Saturday, 11 April 2009

Its been reported back to me that some of "the brothers" are not happy with things I've said on this blog. It seems these criticisms fall into two arguments, firstly that I have fuelled pro-Zionist arguments against the convoy. Secondly that I have been disloyal to the convoy by criticising it.

I could only tell the story from my perspective as honestly as I could. A lot of the times it was being texted in the midst of crazy situations and extreme tiredness. I could have edited it in hindsight, but have chosen not to because for all its faults it is what happened to me and what it felt like at the time. The fact that some pro-Zionist websites have picked up on it and taken the piss and used some of my criticisms against the convoy to diss it, does not mean that I shouldn't have written them. Of course they're going to use anything at their disposal to rubbish our efforts and support their own view of the world. Why be surprised at that, or hurt by it, or angry and say that I have somehow, "given fuel to their fire"? Why should what they say concern you so much? Actually, some of their criticisms of my blog made me laugh at myself and fair play I deserved it. However, the fact that they reported on the convoy far more than the British media did shows that despite their ridicule they were challenged by what we did. They're paranoid, don't you be.

You may have "faith" in Allah, but please don't have "faith" in human organisations, or politicians, in the same way. I am not being disloyal to the convoy, George Galloway, the Respect party, or anyone else, by criticising, or even satirising what took place. On the contrary I am being democratic. It is not democratic to equate loyalty with silence, or obedience. That way lies madness and Stalinism. The paranoia that was whipped up on the convoy, and indeed looking back I became infected by it to some degree, is harmful and frankly absurd a lot of the time. I suppose I could edit it out now and make myself look better too, but no, that was how it felt at the time, wrongly as it happens, but the blog is a record of sorts and full of human error, yours as well as mine.

Similarly the paranoia of some Zionists who posted comments on my blog, or on pro-Zionist websites, should serve as an example of how not to be. We should be open in our debate and not simply write what we know other people want to hear so as to reinforce an exclusive view of humanity, history and belief. I think we all need to be prepared to make mistakes in trying to find a way forward and truly describe our experience of the world. I also think all parties would considerably advance the possibility of a resolution to the conflict if they admitted to their mistakes. Furthermore, I honestly cannot see how anyone can say they believe in anything without constantly asking themselves "why"?

If we start believing our own propaganda, such as some of the descriptions of events on the Viva Palestina website, then we're in danger of becoming wide-eyed evangelists who are easily manipulated by cynical politicians (I'm not saying that George Galloway is one, calm down, clam down). However, I've seen enough uncritical evangelists in far left parties to last me a lifetime (remember the WRP anyone?). Interestingly many of them had previously been Christian evangelists before swapping one set of Epistles for another; perhaps its something to do with men with beards, God v's Marx = Father Christmas. There is it seems a terribly human fallibility expressed as the need to "believe" that we should be wary of lest we find ourselves standing in straight lines obeying orders to create concentration camps. Stepping out of line becomes misconstrued as disloyalty because it "ruins morale". No doubt the Nazis sang morale boosting songs as they merrily marched to Auschwitz, no doubt the Israelis did as they bombed Gaza, or wrote "Gas the Arabs" on Palestinian homes.

Your religions demand an unquestioning faith in, even subservience and submission to, Allah, or God, however you wish to describe "Him". Frankly I find this terrifying and I cannot understand it. However, that aside, if you apply the same attitudes to political movements then you will end up with fascists (of Left or Right). They may start out claiming to be benign, or informed by a higher being, they may even convince you that you've no need of democracy because of this, but they'll end up cutting people's hands off, stoning women, denying the holocaust, calling themselves "the chosen people", or justifying the use of phosphorous in Gaza. They may wear jack-boots, beards, or suits and ties, but if we trust them we are fools. "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely". "Faith" becomes the last refuge of madmen and tyrants and it seems to me that we are unleashing them upon one another right now.

If there is no place for non-believers, or critics, on a Viva Palestina "humanitarian aid convoy", then say so clearly before I commit to the next one. But beware doing so; what was life affirming for me was that many Muslims on the last convoy were very glad that Non Muslims formed a significant part of it and that I was enabled to understand the Muslim religion a lot more. They and I don't think I have to "believe" in anything more than, "relieving suffering in the face of injustice", to go again. That desire alone was a shared, humane, impulse, that created understanding and respect despite our differing viewpoints and belief systems. If that sounds weakly liberal then you underestimate my willingness to fight for it.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

It seems as if some people who post comments on this blog, some elements of the media and certain governments confuse humanitarian aid with support for terrorism.

Delivering blankets, tents, food, medicine, toys, clothes, educational materials, sports equipment and sanitary goods to people besieged in the largest concentration camp in history is humanitarian.

Doing nothing and/or allowing people to be bombed, shelled, shot at on a daily basis,or standing by when land is illegally grabbed or polluted, water treatment plants are destroyed in order to encourage water born disease, cement plants are targeted so that people cannot rebuild their shattered homes, illegal weapons are used against civilian populations, ambulance crews are targeted as are the police in order to induce a breakdown in civil society... this is supporting terrorism.

Under international law people have a right to protect themselves and I wholeheartedly support that.

I do not support the indiscriminate use of violence against civilian populations by countries, groups, or individuals.

I do not support the discriminatory partition of human, civil and democratic rights within any state or group on the basis of race, class, creed, gender or sexuality.

I see no alternative to a peaceful co-existence between a state of Israel and an independent Palestine.

I do not support a strategy of utterly humiliating the Palestinians before negotiating with them to achieve that aim. (I also think such a strategy will never work and will never happen)

I hope that clarifies my current position. I remain open to argument.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

JR is a bear with giant's feet
His lip luscious smile
Can both ears meet
A heart so big
A river flows
That's why JR
Needs such big toes.
JR is a bear with a hairy chin
And a great big belly
To store food in.
This bear speaks with a Brummie hum,
Each sentence sounds
Like a question hung
In an air so warm
Good humour basks,
He'll scratch your back
If you were to ask.
JR is a cabbie in Oxford town
Who for a fee'll drive you around
At the end of the night
When there's no more lifts
This bad old bear
Rolls a big fat spliff.
JR is a bear who hugs his friends
His embrace can crush
But we soon mend
He means no harm,
Hates those who do
And they'll be kicked
By the bear's big shoe.

JR is a bear
With many loves,
His cubs, mummy bear
And great God above.
When other bears growl, scratch and fight,
Jr weeps into the night.
"The thing is, right"
Said the great big bear,
"There's wrong in the world and we have to care".
So he bade farewell to those he loves,
Placing his faith is great God above,
He strode into the big bad world
His pumping heart a flag unfurled
To Gaza and the poor bears there
His strength and love
With them to share.
Now I'm not sure if he hibernates,
But if he did
He'd invite his mates
For our JR is a bear who gives
And we all feel safe
That such bears live.
Gaza 2009 (After the battle of AlArish)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Going home

The time we had available in Gaza was too short. We had been delayed a day in Al Arish by the shenanigans of the Egyptians but even so, the fact that we were being rushed in and out by the convoy leadership warrents an explanation from them.

Due to the unvetted nature of the convoy personnel, (something that needs addressing on any future convoy), I can understand to some extent the fear the convoy leaders might have had that certain people could not be trusted to behave. We had after all witnessed many occasions where fights were picked with authorities who were actually just being a little over zealous in their attempts to help us. We had seen official photographers and journalists assaulted. We had seen ordinary people, such as toll booth collectors, verbally abused as if we had some rights over everyone else because...well why? Because we were a convoy? Because we were British? Because we were on a "humanitarian mission"? Nothing excuses that kind of ignorance. I think many of our hosts were shocked by the rudeness, complaints and posturing of some of our number. My image of the "Brit" abroad, is of a white guy with a pint of lager and an imperialist hangover. To see people of, say, Pakistani descent behaving with that despicable British arrogance was new to me. Actually I think it was new to most of the Muslim's on the convoy, who despaired of them and constantly apologised on their behalf. They are no more responsible for them, than I am for white people.

The fact that some people quickly established their credentials as "ignorant Brits abroad", perhaps encouraged a leadership culture which was exclusive, often remote, dismissive and aloof. I often felt as though we were children on a school trip who had no business knowing where we were going, when we were going, or when we might hope to arrive. The briefness of time in Gaza was simply exasperating. Naturally we had to attend civic functions, but in fact we were not given anything like enough time to interact with the Gazan people. I, in particular, was there to gather stories and I had precious little opportunity to do so. Therefore the next thing happened...

We were bussed to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt just two days after arriving. No one had explained to us how long we would have in Gaza, or what the opportunities would be for us to stay on. I was determined to stay and made frantic phone calls to do so. We were getting mixed messages. Apparently the government were very happy for us to stay, however the convoy leaders, or so we were told, encouraged the government to insist we all left. It felt as though, after four weeks of driving, we were being dumped by Viva Palestina at the first opportunity. This may be a completely wrong impression, but without any explanation from them such assumptions were rife.

At the Rafah crossing I turned back and walked through to the Gazan side saying that I wanted to stay. I was not alone, Rasser, Bro, Shac and Farouk, the Brummie boys we had met on the ferry to Tangier, also wanted to stay. John, too, flipped his decision and joined us. Confusion reigned, nothing new there then! Eventually a group of about 30 people, some of whom had not been on the convoy, but had joined us in Gaza were addressed by a very concerned British Consular official who begged us to leave. The convoy leadership similarly stressed that we could be trapped in Gaza for a month, or more, if Egypt decided to close the crossing again. Other concerns were more obviously that we might be killed. The Israelis were bombing and shelling as we were leaving. Perhaps they were literally "parting shots", but the idea that the "war" is over is entirely false, you are just not able to read about it, or see it on your televisions. Ask yourselves, why not? Then ask the newspapers and television companies. Another concern, and I really have no idea how true this is, is that gangs might kidnap us and hold us to ransom. I'm flattered, but I don't think they'd get much for me.

It was an excruciating decision. Everything except my common sense was staying "stay", "risk it", "they'll have to open the border again, there's too many of us not to". But head had to rule the heart. I was running out of money. I had to get home to pay my mortgage. These seem such pathetic concerns when Gazans have no homes at all. A compromise was reached whereby we could stay two more days and then be brought back to the crossing and hope the Egyptians would open the border. A gamble, but a good one. However, in reality that meant only one more day in Gaza and that was not enough for me to meet theatre and film workers, young people and to set up future contacts. It also it meant relying on the hospitality of the Gazans and they had done enough already. How could we take more food from people who had so little themselves. I will go back, but not as a burden.

We were a sorry sight dragging our bags back through the Egyptian side, defeated and demoralised. We got a taxi to Al Arish and drove past the fire engine and some Libyan trucks still in the compounds where the battle with the riot police and other more sinister men had taken place three nights previously. Kamal, the Aussie fire engine driver, had been refused entry to Gaza by the Egyptians because he hadn't a British passport, no one has heard from him since. We are all extremely concerned for his well being. Also Aki and Sid the two tyre repair men who were driving their equipement back have been stopped at the Tunisian border with Libya and we don't know how they are going to get home.

We, meanwhile, arrived in Cairo, booked into a hotel where we slept and dreamt like crazy (actually I have been ever since). Next day, making the most of the city, we hit a huge and ancient souk called something that sounded like Shamal Shiek and bought Palestinian scarves to take home to our supporters. To suddenly be tourists was very odd. No policemen following us everywhere we went "for our own security". It all felt frivolous and frivolous felt good. However, the strains of holding our relationships together had now lost their reason and it was time to part.

Catching a plane home we met up with some other convoy members which was lovely, two older women and their son and daughter. When we arrived at Heathrow they were welcomed by their extended families with two banners, "Welcome home our hero Mum" and "Welcome home our hero sister". It was very touching to see such love and pride in their achievements.

Coming home is always strange, but after such a relentless mission, with so little sleep, perhaps the disorientation is even greater. Mind you somethings don't change, my son Tom had had a few parties whilst I was away and had made his usual cursory attempt to clean it up. I unpacked a beautiful gift for him, but he's got his eye on my Palestinian football shirt. I had a feeling I wouldn't have that for long! Being plunged back into cleaning the house, doing laundry and discovering that the bank had bounced my mortgage payment further dulls the senses. "The Convoy Blues, people are calling it. Perhaps I should write a song.

What are we all missing? Dangerous driving, certainly, long hours, little food, endless bread and biscuits, revolting toilets, multicoloured police and security staff, plain clothes men who have perfected the art of sidling silently to eavesdrop on conversions, rows, rumours and diesel fumes, all gone.

But I suspect we are also missing a purpose, an objective, a shared direction, which by following we could become a community. Perhaps we are missing each other, such different people from such different cultures and classes, religions, faiths and interpretations of the meaning, if any, of our being here. Perhaps we are missing the feeling that we can actually change things and make a difference in the world, that politics are ours, in our hands and not in those of grey, baying careerists in Parliament. For four weeks we were free of our jobs, or lack of them, bills, supermarkets, relationships, or lack of them. Free to pursue the agenda of bringing relief to the besieged people of Gaza. Free also to pursue our own agendas, our very personal and individual needs to do this and risk our lives. In so doing perhaps we felt more alive again. Perhaps we all need to drag ourselves out of the numbing, anesthetic, complacency of comfortable Western lives and pitch ourselves into someone else's reality.

The Aztecs believed in the duality of all things, in a Nature formed and governed by the dialectical interaction of opposites, day and night, fire and water, earth and sky, love and hate. Beneath the sun and moon we have travelled, friend and foe, from the richness of one life to the poverty of another, beneath a Union Jack, which has long signalled oppression, but now became a symbol of our solidarity with resistance. As we moved closer, we were only nearing our return. And now home we are somehow still far away, in Gaza.

Until such time as the people of Palestine can live without threat to their lives and land, we convoy members will always be in Gaza. Until that time perhaps we can begin to make that journey again, only this time make it fit for the purpose. I would love to take a delegation of artists, writers, dancers, storytellers, drama teachers and youth workers to Gaza, to work with traumatised children, some of whom were buried alive with their dead parents, who have yet to speak again. Perhaps we can help their voices rise, their stories unfold, their emotions find a route, their intelligence illuminate our fusty assumptions. Perhaps too, we can create a piece of theatre with them and bring it home with us so that those unable to make that journey can sense their reality as we have done. The elite who have so shamelessly buried the story of the convoy just as they allowed the Israelis to ban journalists during the war, cannot stop the truth when it comes from those young people's mouths, minds, hearts and bodies. It seems like a long, long, journey to make such a thing happen, but if you are interested in making it happen then the journey becomes shorter. I have contacts in Gaza who will help us. All we need is the will to raise the money, to make politics ours again, to make a change, to live freely again, to take risks and reap the reward of feeling a little more alive than maybe we have for a very long time. That's not a bad objective when faced with so much death.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Gaza at last!

We finally set off next day for Gaza after an inspection by Egyptian officials of our cargo of aid. We told them we were carrying hypothermia blankets. Everything has to have a medical purpose, so we’ve saws for amputations rather than house building, maternity clothes, even a wind up torch became a pacemaker. Anything they did unload was spirited away and put back onto a van that had been cleared.
To be fair to the Egyptians, one or two were deeply compromised by what their government was asking them to do. However, we put cameras in the faces of the fascists and asked them what they thought about denying Palestinians humanitarian aid? I told them that if Egypt suffered a catastrophe the British would be amongst the first to help, so why not help the people of Gaza? The cruelty of some Egyptians was unbelievable. Their fear of their own population is entirely justified, they will be strung from lampposts unless they allow real democracy. The USA subsidises their military to the tune of £2 billion dollars a year. Shame on them! The loss to Gaza from the recent invasion is nearly £3 billion, every bomb and bullet blessed by our own government. Shame on us!
The last 40kms seemed to take forever. Would they stop us again, set the riot police on us on a quiet stretch of road, stone us as we passed? Despite the presence of the riot police they kept them at the roadside, observing but not interfering. Many of us had offered them food and water, something their own officers seemed incapable of providing. One young guard was offered food and shared it secretly with his mate. After the meal the man who had cooked them food wanted to hug the poor, skinny lads and so did. As he tried to pull away the young riot policeman pulled him close, sobbing his eyes out and apologising for having to do what he’d been ordered to do to us. Seeing them again today their willingness to obey orders would have been sorely tested.
We crossed into no-man’s land where we could hear, but not see, the people of Gaza waiting to greet us. Singing, car horns blaring, we hooted back as we waited for the convoy to be cleared through.
Some people had turned up on foot from Cairo, some had raised thousands of pounds back home and although they couldn’t be on the convoy deserved to be there, however some were just gobby convoy tourists who were blagging lifts and wanting to be a part of something they had no idea about. We have travelled nearly 6,000 miles in 25 days with less sleep than a teenage Raver. We have been force driven 18 hours a day, through the night, crossed two seas, mountains, deserts, pseudo democratic regimes have lied, cheated, bullied, injured, stolen from and attacked us. We have opened a border than had been closed for 17 years, persuaded governments that they would be exposed as hypocrites to their own people if they didn’t help us to help the Palestinians. We have been watched every step of the way and been largely ignored by a world wide media strongly beholden to Zionist owners. We, this disparate, crazily thrown together ensemble of the respectable, the rebel and the social misfit, have gelled in the face of the challenges we’ve faced but none more so than when brutally attacked by the Egyptian security forces.
Despite it all it has been the people of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt who have cheered us on in their tens of thousands who have sustained and inspired us. The truckers, road workers, shopkeepers and shoppers, the petrol station owners who gave us free fuel, the mechanics who refused money for fixing our truck, the people who offered us beds and their food, the children who chanted “Allah Akhbar” - God is great - when they saw us bringing aid to the besieged, bombed and orphaned children of Gaza. It was the women trilling their tongues with joy and offering up their children to be kissed. It was also the dignitaries, politicians, bureaucrats who showed genuine care and assistance. Also the Police who told us how much they supported what we were doing and truly helped and made friends with us. They wanted to be doing what we were doing but their own governments would not allow it. We have exploited our British passports, our expectation that we would be treated with dignity and that there would be consequences if not. We have shown courage but we have been enabled to by our British freedoms. Let us be aware of how lucky we are and how complacency is our biggest enemy. Our freedom and the remarkable people we have met have combined to drive us on.
Now a few hundred yards away stand the people of Gaza. People are congratulating one another for making it. The spirit of the convoy we have wanted from day one is now manifest. Its beautiful. This is what struggle reaps. This is what revolution feels like.
We have now crossed into Gaza where garlands of carnations and petals were thrown across our vehicles and through our windows by the hundreds gathered at the Rafah crossing. Immediately we saw homes collapsed by missiles fired from F16 Israeli fighter planes. A brief formal welcome gave way to the drive to Gaza City. 25kms of crowds waving, even in the rural areas villagers and farmers lined the route. It was deeply moving to see such happiness. We have relieved three years of isolation.
Three years where the Israelis, with our backing, have slaughtered innocents, poisoned farm land with chemicals, bombed hospitals, red cross, schools, water treatment plants and mosques with illegal weapons and been able to do so with impunity. If the people of Gaza thought that no one cared that the ethnic cleansing, nay, genocide of the Palestinians was happening and no one cared, then the convoy was destroying that idea. That’s how powerful a symbol of solidarity we were. Not charity, solidarity, there is a difference. We came to stand should to shoulder, not to patronise, to learn not to lecture, we came in humility before people who have suffered so much. Well…most of us did.
Immediately we could tell the difference in atmosphere, soldiers laughed at us as we screamed and shouted with joy, they welcomed us and shook our hands and by God these were tough looking men. They all knew that we had fought back against the Egyptian police and I think this helped earn their respect.
In Gaza City the crowds grew dense and vocal until we reached a huge parade ground in the city centre where we all parked up and were welcomed by thousands of well wishers who spoke remarkably good English. So ok, discovery number one, the Palestinians are very well educated and place great emphasis upon it. We went to a Mosque to hear some more speeches, God preserve us! What makes them worse is that they love having lots of echo on the mics so that the Iman singing the Koran has this effect of echoing across the city. Great for Imans, shit when you are trying to hear instructions about where you’re staying tonight. We ended up in a swimming pool.
Well, yeah, more speeches as we sat around the pool and at indiscriminate intervals fountains sprang to life and woke John up. We were then given the best food of the whole journey. Discovery 2. The Palestinians love their food and have the best cooking skills in North Africa. Discovery 3. Their hospitality know no bounds and is, I think, part of the resistance because it is a desire to make life go on, to show that they are not victims but people with culture and dignity.

Whilst we ate, mattresses were laid side by side on the floor, we looked on with silent groans. Others in the convoy were in hotels, others in apartments, we it appeared had drawn the short straw. The Egyptians had only allowed us about two hours sleep the night before and the thoughts of sleeping next to a load of snoring, farting men was not appealing. However, always the resourceful duo, I had noticed some men disappearing under some stairs and so followed and lo! The angels did smile upon us! For we had found the promised land! The massage room and three massage beds, one each and one for the next smartest guy who has learnt by now to watch and follow us.
The next morning I rolled off the bed and into the pool, heaven. We were fed a beautiful poolside breakfast of fresh mountains of feta, beautiful pastries, olives and jam. The food and the camaraderie made this place a palace and the only place to be, right here, right now, or for that matter at any time or place on earth.
We were driven back to the vehicles where a formal handover took place.
We were saying goodbye to our truck, donated by Rockwell Water, filled with articles of compassion by Welsh and Irish people, fuelled by them too so that she could be driven here. She has been a home, a frustration, a symbol, a trusty friend, a kitchen, a meeting place, a bar for the non believers; fun and fear have followed her all the way and sometimes pushed in front of her, why we have even slept with her, both at the same time actually. Now we packed our bags and left her full of memories and achievements, filled with love from hundreds of you. We have been through so much together, sometimes we nursed her, sometimes I think she nursed us. Of course we wept! What else would we do! It was a release of determination, a realisation that we had done what we set out to do, four long weeks ago.
I walked around carrying the Welsh flag I had cut down from the truck. People came up wanting to know what it meant and where it was from. Discovery 4. Unlike most North Africans the Gazans know where Wales is. We can work with these people!
From there we were driven to some of the most devastated areas. Let’s preface this by saying that nothing I saw on our TVs comes close to what we saw. Countless houses, whole streets in fact, blown up, collapsed, warping and contorted like strange dead beasts and there in amongst collapsed floors, amongst the rubble and dust, beneath tarpaulins, strung across pillars that once supported floors, sat people, children, bewildered by our presence, there they lived, orphans maybe, people cooking food for families now depleted. We moved on to a camp of tents regimentally in line. These had arrived this week. The Egyptians had refused to let them across the border for six weeks. To the coast where people are terrified to sit on a beach since a family were shelled and killed as they had a picnic. The waters now polluted, the fishermen murdered and boats sunk. On to the farms where tens of thousands of olive trees have been bulldozed and the land poisoned and now called a buffer zone. All the time the land is shrinking away from the Palestinians, Yard by yard the Israelis expand. The “chosen people”, denying their own teachings and committing the greatest act of genocide in our part of the world since world war 2. The orthodox Jew who shot two children dead as he casually ate chocolate and as they came from their house with their hands in the air. He didn’t kill the parents, better to watch them suffer their loss. The deliberate and illegal use of phosphorus still burning two months later. The stench of rotting flesh. The deliberate targeting of medical workers. The calculated destruction of the infrastructure. The destruction of factories producing building materials. The destruction of any means they might have of earning and exporting. This is genocide. Simply put, what I now know with my own senses and intelligence, is that the Israelis want every inch of this land for themselves and they will not stop until they are stopped.
Just to prove a point, 10mins after we left the area they shelled a police station killing two. It is illegal to kill policemen as they are considered civilians. Do the Israelis care? No, because no one tells the real story and we aren’t putting enough pressure on our government to stop them.
I tell everyone that friends of mine who are Jews gave generously and they understood the difference between being Jewish and Zionist. The people of Gaza remain remarkably rational despite such pain and turmoil. Do they have the right to defend themselves? You decide.
We sat in silence for hours. Perhaps each one of us was saying to themselves, “ We must come back. This must not stop here. What we’ve done is just the beginning.”
We defeated Fascism, Stalinism, Apartheid, can we defeat Zionism?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Walid’s in Tipaza

Last night I met Walid Hadid
In Tipaza, west of Algers,
A coastal town of crags and cafes
Where snaking streets
Sneak and stumble
And concealed in flowerless shadows
Green uniforms bloom
With gleaming rifle butts.

Last night Walid said,
In an Arabic/Valleys twang,
That he lived in Caerphilly
With his wife and two kids.
A town of
Snaking streets
Topped by a castle,
And a light sprinkling of coal dust,
Blown across memories.

Walid remembers Louisa
His wife whose plea is pulled
From the hearts of her children
To reach across a sea of skin
And culture
To her Walid
Now stranded on a distant shore.

Someone, somewhere
Ticks papers
With aplomb.
A swordsman with a pen
Slashes and cuts
Stabs and divines
Before going home for tea.
Two children now fatherless,
Two lovers bereft.
Two sugars and the brew is stirred.

Now I carry from Tipaza
To Caerphilly
Three pens,
Gifts for Louisa and the kids.
When they touch them
They will know Walid
Has touched them too.
Skin to skin.

When they write to their daddy,
When she leans across the cold pillow
To write at night,
When all but her sleep fast
But furrowed,
Her home office
Reunites them
Beyond sea,
Beyond faiths,
Beyond skin.

They'll be a welcome in the hillsides?

Greg Cullen 1st March 2009 (St David’s day)

Let our journey be fit for the purpose

We are going to Gaza
Where rubble smells of flesh
And broken toys
Simmer in the phosphorescence
Of lives denied.

We are going to Gaza
To cross borders
Lift blockades
Step across boundaries.

We are travelling to Gaza
On will and wheels.
A demonstration
Of material love
Of spiritual substance
Each one of us
An humanitarian aide.

We are a convoy to Gaza
Where streets of lives
And stories
Lay buried beneath
Haphazard bricks
Struggling to recall
The homes they all once were.

We aim to show to Gaza
That what they say
We hear,
That what they show
We see,
That what we touch
Is theirs,
That what we feel
Is for them.

So my sister
And my brother too
Make our journey fit for the purpose;
Cross borders,
Lift blockades,
Step across our boundaries,
Be each unto another an humanitarian aide…

Or else be a hypocrite
And leave our vehicles
Dreaming of being a convoy,
Longing to be a line
Straight as an arrow
Drawn to fire at the
Heart of injustice.
Silence your buzzing hives
And you skulduggers
Put away your knives.

We are driving through deserts to Gaza,
Beware the mirage
Of our own glory,
Humility evaporating as we crawl
Thirsty for our own fulfilment.
For then not even the tears of Gaza
Will quench our deluded thirst
Nor wash the dust of shame from our souls.

As we plough on to Gaza,
To the tank tracked farms of Palestine
Pray we deserve to plant a seed.
Convey on tyres hot with intention
The mortar of solidarity
To bind again bewildered bricks.
May our blankets wrap parents
In the knowledge they are not alone,
Our toys tickle the
Imaginations of children,
Their thwarted potential released by love.
Let our stories shine
Like headlights in this long dark night.
Our hands strong upon the wheel of our destiny.
Our labour earn the reward
Of the right to give.

Drive on! Drive on!
With discipline to match our enemies
Drive on!
Deliver hope where they bring destruction.
Drive on!
Hide nothing and expose their secrets
Drive on
So we may journey to a new world
Drive on!
Never leaving behind the weak and slow
Drive on!
Make our journey fit for the purpose
Drive on! Drive on!
To Gaza!

Greg Cullen
1st March 2009

Happy St David’s day!

Yesterday, after waving goodbye to the lowloader that had ferried us to the border, we limped 80kms to a scout camp relieved that our front wheel didn’t fall off.
During the journey we were discussing the formal farewell from the Tunisian Government who had enlisted a crowd of school boys to wave banners depicting their president. We were reacquainted with some of the secret service men who had detained us at the roadside the previous day, including one who had tried to pass himself off as a local who just happened to be in the middle of nowhere. The sinister one we called camel coat because well…he wore a camel coat, 1980’s stylee, (shoulders to die for) was nowhere to be seen. Probably just as well because he had to spend the night in his car watching us and was not well pleased, in fact he called us bastards in Arabic. Unfortunately an extremely charming officer who called himself Silver wasn’t there. I say this because he was pure class. He told us he was a farmer, was merely there to translate, and grew oranges from his heart. A strange metaphor that would please neither vegetarian nor carnivore. The journalist, Yvonne Ridley, an ex-editor of Wales on Sunday, now a convert to Islam and a TV reporter for Press TV (check it on the internet) asked to see Silver’s hands and upon inspection of them told him he’d never done a day’s work in his life and that if he was a farmer, she was the Queen of England. Given her strong Geordie accent and warrior woman like magisterial countenance, one could believe her to be a descendant of Viking royalty but hardly a Saxe-Coburg. Silver got into a plush police 4X4 as we were leaving. John asked him how come a farmer was driving a police car? He replied that he had stolen it. Now its can’t be that they genuinely believe we are that stupid, so it must just be a tactic, an unsettling of our sense of the rational, to say such ludicrous things.

On the Libyan side of the border a formal welcome by a Dr Yusseff seemed to us inflammatory. He referred to us being Mujahadeen on a Jihad. This pleased the minority of vocal young men, whose presence seems to dominate the convoy whenever we have formal engagements, or enter a town. Apparently though the context in which he was using those words was not apparent to we who have only one interpretation of them, one mediated by the “war against terror” terminology. Jihad, is not simply “A holy war”, as we might perceive it but has many meanings. It could be an internal struggle towards enlightenment, or in this case the struggle to reach Gaza. He refers to us as warriors for good and truth, not for an Islamic Revolution. However we are not alone in becoming increasingly frustrated by the hijacking of the convoy by those who seem to have that agenda.

Whilst passing through a town people crowded across the street to greet us and children handed roses up to our cabs. Some very splendidly dressed horsemen lined the route as the convoy leader Sabah, a strong, articulate, diplomat, with a fierce temper equal to his passion for the Palestinian cause, accepted a bouquet of flowers. John and I were a few vehicles behind Sabah as he pulled away to continue our journey. Suddenly three of our vans tried to overtake our near stationary truck forcing the crowd to spill back onto the pavement in disarray. The final van, in a kamikaze manoeuvre, scraped our wing mirror down the side of his van. John got out to ask what the hell he thought he was doing, in response the driver threatened to physically attack John him in front for our bewildered hosts. Meanwhile, behind us another vehicle cut in front for the fire truck and took their wing mirror with them, this also caused a near punch up. It was embarrassing to say the least. The guy apologised later, but it goes to show how some people behave. Tiredness and hunger are not an excuse. Sometimes its more like the Gumball rally to Gaza. Anyone one of us accepts that we might take a bullet from a trigger happy Israeli soldier, but to be killed on the road but some nutter from our supposedly humanitarian convoy, is not on my list of meaningful ways to throw off this mortal coil.

Why people have to be at the front of the convoy is beyond me as we will all arrive in Gaza together at the same time. Or will we? Rumours are part and parcel of the convoy and travel up and down expanding and contracting along the way. One that reached us last night is that some militants, or perhaps malcontents is a better description, are planning to break away once inside Egypt. Once again it seems that people’s agendas threaten to overwhelm to primary purpose of delivering humanitarian aid.

After the humiliating threats of violence in front of people who have come to welcome us, John and I seriously thought about jacking it in. We are not alone is becoming increasingly alienated from the way the convoy is being presented as we enter towns , or attend official functions. We are not a Muslim convoy and certainly not about making a literal holy war. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, Christians and non believers share the humanitarian purpose and value of finding out about each other, we laugh, cry, wind each other up, share food and phone chargers, hugs and stories. We are at times astonished by the pure bad manners and downright ignorance of a minority who seem incapable of unity. Are they the cultural victims of the disintegration of shared values in British society?

Some say the younger lads have found an identity through Islam which has saved them from a life of crime. I have written earlier about the schooling of these young men into a literal, arrogant belief that theirs is the only possible interpretation of not only our possible purpose on earth, but of the Koran. Yet their lack of a broader education and context within which their religion can make sense and find a contemporary application makes them arrogant. In any walk of life, arrogance and ignorance are a lethal combination. The humility the Koran teaches is merely an affectation to them. They seem to wear their religion on the cocks and not in their hearts. I see no difference between them and angry young men of any persuasion. In fact they behave like lager louts minus the lager. Their adoption of undemocratic, non-consensual leadership, their acceptance of Sharia Law’s more extreme “deterrents”, such as stoning adulterous women to death makes them fascist in my eyes, and I am not prepared to be a part of a fascist convoy to anywhere but hell. The leadership must address this issue, or else they will become the public face of the convoy. As one of them said, “George Galloway has used us in the past, now we are using him”

The Libyans have showed great generosity and a warm welcome with food, free fuel and one hundred massive trucks full of aid which have now joined the convoy. Yet still the proto-militants moan about having to wait for food, and rudely refuse the hospitality of hotel accommodation. Paranoiac imaginings that we are prisoners rather than guests are rife. Yesterday when we had to have the wheel hub replaced the Libyans could not have done more for us and were gracious beyond call. Wonderful people.

Wed 4th Day 20

Yup, Day 20 of a 16 day trip!

We have been out of phone contact whilst in Libya so this is a rapid whiz through an extraordinary few days. Having got the truck back on the road, or so we thought, we drove hard to catch up with the convoy in Mistrata. Again arriving too late for the rally featuring “gorgeous” George Galloway. Press TV have decided to feature John and I in their documentary of the convoy and Yvonne, Omad and Hussan have become great travelling companions. They filmed us as the convoy appeared on buses after a tour laid on by the Libyans. Once again some people embarrassed us by shouting at the Libyans who wanted the convoy to move 3kms down the road to what turned out to be a very nice beach resort with chalets. They wanted to stay instead in a car park in their vans. Partly they suspect any authority after the disastrous drive to Fez in Morocco when we were told we were driving 30mins and ended up driving nearly all night. A policeman died that night. Something we can expect at every turn due to the crazy driving of some.
John did an interview which some of the “brothers” looked unhappy about. Fair play to Yvonne and her team who are single-handedly trying to show the convoy in its true diversity. We decided to go with Press TV to an hotel rather than suffer the intensity of convoy relationships for another night and what a good decision it turned out to be.
1. We were able to have our entire range of, mud, rust, oil and sweat stained clothes, of now indeterminate colour, dry cleaned in two hours!
2. We slept for more than four hours!
3. We had an excuse, Press TV wanted to do a live broadcast with me next day!
4. John and I, who have missed every other opportunity either because we always arrive later than everyone else because of organising the convoy in the mornings, or because of our mechanical trouble, went shopping! Yes shopping! In a real live Souk! This was one of the only opportunities where we haven’t been corralled by police into virtual prisons “for our own security”, or driving past, or around towns and cities. We’ve hardly had the chance to interact with people, so this was a joy.
We bought identical clothes a la Tripoli stylee, which consist of two layers of flowing gowns and little Fez style hats with tassles. We have been practicing the sand dance at every opportunity. God knows when I’ll ever wear them, or really what they look like on, as the stall holder only had a mirror a budgie would have trouble seeing itself in. But hey, next vicars and tarts party, I’ll come as Colonel Gadaffi, in fact I’ll be Colonel Gadaffi at every fancy dress party from now on including when I have to pretend to be Father Christmas.
Press TV were meanwhile sleeping late, in fact so late the hotel made them pay for two days. We thought the convoy would have left about 8am but as we drove to the coast to do the live interview with me, as convoy “artist in residence (what a laugh), they passed us going in the opposite direction at about 4pm. They had been rallied to their vehicles at 6.30 am and had sat in them all day going nowhere. My God, we were so lucky not to have been there. The frustration must have been appalling.
So we turn up to shoot the broadcast only to find Grant and Lyndsey, two convoy organisers, looking haggard and stressed with two broken down vehicles. We soon had them laughing with our purchases, I cooked them a meal and did the broadcast in my ridiculous outfit, with Yvonne trying to keep a straight face.
We then set off to catch the convoy and made great time, so great in fact that we somehow managed to overtake them by 70kms. John and I pitched up for the night by a service station and a grungy café that sold rolls filled with what could have been onions, snails, mushrooms, or aubergine, we couldn’t decide which. It also had an exemplary collection of winged insects both dead, alive and preserved in the food.
Come morning I boiled water and shaved from the back of the truck to the passing mystification of the locals and passing truckers. I however felt human after a restless sleep with us both in the cab. As the convoy arrived we could tell tempers were frayed and so it proved to be. By mid morning one of the Bradford vans had run off the road and turned over. It literally was an accident waiting to happen. It was one of the three vans who tried to run us off the road during the civic reception. Regardless we are now carrying most of their cargo too and this means even more weight on our increasingly fragile truck. When Hussan from Press TV filmed their trashed van being taken across the road one of the drivers threatened him. Hussan is a skinny 5ft 8in in his high heels and utterly charming and funny. The fact that these lads try to pretend its because they don’t want their faces shown for fear of police back home, or parents worrying struck a few people as dubious, it was suggested they were just embarrassed that their driving had finally and irrefutably been exposed as lethal.
So our journey began into the harsh desert, where dead camels and cars pop up in an otherwise beautifully stark flat landscape. We were under strict instructions not to overtake one another and at first it worked, until the usual suspects began to push their way to the front and by the time we pulled over, half way across the desert, discipline had broken down completely and fights were breaking out. That’s right, fights and not for the first time. This humanitarian convoy was being overrun by crass, stupid thugs who left the overwhelming majority wanting to finally take matters into their own hands.
A meeting was called beneath stars the like of which I can only recall seeing in Angola or the west coast of Ireland. An Iman from Birminham, a charismatic scholar and articulate soulful man called the Muslims to task. In a long address peppered with stories from the Koran he gave metaphorical examples of why their behaviour thus far was not only shameful, but inhuman. He also addressed the issue of attitudes to non-Muslims, in particular the leadership, which was long overdue. However, we non-Muslims were not invited to speak and that left us feeling alienated from the convoy. John lost his rag, which resulted in him being threatened by one “brother” who had moments earlier promised to end hostile behaviour. I meanwhile cooked a Spaghetti Bolognese which was woofed down by the mixed crowd of friends we have made. Great people. I slept in the cab, whilst John made a bed in the back with all the blankets we had inherited from the crashed Bradford van.
Allah has tested us at every turn, or if like me you’re a non-believer, then it was crap mechanics. The wheel hub and baring we had replaced the day before, has gone again and as I write I don’t know if its been fixed. We had to risk limping across the desert with the front wheel hanging on by a thread, however that was not to be our only problem, we had a blow-out! Thankfully we were travelling with the fire truck and other vehicles comprised of really great people. Two tyre men, Aki, a ferocious kick boxing champion, the size of a jockey and Sid, a handsome champion tyre fitter, who together run a charity in Bradford which has sent a huge truck full of aid to Gaza and well as providing “Convoy Support” arrived to help us out. Aki is as excitable and ready to temper as Sid is cool and a smooth. Aki is the extrovert Sid the more reserved character, but I suspect there is more to him as Aki’s parents tried to stop them being mates when they were much younger because Sid “was a bad influence”. Its always the quiet ones you’ve got to look out for. Both of them are very funny and both of them ran away to join the convoy leaving work and even a new business venture to when they get home. Both are Pakistani Muslims brought up in Britain.
We currently holed up in a service station near the Egyptian border, surrounded by police who won’t let anyone leave. However being expert blaggers, we have managed to sneak away to Tobruk with marvellous man called Abdullah, who is the head of the Libyan Chamber of Commerce. He has a white beard, black traditional tasselled hat and an elegant floor length black gown. He persuaded our police escort to take us to by spare parts for the truck. In fact we bought a windsceen wiper knowing it was completely the wrong size purely so we could get to an internet café.
So tomorrow we cross the border and the last 1200 kms to Rafah and the people of Gaza. The driving today was sane and disciplined and we have been promised a meeting tomorrow where non-Muslims will also be invited to have their say. Bad drivers will now have their car keys taken away and I can’t wait for that to happen. Again, long overdue. Last night about 10pm a Libyan journalist died in a crash and two of her colleagues are in a critical condition. Two deaths on the road so far. Neither caused directly by us, but we are all wondering, how come?
Still unable to get an internet connection! We are now in Egypt! We awoke at the service station to a roaring sand storm that had soon found its way into every orifice. We made our way to the border, which seemed to pass through without a hitch. Processing what is now a 200 strong convoy takes ages, but both sides seemed relatively prepared, which means it took all day.
We drove under a very heavy police escort, along suspiciously empty roads to a plush looking building, which turned out to be a glorified officer’s mess, a sort of hotel exclusively for their use. Not much use to us was the fact that it was 2am, we had been on the road without food from 6am and all there was on offer was a little chubby woman in a headscarf handing out boxes with, I swear to God, dry sandwiches with reconstituted ham in them. Perhaps it was her fearful smile that gave it away. The Muslim brotherhood, were hungry, tired, pissed off with disinformation and by now aware that four of the convoy, all good guys, had been turned back at the border and not one of the convoy leaders had stayed behind to help them out. The chubby lady’s claim that it was turkey was the final straw, that and the fact that when we tried to go to a restaurant thousands of police and young soldiers ringed the compound with large plastic truncheons, rifles and submachine guns. This, it was explained, was for our security. I have never felt so secure in all life. In fact with unemployment numbers rising in the UK perhaps the government should consider following the example of these other pro American governments and make the population feel really, really, secure, say by having not one bobby, but ten on every street corner. What a happy, well cared for bunch we would be! And how much more human than CCTV.
Our blagging skills were sorely tested but we managed to get the head of security to send for a take away for Aki, Sid, John and myself. We are beginning to attract the bemused wonderment of other convoy members for our apparent ability to find hotles when others sleep rough, spare parts, low loaders, shopping trips, press interviews and hot food. Much more of this and they’ll start accusing us of being Mossad agents supplied by Israeli air drops.
Just as we were finishing our meal, about 3.30am about 50 of the convoy arrived having stayed at the border in solidarity with the four detainees. Fireman Sam, a huge Aussie, Arabic speaker of Palestinian descent (so called because he is one of the Fire engine drivers -John has nick names for everyone) had tried to translate and act on the boys behalf, but the Egyptians were having none of it. They arrived furious with the leadership who were nowhere to be seen.

Sunday 8th

This may be out of sequence because of technical problems this end. I have to write quickly because we may have to move at any moment. Sound like a drama queen? Not so.

We were force driven across Egypt with long stretches of the roads lined with police and miltary spread out at 100yd intervals. They turned their backs on us as if afraid we might see their faces. This led to some rather oddimages such as policemen staring intently at bushes, or brick walls. Now I'm sure neither are likely to attack us, so what on earth was going through their officers minds?

We have been staying at secure hotels sites where thousands of policve surround us. However we did sneak out last night for a meal, claiming we had left our bags on the truck. We awoke this morning to discover that the blocks we were in had no running water. Now I'm not nice at the best of times, even worse in the mornings and positively homocidal if I don't have a shower. Screaming blue murder I terrified my way into anoter vlock with i found a shower that not so much showered but peed on me. But hey, it was wet. I woke up, and was really quite pleasant until it all went horribly wrong.

We are at El Alarish 40kms from the Rafah crossing into Gaza. Spirits were high this morning thinking we would be there by lunch time and knowing that crowds were waiting for us. We also felt sad that this was the end of an amazing, testing, exhausting journey where we had all learned so much.

George Galloway and others shared a stage with Egyptian officials this morning and they all flattered one another, I don't doubt. Meanwhile John and I arranged for a CAT bulldozer to pull us out of deep sand in a "car park", we had been directed into the previous night. The flattery did no good.

In the afternoon we were fenced in by police who told the organisers we had to move to the crossing in groups of 5 vehicles. The organisers refused this request because of fears for our safety and the possibility that we could be picked off and refused entry. Apparently the local government decided that they would only let 25 vehicles a day through the crossing, meaning up to 8 days delay for the last vehicles. Again the convoy leaders refused. As we understood it the Egyptian government had given permission for the entire convoy to travel together, perhaps local officials had other ideas. Perhaps what was happening was a deliberate attempt to provoke a response. We were instructd by our leaders to remove the blockades and to drive to Gaza. This provoked a physical confrontation. Riot police were deployed against us as the vehicles started leaving the car parks. These police carry large cane sticks to whip you with and rubber truncheons that split your skin and leave large whelts. Tempers flared on both sides as we each sought to protect our comrades from the other side. The mini riot was frightening and at times vicious. Two of the convoy were sent to hospital with others refusing to go. The Sheikh, an Iman from, Birmingham who has become a spiritual leader and more for the Muslim contingent, tried to calm the men down and form a sit down protest. A lot of talking was done and eventually the convoy halted half in, half out of the car parks and there we remain, surrounded by riot police. The majority of the riot squads look like frigtened conscripts, working class boys with no choices, who in all probability sympathise with us, but their officers drive them on. When they re attacking you, you don't have the chance to talk class politics, never mind find enough translators.

The car parks are well lit. Tonight they switched the lights off in one car park and suddenly a mob appeared and stoned the convoy, the police stood by and let them do it.

We are being told that we will only be let through with vehicles carrying medical aid. That all other vehicles must be handed over to Egyptian authorities and driven through Israel and through their checkpoints into Gaza. We will be allowed into Gaza on foot. Clearly the symbolism of the convoy will be destroyed. We cannot allow this. Egypyt cannot allow this.

The fact that Egypt therefore appears to be doing whatever Israel says either escapes them or is true. Egypt is the second most heavily subsidised country in the middle East after Israel, both of course by the USA. The fact that Obama and Hilary Clinton have backed Israel despite their masscre of innocents and clear war crimes against a civilian population including the use of phosphorus bombs, is proof that little really changes when we vote. The power blocks upon which America lays its imperial foundations are the same. Obama should remember the peace marches which nearly 60 years later have meant he, as a black man, can be president. Perhaps he could then point out to Israel that the Gaza strip is becoming a larger version of the Warsaw Ghetto and the sad, nay sic, ironies of that are apparent to the world. Our peace convoy may not have the discilpine of Martin Luther King's, but it is changing for the better as we get close to Gaza.

We are now being told that we will be sneaked out of the city at night. This is very risky. We could be driven into the middle of nowhere and given a good hiding for daring to demand they stick to their agreement to let us enter Gaza. An agreement that was in place this morning. The Liyan truckers are adamant that they will not be pushed around by Egyptian police and relations between these neighbours could be severly damaged as they fought besides us this morning. They also played football against us this afternoon in the street infront of the riot squads, who had they lined up could have used their shields to prevent the ball going out. John distributed gaelic football jerseys for both teams from the aid we are carrying. What the Gaelic Athletic Assoc. would make of beaded Pakistanis taking on Liyan truckers in Egpyt and playing football at that, is hard to imagine, but it served to release tensions. That was until they switched the lights out and allowed us to be attacked by the mob, who it so happens disappeared into the night and low and behold, the lights came back on.

People are frightened, angry, hurt, but we have to be patient and let GalLoway, Sabah and the authorities negotiate. We could be stuck here for days.

News reached me today that a pro Isralei website has used some of my criticisms of the convoy on their website. Let me make it absolutely clear that I will pursue them with every force I can muster including the Writers Guild and their lawyers to prosecute them under the copyright laws unless it is removed at once. I will continue to give my version of events, critical or otherwise, but let no Zionist imagine that anything I criticise the convoy for comes close to the disgust and revulsion I feel for their murders of innocents.