Arabia with Levison Wood (second episode) – Discovery

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This episode whipped up a bit of storm on social media, but, as far as I’m concerned, anything which draws attention to the war in Yemen, which has resulted in the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded and over 20 million people going short of food, is welcome.  However, as with the episode about Iraq, it was hard not to feel that a war zone was being used to create drama – it felt rather like an Indiana Jones film, with protection being sought from a Sultan and borders being suddenly closed by Saudis.  We heard next to nothing about the horrific effects of the war on the people of Yemen.  Instead, we got a close-up view of a toilet on a boat, which wasn’t really what I wanted to see. The first part of the programme, in Oman, was better, though, even if there was a lot about rocks and sand and not a lot about Bedouins or souks.  Still no falafels, either; but we got to see the “Empty Quarter” desert and dolphins in the Gulf of Oman, and to hear about the frankincense trade.  And there were lots of camels.

Oman looked beautiful, and I’d really like to have seen some of the stunning mosques and palaces in Muscat, and a bit more of the souks (I don’t usually like shopping, but I love souks!), but we saw very little of that before Levison was off climbing rocks, crossing the Empty Quarter desert (which, as the name suggests, was, well, empty!) and complaining about the way his local guide treated the camels.  I get that this is the Discovery channel and not the History channel, but there’s still only so much sand you can look at!

However, we did get to meet some of the local people, and to see the trees from which frankincense was extracted, so that was interesting … but it still felt far more like an action film than a documentary.  I suppose you can see Levison Wood as a Boys’ Own adventurer and think that it’s all very exciting, but I thought the idea of this series was to show viewers that there’s so much more to the Middle East than war and terrorism.  I didn’t really mean sand!

From Oman, he crossed into Yemen, and that was what caused the fuss on social media.  I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to get a visa to enter Yemen, but it didn’t look as if he’d even tried: he just said that it was impossible to get a visa because of the war, and there was then all this drama about how he was going to get across the border with help from a mysterious Somali contact.  Which he duly did. Critics have commented that it’s not appropriate for someone to enter a country illegally in order to make a TV programme, and have pointed out that there’d be an outcry if a Yemeni citizen were found to have entered the UK or another western country illegally.

I can see that point, but I think entering Yemen illegally would have been justified if he’d shown, or at least talked about, the horrors of the war.  The situation in Yemen is not being widely reported in the media here, and I think people need to know what’s going on.

Another criticism has been that he was trying to be a “white saviour”.  There seems to be an increasing trend for someone to scream “neo-colonialist” or “white saviour” every time a white person from a western country reports on or makes any comment about a country in another part of the world.  Donations to Comic Relief dropped right off after David Lammy’s criticism of Stacey Dooley, who has worked hard to draw attention to issues faced by women and children in developing countries.  How does that help anyone?  You even hear criticism of Bob Geldof for raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s – do people think it would have been better if he hadn’t?!  In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such disparities in wealth between countries, so the issue of charity work in developing countries wouldn’t arise, but this is not an ideal world. And  David Cameron tried to raise the issue of LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries and got a load of grief in response.  Of course no-one’s saying that western countries should be telling other countries what to do, but human rights are human rights.  As far as this series is concerned, the situation in Yemen is very serious, and not getting anything like as much coverage as it should; and I don’t find it at all appropriate for Twitter trolls to be calling Levison Wood an “orientalist” or a “white saviour” for trying to highlight what’s going on there.  End of rant!!

Having had a good rant about all that … I was disappointed to find he didn’t actually say anything very much.  There was one short interview with some people who were being forced to live on the streets because they’d had to leave their home, but that was it.  To be fair, though, he didn’t get chance to see much more of the country, because the Saudis closed the border, the intelligence services were on to him, and he had to get out. There followed a load of Boys’ Own Adventure/Hard Man/Indiana Jones/Romancing the Stone/whatever stuff about going to Saudi Arabia in a flimsy boat through pirate-infested waters.  But this was after he’d got back to Oman, so why not just go from Oman to Saudi Arabia across the land border?!  And, having got back to Oman, he could have explained more about what was going on in Yemen.  It doesn’t all have to be action.  This is not a G A Henty or R M Ballantyne book: this is real life.

Sorry, I feel like I’m doing nothing but moaning, but I’m just finding this really frustrating.  There are very few TV programmes about the Middle East.  99 times out of 100, if the Middle East’s mentioned on TV it’s on the news, and it’s very rarely good news.  And, even then, it’s very rarely anything about Yemen.  There are bits of this programme which give us a tantalising glimpse of just how good it could be, like when he was talking to the Omani desert tribesmen about frankincense … but then it just reverts back to being like an action film.

Oh, and neither G A Henty nor R M Ballantyne would have described a toilet.   It’s not very heroic, is it?!

Oh well.  At least it did a bit to bring the Yemeni situation to public attention … even though I’m not sure how many people are watching the programme or reading about it.  But a bit more focus on the countries being visited and a bit less action film stuff would be extremely welcome.  I want to know about these places, their people, their cultures!    Please  ….

Arabia with Levison Wood – Discovery

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“Arabia” – a region which used to be associated with dashing explorers and adventurers, Scheherezade’s stories and magic carpets. Iraq – all the history of Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Ur and Nineveh. I was really hoping that this programme would get beyond the image of the Middle East as a place that’s all about conflict and terrorism, and show us its history and cultures. Even a few falafels and a bit of oud music would have been a start. Instead, most of what we got was close-up coverage of the war against Islamic State. We see that on the news all the time: I really didn’t need to see it here too.  It was very interesting, although for some reason it made absolutely no mention of the Yazidis or the Assyrians; but it was nearly all about war, and there’s so much more to the Middle East than that.

This first episode started off in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, close to the border with Syria, with the team being stopped from crossing the border into “federal Iraq” as tensions rose due to a referendum on Kurdish independence. The West let the Kurds down very badly after the First World War, and again after the Gulf War of 1990/91. The vast majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want independence, and that’s without even starting to talk about the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere; but it’s not happening. I’d like to have heard more about Kurdish history and culture, but instead it felt more like an Indiana Jones film, with Levison & co making a dramatic dash to get to another border crossing before it closed for the night.  Very action movie, but not very informative.

Their next stop was Mosul. They stayed in a military safehouse – and took a taxi to the front line of the war against Islamic State. As you do. What we did see was very interesting – and very distressing, as we learnt that a man whom Levison interviewed had been killed by Islamic State only a week later, and heard a woman describing about how she’d been separated from her baby several months earlier and hadn’t seen him since. But there was no reference at all to what had been done to the Yazidis and the Assyrians, and, although we saw the horrific destruction wrought by the bombings, we didn’t hear about the damage done to historic/cultural sites – we were just shown piles of rubble. It didn’t even mention that Mosul was on the site of Nineveh – OK, whether or not people believe stories about blokes being thrown off ships and eaten by whales is up to them, but the point is that this is a city so ancient that it’s mentioned in the Old Testament.  Surely that merited at least a quick name check?

Obviously I’m not saying that a legend from thousands of years ago is more important than the terrible suffering of people today, but some background information and context would have been nice. It sometimes felt that the main aim of the programme was to be daring. Getting to the front line of the war against Islamic State. In a taxi!

Not that far from the devastated centre of Mosul, we saw shops and cafes – but we didn’t get to see any Iraqi cuisine. One good point that was made was that there were no women around, only men. That said a lot.

Then on to Baghdad. Things seemed pretty normal there, but all we got was people sitting around and talking about war – nothing about the traditions and lifestyles and history.  We did get to see Saddam Hussein’s bunker, though. But nothing about the city’s incredible history as a centre of learning and culture.  And not a falafel in sight.

The best bit actually came at the end, when Levison visited the marshlands in southern Iraq. He didn’t even mention that this was literally by the rivers of Babylon, though. Even if you’re not into either history or religion, or indeed Boney M, surely you’d mention the fact that you were by the rivers of Babylon?! Apparently not.

I well remember hearing about the Marsh Arabs back in 1991, but, as public attention moved away from Iraq after the war, I don’t think we really heard much about how Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained, displacing many of the Marsh Arabs and doing horrific damage to the ecosystem. It was good to see that things are looking up now, and to hear interviews with both men and women involved in traditional work in the marshlands. This was more the sort of thing I’d been hoping for.

Next week’s episode will include Yemen, and I very much hope that it might bring some attention to a tragically under-reported conflict – but I’m also hoping to hear more about the people of the places visited, and not just the politics.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic as mad dashes for border crossings, but I think we hear enough drama where the Middle East’s concerned!  Let’s hear about other things as well.