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Monthly Archives: March 2018

Travels in Trump’s banned countries

President Trump’s list of bad countries – Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya – bears an uncanny, and unfortunate, resemblance to my own list of favourite places. Except I was often lucky enough to be in some of those countries before the current round of foreign interference, globalisation, climate change, arms-dealing and war dragged them to ruin and misery. Looking back though, the signs of problems ahead were there, but I still believe that travel is a powerful ally in the war against ignorance and suspicion. Here are some of the people and places I encountered on my travels.

Zaghawa nomads enter El Fasher in Sudan’s Darfur province in 1983. The delicate balance between camel-herding nomads and farmers was about to come under pressure from drought, but the first tremor of unease was when, in September of that year, President Nimeiri introduced sharia law. In El Fasher the town’s beer-makers, all women, were publicly flogged. Next day they were back, selling beer to the same policemen who had whipped them, but the mood in Darfur had subtly altered. An austere and intolerant form of Islam had arrived.


Arriving in Yemen for the first time in 1986, I found the hospitality and friendliness of the people were equal to that of Sudan. I spent great days out in markets like this one (above) in an area on the Red Sea coast close to Saudi Arabia, a country that has been bombing Yemen.

A hardline form of communism was imposed on southern areas of Yemen in the 1960s and by the 1980s alienated young men were heading off to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. On their return they would form a hardcore of militant Islamic fighters. I remember one telling me off for wearing trousers – a sign of western decadence. Here a man sleeps near a stack of landmines near Aden after the 1994 Yemeni civil war.


Inspired by those Yemeni mujahideen, Osama Bin Laden among them, the 9/11 attack was undoubtedly a turning point, a moment that Donald Trump can always return to in justifying his actions in banning travellers from certain countries. This is an Iraqi tank, hit by US shells, and then given a forthright sticker message. FDNY is the Fire Department of New York.

The 2003 Iraq war was an egregious moment in the history of foreign meddling. In Basra I found a complex and diverse society bracing itself for the disaster they knew was coming. This old couple, baffled by all the violence, but determined to continue old traditions of hospitality, invited me into their house.

The young lads, however, were more interested in the weaponry that surrounded them. Here a group play around with a British soldier and his SA80 rifle.


Syria was next to reap the poisonous harvest of radicalism, violence and hatred. In 2009 things were still peaceful and this shopkeeper in Hama was more interested in discussing Shakespeare than politics.

Outside Aleppo at Mushabbak, a boy cradles his favourite goat kid in front of a ruined Byzantine church. Within a year war would break out and steadily engulf the whole country.

The best podcasts to listen to on the road

1. If you’re a first-timer: Serial (series one)

For tens of millions of people, Serial was a deliciously addictive gateway drug into the world of podcasts. In the first series, launched back in 2014, investigative journalist Sarah Koenig delved into the mysterious 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. It’s a true story, narrated with flair and compassion that will leave you yearning for answers.

2. If you like eavesdropping on funny conversations: The Adam Buxton Podcast

Dr Buckles is the undisputed duke of British podcasting; only he can make you laugh and cry with equal velocity in the space of one episode. His intimate, honest interviews leave you feeling like you’re listening in on a chat between old friends – which is often the case; Richard Ayoade, Louis Theroux and Sarah Pascoe are a few pals who have appeared on the show.

3. If you’ve ever thought about escaping to a desert island:Desert Island Discs

Simply one of the best podcasts out there, regardless of whether you’re on a desert island or not. In each episode, host Kirsty Young asks guests (or ‘castaways’) to choose the eight records they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The BBC has put thousands of archive episodes online, with Louis Armstrong (1968), John Peel (1990) and Yoko Ono (2007) being a few of the landmark interviews.

4. If you need entrepreneurial inspiration: How I Built This

Travel’s a good time to reflect on things and make some big life decisions you’ll probably never see out. If you need a further kick up the backside, How I Built This interviews the entrepreneurs behind companies like Airbnb, Instagram and Vice, asking them how they came about setting up their multi-million dollar businesses. If this doesn’t inspire you to create that new app, magazine, or blog, nothing will.

5. If you want a ‘series fix’, but don’t want to pack a laptop:Homecoming

There have been a load of fiction podcasts over the last couple of years, mainly crime or sci-fi based, testing the water in what has traditionally been a non-fiction format. Many fall short of the mark, but Homecoming could signal a turning point. Its Hollywood cast features David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac and Catherine Keener. As gripping as any Netflix original.