Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

Saddam Kitsch: Sanaa 9th March 2008
March 9, 2008, 8:06 pm
Filed under: Yemen

Just one of the many manifestations of a growing collector’s craze: genuine pre-invasion Saddam memorabilia. It’s everywhere in this town.


Brothers in Arms: Sanaa Cab Drivers, 8th March 2008
March 8, 2008, 6:35 pm
Filed under: Yemen


Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and often Bobby Sands, follow me wherever I go. Despite having left Ireland years ago, I have not been able to leave the giants of the Irish Republican movement behind. This is because, somehow, they have made it into the liberation lore of the Middle East’s taxi drivers.

Over the past week here in Sanaa, I have been repeatedly congratulated on my kinship with these gentlemen. The frequency of this event seems to increase the further away I get. This is a little uncomfortable. In the bit of Ireland where I grew up, Adams and McGuinness were not heroes. They were murderers.

In Sanaa, however, they have joined the great pantheon in the sky where successful anti-imperialists go when their work is done. Continue reading

Fast Food Sanaa Style: 6th March 2008
March 6, 2008, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Yemen

I’m a fan of cheap and tasty. If it comes quickly, so much the better. Most Arabs seem to agree. Fast food is big business in the Middle East, and these days most cities on the peninsula are slathered in every take-out chain from Hardee’s to KFC (Kan’t Find the Chicken). This is a shame. There is a better way, and it is still thriving in Yemen. Take Fasouliya for example. It’s a bean stew, made with dried fasoul beans, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. You can rustle it up in large quantities, quickly.


Continue reading

Trouble in the Silver Souq: Sanaa Old City, 5th March 2008
March 5, 2008, 8:22 pm
Filed under: Yemen

Rattle bang wallop. A ringing, rounding crash, and a glittering alleyway disgorges a running score of the wild-eyed and delighted. Clash and hullabaloo. Bright and shining objects go flying in the night. A fight! In the silver souq. The crowd attracts and contracts to the epicentre of the action – and now I can hear the recriminations. Plaintive, harmed, wronged. The threats. Ugly tones of impending violence. Shock. Glee.

And a small, bustling sheikh makes his way down the hill. How did he know? Was he just passing? Full of intent. Quran under the arm snug as a gun. What’s this about? Still the push-sounds, the shoves, the shouts, the stumbling over tea-trays and big brass kettles. The thrill of almost danger. The crowd moves to the thump and beat of a right old ding-dong. They love it. Talk of guns. The flash of a knife? Hot fun and adrenalin in the lean-to streets.

Move away now. Danger here. But I want to see! As does our sheikh, now burrowing through to the core of trouble. Where’s the noise gone? A vacancy. Stragglers become bored, and turn to other things. No noise. Here he is, the law-bearer, at the dead centre, judicious now with the culprits in an emptying scene. Nothing to see here. Nothing had ever happened. No problem. It’s only money.

In Frankincense Country: Sanaa, 3rd March 2008
March 3, 2008, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Yemen


In a Middle East full of clamour, brash money and noisy politics, there is always the temptation to write Yemen off. It’s the back of beyond, the end of the world, a nowhere, a semi-failed state. Nothing really happens here, or so people told me before my departure. If you could name one world-famous Yemeni, you’d be doing well, others said. Through the diplomatic niceties, even other Arabs look down Yemen, it seems. Apparently, it is the embarrassing cousin of the Arab family, who has an unfortunate habit of showing up for parties blasted on Qat and waving a knife everywhere. If that’s the case, oh dear. Perhaps I oughtn’t to have bothered.

A moment’s pause though. Where are we talking about? What sort of place? There must be other sources other than hearsay. A rustle through the archives, a delve into the files, retrieves some startling descriptions of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula: Continue reading

Kofta & Robot Cats: Cairo, 29th February 2008
February 29, 2008, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Egypt

Abu Shady is a restaurant on Fahmy Street, near Falaki Square. It’s little more than a street-stand, but it serves marinated chicken and kofta to beat the band. Presentation leaves a little to be desired though: it’s a fingers-only affair, and you have to sit on broken plastic stools under a dusty old tree, facing the entrance of a crumbling parking garaj. But the food is good, and the place is well patronised, so there is quite a retinue of mangy neighbourhood cats in attendance, waiting for the plentiful detritus to hit the floor. I had six moggies patiently arranged around my left leg, which turned into an angry melee of competing scab and fur the minute a wishbone came their way. But, the Prophet was kind to cats, so Cairo is kind to them too. The wildlife has a tendency, I expect, to dominate the dinner conversation, or at least it did at my table. One of my fellow diners took the opportunity to inform us that the Israeli military now uses specially developed robot cats to spy on Hamas in Gaza, gleaning (literally) street-level information that can be employed in targeted airstrikes. “They look just like real cats,” he said, “just a little weird.”

Noise: Cairo, 28th February 2008
February 28, 2008, 11:32 pm
Filed under: Egypt


In my small apartment in the centre of Cairo, enveloped by multitudinous noise in this most furious of cities, I feel like I am in some kind enormous inner ear. An impossible volume of sound is being produced, processed, recycled.

It’s late, and I can’t sleep, so: I’ll enumerate, from the general to the specific: A mid-range hum, a roar, a far away dispensation of sonic force. What is it? A trillion combustions venting kinesis on the turbulent air: Traffic. An endless, oceanic movement that is both above, below and driving madly through all waking life.

Then the angry murmurings of the beings in that wave: Horns. Claxons. Protesting tires. Sirens, both necessary and misused. Rapid decelerations. Furious, spurting accelerations. Crashes. Shouts from windows. Expletives hurled in many declining arcs. Lewd comments, heard briefly from a blurred source.

Then the banal explosions of normal voice and necessary sound. Directions given. Directions repeated. Taxis hailed. Destinations announced, sources demurred. Fares negotiated. Quranic recitations of various kinds. Pious incantations by the reciting commuter. Obscure static, crackle and pop from a mistuned transistor. Bellows from a leaning minaret of a nondescript mosque. Backfirings and kickstarts. Bronchial motors failing, and then catching. The waft and drift of rubbish being thrown to the ground. Ungracious shouts. Yawls. A million Mohammeds being hailed lazily from across the street. Catfights. Dogfights. Ratfights. Children unbidden by bedtime. Collapsing masonry. Arguments and pleas. Protestations. Swearing up corridors and through stairwells. Repetitions. Protestations. Notice being given of goods delivered or services rendered. Bekiya. The shuffledrift of strolling feet not properly lifted. The multiplied tapping of a cane. Unreasonable laughter. Notice given of goods for sale. Plaintive songs from an earlier age. Less plaintive songs from a newer age. The repititorium of impatience, beep beep. Banking, dipping, queuing aircraft. Leave being taken and arrivals announced. Love spoken of to a disco beat. Desperation and enthusiasm. Tiredness. Life. Tinnitus. A storm of spent energy.