Inside the camel market

It ain’t for the squeamish. Birqash camel market, just outside of Cairo, stinks. The stench of animals swelters stagnantly in the heat until it rubs off on you. This isn’t a tourist attraction although a few intrepid travellers always make it out here – and the market organisers enterprisingly make foreigners buy a ticket to enter. But it is a side of Cairo far removed from pyramids and King Tut’s treasure.

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An Ancient Path of Kindness

After night has fallen, the sacred fish ponds of Şanlıurfa are smooth black mirrors reflecting the backlit Ottoman arches of Rızvaniye Mosque. The effect is only distorted by the occasional ripple trembling across the surface as one of the fat silky carp who inhabit the pond patrol the depths below. During the day, these pampered pets of the city gorge themselves on offerings from visiting pilgrims. Their wide, ugly mouths rise to the edge of the pool, in a wrestling match of belly-flopping bodies, as an all-you-can-eat buffet of fish pellets rain down onto the water. To believers, the carp here aren’t any old fish. These are the lumps of coal from the funerary pyre King Nimrod built in an attempt to kill the Prophet Abraham. Miraculously transformed by God into fish, as the fire was turned into water, they spend their lives as divine beasts revered by all.

Turkey’s southeast Anatolia region is a place alive with sacred myth and legend and the ancient city of Şanlıurfa is the birthplace of monotheism’s most important story. Traditionally regarded as the biblical town of Ur (a title also contended by the Tell al-Muqayyar ruins in Iraq), this is where many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that the Prophet Abraham was born and where he struck the first blow for monotheism’s future by challenging the pagan beliefs of King Nimrod and his subjects.

Earlier that day Ömer Tanık had explained how the city’s reverence among pilgrims had, over the years, fostered an ingrained philosophy of hospitality among the locals here. “We didn’t look at the people who came here as paying guests,” he said. “Before there were hotels in Şanlıurfa, people would approach visitors at the fish ponds to come stay in their houses for the night.” Today the spirit of this hospitality lives on in the surrounding hinterland.

We drove out of the city, passing the sprawl of concrete-cube apartment buildings on the suburban outskirts, into a rolling, raw countryside of rock-pitted plateau. Turning off the main highway, the road was blocked by fat-tailed Anatolian sheep idly waddling across the tarmac.  The tiny Kurdish village of Yuvacalı would look like any other rural hamlet in eastern Turkey except for the pimple-like protrusion of the hill it is built around, poking dramatically out of the land. “It’s a settlement mound,” Ömer’s wife, Alison told me. “A man-made hill, produced by layer upon layer of civilisation settling here causing the hill to rise up as they built directly on top of each other.”

In 2009 Ömer and Alison pioneered a tourism endeavour here which offers travellers an experience of rural Anatolian life in village homestay accommodation. The initial experiment began in Ömer’s birthplace, Yuvacalı, but has now spread to other villages in the area. In 2011 the Tanıks joined up with the Abraham Path Initiative to create a trekking route through southeast Anatolia connected by these homestays. Encompassing the ancient villages of this region, walking this trail is a journey into a corner of Turkey long ignored by tourism. It is also a glimpse into a culture of natural hospitality which is rarely seen in modern-day life.

Yuvacalı smells of freshly ploughed earth and livestock. Its squat one-storey buildings are a mix of recent concrete box additions and much older mud-brick dwellings with walls that slouch and sag into the land. Pero Salva’s front yard was a hive of activity as we pulled up. Chickens perched on the crooked wooden fence and berated our noisy arrival. Sheep bleated somewhere nearby. I was ushered inside to the reception room where the walls were painted the same cheery lilac colour that many Kurds have adopted as a uniform shade for their headscarves. Pero’s husband Halil poured strong tea into tiny tulip-shaped glasses as we sat on the floor.

Typical of many of the Kurdish settlements in this area, Yuvacalı’s villagers survive mostly on subsistence farming. When Alison and Ömer first moved here from Istanbul, they did a door-to-door poll of villagers to find out what the major problems were and how they could help. “Among adults here there is 50% illiteracy,” Alison told me, “and only half are fluent in Turkish. Their native Kurdish dialects are the language spoken at home.” This of course has a knock-on effect with the younger generation, who then don’t learn Turkish until they enter the school system and are, by then, struggling to catch up with their peers.

They discovered that in every single village household the income was under US$1 per day, per person. Tourism could help to combat this poverty chain. “The two homestays in the village provide employment for eight families,” Alison said. In a place as rural, and conservative, as Yuvacalı though, bringing tourism into the mix can be a difficult balance to get right. “We don’t want to destroy the fabric of the village,” she said. Kurdish culture is conservative but not particularly because of Islam. Their values stem from living in close proximity to each other. “It comes from lots and lots of people occupying a very small space, trying to get on and being respectful of that fact.” She explained.  Guests at the homestays are expected to be modestly dressed. Women visitors must wear an ankle-length skirt, men must wear long trousers, and alcohol is not allowed.

Kurds make up the largest minority in Turkey, numbering about 14 million, and live mainly in the southeast of the country. It was only after the regional upheavals of the early 20th century that Yuvacalı became a solely Kurdish village though. Before then local oral tradition tells of a vibrant community of Kurds, Armenians, and Jews all living here together. The settlement mound points back to an even earlier history. Today Yuvacalı may seem like a remote, inconsequential outpost, but in the empire-building days of early civilisation it was positioned directly on an important crossroads.

This entire region of southeast Anatolia was the crux of territorial conflicts and commerce, between Hittites, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians and Seleucid Greeks, Romans and Sassanians, and, later on, Byzantines, Arab conquerors, Crusaders, and Ottomans.  Yuvacalı’s settlement mound is thought to be at least 10,000 years old. Although the mound has never been excavated, surface finds of cuneiform tablets, pieces of flint and mosaic have indicated to visiting archaeologists that the mound here dates back to at least the 8th millennium BC. It is entirely plausible it could be a lot older.

Ömer drove me out to the village of Soǧmatar which sits in a dip between two hills. The houses were half built from stone taken from ancient shrines and sprouted satellite dishes out of flat metal roofs held down by pieces of brick. We scrambled up the flank of one of the hills just as the sun burst down upon the landscape silhouetting a shepherd on horseback upon the opposite hill, surrounded by his flock. The rock surface of the peak was covered in elaborate Assyrian script.

We hiked over to the opposite peak where a half collapsed circular temple dedicated to Venus was a reminder of the religion of celestial worship common in the area before the Prophet Abraham. Today Soǧmatar is made up mostly of Arab nomads who settled here in the 1980s but it was once an important cult sacrifice centre where every moment of life was directed by the movements of the sky. Although an official tourist signpost, at the entrance to the village, briefly explains Soǧmatar’s significance this ancient site, like most in this region, is half-forgotten and completely bypassed by normal tourism. A donkey tethered to a tree kept up a constant mournful braying. A dank, musty cave on the edge of the settlement still hosted the clear outlines of life-sized idols in eroded niches, which had been abandoned as monotheism crept over the land.

This hike formed a small section of the new Turkish Abraham Path which, when walked fully, is a 170km, 10-day trek through this region. The Abraham Path itself is a bold venture to blaze an interconnecting series of walking trails throughout the Middle East which trace the journey of the Prophet Abraham from Turkey, south to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But this trek is not supposed to simply be a religious pilgrimage. It’s also a journey into our beginnings. In human history, this part of modern-day Turkey is not only the birthplace of monotheism but also the ground where we took our first shaky toddler steps to civilisation. Locked between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, this stretch of land makes up the northwest region of ancient Mesopotamia. It was across this countryside that mankind first discarded the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for settlement.

The conversion of belief systems from a sky-worshipping culture to the belief in one god was a slow process that is said to have begun with Abraham on his journey from Ur.  Instead of attempting to exactly mirror a journey that both believers and non-believers could spend forever debating the reality of; today’s Abraham Path instead attempts to forge a trail highlighting the different stages of our common humanity. “It’s not a political path. It’s not a religious path. It’s a cultural path, fundamentally a human path.” William Ury, one of the founders of the Abraham Path, told me. Passing through ancient, half-forgotten temple sites and worship centres such as Soǧmatar offers walkers a chance to connect not only with modern-day village life, but also with the greater history of our own joint humanity.

Back in Yuvacalı, Pero rolled a long plastic tablecloth across the floor and all the family pitched in to begin bringing dishes out of the kitchen. Creamy lentil soup, bright salads of ruby tomatoes and crispy lettuce, smoky sliced aubergines charred to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, trays of thick, comforting home-cut chips, and tiny bowls of tarty cacık (Turkish yoghurt and cucumber salad), and ısot spread (the Urfa region’s famous hot pepper), which glowered a danger-inducing shade of dark red, all appeared in front of me.

Hospitality has always been the thread that binds the cultures of the Middle East together. To be a guest in this part of the world is to be honoured with the best your host can provide, from the copious cycle of cups of tea which punctuates the beginning and end of any visit, to the feast of local produce laid out as a meal when visitors arrive; it is part of a traditional system still very much alive today.

It’s a belief that has its roots in a nomadic past when hospitality was an essential component of survival. It was with this very hospitality that the journey of Abraham which is told in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was able to be accomplished. In the West Abraham is remembered chiefly for the Old Testament story of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his loyalty to his god (in Islam, the child in the story is Ishmael) and this earlier story of generosity has faded from general knowledge.

Pero and Hilal don’t need any reminding. For them hospitality is a natural part of their culture; as much a part of life as the seasonal agriculture chores which define so much of rural life in this part of the world. By incorporating village stays into the Abraham Path visitors have the opportunity to experience a culture where welcome truly does mean welcome and hasn’t been reduced in meaning by over-tourism. To be a visitor here, if not as rare as it once was, is still an exciting occasion. “This is an ancient path of kindness,” William Ury said. Walking along this trail “is a way of reconnecting the human family footstep by footstep and remembering our collective past.”

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This story was first published in the Sep/Oct issue of Lifestyle+Travel. You can see the original here.

Images of northwest Kenya

The landscapes are big-sky country at their most brutally raw. Moonscape plains of rock. Scraggly bare-branched trees. Hills that twinkle in mineral-rich hues of muddy green and red.  And just when you think the parched land will roll on forever there is the emerald green ribbon of Lake Turkana slashing through the barren wilderness. It’s a harsh land. A bleak land. A place of hand-to-mouth existence eked out in scraps of villages held together by sticks and string. It’s not a place you forget in a hurry.

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Sometimes you just need to suck it up and get a guide

We were lost. John scanned the sea of sandstone that stretched out to the horizon and finally conceded defeat.

Somewhere within the vast pitted landscape of Wadi Arabah we had come unstuck. Just as the Bedouin tea-seller had told us, we should have taken a guide.

That morning, when we’d set out, our intention had been to hike the ultimate Bedouin back-road into Petra that begins near Al-Barid (or Little Petra as it’s more commonly known). A suburb of Petra, Al-Barid features the same grand façades hewn into the rock face, but attracts only a handful of the visitors. Like its more famous sister-site it is cleverly concealed behind colossal sandstone cliffs.

Its creators, the wily Nabataeans, controlled a trade-route empire that stretched from Yemen to Syria and hid their cities from the world to defend against attack.

In Al-Barid we had stopped for a sugar-laden tea, and told the tea-seller our plans. He shook his head and warned us against setting off alone. We shrugged off his well meaning advice, but two hours later we were simply walking in circles, unable to locate the start of the trail or find our way back to the site. Trapped amid wave after wave of weird and weathered rock formations, we were beginning to regret our gung-ho attitude. Two thousand years after their demise, the Nabataeans were still managing to outwit would-be invaders.

Salvation finally arrived as we stood on a rock outcrop, surveying the surroundings for familiar landmarks. Spotting us looking baffled and disoriented, 14-year-old Ahmed arrived grinning on our perch. After laughing at our plight, he agreed to lead us back to Al-Barid’s entrance by a short cut he knew.

Half an hour later, having scaled a rock face, jumped off a large ledge and clambered across a narrow exposed ridge, we were again safely drinking tea at Al-Barid.

“You need a guide?” the tea-seller asked, trying to stop his mouth twitching into an “I-told-you-so” smile. I looked out at the landscape and marvelled at the ingenuity of the Nabataeans who had secreted their cities within it. “Yes,” I said. “I think we do.”

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This story was first published in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

Beautiful Beiteddine

Abu Nasser pulled the taxi into the empty car park and made a theatrical swerve across the concrete. “Busy, isn’t it.” He joked. There were only two other tourists strolling around Beiteddine Palace when I visited. In any other country a tourist site like this would be swarming with camera-clickers. But Beiteddine is in Lebanon. And with no end in sight to the conflict across the border in Syria,  the glorious caramel and honey tinged stone and marble architecture of this peacock pile in the Chouf Mountains sits empty of admirers.

Beiteddine was built by the Ottoman governor Emir Bashir Shihab II in the 19th century. Today it positively drips with the memory of opulence that defined the interiors and architecture of that era. Walking around pompous rooms of grand mansions and palaces always make me feel uneasy. With the building devoid of tour groups this feeling was magnified. My shoes squeaked on the polished floors. A guard lounged in a doorway frame watching me set up a photo. My shoes scuffed again with a loud nails-on-chalkboard trill. I frowned in embarrassment and silently apologised to the house. The guard walked towards me and I wondered if I was about to be told off for having squeaky sneakers. But no. He just wanted to make me climb over the ropes into the ‘do-not-access’ side of the room so he could take a photo of me reclining on the sofa.

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A snapshot of Byblos

I found Roger Abed in the garden of the Hacienda Cafe. He was picking grapes which swung from the trellis in juicy green bunches ready to burst. “Back in my father’s day,” he said as he offered me a grape, “Byblos was the centre of the world.” Roger’s dad of course was Pepe Abed; Lebanon’s famed maverick bon vivant who turned this sleepy Mediterranean village into Hollywood’s favoured port of call.

These days it’s hard to believe that Byblos was once the centre of anything. I followed Roger down the cobblestone path that led to the harbour where long ago Egyptian and Greek sailing ships had docked to tussle over commerce. Byblos controlled the papyrus trade between Egypt and Greece during the 3rd millennium BC, long before Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando decamped from their yachts to play with Pepe. It was from here that the famed Lebanese cedars set off on course to Egypt to be used in the Pharaoh’s ship and temple building. This tiny town had seen much more than razzmatazz divas and prima donnas passing through its port.

We sat on the restaurant terrace of Pepe’s old playpen, the Byblos Fishing Club, and stared out to sea. “My father was a born entertainer. That’s what he did best.” Roger said as he showed me the photos of silver screen royalty, weathered and faded by sea air and time, which still graced the back wall. “It all ended with the war of course,” he added. The glamour-puss jetsetters, Hollywood starlets and assorted hangers-on high tailed it pronto at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war and Byblos hasn’t seen their ilk since.

I looked out at the harbour. Upon the old Phoenician wall a family lined up for a photo while two teenage boys sat smoking cigarettes on the stones. Roger shook my hand and told me he had to leave. After all, he had grapes to pick in a quiet garden and I had wine to drink on a gloriously sunny afternoon in the town that was twice the centre of the world.

Images of another side of Cappadocia

Proving that even in a major tourist destination there is still ample opportunity to get away from the tour bus crowds, Mt Hasan stands regally in Turkey’s southern Cappadocia region, untouched by the flocks of visitors who descend across the lunarscape of valleys just to the north. Practically nobody bothers climbing Mt Hasan. That’s a shame because this old volcano has a beguilingly stark beauty which will cast its magic over all who do journey to its summit.

And no, we don’t know why there’s a metal cow on the summit either.

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Remembering the real Syria

I had just been kidnapped. Bundled into a car and taken to an unknown destination somewhere in the old city section of Homs.  My kidnapper loomed over me, knife in hand.

“You must eat more,” he yelled, slamming the knife forcefully onto the table. “More!”

Dutiful hostage that I am, I forced another spoonful into my mouth.

Enforced eating isn’t a usual hostage torture procedure but then there are no dank cells or handcuffs here. Instead it’s just endless cups of tea, huge plates groaning under the weight of food and more smiles from the gathered crowd than you could ever expect.

This was my Syria. 

Yet again, I’d been kidnapped by a local family and brought home for lunch.

All I’d wanted to do was buy a bottle of water when I wandered into Nizar’s shop in the midday heat. Instead, he’d quickly locked the shop, hustled me into his car and brought me home to meet his family. And here I was now in their living room, about to explode from food, with his wife Hiyam clucking reprovingly “you’re too skinny, too skinny.” They sat there, my hostage-takers, shaking their heads mournfully as I desperately tried to clear my plate.

Whether being plied with sugar-coated almonds by a sweet vendor in the souq, taking the time to drink tea with the caretaker of a lonely ruin, or becoming the surprise guest of honour at a family lunch, there was a warmth, and joyous spontaneity, to travel here that isn’t found elsewhere.

Ahlan wa sahlan” (hello and welcome) the Syrians said. And they truly meant it.

I had finally cleared my plate. Nizar lit a victory cigarette. Hiyam clapped her hands approvingly while the rest of the family grinned. We sat and chatted over syrupy cups of Arabic coffee as the afternoon rolled on and turned into evening. In the end I got up to leave amid pleadings to stay the night.

We took photos. Babies were plonked into my lap and grandma patted my hand affectionately as the camera clicked and flashed. I staggered out into the twilight, with a stomach stuffed with food and a heart full to the brim with the kindness of strangers.

In a time when Syria is headline news for all the wrong reasons I believe it’s really important to remember what it was like before this tragedy began. Ask anyone who ever travelled through Syria and most will tell you it is one of their favourite countries. I wrote this piece in 2009 and it first appeared, slightly modified, in The Independent’s ‘On The Road’ column. The editor got cold-feet about my use of the term ‘kidnapped’ at the beginning of the story and took it out. My whole point of using the kidnapping analogy was the irony of so many people being terrified of going to Syria when all of us who travelled there regularly knew it was one of the most hospitable and welcoming places in the world. Now I’m republishing the original version here on my blog so that we remember that Syria. The one where total strangers were welcomed like long lost friends.  I don’t know what’s happened to Nizar, Hiyam and their family. I lost contact with them soon after the fighting started. I do know that the part of Homs they lived in has been reduced to rubble.

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