Postcards from the Middle East


Despite Western perceptions, the Middle East has much to offer. Yes, it can be frustrating, at times tragic. And it certainly has its share of problems.

But there is more to the region than war, car bombs and fanatics.

A few hours spent in a backstreet Cairo coffee shop with men whiling away the day, playing backgammon, reveals more about Middle Eastern realities than the endless stream of news reports quoting faceless politicians and analysts hedging their bets about the impacts of Osama bin Laden’s death.

The Western preoccupation with Middle East terrorism and war misses the point entirely. Most Middle Easterners view al-Qaeda as an anomaly, a source of shame or an embarrassment: a grotesque perversion of Islam whose ideology remains foreign to the overwhelming majority.

In reality, most people are busy trying to live their lives, caught between the competing interests of self-expression, repressive social strictures, family pressures and indifferent regimes that fail them in every respect. The people – from Aden to Aleppo, Dubai to Cairo and down through the Nile Delta sprawl to Khartoum – consistently show a generosity and openness, often tolerance, which stands in contrast to the isolated individualism of the West.

It remains unclear whether the Middle East will emerge from its malaise. The more outward-looking youth are prepared to mobilize in protest of regimes – while being well connected to the outside world – but have emerged on the back of a half-century regression into religious conservatism.

Regardless, substantial change in the Middle East will take time and not come as a ‘spring’ or ‘awakening’. Rather, a gradual shift. At least I hope so.

All photos by Glen Johnson.

Egypt: Riot police clash with protesters in Cairo on the first afternoon of the Egyptian uprising.

Egypt: Protesters march from Mohammed Naguib station towards Midan Tahrir on Day 4 of the Egyptian uprising.

Lebanon: Iraqi Shia during the final of a football tournament organised by the UNHCR for refugees in Southern Beirut.

Lebanon: Shia faithful lament the death of the Prophet’s family members in Karbala, Iraq, 1400 years previously.

Somalia: A woman walks through a former al-Shabab stronghold in the Somali capital. Mogadishu was once known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. It has been reduced to a shell.

Palestinian Territories: Palestinian youth cut a razor wire section of Israel’s security barrier.

Palestinian Territories: Israeli border police – known as the Magav – make arrests following the early morning eviction of a Palestinian family from their East Jerusalem home.

Syria: View over the Syrian capital Damascus after a downpour.

Yemen: Shibam’s mud brick ‘skyscrapers’ in the Hadramawt province.

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