A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
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Jeremy Bowen: I know there’s trouble in the Middle East when I need my flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar pants

The BBC’s Middle East editor on John Kerry striking the wrong tone over Ukraine, and remembering the Aleppo souks.

I saw someone looking on sympathetically as my attempt at running for the train turned into a hop and then a hobble. It was the kind of sympathy no middle-aged person needs or wants and I didn’t turn around to look for any more when the doors of the carriage came together with a smug hiss, leaving me on the platform. At the moment my left knee, calf and Achilles tendon have various injuries, all caused by sport. Some go back to the late 1970s. The most recent was self-inflicted during a rash attempt to ski off-piste a month or so ago.

Journalists in the Middle East need to be mobile. Visits to presidential palaces, foreign ministries and embassies all matter but being on the streets is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. My physio tells me I will stop limping fairly soon. Then I’ll be able to cycle and, after that, run.

Perhaps getting my left leg to work properly will be a mixed blessing. In the past year or so, two good legs have taken me to any number of Egyptian riots and have stumbled, nervously, as I tried to wade through streets full of rubble in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. And they have trudged through the snow in miserable informal  refugee settlements for Syrians in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Informal” means their inhabitants are barely supplied, burning pieces of plastic to keep warm and melting snow to get water.

 

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Sometimes the challenge of covering the misery and complexity of the modern Middle East is almost overwhelming. Since the Arab uprisings started at the end of 2010 the region has been in a profound process of change, which looks likely to go on for at least a generation.

Its consequences have turned millions of lives upside down and in Syria alone ended more than 100,000. Journalists have been extremely busy.

I always have a big flight case packed in my garage. It contains a flak jacket, a ballistic hel­met, vivid yellow and black Kevlar-woven “blast boxers”, assorted dressings and first-aid kits, along with a riot helmet, a gas mask and shatter-proof protective glasses. The case is my personal index of Middle Eastern trouble. I needed it all only rarely before 2011, usually because of a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians or Lebanese. Now I take the case to most places.

 

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The international news reporting machine has turned its attention to Ukraine. I would never wish the attentions of a pack of journalists on anyone. Yet the world is in a time of trouble and bad news is going to happen somewhere. The Middle East is still pumping out stories, but for now Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin are getting top billing.

It is a relief, in a strange way. I have been travelling for more than half of the time since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began in January 2011. It’s refreshing to be able to hobble for the train in London.

 

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I watched a live broadcast of the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Ukraine. The way he mocked the Russians at his news conference sounded as if he was trying to win a debate, not help settle a crisis. I think that Russia should not send its troops on to the territory of its neighbours. However, it is hard to listen to an American official talking about sovereign territory, international law and invasions without thinking about what happened in Iraq in 2003.

I am not proposing a reprise of the row over UN Security Council resolutions or whether or not the United States, the UK and their allies were acting legally or illegally but it is important to remember that many countries did not buy the west’s version, so it has to expect a sceptical response when it scolds others.

 

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If Middle East politics was a lake, it would always be turbulent. The US and UK threw in a big rock in 2003 and the waves it made are still washing up, from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from the obscene amount of death in Iraq since 2003, the worst consequence of the invasion was the way it heated up sectarian tensions.

The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims make up one of the world’s oldest religious and political quarrels. Yet the invasion’s reordering of the regional balance of power brought the conflict stretching and snarling into the new century. Events since then have made it much worse.

 

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In early March, I will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The organisers have invited authors to bring a guest. Mine is my 13-year-old daughter, Mattie. It’s not her first time in the Middle East. In 2010, with my mother, we travelled through Lebanon and Syria.

We couldn’t do that now. Mattie loved the Old City in Damascus. She would still be able to recognise it. Physically it has barely been touched by the war, though foreigners are rare and foreign tourists extinct. Most of all she loved the old heart of Aleppo, its alleys, khans and mosques and the great citadel. Friendly traders sold us dried fruit, freshly roasted nuts, soap made from olives, embroidered cotton and a slimy nylon football shirt in Syrian colours.

Every time I see pictures of the devastation, the deserted, burnt-out souks, the toppled minarets and punctured domes, I think of the people who used to buy and sell in Aleppo’s narrow streets, of the way they smiled at my mother and daughter, and wonder what happened to them. l

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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