The Heart of Dartness

“Resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” (Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness.)

Rumours abound that the mouth of the river Dart is at Dartmouth and its two sources are somewhere on Dartmoor. But due to poor map reading and a fascination with the blank spaces between rivers, I ended up at Totnes rowing club one Saturday morning surrounded by people in wetsuits and red hats. Hoping to make the best of the situation I donned a wetsuit, squeezed into a red hat and entered the water.

It transpired that I had joined an event inspired by Conrad’s above-mentioned novella. Variously a tale of imperialism and discovery for a legendary ivory trader: the inspiration is obvious. Indeed, although Conrad’s description of the journey up the Congo is a clear metaphor for the Dart, it remains a much-overlooked aspect of the story.

That said, I was hard pushed to perceive the parallels as I trod water in the liquidy brown. Surrounded by fellow Brits all brimming with a sense of joy and derring-do at being metaphorically and literally out of their depth. A familiar situation, it would seem, that has become civilised and less colonial over the ages. Nowadays you get a t-shirt for it.

The hooter sounded and the splashing commenced. Hordes of red hats set out on their journey of self-disovery towards the heart of Dartmoor. But after 2.5km there was a collective decision that something was wrong. I was the first to sense it as I rounded the final buoy and saw the vastness of water that still lay before me and the twin sources of the river.

It was the realisation that there was no mystical figure living up stream. Just a man waving his arm frantically for us to pull up on shore so that he could scan our wrist timers.

An uneasy fear spread through the pack, and with my nose just in front I swam like a Belgian steamer hoping to get to Dartmouth before the end of the year. But on reaching the rowing club I lifted my head to take a breath and saw a man on the riverbank waving his hand. What’s with all this arm waving. Perhaps he wants to ask a question, reasoned my exhausted brain.

‘Well done, would you like a banana?’

‘Yes please, thank you.’

They told me I’d won. But I daren’t admit what really happened. It was all a bit embarrassing really. I had entered the river to find the source of the Dart in the hope that it would complete my transformation to a higher state of being. Failing that I had set my sights on the mouth of the Dart hoping to find my beginning in its end.

But like Marlow, Conrad’s protagonist, I was lured into something that was far greater than I could comprehend through the fog of my goggles. And I was now back where I had started after discovering neither source nor mouth. Rather, I am left in a state of bloated contemplation, content in the thought that I had made it out of the heart of dartness.

















I would like to tell you a tale of a town called Wells. Not the setting for the film Hot Fuzz but Wells-next-the-Sea, famous for beach huts and the world’s only use of an invisible preposition.

Though don’t be scared, the use of prepositions is otherwise encouraged by the everyday people of Wells. Walking along the quayside it is not uncommon to overhear a tourist asking a local: ‘excuse me, where is French’s fish and chip shop?’

‘Over there beside the arcade,’ comes the reply. Both parties breathe a sigh of relief and head over to share some deliciously battered fish and laugh about how silly they used to be.

They discuss the absence of seagulls. Are they hovering  in the shadows or do they simply have impeccable manners? Lurking in the peripherals until the chip tray is empty then striking in the hope of a stray flake of batter. ‘What admirable gulls,’ they agree.

An artist’s impression of the scene

After bonding over fish, chips and gulls these new friends are likely to want a stroll. Naturally they go to Staithe street and enter a bookstore, only to be met by the icy stare of a woman wearing her glasses in that peculiar way that suggests: “WANT TO COME IN HERE AND READ MY BOOKS DO YOU? THEY’RE MINE, I’VE READ THEM ALL AND YOU’RE HAVING NONE.” Although out loud she says, ‘hello?’

In a panic they hurry upstairs and hide in a corner. After the atmosphere has dissipated they both pick up some books and head down. These, of course, are calculated to show how truly interesting they both are. Him a novel which states in bold on the cover that it is a “tour de force of feminine sexuality.” Her, a collection of photography and a book on terrorism. This intrigues him and they decide to discuss it further at the seaside.

Artist’s impression

Only a short ride by miniature train and they arrive at the beach. The tide is low, so low you can’t see the sea. They strip off and run down to a narrow but deep channel of water that leads all the way back to town. The water is cold, several seals flap their encouragement from a nearby sand bank.

They spend several hours exploring the vast miles of exposed sand. Picking up shells, prodding jelly fish and eyeing a drowned deer. A siren blares out somewhere behind them announcing the turn of the tide. They hurry back to the channel and swim across with jumpers above their heads and seals around their ankles.

By now this giddy pair are likely to be thirsty. A wooden boat called the Albatros welcomes them just across from the train’s final stop in town. The sound of a muffled guitar emanating from a hatch on the deck. Down the steep ladder they totter, and nestle in a corner surrounded by sea charts and a stuffed puffer fish.

Artist’s impression

Suddenly realising the hour they hurry back up on deck and onto shore, stopping briefly to reminisce about how they met only a few hours ago. ‘Beside the arcade!’ she says and they both fall about in hysterics. Seeing the bright lights of a games arcade they rush inside as rain begins to fall. Armed with a cups of two penny pieces they battle to the death to win a string of worthless tickets. They are ushered out after ten minutes penny poor but experience rich.

As the day comes to an end he remarks, ‘you know, they say that a day spent in Wells-next-the-Sea can often feel like a day spent a-bloody-long-way-from-the-sea.’ Thankfully she laughs and they walk off arm in arm, next-the-sea.



Intrepid Exe-plorer

Freshly armed with a degree from one of Devon’s top universities I decided to test the waters of the real world. After consulting a map I found the river Exe to be closest. My motivation came in part from a thought: what would Dr Livingstone have done if he had had a lot less imagination and was on a budget? This trip might be shorter and less complex than the Nile but it is by no means less challenging. So I present the river Exe, all 60 miles of it.

River Exe: small beginnings

It was 7am one recent morning and I stepped out onto a moor and straight into a bog. I looked up to see a herd of big red deer watching me curiously. Well this is nice, I thought, and squelched up the hill in search of the river Exe, looking forward to spending the day in the presence of wet feet and inquisitive wildlife.

Down hill, up hill, through ford, into field with bull and hurriedly out of field with bull; Exmoor challenged me to the full. In my excitement on reaching the village of Dulverton I broke into a run thinking I could make the sea in a day. It took a few falls and bleeding palms to quell these aspirations. Now out of Exmoor I was walking along small lanes, through farms and over tiny stone bridges next to burnt-out cottages.


After a while I realised I had not seen a single soul for several hours. The surrounding trees and lingering smell of burnt wood were beginning to play with my mind. And it was in this state of mild, Devon terror that I was confronted with two geese.

In the brief standoff that followed I commanded them to “away geese!”, waving my map with authority. Unperturbed, they charged with necks outstretched and an almighty battle hiss. There was nothing for it but to scurry down the lane.

I rounded the bend at full tilt and went headlong into the arms of a farmer, ‘hold up there chappy, run all the way from Exe Head have yer?’

“Er, sort of, my feet are a bit sore”, I said.

“I’ve heard that’s what happens. Still, you decided to do it didn’t yer.’ He chuckled and ambled off back into the field with his sheepdog. By now it was getting dark so after the next bend I ducked into a field and went to sleep under a tree. I awoke the following day at 5.30am to find an army of ticks doing their morning manoeuvres on my legs. I beat a hasty retreat to the lane and was on my way before the farmer came on his rounds.

Luckily I had a stone-free night

I headed straight for Tiverton Morrisons. At 7am sharp the doors opened and the morning rush swept in to fight over the fresh produce. I went straight for coffee and the toilet.

Soon back on the road I followed the trail past the local sewage treatment centre before breaking lose onto the vast badlands of southern Devon. Specifically the wide rolling hills and farms of the the Exe valley. Beautiful, if it were not for the miles of country lane that now lay between me and Exeter. My jar of peanut butter and bag of raisins to keep me company.


After a few hours I came across a bright blue peacock perched atop a brick wall. Its beauty was somewhat outweighed by flashbacks of the geese and I recoiled in horror. I suddenly remembered something I’d read about Charles Darwin having a disdain for peacocks.

“What a waste of good protein”, he would tut. It turns out too much hair/feathers is dangerous for the intellect, evolutionarily speaking. Hair/feathers need protein to grow. So do brains. This thought consoled me as I glared at the glorious bird.

The remainder of the journey was an uninteresting slog against train departure times, feet and my stock of raisins. I awoke briefly with seven miles to go to see the hairs on my legs swirling and shimmering in odd shapes. With one mile left I had to contend with the sympathetic expressions from passers by.

I eventually stumbled onto a train at Dawlish Warren and announced: “ah, the ticket inspector I presume.” The blank stare vanished as soon as I waved a five pound note in her face. I remember motioning apologetically to my feet.

I sympathise with ewe

You could argue my trip was worthless. Yet, it turns out that after all those years struggling against the hostile climate and suffering from various tropical diseases, Livingstone was wrong about the source of the Nile.

As for my two-day expedition during which I fought off geese, tackled with ticks and got a blister on my big toe, I am able to confirm that the river Exe begins where the map says it does and that it reaches the sea at Exmouth/Dawlish Warren. I can also confirm that it is, at times, interesting to walk along. At others it is downright dangerous and feet-numbingly dull. Stay tuned for my next adventure: locating the mouth of the river Dart.








I went to Iran

I went to Iran last summer but have been too busy worrying about inter-library loans to remind people. I had a great time and learnt some things.

I received my visa after a morning of queuing in the basement of the Iranian consulate in London. This was mainly thanks to the cleaning lady who knocked on an important-looking door and asked why it was taking so long. The next day I landed in Tehran.

My first impression of Tehran, as is most people’s, was the roads. In my case it was thanks to the airport driver swerving over to the hard shoulder from the fast lane of the motorway to show me a photo of him skiing. The various gasps, screeches and beeps made it a bonding experience. Indeed it got me my very first Iranian friend. Though the photo was a bit dull. 

For the duration of my stay I was billeted in student dorms in the foothills of the looming Alborz mountains. Situated in North Tehran, the wealthy end. I was there along with several hundred students from around the world (and five other Brits), at the expense of the generous Iranian government.

On my second day, fresh-faced and eager to please, I agreed to be interviewed by a couple of student journalists. My face subsequently appeared in the university newspaper under the headline: “It was poetry that I drove me to study Persian”, with the subtitle: “Persian is more a beautiful language than English”. So in the space of one day I had not only picked up the medal for Pretentious Prat of the Year but also the much-coveted Ayatollah Khamanei Award for Treachery.


Everyday we had language classes in the mornings and cultural visits in the afternoons. These ranged from the bizarre (watching a 3D documentary about dinosaurs dubbed into Persian at the national planetarium), to the customary trips to Ayatollah Khomeini’s house; interspersed with visits to various Shahs’ palaces (including the unmissable National Tableware Museum) and breathtaking views from the top of Tehran’s various towers.

In our precious free time we were allowed to go out and explore. For this we had to get a form signed by two different officials who would invariably be either asleep or absent. Then, once liberated, we were at the mercy of a people so feared by Western media that it was all I could do to avoid being brainwashed by their national pastimes of drinking tea, reciting poetry, picnicking, volleyball and Instagram.

You cannot go to Iran without embarking on some sort of mystical journey. For me this was coming to grips with the currency, which involved periods of separation, union and then complete annihilation when I still couldn’t tell my rials from my tomans. For a certain French friend of mine this meant climbing half way up a mountain in the pitch black, with nought but a commandeered shovel to fend off stray dogs, in search of a shaman who was rumoured to live close by in fields of his own herbal delights. He was eventually saved by an elderly Iranian man, returning from a day’s hiking with a bag of walnuts in one hand and a small axe in the other. Suffice as to say when he returned there was definitely something herbal about him.

I learnt the Persian for “Oedipus Complex”, and how to say “that bloke’s an absolute ****”.  I learnt that rice and kebab (with accompanying doogh salty yoghurt drink) is a meal fit for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I learnt that (according to one of the weekly publicity flyers posted in our dorm) since the 1979 revolution Iran has had the fasting growing economy in the world.

After a particularly heated taxi ride to Darband (a popular tea-drinking and shisha-smoking spot, and gateway to the Alborz), I learnt how to say: “no we agreed on 50 tomans, let go of my hand. Please don’t punch me”. I even risked a parting shot with the recently learnt, “piss off you ****er”.

At the Grand Bazaar I learnt that no matter which way you turn, all roads lead to women’s underwear stalls. This won’t do for souvenirs, I would grumble to myself, and take a sharp left hoping to catch fate off guard. Frilly knickers. Dam it.

I learnt that there is a mosque in Isfahan with shaking minarets. There is even a man whose job it is to prove this every hour to the wary crowds below. This ancient city is packed full of cultural and religious monuments to Iran’s past. We had one and a half days to soak it up, with an eight hour bus trip either end. So naturally, after whizzing round the various, beautifully ordained 17th century mosques, palaces and bridges we headed straight for the Aquarium and Reptile house. “You can have too much of rich heritage,” the trip organisers seemed to think.

No trip to Iran would be complete without a visit to a building site.  After driving round dirt tracks for an hour it was finally explained to us, with no hint of irony, that we were witnessing the construction of the next wonder of the world:


I learnt that it pays to have a few lines of Persian poetry up your sleeve.  In a moment of panic I agreed to be a guest on a live TV show called Irani-ha (= Iranians – the plural suffix in Persian still makes me chuckle). In a short segment about foreigners learning Persian, I (and several other students) was invited on to present myself to camera, answer a few questions and then recite a poem.

The host only mentioned the poetry bit a minute before going live. The tens of millions of Iranians watching at 11.30pm must have been on the edge of their seats, as a fidgety Englishman painfully racked his brain for a suitable snippet from Saadi. Thankfully I managed to come up with a garbled response. I got my round of applause, a well-done cup of carrot ice cream and a thank-you selfie, before being driven home.


My Iranian experience ended in style at the closing ceremony for the language course. It was almost three hours of videos of us students pointing at pretty ceramics and smiling next to ancient bridges. Interestingly, they had chosen the Game of Thrones theme tune for the backing music. The entire room was in hysterics which provoked much hushed discussion from the confused dignitaries seated in the front rows.

The head of the Saadi Foundation thanked the world and its various deities that we had chosen to study Persian. He then graced us with some socio-politcal commentary, asking the audience “you can’t walk down a street in America without being stabbed to death, how many people have you seen stabbed whilst you’ve been in Iran?”. Much nodding from the dignitaries. He closed the evening by reading several of his own poems.  It was at the end of this evening that I learnt the useful expression: “**** Saadi Foundation”.


I was only in Iran for a short time but it had a lasting impression. Hiking in the Alborz mountains as the sun rose over Tehran, and eating biriani as the sun set over Maydan Naqshi-Jahan in Isfahan, were two unforgettable moments.

Just as the bus was about to leave for the airport one of the teachers appeared, eyes red with tears, to say farewell to the Syrian students among us, ‘the war will soon be over and Syria will return, more glorious than before’. The whole bus burst into tears. The teacher left, than returned after a few seconds and looked me straight in the eye, ‘have a nice flight back to London James’. Ouch. 

Spaced out in Somerset

Local artist welcomes you to the canal

You may have noticed them. They wear short shorts, have a telescope strapped over their back and are prone to gazing at the sky with an oddly fixed stare. A vacant yet contented expression of someone who has acquired an all-too-deep appreciation of the vastness of space and time (usually somewhat influenced by cider). It is the look of someone who has completed the Somerset Space Walk.

Tiny little Pluto

It will come as no surprise to many that Taunton lies in the cold, wind-swept outer reaches of interstellar space, beyond the orbit of Asteroid 134340 (until recently known as Pluto). Don’t believe me? Throw a few bananas into a backpack with a bottle of water and (ever-essential) towel, lace up your trainers and head to the start of the Bridgwater & Taunton canal.

Big old Jupiter

Opened in 1997, the Somerset Space Walk is laid out along the 23km stretch of canal as a scale model of the complete disc of the Solar System. It is exact, right down to the size of the planets and the distances between them. It even bears the blessing of Somerset-born science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. Bona fide.

Giant Peach? Sun

The Sun’s light takes about five hours to reach Pluto. Walking at a good pace it takes two hours to reach the Sun (located at Maunsel Lock) and a further two hours to reach the far side of Pluto’s orbit (behind Morrison’s car park).

Since you will be travelling faster than the speed of light, don’t be surprised by a sense of going back in time when approaching Bridgwater.


Passing beneath the Asteroid Belt (M5)

On arrival at Pluto’s outer orbit, steel yourself for a second, and then push on into the darkness and gloom of unmapped interstellar space. Towards Bridgwater town centre.


The Fountain Inn, Bridgwater’s pub at the end of the universe, welcomes all galactic flotsam.  Lie back by the riverside on a gloriously inviting slab of concrete and drift off into a hazy mix of solar neutrinos set to light jazz. The music rhythmically resonating off the mud of the nearby river Parrett.

A quick word of warning about time and relativity. Bridgwater to Taunton takes 12 minutes by train, and so, in the end, you will have completed two trans-Solar System trips wildly in excess of the speed of light. Be wary on your return of the uncomfortable ageing effects of this sort of super-light travel.

These will become strikingly clear when you come to prise your swollen feet from the throbbing confines of your shoes. Crossing the Solar System should be fatal, so console yourself that, thanks to the Somerset Space Walk, sometimes it is merely painful. But whatever the result, it is always fun and informative.




Yew are in for a treat

Summer is here and so are the grockles (Devon for tourists). The Quay is teeming, and you have no desire to sit on the Cathedral green (which we all know was the site of a mass grave for plague victims). And so with a hot-blooded sense of adventure you make your way over the hill and, fighting through the eager crowds, catch a glimpse of the infamous Heavitree Arch.


Yet Heavitree is no stranger to fame. To mark her diamond jubilee, the Queen was offered a cutting from the oldest tree in Exeter (a 5oo year old yew tree still standing in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels Church, Heavitree). Whether she accepted it or not is another matter. And to top it all, the Heavitree Yew was then named as one of the 50 most important trees in the country.

So what about the Heavitree Arch?

Well, it was designed by Michael Fairfax, the man responsible for the mirrory construction in the town centre (as well as sixty bollards in Exmouth). Along with Ralph Hoyte, a self-declared live-art, spatial and GPS poet who is credited with idea-initiating and then co-creating the world’s first audio-play for located media in an intelligent environment. Love poets and their way with words.

The verse on the Arch is that of Richard Hooker (16th century Anglican priest) and speaks of humanity and nature living harmoniously together.

However, the Heavitree Arch was riddled with controversy from its inception. This 2008 installation, which was originally said to have cost £70,000, in fact cost £172,000. Although to be fair it does light up nice and shiny at night time.


Soon after the plan for the Arch was revealed, a mural of a white elephant (indicating something useless) along with the words ‘coming soon’ appeared on the shop wall designated to be the backdrop. This was shortly joined by the painting of a red-faced bureaucrat with his fingers in his ears (said to be mirrored on Exeter Council members).

A particularly grieved local resident took to Youtube and amateur elephant animation to voice his disapproval (flushing the Arch down the sound effect of a toilet). Nevertheless the Arch went up and the mural remained until eventually being painted over later the same year.

If you are feeling hard done by after hiking all the way out to Heavitree to see the Arch you have heard so much about, don’t worry for the party continues across the road.  Here we pick up the tale on the pavement with words from locals about growing up in Heavitree:

‘Everything was what we had you see’, so it starts and then winds its way up a central oak tree before finishing with: ‘Goal! Cliff Bastin scores six for Ladysmith then up the Horse & Jockey for a glass from the Heavitree Brewery’.

If you are struggling to take this all in, why not pop into the adjacent public toilets to get some head space. Reminisce about the good old days when Cliff Bastin would bring home the trophies.

Who ever said Exeter isn’t packed full of fun things to see.












The Exortercist

To coincide with the release of the new Ghostbusters film I thought I’d embark on a bit of busting myself. Albeit locally, on foot, and without a vacuum cleaner on my back.

And so after consulting the extensive literature on the subject I packed a bag (water bottle, cheese sandwich, camera and crucifix) and headed off to Summer Lane pedestrian tunnel (Tunnel 14a to locals). Known to at least dozens of people as Exeter’s most haunted pedestrian tunnel.

Indeed, according to Exeter: Not a Guide:

“Loud banging noises, accompanied by groaning and screaming as if there is a fight going on, have been heard coming from the tunnel. When locals investigate there is nothing there, though the smell of blood has been reported.”

Sounds suspicious to me, so I lay in wait with my camera, crucifix at the ready. Some of my photos may shed fresh evidence on the source of the disturbing noises:


I don’t wish to put the tunnel’s haunted status into question but even the national Paranormal Database doesn’t mention it. Rather, it lists 29 other haunted locations in Exeter. Most notably Marks & Spencer, where “phantom heavy breathing and light, poltergeist-like behaviour has been reported.” Not to mention the apparent ethereal coughing of the ghost of sir Walter Raleigh at the Royal Clarence Hotel. Exeter, it seems, is plagued by a host of mildly ill ghosts.

Take that A.E. Bennet Town Clerk

The tunnel’s poltergeist obviously takes offense at the local council’s incessant interfering in what are clearly the personal affairs of an eternally restless soul. When smashing something up doesn’t quiet satisfy you, go ahead and mark a large cross through it. Job done.

If you look closely it is impossible to disprove that this car is not being driven by a ghost

Blood famously smells like rusty iron. This tunnel is beneath a railway line. So obviously perfect cover for spooky haunting and spiritual bloody letting. So overt it’s covert.

It was after nearly ten minutes stood leaning against the wall of the tunnel, waiting to be violated by a spectral creature, that my prayers were answered and the Dementors came. Like all frustrated muggles, I have repeatedly watched the documentary film: ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. But never did I expect to star in my very own scene.

I walked home sullen, pale and with all hope of ever feeling happy again gone. Although, on second thoughts, that could’ve been because I was hungry. And it was raining. I think I’ll leave the ghost hunting to the experts. Or someone with a bigger crucifix and a more imposing hoover.




Rowling with my Witches

-2 (1)It’s fitting that J K Rowling would gain inspiration from a City known as the site of the last Witchcraft executions in England. Probably more a coincidence actually, but let’s stick with fitting. Otherwise what else would students have to tell their parents as they drag them eagerly down Gandy Street: “Look dad this is Diagon Alley!” On the way pointing out the Freemasons Provincial Grand Lodge, and possibly a subtle mention of the Phoenix theatre ( you know just to heighten the mystery and give fuel to the imagination).

Then into the Firehouse to gawp at the wooden tables and dripping candlesticks: “Mum I promise you this is what she based the Leaky Cauldron on.” Oh, hang on a second, wasn’t it the Black Horse? Come on let’s pop in for a mid-afternoon snakebite to soak up the magical ambience…

-1 (1)


In 1682 Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles were accused of causing death and sickness through the black arts and subsequently hanged for witchcraft. After being tried for their crimes at Rougement Castle, the women were hanged in Heavitree. Lest we forget what real witches look like, these poor women (known as ‘the Bideford Three’) have been immortalised in a mural behind Exeter library.

However, their plight continues in the form of a petition calling on the government to pardon the women for their ‘crime’.


The keen-eyed will notice that the deadline for the petition has already expired. Although it does mention in passing an intriguing tale of how King James I believed his cousin had tried to assassinate him with witchcraft. Who knows, maybe Guy Fawkes was a wizard.

But the witches’ memory is alive and well, with an upcoming play about them at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre. Stay tuned for a review.




Enough from Amman

Ramadan is over, and so am I. It has been an interesting time. In the first week I ripped a large hole in my trousers (destroyed my second pair a few days ago), and in celebration I then sat on, and broke, my glasses.

I studied for four weeks with a local poet called Mohammad Zaki. Or Zaki for short, which in Arabic means either cute or tasty although I can’t vouch for either.

Zaki’s work has been described by one critic as “a complicated form of pornography with a somewhat intriguing use of pronouns.” Knowing this, I would often resort to my get-out-jail-free card when asked for an interpretation, “well, I can see a sexual theme to this …”.

He introduced me to the work of his late friend Mohammad Tomaliah (regarded as Jordan’s pivotal satirical newspaper columnist, and author of a book on his writer friends entitled ‘the Enthusiastic Bastards’ – “of which I am one,” said Zaki with a wide grin).

Zaki, keen to show me how the Jordanian satirical mind works, explained how Mohammad would get fed up of people mis-pronouncing his surname:

“Mohammad Talyama, Mohammad Talmaliah, Mohammad Tamliya, they just couldn’t get it right, so he said enough, and decided to go and change his name.”

“Oh right, so what did he change it to?”

“Mahmoud Tomaliah”


We would meet up in the French Institute in Jabal Luwebdeh. Home to Amman’s most cultured set of security guards, known to all as shilat el-ons (which translates to something like ‘the good time crew’). Nasir (chief of security) would reluctantly put down his Diwan of Rumi’s poetry to search my bag every day.

‘Someone else lives after you’, ‘When he sleeps’, ‘Absentmindedness’, ‘…’, ‘In the fall the sun is destroyed’, ‘A moment…and the words are broken’.

Just a few titles of Zaki’s poems, compiled into a diwan called: ‘patched on a blind piece of paper’. Me neither. But when should ignorance ever be a barrier. “I wrote it and I don’t understand it,” Zaki would say in an attempt to console me as I sat knee deep in paper, sweat and torn-out hair. “The important thing is to try and understand what it means to you, not what I intended it to mean.” At this point I would usually start crying .

Besides my introduction to Zaki’s form of mystical Sufi atheism, I have learned some other things too. The Freemasons rule the world (where did you find that out? where’s your proof? do you know who the Freemasons are or where the name comes from?). But where’s your proof they don’t? (ah very clever, I see what you did there).

Also that the use of the English word ‘mosque’ is very offensive to a particular sheikh from a small town in the Jordan Valley. We should be saying the Arabic word masjid. Why? Because the use of ‘mosque’ is insulting to Islam (said by a man who can’t speak a word of English). I asked him where he got this information from. This provoked an hour of incessant googling before eventually admitting that another sheikh had told him, probably.

After ten seconds of googling I found this link:

It references a book entitled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam’ and a particular passage which states: “The English term mosque is derived from the Spanish word for mosquito.”

It then embarks on a (in my opinion) pretty convincing linguistic exposition of why this is complete rubbish. In short the English word ‘mosque’ comes from ‘masjid’ but had to jump over many linguistic hurdles to get there.

After gently reminding some people to put themselves in my position, my impression of life in the insufferably hilly, Ammani neighbourhood of Tila’ al-Ali has been one of tolerance and acceptance. For example, I enjoyed nothing better than a bit of gentle ribbing by Sheikh Mahmoud whenever I wore short shorts (strictly for domestic purposes of course). And even a knowing smile and wink when he asked how the weekend away with my girlfriend was. There’s an understanding of differences, which is smoothed over with a bit of light banter than you move on and talk about V8 engines or something.

My experience living in a two bedroom flat with eight young men was, well, cosy. Evenings would be a race for the two beds and the one fan. If you lost out then it was the floor, a mattress and a face very much directed towards the window. A gust of wind would occasionally blow in and linger on your face, which was nice.

My mind has slowly deteriorated. A combination of general disillusionment and background existentialism, mixed with the occasionally blaring anger and frustration that however much Arabic you think you know there is always a day (or a week, or a month) where you have no clue what anyone is saying. Still that’s the fun of learning a language.

I am looking forward to a cup of milky tea, a bath and a story or two about oriental zombie death falafel robots. I may even write one myself.

When Amman needs a think

Too often Amman is the butt of other peoples’ jokes. The Milton Keynes of the Middle-East (because of its many roundabouts), is the main one doing the rounds right now.

But this ancient city of Roman ruins and Herculean temples is far more than the mind-numbingly dull cardboard box-shaped (and coloured) buildings that line its dirty, polluted streets. It is a city built on seven hills (what great city wasn’t), that now sprawls nineteen and deserves to be famous for more than just being near the Dead Sea. For instance it is also near a city whose name translates as ‘The Blue Town’, how fun is that!

Forget Petra and Wadi Rum. You are a modern, educated and thinking human being. You know that to really see a country you must mix with its people, get ripped off, have shouting matches with taxi drivers and lose your dignity in public. If only to have something entertaining to tell your friends over a celebratory craft beer on your return. You left home searching for something, an idea perhaps, or the ending to somebody else’s poem. You have a notebook and a camera but need somewhere for inspiration. And, more importantly, you need it to be public so other people can see how earnest you are. Or how nice your sandals are.

With this sort of traveler in mind, and with Jordan likely to remain popular as a ‘stable’ Middle-Eastern tourist destination, where best to go in downtown Amman when in need of a good think?

Street book stallsa place to buy thoughts

Whether you are after an Arabic copy of Mein Kampf or a used Christmas card you can find these and much more at the various book vendors of downtown Amman. All at a low price, and not just the ones that are apparently held together by their own fading will power. All are generally sold by an old man who appears to be more book than person.

Shoman library –  a place to read thoughts

The Iraqi Embassy, kind of puts the library to shame

A public library that looks like a bank. Probably because it is sponsored by one. Opposite the Iraqi Embassy (whose entrance is beautifully modeled on the gates of Babylon – although be prepared for an angry response from the guard when you try and take a photo. Why didn’t you just paint it beige then?). Outside the library is a small cabinet labelled as a street library, where you can swap a book for a book (surprisingly still full). Inside you’ll find free wifi, ample tables and a central island full of plants and palm trees stretching all the way up to a clear glass ceiling. Pure air mixed with the smell of a good book, nothing better when in need of refuge from the sun.

Darat al-Funun a place to sit and sip in thought

Set on the steep, downtown-facing slopes of Jabal Luwebdeh, Darat al-Fanoon is the wandering traveler’s haven. Home to the Palestinian space agency, terrace cafe with views over the hills of central Amman (occasionally accompanied by a lute player), three art exhibitions, ancient ruins of a 6th century church, shade, greenery, a bubbling fountain, cats in various states of disrepair, and a cosy, upstairs library said to be where Lawrence of Arabic wrote some of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Perfect. What is more, entrance is free.

Downtown poema place to stare in thought


It reads:

Let us imagine
The rivers burning in the distance,
We hear the silence, then suddenly
The music comes towards us,
To kill us,
So that the dance returns stronger
Beneath the white sun

Inspired by the words of Moroccan poet, Mohammad Baz, and turned into street art by artist Abdullah Karroum on the side of a derelict multi-story car park as part of Darat al-Funun’s exhibition ‘Expressions on riverbanks and other activities’.

Jordanian website Aramram interviewed some people on the street about this poem. Most didn’t realise it was there. But now you will. How great is that. And you can discourse on its many nuances at length to those who couldn’t care less, and would you please buy this bottle of perfume.

This list would probably be complete with a nice restaurant or some such eatery, but Ramadan has its restrictions. Food for thought…