Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Strange Tale of Tora Bora Jack

The bar at the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul hosted The Jack Show several nights a week. Journalists, aid workers and foreign officials would listen to Jack Idema’s colourful anecdotes half amazed, half incredulous. Over glasses of ‘Jack’s Tora Bora Sunset’ – vodka with pomegranate juice, yours for ten bucks – the crowd heard how Idema was instrumental in tackling Baader-Meinhof in Germany, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, and Hezbollah and Hamas in various Arab countries. He had trained military forces in Thailand, South Africa, Laos and Lithuania (where he uncovered a major terror plot); worked with authorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and protected American interests in Haiti and Russia. He was in Berlin when the Wall fell, and he was in Moscow when the USSR crumbled. And that was just his covering letter.

Jonathan Keith “Jack” Idema – he adopted ‘Jack’ as he hated the name Jonathan, although he often went with Keith – wasn’t only in Afghanistan to entertain boozehounds. He was apparently closing in on Osama Bin Laden and the $25m prize for the Al-Qaeda leader’s capture. He was also, he claimed, an advisor for the Northern Alliance, the organisation that had been battling the Taliban since the mid-’90s. And he insisted he was a Green Beret who reported directly to the office of Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State. 

There were other stories. He told people he’d been a superstar of the US military, having received perfect scores in tests at every level. He’d been hired to train Ronald Reagan’s son how to use firearms. He had a loyal dog, Sarge, who would parachute out of helicopters and successfully sniff out bombs (he was saving Sarge’s DNA to have the dog cloned after its death). He was a master samurai who uploaded videos of his sword mastery to YouTube (some can still be viewed). He’d tracked down Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number two, and Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban. He’d sued Steven Spielberg for stealing his story for his George Clooney-led thriller ‘The Peacemaker’ (Idema lost the case). He was excessively litigious, in fact, suing almost everybody who dared question elements of his background, but never paying up when he lost. His life was a toxic mix of fantasy, fraud and brutality, characterised by a dangerous disregard for anybody but himself. A collection of photographs and certificates suggested Idema had travelled and had indeed seen action, but even these rare glimmers of truth seem stranger than fiction.

His penchant for stories, scoops and revelations, especially when microphones were present, seemed at odds with the sensitive nature of the assignments he said he was involved in. But when his alleged takeover of an Al-Qaeda camp on the outskirts of Kabul resulted in the discovery of what he claimed to be a seized video cassette of footage of militants training, he was able to convince CBS and other broadcasters to pay him thousands of dollars for the rights to screen it. 

If nothing else, Idema was a gifted conman. Always dressed in black, and rarely seen without sunglasses, he was charming, handsome and an eloquent public speaker. He appeared on US news channels numerous times between 2002 and 2004, and when he temporarily returned home to visit his ailing mother in New York in 2003, he joined newscasters on studio sofas to offer expert analysis of the War on Terror. On one occasion, he talked Katie Couric through his seized Al-Qaeda tapes; scary footage of terrorists-in-training attacking a mock American high school,screaming in English at imaginary American kids. Idema was presented as a hero, but Couric didn’t mention that other media outlets had rejected the cassettes, concerned the footage had been faked. Just who were these terrorists with American accents?

Idema’s status as a real-life Rambo grew when he starred in a bestselling non-fiction book, ‘The Hunt for Bin Laden’, written by veteran military journalist Robin Moore. Despite 50 years of experience in war zones, the septuagenarian writer fell for Idema’s act. He didn’t merely use Idema as his primary source of  information in detailing the Green Berets’ battles against the Taliban in Tora Bora in 2001; he gave Idema the final manuscript to be fact-checked. Moore praises “an anonymous Green Beret for day-and-night rewrites in the final months”, but he’d made a mistake. Idema pounced on the opportunity to turn the myths of Tora Bora Jack into verified fact and the published tome contained barely believable stories of heroism – Idema risking his life for his country, Idema saving the lives of countless Afghan children and Western journalists, and, at one point, Idema single-handedly holding back a group of Al-Qaeda fighters. But on 5th July 2004, Idema’s vast edifice of deception, bullshit and brutality finally unravelled.

When the Kabul police raided his rented villa they found a makeshift prison and rudimentary torture
chamber. Three of the eight men being held – Afghan males who had been pulled, seemingly at random,
off the street – were hanging upside-down from the ceiling. They had taken beatings, water-boardings and
mock-executions from Idema and his motley crew of freelance terrorist hunters calling themselves Task Force Sabre 7. Wearing the American flag on their uniforms, they filmed their violent interrogations and sent them to contacts in the US. There was a leak, and a White House still dealing with the fallout of Abu Ghraib decided these rogue operatives needed to be dealt with. They had already put up posters describing Idema as “armed and dangerous”, but now they needed him removed from the picture.

Idema insisted his interrogations had been sanctioned by the highest levels of the US government. The Pentagon initially denied they had anything to do with him, but a few weeks later made a humiliating admission – they had once taken in for questioning a terror suspect Idema had presented to them (he was released without charges). More disturbingly, it was revealed that Nato forces had been hoodwinked into providing military support to Task Force Sabre 7 on at least three raids. As Idema’s trial approached, high-ranking officials asked the unavoidable question: how was a convicted felon with psychopathic tendencies able to get away with it?


“Jack Idema was without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man I have ever known”
– Capt John D Carlson, US Special Forces supervisor

Jonathan Keith Idema, born in 1956 in Poughkeepsie, New York, claimed a brilliant military record including
extensive experience of combat. The reality is far less impressive, although there is (rather damning) evidence

that he served in the Special Forces. Upon leaving the military, Idema entered the paintball business. It wasn’t a well-known activity in the early ’80s and paintballers still regard him as one of the sport’s early pioneers, manufacturing high-quality combat vests under the Idema Combat Systems label. Indeed, in the days following the announcement of his death, the paintball internet forums were full of typically outlandish Idema anecdotes. 

One post describes how Idema organised paintball tournaments called the Sargies, named after his beloved fighter dog. At one of these contests, a UK-based paintball magazine editor published a photo of Sarge defecating alongside an amusing caption. Idema allegedly sent men round to his house and threatened to
have him killed unless he published an apology. Another forum user recounts one of Jack’s stories involving a run-in with a group of Hell’s Angels that ends with Idema opening fire and killing several of them. Even more
disturbing – and even more likely to have been a product of somebody’s imagination – is the story of an
incident in Guatemala in which Idema was apparently duped into blowing up a busload of children. Many paintball veterans remember Idema’s involvement in epic punch-ups and costly lawsuits: there were a lot of both.

The law eventually caught up with Idema Combat Systems. In 1994, Jack was convicted in a North
Carolina court of defrauding 58 companies out of around $250,000. He had also been wanted for around
30 other crimes in the state, including assaulting a woman, impersonating a law enforcement officer, assault
with a deadly weapon and reckless driving. Sentenced to four years in prison, Idema insisted he’d been
stitched up by a vengeful FBI. His argument was that in 1992 he had discovered an enormous black market
in backpack-sized nuclear weapons leaving Russia through Lithuania. He says he briefed senior US officials
on the potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists; the FBI wanted access to his sources in
Lithuania, and he refused because he thought the bureau was riddled with Russian spies. Imprisonment in

North Carolina, he claimed, was the American government’s revenge for his non-co-operation.

This argument was laid out in a $600,000 documentary he made with his friend Gary Scurka, ‘Any Lesser Man: The Keith Idema Story’ (with a plot subsequently stolen by Steven Spielberg, Idema alleged). When Idema made his first trip to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he took Scurka with him to document his humanitarian work. He claimed to have saved dozens of children’s lives after the Nahrin earthquake in March 2002, and also that he was working with Knightsbridge, an American aid organisation. However, the director of Knightsbridge, Ed Artis, told New York magazine that upon his arrival in the country Idema had announced that he wanted to “kill every fucking Afghan he saw”. Artis subsequently
wrote to the US forces warning them Idema was “a very dangerous person by virtue of his carelessness and
stupidity” who “needed to be removed from the area”. It would be some time before they acted upon his warning.

It didn’t take long for Idema to become notorious among Kabul’s foreign contingent. The Independent
reported that he had organised a convoy to Tora Bora and offered foreign journalists a place on the trip: “Those who went were robbed at gunpoint a quarter of the way through the journey by their ‘guards’ and made their way, bedraggled, back to Kabul. Jack professed to be outraged.” Another Kabul-based journalist, Richard S Ehrlich, wrote that Idema had threatened to murder an American reporter who had
the audacity to mention his fraud conviction in North Carolina. Ehrlich also wrote that Idema had allegedly
threatened to break the arms and legs of a CNN reporter who criticised his analysis of the war. The Sunday
Times’s Christina Lamb recalled the American’s boasts that he saved hundreds of Afghan lives with his Special Forces medical training, but added that she frequently witnessed him participating in senseless bar
brawls. Tom Rodderson, a journalist at the Dallas Morning News, could personally vouch for the terrorist-hunter’s volatility – Idema shot at him at close range and only narrowly missed. “He was angry because I
interrupted him during a discussion,” Rodderson says.

Ted Rall of the Village Voice tells a revealing story about the time he bumped into Idema in the lobby of a
hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Idema angrily demanded that Rall should write about how the Pentagon was
refusing to give medical aid to US allies in Afghanistan. “Naturally I required proof,” wrote Rall, “but all he did was talk. A lot of bluster, much of it threats about how his Special Forces buddies would track me down
and murder me and my family if I ever crossed him. The morning I headed for the border, Jack handed me a
floppy disc. “Give this to anyone and you WILL die in pain,” he promised.I carried it to Afghanistan with me.
Kept it dry as I forded rivers. Kept it away from the pernicious Afghan dust. Got it back safe and sound to
Tajikistan, then Turkey, then New York. Where I popped it into my Mac. And a friend’s PC. It was blank.”

In BBC raw footage of the Kabul trial, Jack Idema, surrounded by microphones, cameras and Dictaphones, is in his element. Without any sign of nerves, he tells the assembled journalists that he has been stitched up by the American government, that he was in touch with the Pentagon up to five times a day and that he had the paperwork to prove it. Despite these confident assertions he was sentenced to ten years in Pul-e Charkhi, a run-down, overcrowded prison where thousands of Afghans were tortured and killed during Communist rule. Also sentenced for his role in the holding and torturing of civilians was Ed Carabello, a New Yorker who claimed he was an embedded journalist just doing his job, reporting on the work of a person he believed was working for the US government. It isn’t known whether Brent Bennett, the other member of Task Force Sabre 7 to be sentenced, had been conned by Idema into believing they were acting under the authority of the Pentagon.

For the vast majority of prisoners, many of whom wanted the new American arrivals dead, Pul-e Charkhi
was a living hell. But Idema was given a large suite with internet access, a TV, DVDs, carpeted floors and a pet dog. When in 2006 a group of Al-Qaeda affiliated inmates attempted to murder Idema (his notoriety in the Islamic world was assured after his torture tapes appeared in Al-Qaeda propaganda videos), several guards and prisoners were killed in the subsequent riots. In a rare moment of self-awareness, Idema acknowledged that brave Afghan guards had given their lives to save his.

When Idema was pardoned by Afghan president Hamid Karzai after serving less than a third of his sentence, he refused to leave the safety of his comfortable HQ. He was, after all, a man who had made many enemies in Afghanistan. He didn’t know who might be waiting outside the gates for him.


“I have superhuman blood. This isn’t meant to happen”
– Jack Idema in mid-January 2012, as recounted by ex-girlfriend Penny Alesi

Nobody seems to know how Idema reached Bacalar on the Mexican coast. There are unconfirmed reports
that he tried and failed to establish a drug-smuggling operation based in Dubai, but the first time he publicly
resurfaced after his release from prison was in the summer of 2010 in Bacalar. He was now calling himself
Black Jack, and modelled himself on Jack Sparrow from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. He had grown a large
beard and liked to wear Arab-style garments at home (perhaps due to a rumoured conversion to Islam). Local newspapers reported that Idema had barricaded himself in his building, trying to fend off police who wanted to question him over allegations he had raped and forcibly detained his former partner, Penny Alesi.

Ms Alesi, who under such circumstances may not be the most reliable of witnesses, is nevertheless the only
source of information on Idema’s life in Mexico. It’s known that he ran a small business, Blue Lagoon Boat
Tours, which took tourists out to sea. It’s also known that he was in a serious car accident in September
2009 from which he never entirely recovered. Alesi claims that the police wanted to question him regarding the transporting and selling of cocaine for Mexican drug cartels.

According to Alesi’s writings and photographs, which have appeared on various blogs and forums frequented by both friends and enemies of her ex-boyfriend, Idema’s life in Mexico was extremely seedy. He held round-the-clock orgies at which he would have unprotected sex with men, women and transexuals, knowingly, she claims, infecting them with the HIV virus. He had managed to forge medical reports so he  could show off his clean bill of health, and often spoke about his “superblood” which made him immune from illness.

There were, she has written, “men always around him dealing weapons and drugs”. He was hooked on heroin, alcohol and painkillers, she says, and he was paranoid and delusional, convinced people were
trying to kill him. Their house was full of surveillance cameras, alarms, guns and swords. He would listen to
Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ and the ‘Apocalypse Now’ soundtrack on a loop for several hours at a time.

Alesi, who left Mexico in the summer of 2010, claims she had a telephone conversation with Idema two weeks before his death. Despite his weakness, he had been able to escape from hospital so he could die
at home, but he was now alone. In a frail voice, he begged Alesi for her forgiveness. She was the only person who had ever been loyal to him, he said, and he was desperate for her to return to Mexico. He cried down the phone, unable to understand why his superhuman blood was failing him.

On 21st January, Arturo Olivares Mendiola, an official in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, confirmed that Jonathan Keith Idema had died of an Aids-related illness at the age of 55. No friends or family, he added, were willing to claim his body.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Jerusalem street food

“This man has a very low sperm count,” said Uzi-Eli Hezi, pointing to a customer at the other end of his Mahane Yehuda market stall. “But I created a special remedy for him and in a few weeks time he’ll have lots of sperms.”

While I was spared this particular remedy, I was still treated to a bewildering variety of unusual treatments Hezi has on sale. A lotion that prevents wrinkles (true, at least in Hezi's case) was rubbed into my face and hands. A chocolate that causes weight loss (not true, at least in my case) was swallowed. And a juice made from pure qat, a stimulant banned in several countries, was hesitantly consumed. By the time both “natural Viagra” and “natural Prozac” had been sprayed into my mouth, I wondered if I’d make it back to my hotel without causing an international incident.

As it happened, I felt fine. It seemed his whispered blessing, offered while I closed my eyes and tried to block out the noise of a bustling food market, engendered an extraordinary sense of calm, just as he said it would. Hezi, known locally as the Etrog Medicine Man (“etrog” being a citrus fruit that’s symbolic in Judaism), descends from a family of Yemeni healers - he makes the same formulas his grandfather taught him. When he was nine his family emigrated to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet, a secret mission that saw almost 50,000 Yemenite Jews airlifted to the newly-formed nation. The family continued their healing work on their Jerusalem farm, and ten years ago Hezi opened this utterly unique stall.

There are approximately 300,000 Yemenite Jews in Israel today and the food they brought with them have become fixtures of the culinary landscape. I headed to Jachnun Bar on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem, where owner Yariv Gury bakes malawach, a thick, fried pancake, and stuffs it with hard-boiled eggs, tomato, tahina (crushed sesame seed paste) and a spicy sauce to create the eponymous jachnun. “Not that long ago, this food was only eaten by Yemenite Jews in their houses,” says Gury. “But now it’s everywhere - you can even get microwave jachnun in supermarkets.”

Uzi-Eli Hezi says he loves Mahane Yehuda because he can get all the fresh produce he needs from its 300 or so traders. But it’s so much more than just a market. I could eat there three times a day for a week and not repeat myself. I loved starting my days at hip, laidback Cafe Mizrachi, where I sipped Jerusalem’s best coffee, and for a mid-morning snack you can’t beat Turkish burekas (filo pastry stuffed with spinach) from Ramleh, a stall just outside the main market on Agrippas Street. 
Mahane Yehuda is the perfect place to sample Israeli cuisine, which combines food native to the region with dishes brought by Jewish immigrants from around the world. Change doesn't come naturally to Mordoch on Aggripas Street, where the interior design belongs firmly in the 1950s. But it's worth entering this time-warp for the Jewish-Kurdish dish kubbeh, a beetroot soup containing meat-stuffed semolina dumplings. At the edge of the market, I found Khachapuria, a small bakery established by a Jewish immigrant from Georgia. A first wave of Georgian Jews reached Israel in the early-1970s and a second wave arrived after the fall of Communism in 1991. Here you can eat authentic versions of the country’s national dish, a cheese-stuffed bread with either meat, potato or egg.

Downtown Jerusalem isn’t so great for food, but nestled amongst the frozen yoghurt bars, chain coffee shops and vegetarian pizza parlours - practicing Jews can’t mix meat and cheese - is the hole-in-the-wall Sabichiya on Shammai Street, specialising in Iraqi fast food. After the Second World War, several Jewish targets in Baghdad were bombed and almost the entire Jewish population of Iraq, around 120,000 people, were airlifted to Israel. Sabichiya sells sabich, a flatbread stuffed with hummus, boiled egg, fried aubergine and spicy sauce. Like jachnun, its popularity has surged in recent years.

I also found fantastic food in East Jerusalem and the Muslim parts of the city. After all, a third of Jerusalem’s population is of Palestinian origin. On Rashid Street I found Petra, a restaurant specialising in Palestinian home-cooking such as maqluba, a hearty casserole of lamb, aubergine and rice. And at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street I escaped the heat with refreshing lemon and mint juice, and sandwiches made with zaatar, a herb similar to thyme. But the most atmospheric experience can be found at Ikermawi, a no-nonsense hummus shack tucked behind the kebab stalls of Damascus Gate.

“My grandfather opened this place in 1953 and hardly anything has changed here since,” said owner Mohammad Ikermawi. He charges NIS15 (€3) for the world’s best hummus with tahina, ful (mashed fava beans) and falafel, a recipe originally from Damascus. “The Israelis are starting to come here and discover the real hummus,” he laughs. “They say they have hummus too, but to us it’s not edible!”

Speaking of inedible, I finish my tour of Jerusalem street food with a dish many people won't touch. The walls of Chatzot, another famous restaurant on Agrippas Street, are lined with photos of Israeli celebrities who’ve ventured here to sample meorav yerushalmi, the notorious Jerusalem mixed grill (pictured above). The mix in question contains the heart, liver and spleen of chicken with pieces of lamb and a devilishly spicy sauce. It’s wonderful. In fact, it’s so good I craved a second one. But then I saw sense, crossed over the road, and asked the Etrog Medicine Man for more of that chocolate that will help me lose weight.

An edited version of this article was published in Germanwings magazine, Dec-Jan.

Crossing The Line - The Jerusalem Light Railway

Nothing in Jerusalem is straightforward. Ehud Olmert, who was the city mayor before becoming Israel’s prime minister, should have borne this in mind when he promised a rapid transport system would open within five years. This was 1995. Construction on the project began in 2002. An original deadline of January 2009 was extended to August 2010. A further year was required.

The Jerusalem Light Rail project has been plagued by problems ever since Olmert’s ambitious pledge 16 years ago. Orthodox Jews have complained about the lack of gender segregation, environmentalists have argued that it’s not green enough and just about everybody has moaned about the years of traffic congestion caused by the construction. The track had to be rerouted after ultraorthodox Jews claimed the Torah prohibited its passage over ancient Jewish burial sites and there were further delays when archaeologists discovered the buried remains of a sixth-century monastery in the Light Rail’s path. CityPass, the international consortium in charge of the project, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the Jerusalem municipality over culpability for the embarrassing delays and escalating costs, and two French multinationals have dropped out of the consortium after coming under intense pressure from anti-occupation activists.

And when the Jerusalem Light Rail finally opened a decade overdue and billions of shekels over budget, the problems continued to pile up. Its security guards have been criticised for using pepper spray on Palestinian teenagers. Stones have been hurled at windows, there have been punch-ups between Jews and Arabs on the trains and the American consulate in Jerusalem has barred its staff from using the light rail, saying it’s too obvious a target for terrorism. Recently the drivers have been on strike over wages and working conditions. But in the long term, it’s the debate over the route the track takes through the eastern side of the city that is most likely to bring the service to a permanent halt. According to international law, the light rail trespasses on illegally-occupied land and therefore some believe that it symbolises the permanence of Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem.

Given the Light Rail’s chequered conception, it’s no surprise that there’s a limited service on the day I spent riding the trains. Although it has been open for six weeks, faulty signals mean a reduced number of vehicles are running at close to half-speed. The good news for a city in the midst of an economic crisis is that it’s free. Thanks to malfunctioning ticket machines, the CityPass consortium hasn’t yet taken a single shekel for its troubles. Perhaps the allure of free travel explains why the train I enter at King George station is as busy as a rush-hour tube in London. The first thought to cross my mind is: “Am I safe?”.

“This is what it’s like to be an Israeli,” the receptionist at my hotel says when I admit to my fears later that evening. “I used to have similar thoughts every time I got on a bus. Could this man be a suicide bomber? What’s in his bag? And sometimes I still have these thoughts. It’s what we grew up with and what we’re used to.” Only one suicide bombing has occurred in Jerusalem since the end of the Second Intifada. It happened a few months ago at a bus stop and the sole fatality was a Scottish woman. At the height of the Intifada, you would have to be brave, stubborn or desperate to take public transport. Between 2001 and 2002 there were 87 suicide bombings in Israel, approximately a quarter of which targeted buses and trains. And now public transport seems a more obvious target than ever before. According to some of its critics, the light rail’s very presence strengthens the Israeli occupation.

I ride until I reach Shuafat, one of several stations in East Jerusalem, the land captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1980 when the Knesset passed a law declaring the whole of Jerusalem to be the undivided Israeli capital. This worldview isn’t generally shared outside Israel – the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution declaring the Knesset’s ruling a violation of international law, there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority regards East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. It’s troublesome that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, often say exactly the same thing: there can be no peace unless East Jerusalem belongs to them.

On the platform at Shuafat, an Arab neighbourhood, I meet two Palestinian men. One man lives nearby and his friend is visiting from Jericho in the West Bank. “We call this the peace train,” laughs the local, who didn’t want me to print his name. “No, really it’s more like the conflict train. But the situation here is complicated. Many in Shuafat are boycotting the train but some Arabs are happy because they want to be better connected to West Jerusalem and Israeli society.” I ask if he’s seen any problems on the trains. “I’ve seen orthodox Jews saying they can’t wait until it starts costing money because it’ll get rid of the Arabs who can’t afford tickets. And I’ve heard Arabs say insulting things about Jews too.”

I travel six stops to the south with them and leave the train at Damascus Gate. Here it feels like Jerusalem is divided in two, right down the middle of the road, but unlike the very real separation barrier a few miles away, the wall here is psychological. It would be an over-simplification to say that from where I stand on the Damascus Gate light rail platform the Jews are on the right and the Arabs are on the left, but it’s not far from the truth. Five minutes to the west is Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish area with street signs demanding that female visitors wear modest clothing. On these streets, where a man wagged his fingers at me for using my mobile phone on the Sabbath, you won’t find much in common with a modern city such as Tel Aviv.

A year ago, under pressure from the orthodox Jewish community, the head of CityPass stated that he was willing to introduce “kosher” men-only and women-only carriages. This would be nothing new in Jerusalem. For several years there were segregated buses in the city, with women only permitted to sit at the back.

In January 2011, an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling determined that segregation by gender was unlawful and CityPass has been prohibited from offering female-only carriages. For these reasons, the ultraorthodox remain broadly opposed to the Jerusalem Light Rail.

On the other side of the Damascus Gate train station I stop for lunch at the Ikermawi restaurant Mohammad Ikermawi, whose grandfather opened the eatery in 1953, tells me that quite a few Israeli Jews visit his bare-bones hummus and falafel stall. “Israelis are now discovering real hummus,” he laughs. “The hummus they eat is inedible to us!” Ikermawi benefits from being on a busy and well-lit street corner. Rashid Street in East Jerusalem is only five minutes away from Damascus Gate but you could go weeks without seeing an Israeli there. On this road I meet the manager of Petra Restaurant who says that before the Second Intifada he had many Israeli customers. Now he gets practically none. Israelis are too scared to venture east of Damascus Gate, he says.

I get back on the train and return to where I came from, travelling past Shuafat to Pisgat Ze’ev, a large Israeli settlement founded in the mid-1980s. The shop signs turn from Hebrew to Arabic and back to Hebrew again, and I start seeing roadsigns for Ramallah and other towns in the West Bank. I’m sitting next to Ariel Nura Cohen, a 25-year-old resident of Pisgat Ze’ev who tells me the Jerusalem Light Rail has improved his quality of life because it connects his home with the shops, restaurants and nightlife of downtown Jerusalem. It’s also opened his eyes to new parts of the city. “The train passes through neighbourhoods like Shuafat that I’ve never visited, even though it’s only ten minutes from my parents’ house”.

I expect that through Cohen’s eyes, dilapidated Shuafat must look like another planet. Next to the Pisgat Ze’ev stop there are modern apartment blocks and a mall covered in logos for Pizza Hut, The Body Shop and Home Center among others. I expect to find some Arabs inside the mall; after all, shopping options are limited in the neighbourhoods of Shuafat and Sheikh Jarrah. But I don’t see any. Perhaps they remember the incident in 2008 when a large group of Jewish Israeli youths attacked Arab teenagers with bats and knives by the mall’s entrance.

Binyamin Netanyahu has often reiterated his belief that both Jews and Arabs must be free to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem. And due to an acute housing shortage in Arab neighbourhoods and an understandable desire of wealthier people to move to areas offering better public services, around five per cent of Pisgat Ze’ev residents are Arabs. Although ultra-orthodox groups have tried to prevent Jewish residents selling their properties to Arab families (with those who do branded as traitors), it continues to happen.

In 2009 the Jerusalem Post reported that members of the volunteer group Eish L’Yahadut were patrolling the streets of Pisgat Ze’ev in the evenings to make sure young Jewish girls weren’t dating Arab men. I ask Ariel if he ever questions the legitimacy of his own home. “Let’s look at the facts,” he says. “Before they built the neighbourhood, this area was a desert and not an Arab zone. A few Arab people lived around here and nobody told them that they can’t stay – and today there is an Arab minority here.” He can’t foresee a future in which Pisgat Ze’ev would be handed to a Palestinian government. “We have to remain realistic,” he replies. “Settlement or not, Pisgat Ze’ev will remain part of the Jewish state in any future agreement. It’s not possible for any Israeli government to evacuate 40,000 people.”

I’m curious to hear why he’s never been to a neighbourhood just a few minutes drive down the road. “You’ll find no Jews in the Arab neighbourhoods and it’s because we’re scared. We all remember the lynchings that happening in Ramallah in 2000 [two Israeli non-combatant reservists accidentally entered the city and were brutally murdered by a mob] and for us there’s no difference between the people in the east of Jerusalem and the people in Ramallah.”

I leave Ariel at Pisgat Ze’ev and catch a train heading south. We pass Giv’at Ha Mivtar, also known as French Hill, a Jewish settlement that’s home to a small Arab population. And at Shim’on Hatsa-dik, a Jewish enclave in the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (it’s interesting they’ve given the stop a Hebrew name) I go for a walk.

It’s very quiet here on a Wednesday afternoon, but on most Fridays it becomes a focal point as Jews and Arabs stand side-by-side to protest against settler efforts to demolish Palestinian homes and take the land they believe was historically theirs and should be reclaimed.

On my journey back to downtown Jerusalem I sit next to an orthodox Jew whose tzitzit – the string attached to the prayer shawl – drapes down the edge of his chair. Opposite us sits an Israeli soldier in full uniform, carrying a gun in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. It’s the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and he’s returning home for the holiday. Almost everyone else on the carriage is speaking Arabic. It’s clear that a significant number of Arabs are using the light rail but it’s not easy to gauge how much support for the transit system exists in their neighbourhoods.

The only data we have comes from a poll carried out by Veolia, the French construction company that won an estimated US$500 million contract to work on the Jerusalem Light Rail in 2003. By the time they conducted the survey in 2009, it was in dire straits. The Association of France-Palestine Solidarity had commenced legal proceedings against the corporation in 2007, questioning the legitimacy of construction work on what it considers illegally occupied land. And a concerted effort by anti-occupation groups led to the company losing out on billions of dollars worth of contracts as local authorities in cities across the world dodged association with a company tainted by its links to the occupation.

It may well have been a PR offensive rather than a genuine attempt to understand the impact of the train track, but the results of a poll of 639 people of Arab origin in the East Jerusalem districts of Shuafat, Beit Hanina and Sheikh Jarrah are fascinating. Sixty-two per cent of respondents were in favour of the Jerusalem Light Rail. Two-thirds of people said that the Jerusalem Light Rail will “encourage economic development and appeal to the Arab population”, while 60 per cent agreed that it would “improve the quality of life in Shuafat and Beit Hanina”. Despite such positive feedback, Veolia later announced that it intended to sell its five per cent stake in the CityPass corporation.

It’s not impossible that Veolia acted in good faith, guided by a genuine belief that a non-discriminatory public transport system could help bring together a divided city. There are certainly some Arabs who see things this way. And then there are people like the Palestinian I spoke to at the Educational Bookshop and Café in East Jerusalem. He labelled the Jerusalem Light Rail a “settlement by train track”.

Before I disembark the train to shop for dinner at the Mahane Yehuda food market, I meet a tourist from Tokyo who’s thrilled by the whole Jerusalem Light Rail experience. “It’s so awesome that it’s free,” she says to me. “I came here five years ago and it was really hard to get around. Now everything is so simple.”

She’s wrong, of course. Nothing in Jerusalem will ever be simple.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Battle Of Stokes Croft

On 21st April Stokes Croft – the northwest area of Bristol known for its graffiti, squats and anti-capitalist culture – erupted in violence. The media dubbed it the ‘Battle of Tesco’, claiming the disorder sprang out of anti-supermarket protests. But, as Matthew Lee finds out, there’s more to the story – and to Stokes Croft – than a simple dislike of the red and blue grocery giant…

Entering a supermarket rarely feels like a political act. But in Stokes Croft pushing a trolley through the store’s sliding doors seems as wilful an act of defiance as crossing a picket line. It’s an unnerving experience. Walking up and down the aisles, past piles of fruit and vegetables, I feel like a Clubcard-carrying member of the opposition. Although I exit empty handed – a carrier bag here might be a red rag to a bull – I glance in both directions before stepping on to the street. Nobody saw a thing.

From the perspective of an outsider, the Tesco Express on Cheltenham Road seems perfectly innocuous, like any of the other 1,300 or so branches found on high streets throughout the country. But on 21st April this year this shop found itself at the centre of a storm. Nine police officers were injured in what the papers called the ‘Battle of Tesco’, an evening of violence that saw 160 police confront 300 protesters, meeting a barrage of missiles and retaliating with truncheons and riot shields. Could this really all have been over a supermarket? To answer this you need to know Stokes Croft…

The community
At Stokes Croft’s heart is a famous piece of street art. Bearing in mind what happened here, an image of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police might seem provocative, but the local authorities won’t be painting over it any time soon. It’s by Banksy and represents the acceptable, sometimes profitable side of Bristolian activism.

A few years ago Hamilton House, next door to the Asbo-courting cuddly toy, was derelict; now it’s run by a group called Coexist and is the area’s cultural hub. On a tour of the building I’m shown dozens of spaces used for yoga, meditation, theatre, live music and arts classes. Across the road is the Stokes Croft Museum, a one-room exhibition celebrating the area’s uniqueness. It’s charmingly eccentric and well worth a visit, as long as you’re not looking for an educational experience – a plastic dog turd takes its place alongside a portion of chips (yes, actual chips) that has been Blu-Tacked to the wall. But there’s nothing abstract or indirect about the biggest sign there – “People’s Republic of Stokes Croft: We Make Our Own Future”.

Established by Chris Chalkley, the The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is essentially a large-scale arts project, an effort to promote creativity and re-establish Stokes Croft as Bristol’s cultural quarter. It’s also about preserving the area’s character and encouraging sustainable development, in part by turning the neighbourhood into an outdoor gallery.

Art is everywhere: barely a patch of Stokes Croft’s walls is untouched by paint. Empty retail units have been turned into “free shops” where items are exchanged but no money changes hands. There are an incredible number of yoga classes on offer for such a small community. Bar one, there are no chain stores here, despite the fact that it’s only a five-minute walk from the city centre. In this setting, the supermarket at the end of the street seems incongruous – a banal sight surrounded by science-fiction street art. It’s mostly pure fantasy on display on Stokes Croft’s walls but among the dragons, aliens and dope-smoking cyborgs are paintings of Tesco shopping bags. They carry the slogan: “Very little help."

The campaign
It’s unlikely any citizens of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft shop at Tesco. The PRSC aims to protect the area from corporations which, they argue, have local government in their pocket. In his website’s mission statement, Chalkley writes that Stokes Croft “has been deliberately and criminally neglected” by a government that “favours powerful corporations over the interests of the local community”. The failure of a popular local movement to prevent the opening of Tesco bolsters his theory.

“This area is fiercely independent and it’s a designated conservation area,” he tells me. “It’s written in the conservation-area documents that it’s an area for independent traders, so when a multinational such as Tesco arrives – in a city where 84 per cent of retail is run by multinational companies – it’s hardly surprising that there’s a groundswell against them.”

A section of Stokes Croft had been quietly protesting the arrival of the supermarket for 18 months before the Battle of Tesco. The campaign against Tesco appeared to unite the community. No Tesco in Stokes Croft’s (NTSC) co-ordinators organised several peaceful protests, and there’s a huge piece of street art which proclaims,“Think local. Boycott Tesco.” The group argues that 93 per cent of local residents don’t want Tesco in the area. The supermarket chain disagrees, claiming it has support from the community. The campaigners’ arguments were ideological – they were opposed to Tesco’s business practices and wanted to support local shop owners – but they were also practical, centring on noise and congestion. The campaign failed: Bristol City council approved the plan and the store opened on 15th April. Six days later the violence began.

The Battle of Tesco
The riots initially had very little to do with the supermarket. For all the activism waged against the store in the preceding months, no official protest had been scheduled for that evening. Instead it began with an eviction. On Thursday 21st April, the last remaining squatters in Telepathic Heights – a residential building opposite the supermarket – were due to vacate the property so the council could redevelop it. The previous night they had held a pre-eviction party.

The police had received a tip-off from an undisclosed source that the squatters possessed petrol bombs which they were planning to use in an attack on Tesco – an allegation the squatters have consistently denied, claiming they knew nothing about any petrol bombs and that they were not part of the NTSC campaign. Around 160 riot police moved in at 9.15pm to seal off the road and raid the squat. A group of local residents arrived to confront the police and support the squatters, who were a long-established part of the community and were generally liked. Fighting broke out between the police and members of the public, which increased in intensity as people left local clubs and bars, and others from across the city heard about the disorder and arrived looking for a piece of the action. The police left the area in the early hours of the morning and the protesters proceeded to cause damage to the Tesco Express shopfront.

A week later, there was another riot. More injuries, more arrests, more damage to the supermarket. But people in Stokes Croft are asking questions. Why did the police raid the Telepathic Heights squat on a Thursday evening before a four-day Easter holiday at a time when so many people were out drinking? Why was a force of more than 160 riot police, plus vans, horses, dogs and a helicopter, necessary to raid a squat that consisted of only four people? If the police were rapidly responding to a sudden threat, how do they explain the presence of Welsh police officers, who are likely to have been draughted some time in advance? Who was the police’s source for information on the alleged petrol bombs in the Telepathic Heights squat? And can the police be believed when they say that petrol bombs were seized when, at the time of going to press, nobody has been charged with a related offence and no evidence of a seizure has been presented?

In riot footage posted online there are scenes of people reaching into wheelie bins for glass bottles to throw at the police. There are riot police on horseback charging at protesters. There are people being dragged along the street by officers and there’s a policeman being hit by a slab of concrete thrown from a building. And then there’s other footage, mostly from earlier in the evening, of police officers chatting quite amicably with local residents. It’s hard to put one’s finger on how, why or when things spiralled out of control.

The fallout
Two months on and the people of Stokes Croft are still looking for answers. They want to know how such a thing could happen on their streets. They’ve had countless meetings, debates and discussions. They’ve scanned the hours of footage of the riots on YouTube. And yet so many things still don’t make sense.

Chalkley argues that the underlying cause of the violence in Stokes Croft is that corporations have become more powerful than governments to the extent that they can bully them around. “When you have a very clear mandate from local people who say they don’t want something and it’s completely ignored by the people who are meant to represent them, frustration occurs and that ultimately manifested itself in the riots in April,” he says.

While some of that resentment may have been a contributing factor to the unrest, representatives of the NTSC are adamant the official campaign had nothing to do with what happened. “I was in my back garden having a few drinks when I saw a police helicopter above,” says Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the anti-Tesco campaign. “Even when I explained to the police who I was they wouldn’t give me any information on what was happening. We could have passed information on to the community and helped calm the situation.”

Milne believes that the authorities must have decided that it was “useful to create a riot” in Stokes Croft. “In terms of violence it’s an edgy area,” she says. “But in any city there are elements like that. When word gets out that 160 riot police are in Stokes Croft, hundreds of people will turn up and some of them will be looking for a fight. I can’t help but believe there was an intention on the part of the police to make people opposed to Tesco and corporations generally look like violent thugs. And the media colluded completely. If there had been a petrol bomb a small police presence would have defused the situation safely.”

Milne found herself fielding questions from the media, which were looking for an explanation for the violence. She struggled to condemn the behaviour. “I still don’t know what I think,” she tells me. “I’d never condone violence to another human being, but for me smashing Tesco’s windows is insignificant compared to the damage I would argue Tesco does in a fundamental way on a daily basis. I’m committed to peaceful and non-violent communication in every circumstance and I’m confused by the fact that I can’t condemn somebody smashing a window. The devastating reality is that the media only become interested when it gets violent. I spent over a year and a half working peacefully [on the campaign] and nobody wanted to know.”

Now, like the rest of the community, she’s torn between the necessity to move on and the desire to establish the truth about what really happened. “We need an inquiry, and it’s the right of our community to have it, but I’m going to have to distance myself from it. I’m totally burnt out.”

The man leading the charge for a national public inquiry is Bristol Green Party councillor Gus Hoyt. He tells me that the petition for an inquiry has received more than 1,000 signatures but that Theresa May, the home secretary, doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating the violence in Stokes Croft at a national level. “We want to know what happened on the night and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he says, before explaining how Stokes Croft is a part of Bristol that’s been neglected for decades. He describes it as a “place you used to hurry through on the way to get somewhere else” but applauds the local revival sparked by the work of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.

Like everybody I spoke to, he doesn’ t deny there’s a thuggish element in the area, but he says that he’s been surprised by the relative restraint Tesco’s many critics have shown. “While I’m not in any way condoning the action, I’m amazed Tesco hasn’t had its windows smashed in every night since it opened,” he says. I ask him whether, with his insider knowledge of local politics in Bristol, he thinks there was ever any chance of the anti-Tesco campaign being successful. “No,” he replies. “There was never a chance of people being listened to. There was never any proper consultation.”

The squat
Telepathic Heights is covered top-to-bottom in alien owls and talking ice-cream cones, either a colourful statement of artistic self-expression or an off-putting eyesore, depending on whether you’re a local resident seeking spiritual fulfilment or a major retailer with a new shop nearby. The building is right across the road from Tesco Express, making it easy to see how two different but ideologically interwoven local issues – a campaign for squatters’ rights and a campaign to prevent a supermarket opening – could become conflated when 160 riot police suddenly appear on a balmy, boozy evening.

Standing in the middle of Cheltenham Road, I study the scene. The supermarket is empty. Following the eviction, Telepathic Heights is also empty. This is a battle neither side appears to be winning.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Very Swedish Safari

There’s blackcurrant herring, dill herring, fennel and schnapps herring, black pepper herring, Scotch whisky herring and plain old pickled herring,” recites our waitress, pausing to catch her breath. “And, of course, we have herring tartare for an appetiser!”

It must get repetitive doing an impression of Bubba from Forrest Gump every five minutes, but when you’re working at Salt & Sill, the world’s first herring-themed hotel, you can’t expect customers to order spaghetti.

If herring tourism dries up, Salt & Sill can turn to its other USP – it floats. It’s moored to a giant raft at the edge of Klädesholmen, an island responsible for almost half of Sweden’s herring production. There’s also a floating sauna – Sweden's fastest, apparently – where I take my cue from the locals and get in touch with my inner Scandinavian. We heat up until it’s time to cool down, and with bellies full of pickled fish and boiled potatoes we fling ourselves into the sea, arms and legs flailing.

I’ve come to west Sweden to experience the seafood it’s so celebrated for – and the following morning a herring-heavy breakfast fuels photographer Per and me for the northbound drive to Strömstad and the ferry to the island of South Koster. After a hearty lunch of seafood stew we’re introduced to Kenneth Myrvold, the softly spoken Norwegian manager of Ekenäs hotel (tel: +46 (0)526 20250), and Johan Andersson, a South Koster native and, I’m about to discover, owner of Sweden’s firmest handshake. Every time he picks up a crab, I feel its pain.

As a child, Johan fished these waters with his grandfather. He’s tried and failed at city life (“I just start to panic”) and local bar work (“I prefer to drink drinks rather than serve drinks”), but he couldn’t be more comfortable than when he’s on his boat, hauling crabs, mackerel, lobster and shrimp onto the deck. He throws out salmon as bait, lowers a cage attached to a 40m rope, waits a few minutes, and then wheels it up triumphantly. Every 10 minutes, another 10 crabs appear. It all seems too easy.

Johan grapples like a wrestler with his catch and skilfully deactivates the crab’s desperate clawing. Not to be outdone, I reach to grab a crab by its shell. “It’ll take your fingers off!” screams the fisherman, showing me the scars on his arms. “When a crab attacks, you have to wait until it let’s go,” he warns. “If you try to pull it off, it’ll clamp harder.”

With our work done, we take a leisurely cruise past rugged, rocky landscapes; tiny islands inhabited only by horned goats. Back on dry land, we follow our bounty to the Ekenäs kitchen, where a team bakes bread, sautés scallops, roasts lamb and, upon seeing our catch, boils water in gigantic pots. The crabs re-emerge on a platter; a mass tangle of claws jostling for space with shrimps, mussels, cockles and oysters, all caught that same day.

By the time we’ve prized every speck of meat from every pincer it’s gone 10pm, although there’s still enough sunlight for a bike ride. With no cars on the Koster islands – the ferries aren’t big enough and the roads aren’t wide enough – it’s the main mode of transport for the 400 or so permanent residents. We pedal to the north side of the island, where we find two buildings: a ferry terminal and a bar, Johan’s former workplace. He’s sitting on a terrace, catching up with friends.

“My grandfather lived on South Koster until he was 92 and he never visited North Koster,” says Johan as we marvel at the midnight sunset. “These islands are at war!” We laugh – the north island is no more than 50m away, within earshot of a choice Swedish insult.

By buggy and by bicycle, we move en masse to the Blu Bar, a lovely pine and oak venue so hidden it seems surprising anybody finds it – then return to our hotel for a party, rural Sweden

style. The whole island appears to be here, dancing to Madonna and drinking schnapps until the start of another long summer’s day.

It’s a day that finds us a little worse for wear, and the lack of pickled herring at the breakfast table feels like a betrayal of biblical proportions. But we pick ourselves up for the ferry back to Strömstad and the stunningly scenic drive to Grebbestad, home to 90% of Sweden’s oysters. We head to a yellow sea hut perched on poles above the water. It’s home to a fishing tours business called Everts Sjöbod (tel: +46 (0)70 672 5208), run by the Karlsson brothers, Lars and Per.

It becomes quickly apparent that the brothers, born and raised in Grebbestad, are standing on a goldmine. Lars sweeps his net through the shallow water where their boat is moored and heaves up six oysters, each of which could sell for £10 at a top Stockholm restaurant. When we’re at sea on their wooden boat Per hands me a knife and gloves, and teaches me a key life skill. I make a mess of the first few shells, but the press-nudge-twist-lift technique soon comes together. And if I keep practising, Per suggests, I could represent the UK in the Nordic Oyster Opening Championships, which takes place in Grebbestad every spring.

Feeling like the luckiest man in west Sweden, I eat the two-dozen oysters on the table on deck. I close my eyes to focus on the lively, complex flavour – somehow sweet, salty and creamy at the same time – and miss out on much of the gloriously rugged coastline. But my oysters are just a warm-up for the main event. Back at the charming 120-year-old fisherman’s hut there’s bread, cheese, Champagne and a vast seafood platter. Almost anywhere else, this would be considered the height of luxury. Here, it’s simple local fare.

The brothers used to own a furniture shop, but didn’t like working indoors, so they turned to something they’d been doing for as long as they can remember. “It was the right decision to fish full-time,” says Per, who also runs an organisation dedicated to promoting the wonders of the Grebbestad oyster throughout the world. This is a town of seafood addicts – they even celebrate a dedicated Oyster Day, held every September.

The fishing seasons, we’re told, are mind-bogglingly precise. The lobster season, Per insists, begins at 7am on the first Monday following 20 September. Before then, fishing for lobster is a waste of time. It seems crazy, but it’s precisely this obsessive devotion to their craft that’s made Scandinavian food the talk of the culinary world. The emphasis is on seasonal ingredients and simple, unfussy preparation. As I help myself to one last mussel, Per shows me various clippings and certificates stating that Grebbestad oysters are the best in the world. I’m not going to argue.

Originally published in Ryanair magazine