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Swimming in Aleppo: why people still head to the pool in war zones

They cling to time in the water, if they can get it, as a last vestige of the lives they used to have.

Someone just sent me a photo of a swimming pool in Aleppo in Syria full of people having fun. My correspondent was a supporter of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and was trying to make the point that the regime’s victory late last year in Aleppo has brought a peace dividend. Lives, the photo said, are getting better. Maybe, at the moment the photo was taken. Syria’s future is still bleak.

What is it about swimming and wars? I have been reading Alan Moorehead’s The Desert War, the brilliant account of the fight for North Africa and the Middle East in the Second World War. He finds space for every time he found somewhere to take a dip, in an oasis, or off a beach in Libya, or in some captured waterhole. 

Jumping into water to cool off, for fun or to keep fit is something people don’t want to let go, even at the worst of times. Sometimes pools are kept clean long after more necessary parts of modern life, like mains electricity, become memories.

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I didn’t have time for a swim during the war in Lebanon in 2006. But I stopped sometimes for lunch at the Sporting Club beach in Beirut, where mahogany-tanned Lebanese sun-worshippers watched from the poolside as Nato warships were evacuating foreigners. There’s been a summer flurry of speculation about another war between Israel and Hezbollah. The talk won’t affect business at the Sporting.

People cling to pool time, if they can get it, as a last vestige of the lives they used to have. In the late summer of 2013 the residents of Damascus were expecting to get bombed by the Americans, after the chemical attacks on suburbs held by the rebels. I interviewed Damascene civilians who hadn’t fled the city, as they looked up at the empty skies from their sunloungers at the pool at the Sheraton hotel and wondered when the Americans were coming. President Obama, of course, cancelled the strikes at the last minute.

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Talk of swimming pools is a sick joke in the camps for the millions of displaced people sweltering in the broiling summer in the Middle East. Small boys run after water tankers, trying to get splashed. In Yemen, getting a drink of clean water is a near-impossibility. Hundreds of thousands have contracted cholera, which spreads when water is contaminated by faeces.

You may wonder why journalists have not been filing daily dispatches describing the appalling events in Yemen. Partly it’s because operating there is very dangerous. The Saudi-led coalition is bombing Yemen, and has been condemned for killing civilians. In many parts of the country there is a serious risk of being kidnapped by jihadists, or by tribes that want ransoms or the chance to sell a hostage on.

Despite all of that, journalists are trying to report from Yemen. The problem is getting in. The Saudis have imposed an air, sea and land blockade. Reporters always wonder what’s being hidden when they can’t get into a country.

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In Washington DC, as think tanks prepared to go into their summer hibernation, much of the Middle East talk was of what happens after the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) are finally defeated in Iraq and Syria. That moment is approaching, though it’s still a little way off. After their victory in Mosul, Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition will have more work to do in the remaining IS pockets. In Syria, the fight for Raqqa, the IS stronghold, is proving every bit as difficult as anyone expected. It is hard to fight people who embrace death like a friend.

I suggest anyone who worries about the future of the Middle East doesn’t read the worrying articles that are coming out of DC until they are fully refreshed by a summer break, if they’re lucky enough to have one.  The main theme was summed up by one respected blog, LobeLog. It said there’s an “increasingly real possibility that the Trump administration may be moving the country into yet another Middle East war… through sheer incompetence and incoherence rather than by design”. 

The fears revolve around the galaxy of forces that have gathered in eastern Syria. They are the US and its allies, including Britain, aiming at IS; Turkey, most concerned about the growing power of the Kurds; the Russians, Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah, who are there to safeguard their own interests and those of the Assad regime; and, of course, there are regime forces, and a variety of militias, generally with either a Sunni or a Shia affiliation. The dangers of miscalculation are easy to see, particularly between the US and Iran. There is no hotline between Washington and Tehran. Stopping a crisis escalating would be difficult, particularly since some Americans and some Iranians could be spoiling for a fight.  

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I haven’t travelled much in the past few months. All my time has been spent writing a series of 25 15-minute programmes for BBC Radio 4, called Our Man in the Middle East. I tried to tell the story of the last quarter of a century through events I’ve covered. Digging back into the past disturbed a few ghosts, some friendly, others not. And it underlined the sad fact that the Middle East is in a much bigger mess now than it was 25 years ago. Ill-judged western intervention has been a big part of the problem. But the people of the region carry a heavy load of responsibility too.

One symbolic moment came when the former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was released from detention. Many of the leaders of the protests that drove him from power in 2011 are in jail. Egypt’s police state under President Sisi is much tougher than Mubarak’s. The unalloyed joy in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the night that Mubarak was forced out seems a long time ago. If you’re interested, the programmes live on as BBC podcasts. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.