Reap what you sew

Palestinian campaigners in Lebanon have discovered a new way to protest – by breaking world records.

On 15 May, the world's longest keffiyeh, or scarf, was made in Lebanon to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the naqba - the Palestinian "catastrophe" that was the creation of the state of Israel. Jack Brockbank, an adjudicator from Guinness World Records, formally announced that the chain of scarves, sewn by volunteers, measured more than 6,552 metres and had beaten last year's Spanish entry (2,932 metres). It took him two and a half hours to measure it. The Palestinian struggle has its lighter side.

This was the first large-scale naqba commemoration event in Lebanon that was not organised under the auspices of any political faction. It was a civil and independent project, initiated by the Campaign for the Protection of the Right of Return. Its founder, Walid Taha, was aiming to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees all over the world, whose right of return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, still has not been implemented. The keffiyeh was laid out in Beirut's Sports City football stadium in the shape of the number 194. "Palestinians insist on Resolution 194," Taha said.

The black-and-white keffiyeh is one of many images that have come to symbolise Palestinian national identity and the struggle for human rights and independence. Others include the keys - still kept by refugees - to the homes they fled in 1948; the map of Palestine worn as a pendant; the traditional cross-stitch embroidery; and the Handala cartoon character, created by the assassinated cartoonist Naji al-Ali.

While the keffiyeh-style scarf adorns many a fashionista's neck in the west, it has a prodigious Palestinian history. Usually worn by farmers and peasants for protection from the sun, it spread to the cities and became a symbol of resistance during the strikes of the 1930s, when Palestinians protested against accelerated Jewish immigration under the British Mandate. Country people joked that the townsmen, who normally wore a tarboosh or fez, couldn't tie a keffi­yeh competently.

Paradoxically, with its current popularity around the world, the keffiyeh is increasingly being mass-produced in China or India, putting some small Palestinian weaving factories out of business.

Besides drawing attention to Resolution 194, Taha had a secondary aim: to fight for social and civil rights for Palestinian refugees in their host countries. They suffer discrimination in Lebanon, where the half-million or so officially registered refugees are denied the right to work in a number of professions and to buy or inherit property. They have little access to the country's health-care system. Many Lebanese oppose the naturalisation of Palestinian refu­gees, fearful that this would raise the number of Sunnis and reduce the Christian population to an even smaller minority.

The suspicion of Palestinians dates from the 1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) conducted its campaign of military resistance to Israel from Lebanon and played an essential role in the Lebanese civil war until Israel invaded the country in 1982, forcing the PLO into exile in Tunisia.

Big fala

The refugees at the Nahr al-Bared camp, near Tripoli, have suffered further displacement and hardships since 2007, when the camp was destroyed by the Lebanese army. The armed forces claimed that it had been infiltrated by mostly non-Palestinian Fatah al-Islam militants, who were inspired by (though not necessarily organisationally linked to) al-Qaeda.

Imad Audi, from Nahr al-Bared, attending the Beirut commemoration, could not understand why the destroyed camp remains a militarised zone and why his family is still enduring indignities two years after losing its home. "Why do I need a permit just to go to my own home?" he asked. The reconstruction of the camp is being blighted by legal and political delays, as well as insufficient funding, and residents remain in makeshift homes.

Although some Palestinian refugees - especially the Christians - were granted Lebanese citizenship as early as 1948, most remain without nationality and without rights. Palestinians often feel ambivalent about naturalisation, anxious that it would somehow weaken their right to return to their homeland. By any legal and moral standard, however, naturalisation is not in conflict with either the right of return or compensation. As Taha said: "We need civil rights in order to struggle more effectively for our right of return."

The presentation of the Guinness World Record certificate to the organisers was greeted by cheers from the crowd, which consisted mostly of children and youth groups from many of the 12 UN refugee camps in Lebanon. The party at the stadium included a programme of folk songs and dabke dancing. Although it had the celebratory feel of a national day, it was also solemn, the commemoration of a national defeat. In a stage enactment of a traditional wedding, the singing and dancing were interrupted by Israeli bombs and soldiers.

It was the second time that Jack Brockbank had been to Lebanon in the past few weeks. An Israeli claim in January to the world's largest plate of hummus provoked the outrage of the Lebanese, whose culinary expertise is a source of pride. To redress the affront, they produced a record-breaking bowl of hummus of their own on 8 May, and topped it off with the world's largest plate of falafel the following day. It's one thing to occupy people's land, but it's a bridge too far to lay claim to their cuisine as well.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

Biteback and James Wharton
Show Hide image

“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil