A tale of two cities

Many parts of 6th October City are a world away from the poverty seen in some areas of Egypt

After being dispatched to the sandy schoolyard of the Toshka Primary School in 6th October City, the two tanks showed no mercy.

Overlooked by squadrons of soldiers positioned on the rooftops of nearby apartment blocks, they sprayed the front of the five-story school building with round after round of machinegun fire.

The operation lasted for 24 hours, according to locals. By 10.30pm on Monday evening, five suspected escaped prisoners who had been hiding out in the building were dead.

“The whole place was shaking,” according to a middle-aged nanny at the school who would only identify herself as Leila. “The people living nearby very very frightened and hid themselves away for two or three days.”

A trip to the Toshka Primary School sheds light on a tale of two cities during the country’s recent political upheaval – not just in terms of the differences between 6th October City and Cairo, but within this sprawling satellite settlement itself.

Two weeks after the violence of January 28th, with many residents in the more affluent areas of 6th October City having disbanded their ad-hoc neighbourhood watch groups, people here still feel vulnerable.

According to Leila, on Tuesday night householders had to fight off more suspected criminals seen in the area near the Toshka Primary School.

Although she said she was against president Hosni Mubarak, she added that it was time for the Downtown protesters to leave Tahrir Square.

“They must go home and give Mubarak another chance to fix the situation,” she said.

The school lies in a decaying neighbourhood of 6th October City close to a huge industrial zone. The surrounding streets are a warren of grimy, concrete apartment blocks buzzing to the sound of weaving tuc-tucs.

It is a far cry from the rest of the city, where ultra-rich Egyptians live in a theme park world of gated villas, topiary hedges and compound golf courses.

Outside a cafe just a short drive away from the school – near the upmarket boutique shops and all-American diners of Al-Hosary  Mosque Square – sat 41-year-old Bakr Haindich.

“This place is safe,” said Mr Haindich, a Jordanian, who like so many in 6th October City is a foreign Arab national.

“I haven’t tried to go away or leave the country. I feel safe here.”

Diana Sheheen, who was sitting smoking a shisha pipe with her friend in Cafe O2, agreed.

“For the last few days I have felt more safe than I have since the demonstrations started,” said the 23-year-old engineering student. “The residents have been making groups and staying in the streets all night.”

But the glitz of the upper-class neighbourhoods has not been enough to shelter everyone from the aftershocks of the January democracy movement.

A 10 minute drive away, past the half-built luxury compound of Sawfa City — where an enormous 30ft-high banner proclaims “New Experiences Await You!” — is Sheikh Zayed city, another satellite settlement where the filthy rich rub up alongside the down-at-heel.

Sitting behind a desk in the office of his billboard advertising company, Magdi Al-Sharif reveals that neighbourhood watch groups in his area caught 18 suspected prisoners only this week.

As head of all the groups he said that most of the people caught were not trying to break into homes, but that people in the area were still worried.

“In this area they have not been trying to steal, they have been trying to change their clothes or just get something to eat,” he said.

Mr Al-Sharif said he thought most of the prisoners turning up in Sheikh Zayed were not a threat because they had been set free by the government against their will.

Nonetheless he said residents were still frightened.

“People are scared because they are thinking many things. Maybe they are thinking the prisoner has come to kill them. They just know these people are criminals – they don’t care what kind of criminals.”

The Crusaders’ forgotten foe

Syria played centre stage during the Crusades

Pastry-seller Amir does not know much about the man who is buried in the scruffy tomb behind him.

“I know who he is, but I don’t know anything about his history,” the old man confesses with a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

The tomb lies inside a 12th Century madrassa hidden deep within the heart of the old Damascus souk. Visitors might just be able to catch a glimpse of the mausoleum if they peer through the metal grille which separates it from the chaotic, covered bazaar outside.

Yet most of the shoppers weaving past do not seem particularly interested in the identity of the man lying just a few yards away from them.

Maybe Amir would have better luck selling his fruit-filled breads if Damascenes polished up on their history.

The Nur ad-Din Madrassa in Damascus

For the man in the tomb is Nur ad-Din – The Light of Religion – the soldier who united Syria’s nobles and established the platform from which the Crusaders were routed from Jerusalem in 1187.

If any Syrian deserved a lasting memorial worthy of his achievements, it is him. Nur ad-Din became an Arab folk hero after destroying the Crusader army of Antioch in 1149 (he added a final flourish to his achievement by dispatching the head of the defeated Prince of Antioch to the caliph of Baghdad).

After the triumph he set his sights on the total defeat of the Western Crusader forces, who had been present in the Holy Land ever since the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade.

Nur ad-Din was a passionate advocate of Sunni orthodoxy, and central to his agenda was the creation of a network of madrassas, or religious schools, to advance his ideology and suppress the perceived heresy of Shia Islam.

He was also the first man to unite the two most important cities in Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, since the first Crusader invasion – an important first step in the ultimate defeat of the Christian armies of Europe.

But mention his name to many people and expect to be met with a blank stare or weary shrug.

You would have more luck asking about his nephew, Salah ad-Din, or Saladin- a man whose reputation as the chivalrous nemesis of Richard the Lionheart resonates  as much with Arabs as it does with many misty-eyed Westerners.

It is a reputation which has been immortalised in bronze, as visitors to Damascus can see from the enormous statue of him standing outside the western walls of the Old City.

Salah ad-Din’s mausoleum lies only a five minute walk away from his uncle’s, yet draws countless more visitors desperate to acknowledge the world-famous military commander.

Perhaps it is understandable, given that Salah ad-Din, a man originally of Kurdish stock (though the Syrian authorities, ever hostile to the aspirations of Kurdish autonomy, don’t often like to acknowledge this) was the man who seized Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

Yet one can’t help but feel a little sorry for Nur ad-Din, without whom his nephew’s achievements might never have happened.

But perhaps it won’t be too long before he is given a burial place more in-keeping with his legacy.

A shopkeeper near Nur ad-Din’s tomb says his mausoleum is currently being renovated – so maybe the time has come for him to finally emerge from his nephew’s shadow.

The Exodus Industry

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It was clear from the outset that this climb would be a little different.

If Mount Sinai is not the only world-famous peak with a walk-through metal detector at the base, then it certainly flaunts  its exceptionalism in a number of other ways.

The hike began, like many on this Biblical mountain, very early in the morning.

At around 2am, with a crisp chill in the Sinai Desert air, we set off behind our Bedouin guide Mohammed in a bid to catch sunrise from the summit.

Wrapped-up in his ankle-length jalabiya and a tightly wound headscarf, Mohammed began the steady trudge along our scree-scattered path with a disarming degree of insouciance.

Both hands behind his back and planting one foot in front of the other like a clockwork soldier, he picked his way through the rocks and pebbles with the carefree manner of a man who had shepherded tourists along this route countless times.

This being Sinai, the way ahead was already lit-up with a luminescent ribbon from a thousand different torchlights. It tapered-out hundreds of feet above our heads as the first of the climbers rounded the eastern face of the mountain to make their final ascent in the pitch black.

It may have been early in the morning, but Sinai is a tickbox mountain; climbers rarely have it to themselves.

The procession wound ever onwards, a motley collection of  summit-fever dawn junkies, Sinai sun-hoppers, earnest pilgrims and Gore-tex teeth-gritters.

Looming, faceless crags were silhouetted against the glow of a full-moon, while the star-filled sky shimmered like a diamond mine. Every now and then a camel appeared out of the darkness, snorting insolently as its Bedouin master towed him down the mountain.

And in case anyone clambering up this barren peak needed a bite to eat, ramshackle huts along the way provided everything from Mars bars to instant coffee with powder milk.

If Moses did not have the luxury of these refreshments when, according to the Book of Exodus, he made his own ascent to receive the Ten Commandments, then his 21st Century followers would suffer no such hardship.

The final stretch took the walkers up a steep section of 750 stone steps called the Stairway of Repentance, actually the closing leg of an alternative route consisting of 3,750 steps which leads down to St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain, the ancient 6th Century building erected on the site where the Bible says God spoke to Moses from a burning bush.

The first light of dawn was beginning to creep up over the jagged peaks in the eastern Sinai, and some of the more exhausted climbers had fallen by the wayside – repenting, perhaps, for their ill-advised decision to climb up a mountain in the dead of night.

After the final leg came the summit, a prize rendered a little less beguiling given the scramble to find a spot on the floor among the scores of other ashen-faced walkers. Nestled in among them at around 5am, next to a mosque and Greek Orthodox chapel erected in 1934, it was a little difficult to imagine the scene when God supposedly handed Moses the stone tablets which have shaped the course of Western civilisation.

Yet at 2,285 metres above sea level, nothing can detract from the experience of watching the rising sun breathe fire into the Sinai peninsula as it begins its relentless climb into the early morning sky.

Perhaps this is what Moses saw when he spent his 40 nights on top of the mountain. Perhaps, if you subscribe to the iconoclasm that Sinai could just as well be in Saudi Arabia as Egypt, it is not.

Either way, with dawns like these there is little chance the sun will ever set on Mount Sinai’s Exodus Industry.


Sabra and Shatila: A reluctant walk down memory lane

Sabra and Shatila. Pic by MB on beirutpublicspace.wordpress.com

The Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila are only a few kilometres from the polish of downtown Beirut, but they might as well be in a different country.

To walk down the frenetic main street is a physically disorientating experience.

Everywhere you look there is filth and rubbish. Blood from the butcher’s courses across the grubby pavements; stray goats nibble at black bin bags heaped in 6ft piles by the road; muddy paths leading to crumbling hovels wind off deep into the camp, and scooter after scooter screeches down the road through a teeming bustle of the downbeat and dejected.

Parts of the camp lack even basic services

It was here in September 1982 that a Christian militia allied to the Israeli army carried out a two-day massacre and slaughtered anywhere between 800 to 3,500 defenceless Palestinian refugees.

At the height of the Lebanese civil war, after Israel had invaded Lebanon in a bid to stamp out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and establish a Christian vassal state north of their border, Phalangist militiamen went on the rampage through the camps despite the full knowledge of some of the Israeli high command about what was taking place. The names of Sabra and Shatila have lived in infamy ever since.

The camps themselves sprung up as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but have now become a permanent feature of the Lebanese capital featuring all the things you might see in any other Arab town.

The market selling plump tomatoes and courgettes sits under the shadow of a large mosque with a towering minaret, while lines of hungry men jostle at the shwarma stall and others have their beards trimmed at the nearby barber.

But walking through the camp it is impossible to keep track of the number of men who have fallen victim to the impenetrable Shatila Stare – that lost-for-good look which speaks of a wretched inner hopelessness.

Amid all the filth and the car fumes, a group of children play happily on a rusty, miniature roundabout on the side of camp’s main street. Grinning and squawking, for them it is the only way to play they have ever known.

Another, very pretty girl of maybe eight or nine years of age stands by a rack of cauliflowers in the market. As a child in the West she would have a wealth of opportunities in a life away from the garbage-filled gutter.

In Lebanon she has become a prisoner.

Mountain People


Bludan in the late afternoon sun

A short 45-minute hop from Damascus is Bludan, the gettaway town nestled in the scraggy mountains between Syria and Lebanon.

Beloved of affluent Damascene families and summer break Saudis alike, the village is a magnet for those wanting to escape the firey Syrian sun and breathe in some fresh, pine-scented mountain air.

There isn’t a whole lot to do and come early September and the place begins


The kids of Bludan getting their kicks

to close down for the winter. Bar the occasional keffiyeh-clad tourist or the pot-bellied street hawker buying-up unwanted Emirati currency, Bludan is slowly sliding to a halt.

Not that the kids scurrying around the ramshackle arcade near the top of the village would know. Shooting pucks on the air hockey tables amid a fairground chirrup of beeps and ringing, they seem determined to defy the dying rays of Bludan’s summer.

And over at the  “Moses Cave” – a network of mine tunnels which were recently converted into a bizarre visitor experience complete with wall carvings, grotto restaurants and a murky, cave-floor boat ride – huddles of tourists wander around the catacombs chattering like restless ferrets.

But the waiter in one of the classically Syrian open-plan restaurants nearby confirms the lingering feeling which is beginning to settle here – the party is coming to a close.

The skewered shish taouk kebab is one of the only options available, he says. The management is not buying any more food in – Bludan will be forgotten once the sun begins to set.