Last night (29 July) the news came through from Syria that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a highly respected Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, had been kidnapped. Rumours began to swirl on social media, first about his kidnapping, then about his supposed late-night release.
At this writing (30 July) it’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or where Father Paolo is.
This is no ordinary abduction (if abduction it is). Since the revolution began in Syria in 2011 Father Paolo has campaigned vociferously among the Syrian people and the international community for a peaceful democratic transition. In 2012 he wrote an open letter to the UN’s envoy Kofi Annan. Then the Assad regime expelled him. He has been living in exile since – and continues to call for ‘victory without revenge‘. His is a voice of sanity amid the madness which has engulfed his adoptive country.
For news of Father Paolo, and the appalling war in Syria, follow the independent media project Syria Deeply.
I have never met Father Paolo. Middle East writer and campaigner Daniel Adamson – a good friend of mine – has. Daniel wrote the following story in 2005, after visiting Father Paolo at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa outside Damascus. He has given me permission to post it here. Read it. It’s beautiful.
God is Shy
Father Paolo dall’Oglio and the monastery of Deir Mar Musa
By Daniel Adamson, 2005
When Paolo dall’Oglio was a child his father gave him an illustrated book on the life of Saint Paul. In its pages he found old-fashioned black-and-white drawings of the Middle East: desert-dwelling Arabs, bedouin tents, the impossibly old cities of Palestine and Syria.
For a boy growing up to Catholic parents in 1950s’ Italy, these were images of a land far, far away. But they gave Paolo his first glimpse of a world that, many years later, he would make his own, and his first inkling of an idea that would determine the path of his life: Christianity is an Eastern religion.
As a young priest in the Society of Jesus, Paolo made his way from Rome to the desert, tracing the journey of his faith in reverse. In Damascus he heard of a monastery abandoned in the mountains to the north and, looking for a quiet place to pray, he made his way up to the ruins of Deir Mar Musa.
Founded by early Christian hermits on the site of a Roman fort, this monastery was already old when the new faith of Islam pushed the Byzantine Empire back into Anatolia. Protected by its extreme isolation, the monastery survived centuries of bedouin raids, the rise and fall of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the incursions of Mongols, and even the collapse of Byzantium itself.
But it could not survive the birth of the modern world. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the last monks died or drifted away, and fifteen centuries of monastic silence faded into the older, deeper silence of the desert.
In the summer of 1982, Paolo found nothing more than a shell. The roof of the church had collapsed, the Byzantine frescoes were fading in the sun, and goats were penned inside the stone walls. He spent ten days alone, praying and walking in the desert. When the time came to leave, Paolo knew that in Deir Mar Musa he’d found his home, his work, and his reason to be in Syria.
Over the last twenty years he has restored the monastery – not as a historical monument but as a living centre of Christian prayer, work, and hospitality in the heart of the Islamic world. The six monks and nuns who form the community now keep their own goats and tend their own gardens down in the valley; they’ve built a dam across the gorge to hold the winter rains, and created a library of books that range across the world’s religious traditions.
In 2003 the restoration of the church’s twelfth-century frescoes was completed at last, and it is here, watched by the severe, candlelit faces of saints and apostles, that Paolo holds the evening mass.
The celebrants, guests along with the monks and nuns, sit barefoot on the carpets as they did in first centuries of Christianity. Slowly people settle into the flickering semi-darkness. Silence. After so many years of empty, desert silence, this is the full and present silence of human prayer. It feels like the stillness of water, like the surface of water undisturbed.
An hour passes. Quietly at first, music touches the quietness that has gathered in the church; psalms and prayers follow, sung in the Arabic that, centuries ago, displaced Aramaic as the language of liturgy here. Bibles are handed round for the day’s reading, candles re-arranged, and Paolo, wearing his white smock, seated cross-legged at the low wooden lectern, asks and answers the questions that arise from the text, shifting easily from Arabic to French, English to Italian.
At the end comes the lifting and blessing of bread and wine, the passing round of the glazed earthenware goblet and the little plate with its pieces of unleavened bread. Do this in memory of me.
In this nightly celebration Paolo leads his community towards the stillness at the centre of monastic life. It is not a social event, a sermon, or a ritual enacted for its own sake. It is a reaching back towards the meaning of this place, towards the spiritual ground on which the monastery was built so long ago. Without it, Deir Mar Musa would rapidly lose touch with its original reason for being, for silence does not always prevail here.
Every year the monastery is visited – invaded might be a better word – by hundreds of people from across the world. Most of them are what might be called ‘spiritual refugees’ from a Europe that has lost its faith: young backpackers who come up here for a day, a week, a year, looking for something to which many of them can give no name at all. In the summer these travellers, combined with the bus-loads of local schoolkids who arrive with their teachers or their priests, can turn Deir Mar Musa into something that feels more like a youth hostel than a monastery.
But Paolo would not turn anyone away. “I have learnt that hospitality is a spiritual attitude,” he says, “as well as a moral imperative.”
Alongside this sense of hospitality is the hope that some of these young people might feel called to stay at Deir Mar Musa for a lifetime. But it is not easy, in the twenty-first century, to find people with a vocation for the celibate life of a desert monk. Only six young people, Syrians and Europeans, have made that commitment over the last fifteen years. Others have come close. Paolo told me of a French boy who had embarked upon his novitiate only to fall in love and leave with one of the girls staying here.
In one of his more memorable statements, a disappointed Paolo explained that although God may draw people towards the religious life, He does not force His will onto anyone: “God” he said, “is shy.”
That comment is typical of the odd and unexpected ideas that enliven Paolo’s conversation, thrown out in an imperfect English that is often more expressive than a native speaker’s could ever be. His Arabic, on the other hand, is flawless. It is hard not to smile at how completely this bearded Italian priest has absorbed the language and identity of the Middle East. “We Syrians…” he will declare loudly in a public meeting. “We Semites…”
Driving away from Deir Mar Musa with Father Paolo at the wheel of the monastery’s jeep, I asked him what was in his mind when he was first sent by the Church to study Arabic in Beirut and Damascus. Did he know that his identity would be entirely re-cast by the culture of the Middle East?
“I came in the first place to try to become Arabic, to try to assume as deeply as possible the Islamic culture, and to see what happens to Christian faith when it is exposed to the cultural, human, religious value of Islam. I was sent to love Islam and Arabs. It was as clear as that.
“My mission was to go and love, to go and understand, to assume the culture. That was the way I understood the Christian mission at that time. To be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth means to be sent all over the world, and wherever you find yourself you are called to love the people, to deepen your knowledge of their culture, to try to understand their culture, to look for the values of that culture, to discover the richness of that culture, and to perceive the activity of the holy spirit in that religion. You have to try to understand what the spirit of God is doing in this place, and to look for what role these people have in the history of human spirituality, in the history of salvation.”
A more conventional priest might have sunk beneath the weight of such a mission. To become Arab? To love Islam? Paolo swam. What began as a study has developed into something much more profound: an immersion in the culture and faith of the Middle East so complete, so sustained, that Islam has soaked right through Paolo. Though it has never displaced his belief in the person and meaning of Jesus Christ, Islam has become a part of his own faith.
This is something that goes way beyond the term ‘dialogue’, implying as it does the exchange of views between two separate and distinct sets of beliefs. As a young priest, Paolo felt instinctively that Islam would be the next big question.
“Somebody”, he said in an interview in 2004, “had to go into this question so deeply as to be within himself a kind of answer.”
As we reached the end of our drive, Paolo drove the point home. “I believe in Islam,” he said. “I believe in its spirit, I believe in its beauty, I believe in Islamic prayer, I believe in the Sufi traditions, I believe in the Islamic pilgrimage, I believe in the Islamic aesthetic, I believe in the Islamic fire of jealousy for the One God. But I remain a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and I believe there is a place for the Christian minority in the Islamic world.”
These are not empty words. At Deir Mar Musa, Paolo has created a community that receives hundreds of Muslim guests every year, each one welcome to stay the night, to drink tea, to share a meal or pray in the church. This was not, perhaps, what the Bishop of Homs had in mind when Paolo first proposed the restoration of an early Christian monastery in the desert. Paolo laughs.
“They wanted me to be a goat, an old Syrian goat!”
The bishops were not alone in their reservations. In the early years many of the locals found it hard to understand exactly what was happening up at Deir Mar Musa.
“Some thought that I was just new kind of proselyte, and they were not completely wrong. Some believe that I’m more Muslim than Christian, and they’re not completely wrong. For a long time people thought that I was up there to look for gold and treasure, and they were not completely wrong either: the church and the frescoes were a marvellous treasure.”
Despite the suspicions and the naysayers, Paolo – through sheer force of personality – has made Deir Mar Musa into a living reality. With its unique forms of worship, its armies of young travellers, and its doors wide open to the beauties of Islam, it may seem an unconventional kind of place.
Looked at another way, the ideas that Deir Mar Musa represents – Christianity, monasticism, hospitality, fraternity between Syrians of different faiths – all have a long history in Syria. None of them is alien to this place, and in that sense Deir Mar Musa, even in its new form, stands firmly on the ground where it was built fifteen hundred years ago.
Perhaps this is the real reason that Paolo has been able to breathe life into the ruins that he found twenty-five years ago.
“I believe in traditions,” he says. “And the oriental tradition is rich and full of value. The fourteen centuries of common life between Christians and Muslims is not something to be cast aside lightly.”
Everyone takes photos. I’m not a professional photographer – I wouldn’t call myself a photographer of any kind – but everywhere I travel I take pictures and, sometimes, editors buy them and publish them.
Most of the time, though, they don’t. That’s often for editorial reasons – my travel snaps of farflung corners of the Middle East, even if they’re up to snuff quality-wise (which they often aren’t), don’t have the wow factor for art directors. I tweet them or blog them – Jordan here, Egypt there, occasional oddities – but that’s it.
It’s also often for practical reasons. Maybe the editor has an ongoing deal with one of the larger picture agencies, to buy in bulk for mass invoicing at the end of the month. They need an image quickly and I’m in the back of beyond on a dodgy 3G connection. They want to buy full world rights in all media in perpetuity, and I refuse.
Benji Lanyado, though, has had a big idea.
Last year [says Benji] 9 million images were added to global image stocks. Over the same period of time 142 BILLION images were added to Facebook and Instagram alone. The majority of these are not fit for market, but if 0.01% of them are – which I’d bet they are – that’s 14 million images. 14 million images that aren’t getting to market.
0.01% might be way off. Then again, 0.001% (1.4m images each year – and, presumably, growing) or even 0.0001% (140,000) would still represent significant numbers. Benji has identified not just a gap in the market, but a whole new market. He has just launched Picfair to change the way images are bought and sold online, and to make the world of image licensing less exclusive.
See? Couldn’t be more straightforward. Picture agencies are notoriously complicated to deal with – look at Alamy’s guidelines (and they’re one of the easier ones). None of my pics would pass their quality control for submission. I’ve got thousands, from trips going back years, sitting on my hard drive doing nothing. Occasionally I’ll sell a handful of recent ones, but the rest just sit there.
It seems I’ve got nothing to lose by uploading them to Picfair.
Or that’s what I first thought.
So I chewed over some issues, got in touch with Benji on Twitter, and emailed him some questions – I made them as hardball as I could, not because Picfair is a poor idea (it isn’t), but because such a good idea merits testing to destruction, or as near as you can get.
You’ll see that I came at this from a ‘creatives’ angle, which is my home turf. I don’t know anything about tech, marketing, business management, any of that. Please, tech journalists, marketing types, legal folk, pick up the ball and run with it.
Q&A with Benji Lanyado of Picfair
[MATTHEW TELLER:] Picfair’s whole concept rests on single-use licensing made easy. Downloaders may be reputable firms or individuals – or they may not. Once the original is downloaded, the downloader can do what they want with it – and, since it’s only cost them peanuts, they’re unlikely to value it as highly as if they’d paid market rates. They’re also unlikely to fear the consequences of unauthorised reuse: Picfair’s 10x penalty on a £5 image (or even a £20 image) is no penalty at all for a mid-circulation magazine. What is Picfair doing to prevent misuse of images?
[BENJI LANYADO:] As much as it can. We can’t scour the entire web for unauthorised use, but if we discover it, we’ll act appropriately. If the penalty rates need to be higher, we’ll raise them. Also… I’d dispute your use of the words “peanuts” and “market rates”. If a photographer thinks their image is worth £5, that is its rate on the market. Market rates shouldn’t be fixed by an agency looking at a P&L column, they should be determined by the market. I also think it’s unfair to think that an editor/buyer is more likely to abuse an image if it’s cheaper than an overpriced image from an legacy agency – the vast majority of picture editors want to play fair, and are increasingly aware of the consequences of image misuse in the name-and-shame internet age.
[Matthew responds:] That’s absolutely true: my question was focused more on the potential for people who aren’t working in media to misuse cheap, single-licensed images, either through negligence or ignorance. I made the “peanuts” comment because Picfair’s whole model rests on eliminating agency commissions from the photographer-publisher transaction. By definition that will sharply reduce the cost to buyers. Picfair images will be cheap in monetary terms; I’m concerned they may also feel cheap in value terms – and a free market could, worryingly, end up nudging photographers to compete on a race to the bottom.
What motivation is there for professional photographers, with pre-existing relationships with larger agencies and publishers, to use Picfair to sell their world-class images?
[BENJI:] The larger agencies are usually ripping them off. The average cut taken by an agency is 74%, and, increasingly, they take your copyright from you too, and re-sell the images in bulk. Look at what AirBnB did to the holiday rental market – they removed the agency tier because it doesn’t need to be there, connecting the buyer to the seller so everyone gets a better deal. The image licensing industry can be viewed in exactly the same way.
As a writer-photographer, I’m worried that if I upload to Picfair I could potentially be putting my existing relationships in jeopardy. Say I upload a travel image to Picfair and put a price of £10 on it. Then I get commissioned to write about that destination for a magazine. I send the editor a selection of my images, including the one I uploaded.
Scenario 1 – the editor buys my image directly from me for £100, then later discovers they could have had the same pic for £10 from Picfair, accuses me of deception and blacklists me.
Scenario 2 – during layout the editor finds my image on Picfair, quietly downloads it for £10, emails me to say they’ve found another source so won’t need my selections, then runs my image in the mag anyway. I suddenly hate the editor. Picfair has left me £90 out of pocket. I hate Picfair too.
In both scenarios, wouldn’t I have been better off if I hadn’t tangled with Picfair at all?
[BENJI:] Yup, agree. But this represent a *very* small use case. If you weren’t to “tangle” with Picfair, however, you’d be preventing the possibility of 20 licenses from 20 different publications. Ok, you’ve made £100, but have you stopped yourself from making £200? Every photographer who adds an image to Picfair will run this risk, however small it is. We aren’t pushing people to add their images to the site. If they want to license them separately, they are free to delete their image from Picfair’s database. The majority of Picfair users, however, will be non-professionals, who have never had a platform on which to license their material – this is a huge value add, both for them and for people wanting to look beyond legacy agency options.
[Matthew responds:] It is, I agree – but what Benji just said seems to me to be a big deal. The implication – once we’ve all given a thumbs-up to new, value-added interaction between casual uploaders and casual buyers – is that Picfair could end up being a back-channel way for corporate media buyers to bypass pro photographers at the legacy agencies. Picfair’s model has the potential to penalise pro photographers. They may, then, stay away – but if the picture eds they usually deal with are buying replacement images quickly and easily from non-professional sources via Picfair, that could seriously damage an already-squeezed market. Instead of levelling the playing field, Picfair could end up making it harder for pro photographers to earn a living – and easier for media firms to maintain the whip hand.
Flat-fee licensing raises questions. Getting £10 for a pic being used on a little-known website isn’t too bad. Getting £10 for it being used 1/4 page in a mid-circulation magazine is a serious blow. Getting £10 for it being used full-bleed as a wraparound cover for a market-leading title is an utter disaster. Doesn’t the fact that print magazines pay different rates for images used at different sizes on the page mean that Picfair’s fees are doing photographers seeking print publication a disservice?
You’re creating an entirely new market – but if there are no hints as to which images sell (and which don’t) at different price-points, how can uploaders know if they’re selling themselves short?
[BENJI:] Picfair is five days old. Really we’re still waiting for the market to develop and mature – soon I want the site to be dripping in data, helping photographers “intelligently” price their images. But one thing will always remain – Picfair doesn’t price the images… the photographers do. Of course this runs the risk of undervaluation, but such is a market. You find bargains on eBay, why shouldn’t you find them on Picfair?
I’d flip this theory on its head too: a photographer who has never added an image to a marketplace or agency, and then gets his/her image in a magazine for £10 – they have £10 more than they did when they started. If they feel they could have got more, they can increase the price of the image for the next time it gets licensed.
[Matthew responds:] It’s a great answer, but I’d be interested to know what ‘dripping in data’ might mean, and what specific tools will be available for uploaders to be able to ‘intelligently’ price images. Mark Hodson of 101 Holidays also raised this on Twitter here. Note Benji’s response there.
What’s to stop Picfair becoming a bargain bucket for dross images? Couldn’t anyone upload any old rubbish, tagged with any keywords they like? Doesn’t Picfair’s simplicity and useability mean serious buyers might end up having to slog through pages of £1 snaps to find anything good – therefore quickly giving up on Picfair altogether?
[BENJI:] Picfair relies on image views and our “trending” algorithm to sort images, for now. Have a look at the site right now, I think it sorts things very nicely indeed. If an image is “dross”, it’s highly unlikely to have accumulated many pic views or social shares. Our search functionality currently takes all of this into account, so that the algorithmically determined “wheat” can rise to the top. It isn’t perfect, yet, but I believe it’s a compelling alternative to editorially-curated search results – images chosen by their popularity. I’ll improve the code until it works for publishers – we’re considering adding an “editor’s pick” function whereby high-standard images are given extra prominence.
[Matthew responds:] The trending idea works well for casual browsers – but many time-pressed buyers will have specific wants, in terms of keywords and/or subjects. My sense is they will care less about images that are popular, and more about ones that are good – the two don’t necessarily coincide. If left unchecked, the quality factor could be a serious pitfall in the months ahead, as Picfair’s image database grows.
What is Picfair doing to make it worthwhile for art directors with bigger budgets and mass-market editorial reach to visit regularly?
[BENJI:] Nothing, yet. Picfair is there for everyone, from art directors to bloggers.
[Matthew responds:] I’m afraid this strikes me as another cause for concern. Picfair is fun to use, and embodies an exciting, iconoclastic approach to business – but I need to know that the time I spend uploading means my images will get to be seen by more than just passersby and other uploaders. I want my images to sell. Picture editors worldwide need to be persuaded to jump in, and media companies need to be convinced to switch budgetary resources away from the legacy agencies. If that doesn’t happen, I can’t see Picfair making it.
Picfair is a brilliant idea that deserves to succeed. The current system of image licensing is a mess. It’s not hard to see that the trade-off it embodies – publishers benefiting from complex contracts and control of rights, photographers benefiting from royalties and variable spot rates – has been blown out of the water by social media, free sharing, smartphone quality, citizen journalism… er, just about everything.
Picfair’s model, by contrast, offers single-use licensing as a great alternative for photographers, and easy flat fees to draw in new buyers. That’s a win for images that are currently not being brought to market, and a win for photographers who currently have no access to buyers.
For everyone else, though, it’s still a trade-off. And I’m not sure, yet, how that will play out. It’s tempting to see Picfair as a new easyJet – yes, the idea is that good – blasting a hole in cosily ossified relationships that only please the suits, sparking fresh demand by creating a whole new market, putting power in the hands of ordinary people.
But it’s not quite there, I don’t think. I can foresee problems arising from Picfair’s conscious lack of curation (or what used to be called editorial control). An unregulated free market in images has the potential to, firstly, drive down prices – great for big business, handy for enthusiastic amateurs, terrible if you’re trying to make a living from your pictures – and secondly, to drive down quality, with the best photographers staying away altogether, and the best of the rest drowning in a sea of hopeful uploads tagged speculatively low.
You could raise philosophical issues of value-creep: instead of making beautiful images and sharing them – or just keeping them, in the knowledge that there’s no viable mechanism by which people could pay even if they wanted to, maybe we will now, somewhere subconsciously, be putting a price-tag on a sunset. You could also raise issues of model release liability, which I haven’t covered here at all (hat-tip to David Whitley for raising that with me; I’ll let him make the point).
Nobody has to upload to Picfair at all, of course. But the (very slight) potential is there for Picfair to have a negative impact on my (minuscule) photo earnings, even if I do nothing.
That said, I am also happy to lend support to an exciting idea - and, as I said at the top, I’ve got quite a few not-terrible images lying idle, so I might as well try and leverage some value from them. But I’ll be doing so with a few reservations. And I probably won’t be posting my best, most saleable work just yet.
Always a slow adopter, me.
Huge thanks, of course, to Benji, for taking the time to answer my questions.
I met Guido Romero for the first time 3 or 4 years ago, on a drive out of Amman with a mutual friend. Guido is from an Italian family inextricably linked with the 20th-century development of Amman. His grandfather, Dr. Fausto Tesio, founded Jordan’s first hospital, in 1921, and Guido’s mother, author, artist and gallery-owner Flavia Romero, set up Amman’s famous Romero restaurant group, also playing a prominent role in the cultural life of the city over many years.
Guido is a doer, with a business head screwed on very tight. When I heard he was setting up a B&B, I guessed it might be good. I got in touch, and was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights there. He’s calling it By The Lemon Tree.
The B&B made it into the 2013 Rough Guide to Jordan – and the UK Independent on Sunday ran my review a couple of months ago – gratifyingly, across a double-page spread – though by then word-of-mouth (and positive online reviews from customers) was already having an impact. From what Guido has been saying, the place is pretty much full, pretty much all the time.
Amman needs more of this. Guido tells me he’s got all sorts of plans, for this property and others – and I believe him. Guido gets things done. I’m happy to count him as a friend, but here’s a shameless plug anyway: go to Amman and stay at By The Lemon Tree. It’s really rather nice.
Here’s the Independent on Sunday article:
B&Bs are a Middle Eastern rarity. In a region which favours five-star glitz – and where complex guest/host dynamics can foster a confusing kind of arm’s-length hospitality – chances to stay in local homes are few and far between. The Jordanian capital Amman, though, is starting to break the mould. By The Lemon Tree stands hidden among the old villas of Jabal Webdeh, a mostly Christian district on a hill above Amman’s downtown bustle. It’s a perfect way to duck out of Jordan’s standard offering of a big hotel in some bland tourist zone. Webdeh forms one of the capital’s loveliest residential quarters, arty, tasteful and walkable. You live amongst the comings-and-goings of an Ammani family. The streets smell of pine and sun-warmed limestone. Birdsong prevails.
The B&B occupies an extended 1960s’ townhouse alongside the Italian Embassy. But despite its evocative name and leafy location, you’ll search in vain for chintzy domesticity – and forget altogether about Arabian-style swagger. Interiors are sleekly modern, plain white walls offset with dark woods and antique chests, with floors of cool polished tile and cream canvas drapes to filter the bright sun. Six doubles and four twins all include ensuite bathrooms, a touch clinical with their neutral colours and designer fittings. From the large common area, arrayed with sofas, dining table and ultra-modern kitchen for guests’ sole use, stairs lead up to chairs and loungers on a shaded roof terrace. Wifi is fast and free – I got a reliable signal everywhere. Each guest gets a free bottle of wine on arrival, along with an open invitation to join the host family’s weekly drinks parties.
A trio of staff – Rowena, Juvi and Lisa – keep everything shipshape, which includes serving breakfast al fresco in the rear courtyard, under the huge lemon tree for which the B&B is named. It’s quite a spread: after tea and fresh-squeezed juice, I had hot toast (the bread is home-baked), scrambled eggs, tomatoes, grilled halloumi and – a rare delicacy hereabouts – proper bacon, everything served on handmade local crockery. After all that, pancakes with maple syrup seemed an over-indulgence. Beware, though: no breakfast is served on Fridays, Jordan’s one-day weekend. Amman’s always-busy downtown hummus parlours are a short walk away, but instead, on the Friday I stayed, I strolled three minutes up the hill to the Stop and Shop minimarket, assembled my own breakfast and picnicked on the roof terrace.
The owner, Guido Romero, whose Jordanian-Italian family has roots in Amman stretching back almost a century, lives downstairs, while the B&B occupies the building’s two upper floors, reached through a separate entrance. There’s not much molly-coddling – Guido, with characteristic forthrightness, has titled a section on the B&B’s website “Do Pay Attention!” – but instead you can expect razor-sharp repartee and cheerful down-to-earth practicality from a guy who is always ready with a laugh and a story. Guido’s grandfather founded Amman’s Italian Hospital in 1921: tap him for tales of local history.
It’s a few minutes’ walk to the contemporary art gallery Darat Al Funun (+962 6464 3251; daratalfunun.org), shoehorned into an atmospheric old villa amid trees and views. Open 10am-7pm, closed Fri; admission free. Several more galleries and arts venues lie within walking distance, including Jordan’s National Gallery (+962 6463 0128; nationalgallery.org), showcasing a fine collection of contemporary Islamic art. Open 9am-7pm, closed Tues & Fri; admission JD3 (£2.50). After exploring the downtown souks, head over to Rainbow Street, a funky quarter of espresso bars, pavement cafés and antiques shops, enhanced on summer Fridays by a relaxed flea market of clothes, crafts and music known as Souk Jara (facebook.com/soukjara).
Near the B&B, in another of Webdeh’s old townhouses, Maria Haddad runs Beit Sitti (+962 777 557 744; beitsittijo.com), an impromptu cooking school where you spend a couple of hours learning how to chop, prepare and assemble your own three-course Arabic meal under expert supervision. Bookings are essential, from roughly JD35 (£31) per person. For another culinary adventure, book at The Winemaker (+962 6461 4125; zumot-wines.com), a combination retail outlet and private restaurant run by local vineyard-owner Omar Zumot: a tasting of his world-class wines, accompanied by light bites or a full meal, sheds memorable new light on Jordanian culture. Prices vary.
By The Lemon Tree, 1 Hafeth Ibrahim Street, Jabal Webdeh, Amman 11191, Jordan (+962 777 955 559; www.bythelemontree.com). Doubles start at JD50 (£45), including breakfast. There’s a two-night minimum stay.
The Independent‘s sister paper, the i, has a daily “Postcard From…” strand. A month ago I wrote a short “Postcard from Qena” (a city in southern Egypt) for them, with a mini-profile of the dynamic but controversial local governor. I heard nothing back – and what with all the, er, changes in Egypt I thought it had just been spiked.
Yesterday one of the foreign editors tweeted me to say they wanted to run the piece. I quickly tweeted some people and made a couple of phone calls, and discovered that not only was the governor no longer in post, his replacement had also just resigned. I rewrote the crucial para and refiled the piece. It ran in today’s paper – but the rewrites pushed up the word-count, which means the subs cut it to fit. Which lines did they cut? The ones referring to the recent changes.
So now it reads somewhat oddly – as if time stopped in 2011 (for some Egyptians that’s almost true, but not quite in the sense the Indy’s subs have left things…).
Click here for the piece as published. And below is my original, for your delectation. All this, for a 30-second read!
Qena lurks on the edge of things. This southern Egyptian city stands close enough to the tourist hotels of Luxor – sixty-odd kilometres – that nobody stays, but far enough away that nobody visits either.
Tour buses sweeping in from the Red Sea coast head straight for King Tut’s tomb, bypassing Qena. Itineraries to the temple of the love-goddess Hathoor, at Dendara nearby, include direct transport from Luxor by bus or boat – though these days there’s precious little demand.
What’s so awful about Qena that passers-by always detour? I walked on neat, shaded streets, causing cheerful pavement jams chatting to doorway loafers.
Ex-governor Adel Labib is credited with giving Qena some spit and polish after the devastating Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, building civic participation in schemes from fixing rubbish collections to launching a women’s football team.
Labib, with a background in state security, was rewarded by former president Hosni Mubarak with a transfer to Alexandria. He was governor there in 2010 when activist Khaled Said was beaten to death by police – one of the sparks for the Egyptian revolution. Days after Mubarak resigned the presidency in February 2011, Labib resigned his governorship.
He wasn’t gone long. Six months later, Egypt’s ruling military council sent him back to Qena – only for him to be kicked out by ex-president Morsi last month, a fortnight before Morsi himself was ejected from office. The new governor, Salah Abdel-Meguid, lasted 22 days; he resigned on Monday morning.
Regardless, Qena’s big families keep the streets calm. On a warm night in the main square, a group of teenagers around a booming sound system is drawing a crowd with backflips and 80-style bodypopping. Tambourines and trumpets fanfaring a street wedding add to the cacophony of car horns.
Insulated against tourist no-shows and ruled by familiar faces, it’s like the revolution never happened.
“Hope Floats” is the title Wanderlust have given to my article about the revived ‘long cruise’ along the Nile between Cairo and Luxor, published in the current issue (July/Aug 2013). I’m posting the text below – but they’ve done a beautiful job on layout, with lots of striking images, spread over 12 pages. Here’s a shameless plug. Wanderlust is a seriously good magazine, doing important and interesting work encouraging and facilitating independent, responsible travel. Go and buy it (or, better, subscribe), either in print or digitally. It’s the best travel magazine I know.
Here’s my Nile story. More pics here. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Temple fatigue. It afflicts us all. This pharaoh, that goddess, some dynasty or other. More columns, more carvings. It’s embarrassing, to be bored by something you know is wondrous.
And then, one bright day, up pops the antidote.
“Come and see!”
His name is Hesham Mansoor, and he may be the best history guide in Egypt. In Hesham’s world, every moment holds a story worth telling.
Amid the gloom of the great temple at Abydos he led a huddle of us onward with a whisper. “This is really a wow scene.”
A histrionic sunbeam was doing the Indiana Jones thing, slanting dustily down from far overhead to spotlight an ankle-high patch of wall-carving. The hum of voices was retreating. At a place of sacred pilgrimage 3,000 years old we were face to face with the gods.
And in amongst the flow of bulls and hieroglyphs, cartouches and almond eyes, Hesham picked out a single bas-relief. Beside falcon-headed Horus, eerily transcendent, stood two wasp-waisted figures, their hair, faces and fingernails carved with ancient, intimate perfection.
“Renpet, goddess of the year, and Maat, goddess of truth,” cooed Hesham. “They are telling us that Horus is always honest. Just look at these beautiful ladies. You have nothing to do but love them.”
And we did.
Again it happened, under fierce sun before the immense mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor. As glistening busloads trudged to their photo-ops, Hesham took us aside.
“You know, this isn’t a temple,” he said, rising on his toes to gesture at the columned terraces. “It’s a philosophy. Death did not scare the Egyptians. You can feel the smile on Hatshepsut’s face here. Let me amaze you – listen.”
And deftly, passionately, with pacing and arm-waving, Hesham brought the ideas hidden in those hot, old stones to life before our eyes.
We lucked out with Hesham, for sure. But in truth this was never going to be an ordinary temple-hopping tour.
The story starts in 1992. Back then, during a violent insurgency against the Egyptian government, the Gamaa Islamiyya (“Islamic Group”) began targeting tourists. Militants attacked buses, trains and boats, killing foreigners and Egyptians alike. The horror culminated in a massacre of 62 people at Hatshepsut’s temple in 1997 which outraged public opinion across Egypt and paralysed the country’s tourist industry for years afterwards.
By that time the government had already halted tourism in the whole central section of Egypt. Nile cruises and organized excursions to sites between Cairo and Luxor were stopped altogether, and independent travellers who chose to venture to Middle Egypt cities such as Minya or Asyut found their movements heavily restricted by the police.
Tourism became concentrated in Cairo, the Red Sea coast and the south. Nile cruises focused solely on the stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan. Even after 2003, with the insurgency defeated and the Gamaa Islamiyya renouncing violence, river journeys south from Cairo remained a memory.
It was the 2011 revolution which prompted a rethink. Amid drastic falls in tourism – and broad consensus that the threat to foreigners has passed – politicians finally approved a relaunch for the once-popular route. The first public cruise from Cairo to Aswan in two decades set sail on 19th April this year. I was lucky enough to be on board.
First, let me reassure readers who aren’t fans of cruise tourism: neither am I. But oh my goodness! What a soul-stirring marvel of a journey this was. Michael Haag takes a cerebral tone in his brilliant guide for Cadogan: “It is godly to cruise the Nile through Egypt,” he writes. But for a cruise virgin like myself, being kissed for the very first time by 700 miles of the most famous river in the world made for an earthy old knee-trembler of a fortnight. It was travel of the most stimulating, seductive, deliciously slow kind.
And it doubles as an amazing opportunity for travellers curious to look past Egypt’s headlines. Of the 83 passengers on board our ship, the Mövenpick MS Hamees – mostly British, with a small group from Germany and two Swiss – I found only one who had never visited Egypt before. We’d all seen tombs and temples, many had already cruised the Luxor-Aswan stretch – but nobody had been through Middle Egypt, and nobody had travelled this part of the Nile. Protests or no protests, we all wanted to see for ourselves.
For six serene days – from Cairo through to Abydos – we saw no other tourists, and met no souvenir hawkers. Air-conditioned comfort, three meals a day and five-star service aside, it was as if we had gone back to an Egypt before mass tourism. Women washed morning pots at the water’s edge in village after tragically underdeveloped village. Hoopoes took flight. Fishermen heaved at plank-like oars. The banks narrowed, so the groves of banana and sugarcane felt a stone’s throw away. Then they widened, casting the whistles of children by tall-chimneyed brick kilns faint on the breeze. On one side, long-horned buffalo lounged on sweet rugs of grass, backed by moptop palms. On the other, a Coptic monastery wedged into a fold of desert hills turned its cupola-point cross to face the water.
Mid-conversation below decks, I’d catch myself wondering what was floating past unseen. Every page or two I’d have to check the view. While others snoozed shadily I’d be at the rail in velvet heat, watching a local ferry load up with farm trucks as be-robed men gossiped by the wheelhouse, or following a migrant glossy ibis as it swooped against the mango trees. I often woke early, catching drifting views alone in the sunrise cool.
Every archaeological excursion – and there were sixteen – was a winner. Thanks chiefly to Hesham’s narrative talent, Egypt’s endless tide of gods and pharaohs finally made sense, our drift southwards matching the chronological sweep from Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza to Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan, and then New Kingdom temples at Amarna and Luxor.
I’m no great fan of package tours, but it quickly became obvious that to see what we saw in those once-prohibited regions of Middle Egypt would have been nigh-on impossible without the backing of a tour company.
Beni Hassan is a case in point. These stunningly decorated tombs, cut into rocky cliffs high above the eastern bank of the Nile 250km south of Cairo, were once accessible only by private taxi with police escort. Our ship, though, had clearance to dock nearby. By 7 in the morning, our convoy of coaches and minibuses was sweeping past the bleary eyes and open mouths of villagers direct to the site.
From a high ledge by the tombs’ entrance, the strip of cultivation flanking the Nile – borne of the fertile soil deposited by annual flooding – shone electric-green against the dusty beige of the wilderness beyond.
Within the tombs, scenes of wrestling – two figures grappling across the walls, as if on celluloid film – were outdone by one of the most famous scenes in Egyptian art. Around 1890 BC, it seems, a caravan from Canaan (Palestine) visited the pharaoh, bringing gifts. The foreigners are depicted at Beni Hassan with unusual goatee beards, wearing sandals (Egyptians went barefoot) and dressed in striking multicoloured robes. Nobody is suggesting they are Israelites, but Joseph – known, too, for a coat of many colours – was in Egypt around the same time. The parallels with the Old Testament story rang like a bell. It was my turn to gaze open-mouthed.
Hesham, once he’d told the tale, shrugged and smiled.
Our convoy whisked us to the beauty of remote Tuna El Gebel, its angular stone mausolea romantic in the afternoon sun against tawny dunes, hair-raising catacombs beneath filled with mummified baboons sacrificed to Thoth, god of knowledge.
In farflung Tell El Amarna we roamed the sun-temple, built 3,400 years ago by the revolutionary pharaoh and queen Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Their newly egalitarian forms of government and worship lasted barely two decades in the teeth of a furious hardline counter-revolution. Pacing the rubble of betrayed dreams, I bit my lip for Tahrir Square.
And then we returned to the river. Excursions fell between mesmerically long stretches of cruising. Average speed on the Hamees was 8 knots (roughly 9mph), but even that wasn’t nearly slow enough.
Once, close to Esna, I experimented with real-time writing. First I logged a range of sawtooth cliffs rearing up on the western shore, topped by a squat, domed lookout. They were still passing when I noted a photogenic pair of date palms, one resting on its neighbour’s shoulder. I broke off for the putt-putt-putt of a mudbrick pumping station on the opposite shore, drawing water up to cascade into beige irrigation channels. Before that faded, six or seven kids were leaping off a grassy bank, their bodies slick in the afternoon sun. A buffalo bathed, snorting in the shallows. Then came a picnicking family, whooping as our five-storey mobile hotel rudely parped.
Worlds kept revealing themselves, minute by minute.
And it didn’t let up after dark. Before, if you wanted to travel through Middle Egypt, you faced tediously long train or bus journeys, a scant choice of hotels and a fair bit of suspicion – and that’s if the security situation allowed a visit at all. Now, the Hamees delivered us direct to a succession of cities completely untouched by tourism. I was out every night.
In Minya, where a swanky new archaeology museum is due to open, I ambled through a city centre as charming as anywhere in Egypt. A 20th-century cotton capital, exporting to Europe and beyond, Minya sings with the textile magnates’ colonial Rococo and Art Deco villas, many now artfully crumbling. Stares broke into smiles at my “salaamu alaykum”. Fathers nudged their moon-eyed children. Lads jostled for photos.
Dodging taxis emblazoned with Jesus stickers – Minya’s population is roughly half Christian, half Muslim, evidenced by the cheerful mix of hijabs and hair-bands – I stopped for tea off the main square. A dreadlocked hipster was talking to a blonde woman – his sister? girlfriend? – in sign language. A passing cigarette-seller boomed (in Arabic), “Foreigners are welcome.” The guy over the road smoking a water-pipe pointed and waved. The tea cost me 20p.
When I lived in Cairo in 1993, only journalists visited Asyut, preferably in body-armour. Times have changed. My Rough Guide enthused about Asyut’s Qasreya souk: “A web of shadowy lanes smelling of incense and offal,” it said. I asked the dockside police how to get there. After their initial surprise (“How does he know about Qasreya?” I overheard), one agreed to take me. It was sensational. Forests of cotton-polyester draped broken alleys in day-glo. There were saucepans, spice grinders and plenty of eyebrows, as coffeeshop loafers registered a tourist in their souk. Shouldering between cobblers and herb-sellers, I – literally – stumbled into a medieval wooden-galleried caravanserai, unrestored and gloomy, perhaps from the miserable days when Assyut hosted the biggest slave market in Africa.
By midnight I was sipping tea on a packed café terrace, while music played and laughter danced over the implacable Nile. The cruise had unlocked a whole new Egypt.
For Egyptians, times are as hard as they’ve ever been. Of 6,000 tour guides nationwide, 5,500 are out of work. Fewer than a quarter of the Nile’s 300 cruise ships are operating. Nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor are empty. The country may be going through political transition but that shouldn’t be a stick for us to beat it with. Quite the opposite. Planes are flying. Tours are running. Prices are low. Sites are quiet.
And Egypt’s spirit, of course, remains undaunted. At Meidum, our excursion to the 4,600-year-old Collapsed Pyramid happened to coincide with National Orphans’ Day. Beneath the high old walls girls in yellows, blues and pinks twirled together, clapping and chanting on their day out from school. Boys posed, one or two boldly asking my name. A teacher shook my hand.
“We’re happy that you come to visit us in such circumstances,” he said. “You are fighters, really.”
But it didn’t feel like a fight at all. In truth, it felt silky smooth.
Asyut, Minya and the other cities of Middle Egypt, for so long denied the opportunity for growth, now, finally, have a chance. This cruise links them with Cairo and Luxor in an entirely new way, on a single, hassle-free itinerary. They benefit from the cruise companies, who take on supplies mid-voyage. They should also benefit from tourist footfall.
In the echoing souks of Luxor and Aswan, forlorn shopkeepers brought me tea. Everyone was angry that protests limited to a small zone around Tahrir Square, 700km away, should still be blighting the whole country’s prospects.
I promised them I’d get the word out.
Click here to listen to the audio from BBC Radio 4, or click here to download the podcast (MP3 file: 13MB), which also includes great stories by journalists from Lebanon, Romania and elsewhere. A slightly shorter version went out on BBC World Service radio; this edition includes a fine report by Shaimaa Khalil from Upper Egypt. I have pasted the transcript of my Minya piece below:
A voice called out behind me.
“Mister! Hey, mister!”
He was a captain of the Egyptian police, a handgun holstered on his hip, and he had a serious look on his face. I explained I was just crossing the road to meet a friend. He waggled a finger at me. “No, no.”
There followed fifteen minutes of discussion before I was allowed to proceed – after he’d noted my passport and my friend’s name, address and phone number.
The police in Minya can be jumpy around foreigners. This Nile-side city of a quarter of a million people saw devastating violence in the 1990s, during an insurgency led by the Gamaa Islamiya.
Attacks had already been on the rise when, in 1992, militants announced they would begin targeting tourists. A bloody campaign of bombings and shootings culminated in a horrific attack at the 3,500-year-old temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997, when 62 people died.
Egyptian public opinion was outraged. Even hardline Islamist groups denounced the massacre. The subsequent government crackdown killed thousands of militants in and around Minya and put thousands more in jail.
By then, tourism to the whole central section of Egypt was at or near zero. Cruise ships were withdrawn from the long stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. Cities at the heart of the insurgency, such as Minya and its neighbour Asyut, disappeared from tourist itineraries.
Almost twenty years on, with the insurgency defeated, Egyptian tourism is back in the doldrums. This time post-revolutionary instability and a deteriorating international image are to blame. Both are compounded by a faltering Muslim Brotherhood government, for whom it’s hard to find much enthusiasm among Egyptian travel industry bigwigs.
“They don’t know how to run a country,” fumed one tourism executive to me.
But they do know how to spread their influence. In Minya, as elsewhere around the country, the new governor is a Muslim Brotherhood placeman.
I drove to see his clifftop residence, its high walls bedecked with fairy lights, on the edge of New Minya, a Mubarak-era boondoggle of mean little concrete houses packed around barren roundabouts. Despite generous housing subsidies, sand-blown New Minya is a ghost town. People prefer to live where they’ve always lived – down by the Nile.
As street-lights came on in Minya’s old quarter, highlighting Rococo curlicues on the abandoned villas of 20th-century cotton magnates, many told me of a deepening atmosphere of political repression.
“We need a new revolution,” said Maged Nabil, who works for an Egyptian microcredit NGO. “If the president doesn’t make a break with the Muslim Brotherhood, there will be all-out street war.”
This summer, tourism is returning to Minya. The ban on cruising has been lifted, and passenger vessels are once again plying the full length of the Nile, bringing tourists to previously hard-to-reach ancient sites – the startlingly colourful 4,000-year-old tombs at Beni Hassan, and Tell El Amarna, royal capital of Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. Minya’s giant pyramidal antiquities museum, built but idle, is finally due to open.
But armed plain-clothes police are posted aboard every ship, and police launches bob about in the wake. Tourists who wish to explore Minya or Asyut independently may do so only with police escort.
If it’s safe, why all the police? And if it’s not safe, why are tourists being allowed back?
“We’re treading on eggshells,” one boat manager told me. “We do what the police tell us.”
Egypt’s tourism industry relies on mass movements of people – in aircraft direct to beachfront resorts or in tour buses between archaeological sites. Personal encounters are kept to a bare minimum. That concentrates power in the hands of big business: tourism brings in billions, yet most Egyptians scrape by on less than two dollars a day. Abject poverty prompts desperate souvenir-hawking at tourist sites – which, in turn, discourages tourists from seeking personal interaction.
Something’s clearly wrong. Yet faced with current instability, many now hanker for the bad old days, when at least the arriving planes were full. These days, nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor stand empty.
In Minya, still reliant on cotton, sugarcane and cement production, it’s hard to see tourism making a difference. On a lane behind the brightly lit souk, Yehya Senoussi cracked a tired smile. He works a full day in Minya’s tax office, then is out each evening until midnight, selling vegetables off a barrow to make ends meet.
“Everything is worse after the revolution,” he told me. “Safety is down, prices are up. People need bread and fuel, and we have neither.”
Then he looked hard at me, to make sure I got the message.
“Egypt’s resources are being mismanaged,” he said.