St. Bride’s Church in London: a place to honor fallen journalists

St. Bride'sI am not a Christian. I have read the Bible twice and have attended the services of several denominations and remain unconvinced. Despite this, any time I’m in London I go to an old church off of Fleet Street to pay my respects.

Fleet Street used to be the center of London’s journalism industry and St. Bride’s was the journalists’ church. The newspapers have since moved away to less expensive neighborhoods but St. Bride’s still maintains its connections to the journalistic profession.

At this point I would usually launch into my historical song-and-dance and tell you how St. Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, how its steeple may have inspired the shape of wedding cakes, and how there’s a Roman building in the crypt. None of that makes me go there. I go there because to the left of the altar is a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A few candles illuminate photos and cards and a list of names. Yesterday two more names were added.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the house they were staying in got shelled. They were both seasoned war correspondents. Colvin had lost the use of an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001. Both knew the dangers and both went to Syria anyway.

I was familiar with their work because I’ve been watching the carnage in Syria closely. I spent a wonderful month there back in 1994 enjoying Arab hospitality and seeing the country’s many historic sights. I was there when the dictator’s heir apparent Bassel al-Assad died in a car crash and the nation pretended to mourn. His younger brother Bashar now rules Syria and is ruthlessly suppressing his local version of the Arab Spring.

When I visited Hama, I learned how the al-Assad family leveled the city to quash resistance there back in 1982. Once the fighting started in 2011, I feared Hama would be leveled again. I was right about the massacre and wrong about the city. It’s Homs this time, or at least it’s Homs for the moment. Syria’s dictatorship would level every city it owns in order to stay in power.I never had the honor to meet Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. From their work I bet they were like the war correspondents I actually have met, with a deep love of humanity and a firm commitment to the truth. It would be presumptuous of me to put my job on a level with theirs, but it has taught me the same valuable lesson–that the majority of people around the world are good. Lots of folks believe that, but I know it to be true. I’ve had it proven to me over and over again in places my friends think I’m crazy to visit. Somaliland. Kurdistan. Palestine. Iran.

And Syria. The fighting and oppression and state-sponsored terrorism that Colvin and Ochlik gave their lives to reveal to the world do not diminish my estimation of the Syrian people one iota. The majority of Syrians are good, just as the majority of all people are good. And if you disagree don’t argue with me, argue with Anne Frank, who wrote the same thing in her diary while hiding out from the Nazis.

The news is so often negative that it’s easy for us to develop a negative view of the world and its many peoples. It’s important to remember, though, that those who travel the world for a living don’t share that view. Their travels have taught them better.

So when I’m back in London next month, this agnostic is going to St. Bride’s Church, not for a dogma I don’t believe in, but for an idea I do.

Photo courtesy St. Bride’s.

Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

Syria
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

SyriaThe whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.

The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Leather Man, Leatherman, Old Leather Man, The Old Leather ManInvestigators in Connecticut are planning to uncover a local legend, but they’re facing a backlash of public sentiment.

An archaeological team will open the grave of The Old Leather Man, a mysterious wanderer who from 1883 to 1889 walked a 365 mile loop from the lower Hudson River Valley into Connecticut and back. It took him 34 days to make the journey and he was so punctual that well-wishers used to to have meals ready for him when he showed up. He spoke French but little English, slept only in caves and rock shelters, and never revealed information about himself. He got his name from his homemade, 60 lb. suit of leather.

His grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery brings a regular flow of the curious, but local officials are afraid it’s too close to the street and is a safety hazard. They plan to dig up The Old Leather Man and move him to a different part of the cemetery. They also want to take a DNA sample. Legend claims he was a heartbroken Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, but Leather Man biographer Dan W. DeLuca says this is an invention of a newspaper of the time.

The DNA might prove a clue to who he really was and that’s where the controversy starts. History teacher Don Johnson has set up a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone, saying that his privacy should be respected. Judging from all the comments on his site, he seems to have a fair amount of backing.

As a former archaeologist I love unraveling a good mystery but I have to agree with Mr. Johnson on this one. The Old Leather Man obviously wanted his identity to remain unknown, and just because he was a homeless man why should his wishes be ignored? He never committed any crime besides vagrancy, he died of natural causes, and there are no known inheritance issues, so what’s the need?

As a teenager growing up in the Hudson Valley, I loved the mysteries of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–the strange rock constructions, the Revolutionary War ghosts, Mystery Hill, and, of course, The Old Leather Man. Most of this is the stuff of imagination, but The Old Leather Man was real, living person.

And because of that, we should let his mystery remain buried.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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