Before; images of Syria

“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.

I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”

“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”

“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”

“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.

I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.

At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.

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A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.

He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.

“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”


Shopping for guns in Addis Ababa

I knew I was lost when I found myself surrounded by dozens of newly made coffins. They were piled against the walls: adult size, child size, baby size and all smelling of freshly sawn timber. Addis Ababa’s merkato is a huge sprawling city within a city; a market so vast that no one seems to be sure where it exactly begins or ends and I had been wandering around it for hours. I’d heard from a local that you could buy absolutely anything here and so for fun I thought I’d go shopping – for a Kalashnikov.

Finding what you want is a mammoth task in a market commonly thought to be the largest in Africa. There is street after street of endless – well – stuff. I found the street where old cardboard boxes come to die, the street where used ‘US AID’ containers and cans are resold as kitchen sieves and pans. There’s a timber street, tupperware street, belt street, tyre street and of course the coffin street where I finally realised I had no idea where I was. Wafts of spice and incense, leather and sawn wood mingled in the air as I watched an old man methodically sand a timber panel to fit on to a tiny coffin.

If there’s one place in the world where you could buy a gun along with your weekly groceries it would be here in the merkato. Its winding crowded alleyways are home to thousands of stalls selling everything from the mediocre, to the strange, to the downright bizarre. And in a nation which spent much of the last half of the 20th Century wracked by civil war, under the vice-like grip of a bloody dictatorship, a Kalashnikov stall doesn’t seem that weird. The trouble is finding it among the mishmash of the market roads.

The incoherent jumble of the market is a mirror of the city itself. From its humble beginnings as a tented settlement at the start of last century, Addis has grown and sprawled outwards in every direction becoming a massive shambles of a city. The main inner-city districts are connected by the uphill thoroughfare of Churchill Avenue where, at its southern base, the shoe-shine boys listlessly lounge awaiting customers. Earlier that day a long walk to the top of Churchill Avenue had brought me to Piazza; once the prestigious centre of Italian Addis Ababa and now a bustling hub which pulsates with the beat of a hundred sound systems all competing for prominence.

From a pavement table I had watched a gleaming NGO 4-wheel-drive sound its horn impatiently as a young boy herded a flock of goats across the street. I’d skirted the afro-headed hipsters selling fake-name sunglasses on the pavement, and hopped aboard one of the minibuses that buzz around the city’s spaghetti bowl of streets. That’s what had deposited me in the effervescent soul of the capital, the merkato, where all Addis’ inhabitants come to shop, to trade, to sell. Locals seem to know instinctively where everything is in this vast hive of commerce, but I’m not a local and the warren of alleyways had me beat.

I had asked every local I met for directions. Been pointed down side streets, drawn maps in the dust and taken by my wrist to the end of alleyways by helpful shopkeepers amused by this faranji attempting to search out the Kalashnikov stall. In a litter-strewn lane a man who looked like he’d walked out of a 1940s gangster movie – all sharp pinstripes and shiny pointed shoes – had given me vague directions that sent me deeper into the market’s depths. Outside a shack, held together with string and hope, a prune-faced grandmother had told me to turn left. I wandered around yet another corner and found myself caught up in a curtain of polka-dot patterned ties. The shopkeeper grinned as I clumsily untangled myself from his display. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly when I asked him directions so I continued to weave my way into the belly of the market; this maze of skinny streets and dead ends that seemed to go on forever.

Ethiopia remains one of the cheapest countries in the world in which to buy a Kalashnikov. It was the weapon of choice for the rebel-forces during the long and painful civil war that plunged the nation into chaos from the late 1970s to 1991. Today life continues to be cheap in Ethiopia and a Kalashnikov can sell for as little as £20. With on-going outbreaks of inter-tribal violence and a high incidence of banditry in rural regions of the country the popularity of this weapon continues unabated – if you can find one of course.

The old man finished sanding down the coffin and wiped his brow with a dirty rag. I wandered through an alley crammed with gaudy plastic flowers and wreaths where a tiny wrinkled Amhara woman, with an intricate cross tattooed on her forehead, smiled up at me as she added some dazzling pink carnations to a display. Old ladies bargained for bright plastic bowls as I passed by while a young man sorted through piles of rip-off football premiership t-shirts. Music blared from a beaten-up tape-player that perched precariously on a wall. I was hot, tired and thirsty and I still hadn’t found my gun.

I turned down yet another corner and found myself amid the mayhem of the main road. A minibus screeched to a halt in front of me and the driver beckoned me into his already crammed van. I paused, longingly looking back at the maze of streets. I’d found the fruit street, the herb street, the spice street and the tie street but the Kalashnikov street had evaded me completely. I sighed and squeezed myself into the mass of sweaty bodies already in the bus. It’s probably a blessing I never found it. I can’t imagine how I’d have explained that purchase to Customs.

Not the one in the bible

Haman Peter gripped his tattered green bible in his hand.

“You know Jessica,” he said eying up my cigarette, “addiction is wrong.”

He brought the bible down with a slap onto the metal bar in front of my seat.

“You must (slap). Give this smoking up (slap) Jessica. The Lord does not want you to smoke (slap). I Haman Peter know this is true (slap). That is Haman Peter me. Not the one in the bible (slap).”

I nodded as I lurched to the left, smacking my head against the window frame as the bus pitched over a particularly large and muddy pothole.

“Haman is a man in the old testament book of Esther,” he told me. “Haman he was hung by Queen Esther. But Jessica (slap), I am not that Haman. I am me (slap).”

He balanced remarkably straight as he loomed over my seat and thumped his chest for emphasis.

“I am P.C.A.” He announced, “Pentecostal Church of Africa.”

The bus juddered and shook, and the pile of boxes and luggage in the aisle shifted dubiously to a position ready to avalanche on top of me. Haman Peter raised his eyebrows and thrust the dog-eared bible towards me.

Haman Peter’s sudden confession of Christian devotion didn’t surprise me. In Kenya, I’d already found out, religion was a serious business.  My first morning in Nairobi had smelt like fried chicken and exhaust fumes and sounded like the pounding bass of Benga but despite this the capital’s backbone still seemed stuffed in a straight-laced corset. I had picked my way along the pitted pavement of River Road – past the ragtag touts hollering their sales pitch over pirate CDs and cardboard boxes of cast-off clothing – to sprawl on the saggy bed of the cheap hostel and flick through the local newspaper.

The entertainment section stopped me in my tracks. Nation FM’s early morning segment promised ‘inspirational soul food’ to start my day. In the evening Radio Waimini gave its listeners a double helping of Vatican Radio while Family FM headed up the major competition with a line up that included Family Prayer Circle, Through the Bible and the ominously titled Music You CAN Believe in. It all sounded depressingly staid though the cinema schedule cheered me up somewhat.

Down on Jogoo Road, Eastlands Cinema was running a six-movies-for-one-ticket promotion on both of their screens. Screen Two’s billing was a heavy going thwack over the head with a bible featuring ‘Jesus Christ Movie’, ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Samson and Delilah’ but curiously on Screen One the schedule was a flesh marathon advertised as ‘Strickly [sic] Adults Only’. Enigmatic names such as ‘Touch of Love’, ‘Honey Moons’ and ‘Hot Dreams’ loomed off the page.

I wondered what happened when someone accidentally walked into the wrong screen at the movies. Think of the shock of sitting down with your popcorn, expecting  a robed-up Charlton Heston on Mt Sinai, and finding yourself facing some up-front action with ‘Hot Dreams’ instead. Or making the opposite mistake – probably just as traumatising for the would-be voyeur.  Did anyone ever move between screens on purpose for a dose of porn and prayer?  Watching a bit of ‘Touch of Love’ and then jumping over to Screen Two for some old prophet action in ‘The Ten Commandments’ would be sort of like an instant confession. Bless me father for I have sinned.  It’s been five minutes since my last masturbation.

I travelled north from Nairobi to Nyahururu. It was a scrappy mountain town of low-rise concrete slab buildings where the two paved roads were busier with bicycles than cars. Just down the road, among the wooden shacks of the tourist bazaar beside Thompson Falls, I met Peggy at her stall, surrounded by a Lilliput animal zoo. She introduced herself as belonging to the A.I.C (the Africa Inland Church).

“What religion are you?” She asked.

I mumbled my stock answer about not really going to church and she frowned for a minute thinking this over while dusting a wooden giraffe.

“Lots of people in New Zealand don’t go to church.” I tried to explain, attempting to hoist the blame for my lack of religion onto my upbringing.

“No churches in New Zealand?” She put her duster down and stared wide-eyed.

“No, lots of churches just some people don’t go to them.”

“People in New Zealand no go church but still good people?”

“Well, some good and some bad.” I shrugged.

Peggy sighed and smiled. “Kenyan people all go to church but still do bad things.”

I looked up at the wall behind her where an election poster for Mwai Kibaki was tacked to the wood.

I’d arrived in Kenya in late January 2008 while the country was still being rocked by a series of violent protests and bloody massacres. Mwai Kibaki had just been re-elected president in a largely contested election result. Tourists scarpered from the safari lodges of the interior and luxury resorts of the coast as scenes of massed demonstrations in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and machete-wielding madmen careening between slum shacks dominated headline news. On January 1st a church had been deliberately set on fire in the northern region of Eldoret. Twenty nine people who’d taken shelter from attack inside the church died. Fifty four were injured. Protests were still ongoing when I arrived. Supporters of the opposition leader Raila Odinga said that he had won the election, and that the ensuing bloodshed had been masterminded by the government. Kibaki supporters claimed that Odinga had stoked the violence. The only other people who’d been staying at my cheap hotel in Nairobi were a Japanese couple who seemed to spend their entire time cooking instant noodles on the terrace over a camp stove.

Peggy pulled a couple of photos out of the drawer and showed me her children. She made a face.

“No husband. Only boyfriend. And only boyfriend to make baby and then boyfriend run.” She tucked the photos back in the drawer. “Can you find me a New Zealand boyfriend?” We both laughed.

“Ok Peggy. What kind of boyfriend do you want?”

She screwed up her face and tapped a finger to her cheek.

“He has to be about 36. He must like big girls.” She looked at me and grinned. “I think white men no like big girls. They like skinny, skinny like you.”

As I was walking up the grassy slope away from the tourist bazaar I heard Peggy call out to me. I turned around and saw her standing in the doorway of her shop, her hand on her forehead shielding her eyes from the sun.

“Jess,” she yelled. “Most important. He must be kind.”

I went to sleep to a drumbeat of fat African rain and when I woke up Nyahururu was blanched to beige. The road to the bus station had become a muddy swamp which sucked and slurped at my shoes. Crouched on the steps of the bus to Maralal, sheltering from the rain and sucking on a lollipop, Hillary the bus ticket seller supervised a man lying on top of a bundle of folded down cardboard boxes under the bus who seemed to be discarding most of the engine. The clanging competed with the steady rhythm of the rain. Hillary pulled the lollipop out of his mouth and wrote me a ticket.

Hillary’s friend Martin climbed on the bus wearing stained white overalls which announced that he worked for the Happy Land Sausage Factory. He wanted me to sit up front next to the driver.

“No way. Head on collision, first to die.” I said.

“God will deliver you there safely.” Martin nodded as he spoke. “I am P.C.E.A. Presbyterian Church of East Africa.”

I chose the seat behind the bus door. My faith in higher powers and sausage factory workers didn’t extend to Kenyan road statistics. The mechanic appeared in the doorway and pronounced the bus roadworthy.  Passengers appeared as if by magic and climbed on board. Hamam Peter the bus conductor was last to arrive. Hillary dragged Martin off the bus.

“Stay another night here,” he said as Hillary yanked at his arm. “We’ll show you a good time.” Martin danced in the aisle, thrusting his hips about in a style I wasn’t sure the P.C.E.A would heartily approve of.

Under Haman Peter’s watchful eye we were heading to the isolated north of the country. Now and again, in the middle of nowhere, a passenger asked to get out and Haman Peter helped them unload their sacks from the aisle and then left them standing by the side of the road in the wake of our dust. Every time this happened I scanned the surrounding countryside for signs of a settlement and saw nothing. Haman Peter told me that some of them would walk 20 or more kilometres to their villages somewhere out there in the endless savannah. It was a foreboding landscape of vast tall grass, sprinkled with the scraggly forms of acacia trees spreading their branches wide and flat against the sky. I wondered how a bunch of buttoned-up European missionaries had managed to so well and truly conquer such a wild land.

Christianity first landed in Kenya with the empire-building Portuguese in the early years of the 16th Century. Francisco d’Almeida set sail in 1505 to secure the gold mines of the Kenyan coast against the Arabs who were also trying to take command over this stretch of East Africa. Not much headway was made at first. The Portuguese residents developed a reputation for thievery and immorality which didn’t encourage local inhabitants to convert to the faith. The Dominican missionary, João dos Santos, travelled widely through East Africa between 1586 and 1597 and wasn’t impressed with the treatment dished out to locals by the Portuguese settlers. “If a chicken belonging to a Moor enters the dwelling of a Christian and the Moor asks for it, the Christian answers that the chicken entered his house because it wanted to be a Christian, and so he cannot give it back.” He wrote in his book ‘Ethiopia Oriental’.

Despite this brutish attitude, by 1599 Mombasa had its first Catholic church though conversion rates remained low. In the end it all proved a worthless endeavour. A five month siege by the Arabs in 1729 ended the Portuguese’s gradual encroachment on the Kenyan coast. The remaining survivors slunk off in two dhows (provided for them by the Arabs) to try their luck in Mozambique instead.

The Protestant missionaries of the 1800s were more determined to stick around. John Ludwig Krapf landed at Mombasa’s port in 1844 and within two years had produced the first bible New Testament in Kiswahili. Despite this linguistic achievement he failed in his hope to baptise the nation (he only managed one conversion during his first stay in the country) but the book he wrote on his return to Germany managed to single-handedly ignite interest in missionary work in Kenya ushering in an era of proactive religious zeal.

By the beginning of the 20th Century every church in Europe seemed to be getting into the act of converting the Africans and the Americans began to flock in as well. There was the Christian Missionary Society, the Church of Scotland Mission, the Roman Catholics, the United Methodist Free Churches Mission and The Gospel Missionary Society to name a few; all of them intent on gaining (in what some would say very un-Christian ways) their own slice of conversion-pie.

Of those early missions some, like the Church of Scotland Mission, would become extremely successful. Others, as Christianity began to flourish with the local population, began to splinter away from the established missionaries thus beginning Kenya’s startling, and highly confusing to the outsider, vast and acronym-loaded breadth of Christian diocese. Today in modern Kenya around 70% of the population is a member of one of approximately 200 different independent churches.

The bus shook and rattled into Maralal. The sign on the roadside as we turned into town announced AIDS. 40 MILLION STILL AWAITING TREATMENT. MARALAL TAKE CARE! We pulled up beside a roundabout which hosted a forest of more signs, wielding arrows like compass points in all directions.

“Jessica we are here,” Haman Peter announced.

We formally shook hands to say our goodbyes.

“I hope for you the best,” he said, “I say that Haman Peter me and not the one in the bible.”

And with that he slapped the book once more on the metal bar before tucking it into his pocket.


A shorter version of this story was first published in Perceptive Travel.

Al-Quseir: A Place Apart

Al-Quseir is a town of skinny alleyways hemmed in by houses washed in a rainbow of watercolours, slowly peeling and fading away. Some places are more of an atmosphere than a set of mark-off-the-tick-list sights and Al-Quseir is one of these.

It’s a town of pastel-hued, creaky doors, and proudly bright hajj pilgrimage paintings stamped onto walls; where the crumbling coral-block architecture comes complete with wooden balconies of delicate mashrabiya screens, hung with lines of washing flapping in the wind. Once you’ve untangled yourself from the lane-way labyrinth there is the surprise of finding the sea, spreading outwards from the empty beach. The quiet only broken by the yells and cries of young boys, glistening on the pier, egging each other on in daredevil dives.

Once a major gateway to Arabia, the grand Ottoman fort now lies in ruins and the only sign of activity at the port are a few old fishermen mending nets. This sleepy backwater is a little seen part of Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera. Rag-tag Hurghada and glitzy El Gouna with their gaggles of tourists are only an hour up the coast but Al-Quseir has somehow missed the tourism boat. With the peace only punctuated by the trilling of a bicycle’s bell as it zigzags through the winding back streets, this is a place apart from the rest of the Red Sea coast.

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