Friday, February 27, 2009

Too Sick for the Desert

Luxor, Egypt

We had ambitious plans, let me tell you. We were going to take our overnight sailboat trip from Aswan to Luxor, stay one night in Luxor, have one day of vigorous sightseeing and then take an overnight train to Alexandria, where we would get a bus off to the Western Desert. It was going to be whirlwind fast; we were going to see this whole damn country in about a week.

We were just too damn tired, though, and I was getting cranky. Then we decided to stay two nights in Luxor, which turned into three when our desert plans were scaled back, and then became four when Linda and I both started expelling everything in our digestive system from whatever orifice was most convenient.

I’m feeling much better today. Linda’s still a little sick. But our Egyptian adventure is basically over, without us ever really getting out to the desert. We’re taking an overnight train to Cairo tonight, and in the next couple of days, Nate and Linda are flying to Berlin and Erin and I are flying to Frankfurt.

There is no desert in Germany. We’re finished with the desert. Seeing as how everyone’s skin is flaking off and noses are bleeding for no discernable reason, I guess we’ll be fairly glad to be done with the desert.

I’m not feeling particularly wordy today, (I must have preempted my usual verbal diarrhea with yesterday’s outburst of the other kind) but I know that there’s always demand for pictures. Erin uploaded a whole bunch of cool photos of Jordan at

And now, I'll tell the story of our trip to Egypt.

We saw a whole bunch of cool stuff.

Then we went sailing...

...and our boat broke.

The boat being broken made Nate unhappy.

Then they fixed the boat, we went to Luxor and we saw loads more cool stuff.

And then Linda and Ben did some extreme pooping.

(Photo not available)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ride a Train Like an Egyptian

The Train to Aswan, Egypt

“Pyramid!” Nate shouts, pointing to something out the window of the train. “Oh, no. It’s just some mud,” he says, disappointed.

It’s a thirteen-hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan. It’s a quite comfortable train if you go it in the daytime without a trainload of French teenagers, but we went at night, with a trainload of French teenagers. It’s morning now and we’re still two hours from Aswan and the teenagers are still French and annoying.

Apparently French kids get a two-week holiday in the middle of February. If I’d known that, I’d have hidden out in a mud hut in the desert somewhere, but instead I’m here, in one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.

The two French kids who shared our compartment last night told us that they are here because their parents are employees of Air France, and Air France is socialistic enough to fund group holidays for their employees. While I admire Air France’s condescending show of paternal benevolence toward their employees, (they must know that you’re better than them when you’re paying for them to take their family holidays together — Oh, thank you benevolent employer! May I have another lump of coal for the fire?) I regard last night’s teen dance party in the corridor outside our compartment as their doing, and by God I swear I will one day take my revenge on Air France’s staff and equipment.

Nate and Linda flew out to Egypt to meet up with us. Linda got her permanent resident visa from the government of Canada much faster than they were expecting, (hooray!) so instead of hanging out in Borneo and eating wild boar curry in the jungle, the two of them decided to come to Egypt and eat baba ganoush and hummus with us in the desert.

Nate is as suspicious as ever; as I intently look at him sitting across the train compartment from me, trying to invent new adjectives to describe him with, he looks back at me and smiles and nods and tries to act like he is not unsettled by my penetrating stare. I can’t understand why he distrusts me so; I will have to watch my back with him around, and maybe consider making a preemptive strike while he is sleeping. How heavy an object would I need to finally put his poor, suspicious mind to rest?

Egypt is cool. I enjoyed Cairo more than I ever thought I would. Cairo is one of the world’s megacities, with a population of eleven million or twenty million, depending on who you ask and where they decided to stop counting. It is fairly poor and yes, you often have to chew the air before breathing, but it has character and loads of history. Cairo was the capital of the Mamluks and is full of fantastic old mosques and palaces. Cairo’s old city was built a fair distance from the Nile, before flood controls tamed its banks, and the new downtown was built next to the Nile, so the old city wasn’t destroyed when the new center was built. Cairo has everything.

Giza, which used to be called Memphis, is now a suburb of Cairo. I didn’t see anything in Giza that would be spared my merciless bulldozing of bad urban planning and ugly cities when I become dictator of the world, except for the pyramids. The pyramids are wicked. They look like big stone triangles. We took one hundred thousand photographs of them, all of which show big stone triangles standing in the desert, a short distance from the sharp line that divides the sand and the greenery of the Nile valley. Sometimes there are camels in the foreground.

Egypt is drawn incorrectly on all of the maps I’ve ever seen. It usually looks like a lumpy square on maps. It really is more of a long line down the Nile. How can a country say they own all that sand out in the desert, and why would they care to claim it? The area immediately next to the Nile is nearly as lush and green as the jungle Nate and Linda just left, but one centimeter past the farthest reach of the irrigation systems is the driest, deadest desert I’ve ever seen.

I’ve never seen a desert this dead, and I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur of deserts. The desert in Arizona always disappointed me, because it’s full of plants. You can hardly walk through the thing for all the saguaros and prickly pears and mesquite trees that get in the way. Both the Gobi desert in Mongolia and the edge of the Arabian desert we just saw in Syria and Jordan was freckled with the odd clump of bushes or grass, and could support the camels and goats of a few nomadic herders. The patches of the Western Desert we’ve seen here are completely dead. There’s nothing as far as the eye can see except sand.

I can’t wait to get out there and see it. I know from past experience that it’s going to be boring as hell. Tucker and I spent 9 days bouncing around in a jeep in the Gobi in 2004, and I’ve driven across Saskatchewan more than once, so I know what being in the middle of nothingness is like. I know what it’s like to look forward to stopping in some flyspecked dustblown shithole like Bogd or Regina, as though it were an oasis of worldly pleasures. The sensory deprivation of desert travel is something that needs to be experienced, though. Our main difficulty will be finding a way to get out into the desert without taking some kind of a tour.

The teenaged French girls at the other end of the car are now excitedly screaming about some kind of pubescent conversational outrage or some spectacular development in the soap opera of their social lives. Be warned, Air France: I am taking this out on you. The next time I fly Air France (which would be the first time) I am going to shit in the bathroom sink.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Erin and I are in Petra, Jordan. We've been doing loads of stuff lately, like looking at more awesome ruins and hiking around in the desert, but I don't want to write about any of that stuff right now. Right now, I only want to talk about Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is easily the weirdest place I’ve ever been. It’s weirder than Las Vegas, weirder than Bangkok, and weirder than Phnom Phen, Barcelona and Irkutsk put together. I’m certain that I’m forgetting many other weird places I’ve been, but I can say with certainty that Jerusalem is weirder than they are. I don’t think I’ll find a weirder place. Thus, I peremptorily give it the title of Weirdest Place in the World; bow down and hail the new king of weirdness.

Everyone knows that Jerusalem has Muslims, Christians and Jews. The four quarters of the old city are the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. I have no idea why the Armenians have their own quarter; I asked around and nobody could give me a straight answer.

There is much more diversity in the city than the number of quarters suggests. There are many kinds of Jews, and I think many more kinds of Christians. There are probably many kinds of Muslims and Armenians as well, but I couldn’t tell by their costumes. Jews love wearing special costumes to show which kind of Jew they are, whether it’s an elaborate headcloth, a black suit with a black hat, or a green costume with a machinegun.

The Christians' costumes are less easy to define than the Jews', but the brands of the churches they pray in are easier to identify. Every one of the hundred million Christian sects in the world has a church in Jerusalem; the Mormons even have a campus of Brigham Young University there. On a more general level, the Christians are divided into two categories: the local Christians, who speak Arabic and look a lot like Arabs and are in fact Arabs, and the foreign Christians, who speak everything and look like everyone in the world.

You take all of those people and their religious buildings, and you cram them into an old city that is less than 1 km square and surround them by big, stone city walls. There are very many weird people and religious buildings and it is a very small area, so it is very cramped; most of the streets are no more than 4 meters wide, and none of them go straight for more than a hundred meters, because with that many people around, naturally a building will get in the way before long.

Of course, cramped as it is, the old city can’t hold representative samples of all the groups who find Jerusalem holy, so there’s a new city as well. The new city is full of mostly Jews on the one side and Arabs on the other, and it’s not as weird as the old city, but as a backdrop, it definitely enhances the weirdness of the whole scene.

Onto this ornately decorated canvas, we now splatter the paint of a hundred thousand tourists, most of whom consider themselves religious pilgrims. They belong to all of the religions listed above, but the largest number of them are Christians from all around the world, in a more bewildering variety of costumes and colours than you ever imagined Christians came in.

The tour/pilgrimage groups from all-black churches in the United States were most entertaining because of their singing, but the Coptics from Ethiopia wearing robes were definitely more scenic. Many other Christian tourists looked just like ordinary tourists, except for something in the expression on their faces, and the fact that they seemed to spend most evenings in their hotels studying, instead of loafing about, reading novels and drinking beer like normal tourists do.

Naturally, with that number of tourists around, (even if they call themselves pilgrims) there are going to be a lot of souvenir stands. I don’t think I saw anybody selling off pieces of the True Cross like they did in the old days, but they were selling absolutely everything else, from the devoutly secular, (a Montreal Canadiens t-shirt with the team name written in Hebrew, or a t-shirt with a picture of an Uzi machinegun and the caption, “Uzi does it”) to the mixed secular/religious, (a “Guns n’ Moses” t-shirt, or, for hippies or Christians, Jesus sandals) to the strictly religious (any kind of religious icon or item used by any imaginable variant of the three abovementioned religions).

Then, we’ve got to talk about the people who are standing guard over all of this. Israel has mandatory military service for all 18 year-olds; boys get three years in the IDF, and girls get two. Apart from that, there is no apparent discrimination between the sexes: the girls get the exact same kind of machineguns the boys do, and they man the same checkpoints.

Standing guard at select locations around the old town and patrolling the streets were pairs of Israeli soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers looked like grownups, but more often, it was a pair of teenagers, with zits and gawkiness and all the other great stuff teenagers have going for them, except that they had machineguns, too. Often, the boys clearly hadn’t started shaving yet, and even more often, the girls were cute. They were really cute and they had machineguns. They looked like the girls I used to stare at in class when I was in high school, except heavily armed. I couldn’t help it; I thought it was really hot.

The brave women and girls of the IDF know that tourist men are looking at them, so they always wear make-up and earrings. From the chunky woman in her mid-twenties who grilled us at the border crossing, to the machinegun-toting hottie who brusquely checked passports and handed them back with a grunt when we crossed from the West Bank into Jerusalem, female Israeli soldiers make every effort to overcome their baggy-assed khaki uniforms by presenting a dazzlingly groomed head to the world.

Now, if this still-life is not weird enough for you, set it in motion. Set the Hassidim at the Wailing Wall bobbing prayer, get the church groups to sing their hymns as they visit the stations of the cross, make the Palestinian butchers carve sides of goat in their market stalls, have the souvenir hawkers tailor their sales pitches to their targets’ nationalities, and just when the souk couldn’t get any more crowded, get someone to push a three-wheeled cart full of goods down the steep steps. Crowds of nuns! Hordes of Arab schoolchildren! Another church group! And why the fuck not, let's have someone ride their bike down the souk!

The smell is as chaotic as the traffic. It smells of spices more often than shit, cooked food more often than slowly rotting raw meat, nargile smoke more than sweat, but it's all of the other things, too, and you never know what you're going to breathe in next, or where it came from.

And the noise? When it isn’t time for the call to prayer, and when the church bells aren’t striking the full-, half- or quarter-hour, the din is a Babel of voices. The locals who don’t speak to each other in Arabic mostly speak Hebrew, but if they want a chance of selling anything to the visitors, they also speak English and maybe a few other languages. A Spaniard shows up at the immigration post at the border, and you can be sure that someone there speaks Spanish. A Frenchwoman goes to the tourist office and she sure doesn’t have to speak English. Israelis come from all over the world; if they can’t talk to you in your native tongue, they know someone who can.

Ever see a seventy year-old French nun shout at a Jewish border guard? I have! I saw two Israeli soldiers come into a bar with their machineguns and have a beer; one kept his machinegun sitting on his lap while the other put his on the floor and rested his feet on it. I saw Africans kiss a stone slab because they thought that Jesus’ dead body had been washed on it, I saw Muslims kneeling and praying in a crowded street, and I saw Jews writing notes to God and wedging them into the cracks of a 2500 year-old wall.

Wikipedia tells me this about the eighth station of the cross: "Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem.” I don’t really know what that means. I mean, I can guess — four cross-stations later, the cat would be nailed to a cross and six later he’d be dead in a cave, so why not stop for a chat with some local broads? But I really don’t understand why that station should happen to be outside of the internet café I looked up that fact in, and what about it made successive groups of African-Americans burst into song.

I can understand why Muslims might want to build a mosque on top of the Temple Mount, on the vacant platform formerly occupied by the Jewish temple, but I don’t understand why it subsequently became the third-holiest place in Islam.

I don't understand how people can live their lives in such close proximity to thousands of other people whose dozens of varieties of fervent faith are logically incompatible with their own fervent faith, and still believe that their version is literally true, based as it is on true revelation, as opposed to the false revelation followed by the others.

I don’t get Jerusalem. I’ll never get it. What’s more, I don’t think anyone else gets more than half of it, either. It’s not something that can be sorted out into logical categories and solved, or even explained. If you want life and human behaviour and geopolitics to make sense, don't go to Jerusalem; they'll never make sense to you again if you do.

It’s weirder than dogs playing poker. Jerusalem isn't something to be understood; it's a thing to be gawked at and puzzled over and then sadly read about in the news.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Hi friends,

Erin and I are in Amman. Today we went and saw yet another set of amazing Roman ruins at Jerash. Unbelievable. Basically, it was a lot of rocks arranged in a particular way that made me think of Romans. No point in trying to describe them further.

We are leaving Jordan soon, to take a quick trip to Jerusalem. I'm sure I'll have lots to say about that. I'm extremely excited about going.

Until then, I'm going to send you an article I wrote when I was in Lebanon. I wrote it specifically for the Walrus magazine, for their Field Notes section; I was promptly rejected, by a very nice editor who told me that it was "a lovely article", but that the history and politics it referred to was a little too obscure for their readership. I don't think I have any chance of getting it published elsewhere, so I'm going to post it here. I trust that you'll all be sharp enough to understand the history and politics it refers to. Read it and love it and don't nobody never say I can't write.

Layers of Conflict

Searching for the true Lebanese people in the ruins of Byblos

The Israeli invasion of Gaza is in its 15th day 300 kilometers south of here. My guide Waad points out signs of an earlier conflict. I look up at the blond limestone wall of the citadel looming over us, and there, wedged between giant blocks carved 2500 years ago by Persians and reused 16 centuries later by crusaders, are two cannonballs fired by the Royal Navy in 1842.

“As you can see, Lebanon has had politics since at least 1842,” Waad jokes.

The soil of Byblos is packed with evidence of much earlier politics, dating back to the dawn of civilization. In the running for being the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, Byblos is an archaeological onion, with successive waves of invaders each adding a layer to the ruins, Roman remains lying over Greek, Persian over Phoenician.

The informed opinion of analysts is that Lebanon will avoid an invasion this year; a few rockets have been launched at Israel from southern Lebanon in support of Hamas, but Israel seems disinclined to punish Hezbollah with a repeat of their 2006 invasion. Still, I am ready to run for the Syrian border at a moment’s notice. I am only interested in invasions that are no longer in progress.

During these years of reconstruction following Lebanon’s civil war, there has been little money for archaeological sites. The pathway we follow through the foundations of the bronze-age city was paid for by the government of Quebec. Waad complains about what he calls the cultural ignorance of his countrymen. “If you ask the old man in the souk what is here, he’ll say ‘the citadel’. Actually, the citadel is the least important thing here.”

The excavation of Byblos was the lifework of French archaeologist Maurice Dunand, who made spectacular discoveries here. As Dunand peeled back the layers, he dismantled the significant structures in the upper layers and reassembled them elsewhere.

The site is now reminiscent of a dissected cadaver. Two bronze-age temples that spent four thousand years one atop the other are now sitting side-by-side; a Roman amphitheatre that was once tucked into a nearby hillside is now a hundred meters away, on a rise overlooking the sea.
Waad is emphatic about his countrymen’s need for a clear-eyed understanding of their shared history. “There can be no facts in history. There may be facts in archaeology. The reason this place is so important is that you don’t need to believe.”

During the civil war, factions touted distorted versions of history and laid claim to ancient identities in order to exclude others from the land they were born to. “The man who goes to church on Sunday calls himself Phoenician,” Waad says. “The man who goes to the mosque on Friday calls himself an Arab. We are Phoenician by habit, Arabs by language, but we are Lebanese. We owe our lives to the soil.”

He tells me about the Genographic Project, an effort to genetically trace humanity’s historical migrations. The project has found genetic footprints left by Phoenicians at their colonies across the Mediterranean, but they are faint. Thousands of years of invasions and migrations have blended bloodlines until claims of such ancient ancestry have become meaningless.

Lebanon has been invaded eighteen times, by Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks. Waad’s eyebrows are heavy and his nose prominent and hooked; his black pupils are set in dark blue rings.

“Nobody called the Lebanese ever invaded this place,” he says. The Lebanese are the people left behind when the floodwaters of each invasion receded.

We walk back to the citadel, which the crusaders built using the ruins on the site as a quarry for materials. The structure is composed of pieces left by earlier civilizations. Italian granite columns brought here by Romans were inserted into the walls as reinforcing members. Stones bear Persian and Roman carvings that don’t match up with the blocks adjacent to them.

Inside, Waad points out more recent layers of construction. An arched stairway was added by the Lebanese government in 1967. Much of the ceiling was restored in the 19th Century. The most recent addition is the Canadian layer of Byblos, a museum built in 2002.

“Actually, it was built with your tax dollars — thank you,” Waad says.

I laugh.

“No, really; thank you.”

I tell him that it is natural that Canadians should take interest in so ancient a site. “The city I live in is brand new. Vancouver has never even seen a war.”

“You are very fortunate,” he says. He stands in front of a board displaying information about the Hellenistic period. “I am moving my family to Canada next year, actually.”

I have questions, but Waad interrupts me. “When I was born, there was a war. When we got married, there was a war. When we had children, there was a war. Now, we go to Canada so my children can dream. So at least they can have a dream. I never could dream.”

I am left struggling to find an appropriate response. A silent moment passes before I lamely welcome Waad to my country.

After my tour, I stop at a nearby pub, where I have a conversation with the proprietor, Pierre. Like many Lebanese, Pierre has a Canadian connection: until a few years ago, he lived in Montreal.

We discuss Lebanon’s antiquity and Canada’s newness, and he shares an anecdote about a Canadian friend who took him to see his grandfather’s farmhouse, proud of it being 180 years old. “It was nice, but it meant nothing to me,” Pierre laughs. The room we are sitting in contains a Roman column carved sometime around the birth of Christ.

Unlike any building in Lebanon built before 2006, the 180-year-old farmhouse outside of Montreal has never seen a war. The only thing in Canada that is ancient by Lebanese standards is our peace.