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Archive for June 2014

(Pause: 30 June, one year on)

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A year and two days ago, I left Cairo after a two-week visit, ahead of a more extended stay planned for after Ramadan, during which the office was mostly shutting down. I’d been advised to leave a couple of weeks ahead of the start of Ramadan, as everyone was talking about the protests that were planned for June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Those two weeks were electric with excitement; all of my Egyptian colleagues were strongly opposed to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and were full of hope that the Tamarod movement would change things. Rumours changed on a near-daily basis. Some people thought that it had all been overhyped, and would come to nothing; others were certain that this would be the end of the MB. Sometime towards the end of June, one of my colleagues told everyone else that he had heard that the army had gone around to all major news outlets in Cairo, telling them that if they got enough people out on the streets for June 30, the army would act to remove Morsi.

Which, of course, is what ended up happening. I watched it on television and online: the crowds in Tahrir, the tanks rolling over the bridges, and I didn’t really know what to make of it, other than that my MB-opposed Egyptian were overjoyed. A little over a month later, I was back in Cairo and utterly unable to leave my Downtown hostel due to the level of unrest on the streets outside, after the dispersals of the sit-ins at Raba’a and al Nahda. A 7pm curfew was imposed, gradually relaxed to 9pm, then 11pm – except on Fridays, when there were always protests. I moved to Zamalek, where I was a lot more insulated from it all, but I still worked ten minutes’ walk from Tahrir, and was often unable to get to the office because of unrest – or, worse, unable to leave it. One of my colleagues was accidentally tear-gassed when she was working over the weekend and stepped outside to grab some lunch. One evening, a colleague and I were trapped at work by protesters; coming out of the office around 7 or 8pm, the air was heavy and alkaline with teargas, and my colleague drove both of us through a dispersing crowd of MB. A few weeks later, it was an April 6 Movement protest in Talaat Harb square that I stumbled into, despite my taxi driver’s attempts to help me avoid it.P1050531

Downtown Cairo under curfew, August 2013. Creepy.

By August the city was covered in heavily photoshopped posters of Sisi, stating in English that Egypt was ‘fighting terrorism’. Where there weren’t Sisi posters, there was ‘fuck CC’ graffiti. People’s conversations seemed equally polarised: those people don’t appreciate what it is to be Egyptian. Those people aren’t really human. Protests continued. People were arrested – first the MB, and then activists, and journalists. The organisation that I was working for published a bimonthly Media Monitor, and every time there would be lists of names of journalists and media professionals arrested, detained and sometimes brought to trial. An Egyptian television presenter aired tapped phonecalls of activists to ‘prove’ that they had taken ‘foreign money’ around the 2011 revolution. (The presenter in question, I was told, is known to be a member of the intelligence service.) My Arabic teacher, who taught at Cairo University, told me about students injured in near daily protests. There were a series of bombs around the city on the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, and shortly afterwards I was on my way to work when I passed a controlled explosion. It was never reported.

I left in early February, and have since been watching, again, from a distance: the hundreds of death sentences meted out to MB members; the three arrested Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to years of imprisonment. They’ll be pardoned, people say. They probably will be – but on top of the sentences and the utterly risible prosecution process is the fact that Egypt is making itself ludicrous in the eyes of the world. “Egypt is the mother of the world, and will be as the world” is a slogan often attributed to Sisi. The Egyptians I know are enormously proud – deservedly so – of Egypt’s place in world history. Watching the behaviour of Egypt’s governing elite is kind of like watching a much-respected older relative get drunk and make a fool of themselves at a family wedding.

There is no neat conclusion. I still believe in change and in progress, because what’s the alternative? I still watch, and hope, and wait.


Sisi banners hang from a Zamalek building, January 2014

Written by Jess

June 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm

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A whistle-stop tour of the Somalias on a succession of tiny planes

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Had I been smart, I would have stayed in Garowe an extra couple of days and got the direct flight from Garowe to Nairobi on Saturday. However I wanted to leave today: today is (maybe) a holiday in Puntland for Independence Day (I say ‘maybe’ because it’s about independence from the British, which doesn’t technically apply to Puntland, only to Somaliland – but everyone I spoke to was convinced it was a holiday, so…), and Friday’s the weekend, plus I have a meeting in Nairobi tomorrow afternoon. So when I saw it was possible to get from Garowe to Nairobi on a Thursday with a change of plane, I naively wondered how bad it could be, and vaguely assumed that the plane change would take place in Mogadishu, which would make sense. It only became clear when my ticket was issued yesterday that in fact I would be leaving Garowe shortly before 9am, flying northeast to Bosaso, then west to Hargeisa for a change of planes, then south to Wajir, and finally Nairobi, arriving at 5pm, after a good eight hours of travel on tiny planes. Oof.


Early breakfast in Garowe: Somali pancakes with honey (they were not discernibly different from other pancakes that I’ve had, but the hotel receptionist insisted they were Somali pancakes – which, given that I was eating them in Somalia, I suppose they undoubtedly were), and PROPER COFFEE. This is one of the best things about Somalia; I am constantly saddened by how difficult it can be to get proper, decent coffee in much of East Africa, given that they grow so much of it. Somalia and Ethiopia are exceptions – of course you can find decent coffee elsewhere too, but the default assumption tends to be Nescafe.

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And this is one of the other best things about Somalia and Somaliland: shops are painted with images of their contents – supposedly to make it easier for the illiterate, but also just really attractive, especially as a lot of the paintings are really well-done. The poor quality of the photos is a result of them being taken out of the window of the car as I was being driven to the airport – these were all shops that I passed in the space of about ten minutes. Unfortunately I missed the AMAZING depiction of a lion standing on its hind legs and looking through something that might have been a telescope or a camera – next time Garowe, next time.


Delayed by camels en route to the airport. Shortly after this I saw a small group of warthogs, which surprised me as I would’ve thought Puntland would be too dry for them (I see them all the time around where I’m staying in Nairobi these days, where it’s much lusher). Other animals spotted in Garowe (none of which were spotted animals): an impala, and three baby ostriches, all of which seemed to be resident in my hotel.


Plastic bags really are the scourge of the more arid, windblown bits of Africa.


And onto the first plane!


Puntland looks a lot like this from the air – but the closer you get to the coast, the more dramatic it becomes, with dry riverbeds carving their way through flat-topped mountains, and very little sign of human habitation at all – other than the occasional fenced enclosure filled with tiny white dots, presumably sheep or goats


P1070849And then the coast. I long to swim from one of these beaches, but unless I manage to get to Berbera in Somaliland, it looks likely to remain a pipe dream.


Bosaso was much hotter and stickier than either Garowe or Hargeisa, thanks to being at sea-level rather than at altitude. However the incessant wind that I’d encountered in both Hargeisa and Garowe was still there – apparently it’s always like this at this time of year. It also featured a very gaudy crashed plane:


I do love / hate the prevalence of crashed planes around the runways of more obscure African airports. There’s one in Wau (South Sudan) that people are living in.


Approaching Hargeisa! Time to go through a very confusing security / screening procedure and board a slightly larger but still tiny plane!


Leaving Hargeisa. At this point I lost any momentum to keep taking photographs and concentrated instead on solid, focused reading. Having finished the vampire anthology, I returned to Chasing Misery, an anthology of essays by women working in humanitarian contexts, which I started a while ago (actually on another plane, I think between Juba and Wau). Full disclosure: Kelsey is a friend, and I know a couple of the other contributors, so I may be biased – but there were some really interesting perspectives here, and parts of the book are very affecting. My favourite essays were actually both of Kelsey’s contributions – particularly the titular essay, which includes the following:

“We are not the sort of people who go where we say we are going. We are not the sort of people who go places for other people. We are not people who need others to come and be where we are. This is what makes us so interesting. This is what makes us think we are in love with each other when we are not. We are in love with ourselves. We are in love with the idea of ourselves. It is actually a mad grasping fit of jealousy that we mistake as love when we see our lives lived by another.”

Perfectly put.


(Arrived back in Nairobi-home around 6.30pm. Finished The Concert Ticket in bed. As suspected, loved the second half significantly more than the first. Highly recommended.)

Written by Jess

June 26, 2014 at 9:09 pm

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Reading about vampires in Hargeisa

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The book: By Blood We Live, ed. John Joseph Adams

The place: Hargeisa airport

My first time in Somaliland. Hargeisa feels immediately different from Mogadishu: high and cool and unceasingly windy, it has the same sort of thin, attenuated air as places like Lalibela, where the sunshine is paler and the light is watery and everything has a slight slant towards the otherworldly. It feels different, too, because of the lack of any real need for security. Walking out of the airport on my own felt like I was doing something subversive, because it’s something that I would never, ever do in Mogadishu. But in Hargeisa, I was at liberty. I didn’t end up walking around much as the place I was staying (the wonderful Ambassador hotel, which brought me camel sandwiches by room service) was quite far out of town, but just the thought that I could walk anywhere was intoxicating. There’s still an 11pm curfew, but a colleague told me that if you’re out after curfew you’re more likely to be given a lift home by the police than you are to get any hassle from them. It’s easy to make facile arguments about colonial history as a determiner of post-colonial success; it’s particularly tempting in my case here, as a British person working in Africa, where I’m so often confronted with where the British Empire went wrong – it would be so lazily comforting to choose to think of Somaliland as demonstration of something the British Empire did right. But I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the region to be confident in any sort of judgements at this stage – and so it’s best, instead, to see Somaliland as a demonstration of the potential of the rest of Somalia. Every Somali I have met, whether in South Central Somalia or in Somaliland, has been smart and dedicated and clear-eyed about their country; its human capital is boundless.


(Yes, I know, a vampire anthology is hardly high literature – but on the other hand, do I really care? (No.) In any case, there are some bloody good stories in this collection – some by pre-existing favourite authors like Stephen King and Catheynne Valente, but the stand-out story for me was “Child of an Ancient City”, by Tad Williams; David Wellington’s “Pinecones” was excellent too. Both stories play on ideas of human frailty in the fact of grand and terrifying landscapes, which – in my view – is a much more effective use of the vampire myth than any of the sex-and-death vampire stories that seem to abound these days.)

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The roof of Hargeisa Airport is surprisingly elaborate.


Little puffy clouds, all over Puntland.

Written by Jess

June 23, 2014 at 2:23 pm

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Reading ‘The Ninth Life of Louis Drax’ in Mogadishu

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The book: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen

The place: in bed, Mogadishu

Overnight flight from London to Nairobi, day of work, 4am start for 6.30am flight to Mogadishu = 36 hours of more or less holding things together, followed by an entire day in bed, alternating reading and napping. Thank the good lord for Fridays.

(The Uninvited remains my favourite Liz Jensen book, but I quite liked this.)

Written by Jess

June 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm

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Reading various books in various places

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The books: The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz / Darkness Visible, William Styron / Half Bad, Sally Green

The place(s): Whitebrook to London to Nairobi

Best thing about lengthy periods of travel, particularly air travel (where there is no wifi, and it is more or less impossible to do any work because the dude in the seat in front has effectively got his head in your lap): uninterrupted reading time. I started reading The Examined Life at my parents’ place (and liked it enormously; it reminded me quite a lot of Theodore Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity, in its compassionate examination of the vagaries of human existence, without trying to offer much by way of conclusion or resolution), and finished it on the train between Newport and London; I then started Darkness Visible, reading it on the Heathrow Express and while waiting to check in and while queuing for an astounding 45 minutes at security (resulting in me having to run for the gate so as not to get offloaded) – and then I started Half Bad on the plane, finishing it while queuing for immigration in JKIA, at an ungodly hour of the morning. That is good, solid reading time (and I even managed to sleep for a few hours in the middle of it. Good going, self!).

And: back to East Africa. Onwards.

Written by Jess

June 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm

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Reading all of John Green in Whitebrook

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The book: Paper Towns, John Green

The place: my parents’ house, Whitebrook

There’s been a lot of palaver about adults reading young adult novels recently, thanks to this article in Slate, which, let’s be clear, I think is a lot of codswallop, the sort of irritatingly provocative article written primarily for the purposes of provocation. The thinking behind it seems to be predicated on the idea that young adults – children and teenagers – aren’t really real people, that their world is somehow emotionally and intellectually circumscribed. John Green makes the point himself (…somewhere on the internet) that teenagers are (often) enormously intellectually curious and voracious, far more so than a lot of adults, and that’s certainly my recollection of being that age myself. Anyway, I am just extremely wary of any article that purports to tell people what they should and shouldn’t be reading, because clearly reading is the Best Thing Ever (equal to travel) and people should be reading whatever gives them joy and excitement and engagement and whatever else they want to get out of reading. No shame, adult YA readers! No shame, readers of romance or fantasy or books about sparkly vampires or Fifty Shades of Grey* or indeed anything else! Read what makes you happy and screw everyone else.

All of which is to say: I read The Fault in Our Stars back in 2012 (in an Istanbul hotel, where I was staying unexpectedly after being booted unceremoniously out of Uzbekistan), loved it, and then forgot about John Green until just now, when I got the irresistible urge to download and consume his entire oeuvre (Looking for Alaska, Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Paper Towns) over the course of a couple of days. It was great – though I am not convinced that Green deconstructed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as much as he thinks he did in Paper Towns.

*Though maybe read Fifty Shades of Grey in full awareness that the central relationship dynamic – as with that of Twilight – is pretty messed up and abusive, rather than the Most Romantic Thing Evarrrrrrr.

Written by Jess

June 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm

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Reading ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing’ in Whitebrook

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The Book: Foreign Babes in Beijing, Rachel deWoskin

The place: my parents’ place in Whitebrook

Perfect demonstration of why you should judge books neither by their cover nor their title: I doubt I ever would have picked up Foreign Babes if I’d seen it in a bookshop – it was another one of the charity-shop purchases Clare foisted on me while we were in Liechtenstein – but it turned out to be excellent, a thoughtful and affectionate and erudite depiction of China’s view of the west, the west’s view of China, and China’s view of the west’s view of China (did you know that Chinese people believe that western people believe that Chinese people are lazy and uncultured? Neither did I! Also, apparently Chinese people think western people smell of milk, which is pretty unappealing).


Here is another thing that I did today: I ran a 10k. I mean, in broad terms: I covered the ground of a 10k race, and I ran part of it! And I wasn’t lapped by all the half-marathoners who were doing two circuits of the route that I was doing! (Only some of them.) I am truly, comically terrible at running in almost every way, and yet I am sticking to it in grim determination, in the possibly-misguided belief that it is character building for me to persist in something I neither am good at nor enjoy.

That said, I enjoyed the 10k far, far more than I had been expecting to. The utter lack of expectations (either to enjoy it, or to make any sort of half-decent time) helped, but I think the main highlights were both my sheer amazement at myself actually doing it (my brain, all the way through: “look at this! I am running a 10k! I said I was going to do it and I am doing it!”), and the course itself, which runs through woods and over stiles and through mud and requires leaping and staggering and slipping and sliding. That is the sort of 10k for me! I don’t think I would enjoy a city 10k nearly as much – though I do intend to try one, as I would like to actually run all of a 10k at some point, and I have the (again, possibly misguided) feeling that city-based races are less likely to be beset with hills than rural ones.

Written by Jess

June 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm

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Reading ‘Mr Mercedes’ in London

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The book: Mr Mercedes, Stephen King

The place: Piccadilly Circus, London (en route to Brasserie Zedel, one of my new favourite London places – Alsacien cuisine and cocktails in a brilliantly glitzy atmosphere; what’s not to like? Also, the best crème brulee in London, complete with visible flecks of ground-up vanilla pods)

What do you notice about the photo above, aside from the bevy of hen do-attending ladies clambering over Eros, and the rare spectacle of London in sunshine? Yes, I am not reading on my beloved Kindle, but on my phone – and that is because I left my Kindle on the Newport to Paddington train. WOE. I really do have the most appalling luck when it comes to Kindles – since I first got one in July 2011, I’ve gone through… maybe eight or nine of them? A number of them (maybe four or five) fell prey to the screen-freeze that I think was quite common in the early cheap models; I dropped my laptop on one (yes, I know), and had another one stolen out of my bag (while I was being held in transit in Tashkent Airport, prior to being booted out of the country), and now this. I will of course IMMEDIATELY buy another, because I cannot get by without hundreds of books at my fingertips. Still, I was quite proud of myself for having held onto that particular model for nearly a year, having bought it just before moving to Cairo last year. Sad.

Thank god for free Kindle apps, though, because it would have wounded me to have to stop in the middle of this book. People are (often) insufferably snobbish about Stephen King, but I (mostly) think he’s a goddamn genius – with a pleasantly non-pretentious attitude to his own writing. I’ve not read a lot of books about writing, but I can’t imagine they come much better than King’s On Writing; when it comes to fiction, King at his best (The Shining, Doctor Sleep, Hearts in Atlantis, The Stand) is as good as anyone else writing today. Plus he wrote The Dark Tower, which I read in January this year and absolutely adored, flawed as it is in parts. Mr Mercedes, I think, is one of his better books – a fairly straightforward detective novel with a very likeable protagonist and an enjoyably unpleasant antagonist (as well as two of the most interesting sidekicks I’ve seen). I’d sensibly pre-ordered it so it appeared as if by magic on my Kindle (pre-loss), and I have done likewise for Revival, King’s next novel, which is due out towards the end of the year. Can’t hardly wait.


London, eh? I’m from London, but haven’t lived there since 2007, and every time I visit it stirs up a potent mix of nostalgia, longing and RAGE (the latter usually provoked by trying to go anywhere by public transport). The Shard, however, never fails to provoke the simplest kind of childlike delight in me, whenever I see it.


Written by Jess

June 7, 2014 at 8:00 pm

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