Sunday, 31 October 2010


Benghazi is a wealthy city on a series of bays. Across the water, through the palms of the youth hostel we're staying at, the city looks much like Miami seen from Miami Beach, an economic dirrerence being that Benghazi's skyline is fueled by oil while Miami's is high on cocaine.
Next morning, a sand storm begins and Benghazi appears miasmic across the bay. By ten, only a boat moored midway can be made out. By noon, when we leave, we can't see the bay at all, though it's no more than fifty yards away.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Desert Growth: A Motion Picture

The land along the road east from Tripoli to Misratah might be anywhere along the French or Italian rivieras; dry green hills going back into mountains, palms and mimosas planted on the coast. But from Miratah the road turns south and the lush coastal planting disappears. The hills still carry bush and pines, though between them more red earth is visible and erosion channels snake around the trees. The channels grow wider. Several hundred kilometers further south, there's as much red showing as green. By Sirte. where the road turns east again along the Sirte Gulf, the sparser trees and bushes stand on ilslets one to ten feet high out from the red rocky earth/ Small dunes of fine red sand are banked against the root mounds and also lie along the edge of the road, blown across with the wind or blown back with the wind off the convoy. Over the next huyndred kilometers or so, the islets of trees disappear and bush gows sparse up on round red plinths as if displayed as rare specimens. Some of the dunes have bleached to pale gold. Well before Ajdabiya, the land goes flat, Only occasional low scrub appears from the earth, now a pale gray-yellow. Larger dunes appear, pale yellow, sand c0oloured, in fact. In fact, sand. We're driving the Sahara.


Sunday, 24 October 2010

Very Like a Camel

Driving down the coast from Mizartan, Rich and I begin seeing triangualr road signs with camels on them. These are terrific signs with a big black camel on a yellow background. Terrific, I suppose, in a campy, kitschy way. But anyhow, we both decide we have to gets photos of these signs. Not so easy to do. For one thing, we're travelling in convoy and can't just slow down, nor can we just pull off into the road shoulder since that's made of soft Saharan sand. Then there's the problem of judging the distance so that we get as close-up a photo as possible but don't wait too long and miss the sign completely. And the signs come up at random intervals. We fail and fail and fil, but figure we'll go on trying, since what's mobile phone photography for if not to catch the passing moment no matter how fast it's passing? My photos at worst contain not a trace of the sign; at best, there's a blur of sign that looks something like a camel, or maybe a whale. Then out the window, I see them, a long brown caravan of camels, and I take their photograph. Then there's another caravan, this one loaded with goods. I look at the photos of real camels which are very like camels.


To the Gaza Station

Where would we be without the police of North Africa? A long way back from where we are.They direct non-convoy traffice to the side of the road, they block the traffic at crossroads so that we can roar by, honking horns and waiving Palestinian as well as, in our case, Welsh flags (Rich lives in Snowdonia.) In towns, they help us run all the red lights and take left turns against the traffic flow. They are smartly dressed, well-mannered and, at least to us, patient.
Moreover, they lead us into service stations where we fill up at their governments; expense, and into restaurants where we nver pick up the tabs. At night, they park us safely for our stay in government guesthouses which may be spartan, but are generally clean.
Yet all their whining sirens and flashing blue lights don't fool us. Though we average fifty miles an hour and the convoy can stretch out over several miles, we understand that this is internment in our vans to keep us from the people of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, because these governments fear the people. They can't keep us completely away, of course, and then we see the people look casually at us, then look with curiosity, and then, on understanding, break into big smiles and lift their hands thumbs up or in V signs as we go by. These are the countries that pay lip service to Palestine by paying to disappear the convoy through their landscapes. They don't really much like Palestine. They wish it would go away so that they could get on with whatever buying and selling and business as usual they're up to..
It's only when we come into Libya where the business of the government and police is to present us to as many of the people as possible that we understand we have until then been in that rather comfortable sealed train from Zurich.


A Night in Tunisia

We;re driving from the Algerian-Tunisian border through Tunisia at night. We're being mucked about by the police, hidden from sight, whixked through the white, silent towns. I don't cre. I hum the tune and hang my head out the passenger window looking at the moon through the date palms. Our CB radio streams complaints from the convoy. I don't care. I bring my head back in, dizzy from watching the stars.


Deep in the Heart of Taxas

The convoy was stopped for a service break in Morocco, on the way to Fes. A young security guard smiled and asked, 'Where you are from?' I said I was American. 'Where you are from there?' When I told him Boston asnd saw nothing register on his face, I said I was from near New York. 'Ah,' he said, 'Nueva York,' with little feeling. Then he said, 'I like Texas. Cowboy films very good.' Then he drew his fingers from imaginary holsters and went, Bam! Bam! and laughed like a small boy. It struck me that one of his imaginary holsters was real.
Two days later, we were driving through north eastern Algeria. Rolling hillsides of semi-arid red earth were stuck with low bushes and clumps of small pines which grew like neat green bowls. I told Rich, who was driving, that the landscape looked a bit like West Texas, plateau oopening out after plateau. About ten minutes later, we came across cattle grazing both sides of the unfenced road, as if on cue. A few minutes later, a sign informed us that we were entering the Algerian municipality of Taxas. All it lacked was some cowboys out of Central Casting.


Police Story

Apologies for the discontinuity in the blog. Have not fou8nd wi-fi possibilities across North Africa until tonight, in Bengazi, east Libya.

Police Story

Some way into France, we found the po0lice waiting for the convoy as we passed through a toll booth. They directed us off to the side of the road. The captain in charge was all business, polite but unsmiling, speaking a clipped French or, as necessary, a clipped English. He directed his unsmiling subordinates in a curt, military tone. Once our paperwork was checked, he waived us on with the same cold civility.

As I drove through a Spanish toll station, I saw two motorcycle policemen waiving at me energetically, so I pulled in towards them, at which their waiving became frantic. What had I done? What was I supposed to do? Coming close, I saw they were only waiving, not frowning, applauding the convoy towards Gaza.

Staying overnight in Algiceras, we took a van into Gibraltar to have supper. At the quaint border crossing, we were stopped by a British policeman, He looked at the signs on our van and said, 'So you;re taking supplies into Gaza.' We said yes, we were. The policeman said, 'Those people really don't need it, you know. They pretend to be poorer than they really are.'


Thursday, 14 October 2010

Free Gaza via Free Derry

In France, we were joined by a van lettered in Irish as well as English. Its four passengers - Betty, Liam, Eanna and Eddie - are from Derry (as opposed to Londonderry) which immediately places them as Nationalist Republicans. They are staunch supporters of freedom for Palestine and members of the Free Derry movement. Their tshirts say YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE GAZA, with Irish and Palestinian tricolours and the small er logo Breaking the Seige 2010. There's a picture of an Israeli fighter jet sending rockets down on a pram (baby carriage). Below is DERRY TO GAZA. Betty turns out to be one of the Derry people who attacked and cause \d damage to Raytheon, who make missiles in Derry. Defended by Clive Stafford-Smith of Reprieve, Betty and her co defendants were found not guilty of criminal damage by the judge who accepted the arguement that the amount of damage caused to Raytheon was far less than the damage prevented by the damage. This decision was repeated a few months later at Brighton, when the judge accepted that the defendents from Smash EDO (US owned, making trigger release mechanisms for F16 fighter jets used by the Israeli air force) prevented great damage being done by causing lesser damage at the EDO factory in Brighton.
Betty, like the others in the Irish contingent, is a quietly spoken person with a good sense of humour and a sharp sense of history. In Gibraltar last night (we are currently gathering at Algeciras to take the ferry to Tangier) she stopped at the petrol station where three IRA volunteers were assassinated by the SAS, and she and the others payed homage to them.


A French Cafe

Tue Would anyone in it adsday morning, Rich and I went to the cafe next to the mosque for coffee. Everyone in there was local white French. When the bartender/patron asked what we were doing there and we told him, he came pout from behind the counter, shook our hands and told us we were doing something useful and good. Other customers nodded  and smiled at us. Before we left, the patron brought out a map from behind the bar: it was the French version of the 'disappearing' Palestine series of maps, 1920 - 2010. Would a white working class cafe or pub in the UK have such a ma, such an awareness, such an attitude?
Would such a pub/bar/cafe in the UK or US identify as working class? The experience was moving, but the implied contrast was depressing. Here was a place that still had human identification and a left consciousness. I come from places where that has disappeared into a consensus managed by a profit-driven establishment and its master-servant news media. Vive la France gauchiste!


Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Latest blog

This is the first chance I;ve had to slet down a quick summary of the past two days, the first days of the convoy, Our first day and a half in the UK were piecemeal, sometimes chaotic and frustrating, but generally friendly. Of the 28 vehicles that were to assemble by 8pm on Saturday at the romantic Services at Junction 2 on the M40 at Beaconsfield (for historians - What would the first Lord Beaconsfield have made of the convoy?) only 4 showed up. By 8am Sun morning, there were 18. Some had decided to park in a slip road at White City, across from BBC TV where we thought to parade before setting off for the Channel Tunnel. When we arrived there and managed to assemble all 23 vans in the right order, the BBC let us know that our presence would not be welcome in their drive-in area, even if it simply moved through. It will be a good day when the spiritual director of BBC Middle East News is no longer Mark Regev, the Israeli Press Officer. Luckily, we'd had Press TV interview some of us earlier at Beaconsfield,l and the Al Jazeera cameras were waiting for the convoy at the Westway/Shepherd'sd Bush roundabout, so we had publicity despite the sleazy Beeb.
Rich, partner-co-driver on the convoy, and I had been separated from some of the others further up Westway into the West End, so Rich turned on sat-nav. Sat nav knows what it knows - the shortest distance between two points, but, alas, not the fastest. We used it but made exceptions  and it worked out. Anyhow, I knew that once we found ourself in the safe hold of the Old Kent Road, we were Folkestone bound. We were one of the first cars to get to wait around and around for the Chunnel train. Ah, but once off the train at Calais, some lead vans decided they had arrived at the 24 Hours at Le Mans race (we were later to pass through Le Mansd, but the new super-ring road means the thrill of the old ring road - the actual race track - is no longer available to the 50mph senior citizen dreaming of Stirling Moss. With some key vans out of our 4 mile or so convoy radios, the night grew darker and longer. The convoy was too strung out, as were its drivers, and wrong turns were started and false starts were made. There were no serious misadventures, so when we later met up at the designated service/parking station for the night, we were able to have some small group discussions which came down to learning to learn from our mistakes and learning patience. Next morning, the entire convoy assembled for short talks by Keiran, the convoy leader (and our section leader) and Adnan, who had been elected as Emir for the Muslim convoy members. We set off in one long convoy, in fine weather and high spirit. After our first break, at lunch, we split up into four sections, making driving easy. The trick of convoy driving on heavily trafficked roads is to stay close enough, but not too close, to the van in front. Another trick is to have the section leader out front, and to have another very knowledgables pair in the last vehicle, to report on any vehicle in trouble.
We made fairly good time on this second day and made Bordeaux, where a serendititous wrong turn led us around the gorgeous waterfront and grand squares of the city. I remembered it from forty years ago, when the buildings were grimy with car exhaust and soot. The city is now full of light. It shines. We spent the night in a run-down outer suburb, camped in and around a mosque. This was an experience worth reporting, as I shall tomorrow. Now for a night's sleep in a bed. A real bed! And a shower!!

blogged from about 50 miles south of Madrid on the Cordoba road.


Friday, 8 October 2010

word convoy

Tomorrow I'm off to our initial rendezvous point, the night before we set off. We meet at the M40 junction 2 services. I'm anxious to see if the site lives up to the romance of its name.

The romance of M40 junction 2 services:
thick smell of deisel, trucks like whirling dervishes.


Tuesday, 5 October 2010

First Blog Series Announcement: To Gaza

From Sunday, October 10, I'll be posting blogs en route by van to Gaza, as a co-driver delivering surgical supplies to Gaza hospitals. At present, there are about 38 vans set to go, but there might be more joining en route. The official name of the group is ROAD TO HOPE CONVOY TO GAZA, an honorable title, though RTHCTG isn't so catchy an acronym.