Sunday, September 03, 2006

Welcome to Doha

“Doha Welcomes You”. That was the first sentence that marked my arrival in Qatar’s capital last Thursday. Painted on a tower at the airport, it appears Doha is expecting quite an influx of visitors. Whether it be expat workers settling for a couple of years, or sports buffs with tickets to the upcoming Asian Games, the emphasis is on providing a warm reception.

‘Warm’ being the operative word. As I stepped off the plane, I was slapped in the face by the heat. Being used to chilly Wales, this was a test. I staggered to the airport bus, my shirt already clammy with sweat, muttering.

Immigration was pretty simple. A short wait in a holding office was followed by a lift back to my temporary residence, the Retaj. It’s pleasant – new furniture, a clean kitchen. But crucially for me, it has internet access – useful for my dissertation, which I still have to write after returning from Beirut.

The following day, I braved the fearful midday heat and went to the City Centre mall. On the way, I got an impression of what Doha looks like by day. It is, to be polite, a building site. Piles of rubble are everywhere, and half–finished skyscrapers stand apologetically next to shiny new apartment blocks and office towers.

One of the oddest things here is the colour of the sky. Sometimes blue, it is more often a gold-grey colour. Everything looks bleached. Along with the dust and heat, it makes Doha a difficult place to acclimatise to.

Arriving at the City Centre mall, I ran up the steps, eager to get back into the air-conditioning. I was initially overwhelmed by the mall's size. Starbucks? Check – it’s the first shop you pass, just after the steps. Giant Carrefour hypermarket? Check. Over 20 jewellers, offering more bling than P Diddy’s dressing room? Check. Every fast food restaurant you can name? Just head up to the third floor – McDonald’s is next to the Syrian Chef.

Bookshops? Er, no. This was a major disappointment. On the face of it, Doha has set itself up as the Singapore of the Middle East, where gold trinkets and plasma-screen TVs are in abundance, yet finding a bookstore was impossible. I looked in my Qatar guide (definitely a shrewd buy before I left the UK). "Ah – there’s one in City Centre after all," I murmured to myself. Except – no there isn’t. It’s not even on the centre map. Amazon it is, then.

Taxis are plentiful, though not always in ways you’d expect. Laden with groceries and crockery, I stepped outside the mall and was flagged down by a man who asked: “Taxi, 25 riyals?”

I thought I would get shown down the steps to a liveried taxi. Instead I was directed back into the sheltered car park. He was not a taxi driver, just a guy looking to supplement his earnings. I asked to go back to the Retaj, and gave him directions.

Yes, directions. Doha has grown so fast that even the official taxi drivers don’t know their way around the place. Those who are due to visit in December should carry a map. After four or five taxi rides, I have yet to find a driver who knows where my residence is. It’s only when I say “Sports Roundabout?” that I get a nod. The Sports is one of Doha’s many roundabouts, close to the athletes' village for the upcoming games.

First impressions are that Doha doesn’t have the soul of Beirut, the place I fell in love with just six weeks ago. Shops abound, but there is little of the charming café culture, friendliness and inquisitiveness and spirit that I witnessed in the Lebanese capital. Expats and visitors will find every need catered to, but it’s been made almost too easy for them. The result is that Western influence has taken over at the expense of a tangible Qatari identity. I hope I will see at least some instances of that identity over the next two years.

Photos soon, by the way...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Roll up, roll up

This just plain amused me, to be honest. They say someone always profits from war, and in this case it's not a Lebanese taxi driver!

Ebay item


Throughout this current assymetrical conflict, the English language has rarely had such a hardy test. Quite apart from the shocking, disproportionate, murderous, careless campaign waged on Lebanon by Israel, the terms used by politicians and military have been interesting.

One particular example is the use of the word 'regret'. It's the current Israeli buzz word. It's clean, efficient, statesmanlike. Maybe that is why Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, likes it. Following the indiscriminate shelling of Qana and the killing of more than 60 civilians, the antiseptic word 'regret' was used by Olmert. There was, however, no 'sorry' forthcoming from the man.

'Regret' is a term with an insurance policy attached. When used by those who bomb, kill and maim with rampant aggression, it reads: "Damn, we got caught. Hands up. We've goofed. Next time, we'll just try a little harder not to blow our cover. In the meantime, let's remain steadfast and bomb more."

'Regret' contains just enough emotion to persuade casual observers of contrition, particularly when your enemy can be easily characterised as a 'terrorist.' Yet 'regret' gives the user enough latitude to continue its own barbarism unchecked. It's been the most slippery, dangerous term of this war, and one we should all pay deep heed to.

And yes, I know other Israeli ministers used "sorry" - but the mere fact that Prime Minister Olmert didn't use it in the immediate aftermath of this atrocity speaks volumes about his view of Lebanon's southern Shi'ites, and how his government's policy will remain unchanged in this most brutal of campaigns. One can infer, from just one little word, exactly how much ordnance is still to enter Lebanon while the rest of the world watches. Through his 'regret' Olmert may as well have just shrugged and said: "The southerners of Lebanon are all just Hizbullah anyway." Which again brings us to the all-time favourite word: "terrorist". But we've been over that one before, haven't we?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Radar slip

Having now safely returned home, my mind can't fail but turn back to Lebanon. I miss Beirut. Depressingly, the Israeli assault on Lebanon appears to be dropping off the news radar here in the UK. The Guardian is admirably keeping up its 3-4 daily coverage, but The Independent has only devoted one page on each of the last two days to the crisis - while soft news stories and fashion features remain a staple.

My impression is that the British media have had a high time indulging in the evacuation of UK nationals, and now the party is over, it's time to return to endless clucking over the personality of Tony Blair. While it could be argued that the mere presence of foreign nationals in Lebanon has brought the excesses of the Israeli military to attention in the first instance, that counts for nought if a sustained focus is not maintained once those foreigners have left Lebanon.

What is encouraging, however, is the willingness for ordinary people in the UK to make a difference. I spoke at a Stop the War coalition meeting yesterday, and the diversity of the audience suggested that while the mainstream media may let Lebanon slip away, there is a real hunger for information on Lebanon's current plight. Members of the audience were, crucially, keen to ask questions and get greater insight on the historical background, rather than automatically swallow the line that Hizbullah 'started' the current crisis.

On another note, there is a great article on the Middle East Research and Information Project. Written by Jim Quilty, a Beirut based journalist, it is a worthwhile reminder of who the Israelis are really targeting - Lebanon's Shi'ite population. You can read the article here.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The US' impeccable customer relationship with Israel... surprise

My apologies for not updating my blog over the last two days - I am still extremely tired. I'm trying my best to catch up on sleep, while also visiting all my friends and family, who lent their support to me during my time in Beirut.

The New York Times has reported on Israel's purchase of weapons and munitions from the US, ahead of the Lebanon strikes. It makes for fascinating reading, and gives pointers as to the tardy US diplomatic response to the crisis in Lebanon.

You can find the article here

Next - an important event for those of you who are in Cardiff. I urge you to come along to Riverside Community Centre on Tuesday 25th July to show your support for Lebanon. The meeting is being organised by Stop the War Coalition and will feature a speech by Zahera Harb, a Lebanese academic and journalist. This is a fantastic opportunity to get information from someone with considerable knowledge of Lebanon and its political landscape. Please make the effort and come along. Doors at 7pm!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Slight Pause

My apologies, everyone - I did not update this blog yesterday as I was being evacuated. I have sent an evacuation blog to BBC Radio 4's Today programme team. I've only just got home, and literally haven't had the time to write separate blog entries for the same experience.

You can see my Radio 4 blog on:

A brand new blog entry, this time UK based, will be up very soon. Thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support - it's very much appreciated.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ferry watching

I’m exhausted! More shells hit Southern Beirut at around 1.30am this morning. The force with which they hit is pretty staggering. With each strike, I can feel my chest shake – a strange thought considering they’re landing a couple of miles away. I’m sad to say I’m getting used to the hotel shudder.

The Daily Star photo gallery gets more graphic as the death toll in Southern Lebanon mounts up. Images of the destitute, the injured and the dead. Some of the burns sustained by Lebanese civilians are horrific.

Many Lebanese with dual nationality are being evacuated. I was picked up by a driver this morning and taken to the BBC’s Beirut bureau, after I had received a phone call last night asking me to talk to the Today programme. It turned out to be a busy morning – Radio 4 was the first channel I spoke to, followed by other radio interviews and two TV interviews.

I joined the BBC’s Ian Panell at Beirut’s port, where we witnessed one of the first large scale evacuations. Panell and his team wanted to shoot an evacuation feature for BBC One o’Clock News, and I was the ‘Brit’. “We’re sorry to bring you here,” said Ian, as the BBC cameraman took shots of the evacuation routine. “Maybe you should have brought your suitcase!”

We stood in the flies and heat as a steady line of Scandinavians formed at the entrance to the ferry. There were only around three hundred people in the queue. Kids buzzed around, and people waited patiently to pass the security check.

Despite the relatively small number of people, the operation was taking an interminably long time. Bags had to be examined, sharp objects were confiscated and passports scrutinised. Curiously, I was asked to be filmed watching people board the ferry. A bit of an odd feeling - so close yet so far! It was only later I realised I forgot to take photos. Fool!

‘So close yet so far’ – this also goes for my role as a journalist at the moment. It’s an immensely frustrating feeling to be in a country where so much is happening, yet be under-resourced to cover it as a professional. I feel like I should see what is happening, but freelance heroics are not an option here.

At present, I don’t dare leave Hamra – my mobile phone is only receiving some of the calls made to it, meaning I spend most of the time in the hotel as I wait for evacuation news. I often see news teams in Hamra, making use of the web café to edit video and send despatches to their editors. I feel jealous and, to be honest, a bit useless.

I feel perversely distanced from events, despite being in Lebanon. Unimaginable things are happening in parts of the country, but in Hamra the web café stays open, Smith’s market has enough Arabic bread on the shelves, and young guys buzz around on scooters. Hamra is a vacuum, an odd little space where time is elastic.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Getting on with it?

As of today, I have spent a straight week in Lebanon. In that week, the country has been set back by several years. Last Tuesday, Beirutis were confident and looking to the future. Now the Lebanese are nervous, seeing their recent sad history replayed before them.

More Israeli strikes took place overnight. Half-a-dozen loud explosions rocked Beirut, further targeting the southern suburbs and the port. Two lorry drivers were killed as the port car park was shelled.

But Hamra is busier today. Most of the shops remain closed, but a few have lifted their shutters, perhaps realising that they cannot stay locked forever. There were more people on Rue Hamra, and considerably more cars. Life goes on, to the whirring of the generators. The generators are perhaps the one positive legacy from the civil war at this moment – despite the power stations being knocked out, the lights stay on.

While the practicalities of life are possible in Hamra - an area that has not been directly targeted by the strikes - people here have relatives and friends in the southern suburbs. They are trying their best, but one can see that the emotional weight is heavy.

Some of the residents here are leaving. A yellow VW Camper van was being loaded with suitcases, holdalls and plastic shopping bags of personal effects as I walked through Hamra this morning. It’s not only foreign nationals that are anxious to escape.

I went to Royal Jordanian’s office this morning to get advice on my return flight this Thursday. The office was, unsurprisingly, closed. When I called Royal Jordanian’s offices they said they would put me up in a hotel for the night if I got to Amman one day before my flight.

However, getting to Amman is impossible. The airline understandably has no contingency plan in place for such unusual circumstances. A taxi ride to Amman would involve a circuitous route through northern Syria, as the main road to Damascus has been shelled. It’s too much of a risk.

So, all I can do is wait for the UK evacuation. I have heard nothing from the embassy thus far. The waiting is difficult, particularly when I think of how much of a burden it’s placing on family and friends at home.

It’s also an odd feeling to have the hotel staff show such concern at a time when they are the ones most at risk. “The French are taking people back! Go to their embassy, demand you be sent home. It’s dangerous here. You must go!” said the man at the check-in desk. “When’s your flight home? Go to Tripoli, and then across to Syria!” To get such advice while the Lebanese sit it out is pretty overwhelming at times.

Meanwhile, the images of Lebanon’s destruction mount up. It’s turning out to be one grisly photo album. When Israel’s army stated that Lebanon’s clock would be “turned back 20 years”, they weren’t joking. The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English language paper, today reports that Israel has used internationally banned weapons in its airstrikes in the south, such as cluster and phosphorous bombs. It’s not out of the question - such shells have been used by Israel before in Lebanon.

It’s certain that Hizbullah will continue to retaliate, hurling rockets into Israel and killing the innocent. Meaning there will be reciprocal bombings from Israel, more injuries, more deaths, and the widening of a humanitarian crisis. It’s difficult to think of a way out.