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.

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