Monday, December 24, 2007

In the bleak midwinter

Several years ago I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was cold day in early February and the rain was pouring down. My most vivid memory is of Manger Square, the bland concourse in front of the church, empty and glistening wet. I had just met two organisers of Bethlehem 2000. They were glum men whose plans had been thrown askew by the beginning of the intifada five months earlier. On the way to Bethlehem there were signs of recent fighting. One house, which had been hit by a tank shell, bore a blackened hole in one wall. The overriding feeling was of emptiness.

After I had stooped to get through the Church's tiny door, the simple interior reinforced that impression. Apart from a couple of cleaners polishing the brass rail around the altar, it too was empty. I visited the basement cave where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Perhaps appropriately it seemed unremarkable. There was a lot of crimson velvet.

Bethlehem was then about fifteen minutes by car from Jerusalem, but the security wall erected by the Israelis has now made that journey take longer. What struck me most on that first visit to the Holy Land was just how small it is. My preconceived assumption about the grander scale of the place still intrigues me. It derives entirely from the significance that Christians and Muslims attach to the events that happened there just over two thousand years ago.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Read this then eat it?

I discovered a review of Setting the Desert on Fire from an unexpected quarter yesterday - on the Central Intelligence Agency's website. You can read it here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Listen to me speak at the Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial have made my recent talk there available as a download. With it you can see the slides I showed, which I refer to in the course of the talk.

I'd like to thank the Memorial again for making me so welcome.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Look up, look up

The Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek
"Four hundred piastres for that room? Four hundred did you say? Good God! Away! Call the car. Three hundred and fifty? One hundred and fifty you mean. Three hundred? Are you deaf, can't you hear? I said a hundred and fifty. We must go. There are other hotels. Come, load the luggage. I doubt if we shall stay in Baalbek at all."
So starts Robert Byron's description of his arrival in Baalbek in his book The Road to Oxiana (1937). He secures the room eventually for two hundred piastres and sets out to view the ancient site, pursued, just as you are today, by hordes of souvenir sellers. His description of the ruins struck a chord when I re-read it yesterday. What hits you is the scale of the place and the size of the enormous stones it is built from. "Look up, look up; up this quarried flesh, these thrice enormous shafts, to the broken capitals and the cornice as big as a house." It is quite unlike any other Roman structure I have ever seen.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hotel review

The Al-Fanar Hotel in Tyre wins 3 UN stars

Someone wiser than me once told me that you can tell the quality of a hotel in a warzone by the number of United Nations 4x4 vehicles parked outside. They are like mobile Michelin stars - they show where the richest arrivals in the neighbourhood like to eat and stay. I first saw this phenomenon in Axum in Ethiopia (the Remhai Hotel, if you are interested), close to the contested border with Eritrea, where the car-park was a sea of blazing white. Just over a fortnight ago, I was reminded of its accuracy in southern Lebanon.
The British Foreign Office advice on going to southern Lebanon is unambiguous.
"We advise against all travel south of the Litani River. There remains a serious risk from unexploded bombs remaining from the 2006 conflict between Hizbollah and Israel [many of which were dropped in the final days of a war that the British government refused to condemn- JB] and a risk [of] violence near the Israel/Lebanon border (the Blue Line). You should heed local advice in areas that have not been declared safe from unexploded ordnance."
But I wouldn't let that put you off, unless you are a rambler wanting to assert the "right to roam". Ever since the Bali bombings in 2002, the Foreign Office has realised that its published advice hangs like a millstone round its neck. So, fearing being quoted in the newspapers, it has warmly embraced the precautionary principle and discouraged British travellers from going anywhere they might end up in trouble that it could conceivably have foreseen. My experience is that the roads in southern Lebanon are quite safe (barring the driving - still the most dangerous factor), and the people are wonderfully hospitable. Just do beware the Israeli drone that buzzes miles overhead.
The Al-Fanar hotel, next to the rusting lighthouse in Tyre, south of the Litani River, is delightfully quiet. Promisingly, outside, when I arrived, were three UN 4x4s. It is, quite simply, the most tranquil hotel that I have visited in the Middle East. It is bang on the seafront, as its name suggests (it's Arabic for lighthouse), and has large, simple rooms that look out over the Mediterranean. I can't remember the cost, but it was cheap. There's an excellent seafront bar, and you fall asleep to the waves lapping against the stony beach. It is just perfect. But please don't trust my judgement: rely on the photograph above.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The power behind the throne

The Australian news channel ABC has broadcast some of the only wartime footage of T.E. Lawrence in his role as Feisal's adviser in Aqaba. You can see it here. Lawrence is the second from the right in the group shot which begins 21 seconds into the footage, in the white headdress and black woollen cloak and wearing a wristwatch. Feisal, wearing a black headdress, is seated right of centre.

It's worth watching this closely. Notice how Lawrence stands until Feisal bids him to sit down, and how Lawrence beckons another man round to sit between him and the camera, so that he is almost invisible, but still sitting closest to Feisal, who frequently turns to him. Notice how Lawrence deals directly with Feisal when he is translating, barely looking at Lowell Thomas, and keeps his back to the camera.

This film illuminates advice contained in the Twenty Seven Articles that Lawrence had written for the benefit of his colleagues about six months earlier, in August 1917. With the film in mind, here are some extracts:

(3) In matters of business deal only with the commander of the army, column, or party in which you serve. Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the C.O., however great the temptation (for efficiency's sake) of dealing with his underlings. Your place is advisory, and your advice is due to the commander alone.

(4) Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can.

(5) Remain in touch with your leader as constantly and unobtrusively as you can.

(7) Treat the sub-chiefs of your force quite easily and lightly.

(8) Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed. Do not be too intimate, too prominent, or too earnest.

Lawrence's anonymity is probably accentuated by the black and white film: in reality the fair-skinned Lawrence would have stood out more. What is so interesting is the impression one gets that Lawrence is subservient to Feisal: partly this is due to their difference in height, partly to the obsequious mannerisms - watch the hand wringing - that Lawrence adopts, which reminds me of Harold Nicolson's later comment about him: "What an odd shifty charlatan that man is."

Lawrence knew that this was all pretence. "It’s a kind of foreign stage" he wrote to an old friend later in 1918, "on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language, with the price of failure on one’s head if the part is not well filled". In reality, as Lawrence privately admitted, he was the power behind the throne. Telling his boss Clayton how to send intelligence to Feisal he wrote: "Information had better come to me for him since I usually like to make up my mind before he does."

Hat-tip: Mal Booth

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

3 Para

There's an interesting book review in this month's newsletter from the Frontline Club. Anthony Loyd, The Times's war correspondent, reviews Patrick Bishop's 3 Para, the story of the six month long Parachute Regiment deployment in Helmand last year. I've been reading 3 Para, and it's a good story, mixing the fruits of extensive interviews with the soldiers involved with a nice analysis of the problems that the battalion and its support units faced. The main of these was overstretch. The book's line is that the Paras coped admirably with the shortage - showing immense grit against the odds. I have no doubt that that is true, though the consequences of the force the soldiers used to protect themselves on the local population goes largely unremarked.

Loyd's take on the book is interesting. Seeing the guiding hand of the Ministry of Defence behind the cooperation of so many soldiers with the book, he points out that Bishop lays much of the blame with Mohammed Daoud, then governor of Helmand province. It was Daoud, according to Bishop, who urged the British to abandon their original inkspot strategy, which would have concentrated limited British resources on creating a safe zone near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, and instead deploy to isolated and vulnerable platoon houses the length of the province. Certainly this marks a departure from the original British view that Daoud was the best man available and the widespread disappointment when he was moved from Helmand by President Karzai a year ago, though the news took some days to get out. Daoud has, incidentally, since publicly criticised the speed of Britain's reconstruction effort in Helmand.

Perhaps the most interesting endnote to the book is the fact that 3 Para's commanding officer, Lt Col Stuart Tootal, recently resigned from the army, apparently in protest at the "shoddy" treatment of his men by the Ministry of Defence.

Before announcing his resignation, Tootal appeared at the Frontline Club, where he was interviewed by Bishop. That evening he stuck carefully to the script. I was sitting in the audience behind a couple of people who had evidently worked for the Department for International Development, whose work in Helmand has been widely criticised. Judging by the snippets of sotto voce whispering I heard, they too are capable of producing an account of Britain's engagement in southern Afghanistan which would differ from the version of events that Bishop was evidently encouraged to produce. A full account of the ongoing Helmand deployment, mixing the soldiers' views with those of other British government officials and the Afghans themselves, has yet to be written. It would make a fascinating and educational read.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Australian War Memorial

I spoke last Wednesday at the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra. The talk will be podcast in due course, and you should be able to hear it, and see the slides I showed, and I will post the link as soon as I have it.

I got a very warm welcome, thanks to the head of the research centre at the AWM, Mal Booth, and after speaking had a chance to look around the memorial. This commemorates the names of those who lost their lives serving their country in a central courtyard that sits over a museum explaining Australia's enormous contribution in two world wars, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts. It's extremely good: a mixture of well-lit exhibits, paintings, video and audio footage, and a superb aircraft hall. It was busy with school children when I was there on a mid-week lunchtime.

The AWM's exhibition about T.E. Lawrence begins on 7 December.