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» A Feminist Flashmob in Mogadishu

“Did you hear? There’s a feminist flashmob going on in town.”
Not the sort of words you would necessarily expect to hear in the Somali capital.
“Say that again.”
“Somali women are demonstrating against rape and sexual violence.”
“It’s Valentines Day.”
“When did you last see a feminist rally in Mogadishu?”
“Let’s go.”

When you hear the words feminist flashmob, you drop whatever you’re doing and get on with it. You do in Mogadishu anyway. Sexual violence against women is a hot topic here. The most recent report on Somalia by the UN’s Secretary-General, published earlier this month, makes uncomfortable reading in places. It notes that more than 800 rape cases were reported in and around Mogadishu between September and November last year, the majority being internally displaced women and girls. The report doesn’t go into female genital mutilation, but that is an issue here, too.

I join several women with friends in high places and bump across town in a convoy, soldiers sitting in the back of a pick-up in front of us shooing other drivers away with rather more politesse than I have seen from American security companies operating on the streets of Baghdad. Then, clenched fists, hurling water bottles into car windscreens and pointing rifles at drivers’ heads were the favoured techniques. That didn’t go down well with Iraqis and it wouldn’t work with Somalis, either.

We arrive at a guarded compound, jump out of the cars and are instantly swallowed up by a cocoon of armed men who make a striking khaki contrast to the elegant women wafting by in multi-coloured splendour. There is a phalanx of women young and old wearing all-covering dresses in the Somali sky-blue flag with white star. Then there’s a largely male folklore troupe in white T-shirts with the legend “One Billion Rising – Strike! Dance! Rise! and then the glorious, improbable word ‘Somalia’.

Traditional dancing begins with men waving wooden spears and decorative diraa shields with coloured tassles. Men and women dance freely together, a freedom deeply rooted in Somali culture, something that was never understood by the Al Qaeda-allied insurgents of Al Shebab, who terrorised this city until 2011 and outlawed anything that even hinted at fun on pain of death.

Singers sway beneath a savage sun, belting out numbers that have the women in raptures. A drummer picks out a rhythm that combines with the streaming heat and hammers straight through my head. There are speeches from a human rights lawyer, the prime minister’s wife, who is also an MP and women’s rights activist and then Mogadishu’s answer to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of Mogadishu, a charismatic, rabble-rousing Cheshire cat with grey goatee beard and shades. His announcement that Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton would be welcome guests in Mogadishu because they are supporters of today’s global campaign draws huge cheers, applause and high-spirited ululations. In one of the most touching moments of the morning, a group of teenagers – faces almost entirely hidden, for this could get them into trouble, or far worse – dance to a thumping Beyoncé tune, in a charming, slightly awkward hip-wiggling routine that has the mayor smiling more broadly than ever.

Our hostess for the morning is Deka Abdulkadir Ahmed, a handsome, feisty looking woman wrapped up in a red patterned hijab. The feistiness may be explained by Ms Ahmed’s special distinction in Mogadishu. She is the sole female District Commissioner in the city. The other 15 are all men. To say that takes some guts would be a wild understatement.

“Women are the same all over the world,” she says. “But what makes us special is that we have been through 23 years of war. I may be a District Commissioner, but I am also a woman and I feel the pain and suffering of Somali women. Hosting this campaign is a great honour for us as Somali women. It was a matter of life and death. We had to do it.”

Watching these women doing something as simple as coming together freely and defiantly, singing and dancing, rallying and protesting, is a moving experience, particularly when you consider that until very recently this sort of behaviour risked a public flogging or a bullet in the head. That nightmare already seems like a different era, but the heavy security presence testifies to the danger these women are still running just to come here. The sports compound is bristling with Kalashnikov-toting, red-bereted security forces who would be more than a match, one suspects, for Al Shebab if a rogue self-detonating maniac were foolish enough to try something.

Deka doesn’t mince her words when asked what her message is to Somali men. “I would like to tell them, that’s enough war, now we need peace. Every man has a female in his family – his mother, his wife, his daughter. I say to the men, protect your women. That’s your job.”

A young woman who is translating for me smiles at these last words.

“She’s a feminist, you see. We are very proud of her.”

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» The Last Hurrah – The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
By Patrick Leigh Fermor
John Murray, pp.349, £25, ISBN: 9781848547520

Sound the trumpets. Let rip the Byzantine chorus of clattering bells and gongs, the thunder of cannons, drums and flashing Greek fire. Raid cellars and let champagne corks fly. Eighty years after Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic trudge across Europe, 20 years after the death of his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray, ten years after the passing of his wife Joan, and two years after his own death, the elusive third volume that so tormented him is published at last. The travel trilogy is complete. It is, as John Murray reminds us, the literary event of the year. But for those who admire Paddy’s densely beautiful prose, can this awkward, unformed orphan live up to its billing?

There is no need to rehearse the extraordinary genesis and gestation of its predecessors, A Time of Gifts, published in 1977, the small matter of four decades after the walk, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both classics of 20th-century travel writing. ‘To be concluded,’ were the final words of the second volume. Ever since, silence.

Fans of Paddy wondered what was happening in his sunlit writing-room in Kardamyli in the southern Peloponnese. ‘When might the final volume see the light of day?’, I asked him there in 2006. He was 91, and the question was unfair. It was ‘all a bit grim,’ he said. Writing was ‘rather difficult’.No wonder. He was suffering from tunnel vision, was unable to type, disliked dictation and had no assistant. Strangely, the early draft of this last leg of the walk, which he started to write in 1962 and was still editing a few months before his death, predated the first two books.

How to reconcile the parallel journeys of an 18-year-old walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (never Istanbul) in 1933 and the later literary travels of a much older man setting this great walk to prose? This was always the challenge — and a prodigious test of memory, for the notebooks had been lost. In the end it proved too much for him. It is odd to think that a man who reached the grand old age of 96 was outlived by the great walk of his youth.

The Broken Road finds Paddy, last seen at the Iron Gates on the Romanian Danube, tramping south east across the Bulgarian plains. Reassuringly dazzling set pieces abound. There are dreamy days exploring monasteries and forests with the frowning beauty Nadjeda, ‘a ravishing hybrid vision, half captured Circassian princess, half Byronic heroine’. And a charming cameo of the black dog that trots beside Paddy in the Great Balkan mountains, barking furiously at an enormous full moon (dog-lovers will appreciate the diminutive black quadruped adorning the handsome cover, designed by Ed Kluz in the style of John Craxton’s artwork for Paddy’s earlier books).

With Constantinople finally in reach to the south after almost a year on the road, Paddy suddenly embarks instead on a great northerly loop into Romania. After slogging up mountains and sleeping in swineherds’ huts and forest clearings, sophisticated, high-society Bucharest has him agog. He throws himself into it con brio, with ‘the zest of a barbarian padding wild-eyed with longing for luxury and corruption through the palaces and fountained courtyards of Diocletian, or of a Parthian in Antioch’. This is, after all, a man who proclaimed himself unboreable during the trans-Europe pilgrimage. ‘My mouth was as unexactingly agape as the seal’s to the flung bloater.’

This is vintage — and nascent — Paddy. Here is the fascination with foreign languages, folklore, history, genealogy, sartorial styles and, of course, pretty girls. Costumes of hook-nosed crones, dishevelled army officers, rain-soused shepherds, raki-soaked fishermen and buttoned-up diplomats are painted in technicolour splendour. Bishops and archimandrites officiate in copes ‘as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings’. The constitutional objection to almost all things Turkish is undimmed. Paddy reads his first Dostoevsky in these pages and takes his first steps into Greece, a country that would help define him in subsequent decades, not least after kidnapping a German general on Crete in 1944 and making his home in the Peloponnese in the 1960s.

The facility for procuring a bed for the night was always remarkable. ‘How often I ended up under some friendly roof scot free!’, writes the Anglo-Irish charmer, who seduced aristocrats, platonically and otherwise, the length and breadth of Europe.

Overshadowing all these pictures of pastoral happiness is the spectre of the forthcoming war and the knowledge that the Iron Curtain would separate him — and at the time of writing already had — from dear friends, many of whom were later annihilated.

Paddy was not given to much personal reflection and introspection in his books. It is an unexpected pleasure to find rather more of the man in The Broken Road. Perhaps later polishing would have culled these unusually revealing sections. There are frank passages on the black depressions that would recur during his life. The on-the-page wrestling with memory, confronting the distressing blanks that inevitably surge up from distant decades, exposes the tortured inner workings of the creative process. How is it, he wonders, that memory can obscure the most important aspects of a life-changing encounter but preserve crystalline irrelevances: ‘Daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.’

The journey ends not in Constantinople but in mid-sentence. Hence The Broken Road. Bizarrely. Paddy never managed to write up the longed-for object of his pilgrimage. Did it not live up to expectations? The final section, altogether different in tone, is the unworked diary from 1935, rich in innocence and intellectual discovery among the monasteries of Mount Athos.

How fitting, for a man so young at heart, with such a boundless appetite for life, that his last published words should be those of a wide-eyed 20-year-old, embarking on what will be a lifelong love affair with Greece. His editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, have put this book to bed with skill and sensitivity. Friends and fans, acolytes, devotees and disciples can all rest easy. It was worth the wait.

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» From Perfumed Arcadia to Dantean Hell – Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

As a species, we do have a revolting fascination with war. Men – and it is mostly men – have been fighting, and writing about fighting, from the year dot. To the extent that a literary genre focusing so intensely on man’s destruction of his fellows can be called distinguished, war literature has a proud record. At the risk of getting completely carried away by Herodotus, who notched up an impressive list of firsts, from pioneering forays into history, travel writing and anthropology to début stabs at geography and tabloid journalism, one can argue that his masterpiece Histories, written in the fifth century BC, marks the first instance of page-turning war reporting. The trick of a good war book, lest the writer become too excited by all that blood and guts and killing, may be to bear in mind Herodotus’ maxim, ‘No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers but in war fathers bury sons.’

From Herodotus and Thucydides’ time to the present day, the war book has been with us, an ever-present literary companion to the massacres on the battlefield. The twentieth century, that cauldron of slaughter, brought us All Quiet on the Western Front, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Birdsong to mark ‘the war to end all wars’. For Vietnam there was Michael Herr’s visceral, free-styling Dispatches and, more recently, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officers’ Reading Club to commemorate the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.

The Second World War’s outstanding book is surely Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis, whom Graham Greene considered ‘one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century’. I took it to Iraq with me in 2004 and found its humanity, honesty and hilarity instantly compelling. During the darker days, it was strangely comforting to realise that there is little new in conflict. From ‘friendly fire’ and war profiteers to prostitution and petty bureaucracy, it has all been seen before.

Much of war is tragedy and farce, and Lewis has the reporter’s eye to observe it in
telling detail, matched with a writer’s ability to set it out in prose that is by turns laconic, angry and arresting. Naples ’44 finds him appointed an intelligence officer in the Field Security Service, having escaped ‘the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures’ and joined the invasion convoy bound for Salerno, attached to the headquarters staff of the American Fifth Army. General Clark, ‘the destroying angel of Southern Italy’, has reduced much of the region to scorched despair, though the smaller towns have escaped bombing: ‘The only visible damage to most villages had been the inevitable sack of the post office by the vanguard of the advancing troops, who seem to have been philatelists to a man.’

Bureaucracy is one of the lead villains in these pages. The mystified Lewis marvels at the ever-expanding ‘Black Book’ of suspects, teeming with same-surname families – ‘Espositos and Gennaros turn up by the hundred’ – and ‘poetic idiocies’ galore. Like all good intelligence officers, he gets dirt under his fingernails and forges relationships with an extraordinary cast of characters. These include comic cameos like Professor Placella who has a profitable and unusual line in surgery. ‘He boasts that his replacement hymen is much better than the original, and that – costing only 10,000 lire – it takes the most vigorous husband up to three nights to demolish it.’

Lewis inspires confessions in friends, colleagues and acquaintances. As the confidant of an anxious British officer and his voracious Neapolitan lover he does his best to help with affairs of the heart – and of the bed.

She had made him understand by gestures one could only shudderingly imagine that her late husband – although half-starved, and even when in the early stages of tuberculosis from which he died – never failed to have intercourse with her less than six times a night. She also had a habit, which terrified Frazer, of keeping an eye on the bedside clock while he performed. I recommended him to drink – as the locals did – marsala with the yolks of eggs stirred into it, and to wear a medal of San Rocco, patron of coitus reservatus, which could be had in any religious-supplies shop.

More often than not, sex does not equate to romance in Lewis’s wartime Naples. Extreme poverty and near-starvation have reduced many women to prostitution. War corrupts everyone it touches. Among the many cinematic set-pieces is the ghastly scene in a vast municipal building where working-class housewives have gathered to offer their bodies in return for tins of army food.

The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no soliciting, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh. The boldest of the soldiers had pushed themselves, tins in hand, to the front, but now, faced with these matter-of-fact family-providers driven here by empty larders, they seemed to flag. Once again reality had betrayed the dream and the air fell limp.

Lewis’s Naples is an inferno of suffering. Unthinkable shortages of food and water carry off the weak, the young and the elderly. Families have lost their clothes and possessions in the indiscriminate bombings. Strange apparitions stalk the streets dressed in whatever comes to hand, ‘a man in an old dinner-jacket, knickerbockers and army boots’, women in dresses made from curtains. The Neapolitan aristocracy has been reduced to draughty, high-ceilinged apartments in their once grand palazzos. At best, furniture is a rickety table, a chair and a bed. Food is almost non-existent. Lewis gets to know Vincente Lattarullo, a penniless, unemployed lawyer who becomes a stalwart friend. He can only afford to eat once a day, ‘a little bread dipped in olive oil, into which was rubbed a tomato’. Even to pay for this he must double up as a Zio di Roma, acting as ‘an uncle from Rome’ to add patrician glamour to provincial funerals.

With their lives disintegrating, Neapolitans take refuge in superstition. They queue to implore the help of saints and worry that the blood of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, may not liquefy as it does every year. ‘Naples has reached a state of nervous exhaustion when mass hallucination has become a commonplace, and belief of any kind can be more real than reality.’

War brings out the worst in many of those in Lewis’s forensic field of view. Denunciations are a daily, diary-filling event. Many, perhaps most, are false and entirely malevolent. Official cruelty lurks everywhere. Lewis hears the scarcely credible news that American soldiers of the 45th Division have been ordered ‘not only to take no German prisoners, but to use the butts of their rifles to beat to death those who try to surrender’. Officers mull half-baked plans to send syphilitic prostitutes to infect customers in the German-occupied north. The pettiness, small-mindedness, inhumanity and corruption of the occupation are recurring themes.

Lewis has a gimlet-eyed appreciation of the futility of his work. Appointed as head of security for a number of small towns within the orbit of Naples, he notes that all fall within the territory of the deadly Camorra. ‘The task is a hopeless one, and it would be demoralising to take it too seriously,’ not least because military officers at the very highest level are up to their necks, in partnership with the Camorra, in the black-market racket.

Suffering falls on young and old alike. Empty-stomached boys jumping into the back of supply lorries to raid rations have their fingers hacked off by American bayonets. On 1 November 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, Lewis watches a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child is sobbing.

The experience changed my outlook. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered a conversion – but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.

Yet this nascent pessimism cannot undermine Lewis’s innate humanity. He is forever going the extra mile – sometimes literally – to help the beleaguered civilian population around him, bending rules to prevent the horrifyingly casual imposition of martial law death penalties, smuggling food to friends and always struggling against the miscarriage of justice.

In Naples ’44 we see the horrors of war, together with its dangerous allure and unrepeatable intensity. Perhaps it was this life-changing experience that helped propel Lewis into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts and an admirable career championing the underdog. In 1968, his coruscating Sunday Times article ‘Genocide’ exposed the Brazilian government’s criminal treatment of the country’s indigenous tribes – mass murder, torture, sexual abuse, land theft – and led, a year later, to the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples.

The roots of this outrage at man’s inhumanity can surely be traced back to Lewis’s time in Naples, a ‘perfumed Arcadia’ reduced by war to a Dantean hell.

Justin Marozzi is writing a history of Baghdad, where he has spent much of the past seven years. He is still hoping to turn his hand to war satire one of these days.

Norman Lewis, Naples ’44 (1978)
Eland • Pb • 192pp • £10.99 • ISBN 9780907871729

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» A blue thread in Africa’s tangled web of violence – Sunday Times

When 16 Tuareg men burst onto the desert road with AK-47s pointing at our heads, pulled over our car, hurled us to the ground and cuffed and blindfolded us, I didn’t think this was the beginning of the blowback from the Libyan revolution. That’s not the sort of thing that goes through your mind at such moments.

Nor did it occur to me at any time during the next 24 hours, while I was held at gunpoint with a Libyan friend and his traumatised family. When someone is threatening to kill you within the next few hours unless his comrades are released from prison, geopolitical analysis isn’t the first thing on your mind.

Survival was the only thing. Every few hours we were moved to a different sun-baked hideout deep in the desert, as the Tuareg kidnappers, a gang of twentysomething desperados, made sure the Libyan security forces could not find us.

Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuareg. Time wore heavily as the appointed hour of our death approached. There was a horrifying moment when a couple of Tuareg jumped out of a pick-up and started digging our graves. I started saying my prayers — but there was no bullet in the back of the head. Eventually I was released into the night with my friend’s family. He was kept hostage for another three weeks, during which time he saw more young men from his home town kidnapped, stripped and beaten. He was subjected to regular mock executions.

Looking back on that terrifying experience of late 2011, it’s clear that the Tuareg kidnappings were one of the earliest signs of the fallout from the demise of the Gadaffi regime. This was the first tremor of a seismic shift that is now shaking Mali and Algeria and reverberating across the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid belt immediately to its south. For David Cameron the region, rich in oil, gas and uranium, has become the new front line in the fight against terrorism. More than a decade after 9/11, the world is wearily familiar with al-Qaeda. By contrast, the Tuareg, who find themselves caught up in a tangled web of illegal trafficking, armed rebellion and imported Arab terrorism in a part of the world that is suddenly at the centre of global attention, are an unknown quantity. For most people the word means a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen.

If my kidnapping was one extreme, my other brush with the Tuareg was completely different: a peaceful encounter at the beginning of a 1,200-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara in 1998-99. Then, a British friend and I travelled with a succession of Tuareg guides from Ghadames to Murzuk, both former centres of the Saharan slave trade from which the Tuareg had once profited handsomely. Here we learnt from past masters the skills that were dying out as the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser replaced the trusted but plodding camel.

The Tuareg are ancient and nomadic desert pastoralists, estimated to number between 2m and 3m today. They are known as the Men of the Veil and the Blue People, after the stains left on their skins by the indigo-dyed tagilmus veils, traditionally the defining symbol of the Tuareg. “Almost all Tuareg . . . would as soon walk unveiled as an Englishman would walk down Bond Street with his trousers falling down,” wrote Francis Rennell Rodd, author of People of the Veil, a 1926 study. Sartorial standards have slipped since those days — my kidnappers wore filthy T-shirts and trousers rather than flowing robes — but a Tuareg man is rarely parted from his veil. Like the Kurds, the Tuareg are a people without a state, caught between the gaps of the Great Power scramble for Africa that began in the early 1880s and resulted in new states with borders that frequently made a mockery of realities on the ground. Like travellers in Britain, their nomadic way of life frequently conflicts with that of settled communities. They rove widely in the Sahara and Sahel, their territory encompassing a vast swathe of land from Libya in the northeast, through southern Algeria, northern Niger and northern Mali into Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Although they belong to the Maliki sect of Islam, compared with many of their Arab neighbours they are not especially religious — the word Tuareg means “abandoned by God” in Arabic. In 2011 I marvelled at their ability to pray one moment then poke me in the chest with a Kalashnikov the next. Unlike their menfolk, Tuareg women are not veiled, a rarity in the Muslim world. Equally extraordinary is that theirs is a matrilineal society with descent and inheritance coming through the maternal line.

Where once they were the masters of Saharan trade, running what would be called a protection racket today, offering their services as guides and armed guards to caravans travelling through their territory, now the Tuareg are more likely to eke out a living from drought-ravaged animal husbandry and tourism, which is why the crisis in Algeria and Mali will have such a savage effect on them.

More will be drawn into the lucrative smuggling business, trafficking people, drugs and cigarettes to the Mediterranean. A decade ago, trans-Saharan smuggling was worth about £850m a year, according to Jeremy Keenan, an expert on the Tuareg at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, with single convoys worth £10m travelling north from Mali or Niger into Algeria “not uncommon”. With the breakdown in security, this illicit trade is set to increase.

As the West tries to understand a complex and suddenly violent region, it is critical to distinguish between the Tuareg, who belong in the Sahel and Sahara, and the incoming fundamentalists of al-Qaeda, who do not. The travel writer Alistair Carr, author of a book on the Sahel to be published this year, worries that lines between the two will be blurred. “My first reaction when I heard the news about Algeria was concern that people would confuse the Tuareg rebellion [against the government of Mali], which is all about their marginalisation and struggle for political rights, with the fundamentalist Islamist factions responsible for the hostilities and destruction in Mali. They are distinct.”

Many fear French involvement will radicalise a new generation of Tuareg fighters and intensify the Islamic threat in the region. But the Tuareg and al-Qaeda are not natural bedfellows. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which took control of northern Mali last year in an attempt to forge an elusive yet long-wished-for Tuareg homeland, is generally considered a secular, nationalist movement that opposes al-Qaeda.

While many would criticise Cameron’s assertion that the war in north Africa and the Sahel may last decades, he is surely right to emphasise the need to confront the Islamists’ “poisonous narrative”. Having worked on a successful project for the African Union and United Nations countering al-Shabaab’s Islamist narrative in Somalia, it is difficult to argue with the power of such an approach.

For the Tuareg, however, any more strategic miscalculations, such as the alliance with Gadaffi and the current dalliance with al-Qaeda, are only likely to spell disaster for this tough, turbulent and marginalised people.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara; @justinmarozzi

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» A High Time in Kyrgyzstan – Sunday Times travel

It’s jam on arrival in Bishkek. Apricot jam. Strawberry jam. Raspberry jam. Apple jam. Pear jam. Cherry jam. Blackcurrant jam. There’s even something called sea-buckthorn jam (no, I hadn’t, either). This is in addition to a large bowl of porridge, yoghurt, smoked sausage and fried egg, cheese, apples and grapes, pancakes and coffee. This is the Full Kyrgyz Breakfast. Such a homely introduction comes as a surprise in a country better known — to the extent that it is known, which it isn’t, really — for wild, yurt-filled landscapes peopled with moustachioed Genghis Khan lookalikes hunting on horseback with eagles amid the snow-ravaged peaks of Central Asia.

Yet this is only the capital, a small, Sov­iet affair in an obscure corner of a murky part of the world where British travellers are noticeable only by their absence.

While many former Soviet republics have long ditched Lenin, the bald, finger-wagging ideologue remains one of the most common sights in Kyrgyzstan. True, since independence in 1991 he has been demoted from the plinth in the main square that used to bear his name — now renamed Ala-Too, after the crinkly, snow-topped mountains hung up against a pale blue sky to the south of the city — but he hasn’t moved far. Having loomed large in front of the State Historical Museum, he now lurks in a square immediately ­behind it, a stone’s throw from a cosy statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in animated conversation on a park bench. Who said the Soviets were dead and buried? And who guessed that many Kyrgyz earnestly wish they were back?

Bishkek is a tranquil little city of wide boulevards, tree-lined avenues and pleasant parks of oak, maple, silver birch, walnut, pine and fir. There are one or two antiques shops to interest those in search of Soviet memorabilia, and the vibrant Osh Bazaar, with its pretty pyramids of many-coloured spices, but this is not the reason most travellers come to Kyrgyzstan.

This easternmost of the “Stans” is a land of mountains, rising to almost 25,000ft in the far southeast. It’s a place of wide horizons and sun-warmed steppes, crashing rivers and steep-sided valleys, the home of white-tailed eagles, yaks, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep and ibex, and the elusive snow leopard. It is, in other words, an adventurer’s playground, the place to hire a horse and unleash your inner Mongol warlord.

All roads for this line of things lead east to Karakol, a quaint town of crumbling Russian gingerbread houses in the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains of Chinese folklore. To get there you must follow the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul (Warm Lake), the world’s second largest alpine lake, an alternately serene and stormy stretch of water. This is the territory once known to both the Mongol world conqueror Genghis Khan, Scourge of God, and his 14th-century reincarnation Tamerlane, Sword of Islam and Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction. Both men ran amok in Central Asia and spilt enough blood — metaphorically speaking — to fill the lake.

After another prodigious, jam-filled breakfast one morning, I have an app­ointment with Almas, a diminutive, ­latter-day Genghis with piercing eyes and a dark smudge of a moustache. Taking advantage of the rising number of visitors to Kyrgyzstan in recent years, Almas has built up a stable of horses. Some are for riding, the mares are kept to make kumis, the mildly alcoholic fermented milk, which is, alas, out of season during my visit.

To an untrained eye, Makiza, the slender, seven-year-old chestnut gelding Almas assigns to me, appears rather too slight an animal to cope with hauling 15st of hapless rider up to 13,000ft. Needless to say, I am completely wrong. Though resolutely unimpressed by affectionate patting and verbal encouragement to keep up a respectable pace, he proves a robust and steady fellow as we climb out of Karakol, past the industrial squalor of Ak-Suu village. Almas is also less than impressed by my reluctance to use the whip with meaning. Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky, the fearless 19th-century Russian explorer during the Great Game (as the rivalry between Britain and Russia there was called), would no doubt have taken a tougher line on his mount. He was convinced, as he wrote in one of his travelogues, that “three things are necessary for the success of long and dangerous journeys in Central Asia — money, a gun and a whip”. Horses for courses, perhaps.

There is a wild splendour to the landscape as we take the rough track up the Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa) valley. The blue-blurred river flows fast over giant, copper-coloured boulders alongside the shocking yellow and rusting orange of silver birch and apricot trees in autumnal decay. A day’s ride takes us steeply up into the mountains, through fir forests to a romantically decrepit wooden cabin presided over by Valentin, a vodka-­quaffing Ukrainian whose parents were deported to Kyrgyzstan by Stalin.

Over the next few days the Kyrgyz weather throws everything it can at us. One day, cerulean skies and gentle zephyrs, the next, swirling snowstorms and blinding white-out. Leaving the shivering horses and Almas behind one morning, I strike out alone towards Ala-Kul Pass, which rises starkly above us. A steep ascent, it is said to command fabulous views over the lake of the same name. The weather has other ideas. A bullying wind whips up and driving snow reduces visibility to a few yards. For a brief moment, the brute face of the final climb is tantalisingly revealed, a near-vertical, dread-inducing ­app­roach to the pass, then the sky darkens again, snow is flying in all directions and everything is lost to sight, forcing an ignominious, scrambling retreat. On a particularly steep and slippery section, I come a cropper, flying into the air and landing expertly on my coccyx. At 41, I no longer bounce. Consolation comes below in the form of a muscle-soothing soak in the guesthouse’s hot spring, followed by a restorative volley of vodka shots with a boisterous party of locals and high tea with pots and pots of fresh jam.

After descending to Karakol, there is time to visit the astonishing site of San Tash (Counting Stones), where legend has it that, ahead of a military campaign in the east in the late 14th century, Tamerlane ordered every one of his soldiers to deposit a stone in a pile. On their return, each soldier was required to remove a stone. Each boulder in the vast cairn that remains is a monument to one man’s death. Other ancient voices echo in the catacombs of Svetly Mys, a charming, poplar-lined hamlet that has the unique distinction of being the possible burial place of St Matthew on the one hand, and the origin of the Black Death on the other: an apocryphal apocalypse, if you like.

A final, monumental breakfast awaits. Among the piles of bread and fruit, cheese and meat, once again there is enough jam to defeat a Mongol army. Apart from the hospitality of its people, as boundless as its steppes and mountains, this, surely, is the essence of Kyrgyzstan. As the late, great writer and war hero Paddy Leigh Fermor once said of a particularly glowing review of one of his books: “It’s jam all the way through.”

Justin Marozzi travelled as a guest of Steppes Travel (01285 880980, For packages, see over


In the late 19th century, the high passes and ancient cities of Central Asia were the exotic setting for the Great Game between Russia and Britain, with dashing officers and explorers such as Nikolai Mik­hailovich Przhevalsky and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes competing for influence on behalf of their country’s respective empires. There is no better or more gripping introduction to this period of history than Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, published in 1990. Today’s visitor to Central Asia no longer runs the very real risk of having his or her throat slit or head lopped off by some maniacal ruler, yet the Stans, as they are known, offer the adventurous and historically minded traveller mesmerising possibilities.


For those in search of magnificent monuments, it is hard to beat Uzbekistan, home to the cities of Samarkand, Buk­hara and Khiva. Samarkand, Tamerlane’s blue-domed imperial capital, made a profound impression on George Curzon, the Tory MP and future viceroy of India, in 1888. “The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the ­noblest public square in the world,” he wrote. “I know of nothing in the East ­approaching it in mas­sive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe… which can even aspire to enter the competition.” Then there’s Buk­hara, my favourite, a med­ieval warren of mosques, madrasahs and minarets, still ponds, or hauzes, and teahouses. Khiva, a World Heritage Site and home to an open-air museum, is an extraordinary city, ­albeit too glitzily restored for some tastes.

Desert explorers will thrill to the wide spaces of Turkmenistan, plaything of the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov from 1990-2006, a place of pilgrimage and pre-Islamic mysticism, home to the Karakum Desert and the Silk Road city of Merv, which has a cameo role in A Thousand and One Nights.

While Kyrgyzstan has the Tien Shan mountains, Tajikistan boasts the marginally higher Pamirs. Few road trips can compete with the Pamir Highway for roof- of-the-world exhilaration. The Wakhan Valley, which Tajikistan shares with Afghan­istan, is a wilderness scattered with Buddhist ruins and Silk Road fortresses within sight of the mighty Hindu Kush.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, one of the world’s largest countries, combines the modern, limousine-filled cities of Almaty and Astana with endless steppes and horse-riding opportunities galore.

For all these countries, make sure your rucksack contains Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia, a plangent memoir of Central Asia in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


For much of the region, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to travel. July and August are very hot and dry in Uzbekistan, but are the ideal time to visit mountainous Kyrgyzstan before temperatures plummet. Winters (December to February) can be extremely cold.


Kyrgyzstan, the most straightforward country to visit, does not require a visa for a stay of 60 days. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both require visas. Turkmenistan requires a visa and a letter of invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tajikistan requires a visa and a GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit if going through the Pamirs.


Travel in Central Asia inevitably involves expeditions to remote, sometimes inhos­pitable places that are often far from ­creature comforts and modern hospitals. Security, however, is generally excellent. As a rule, terrorism is less of a threat than theft and pickpocketing. The latest advice on all countries is available from the ­Foreign Office (, which tends to err on the side of caution. Your biggest risk may be falling off a horse.


For western visitors, at least, not to mention local dissidents, activists and opposition figures, human rights in Central Asia are not what they could be. Uzbekistan, whose grey-faced President Islam Karimov has clung grimly to power since 1990, is surely governed by the region’s most unpleasant regime, with a penchant for boiling dissidents to death. Torture and forced child labour are endemic. As Human Rights Watch succinctly puts it: “Uzbekistan’s human-rights record
remains appalling.” Kyrgyzstan also has a recent record of torture.


The Stans are a region where — depending on your Russian-language skills and willingness to rough it — you may find it sensible to travel with a specialist tour operator rather than go it alone. Steppes recommends a package, but also advises that “independent travel is a possibility in all Stans except Turkmenistan, where a guide must be provided. Some travellers prefer to do their own sightseeing in towns such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Bishkek, Almaty, Astana and Dushanbe, where it is quite easy to do so independently”. Some visitors may strike a compromise, using a tour operator to plan the bare bones of a visit and improvising on the ground as the fancy takes them.

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» What to do about Mali? FT Comment

What to do about Mali? It is a question the international community is starting to ask in earnest, if not yet get to grips with entirely. Few policy makers in Washington or Europe may be able to point out the country on a map, but recent events in the fragile west African state have thrust it high up the international agenda.

First, some background. In March, President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in an incomplete military coup. That allowed al-Qaeda- allied Islamists and rebels from the Tuareg, a native Berber people, to seize control of northern Mali. Since then, the insurgents have wasted little time implementing an agenda that is worryingly familiar to seasoned al-Qaeda watchers.

Rape, forced marriage and forced prostitution have been widely reported, together with the stoning to death of an unmarried couple and public amputations for thieves. Ancient Sufi shrines have been demolishedfor supposedly infringing sharia law. About 1.5m Malians have been displaced. The UN warns that war crimes may already have been committed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.
After recent experiences in Afghanistan and Somalia, the international community is warier than ever of allowing another vulnerable country to descend into a failed-state haven for terrorists. Many fear that instability in Mali will exacerbate the effects of drought and food shortages and precipitate a full-blown humanitarian disaster.

Encouragingly, there appears to be some sense of urgency. On October 12, the UN Security Council passed a resolution paving the way for military intervention by Ecowas, the west African regional grouping. Detailed operational planning must now emerge from African organisations within 45 days. Lest there be any suggestion that the international community is overreacting, it is worth considering the Islamists’ response to proposed intervention. They pledged to “open the doors of hell” for French citizens in Mali and send President François Hollande pictures of dead French hostages.

If intervention is imminent, as seems increasingly likely, what sort of engagement can be expected? One model receiving increasing attention is Somalia, where African Union and Somali security forces have been fighting a vicious campaign against the foreign-led, al-Qaeda allied al-Shabaab insurgents since 2009. al-Shabaab has been driven out of Mogadishu, creating the space for politicians to come together to write their own political future. Long considered a basket case, Somalia is now on a trajectory toward economic recovery under a more democratic government.

There are parallels between Mali and Somalia. For al-Shabaab in Somalia, read AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in west Africa and other Islamist organisations that have come to prey on Mali. The nature of the international response in Somalia could also yield lessons for Mali, above all the shared responsibility and partnership between African nations and organisations, the UN and external funders.

It is instructive – and reassuring – that no one envisages sending US or other western forces to Mali. International intervention by proxy has become a more attractive option since the hard-won success in Somalia. This model enables western powers to commit money and materiel rather than manpower to a problem with ramifications that go far beyond Mali’s borders.
For the African Union and Ecowas, foreign financial, logistical and intelligence support enables the application of African solutions to African problems. It is an effective partnership, currently working in practice in Mogadishu, until recently, widely known as the most dangerous city in the world.

There is no question that any intervention in Mali will be hugely challenging. It is extremely doubtful that the 3,000 troops proposed by Ecowas would be sufficient to help recapture the 300,000 square miles of northern Mali seized by the Islamists. Amisom, the AU mission in Somalia, now numbers almost 18,000 by comparison. However many security forces are deployed, it will be imperative to deny al-Qaeda control over airports, military installations, training areas and arms caches soon, before they become harder to expel. A further Security Council resolution is also required to authorise action in Mali.

It is to be hoped that western backing and African manpower will now combine to drive out the toxic al-Qaeda alliance from Mali for good. On 19 October, when representatives of the UN, Ecowas, the AU, EU and neighbouring countries meet in the capital of Bamako to discuss next steps, they have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively that they mean business. The world will be watching.

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» Embattled Dystopia – Justin Marozzi sees years of sectarian strife ahead for Syria

Pity the modern dictator. Time was he could bump off a recalcitrant opposition figure, take out a dissident stronghold, massacre the entire population of a town and the world would be none the wiser. There might be a pesky reporter trying to get to the truth, but that could be taken care of, as President Assad’s security forces demonstrated earlier this year.

Yet the digital world has made it much harder to brush war crimes and atrocities under the kilim. Thanks to Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, surveillance states now find themselves under constant surveillance in turn. The spies are spied upon, lifting the lid — albeit only partially — on what is happening inside places like Syria. Factor in nosy- parkers like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, UN observer teams, ceasefire monitors and grandee envoys dropping by with television cameras, and the dictator bent on subduing a popular revolution with the gloves off has his work cut out these days.

To add to the intensifying scrutiny, four new books confront the revolution head-on, in a rush to publish that inevitably calls to mind Zhou Enlai’s possibly apocryphal remark that it was too early — in 1971 — to assess the French Revolution. They offer four distinct perspectives on contemporary Syria. Fouad Ajami is a Lebanese-born writer on the Middle East with a depth of cultural and historical knowledge that is largely missing from the western media’s coverage of a complex and little understood society. Samar Yazbek is a well-to-do Syrian novelist whose 2011 diaries plunge the reader into the dark immediacy of Assad’s Damascus. David Lesch is an American academic and Syria specialist who met Bashar al Assad frequently from 2004-2008, and Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who has lived in Damascus for several years.

The Syrian Rebellion begins by tracing the mass uprising to several instances of regime retribution, including the ghastly case of Hamza al Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Deraa. His body was returned to his family a month later, knees and neck broken, penis cut off. Consistently illuminating in unexpected ways, Ajami reaches back to Ibn Khaldun to explain how the magisterial Arab historian of the 14th century envisaged asabiyah (solidarity or group consciousness) as integral to the rise of dynasties and the foundation of states. Alawite asabiyah, ‘the group feeling of a mountain people who had a jumbled mix of persecution and superiority hammered into them by history’, has always been the lifeblood of the Assad regime.

Ajami combines the historian’s appetite for research with journalistic reportage and an instinct for the telling phrase. Bashar is compared unfavourably with his hawk-nosed father Hafez, who would never have let Syria degenerate into a ‘satrap of the Iranian theocracy’. Assad Snr instituted the regime’s pre-eminent political creed of ‘Let them eat anti-Zionism’. The Lebanese politician General Michel Aoun is ‘an acrobat, true to the self-defeating ways of the Lebanese political class’. Ajami is essential reading to under- stand the complicated geography of the Syrian revolution, setting out the sectarian jigsaw from the majority Alawi coastal cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh and Tartus, to the mixed, majority Sunni cities of Homs and Hama and ‘encircled’ Damascus and Aleppo, cities too large to have their demography altered by the regime.

Of the four writers, Samar Yazbek provides the most arresting, novelistic prose. In one of the most disturbing passages in her revolutionary diaries, written in the spring of 2011, she is questioned about her opposition writing, briefly blindfolded then taken into a series of rooms where she is forced to see men hanging in various states of torture and decomposition. Bodies covered in fresh and dried blood are suspended from metal clamps, ‘deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter’. Assaulted by ‘the smell of blood and piss and shit’ and the sounds of torture and screaming, she is shoved into a room where there is an unconscious young man ‘whose spine looked like an anatomist’s sketch’, his back split open ‘as if a map had been carved into it with a knife’. ‘Humans have become pieces of flesh on display, an exhibition of the art of murder and torture that was all for show.’

In its uncompromising reportage from a doomed capital, Yazbek’s book recalls the late Iraqi artist Nuha al Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, a searing chronicle of the disintegration of Saddam’s Iraq during the embargo of the Nineties. Today Yazbek lives in exile.

Who is the man who presides over this embattled dystopia? A good deal of attention has focused on Bashar al Assad in an effort to understand how the revolution may unfold. Might he slink off into exile in Saudi Arabia, the traditional graveyard of despots, or will he end his days murdered in cold blood like Gaddafi or be tried and executed like Saddam? Much, probably too much, has been made of Assad the ophthalmologist’s stint in London and his British-Syrian wife Asma as supposedly moderating forces.

David Lesch convincingly argues there are far more formative influences. Bashar is the son of Hafez al Assad, a man not known for his squeamishness in putting down uprisings, as the city of Hama can attest (up to 30,000 were killed there in 1982); he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, who grew up in the Cold War and lived through the tumult in Lebanon. ‘These are the relationships and historical events that shaped his Weltanschauung, not his sojourn in England.’ Since Lesch met Assad repeatedly to research an earlier book, we can perhaps forgive the boast that ‘this unique access meant that I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West’, although quickly flicking through The New Lion of Damascus (2005), one finds Lesch describing Bashar as ‘unpretentious and extremely personable’ among other compliments.

Unlike most western reporters who have written from Syria, Stephen Starr brings to bear a great deal of personal experience of the country, having lived and worked in Damascus for four years, including a spell with the state media. He’s the sort of man who notices the price of milk going up and the increased presence of security forces on the streets as the noose tightens. With a wide network of friends and contacts, he conveys the warp and weft of daily life with an admirably nuanced understanding of the place. ‘Many Sunnis cursed the regime, most Christians cursed the protestors and secularists cursed them both,’ he writes of the early days of revolution, when popular opinion was less polarised than now. If there is a criticism of Starr’s account it is the amount of material it includes on what other journalists are getting up to. Journalists’ fascination with journalists knows no bounds.

This quartet offers little in the way of optimism for Syria. Bleakness is the order of the day. Assad will not go quietly. The minorities are right to fear for the future. The fulcrum of Arab nationalism has become the site of a proxy war for influence between Sunni and Shia Islam. However soon he departs, whatever follows minority Alawite rule, it is surely difficult to predict anything but sectarian strife for years to come.

Spectator, 11 August 2012

The Syrian Rebellion: The Fall of the House of Assad
Fouad Ajami, pp.216, £14.95, ISBN: 9780817915049

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution
Samar Yazbek, pp.258, £12.99, ISBN: 9781908323125

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
David Lesch, pp.280, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300186512

Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising
Stephen Starr, pp.214, £14.99, ISBN: 9781849041973

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» The Wars No One Wins – Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Bloomsbury, £16.99

One of the books that best encapsulated the delusional folly of the Iraq War was Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an excoriating story of ideological arrogance and ignorance on a grand scale. This was American reportage at its most penetrating, a darkly comical account of hubris meeting with nemesis on the banks of the Tigris, graveyard of the neocon dream.

In Little America Chandrasekaran turns his unrelenting focus to Afghanistan, a country that has been the graveyard of so many empires for so many centuries one wonders why any political or military leader should think this time it’ll be different, no matter how many soldiers and gender advisors they deploy, irrespective of how many schools and medical clinics they build. If any foreign invader had the right approach to Afghanistan, it was surely the Turkic warlord Tamerlane, who swept through in 1398, rode across the snow-capped Hindu Kush in an astonishing march, banged heads together and then left immediately after a characteristic slash-and-burn campaign. He was right not to linger.

Obama’s 2009 surge was supposed to put everything right in a mission neglected after the Iraq War distracted Washington’s attention. Yet once again good American intentions foundered in the Helmand River Valley, where a previous generation of optimistic Americans had tried unsuccessfully to transform Afghan society with over-ambitious irrigation schemes in the Fifties and Sixties. To the horror of Afghan’s conservatives, women started throwing off the veil in what came to be known as “Little America”. Modernisers squared up against the mullahs in a conflict only put on hold with the arrival of the Russians in another ill-fated intervention of 1979.

Chief among Chandrasekaran’s culprits for this latest flop is the US military. Garlanded after his achievements in Iraq, General Petraeus was allowed to fight a counter-insurgency campaign on steroids, in tandem with an unrealistic nation-building programme, rather than concentrate on the narrower objective of smashing Al Qaeda and helping Afghans end the conflict. Internal rivalries bedevilled the mission from the start, exemplified by the clash between US ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Stan McChrystal, a personal reflection of the age-old animosity between State Department and Department of Defence.

The military regarded the diplomats as lily-livered prima donnas who rarely ventured beyond the blast walls of the embassy and its “Duck and Cover” bar, squandering $340m a month of American taxpayers money in frequently corrupt USAID schemes that delivered little lasting benefit on the ground. The diplomats in turn considered the military crude, hard-charging grunts whose aggressive extension of military operations into new districts simply exacerbated the insurgency. The author notes the extraordinary occasion on which American forces arrived in a village so remote that the villagers spoke to them in Russian, unaware that the Soviets had left Afghanistan.

British readers will be particularly interested in the “Allies at War” chapter, in which Chandrasekaran charts the disintegration of relations between the British and Americans in Helmand. The Americans considered British restraint appeasement, the British thought the Americans far too gung-ho about dealing with the “bad guys”. Had the two allies communicated more effectively with each other and demonstrated a greater willingness to learn from the best aspects of the other’s counter-insurgency strategy, “The result almost certainly would have been fewer body bags draped with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes”.

The enduring truth about Afghans is that they will fight any foreign invader tooth and nail until that army leaves and then, when the last Russian, American or British tank and helicopter is gone, spurred on by deeply venal and malevolent neighbours, they will fight each other. Little America should be required reading for anyone with an interest in foreign interventions, especially western politicians, soldiers and diplomats, if only to relieve them of the dangerous idea that we are any good at them. There is no arguing with Chandrasekaran’s pithy conclusion: “For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.”

Mail on Sunday, 29 July 2012

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» Mogadishu Notebook

Strange things happen in Mogadishu airport. Day 1 and a British national suspected of al-Qaeda ties is detained. Porn, suspicioussubstances and traditional Arab dress in his luggage. I hotfoot it down to the police station to discover a black man in white Lonsdale vest and blue tracksuit trousers. Only a British Islamist would dress so badly. He says his legal and human rights have been so badly abused in the UK that he has come to Mogadishu to look for a decent lawyer.Then he trots out a story about making his way down the East African coast,starting somewhere “peaceful and sunny”. In fact, he was haplessly trying to get to the port of Kismayo, headquarters of al-Shebab, the local insurgentsallied with al-Qaeda, “to help the Muslims”, as he later tells the cameras.

He appears not to have done his homework. First, 99 per cent of Somalis don’t like al-Shebab. In its latest report on Somalia, Human Rights Watch notes the group’s fondness for “floggings, summary executions and public beheadings”. Second, the authorities, who are currently waging war rather successfully against them with the robust support of African Union forces (Amisom), are hardly likely to wave him through to their enemy. He is quickly deported back to the UK — with an enforced stopover at the British Embassy in Nairobi.

Apart from wannabe Islamists, the airport has recently entertained other exotic creatures: the pair of lion cubs that a local smuggler tried to fly out of Somalia, only to be frustrated by an alert sniffer dog.Then there was a British team of hostage negotiators who arrived in two planes carrying $3.6 million cash for a captured Chinese ship. “They like to use a slower propeller plane from Mogadishu so they can drop the money on the deck,” says my local kidnap and ransom expert. Somali immigration arrested the Brits and relieved them of their dollars.

And don’t forget the two daily flights from Kenya bursting with sacks of qat, the mildly hallucinogenic stimulant that Somalis chew by the ton.

Traffic signal

The last time I was here, a year ago, you wouldn’t dream of travelling across town unless you could hitch a ride in an Amisom Casspir armoured personnel carrier. It’s a sign of the times that these days you can hop into a car and hightail it to Villa Somalia, the presidential compound on a bluff overlooking the city, without so much as a second thought, bar the occasional IED. In the absence of al-Shebab, who were ousted last summer, new markets, street cafés and exuberantly decorated shops have sprung up and are doing a brisk trade. There are even traffic jams, a sure sign ofprogress.

On the journey from the new front line, three miles outside the capital, we pass scenes of utter destruction, misery and human squalor — it’s heartbreaking to compare them with 1950s photos of elegant, tree-lined boulevards, graceful fountains and broad-fronted palaces. Peace and an internationally recognised government have come to Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years. Can the politicians now step up to the plate and extend it nationwide?

Captain Mole

Trying to find out, I have an appointment with Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the Prime Minister. Mild-mannered, bespectacled and barefooted, the gentleman sitting in front of his laptop is more Mole of Wind in the Willows than Mogadishu warlord. A lot is riding on the shoulders of this Somali-American technocrat, economics professor and tax expert, ex-Harvard,Vanderbilt, World Bank and UN, who is steering Somalia through the Scylla and Charybdis of the final four months of transitional government to a new constitution and elections in August.

Parliament will be cut from 550 to 225 MPs, a sensible trimming of one of the world’s more venal assemblies. Every year since 2007, Transparency International has rated Somalia the most corrupt country in the world. Yet as Peter De Clercq, of the UN’s political mission, argues: “It’s more important than ever for the Somali leaders to be seen as credible and transparent.”

The PM sighs. Good governance and the fight against corruption are priorities. “This is a very difficult and thankless job. Sometimes it gets me down. But it’s rewarding. It’s a duty call, our generational responsibility to make Somalia better for our children and great-grandchildren. If I don’t do it, who will?”

Justin Marozzi is a senior adviser at Albany Associates and the author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus

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» Post-revolution Libya finds Tripoli in high spirits

Trabulus. Ar Roz al Bahr. Bride of the Sea. Roman Oea. The White City. The Havana of North Africa. Whatever its name, Tripoli has been delighting travellers for centuries. Libya is a land of peerless hospitality and greetings that last for minutes; its capital’s architecture encompasses imperial Roman, traditional Islamic, shabby-chic Ottoman, Italian grandeur and oil-boom dictator kitsch.

Set against Libya’s unfathomable history, the four decades from 1969 to 2011, when Libyans had the great misfortune to be ruled by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, seem the merest blip in the long life of this resilient nation. Yet with Qaddafi gone, the delight of Libyans on the streets of Tripoli is palpable and affecting. There is a special joy in travelling to this bewitching country after its liberation. “Libya hurra! Free Libya!” is a refrain you’ll hear on the streets, where entrepreneurial enthusiasts peddle bracelets, brooches and badges, T-shirts, mugs and tracksuits emblazoned with the old-new national tricolour of red, black and green.

In spite of a declaration of autonomy by eastern tribal leaders earlier this month and reports of sporadic violence, tourists are making a tentative return sooner than expected. Airlines, crucially, have been voting with their wings. Tripoli was Etihad Airways’ first new destination in 2012. Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Lufthansa, Air France and Alitalia are five of a number of international airlines that are now flying to Libya, with British Airways soon to join them. I have travelled to Libya four times in the last 12 months, twice during the revolution and twice in its aftermath, and already I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

While western governments including the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office are advising against all but essential travel to the capital, some tour operators are more sanguine. “We’ve had absolutely zero problems in terms of security,” says Nicholas Wood, director of Political Tours, which has just led a debut trip to Libya. “I do think things have significantly improved since we were last here in October. None of our group felt threatened at any moment. It’s definitely not the war zone people make it out to be, but you have to be self reliant and plan carefully.”

The last time I was in Tripoli, back in the autumn, was a few days after the Qaddafi regime had fallen.

Foreign correspondents were combing government buildings and hopping over foreign embassy walls for incriminating documents. There was no running water in either the Mehari or the Corinthian, the two main hotels in the city. One of the most memorable evenings during the post-Qaddafi euphoria sweeping the city was a high-spirited evening spent swapping stories with the late, great war reporter Marie Colvin – hers were the best. She was having a ball in Libya and had been reporting as courageously as ever from the frontline in Misrata.

Then, Martyrs’ Square was eerily empty at night. It took another few days for the crowds to pour out and fill the capital’s most important public space. “We were too scared to come out,” said Yusra al Massoudi, an effervescent civil engineer who couldn’t stop smiling. “We didn’t dare believe we were free.” Now fear has been replaced with pride. “All of my life I never felt this was my country. Libya was like Qaddafi’s farm. Now, only now, for the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Libyan. This is my country.”

After the revolutionary tension and torpor, the highly atmospheric medina or Old City, one of Tripoli’s great, hassle-free attractions, has come back to life. Start off in Martyr’s Square beneath the massive walls of the castle that stares out impassively towards the southern shores of Sicily, silent witness to 1,000 years of wars and intrigues between marauding corsairs, pirates, Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, Arabs and Turks. Just south of it is the entrance to the venerable Suq al Mushir, which plunges you instantly into a maelstrom of sights, sounds and smells, not least gold-filled jewellers’ windows by the score. Does anyone love gold as much as Libyans? Sharp-elbowed little old ladies in their white farashiya wraps, the traditional costumes worn by their forebears for centuries, jostle with street-chic young men in tight black shirts and spray-on jeans, perhaps a Kangol beret worn rakishly back to front. The old and new collide.

After all your exertions in the labyrinthine medina, all those purchases in Suq al Turk, Suk al Attara and Suq al Harrara, cool your heels with an ice-cool frappé latté in Casa, a thoroughly modern cafe opposite the freshly painted Ottoman clock tower. A stone’s throw away, immediately recognisable by its octagonal minaret that surges above street level, is the many-domed (30) Ahmed Pasha Karamanli Mosque that dates back to the late 1730s. Awash with intricate floral patterns and bold Moorish designs, this is the largest and most highly decorated mosque in Tripoli.

If frappucinos smack of the inauthentic, delve deeper into the medina until you find one of several more evocative – perhaps downright dilapidated – cafes, and take your place on an old bench alongside men playing cards or backgammon over a steaming glass of mint tea. Navigationally challenged from birth, I have lost count of the number times I have got lost in the medina over the years, and I do it again now. It never matters. You can always plot a way out over an apple tobacco-filled shisha. The golden rule, too often forgotten where I come from: take your time.

Revolutions happen, foreign powers invade and colonise, dictators come and go; the insouciant Tripoline has seen it all before. Perhaps little has changed since 1845, when James Richardson, the British explorer and campaigner against the slave trade, arrived in Tripoli and was struck by the city’s relaxed way of life. “Whether the extraordinary indolence of the people proceeds from the climate, or want of occupation, I know not,” the magnificently moustachioed Colonel Hanmer Warrington, the British consul, harrumphed. “But they are in an horizontal position twenty hours out of the twenty-four, sleeping in the open air.”

In fact, Tripoli is getting busier by the year. New shops, hotels and restaurants are springing up all the time. More adventurous travellers are already making a beeline for a country that has been neglected for decades. In Zumit, a former caravansaray built in 1816 for travelling merchants returning from or embarking on perilous expeditions across the Sahara, now converted into a charming boutique hotel next to the second-century AD Arch of Marcus Aurelius, I bump into Robert and Sarah, two middle-aged Britons. They’re raving about Libya and Libyans.

“We’ve wanted to come to Libya for years and now seemed the right time,” says Robert. “The people are fantastic,” adds Sarah. “I can’t get over how friendly and welcoming they are. We’ll definitely be back.” We compare notes on our respective gluttony in Tripoli. We have all made the gastronomic pilgrimage to Tajura just along the coast, an opulent dinner of fresh fish at Barracuda I, one of several restaurants strung along the seafront.

Huda Abuzeid, a friend from revolutionary reporting days, is a Libyan film-maker who returned to Libya for the first time in 2011 to help the anti-Qaddafi opposition. She’s now making Tripoli her home and is setting up the Rashad Foundation to help rebuild civil society. “Libya has a Mediterranean climate with a Mediterranean culture, we’ve got a beautiful sea, lovely ruins, masses of pristine desert and mountains that rival Tuscany,” she says. “But perhaps the most exciting thing, now that Qaddafi has gone, is that visitors now mix freely with Libyans, engaging with people who after years of isolation are really excited to interact with the outside world.” She’s right. This is why people stop you in the streets and thank you for visiting.

Tripoli is also an ideal base for quickfire expeditions to satisfy history buffs and desert adventurers alike. About 60km to the west is Sabratha, westernmost of the three ancient settlements that with Oea (modern Tripoli) and imperial Leptis Magna made the Roman provincia Tripolitania, province of the three cities. Intimate, invariably deserted and with one of the world’s most dramatically sited theatres only yards from the turquoise Mediterranean, this is a site so fabulous it’s little short of lunacy to miss it. It is hard to beat a Mediterranean sunset dip in the ancient port, tumbledown columns and peristyles visible in the clear water below, swimming against this ancient backdrop as the Romans did 2,000 years ago.

Then, 128km to the east of the capital, there’s Leptis, Lebda to Arabs, Lepcis to purists and pedants. Where Sabratha is compact and elegant, Leptis is vast on a scale that is never less than imperial. I only have a day, but you could spend several days wandering the site without repeating yourself, marvelling at the tons of marble deposited across the city by Septimius Severus, the original African Roman emperor done good. The only other foreign visitors are a couple of journalists. Then there is the odd family of husband, wife and squadron of small children weaving through the ruins, and the occasional militiaman cutting an eccentric figure.

Born in Leptis, then a remote corner of the empire, Severus rose to the highest office in 193 AD and showered his hometown with riches in what must rank as one of history’s greatest property and construction booms. Leptis is monumental, extravagant beyond a 21st-century tyrant’s wildest dreams, the tone set by the massive Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 to commemorate the emperor’s visit to his birthplace and celebrate the power of imperial Rome – hence the marble reliefs of triumphal processions, winged Victories, captive barbarians and a united imperial family. Subtlety was not the architect’s strongest suit. In the words of the art historian Bernard Berenson, writing of the ruins of Leptis to his wife in 1935: “In their present state they are evocative and romantic to a degree that it would be hard to exaggerate.” If anything, after continued disregard by the last regime, they are even more so today. In almost 25 years of travelling to Libya, I have barely seen other tourists at either Sabratha or Leptis. It is one of the most extraordinary treats, and you have to wonder how long it will last.

A final word on security. Although Tripoli is still home to a number of armed militias who keep the peace in their respective neighbourhoods, the security situation is almost entirely benign in the capital, as responsible western security companies advise. Visitors can wander through the Old City alone at night without so much as a raised eyebrow from Tripoli’s famously courteous and welcoming inhabitants. While Benghazi and the great Roman sites of Sabratha and Leptis are also safe to visit, Ghadames and much of the south are a little too hairy for tourism as security is sketchy. My wife reminds me to mention I was (briefly) kidnapped by armed Touareg on the road to Ghadames last September. Accidents happen. Ghadames and the south more broadly will come back.

For those of a more timorous disposition, who, perhaps, blanche at the sight of an AK-47 outside strictly government hands, it is still probably a little early to visit. Libyans report that just as tourism was starting to grow again, the revolution stopped it in its tracks. But that won’t last too long and there’s little doubt that Libya will be back on the map again. Those travellers who relish something a little different, who fancy a rewarding adventure in a newly liberated country, would be hard pushed to find a better place to visit.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary, the story of a 1,930km journey by camel along the slave routes of the Libyan Sahara. He is a senior advisor at Albany Associates, which has worked with the National Transitional Council in Tripoli, and is a Trustee of the Royal Geographical Society (

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