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The Killing Fields 23.IV.2012 07:25
It is written in the book of Isaiah that to all God would give 'within mine house and with my walls a place everlasting name.' This was the inspiration for the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, for those who meet their ends in mass graves often die twice: once when their lives are taken from them, and again when their identities rot away until their bones cannot be separated from those who met their ends beside them. At the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, the best-known of Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, these bones are piled 17 levels high, the skulls of thousands of these victims staring out at you at eye level, testifying wordlessly to Man's inhumanity to Man.

And though they can never return to their families, their survivors work tirelessly to prevent this second death - to preserve, as in Jerusalem, at least a shred of the identity of each person, so that the very last of them does not disappear from this earth. For it is all but impossible not to be dwarfed by the enormity of the crimes committed during the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and thus to reduce its victims, as in Stalin's famous dictum, to a mere statistic. One cannot conceive of even the 17,000 victims of Choeung Ek, yet that was but one of many execution sites, which together claimed more than one and a half million sacrifices to the cause of 'revolution'. Even here, the remains of only 9,000 have been recovered, and each rainy season the ground, endlessly churning, swells and casts up yet more skulls, teeth and bones: no rest for these men, women and children, even decades on.

The only consolation that, like so many totalitarian regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, preserving the name of each man trucked here to meet his end. As in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bureaucratic process belies an institutional awareness of the enormous moral outrage being committed, so full of small lies ostensibly to deceive the victims, but partly to allow the criminals to deceive themselves. As people were hacked to death in Choeung Ek - bullets too precious to be wasted on such tasks - the sounds of revolutionary songs and diesel motors played to drown out the screams of the dying, to keep up the pretence that this was, perhaps, merely a military base. To allow all but those present to keep up a denial, willing or subconscious, of what was truly happening. And even if it happened here, perhaps it was just one - not one of hundreds of such sites that destroyed almost a third of the country's entire population.

And, as one looks upon the empty pits, and at the bones and shreds of cloth, and the undisturbed ground that has yet to reveal its victims to the light, the most disturbing thought occurs: that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, not the guards but the ones who gave the orders, thought of themselves as on the side of good. How can you separate out the lust for power in the mind of a man who believes he is assisting in the birth of an ideal society? And, conversely, how many of those we know personally that think of themselves as 'moral' are simply following a system of rules that happens to lead to the fulfilment their own desires? It is not evil to think this way - merely human - and the greatest achievement of civilisation is to take us away from this bloody patrimony. Its extreme, the terrible utopian visions of men like Pol Pot, claim to encompass humanity but deny the human - and the Khmer Rouge slogan expressed this perfectly in its attitude to each of its victims: 'to keep you is no gain; to kill you is no loss.'

Louis XIV famously said "l'état, c'est moi" - I am the state. But the utopian dictator claims an even larger authority - he does not rule over the people, he is the people. His interests, or the Party's, are the people's, and if one of the people should oppose them, well he was really opposing his very self, like a cancerous cell destroying its own body. And so, such a polity fights constantly against the very human beings it claims to be saving; every revolution devours its young. And this remains true of every power that tries to shape a society: the Americans trying to remake Vietnam in their own image said 'we must burn the village to save the village' - that if their lives did not confirm to the ideal vision, they were meaningless, and therefore forfeit.

And speaking of the same Americans, thanks to them, China, the UK and others, Pol Pot and his murderous regime held a United Nations until 1993, for 14 years after Cambodia itself was free of them. Why? Because Cambodia had been liberated by the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, and put "People's Republic" in its name. The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split are far more important than the lives of some insignificant peasants. How can one mere life compare to the glorious society being created by the Khmer Rouge? How can one mere life compare to the struggle against global Communism which threatens to engulf us all? And Pol Pot died comfortably under house arrest, and only now are some of his associates being prosecuted for their crimes, immune for years from prosecution because we did not like those who might prosecute him. And as for the human beings caught in the middle - well, what could be more human than to deny others their humanity?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia Kh

Colonia Primigenia 10.IV.2010 05:20
I've never been so shocked when entering a country as I was at Asmara International Airport in Eritrea's capital. After filling out the usual myriad forms, declarations and what have you, and exchanging money at a rate that can only be described as extortionate, we made our wait out of the airport building. There was, as they always is, a gaggle of people gathered awaiting passengers. But when we got there, no one took any notice of us at all. Not one taxi driver tried to convince us to get immediately into his cab, not one person yelled at us about rides to downtown or cheap hotels - nothing of the sort happened at all. In fact, even as we were clearly confused, having been mentally prepared to fend off aggressive drivers left and right, not one person volunteered information as to how to get to the capital. And when we found the taxi stand, the taxi drivers observed the order of arrival scrupulously - they all called over to the next driver in line to take us rather than jumping ahead for the extra fare. Honestly, I can't imagine a single place in the world where the airport is like that.

Eritrea is one of those countries that's often forgotten even by the relatively well-informed. One of the world's youngest - it broke away from Ethiopia in 1994 after a bloody and prolonged war of independence - it rarely makes the news, and has an isolationism about itself that doesn't make for easy foreign engagement. Like so many countries in Africa, it is essentially a European creation - it was the centrepiece of Italy's efforts to establish an empire to rival those of its neighbours, and the jewel in the crown of Mussolini's Second Roman Empire. Colonia primigenia they called it, the mother country's first-born child. Whereas Ethiopia's never having been colonised is a huge part of the national identity here, conversely, the Italian influence is omnipresent and unmistakeable, with Asmara showcasing some of the finest fin de siecle and modernist architecture in the world.

The country is actually sort of a mirror-universe Ethiopia, with just enough familiar elements that you know you're in a country with a shared heritage, but with everything else completely switched around. Whereas Addis Abeba is a sprawling village, where even a slight deviation from the main road leaves you wondering if you're in a city at all, and dust and garbage dominate the sidewalks, Asmara is immaculate - walking through it feels more like a European city than a third-world capital (though not a real European city - more like the kind seen in a Fellini film). The awareness that you're in Africa revolts against the art-deco and futurist buildings that line Asmara's streets, incredibly well preserved from Colonial times before the second world war. A walk down Asmara's gorgeous high street leads you past such landmarks as the Cinema Imperio, which would not have looked out of place at all in an establishing shot in Roman Holiday.

In a perverse sense, though, Asmara's time capsule quality is a testament to Eritrea's tragedy. For history's greatest enemy is development - the sometimes slow but inexorable encroachment of the modern world over the old - and there has been precious little of that here. No UNESCO money has been needed to preserve the buildings here, because no money was available to build something on top of them, and so no ruthless developer schemed to tear them down. Liberated by the British during World War II it was promptly given over to Ethiopian dominance, as Emperor Haile Selassie, Elect of God and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, decreed it his country's inalienable right to have an outlet to the sea. For many Eritreans, whose long separateness under Italian oppression created their nationality identity from nothing in much the same way that the Palestinian nation has come into being since the founding of the state of Israel, Ethiopian rule was just another form of colonisation; and so began a war of independence that outlasted the Empire itself as Haile Selassie's Stalinist successors, the Derg, carried on his policies in Eritrea. Only when they were overthrown by the Tigray rebel leader Meles Zenawi (now the Ethiopian prime minister) did Eritrea, where the Tigrays are the dominant ethnicity, gain independence.

It was supposed to have been a new dawn for Africa. Isaias Afewerki, the Ethiopian rebel leader turned president, was held up by many as an example of the enlightened African ruler, and his friendship with Zenawi promised good relation between the country and its former master. Alas, it was not to be. Eritrea got into several border disputes with countries such as Yemen, and a full out war broke out between them and neighbouring Ethiopia that remains unresolved to this day - the border regions in both countries are off-limits to tourists. Slowly, the government tightened its grip on the country. Elections have been scheduled almost a dozen times since independence, but never held, and the ruling party suffers no opposition to its rule. On Transparenty International's index of journalistic freedom, it ranks not only lowest in Africa - which is an achievement in itself - but lowest in the entire world, its isolationism earning it the sobriquet 'the North Korea of Africa,' which can hardly be considered flattering. The unbelievable cleanliness of Asmara's streets testifies to the government's control of every aspect of life - third-world cities are dirty because people who are surviving day-to-day have better things to do than sweep sidewalks and mow lawns, things we considere chores in the west without realising the level of luxury such chores represent.

What makes this so galling is that it's hard not to immediately fall in love with the country. For something like the first time, as tourists we're not even an object of curiosity; we're simply ignored as people go about their daily business. Whereas walking down an Ethiopia street is essentially a constant siege of people trying to get your money - including such shamelessness as charging for pointing to a hotel you can see from where you are - here you're left alone and never charged anything but the local price. The atmosphere in the bars is European as well, just a few groups of people hanging out and having a few beers (groups of men, of course - one aspect that is familiar from Ethiopia is that any woman in a bar is either a waitress there or a prostitute.)

As a matter of fact, I cannot overstate what a relief it is to be able to just go out and have a beer. In Yemen, where all alcohol is smuggled and beer is near-impossible to come by, a dynamic comes about not unlike that of underage drinking - you have to put a lot of effort into doing it, so when you do, you do it hard. There's no just having one or two drinks - you almost invariably get trashed and go out to the one nightclub, the so-called 'Russian Club', which is exactly as sketchy as it sounds. Here, we definitely intend to spend quite a few nights over a couple beers, just relaxing and soaking in the wonderful atmosphere of the city. I really think we couldnt've picked a better place to take a break from Yemen - it's different in all the right ways. I'll be spending the next ten days here, travelling over as much of the country as the government will allow (read: a small portion of the country) before, no doubt somewhat reluctantly, heading out and back to Sana'a.

Asmara, Eritrea Er

On terrorism in Yemen 13.VIII.2009 13:26
Yemen, in which I'm currently living, makes the news for pretty much only one reason - violence (with the occasionally human interest story about child brides thrown in). There's the kidnappings, the terrorist attacks, the Shia rebellion, the civil war - a never ending stream of destruction. As I write this, the top story on al-Jazeera reads 'Yemen warplanes pound rebel strongholds' which, it must be admitted, is exactly what's happening. The paradox of it all is that, on a day-to-day basis in the capital, Sana'a, I'm safer than I would be in any Western city, even Toronto, because of the total absence of street crime and, although foreigners have been targeted elsewhere, the capital is perfectly secure. The reason for this counter-intuitive state of affairs is, as always, that the country is far more complicated than the label it's assigned in the media: in Yemen's case, that of a potential failed state and new headquarters for al-Qaeda.

Broadly speaking, there are four sources of violence in Yemen: tribal kidnappings, the Houthi rebellion in the North, 'al-Qaeda' terrorist attacks such as the one on the USS Cole, and the Southern independence movement. The first, targeted at foreigners like me but paradoxically less threatening, is kidnappings. Headline-grabbing though they are, these are essentially harmless: all the laws of the traditional host-guest relationship apply, so you sit around eating and drinking tea with the mild inconvenience that you're not allowed to leave (this being a notoriously hard thing to do at Middle Eastern households anyway). After the government caves in and gives your kidnappers the money/weapons/what have you, you simply go home, as did a Dutch couple kidnapped a few months back. All this started in the 80's or 90's, when the government tried to resolve a few kidnappings quickly by giving into demands, and the tribes realised that this was an effective tactic. It's not at all about harming the foreigners, but about tribal relations with government - and it must be remembered that loyalty to the tribe and family still means a lot more than loyalty to the state, and the central government's control over many of the tribes ranges from loose to non-existence, the former mostly through bribes and appointments. Nevertheless, if you ever see 'Polish-Canadian, 25, held hostage in Yemen' on the BBC, it's almost certainly nothing to worry about.

The second conflict, and the big one right now, is the war against the Houthi rebels in the North, specifically in Saada province, in which hundreds of people have died over the past decade or so. The Houthis are a tribal group occupying the mountains reaches of the north of the country, near the borders of Saudi Arabia, and belong to the Zaidi sect of Shi'a Islam. Until the revolution in 1962, Yemen was a theocracy, ruled by a Zaidi Imam, and the government accuses the Houthis of wanting to reinstate such rule. However, this is far from clear: most everyone I talk to says that no one really knows what the Houthis want, and many express dismay that the government and its well-funded military haven't crushed them already, wondering at some secret motives. This is the conflict that's really serious, and it was in Saada that nine foreigners - Germans, Brits and a South Korean - were kidnapped some months ago. Three have been found dead, and rumours continue to swirl about the fate of the other six.

Though I said above that kidnapping poses no threat to foreigners, this case was altogether different, and calls up an aspect of foreign aid work that is very rarely commented upon: missionaries. The nine who were kidnapped were operating in an area known for violent conflict, and it's said that, in addition to running a hospital, their organisation was also trying to win a few souls for Jesus on the side. We always assume that people who are attacked are either gold-hearted aid workers (as a sidebar, through my travels I've discovered that many aid workers are in fact assholes) or innocent tourists at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, one has to remember that in many places, especially among Muslims, proselytising is deeply, deeply resented; this is not to say that the missionaries deserved to be killed, but one has to remember that engaging in such activity - and bringing your family to help do so - is putting yourself at risk. Similarly, there were a few attacks against Koreans during the beginning of my stay here, and though at the time it just seemed random, but I suddenly remembered a similar incident years back in Afghanistan and the country's large and fervent Christian population and suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Third on our list of Yemeni terror threats we have that symbol of evil incarnate, Islamic terrorism, mostly under the guise of al-Qaeda. This is the one that gets the most play in the press, for obvious reasons, and it's the reason that great swathes of the country are inaccessible to tourists. This includes the Sabaean ruins at Ma'rib, which I would love to see, but unfortunately can't because an attack killed seven Spanish tourists there last year; groups like this were also the ones responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. As in many Arab countries, this is the reason American funds flow to a government that has, otherwise, fairly little public support and even less actual democratic legitimacy. Nevertheless, there is a genuine movement of attacks in Yemen roughly in line with the broader Islamist one

The more interesting phenomenon, however, is that every attack is perpatrated by al-Qaeda. While this is theoretically possible, the fact is that it is in both the government's and the terrorists' interest to say that it was no matter the circumstances. The word 'al-Qaeda' is the 'open sesame' to American foreign aid coffers, its mere mention getting the instant attention of the State department; and point out the fact that if the central government were to lose control, the whole country could become al-Qaeda's new base, thereby negating the so-called 'good war' in Afghanistan, well, that's a nice fat paycheque for the ruling party. On the other hand, say you're some random terrorist, maybe Islamic, or just anti-Western, or both - imagine the instant prestige you get when your successful attack becomes a certified 'al-Qaeda'™ attack. So the government calls it al-Qaeda to get the Americans' attention, and it's not really in anyone's interest to rebut the claim, and so bin Laden's terror network appears to get more and more firmly established in Yemen. That's the problem with the whole treatment of al-Qaeda now - if it ever was an actual network (ie with funds flowing and chains of command), now it's just become something people say to get attention. Of course, it's a brush with which it's hard to tar a Shi'a group like the Houthis - which may be one reason that war hasn't been resolved - but the Saudis have solved that problem by invoking the other Great Evil, Iran, who is supposedly sponsoring them. Nevermind that the Zaidis have a form of Shi'ism no Iranian would recognise - they must be behind it anyway. That'll get the money coming in.

The idea of al-Qaeda ties is one that the government has used sporadically against our fourth and final 'terrorist' group, Southern separatists. Yemen used to be two countries from 1962 until unification in 1990 (which a civil war in 1994 tried, and failed, to undo), the communist South being generally more permissive than the standard Arab dictatorship of the North, centred economically around the port of Aden. Now (as ever in regions with some sense of identity, cf. Quebec), they claim that the north is oppressing them economically and culturally, and demanding more rights. A few people on the fringe want full independence - and of course the government has seized on such 'traitors' to shut down news papers, take political prisoners, and kill protesters for the freedom of said prisoners, as happened a few weeks back. There's really almost no danger from the 'separatists' - perhaps the ludicrous Chinese term for Tibetans, 'splittists', would be better? - and the occasional flare-up, as so many things here, certainly has more to with tribe than nation. However, the government will always use the spectre of civil war and failed state to clamp down, with international approval, on the most likely source of an effective and reasonable opposition in the country.

Yemen is not, by any standards, a calm country, and it's no stranger to violence - a walk down the main streets will see plenty of vendors with clips of ammo, and an AK-47 apparently costs approximately $150. And though the capital is quite far from the conflict areas, apparently last summer you could hear the bombardments of a nearby stronghold from downtown. However, in my view, Sana'a remains perfectly safe, and I in it, and I have the greatest violence I've experienced here was stupid little kids yelling at me about my tallness and long hair. The problem is, of course, that for all the real disasters here - education, poverty, women's rights - the media simply report on the war, the terrorist attacks, the kidnappings and the 'separatists,' without any detail, nuance or sense of the complex way in which all these things differ and fit together, painting a picture that, from my current seat at Abu Ali's teashop staring at the gorgeous buildings of Old Sana'a, is anything but.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Democracy in Iran 12.VI.2009 11:54
Iran is a strange beast. Over the past weeks, it's seen expressions of political dissent that would be unthinkable in any of the various dictatorships - American-sponsored or otherwise - that dot the Arab world, including the one I'm writing from. On the other hand, it's not exactly a democracy either; hundreds upon hundreds of names were dismissed from the electoral rolls, and every candidate here has ties to the revolutionary establishment of the 1980s - except Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, Iran's Guardian Council issues edicts at whim, but on the other the Islamic Republic has a species of checks and balances, which have meant that never in its history has it really been able to speak in one voice, much as the three branches of the American government can rarely be said to do so. The elections aren't exactly free, but they aren't exactly undemocratic. In short, the Islamic Republic has an unelected government - but every few years, the people have the chance to elect an opposition.

In spite of the censorship and random jailings, of all the countries I've visited Iranians were freest with their political opinions - it would sometimes take me seconds for a taxi driver to tell me what he hates about the current government. Iran is, above all, a proud and cultured nation - its poets form a major part of the national psyche, and the Persian Empire is a source of pride, rather than being dismissed as an irrelevance of the jahiliyya, the 'time of ignorance' before the advent of Islam. Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric once tapped into this strong nationalistic current - as did Khomeini's thirty years ago - but now that he is seen as an embarrassment, the proud of the country are turning their backs on him.

Much like the recent Lebanese election, the Western media is viewing this one through a Western prism - as some sort of referendum of isolationism and Islamism vs. internationalism and secularism. One thing I never read about - and one that was extremely prominent during my visit to the country - was the rural/urban divide, for which one of the best parallels is the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Ahmadinejad has followed much the same path, positioning himself as a champion of poor against the corrupt urban elite which has been at or near the centres of power since the revolution. His religious views have little impact in the countryside, where most women wear the hijab anyway, and his alleged mismanagement of the economy hasn't negatively affected those who wer shut out from prosperity in the first place.

I was in Iran on al-Quds day - the last Friday of Ramadan, devoted by Imam Khomeini to the liberation of Jerusalem - and found myself caught in a demonstration of thousands in Isfahan's gorgeous Naksh-e-Jahan, shouting marg bar Amrika! marg bar Israil! - Death to America, Death to Israel. Except this was anything but an expression of the popular will; the government forced anyone in a union to attend or be fired, but I did speak to many genuine Ahmadinejad supporters there - invariably, it turned out, bused in from the countryside by the regime because the more educated, less conservative urbanites are embarrassed by such a spectacle. And, like many pluralistic societies, Iranian political opinion doesn't lend itself to easy categorisation; two girls we met were very conservative; they supported the Ayatollahs and criticised girls wearing bad hijab or holding their boyfriend's hands in public. But they didn't support Ahmadinejad - because when Iranians see him, they see what the rest of the word sees: that he's an embarrassing populist simpleton.

And in here comes another difference - in Yemen, no woman would ever spontaneously come up to a strange man to talk to him, let alone about Politics, and this holds true to a greater and lesser extent in the Arab world. Iran is famed as a bastion of women's oppression, and it is hardly innocent on the subject - volunteer militiamen go around on Thursday nights harassing and humiliating women behaving 'immodestly' (why Thursdays? Because while no one knows when the 12th Imam, awaited by all Shi'a since his occultation, will return to earth, it's known that it will be on a Friday, and the Islamic Republic neds to be ready). Nevertheless, women in Iran are more independent, better educated, and more politically active than in any Arab country I've visited; 60% of university graduates are women, their literacy is high, and they form an active part of the workforce. All it takes is to look at the attendance of either side's political rallies - men are the majority, but they don't overwhelm. And for all the talk of Iran's oppressive conservatism, there's no shortage of female Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is because Ahmadinejad's support has many sources. In addition to the rural/urban divide, there's one issue that Western commentators consistently overlook: corruption. Outside of Ahmadinejad, most of the ruling elite have been part of the establishment since the Shah's downfall, and it was they who benefited from the economic opening under Rafsanjani in the 1990's. I know from life in Poland and Yemen that there are few things more repressive than the daily humiliations of a corrupt government; faced years ago with a slate of establishment candidates and one, Ahmadinejad, who was nothing if not honest, it's not that surprising that they voted for him, and that many will do so now. It's one of the major issues Palestinians mentioned when they said they supported Hamas, and it's definitely one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys so much popularity over Mubarak's clique in Egypt. And Ahmadinejad is honest; he says what he means, even when what he means makes little to no sense or is outright offensive.

There's also an illusion that anyone who votes against Ahmadinejad is somehow pro-American, but the Republic isn't about to stop being Islamic, nor is it about to given up it's nuclear programme. Why? Because nuclear deterrent is seen as the only way to stop an American invasion. This often gets referred to as 'paranoid', but its anything but when you consider that the United States engineered a coup against a popular prime minister in 1953, put a brutal dictator in his place - for the incredible extent of this brutality, read Kapuscinski's excellent Shahanshah - supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran even while he openly used chemical weapons, shot down an Iranian passenger plane and then claimed it was a suicide bombing, and invaded its immediate neighbour on what can only be described as the flimsiest of pretexts and now has thousands of troops stationed just across the border. North Korea - a far greater danger to everyone than Iraq was - doesn't even get considered for 'military action' because it has nuclear weapons, which shows itself to be the only effective deterrent. Americans have short memories, and think that now that Bush is gone people should 'just trust them', but a part of the world where many major streets are named for past dates doesn't work that way.

The elections today aren't free - the government has denied Mousavi screen time, and tried to block the sites like Facebook that his supporters use - but they are far from the farces of Mubarak's Egypt. This kind of semi-democratic, pluralistic cacophony is, in fact, what Khomeini envisioned - with himself the arbiter between the various factions. In fact, it was only Khamenei who started using the Guardian Council to vet election candidates he didn't like. Just after the revolution, contrary to Western perceptions, the most Islamic faction was also the one that was the most democratic - they felt that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy naturally stemmed from the people who, if given the opportunity, would choose just such a government - much like the logic that drives Americans to believe that any genuinely free elections will choose an American-like society, and leaves the bewildered when it doesn't, as in Palestine. These pro-democratic radicals were, in fact, the Imam Khomeini's most fervent supporters, and Mir Hossein Mousavi was one of them; after their marginalisation by Khamenei after his accession, they re-emerged as the 'reformers', softening their religious policies but not losing their belief that democracy is the source of legitimacy. It is Mousavi that many, including myself, are hoping will win today's election, but even if he fails to, recent events in Iran should serve to dispel any simplistic charicatures about this complex and fascinating country.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Adventures in prehistory 21.II.2009 08:29
I stand before a mountainside dotted with pictures of men and of animals that represent the very beginnings of human symbolic thought. Herds of cattle and men at prayer, crudely but beautifully rendered, some of the first instances of self-representation, truly representing the origins of humanity as we know it. I am at Laas Gaal, one of the least-visited historical sites in the world, and one of its most impressive collections of neolithic paintings: unvisited because it is in Somaliland, in the picturesque plains of the countryside north of Hargeisa. The story of my how I arrived here, however, is almost as interesting as the place itself. It is the one place in this country which I desperately wanted to visit, so you can imagine my despair at being told that it would cost $170 - you needed an armed escort, a guide, and a 4x4 to travel there; an approach by public transit is - and all sources are unanimous on this - impossible. But I was determined; 'Impossible is nothing,' I thought, the traveller's spirit within me stirring - or perhaps it was an Adidas commercial. Regardless, I set myself a goal and wasn't going to leave without accomplishing it.

The first step was getting permission to travel on the roads at all. Because of an isolated incident some six years ago, when aid workers were kidnapped by Somali militants, the government here is paranoid about tourists travelling alone, and requires a second car and armed escort to accompany them outside of Hargeisa. So, on the advice of my friends Arne and Yoshi, I decided to seek out the one man who could grant this permission: the general of the police. Getting to police headquarters is a touch tricky - you have to cross a riverbed under a bridge being built, and you wind up in what are really the outskirts of town. Arriving at police headquarters, I was greeted by a man speaking perfect English - not just perfect but subtle and refined, a kind of English that has died out completely among my generation and can only be the product of the colonial era. I am informed that the general will see me shortly; he is a kindly old man, small-framed, bearded and bespectacled, not at all the imposing African strongman I was expecting to see at the head of such an organisation - though his voice carries an obvious authority that befits his station. He greets me, and asks where I am going. 'To Berbera,' I say, half-lying - the road to Berbera takes me past Laas Gaal, and this is no problem; I get my permission within 15 minutes, with a nice official stamp and the general's signature. I'm on my way.

Unfortunately, because everyone's agreed that getting to Laas Gaal by public transport is impossible, and there is genuinely no transport directly to the site itself, there was not even any information about how to approach it - so I went to the best source of information in town, Mr. Saidi at the Oriental Hotel, who informed me that I needed to go to the village of Dhubato, on the road to Berbera and about five kilometres from the site. He was sceptical of the whole endeavour, especially since it was already 11AM and I would need to hitchhike back - he said I'd have to do this at night, but I didn't believe him - I had a full eight hours until sunset, after all. So I headed down to the shared taxi station and booked the $5 seat to Berbera; after this, we needed to wait for the car to fill; there were six people and the car needed ten. 'An hour or two,' I thought to myself, Berbera being the country's second city. Alas, there was a truth about Africa that my mind, in its enthusiasm, had ignored: you will wait. You will wait a long time, and then your car will go, drive 300m, and then you will wait again. The continent simply cannot conceptualise the idea of being in a hurry, and the concept of scheduling is completely absent; it's a kind of fatalism really: things take as long as they take, period. People you thought were part of your care were really just the driver's friends having a chat; so despite having begun at 11:15, it was already 3PM when I left. Time was short, and I couldn't help but think I'd made a mistake not waiting until the next day.

This impression was strongly reinforced by the confusion that erupted at the police checkpoint when I gave them the general's letter. In the many hours of waiting, I had told my fellow travellers - or at least, those who spoke English - that I was going to Laas Gaal, and of course they felt that they should be the one's to explain things to the police, not me. The locals always believe this, that because they speak the language and you're a helpless tourist you need to just stand aside and let them sort it out for you, but it really doesn't work - they are very afraid of authority here, and besides, sometimes the comprehension gap leads the officer to just get frustrated and wave you through. So, as soon as they said the words 'Laas Gaal,' I had the letter shoved back at me with a dismissing wave of the hand: I wasn't going anywhere. I had to go back. I was getting ready to start hinting about bribes, but this didn't seem like a place they'd be receptive, so I tried a different tack: I started shouting (over everyone that was speaking for me) that I was just going to Dhubato, and that I had sorted out my escort there (untrue). This wasn't really what the letter gave me permission either, but after some back-and-forth between the soldiers and policemen and security men - all these checkpoints are staffed by men in various uniforms and some without who have no leader among them - I was finally let through. Another hurdle cleared.

We arrived in Dhubato, and I must say, I expected the place to be a bit bigger - it can't have had more than a hundred or so people, in a few houses that stretched along the road. Here, again, the locals insisted they knew best, and before I had a choice they snatched my letter and went right to the local police with it - the one thing I had wanted not to do. 'He'll go alone,' they said, 'he says it's no problem,' somehow not realising that I was not the one who would have a problem with that. Instantly, I was told it was impossible - 'there are nomads,' I was told, nomadic being a byword in many parts of the Arab world. I thought I was done, but someone called the chief of the local police to come, and he rolled up in a 4x4 and, after some confusion and a bit of negotiating over price, he would allow me to go with a guide but without a soldier. The price wound up being $30, which is very expensive, and I think I could have got it down to $20, but it was getting late and I was a bit ecstatic at the idea of accomplishing my mission at all, so I decided to take it.

I'm glad I did, because the site is truly amazing. It's a six kilometre walk from the village, which is quite long, and I realised I'd be walking back at sunset - Mr. Saidi had been right in saying I should wait until the morning. The mountain rises from what is an otherwise flat plane, and it is no mystery that the locals chose it as the place of their mystical paintings. The guide led me up to an alcove, and I was greeted by an amazing site - dozens of figures, of men and of cows and of the moon and stars painted across the wall, in shades of red and black. These, not partial skeletons like Lucy at the Addis Ababa museum, are the true origins of man, the marks of homo sapiens, not merely erectus and habilis but creans and sciens and locutus. These are the beginnings of thought, the first creations of what Aristotle would have called our rational mind, the one that distinguishes us from all the other creatures of the land, air and sea. It is also, in a sense, one of mankind's first stabs at permanence, at immortality: a representation of themselves that would survive the flesh that made it. It is these small, crudely-drawn men, arms raised in worship, that impressed me the most, for they represent the eye turned inward, drawing not what you see but what others might, and leaving it for the sight of others. The artwork is genuinely beautiful in and of itself, but it is this feeling of contact with nascent human thought that is truly awe-inspiring.

The view from here is amazing too, the African plains stretching for miles interrupted only by a few other mountains rising in the distance, islands in a desert sea. It was getting, dark though, and my guide was getting impatient, so we began the long trek back. At one point, we see a man walking down, wearing the usual attire of the nomads - a skirt-like garment around his legs and an AK-47 across his shoulder, and I am glad I didn't go alone. My guide spoke no English and only a little Arabic, and I never could determine whether the nomad was sent by someone to meet us, or might have robbed us given half the chance - my guide seemed tense and would not look him in the eye, though he was a gruff old man who might have talked that way to everyone. A few miles on we encountered a soldier as well, and meeting a series of armed men as darkness encroaches, when you are still a half-hours walk from the nearest settlement, is a bit nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, my guide talked to him a little, not breaking his stride, and we pressed on back to Dhubato.

Although humanity has made great strides since the neolithic era, we remain at the mercy of our fragile bodies, afraid when alone because we could be felled so easily by a club or, now, a bullet. I was reminded of my lack of control in another way, when my body decided, in the middle of the field, that its bowels needed to be emptied immediately. I considered trying to press on, but that could only have ended in disaster, so I gestured to my stomach, looked at my guide and said 'ana marid' - I'm sick. He smiled slightly, but understood, and so there I was, with only a few semi-tall shrubs to use as a bathroom. Unfortunately, this was one of only two or three times during the trip when I had not had the chance to replenish the supply of that most important travel essential, toilet paper, and my choice came down to my photocopy of a Lonely Planet, and the leaves of some mysterious plant. Evolution being what it is, however, the plant's leaves were designed to retain water at all costs in this arid landscape, and I was forced to use the former. Oh well, I wasn't going to Burcao or Sheex anyway.

We made it back to Dhubato, and I didn't even have to hitch a ride - the police commander had a car going back to Hargeisa at 8PM and I could get that, though when we got there they tried to charge me $10, of course. I paid $5, so in the end the entire excursion cost me $40, which isn't bad for a site of Laas Gaal's remoteness and magnificence; I'm very glad I did it, and it was much less than the $170 I had been quoted. My Somali adventures weren't over yet though: there still remained the matter of getting out of the country, a long trek by a rough road to the Djibouti border. I arranged this through the Oriental Hotel, partly because they had already helped me a lot and I hadn't given the any money, and I wasn't even a guessed - I was staying in a the Geed Debre Hotel, which was only 10,000 shillings - $1.60! - a night and therefore far more inside my budget, though if you can spare $15 the Oriental is a great value. So at two the next afternoon, the hotel cook took me down to the meeting point for cars to Djibouti, which I'd been told leave around four - they always drive overnight because in the summer, when temperatures near the coast routinely pass the 40°C mark, daytime driving would be torture. So, this being Africa, we began to wait.

The wait turned out, unsurprisingly, to be five hours long, and the only thing that made it bearable was the semi-narcotic plant that the whole region was addicted to qat. Qat, in addition to being a powerful force on the Scrabble board, is a stimulant, ingested by chewing the leaves and squeezing out the juice. This is an activity that all men (and some women) from Yemen to Ethiopia practice, and when I say all, I mean all: the cities pretty much shut down between noon and four as everyone goes to chew the weed. It's a scourge on productivity, and reading about it, I never understood how a stimulant could lower that, but I do now: for the principle effect of qat is to make nothing bearable. In addition to making your mind more active, it produces a state of mild euphoria, so although my eyes were darting around and there was an edge to my voice, I was never annoyed or frustrated or bored; for five hours, as I sat chewing, everything seemed perfectly fine and I wasn't particularly bothered about when the car would arrive. I had tried it twice before, with no effect, but then I had been in the middle of trips when my mind would have been quite active anyway; it would be like drinking a cup of coffee when you're already very busy, no discernible effect. Waiting, though, normally makes me incredibly impatient, to the point where I hate even putting in the effort to talk to people whose English isn't great, but this time everything was no problem. It saved me on the rough sixteen hours through the mountains and desert to Djibouti too - sleep was impossible because you would be woken up within minutes by your head hitting the ceiling or dashboard, depending on your position. Thanks to qat, though, sleep wasn't a problem, and I arrived without incident the next morning.

Et quelle surprise - Djibouti, c'est vraiment un pays francophone. Ici, c'est pas comme les colonies angliases, où l'anglais et une langue connue seulement par l'élite - ici, tout le monde parle français. Le problème, c'est que mon français et très pauvre, et il y a beaucoup des mots que je ne connais pas ou j'ai oublié, alors c'est très difficile pour moi comprendre les gens - je dois vraiment habiter en France pour apprendre ce langue. Aussi, Djibouti et très, très cher; dans la Ville de Djibouti, un chambre dans un hôtel coût au moins €20! Alors, je suis venu à la petit village Ali Sabieh, presque de la frontière Éthiopienne, et c'est mieux ici. La vie et les prix, c'est plus comme à Somalie ou à l'Éthiopie - mon chambre coût seulement 1500Fr, ou €6. Je veux partir demain, inchallah par bâteau mais peut-être par avion, à Yemen, et après ça ma voyage et finie et je dois travailler, presque certainement à Caïre. Mais pour aujourd'hui je vais rélaxer, boire de la thé et pratiquer mon français avec les Djiboutiens. À bientôt!

Ali Sabieh, Djibouti Dj