Freelance Life with Penny Young

From 1993 to 2003, I worked as a freelance reporter, mainly in the Middle East and the former Eastern Europe. I met wonderful people and had many adventures. I thought I would share some of them:

THE CAMEL MARKET AT IMBABA, EGYPT (1992)

There are big ones and little ones, fluffy ones and smooth ones. They chomp their grass, quarrel and kick each other and sometimes look balefully at their owners. Mostly they rise above it all. The early morning camel market, which lies chaotically off the railway line in the district of Imbaba in Cairo, has become a star tourist attraction. As you step eagerly into the compound, a man rushes forward to sell you a ticket for one and a half Egyptian pounds. The Egyptians are not daft, the price is worth every piastre. At the crack of a Friday dawn at Souk El Gamel, there is a lot of masticating and swallowing as the handful of tourists, who obviously like an early start, sip their tea, the Egyptians blow on theirs, (big business takes time), the camels chew their mounds of greenery, hundreds of little donkeys and horses bury their noses into their feed bags and scores of goats enjoy their last supper.
      It is indeed big business. There must be at least a thousand camels in the main compound, many of which have plodded through the desert sands up from Sudan to Aswan where they are loaded into trucks and driven the rest of the way to Cairo. The journey takes between thirty and forty days. It costs the owners 210 Egyptian pounds, (about £40), in government tax to get their animals into the country. Life is so expensive now, they sigh, not like the good old days. The camels are sold for meat or as working beasts of burden for anything between 1500 to 3000 Egyptian pounds. It is quite a sight to see row upon row of camels, many of them with one mighty front leg hobbled, drawing squeals of sympathy from the tourists. Their owners beat them on the side with sticks as if they were thumping the dust out of a carpet. One suspects it is done more for the noise than the pain, although an owner is observed, evilly hitting his beast around the head, nose and eyes, which is not such a pretty sight.
      Camels have such wonderful faces, superior faces, noses snooty in the air, large, lashed eyes gazing just over your head as if you were a mirage, remembering oasis past and hopefully to come. Is that a flicker of camel amusement as you jump hastily out of their path as they thunder towards you?
      As they eat, their heads and long necks wave and undulate. They look like a bank of fronds at the bottom of the sea swaying in the currents.The skin colour tells where the camel comes from, dark ones from Sudan and Libya, lighter skins from Egypt. The teeth reveal the age. How can you tell a good camel, I inquire, trying not to show mine, watching a potential buyer put one animal through its paces, making it stand up, sit down, (much groaning), walk around and show its great yellow teeth.You have to have brains and knowledge, the would-be buyer says after much reflection.
      A group of English and Australian tourists in shorts and tee shirts - one with a slogan written in Hebrew - wanders past. They are newly arrived in Egypt, fresh from working on a kibbutz in Israel. They say they were advised not to visit the market by the Egyptians in their hotel because Imbaba is a known fundamentalist area, but everybody is so friendly and the market is great. (Let us hope the fundamentalists haven't learned to read Hebrew.) They disappear among the camels, their arms and legs looking bare and vulnerable next to Egyptians swathed in robes and turbans and scarves and hand-embroidered waistcoats against the cold weather, about 65 F. In the donkey compound, (more donks than you have ever seen in your life), there are all the things on sale to dress an animal up to kill: coloured beads, hand-made, painted saddles, bells to have music wherever he goes, brass ornaments and studded leather harnesses. It is a good side business to sell them to the tourists as souvenirs.
      On all sides is a great boiling up of ful, the Egyptian equivalent of baked beans, and a hissing and steaming of tea kettles. In the corner, a dog thoughtfully tears at the side of a dead camel. The butchers, their gelebayas splattered with blood, slice up freshly-killed goat meat, carefully slitting through the internal organs to empty them of recently-chewed grass. Tourist cameras click happily. A man polishes his horse's hooves. Teenagers wander round stopping to grind and sharpen knives using contraptions made largely out of bicycle wheels. The goats are busy head down, feet in the trough, munching their last supper. It looks excellent meat at ten Egyptian pounds, (£2), a kilo. We skip over the odd congealing pool of blood, cooing at the 10-day-old black and white kids, so little and sweet. Occasionally one of their relatives is dragged past protesting bitterly.
      By about 9 am, there are almost as many tourists as camels and donkeys. We retire to a tea house run like clockwork by a 10-year-old boy. He does not know we are listening when he sings to himself: the tourists are wonderful, all the people are wonderful. The souvenir bells ring in my pocket and the tea tastes sweet. As we walk back through Imbaba, a pick-up truck filled with uncomfortable-looking camels roars past, off to be killed or off to work. Food for thought.
Written in 1992 - this article is under copyright.

HASANKEYF, SOUTH EASTERN TURKEY 2000

On a hot, summer Sunday in Hasankeyf in south east Turkey, there is nothing quite like sitting on a chair knee-deep in water under the shady canopy of a tea house in the River Tigris. It is so pleasant to take your feet out of the water to dry and then pop them back into the cool, murky-brown, fish-filled water. The view is spectacular too. A sheer cliff towers up over the southern river bank. Cut out of the rock is a magnificent,ancient stairway which zigzags up to the medieval castle perched at the top. Marching across the Tigris are the monumental remains of the Seljuk stone bridge which was considered to be the finest in Anatolia. Behind, on the northern riverbank is a fifteenth century cylinder-shaped tomb of a Turcoman king. It is decorated with patterns of blue-glazed brick and is redolent of Samarkand.
      Hasankeyf is a favourite leisure site for the people living in the area. At the weekend, they turn up in their hundreds, old people, young people and children with their sheep, cows and goats. They arrive on bicycles, donkeys and motorbikes, in cars and mini buses and on foot. They settle down for the day, in and out of the water. The sugar spoons tinkle in the tea glasses, the barbecues smoke, the kids swim and the plastic bags filled with water melon rinds together with empty bottles are whisked by the current downstream towards Baghdad. Life swirls by and you have to catch it while you can, sitting in the middle of one of the most magnificent, historical cities in Turkey.
      It is difficult to imagine that in around ten years' time, Hasankeyf could have sunk beneath the waters of the proposed Ilisu dam and only the top of the castle at the top of the steep cliff will be visible. Everything else, the tombs, bathhouses and monumental buildings, the rock caves which have been inhabited for hundreds of years, together with the ancient water systems, stairways and roads, mosques, temples and churches will be just a memory. Hasankeyf, along with dozens of small villages, is in the way of the final stages of the Turkish government's huge, South East Anatolian water project called GAP. This involves building twenty-two dams and nineteen hydro-electric power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Most have been built. The Ilisu dam is the next in the pipeline. If you look at Turkish maps, the dam is already marked at a site east of Hasankeyf on the Tigris just before the river turns to head southwards down to Cizre where it forms part of the border between Turkey and Syria before coiling into Iraq.
     Hasankeyf has always been a place which people fought over. The Romans and Sassanian Persians faced each other there over the river. Arab, Kurdish, Turkic and Mongol tribes battled each other for supremacy. For the past decade, it was practically closed off from the outside world while Turks and ethnic Kurds fought a vicious civil war in the surrounding area. Now the Turkish government is having to face down the international environmental row which has blown up over its plans to build Ilisu. Critics say it will not only destroy archaeological treasures but will also cause pollution and adversely affect Syria and Iraq downstream. The row has even spread to Britain where it has caused friction within the Labour government because of the potential involvement of the British construction firm, Balfour Beatty.
      The Turkish government says GAP will improve the lives and economic conditions of people in the south east of the country. The Ilisu dam, it says, will mean the displacement of just another 20,000 people or so who will be offered new homes close by. It accepts that question marks now hang over the environmental impact of dams but claims it cannot afford not to exploit the country's natural resources.
      Sitting in my cool chair on that lazy Sunday in Hasankeyf with the temperatures reaching 45 to 50 degrees celcius, I could understand the outcry at the loss of such a magnificent site. The lives of the Kurds have been severely disrupted for years by the civil war. Two to three thousand villages have already been destroyed and millions of people displaced in the fierce fighting. Hasankeyf has, in a way, become the last stand, the last remnant of what is left of any Kurdish identity and dignity. There is no doubt Turkey needs more electricity and a higher standard of living in the south east of the country. But the loss of such a cultural treasure as Hasankeyf seems a high price to pay.

This was written in 2000. Today, in 2011, the future of Hasankeyf continues to hang in the balance. This article is under copyright.

LEBANON 1999

'The first thing you’ve got to know about driving in Lebanon is the Law', said Ghassan conversationally as we roared along the busy coast road towards Beirut on his old motorcycle. The Phoenician city of Byblos was a blur on our right. 'What law?' I said gripping my seat. 'That’s just it,' he said cheerfully, 'there isn’t one. During the civil war, rich kids, fourteen, fifteen-year-old, could pay a couple of hundred dollars and get a licence. Now, there is a driving test but you know what they do, the examiner says go here,' Ghassan made a flourish with his left hand, 'go there' a flourish with his right, 'and then they give them a licence.'
'Can’t you slow down,' I said weakly. He dropped down to 65. 'Is that any better?' he asked. 'If I go any slower, we’ll probably get killed as they drive over us.'
      Driving in Lebanon is certainly an experience. Under the reconstruction, there has been a huge improvement to the road system. There are now state-of-the-art tunnels through and around Beirut. New three-lane highways connect the capital with the north and the south of the country. Many of the shell holes and bomb craters have been filled in and there are even lane markings here and there. But the Lebanese still drive like maniacs at top speed, often in the middle of the road, frequently weaving from side to side. There is a law. He or she who has the fastest car - mainly a Mercedes or a Range Rover - goes the fastest. Old habits die hard. During the war, the roads were practically destroyed and they still get damaged in the occasional Israeli bombing raid. In the war, you never knew who was manning the roadblock looming up in front and whether whoever it was might not shoot you, or whether a parked car was a booby trap and about to explode. You just kept your foot down and got away as quickly as possible. Well, that is my charitable explanation for the way they drive, although many Lebanese airily say they drove like that anyway, even before the war.
      Lebanon was always something of the Wild West of the Middle East. The law - if there was one - was there to be broken. During the Ottoman Empire, it was a badge of honour to avoid paying taxes. The former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, dropped taxes down to ten percent to try to coax people back into the system and encourage investment. It made no difference and with the banking secrecy laws, the government cannot find out how much money people are making anyway. Most of Lebanon’s income comes from import taxes. It is not surprising that the country is now in debt up to its eyeballs.
      The Lebanese themselves are immensely philosophical about it all. They can - unlike many other nations - laugh at themselves. I was driving with a group of people, civil servants and the like, to the ravishingly beautiful forest of Ehden, twisting and turning along the edge of the plunging Qadisha Valley. We drove through a village. 'Look,' said my companions, 'this village has got a set of traffic lights. It’s famous for it. But nobody pays any attention what colour the lights turn and they have to put a policeman there to translate what they mean into "Lebanese".' And they practically killed themselves laughing. It was true, there was a policeman looking very bored standing next to the lights and signalling whether people should stop or go.
      The Lebanese people have a tremendous drive, enthusiasm and determination to survive come what may. You get a taste of it when you drop into the information office of Solidere, the company which is busy re-building downtown Beirut. The shares might be plummeting and the country sliding into recession but rebuilding work goes on night and day. The Solidere man will show you the maps and models of the future city. He will press a button to make the waves lap up against the acres of marina being built so controversially on reclaimed land made up of the toxic rubble of bombed Beirut. He will show you where the Phoenician, Canaanite, Roman and Byzantine remains of ancient Beirut have been found and how they are going to be preserved. You stagger out of the office into the marvellously reconstructed Foch and Allenby area and walk around the corner to gaze at the remains in the real.
      Whatever next destroys Beirut, be it an earthquake and tidal wave as in the sixth century, rival militias or the Israelis, the Lebanese will start rebuilding the very next day.
Written: 1999. This article is under copyright.