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Archive for January 2015

Reading ‘I Do Not Come to You by Chance’ in Kaduna

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The book: I Do Not Come to You By Chance, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The place: Kaduna

I’ve developed a new appreciation for the charms of reading books about the place you’re actually visiting. All over Kaduna, stern warnings are painted onto houses: “Beware 419! This house is not for sale!” And it turns out that this book is all about the 419ers, the Nigerian scam artists, so named after Article 419 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code, which relates to fraud. The intricacy and elaborateness of some of the schemes described in the book are admirable; on one hand, you want to say “if you put all that ingenuity into a legitimate occupation, what could you achieve?” but unfortunately the answer to that question is “almost certainly not multiple millions of dollars”, so it’s abundantly clear that crime does pay, much of the time.

Security here is tight at the best of times, but even more so with the recent Boko Haram escalations and the presidential elections coming up in February. I was supposed to be attending some training today, but shortly beforehand we were warned that a PDP rally was set to take place in the area where the training was to take place, and so we were advised not to go ahead. However a colleague was already at the training venue, and reported that our (gratifyingly keen) participants were already there, half an hour ahead of schedule, so my intrepid Nigerian colleagues decided to press on with the training, leaving me, as a conspicuous and potentially violence-attracting white person, back at the guesthouse. (Of course in the end everything was quiet and it turned out the rally had been postponed to Monday, which is when we would have postponed our training to, so it was a good thing we went ahead.)

Lockdown really isn’t so bad, though, some of the time.


Written by Jess

January 24, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘Fry’ in Dubai (rhyme unintentional)

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The book: Fry: A Memoir, Stephen Fry

The place: Dubai Mall

A day late and a dollar short: the photo above was taken last night while I was cowering in Caribou Coffee after complete sensory overload in Dubai Mall. I don’t know how people do it; I walked around for two hours without ever retracing my steps, went into a fugue state in Cos and then subsided, a trembling wreck, in Caribou Coffee, where I gorged on a succession of sugary comestibles and beverages until it was time to go to the airport for my (horrors) 2.45am flight to Nairobi.

And thus: back to Africa, after four weeks on the Arabian Peninsula. An intensive Arabic course is not much of a holiday, per se, but a change is as good as a rest &c. &c. and it was delightful to spend time in unfamiliar surroundings, doing something new and challenging for my brain. Even at the time and especially in hindsight, Oman feels semi-magical: mountains and forts and ruined watchtowers and souqs and very aesthetically pleasing traditional dress. I confess that it plays up to all my orientalist notions of Arabia, and in retrospect I wouldn’t be surprised to find I had invented it wholesale.


Diving the Daymaniyat Islands


Fishing nets near Sawadi


Muttrah Corniche


Fishing – or smuggling – boats, Khasab Harbour


Sunset over the Musandam Peninsula


From the road between Khasab and Ras al Khaimah

Written by Jess

January 19, 2015 at 6:59 pm

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Reading ‘The Arabian Nights’ in Ibri

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The book: The Arabian Nights, ed. Andrew Lang

The place: Ibri, Oman

Where better to finally get around to reading the Arabian Nights (Andrew Lang translation, I know, I know, but it was for cheap on Amazon – I shall (probably) buy myself one of the updated translations in hardcopy sometime) than on the actual Arabian peninsula? Well, Baghdad would be better, I suppose, as it features heavily in a number of the stories, but that’s presumably off-limits at the moment, at least for recreation. In any case I am deep in the maritime section at the moment, reading about the exploits of Sindbad, and he was supposedly from Sohar, just a couple of hours away from where I currently am.

(I am here to do an intensive Arabic course, by the way. It is very hard work but also very rewarding on the rare occasions I actually make a breakthrough and am able to string a semi-grammatical sentence together; it is disheartening, however, how much vocabulary I have had to relearn, as the various dialects with which I am familiar (primarily Sudanese and Egyptian) bear little relation to Modern Standard Arabic, much of the time.)

The weekend just past was a long one, for Moulid al Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet (PBUH). In 2006 I spent Moulid in Khartoum, where it is a very big deal indeed, and a Sudanese friend took me and J. around the various installations that had been set up by the different Sufi brotherhoods in the different parts of Khartoum – I’ve never experienced anything quite like it; basically like a funfair, with hundreds of different stalls and a similarly celebratory atmosphere, but instead of shooting galleries and coconut shies, there are groups of men chanting and dancing in the smoky night air. There is nothing like that in Oman, but at the very least Moulid gave us an extra day of weekend, which we used for an incredibly packed two-day excursion, to Muscat (to see the Grand Mosque) and Sur and Ras al Jinz to watch turtles lay their eggs on a moonlit beach, and then Wadi Bani Khaled where we scrambled through a cave to find hot springs and then swam in the warm water of the wadi – and then finally Sharqiya Sands. There wasn’t a place I visited that I wouldn’t have happily stayed for much, much longer, but Travel Rule of Thumb Number 1 (in my book, anyway): better to go for a short time than not to go at all. In any case, from a distance – whether in time or space – travel resolves itself to a collection of moments rather than a narrative, and to some extent it is immaterial whether the moment I remember, of diving through the pellucid waters of the wadi and then sculling on my back, looking up at the blue blue sky squeezed between the narrow walls of pale rock, was one minute out of thirty or out of three hundred. (Perhaps.)



Grand Mosque, Muscat



Sur, from the boatyards


Wadi Bani Khaled


Christmas tree, Sharqiyah Sands

Written by Jess

January 5, 2015 at 7:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘Narcopolis’ in Bahla

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The book: Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil

The place: Bahla, Oman

Everything I read about Bahla keeps making mysterious, veiled references about the city’s links to djinn and black magic, and yet, frustratingly, I cannot seem to find out anything much about it. Nor did I see a single djinn while there, though they are apparently very good at concealing themselves. An Egyptian friend told me once that if you ever see a person in a crowd, and when you look back they’ve vanished, it means that that person was a djinni – so possibly I am seeing them all the time; I’m just unaware of them.

My taxi driver for today was Ali, a very kind man in his fifties, in whose taxi I had engaged before I got close enough to see quite how alarmingly crossed his eyes were. I am not sure quite how much he could actually see; certainly not the various speed bumps, all of which we rocketed over at high speed, and at the end of the trip, when he programmed his number into my phone, he had to hold the screen only an inch or two from his eyes. However, who says you need good eyesight to drive well? Roads in Oman are generally long and straight and traffic is sparse, and Ali was nice enough that I will probably use his services again, provided we would be driving in daylight. Today’s trip took in Bahla and Jibrin, and then an unsuccessful attempt to visit the UNESCO-protected beehive tombs around the villages of Bat and al Ayn, which, unfortunately, no local seems to be able to locate. We spent nearly two hours bumping down back roads, asking various people for directions and being pointed this way and that with great certainty. I am fairly sure that we were in the general zone, and I may have even seen a tomb or two on top of a hillock, though from a distance they’re hard to distinguish from less intentional piles of rubble. In any case, it was a beautiful drive, through the sort of stark, mulicoloured mountains at which Oman excels – Jebel Misht (“Comb Mountain” – aptly named) was a particular highlight. Ali says he will ask around and perhaps we can try again to find them another day.

Narcopolis, rather unexpectedly, reminds me a lot of Teju Cole’s Open City (which I loved); it has the same dreamy, wandering quality to it, and is peopled with a similarly varied cast of characters, time wavering between the novel’s present and its past. It also makes me want to visit Bombay again (which I visited once, year ago, for a friend’s wedding, and did not spend nearly enough time there). Troublingly, the more I travel and the more I read, the longer my list of places to go and books to read become.


DjinniWatch 2015, Bahla


Jibrin Fort


A whole load of Oman looks a whole lot like this

Written by Jess

January 2, 2015 at 8:00 pm

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