neighbour who was putting his rubbish out. Was shot in the head and his body dumped. No one ever found him - except a hospital kept a record of his body when it was found 13 days later. But they don’t know where he is buried. Put the rubbish out and die. For no reason. No reason. Die for a cause, yes?! But these deaths are for no reason, like our war with Iran. No reason. Family had no idea where he was. It is Ramadan. I drive home early and I am very careful near the checkpoint again. I move over to let an American tank go past. But if I stop they might think I have a bomb. I keep rolling slowly, hoping he will not crunch me into the concrete wall on the side of the road. I try not to look nervous. I know the soldier on this corner and he waves me though with a nod. The Americans drive past and look somewhere else. I carefully drive home and pull up to the house. I look up and down the street but everything seems normal so I get out and open the gate before driving in and locking myself in. No one bought any shirts today. Maybe tomorrow will be a little better. If I am alive that will be a good start.

(An invention based on an amalgam of things and people seen, and conversations with locals in the last week. I could fill 10,000 words like this - Baghdad is a seething story and everyone has a tale to tell.)

Baghdad Layers

I spent an hour on the roof this afternoon reading Duiker’s “Ho Chi Minh” until the sweat and dust got too much. But its good to get out of the room. The Apaches were tooling around again. They don’t do laps here for practise so I was tuned in to what else might be going on. As with the previous day their presence coincided with military ground units moving around (you hear turbines whining and roaring, tracks rumbling or wheels whirring on the asphalt and sandy coloured camouflage flashing through the palms) and with Blackhawks flying out of a nearby base. Perhaps all of them watching over a VIP moving between various US bases. But other things catch your eye up here as well. A plump dove sits on a neighbouring roof. Kids bikes lean against a wall around the corner. A white blimp sits high in the sky while yesterday even further up I surprised myself by finding a Predator flying lazy, silent circles. I happened to be watching a chopper then caught the massive drone in view immediately behind at 20,000 feet or so. You could stare at the sky all day and never see those. Which is the idea of course. As you take all that in and look across the perfectly serene and settled suburbs, hear the kids shouting as they play and fight you are struck by just how many layers there are to this place. Starting at the top - unseen but always heard - the fast jets boring holes in the sandy blue sky, a Predator team somewhere doing remote reconnaissance for something. Choppers and a blimp lower down, doing their thing. None of which are necessarily connected by their missions by the way. Lower again and across the roof tops aerials mark homes and unseen TVs and living rooms and squabbles over the remote control. Smoke lifts and curls in lazy grey off the gas burning flue at the refinery just over the river and everywhere Iraqi flags snap away in the hot wind. Under those flags public servants beaver away like public servants do or don’t anywhere around the world. Apartments and high rise buildings stretch away to the horizon, interspersed with TV towers, and domes of mosques. And a surprising amount of foliage. And under my feet kids play, puppies yelp, a lizard scampers and a dove nods off in the heat. Layers on layers, most not connected and the lowermost ones being those you pray become the settled norm here one day.

Monday, September 17, 2007

On the Lighter Side

Part of the preparation for visiting a place like this is to have a “Run Away Quick” bag. More colloquially known as the F^%* off Quick Bag in another organisation I once worked for. Or perhaps simply a “Grab Bag”. Its not a bad habit to have when you are travelling. Have all the survival essentials in one little bag along with your passport and tickets in case you have to make a run for it. Leave the suitcase and souvineers behind for the new ruling junta and keep the essential stuff.

I thought I would share some of the essentials to surviving in Iraq – which is actually a very civilised place in which to survive. For me at least. A snapshot of the workdesk reveals some critical items – and tells some of the story of my stay.

Green Numerals First.

1. Diary. What was I doing here again? Good to have a note here to remind yourself. Actually a boiled down version of the RAQB – every contact, meeting, appointment, timetable, itinerary all in one document. Sachet of cash as well. If worst comes to worse the diary, passport, tickets and wallet are all I need. Clothes probably help too.

2. Lamp. Made in China. Chinese instructions still pasted across it. Careful of the lead, one of the lads gave himself an electric shock on one. Room is dim and cool, to combat that 43 degrees out there. So a light becomes important.

3. Indonesian betatine – past its use by date but still stings like crazy. Useful if a limb is lost.

4. Pepsi. Sits side by side with that other cola drink in the fridge. Important part of the Dubai Tea Formula. See “8” below.

5. Movie. Black market version but keeps Hussein in his little store in food and water. I have not seen a reproduction as bad as this in twenty years – filmed in a theatre, so the audience contributed to this version as well. It’s taken me four sittings so far and I have not yet finished it – which indicates how bad it is. Good therapy though.

6. Dental Floss. My new South African friend hands out biltong which he has made himself. Its actually very good. But you need floss for three days after to dig the last of it out from your teeth. This is a multicultural environment in more than one way.

7. Would hate to leave it but would if I had to. But new RAQB designed to include this. I no longer travel with a separate laptop case.

8. My Saudi friends introduced me to this stuff as Dubai Tea. Regardless of brand, age, malt, it is all Dubai Tea. As in, “I think I will nick over the border this weekend for some Dubai Tea.”

9. Pocket New Testament. Food for the soul and balm for the heart.

10. Pear Soap. And something for the body!! Advantage – cake dries very quickly (almost instantly) after use and can be thrown into bag without leaving soapy slime everywhere. Sorry, nothing here about whether it is good for your skin or not. I still have a baby soft bum after 45 years anyway so don't need any special soap.

1. Multivitamins –Executive Stress formula. Need that around here? Am convinced the stress stuff is good marketing baloney but the multivitamins are not a bad idea when you are on the road. Sometimes (most times) local menus need supplementing.

2. AA Batteries. Longest life ones you can find. Nothing worse than the lens retracting into the camera as a battery dies just as the shot of a life time pulls into view. Be careful of AA’s loose with coins in pocket – nearly started a fire once. They were Beijing back lane AA’s which lasted for 3 photos but had enough zap to start cooking me. I think they were radioactive. My theory and I am sticking to it.

3. Listerine. Helps with process at 6 above.

4. It is a civilised place after all, so mixing Green 8 with Green 4 in the can is not the done thing. Use the mug. Never wash it out of course, we are not THAT civilised.

5. There is a tray of 24 of these at my feet, all being fed into the fridge where they have a very short time to cool – I am going through 4-6 of these a day.

6. Passport with wallet (out of sight) - with exit visa stamped and signed. Part of the RAQB but out on the desk since I need it on a daily basis to get around this place.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

There is Nothing Like Death to Make you Feel Alive

What is it about travelling in India that makes it so attractive? The red forts? The Taj? The madness? The suburban cricket? All of those things, to be sure. But to my own way of thinking it has something to do with the general precariousness of life. That in itself is not the attractive thing. But that precariousness means Indians, as a general rule, live life with a fervour, passion and intensity you rarely find anywhere else. They grasp it with both hands and run hard with it. You can see the dirt and squalor. Or you can look through all that and see the person living life to the best of their ability in those conditions. With a clean shirt, hair combed, a quick smile and not a cent to his name. Proud and decent. Polite and engaging. There is a zest and vigour and animation that is wholly captivating.

I am not going to pretend the same applies in Iraq. Perhaps not yet. But there is something about this place that has the same appealing ingredients. Two things help highlight it after a week here. The first is the local help. The cooks and cleaners come in from the Red Zone and in their general joy of life (manifest in a dozen different ways, including a puppy washing session) it is hard to view them as anything except laid back and friendly neighbours. Well, they are but they are neighbours from a few kilometres away who, with their families, are living on the edge, every day. Secondly, Fuzzyjefe reminded me of a truism today – that through the sanitising of the press we forget there are real people that create those headlines (comments in a previous post). This afternoon, while on the roof watching Apache helicopters tool around the sky a loud concussive crump happened off to the west. Nothing seen but it’s a distinctive sound that makes you pause for a moment and wonder who has just had their day ruined. In the news later we see a suicide bomber has killed 8 at a police post. Somehow the sound of the bomb gives a real dimension to the headlines. Real people like our cooks and cleaners and groundsman died this afternoon, making me pause, and generating headlines we don’t really take too much heed of. But still these people hang on and make the most of what they have. They create a vibe that is infectious and is a very positive feature in a place like this. Ironically, thanks to its people, it is a place that makes you feel very much alive.

It Is all A Matter of Perspective

People wonder “why on earth Iraq?” The almost universal and consistent response to the idea that I was travelling here was disbelief. The only exception was my family I think – seems that they are pretty used to bizarre destinations. Would you travel to Baghdad? Assuming you had a reasonably legitimate reason to do so of course. Here are a couple of test questions/scenarios. And the answers lie more in the way your personality is wired and less to do with the situation here on the ground. Scenario the first: the security company briefs you on the security measures taken to get you from the airport to the city, reputedly the most lethal 15km stretch of road in the world. The brief contains all the threats – as it should. Then there is an overview of the type of vehicle in which you will travel, the procedures followed if ambushed, the nature of the weapons carried and the fact you will be suited up with armour before departing the airport. It’s a more detailed brief but you get the idea. Still want to travel? Scenario the second: the same company explains the security of the lodgings you will have. They are proud of the fact that a 120mm only “burned the paint off the roof.” It’s a very safe house. Actually, as you can see from the photo there was a bit more than scorched paint. (Impacted behind the railing, shrapnel penetrating the rails and scoring the walls. And no, I am not implying it was fired by MNF troops - that is simply a convenient DoD image showing the sort of device used). But again, you get the idea. Still want to travel? Without dragging the whole thing out consider the second scenario – with only one exception, those who knew about this were appalled that a 120mm round could still land in the International Zone, every reason to their way of thinking to never travel here. On the other hand I was very encouraged by the fact that it did not penetrate the roof – made me all the more determined to stay there. And encouraged rather than deterred my travel. Like I said, it is all a matter of perspective.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An IED Survivor

Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.

Sir Winston Churchill
In the euphemistic, sanitised language that are acronyms IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device. There are a family of derivatives such as VBIED - vehicle borne IED. Already in my stay here various IEDs have rattled the windows and woken me up. No one seems to pay them any attention. But behind IED (we don't say "bomb") is a nastiness never conveyed by those letters. With an emphasis on "improvised" these devices can include bunker busting heavy munitions rigged to take out your family car, or military vehicle, or unprotected shoppers in a market.

Last night I spent a BBQ dinner (yes, those things happen here) with a most remarkable man. From South Asia. Quiet, softly spoken with that lovely singsong lilt that goes with that part of the world, and with an open, kindly face. The cricket is being televised from South Africa so he was a little distracted at the start of the evening by the current game. Not so unusual for someone from South Asia. What was unusual was his thoroughly disarming and frank story about recently surviving a massive IED that hit his vehicle and killed all his fellow travellers and injured him. It was an appalling incident and experience. Not only were these fellow travellers but one was a close friend and another a guard assigned for his protection. (Actually if I got the story right these two were the one and the same). He walked away from the vehicle as the sole survivor, yet the blast was so comprehensive there was nothing remaining by which the others could be identified. I'll spare you the gory details but you can imagine what he was covered in. Burnt, full of shrapnel, covered in gore, he walked away. He was airlifted out of the country for repairs and after being stitched up and given extensive counselling he is back in the saddle. Last night he spoke quietly about the experience. I applauded his preparedness to talk about it, not something we blokes do very well. He is something of a champion among his colleagues (many of them with remarkable SF backgrounds and plenty to be proud of in their own right) - they are in awe of what he walked away from. His shy smile, honesty, calmness, twinkling eyes betraying a vibrant character underneath somewhere, and matter of fact approach to everything has their respect as well I hope - it certainly earned mine. And that he was taking the philosophical approach that every day things just keep getting better only spoke of a resilience that even that old bulldog Churchill would have applauded. I am all the better for having met this man, a fortunate encounter and complete bonus on this trip. Far better than any tourist icon or places you go are the characters you meet.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

An Evening in Baghdad

A dog across the road barks and gets our attention. We wander across the roof top and gaze down into the dark to see what has distracted it. Nothing appears straight away but then a modified Ford pickup truck drives though. Modified with a gun turret mounted on its chassis. A soldier sits in the turret swinging his machine gun from side to side. Three others laugh and chat in the open back as they push on through the street. Like guards in any environment they are booted and spurred but clearly bored and settled into a routine. Even the dog barking had not got the attention of our own guards - they are in their own routine too. Last night we had to draw the guard’s attention to a car load of young men that had just done the third lap past our front door. Once out on the roof the night captivates us and we enjoyed the fresh warmth of the breeze. Overhead there is the constant grumble from high altitude aircraft. I have no idea if the USAF maintains some sort of CAP here but usually there are no lights to give away the location of aircraft. The constant sound of jets suggest someone up there is going the same boring routine as the guards at the gate are doing down here. After all there is no Iraq Air Force to combat – at best they will get is ground support mission. For the first time tonight I catch a military jet (no strobes) with lights on (unusual) streaking north at high speed, a few minutes later followed by a similar profile boring east. Picking up the direction of helicopters is not easy as their vibrations echo off each wall and make echo location damn hard. And of course they fly without lights so you have to be constantly guessing where they are. Soon a shadow creeps in over the Tigris and drops into the suburbs somewhere, vanishing among the buildings. It’s nowhere near the hospital so perhaps the SF lads are out and about tonight doing goodness knows what. The shadow stays hidden and silent for five minutes before the sound of its blades beats the air again and you can hear it coming towards you. You can’t see it until it has gone past and the city lights, such as they are, pick up its fast moving, light coloured belly. It is visible for seconds then gone. Its rotors die out seconds later and you peer into the haze wondering if you imagined it all. The dog across the road gives a nervous yap in your direction and you realise all your peering into the sky, and rotating on the spot to follow this or that aircraft or helicopter track is making it nervous – a guard from another premises has wandered over and is peering up at the roof to try and see what is going on. Time for bed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Guns and Dogs, Dogs and Guns

They do seem to go together. Certainly in my boyhood experience, which was an overwhelming positive chapter, guns went with dogs. Specifically they went together up at David Paton’s place where dogs seemed to be everywhere. A trip in the truck was one taken with any number of pillion passengers, their claws digging into your legs as they tried to get their noses past each other and out the window – assuming you were riding with them in the cab. Most often you were jolting along with a dozen of them on the truck deck or tray, fighting them for a place at the cabin guard and rail. A motorbike ride was invariably made with dogs on the petrol tank or panting alongside. I have especially fond memories of all the puppies that scrambled around the yard each year when it was that time. It seemed like dozens and dozens of them, all blue eyed and squealing and yipping their insistence for attention. Not all would survive the cull but some were sent to neighbours and friends and the select few would later learn to round up sheep, nip cattle along but most importantly hunt out pigs, launch after possums and dig out rabbits. We would saunter along behind with a rifle, just in case they needed a hand. It is a blissful memory, no doubt getting better with age.

Here puppies are having the same mellowing affect. I took this photo after being downtown. A couple of Abrams (main battle tanks) pulled over for a break in the shade. Four Australian LAVs went speeding past. I have lost count of the number of HUMVEEs that have grumbled past. It's all fascinating stuff but not “normal”. Off the main road we pull into our house and here are six puppies having their lunch. They are being watched over by a very friendly, likable Iraq guard, kitted up in an armoured vest and wearing his folding stock AK-47 machine gun casually slung across his chest. He has taught me the Arabic word for puppy. He has taken a liking to these animals and is constantly feeding them, getting them water and doing all the things Mum should be doing. She, no doubt thankful, is lying in the shade watching the surrogacy from a distance. Most times she barely lifts her head though her eyes are not closed when her pups are out. Guns and dogs. With the puppies around you forget for a moment that so many guns are around, even on the friendly guard, none of which are intended for pigs or rabbits. Regrettable really.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Saddam's Dias - Shifting and Fleeting

Every now and then we do a quick run down to the "shops" if only to get out of the house to stop from going stir crazy. On the way you drive past those crossed swords. And if you want to run the gauntlet of contractors and their armoured vehicles and the military parked in front of the swords you can drive in and wander around the grandstand that Saddam made his own, after his own peculiar fashion. Incidentally the "speed hump" directly under the swords is comprised of dozens of helmets set in concrete. I assume they are the same as those clustered at each sword grip, once worn by Iranian soldiers. Parading soldiers and military vehicles would have once paraded over these helmets, an appropriate gesture in the minds of Saddam and his friends I guess. Apart from the single vehicle here no one pays the place any attention. Its been vandalised. It's a hot and bleak and sterile place. None of the locals sit around in any of the shade, unlike the grounds of the tomb of the unknown warrior just down the road. It is as if they spurn it on purpose. For here he used to stand, their very own Ozymandias daring them and the rest of us to defy him. "Look on my works ye mighty and despair." Now we look and no, we don't despair. Now the place echoes to his ghost and people will have none of it except those like me who briefly visit and wonder at how fleeting our claims on this life can be. That is about as much despair as he invokes in us right now. Boundless and bare the sands do indeed stretch far away. Just as well when you consider his legacy to this place.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Apache Flares and Casevacs

The wind is still hot today but it has swung in from another direction and the dust has been pushed away overnight. The sky is blue and clear though everything is still covered in dust. From the roof I watched through the nodding fronds of a date palm as an Apache helicopter pirouetted through the sky in a seeming lazy series of swinging manoeuvres, flares drawing attention to themselves as they drift to the ground in a glory moment of intense white light. It is not too far up the river but these helicopters are surprisingly quiet if they are not right on top of you, so the whole tableau is played out in silence.
Unlike last night when I had a few drinks and a bite to eat at a BBQ in a compound not too far from a hospital. Generations on from MASH but with the same intent in mind, red cross bearing helicopters flew in to the hospital landing pad in pairs. A number of times. Roaring and whining, thrashing and beating the air with a serious thrubbing which bounced off the concrete walls and echoed off neighbouring houses. And later through the night we could hear them steadily bearing in - we assumed with casualties. It is a sobering reminder that for all that is partly normal here there is so much which is not.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dante's Inferno - with Choppers Thrown In

The dust storm blows in and obscures the horizon, limited as it is. The eucalypts, quite pervasive here, are dusted in the fine desert sand that drops over everything with the consistency of talc. The lemon trees in the garden are coated with it and the date palm fronds seem to sag a little lower to the ground for it. The light remains intense and the oven hot wind (it is 43 degrees out there) snaps the flags vaguely visible through the trees on the convention centre. Dust, heat, light – only a few more ingredients and Dante would feel right at home here. A pair of Blackhawks, dim through the dust, cut a low, fast, level and silent line as they head off over the Tigris and vanish behind the Sheraton. We speed up the river bank and cut back into the burbs, moving quickly least anyone draw a bead on us. Except for that slightly surreal expectation the Tigris is a serene place. It is of course a setting marred by the knowledge that here, among the reeds, the Iraqi police have retrieved hundreds of executed civilians, victims of sectarian violence barely imaginable to the rest of us. Though perhaps our experience in the Balkans and Africa has inured us to this sort of slaughter. Suddenly a pair of Defenders beat up the air above us and start circling, doing a few laps before flashing off. Another pair of Blackhawks smack and throb over the top of us at high speed and vanish in a turbowhine swirl of dust, while another couple work their way across town a little more slowly. Something is happening somewhere to get them all lathered up like this. Only I seem to have had my attention drawn by the choppers. The locals never look up and continue about their daily chores.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Iraq's Ozymandias

After they gained their independence from Britain some in India wanted to remove from sight any reminders of the British rule. So a park was created, just outside Delhi, in which could be placed every statue commemorating a British character. Each city was asked to pull down their statues and to send them to this park where they would be accessible to any who wished to gaze on them. Given some of the Indians had good reason to feel aggrieved at their treatment by the British it was an understandable plan. Fortunately those with a broader sense of history and destiny declined, arguing that these were, for better or worse, part of India's history and the statues would stay where they are. Can you imagine Mumbai without Queen Victoria? It just would not be right. As a result, only a handful of statues ended up at Coronation Park.

In Baghdad there was a very understandable enthusiasm to tear down the statues Saddam had built for himself. While there are numerous other monuments that are symbols of that regime (Crossed Swords being one) the removal of the statues will present a gap in their history. If only as a useful reminder of what not to return to. These couple of statues were torn down and are now tucked away out of sight. In one case badly damaged. No one loved the man, but hopefully there will be a time when people can come and wonder at these as part of their history. Shelly's Ozymandias comes to mind.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Friday, September 07, 2007

What is "Normal" in Baghdad?

This, as everyone knows, is a fortified city. In every sense. In the Green Zone, or International Zone as it is now being called, no one takes any chances and a drive down a side street through the suburbs is a drive through canyons of concrete walls, check points and roadblocks. Everyone is on a relaxed "edginess" as passes are examined, destinations questioned and faces checked against photos. Yet at the same time there are moments of normalcy that are startling. And encouraging. Down from the new US Embassy compound (a huge complex) a blond Caucasian woman wanders along the street, handbag over her shoulder. Cranes work on lifting cement onto the top of the new court complex (some of which was repaired for the trial of Saddam) and in the distance, outside the IZ and in the so called Red Zone, cranes are working on new buildings. Next to where I am camped a team of good natured Iraqis work on a building site, starting from scratch. They could be any blue singlet gang from any building site in Australia - you don't need to understand Arabic to know these guys are joshing each other as they work. Men wait at a bus stop for the bus, just down from a main IZ entry check point where a low loader has just brought in some Hummers and there are more armoured vehicles than soft skinned ones. I have not seen a bus yet but they clearly expecting one. A young Iraqi man poses in front of a Saddam era statue and has his photo taken by his friend. To complete my picture I stood in line at immigration yesterday with a young couple and a baby about two months old. They had among their baggage a pile of baby toys for the cot. They were standing among a group of visitors who were predominantly boot shod, cargo pant and T-shirt clad ex military types heading in to do their thing. The couple with their sleeping baby were a poignant signal that this is what everyone here is about - trying to create an environment that allows this sort of normalcy that we all take for granted. Who doesn't want the freedom to be able to fly in and out of your own country and to buy toys for your kids? That these people need help getting back to that point is a crucial issue that is hard to appreciate outside of this country. Miranda Devine addressed this point in part rather nicely in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. Visiting here is one way to see what is possible and how important it is that the job is completed properly - else "normal" becomes fear and destruction, not bus stops, a safe wander up the street, workmates and kid's toys. (But which ever way you look at it there is nothing normal about those Crossed Swords).

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Baghdad Short Finals

I asked for a window seat (am always keen to see where I am going, or have something other than my neighbour to lean on if the snoring starts). And of course I end up with the most heavily scratched, scored and sandblasted semi opaque window I have seen in a long time. At least since I was in India methinks. I made the airport and checked in, worried less about what might be ahead and more about what was happening inside - I had been up all night with Montezuma's Revenge and I suspect that goat head rice dish had something to do with it. Fortunately no embarrassments on the plane. I now have everything squared away and am going to try and catch up on the sleep handed over to Montezuma.
Despite the window here is a photo of us on an understandable "short finals" profile into the Baghdad International Airport. For all the obvious reasons there are a couple of tight turning spirals down to the ground from what looked like about 10-12,000', the turns being carried out directly over the airport - hence this grubby view.

6 September 2007

Make your Money and Run, Boy

Queen Alia International Airport, Jordan

It is a fresh and clear morning and the traffic pretty much non existent as we ran from the city to Queen Alia. Immigration and passports and other officials were sleepy and inattentive, the immigration guy slumped down in his chair below the counter catching some sleep. The place is lousy with American men, and their accents echo through the building. All polite in their own way but making the mistake of speaking louder when someone fails to comprehend their drawl. Adventurers into Iraq I guess. Three out of four wear military style boots and carry military style backpacks. They seem to fall into two groups. Young men in late twenties early thirties age. Travelling in pairs or trios. Jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap. All seem to still carry their military style haircuts. It’s hard to leave the military nursery after all, even (especially) after your discharge is formalised. Most are fit and burly, straining T-shirts to breaking point. One short case looks like he could bench press a cement truck. The local boys in the cafĂ© humour them although the Jordanian police sergeant refused to reply to a drawled “howya doin’ boy?” I suspect he would take no consolation from hearing the same greeting thrown at a couple of the American's buddies who later came up the escalator from immigration. The second group appear to be in their fifties or so. The uniform is similar although the hair longer and the goatee more frequent. They travel on their own. Same military backpacks. And definitely not as fit looking. I fancy they are seeking the same adventure though. Headed for Iraq and taking the opportunity to do something outlandish, historical or cash rewarding. The latter is a major attraction. Two of them standing behind me at immigration had one of those typically loud American conversations, for the whole immigration hall to hear, about how it was only the cash that drew them to Iraq. Quipped one, to the other , “make your money and run boy, make your money and run.”

It is All About Hospitality...

Thought I would share a touching moment. On my first night here a young man dressed snappily in the hotel issue waist coat appeared at my door to turn down my bed. (Can someone tell what that is all about - after being on the road for more than 20 years I still don't get that. A hangover from older days and colder parts when hot brick was put in your bed perhaps?) Anyway, in he came and fussed around a bit and then we found ourselves in conversation. And so its been every evening since. Last night he discovered this was my last night here in his hotel and he was disappointed that we would no longer have our broken English conversations, a laugh and a backslap. (I said slap!). Plus the few high fives thrown in. Heavens knows what they were about but they meant something to him and communication is, after all, more than words. Tonight he was waiting for me as I came in from meetings. He expressed his sadness that this was my last night here, sadness at my next destination (!) and as a token of his friendship presented me with this rather battered looking gerbera (the other flowers were standard issue to every room). He had stiffened it with wire and from what I had gathered he had made a special effort to get his hands on it. Which means he probably had to sneak it out of the monstrous displays down in the lobby. Flowers from blokes is not normally something that rings true in my own culture but this meant something special to this young chap and after carefully getting the stem trimmed, and placed in water, another high five and a "sad to be goodbye" he was gone. Who couldn't be touched by that? One of those moments that makes travelling in other cultures extra special. And which was a sign of the hospitality that is a genetic component of the Arab makeup.

Panorama from Mt Nebo

Well part of it anyway. This composite view looks down the mountain and across the Jordan Valley. Views to the right complete the picture in terms of understanding the terrain but given the camera flattens everything and depth is lost I have left it out. This gives some idea at least, and the general direction of things. Despite the dust and sand blowing up out of the desert we could just make out the Dead Sea, which turned out to be about a 15 minute drive away. The general direction of other points of interest are shown. Bethlehem and Jerusalem could not be seen but are only 50km away. The hills on which they sit were faintly visible but I had to wait until we reached the bottom of this escarpment before they became really clear. And an escarpment it truly is. Standing here gives you a good sense of why Joshua attacked from this direction.
Surprisingly, despite the tough terrain, the whacking heat and the strong winds the hills are dotted with the tents of the Bedouin who live out here on..., well, I am not too sure. Did not seem very much around although each storm torn gully (the evidence of violent flooding is everywhere) had a base of vegetation tucked away from the elements.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mt Nebo - Moses' Lookout

As with wandering Jerusalem and other parts of this world there is no expectation that the sites you visit are the real thing. After all there are numerous ideas about where Jesus was born, crucified and even buried. But knowing you are wandering the same place and taking in similar views is enough to have an impact, far beyond what I expected when I fist visited this part of the world ten years ago.
Mt Nebo is a short drive out of Amman and is the place where Moses supposedly took a look at the Promised Land, though denied entry (he would feel at home in this part of the world still!!). Even if it is not the precise spot you certainly get a good idea of what he might have seen. I was struck by the short distances involved. From here you could just make out the Jordan River, Jericho and the blue hills lifting up to Jerusalem through the summer dust and haze. On a clear day Jerusalem is visible. It all must have seemed so much in his grasp as he looked across the plains in front of him.
And of course Joshua would have stood up here somewhere too, planning his strategy from these heights which dominate the plains. You get a good appreciation for why he came this way as well - pushing up along the sides of the lake would have presented the plains people with an easy way of defending themselves. Indeed, Jehicho is strategically placed not only on the highways but at the head of the west side of the Dead Sea, to better cover the approaches from the south. It makes a difference being able to see this ground first hand.
On top of the mountain is an excavated church, the destination for early pilgrims. It is carefully preserved, and covered from the elements and worth the visit if only from an historical perspective. What am I saying? That is the main perspective here is it not? It's a serene place. Well, was for a few minutes when the generator was turned off for smoko. A couple of workers, dressed like the Sith to stay out of the sun, were drilling into the rock to set up some steps for visitors, and the stillness of the place and the chatter of sparrows in the pines were all lost once you got out onto the top of the hill. In the background is a piece of symbolic sculpture - serpent and staff.

Dead Sea

Not much more you can say in a title without trivialising the experience. And I am not even sure what to say about the place that has not been said before. We all know you float like an apple in a barrel in this water. In fact, trying to swim on your front demonstrates to the locals (all hiding in the shade since its 45 degrees out here) that there is an idiot in the water - the buoyancy flips you over and your legs won't stay down. So there you are thrashing around trying to look like you have it all under control. The two others in the water just sat on the sandy bottom and looked at me in silence, the old guy shaking his head every now and then. Soon the stuff was in my eyes and the fooling around stopped as acid ripped them out of my head. I weighed up letting it work its way out or running over the broken glass, which is the salt encrusted beach, to get my towel. I stayed in the water. Floating around is the key. Just give in to it and let it hold you up. I am not sure reading a book is really that feasible - I value my books too much. It feels like light machine oil. Indeed, if there is anything tactile about you then this place is heaven. But the surprise was that despite the slight oily texture the water is very clear. No vegetation to foul it up and discolour it I guess. The surface tension is so "tight" (is that the right word?) bubbles created in the aforementioned thrashing around sound like rice bubbles snapping and popping. Oh, and by the way those couple of small shaving nicks from yesterday now feel like major wounds. The blueness of the lake, fuses with the distant hills lifting towards Jerusalem which in turn fuse into the furnace sky. (Jericho is over my left shoulder by the way). Blue on blue. The air is heavy and oppressive, a sensation less of humidity and more of weight. Salt crystals form on the waters edge. White and bright in the shallow water, when crushed in your fingers they turn to salty sludge and dissolve. Stones have salt crystals growing around them in the shallows. Not unlike quartz. And the sand from the bottom when stirred up takes ten minutes to settle again. Thirty minutes was enough - I was going to turn into a pillar of salt if I was not careful. Rinsed off, got dressed then had a lunch of goat's head and rice. I think I have acquired the taste!

Presidential Security - ATough Gig

Back in 1982 I was caught up as a minor minion in the security surrounding the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Canberra. Sorry, Canbra. It's a thankless task although on the day she and Phil were leaving town I had the good fortune to have her slow and and wave at me, Phil getting a nudge to look as well. I had the presence of mind to wave back - a salute was out of the question! But I think she was actually having a laugh at the one floppy ear of my retarded looking police dog and did not notice my poor protocol. That visit sprung to mind (yes, my mind connects in ways even I don't understand) as I walked out for my early morning wander and found the hotel locked down with soldiers everywhere and a Hummer at the front door rigged up with a pintel mounted machine gun. Trouble is the Hummer was hemmed in on each side by two buses that had pulled in to carry the entourage (as it turns out) of the President of the Maldives who is visiting this place as well (I hope he has the room on the other side of the screaming baby, something might get done). If it all turns to custard this guy had an arc of fire of about 5 degrees, could not cover the street or support any of the soldiers lined up all over the place. The best he would be able to do is dust pigeons off the hair salon directly in front of him. Blaming the bus drivers was going to sound pretty weak. I felt sorry for him for a moment then remembered it was he who chose Army instead of Air Force!
3 Sept 07

Monday, September 03, 2007

I am the Good Shepherd - of Amman

Running around today and finally finishing early by Arab business standards – about 8pm. Back to back meetings and dashing about town. Actually that gives the wrong impression – at about mid afternoon the city gridlocked and we crawled. Locals blamed the visit by the Italian Prime Minister for streets being closed, hastily assuring me the town was not normally like this. I made soothing sounds.

But at one point we had a clear run from the Embassy into town and as we crested a hill and barrelled down the other side a young boy and his sheep wandered into the traffic. Everyone slowed and moved around him. No horns or signs of irritation. The boy ignored the traffic and marched along with his flock of sheep following him. His nonchalance and clear assumption of his right of way was laugh out loud stuff. But also a nice reminder that despite all the focus on oil and industry in the Middle East this part of the world is still about agrarian things. Even the front page of the paper today carried a story of a wrangle over sheep taxes, just in case we needed reminding! And even though this city has remarkable Biblical history roots they are impossible to see now. So this little flock represented those roots for me in a symbolic way instead.

2 September 2007

Sunday, September 02, 2007

CIA’s Jason Bourne Has Arab Friends

Watching a movie in another country is always an interesting experience, especially if the English original is dubbed in one language, subtitled in another and you are left with no English. Happens occasionally in Asia. Then there is the different etiquette expected – trying breaking any of the rules about where to sit in Singapore and they want to stop the movie so they can sort out the seating. Even when there are only 15 of you in the theatre. In Amman this evening the theatre had a decidedly family theatre feel about it. It was small as far as theatres go but we were up against local pop movies and all the kids were filling what I expect were larger halls. The predominantly male audience crowded into a space with seating for maybe 200. The screen was distinctly warped, like one of those carnival mirrors that adds weight to your waist or stretches your head into a cone. If the size of the place was not enough to give a sense of being in a family theatre the constant chat among groups, which back home would have irritated me, seemed appropriate. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Heck, even I ended up firm friends with a couple of Jordanians who are students in Texas and are currently home visiting family. People wandered in and out, phones were answered, messages checked, and when Jason wasn’t hurtling along in some frantic dash those conversations burbled along. And when Jason got on top of things at Waterloo station there was polite applause. But a clap and cheer each time he bested his CIA rogue minders. And a laugh of relief and theatre wide applause when the final scene with Nicki reveals all is not lost. Whatever your TLA (three letter acronym) everyone wants the good guy to win in the end. Even if he is CIA.

Its an Arab World

Outside the window the normal hotel pool parade is going on. Young fit men strut their stuff. So do fat men who are just beyond caring and who waddle around defying anyone their right to a place in the sun. They all spreadeagle in the sun and defy it to do its worst. Some hairy chested types are basted walnut stain brown. And still they lie out there for hours, aiming for an even darker hue. Young women start the parade earlier than the men however. They are out there on their own shortly after breakfast and are lathering up the oil so when the sun lifts to mid morning they are glistening like a newly polished hotrod (except you wouldn't leave one of those out in the blistering sun). It is now five hours since the first one arrived and she is still there on her sun chair. She has shifted around from side to side, end to end but has been roasting without a break - I’ve organised meetings, had lunch, walked to the shops, sorted visas and done a host of things while she has been working on her skin cancer. But that is not the thing that stands out – there are “sun idiots” the world over. What is striking is that a short hop across the border is a whole kingdom that locks up their women. They can’t have jobs, drive, or be themselves outside of the home. On this side of the border they wear bikinis and worship the sun. If there is a truism about the Middle East it is that there is no such thing as a typical Arab world. It’s about as diverse as anything you can imagine which shares the same language, prophet, cultural roots and geography.

Short Finals into Amman, Jordan

We fly up along the Saudi/Iraq border. The haze over the Arabian peninsular means there is little to see. As we swing into Jordan the air clears and the landscape sharpens up. There is a lot that is familiar to Australian eyes. Sweeping dry riverbeds carve up the landscape. But there is a constant dun to the sand and rock, the Australian brass, oranges and reds missing. As we drop lower dry water course show up scanty vegetation following their underground resources while the number of farmlets increases. Goats and sheep, standing around truck handing out hay. How very familiar. Contour ploughing and lines of trees, possibly olives planted along the contours as well. Dust. Haze. Weedy paddocks and rocks. Perimeter rushes up on us, guard towers every so many hundred metres and here we are. Welcome to Jordan. I messed up the transfers into the city to jumped a taxi whose driver ripped me my change but who pretty much stuck to his lane, got out of the way of speeding BMWs and got me into the city in one piece OK. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dubai International Airport

This is something of a reunion and there is the air of the familiar as I transit through here. We landed at 5.30 am but time of arrival or departure seems to make little difference here since it is always crowded with transients. This is definitely a utilitarian hub, focused squarely on shifting people through. But in so doing we are all forced to walk though a quite remarkable duty free shopping centre. In actual fact shopping is probably the main reason for the existence of this hall. If you are ever looking for the definition of a melting pot, use this place as your template. Africans, many in their national dress, come in from the south. Those tall and elegant ones from the Horn of Africa seem to float through the shambles, regal in their bearing and not being reduced by the confusion. Groups of Russian men heading who knows where but all smoking their heads off (outside the smoking refuges) and slapping each other’s back in uproarious good humour. Arabs in all the variety of their dress, some completely covered, while others in Western hip hop fashion. A group of ten year old girls from Malaysia all asleep in a circle on the floor, their yellow T-shirts advertising their school. A very high number of workers from South Asia who are the most stoic of the lot, in small groups squatting with arms resting on their knees, watching through the forest of legs that drill past them. A squatting clutch of Korean men compare their visa applications. They look like construction or shipyard workers as well. And here too are the numerous Filipinos in transit to more prosperous times for their families, but via the hard graft of being exploited for their labour in this part of the world. Holidaying Brits and other Europeans make up a large part of the population, pasty skinned or fried and the duty free shops do a roaring trade with them. But it is the poorly dressed single men who clutch their papers, even (especially) as they sleep across the carpet and clutter up the walkways. Some of them snowy haired and aged. Many in simple attire, some in nothing more than rags. With sandals on their feet, rarely shoes. Some look lost, most have a resigned air about them. Where are they going? Where are their families? Are they leaving loved ones or heading home? How long are they away? (A porter in a hotel in Saudi once told me he gets home to see his wife and children in Sri Lanka once every six years!) What on earth do they make of the obscene wealth on display on the duty free floor below? What are their dreams? Do they have any dreams? Can you dream for something better when you have nothing? Or is that all you do? And that, after all, is what Dubai is about – dreams. Dreams of fabulous wealth for those who have nothing, and dreams of fabulous entertainment for those who have. And dreams of freehold real estate and more sunny days than rainy days per year for those who crave those things but who fall somewhere in the middle. This airport of course is only a mirror of what is being lived outside in the dusty 38 degree heat.

On the Road Again: Middle East Diary

Some unexpected travel came out of the trip to London last month so here I am on the road again. Heading this time into the Middle East, a part of the world that has grown on me.
Emirates EK419
Departures, especially those on long trips are now to be dreaded, regardless of how glossy the brochure extolling the destination, or the claims an airline makes via is model stewards about how much you are going to enjoy the trip. The maxim that the journey is more important than the destination might be good for your chicken soup guide for life but has zero relevance to long haul flights. Emirates seem to have slipped in a couple of extra rows since I flew with them last and I am unable to stretch out, testing my claims that I can sleep anywhere. We bore out of Sydney and head for Dubai via Bangkok where I now sit after a brief walk around Thailand’s new airport. When I came through here for a couple of days last October we missed this new building by one day. Nearly a year on and it already shows wear and tear. Sadly it is another modern airport with nothing startling about the shiny chrome and glass and new concrete. The holding pens for all the seething, crying, bored, irritable stock are no different to any other holding pens in any other airport trying to attract then quickly churn as many passengers as possible. Here we all sit at 2 o’clock in the morning, badly wanting to nod off and not really able to in the plastic seats they have for us. This flight seems to have a lot of kids on it so our gritty eyed fatigue is accompanied by a symphony of sniffles, grumps and outright dissenting wails. I feel sorry for these parents who are stoic in the face of the assault. If I find the place drear, they must hate what it doesn’t offer for small kids trying to work out what is going on. But the diminutive Thai staff are good humoured and see us though and reboarded all with a semblance of good humour. For which we are all thankful.