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To Damascus and back again: how my draft novel was kidnapped in Syria and lived to tell the tale

“I realised: as well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.”

Parts of Damascus still retain the beauty they had before the war.
Photograph: OmarSyria on Flickr, via Creative Commons

The ransom email started: “Dear Lady”.  I read it in the middle the night; it was bizarrely addressed to my sister-in-law in New York but clearly meant for me. My name, “ it continued, “Is Bassim Hamoud. I am from Damascus, Syria. Today I was walking in the street market and saw an Apple computer there. All your documents are on it. The man says he will sell it tomorrow. It cost him $800. Unless you email me tonight. Don’t delay.”

My palms were sweating as I typed a swift reply. My laptop had indeed been stolen earlier that week in Lebanon, with my entire life on it. How might Bassim suggest I retrieve it? “Don’t worry,” he wrote back, a smiley face after the lowercase, misspelt letters. “I will help you. This is your lucky day.”

I hadn’t felt so lucky until then. It had happened on Hamra Street, the once dazzling heart of old Beirut that has now run to potholes and seductively dark corners. I was walking back from a concert at the American University, through an early summer night hazy with jasmine and petrol and argileh. My laptop bag was in one hand, a change of clothes in the other. The stresses of my UN job at the centre of the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis were idling round my head, in time to a faint song floating from an open window above the road.

Then another sound rose to drown out the music – a buzz, coming from a corner – a scooter running along the pavement at speed, heading for the tiny gap between me and the mottled wall. I barely saw him in time; I jumped out of the way in panic, he leaned over as he shot past, grabbed the bag – and then he was gone.

I ran after him, of course. Even though there was no hope. And then my legs gave way underneath me as I realised. As well as my wallet and keys and hundreds of dollars, as well as my bank details and personal photographs – he had my book. My second, cherished, unborn novel – lovely plotted and crafted, and for some mad, forgotten reason not backed up.

In the week between the theft and the email I drifted from dull denial to incredulous grief. How could I have been so stupid? My Lebanese UN colleagues and friends agreed wholeheartedly. Didn’t I know crime was going up? Lebanon now has over a million Syrian refugees in a country of just four million people. They need to eat, poor souls, they said. Others scoffed: they’re mostly criminals. The oldest shook their heads in despair, recalling their own bitter civil war. Even back then, it wasn’t this bad, they assured me – in defiance of the old bullet-riddled buildings hidden within Beirut’s modernised cityscape.

I felt like one of those buildings as I mourned – full of holes and empty. Even a half-written novel has a life of its own, a uniqueness born of hours and months of love and thought and creativity. I can never be copied or remade; its loss is like a little death. So when Bassim’s note arrived, I was shocked back into hope, ready for any sacrifice to see it safely, miraculously home again.

And Bassim knew it. Confident of having reeled me in, he agreed to meet a friend of mine in Damascus to make the trade. His asking price was $800. My friend threatened and blustered – but Bassim was un-phased. It turned out he was affiliated to a well-known local organisation – close to the government, virtually untouchable. In the end we agreed to $600. “It’s a good scam,” my Syrian friend told me down the crackly phone line. “They pay them in Beirut to steal. And then they sell it back to the original owner. They know you’ll give anything.”

As he spoke I had a sudden memory of Damascus before, a true Arab beauty – coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, full of life and surprises.  It seemed she’d vanished as surely as my book – or so I’d thought. All that remains now is her ghost.

In the end, not 100 metres from the Four Seasons Hotel where the UN is working day and night to dispose of the Syrian’s government’s chemical weapons and gain humanitarian access to Syria’s besieged cities, Bassim got his money. My computer made its way to the Syrian border in a truck. There, it passed through customs with 10,000 others crossing into Lebanon every day, each with a worse story to tell than mine. And at last it journeyed back to the gathering dusk of Beirut to face an emotional reunion. But its fellow travellers face a more uncertain future.

Today the new book is growing (and backed up). Bassim is $600 dollars richer. The Hamra scooter-snatchers have moved onto new victims. And war and chaos continue to reign around us, spilling millions across borders to unknown destinations. Who knows how the story will go from here? I only hope we are all lucky enough to meet with such unexpectedly happy endings. 

Ishmael’s Oranges (Oneworld, £14.99) by Claire Hajaj is published on 17 July

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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