Mediterranean with Simon Reeve – BBC 2


Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic.  Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip.  Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean.  It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come.  It’s also been rather worrying.

No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they?  It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean.  Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East.  It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common.  The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean.  It’s sad, really.  I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010).   Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?

And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show.  It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be.  Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there.  Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts.  Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.

The series kicked off with Malta.  The George Cross island.  Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering.  There’s been quite a bit in the news about this.  Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady.  Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports.  It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there.  Something’s seriously rotten there.  It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known.  It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino!  Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all.  Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy.  They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over.  They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series.  They are super-powerful.  And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people.  It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life.  Frightening stuff.

Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean.  People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries.  Parts of Spain and France have also been affected.  It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.

Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that.  Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated.  Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment.  Maybe something will be done about it.  Efforts are at least being made.  Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas.  But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom.  I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past.   More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.

But the other section on Albania was just horrifying.  I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives.  These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations.  It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on.  We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him.  Just a young lad – just a kid.   He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might.  He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him.  He’s “in blood”.  And he’s hardly the only one.  Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position.  In Europe, in 2018.  Bloody hell.

It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.

The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy.  Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife.  The second episode was different.  First up, Cyprus.  Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city.  There was a barricade literally in the street.

I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone.  This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here.  Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government.  I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this.  Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques.  The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal.  This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.  I really hadn’t expected that.

Then on to Lebanon.  I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery.  I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries.  They just … go way back.  But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq.  It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting.   This is a huge problem now.  It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.  Things are very different now.  It’s not good.

Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah.  And they really do control it – “a state within a state”.  He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”.  Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.  Talk about gruesome.  And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus.  To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.

The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive.  We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water.  We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before.  The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals.  Impressive.

The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country.  99% of its imports arrive by sea.  99%!   It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before.  One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island.  It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off.  All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.

And from Israel to the Gaza Strip.  Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.

Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt.   The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.

However, there’s still some hope.  Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions.  She’s doing a great job.  And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity.  And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast.  They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope.  It’s a horrible mess.

Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken.  I think a lot of us would go with that.  It’s a very distressing situation.  So are most of the others covered so far in this series.  Crime.  Blood feuds.  Environment damage.  War, terrorism, dangerous borders.  It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all.  Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations.  This series is well worth watching.

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis


ArmeniaThis is the first historical novel I’ve come across which tackles the issue of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated earlier this year.  It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it covers a very important subject.

Up to 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  Only 29 countries officially recognise what happened as genocide.  Many regional parliaments and assemblies do too, and only Turkey and Azerbaijan officially deny that what happened was genocide, but most national governments are reluctant to commit themselves, perhaps due largely to the fear, given the situation in the Middle East, of the possible consequences of upsetting Turkey.

France has taken the lead in trying to persuade Turkey to change its position; other countries, notably the Republic of Cyprus and Uruguay, have also done much to ensure that what happened is recognised; and the Pope spoke out about the subject in April … as a result of which, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  Rather bizarrely, most of the coverage of the centenary commemorations in the English language media seemed to centre on the visit of Kim and Khloe Kardashian to the memorial complex in Armenia.  I am not a fan of the Kardashians, but they did speak very movingly about the genocide and their sadness that it isn’t properly recognised.

No-one who was actively involved can be alive now, and no blame can be attached to modern-day Turkey and its people … but the subject remains extremely sensitive in Turkey, and, especially given the present situation in Syria and Iraq, most governments dare not risk confrontation with the Turkish authorities.  So it’s very unlikely that there will be widescale recognition any time soon that what took place was genocide.  But it was.

Moving on to the book, it was one of these which flip between different time periods and different sets of characters: we had the British granddaughter of a woman who’d survived the Armenian Genocide finding a series of letters written by her grandmother, shortly after the grandmother’s death in the mid-1980s, and part of the book was narrated by the granddaughter, part by the grandmother via her letters, and part by the grandmother’s brother, who, unbeknownst to her, had also survived and was living in Cyprus.

Much of the stuff set in the 1980s wasn’t particularly good, quite honestly.  It was just all too easy for everyone to find their long-lost relations, via a series of highly improbably coincidences and a few phone calls.  And no-one seemed the slightest bit upset to discover that a lifetime of lies had been told about someone’s paternity.  One aspect of which was however shown very well was the pressure put on some of the younger generation to stick to the old ways and remain within, and, in particular, to marry within, the Armenian community, even if that wasn’t going to make them happy.  That’s something which is common to many minority communities, and I’ve known families torn apart by it.  Happily, in this case, the Armenian grandfather eventually accepted that his granddaughter should marry for love, regardless of ethnicity or religion or anything else.  Another was the long-term psychological effects on those who’ve been through such a trauma, and how depression and anxiety can strike them even decades later.

The parts of the book which covered the events of 1915 and the years immediately following it were much better – and very. very sad.  We saw men killed, women and children deported, women abducted and raped, deportees being massacred, and deaths from disease and from the sheer difficulties of making such long journeys in a harsh climate and without food and water.  Then we saw the survivors being scattered across the globe: Cyprus, Britain, the USA and Lebanon all featured in this book, and, of course, the Armenian diaspora covers a myriad of other countries too.

The book didn’t actually mention the issue of recognition of the genocide, even though that’s usually the first thing people talk about when the subject’s mentioned.  Maybe the author didn’t want to seem to be too political: it’s an extremely sensitive subject.  But she’s done a good job of telling the story in the form of a novel, and I hope that a lot of people will read this book.  It’s a story which deserves to be read.


The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop


Word PressThis interesting novel deals with arguably the most significant of the all-too-many unresolved issues of European geo-politics – the division of Cyprus.  It does via the lives of a number of characters, some Greek Cypriot and some Turkish Cypriot, living in Famagusta, an important port city with a rich history which by the early 1970s was one of Europe’s most prestigious tourist centres.  “The Sunrise” is a luxury hotel, which two of the characters own and most of the others work in or are otherwise associated with.

We hear about the history of the families involved, and learn of the deaths of several of their relatives in the conflicts of the 1960s.  Then we see the Turkish invasion of 1974, during which Famagusta was bombed and then occupied, and pretty much the entire population fled.  To this day, Varosha, the tourist area where the posh hotels were, remains a ghost town: after more than forty years, and despite attempts by the UN to intervene, it’s still fenced off.  No-one’s allowed to go there, and the hotels are sitting there, empty, falling apart.

One of the main storylines is the gang rape of a major character by Turkish soldiers.  Mass sexual violence against women was perpetrated by both sides, as it was in the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – to such an extent that the Cypriot Orthodox Church agreed to the legalisation of abortion.  Several other characters are killed.  Most of those who survive end up in London.  And, again as happened in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, there was “ethnic cleansing” – the expulsion of people who were in the “wrong” area for their ethnic group.  And there was also considerable destruction of important cultural treasures.

A lot of the book involves a Greek Cypriot family and a Turkish Cypriot family hiding out together in The Sunrise after everyone else has fled: I’m not sure how realistic that is, but the horror of the events does really come across even so.  I think the author might have done more to show the concerns of Turkish Cypriots before the invasion, because Turkey did have some valid reasons for its decision; but nothing can excuse the war crimes perpetrated by both sides.

I understand that there are reunification talks going on at the moment.  The requirement for a visa to enter Turkish Northern Cyprus has recently been abolished, and it seems that both sides now have leaders who are willing to do business.  I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, or even that it would be for the best of it did.  It’s a very difficult and sensitive situation, and we’re now forty years on and most people in Cyprus now have grown up in one of two separate states.  But maybe something can be done to try to heal the divisions.  There are hundreds of people on both sides whose fates remain unknown: their families and friends must have to assume that they were killed in the fighting, but they don’t know for sure.  But, whatever happens, it can’t put right what people suffered in the 1970s.  Time moves on, and stories slip out of the headlines, and it’s easy to forget that this happened so relatively recently, in an island with which Britain has close historic ties and which is still a popular holiday destination for British tourists.  This isn’t the best book ever written, but it’s worth reading as a reminder of something of which there isn’t nearly as much awareness as there should be.