A few days in Doha and Baghdad

In early Feb I visited Doha and Baghdad, my first to Doha in almost ten years, and first ever visit to Iraq. It was a great trip – lots of very useful meetings, and also some real local colour.

Doha

Baghdad

Five weeks in the States

During most of December, across Christmas/New Years and into the beginning of 2012, we wandered, moseyed and explored our way around the US of A. It was an absolutely fantastic holiday that included:

  • Orlando (Disney, Legoland, Kennedy Space Center)
  • Washington DC
  • New York
  • Chicago (Christmas – bloody cold, but no snow damnit!)
  • San Francisco (New Years eve)
  • Big Sur coast down to LA

All in all we had a huge time. I posted lots of photos on tumblr, but I’m reposting a few favourites here for posterity – and some that we didn’t put on tumblr such as Mitchell as an astronaut, and us swimming with the dolphins.

Discovery Cove

NASA Kenney Space Center

And some of our favourite pics from the tumblr load

Abbreviated travels to the deep south

Alright, so this post is a little bit tricky. Officially I never travelled to the West Bank, as it’s an issue of some sensitivity for the Lebanese. And the issue of Jewish settlers and Palestinian entitlements in the West Bank is always contentious and there’s always a risk that someone could get to this page from Google and take offence at a perceived imbalance (I think what I’ve written here is pretty neutral and based on briefings by TIPH, but you never know).

Hence I’ve password protected access to this post, just in case.

So… A few days back I got to have a short visit (shorter than originally planned) to the West Bank. Unfortunately I missed much of the planned visit so didn’t get to see Bethlehem, Ramallah or the Dome of the Rock in east Jerusalem (also known as Al Quds to the Palestinians).

But I did at least get to have a tour of Hebron with some observers from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). That in itself was an eye-opener. Although I’d often heard about Hebron in the news, I’d never really paid much attention to what was going on there. Turns out I’d missed one of the key issues plaguing attempts to return the West Bank to Palestinian rule.

Hebron is arguably the second most significant religious city in Israel/Palestine, after the Temple Mount. Abraham is said to have lived in Hebron 1800 years ago, and his grave and that of his wife Sarah are believed to be located under the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela. This site is highly significant for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Anyway, without delving too much into the complicated and controversial history of the place, Jews and Muslims had co-existed quite happily there for 500 years. But in 1929 Arab rioters protesting the influx of zionist settlers from Europe killed 67 Jews in the Hebron massacre.  It’s worth noting here that over 400 other Jews were saved by their Arab neighbours, at some risk to the Arabs involved, as a demonstration of the previous religious harmony that existed. Following this incident, the Jewish families in Hebron were relocated to Jerusalem.

After the West Bank was occupied by Israeli forces in the 1967 six-day war, Jewish settlers flooded into Hebron, often illegally. Many of these settlers have turned out to be extremely fanatical, often attacking not only the Arabs in Hebron but also the Israeli military (usually in retalliation for the forced closure of a settlement) and neutral international observers. In 1994 a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque. In 1997, in response to growing tensions, the city was divided into a Palestinian sector and a Jewish sector.

As a result of this history, tension levels remain high between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in Hebron. For example, and as you’ll see in the photos, there’s a few spots where the market alleyways pass underneath one of the main Jewish settlements. In these spots they’ve had to erect wire security fences to protect the people passing beneath from bricks, bottles filled with urine and other objects that get thrown down at them from the settlement. (An Australian colleague of mine was recounting how he previously had a bucket of water thrown over him in this street.  It was summer, so he didn’t mind. He then overheard an Arab shopkeeper saying “Ahh, he is lucky. It was clean water” (ie not urine). )

Exploring the old city of Damascus

With Christopher in town for a few days, he and I decided to have a boys weekend away. Sadly, the girly bars and super nightclubs of Beirut were off-limits, so instead we opted for the historical choice and drove over to Damascus.

Supposedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (Byblos, Aleppo and several other cities also make this claim), Damascus has a fantastic old city complete with winding narrow alleys, beautifully preserved mosques, traditional cafes and tastefully renovated Damascene palaces.

We opted to stay in the Beit Joury hotel, a 300 year old palace which had only been converted into a boutique hotel last year. The hotel was in the centre of the Christian quarter and an easy walk to all the main historical sights. From there we wandered leisurely, munching on a falafel roll (very tasty, but not quite as good as my favourite, Sahyoun, on the old Green line), scoffing down a monstrous cone of vanilla icecream covered in pistachio nuts from Bakdash, then later on sitting and whiling away an hour over some sweet black tea and a nargileh pipe.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Last weekend while we were in the UAE we hotfooted it down to Abu Dhabi for the day. It was great to look around and see what had changed since we moved away from there in 2003, and it was also terrific to catch up with our old pals Barbie and Marc and their two nippers Megan (seen holding hands with Mitchell below) and four week old Chloe.

One obvious change is the completion (almost) of the Sheikh Zayed mosque. This towering edifice has been under construction for more than ten years, and even now is not completely finished. (Landscaping seems to be taking forever.)

It boggles the mind that in Dubai they can build all of this in less than six years (I kid you not – in 2002 there was only a bare patch of desert there). By contrast the Sheikh Zayed mosque just seems to be taking forever.

The old legend was that it couldn’t be finished while Sheikh Zayed was alive. Well, the old guy’s dead now, so what’s the hold up??

Anyway, here’s a collection of then and now photos. The former set were taken during a private tour of the construction site in 2003.

2003 – – – – – – – – -> 2008

As you can see, it’s a bit fancier these days. In fact, it would be fair to say that it’s anything but subtle. In the central prayer hall that’s the world’s largest carpet and the world’s largest chandelier. Unfortunately some goon decided that Sheridan wasn’t allowed to take her chair onto this famous carpet – which seemed pretty rude and uncharitable for a house of worship. I mean, they let anyone walk on it in their stinky funky socks…

And you know what? I kind of preferred the brutalist style of the unfinished product.

Time to Dubai something

We’ve been back from holidays for only a few weeks, but geez it feels like ages since we had a break away.

So in the spirit of true global wanderers (and at the risk of sounding like overpaid expats), we’re off to Dubai for a long weekend. Sun (well, heat and humidity mostly), sand and shopping. Yay!

See you back online on Tuesday.