A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

 

****

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.

 

****

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.

 

****

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.

 

****

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.

 

****

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: Getty
Show Hide image

When Donald Trump talks, remember that Donald Trump almost always lies

Anyone getting excited about a trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom should pay more attention to what Trump does, not what he says. 

Celebrations all round at the Times, which has bagged the first British newspaper interview with President-Elect Donald Trump.

Here are the headlines: he’s said that the EU has become a “vehicle for Germany”, that Nato is “obsolete” as it hasn’t focused on the big issue of the time (tackling Islamic terrorism), and that he expects that other countries will join the United Kingdom in leaving the European Union.

But what will trigger celebrations outside of the News Building is that Trump has this to say about a US-UK trade deal: his administration will ““work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly”. Time for champagne at Downing Street?

When reading or listening to an interview with Donald Trump, don’t forget that this is the man who has lied about, among other things, who really paid for gifts to charity on Celebrity Apprentice, being named Michigan’s Man of the Year in 2011, and making Mexico pay for a border wall between it and the United States. So take everything he promises with an ocean’s worth of salt, and instead look at what he does.   

Remember that in the same interview, the President-Elect threatened to hit BMW with sanctions over its decision to put a factory in Mexico, not the United States. More importantly, look at the people he is appointing to fill key trade posts: they are not free traders or anything like it. Anyone waiting for a Trump-backed trade deal that is “good for the UK” will wait a long time.

And as chess champion turned Putin-critic-in-chief Garry Kasparov notes on Twitter, it’s worth noting that Trump’s remarks on foreign affairs are near-identical to Putin’s. The idea that Nato’s traditional purpose is obsolete and that the focus should be on Islamic terrorism, meanwhile, will come as a shock to the Baltic states, and indeed, to the 650 British soldiers who have been sent to Estonia and Poland as part of a Nato deployment to deter Russian aggression against those countries.

All in all, I wouldn’t start declaring the new President is good news for the UK just yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.