Book review - John Robertson, Iraq. A History

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The problem of the history of Iraq, it might be argued, is that for too many people it starts with the so-called first Gulf or Iraq War in 1991, takes in the second Iraq War in 2003, perhaps also the discovery and execution of Saddam Hussein, not forgetting oil, and it might then conclude with something about sectarian violence, utter chaos, ISIS and perhaps refugees.

But millennia before the US-led invasions of 1991 and 2003, Iraq played a leading role in world history. On the one hand, damned for its advantageous Middle Eastern location (with the Tigris and Euphrates running through it), it was the cradle of civilisation and as far as we know the location of the world’s first towns and cities, dating back to 5000-6000 BCE.  

Reflecting this history and in fewer than 400 pages, John Robertson’s Iraq. A History is a masterful book that takes readers on the most remarkable of journeys, starting in ancient Mesopotamia. It skilfully takes in countless ‘firsts’ in world history, and dissects geographical, cultural, tribal, religious and economic factors that continue to feed into what is now called Iraq.  

There are great civilisations, from the Sumer in the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates, the first writing in the form of Cuneiform, the Code of Hammurabi from Old Babylonia, great architecture and rulers, not forgetting countless invasions, just some of whom have been Genghis Kahn, Arab tribes, the Ottomans, British and Americans. Affluence and plenty are as much a part of Iraq’s history as the suffering, and even its greatest cities have been destroyed, sometimes rebuilt.

The modern day destruction of large parts of the country, however,' jars, not simply because it is for us the ‘history of today’, but because it was so patently avoidable. This should never absolve Saddam Hussein from responsibility for the crimes he inflicted on his own people, but the catastrophe from the West’s sanctions onwards in the 1990s must inform future decisions. It’s worth quoting Robertson on the effect of the sanctions":

As Iraq’s water, sanitation, power-generation, and medical systems became increasingly dilapidated and dysfunctional, disease and malnutrition felled thousands of Iraqis, including by some estimates 8880,00 Iraqi children under five years of age. An assessment of the impact of these sanctions that was published in 1999 spotlighted the irony that the number of Iraqi deaths they had caused exceeded the number ‘slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.’

Today Iraqis – with millions still displaced due to the 2003 US/British invasion and the subsequent terror inflicted by ISIS – continue their attempt to come to terms with the devastation inflicted on their country. Many mourn the destruction, some are no longer able to return home, and some even long for the seemingly old stability of the Saddam decades.  

So, in the wake of such recent history, it’s self-evident that there is no good news from Iraq, isn’t it? Actually, no, this is far from incorrect. Thankfully, decent journalists are returning to Iraq, reporting accurately that despite everything, a sense of ‘normality’ is slowly returning. Families visit shopping malls, watch films, cook and discuss the future.  

Of course, with ISIS still in existence, long-term water-supply and general infrastructure challenges, economic dislocation (and an over-reliance on planet-harmful oil extraction, coveted by many countries), alongside the inevitable outside interests, such as Iran, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a society to a degree split on religious or ethnic grounds, it doesn’t pay to be complacent. Indeed, many doubt the viability of the country, suggesting it cannot be held together in the medium term.

But as Robertson’s book shows, though there is no quick-fix solution, Iraq should not be written off – if for nothing else than a country with such a long and fascinating history surely has something to offer modern civilisations.

Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey

Every so often, you read a book and recognise its importance, though it’s not always easy to understand exactly why. With Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, almost every page makes you think, rethink, question and reflect.

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Glasgow-born McGarvey, also known by his rapper name of Loki, has for more than a decade worked with people in the city on the issue of poverty. He’s made programmes for the BBC, been a commentator and speaker as an expert on the issue and he’s told his own story of being raised with a sometimes violent, alcoholic mother, and his own subsequent addictions to alcohol, fast food and drugs.

Poverty Safari draws readers in with McGarvey’s personal story and why he became a socialist, a left-wing activist and campaigner. Its brilliance, however, is its uncanny ability to engender a semi-comfortable feeling at the same time as jolting readers out of their liberal-left comfort zone as he questions his – and their – beliefs and motives. It’s uncomfortable and it’s challenging.

While never propounding right-wing fantasies of tiny government, he wants working class communities to take responsibility and control of their lives, not to fall back onto simply blaming the government, neoliberalism or the middle-class. Far from letting those with power off the hook, or reducing government’s responsibility for tackling poverty and inequality, in effect McGarvey is saying: ‘We can no longer afford to wait for those in power to make a difference; we need to organise, take responsibility and transform our society.’

If Poverty Safari is a call to arms, it is one of recognising that neither poverty will be overcome any time soon nor a more equitable state created if we wait for capitalism to fail or governments of any stripe to make the necessary decisions to transform working-class lives. In fact, it’s about recognising that self-interest means that the powerful (governments to corporations to anti-poverty campaigners) will not do enough. He says:

A pathological belief that only the state can resolve this issue is both disempowering and self-defeating in the short and medium term. This is not submission; this is to acknowledge the complexity of the matter.

Once you accept that the government isn’t going to fix this issue any time soon, it whittles down the options. It removes some of the onus from governments and places it directly on us.

The final part of the book includes a fascinating story about artist and academic Ellie Harrison, who was pilloried for a project she announced she was undertaking in Glasgow, with McGarvey one of her loudest critics. He later questioned his motives in attacking her and her project, and while arguing ‘her approach was misguided, clumsy and poorly conceived’, he was scathing about his presumptions, concluding:

 I was so consumed by my own anger and moral certainty, it had blinded me to the fact that Ellie Harrison, in all her middle-class glory, was not an enemy, but an ally in the war I’d been fighting all my life.

Happier inside his own skin, it was a reflection of McGarvey’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with his own difficult past, his anger and at the same time as reasserting his fight against poverty and injustice would continue.

 Krishnan Guru-Murthy of the UK’s superb Channel 4 News did an interview with McGarvey, which is well worth watching.

Glaswegian rapper Loki is this year's Orwell Prize winner for his book 'Poverty Safari'. He talks to Krishnan about how he negotiated a difficult childhood and an alcohol problem, how he thinks poverty can be tackled and why the left need to reclaim the idea of personal responsibility.

As an aside: when reading Poverty Safari on an S-Bahn in Munich in late December, a young woman recognised the book and asked me about it. She was actually from France and explained that one of her friends works for a German publishing house, which was considering translating and publishing it. Though focused on Glasgow, McGarvey’s observations and experiences would certainly add a great deal to the debate on poverty in Germany, too.

Spotlight: Pakistan

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In early 2018, I was commissoned by Spotlight magazine in Munich to write an article on contemporary Pakistan - Spotlight is an English-language magazine read across the German-speaking world. It’s also a brilliant language-learning tool. That lots of people in Pakistan speak English was central to the commission, and the idea was to take it from there.

I was, however, determined to eschew the usual stereotypes of Pakistan. With some terrific interview partners, and a great layout, we came up with what I hope is more nuanced depiction of the country than that usually presented in much of the press across the world. Thanks particularly to Kamran Khan (general secretary of the UK Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and Ramsha Jahangir, a forward-thinking young writer at Dawn newspaper, who has high hopes for her country.

Issue 5/2018 Spotlight magazine

Pakistan – behind the headlines

Pakistan really is a land of opportunity,” says Kamran Khan, general secretary of the UK Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It has so much potential, it’s situated in a strategic location, it has a very young population and it is very dynamic.”

To hear Pakistan described as a “land of opportunity” may come as a surprise to some. Since the British left India in 1947 and partitioned the country, India and Pakistan have struggled to recover from the terrible violence and population transfers that ensued: a million people died and 15 million were displaced. Since then, Pakistan has rarely appeared in the media in a positive light.

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Business Spotlight: Israel

Tel Aviv has a great energy,” says Amir Fattal. “It’s such a young, vibrant city,” he adds. “It’s open 24/7 and there are always people out on the street. It feels so lively when you’re there. And there is the amazing weather all of the time, and the beach is within walking distance — it’s such a great life.” Then, however, comes the qualification: “If it weren’t for the political situation, the place would be heaven.”

Conflicted Country, article for Business Spotlight (issue 6/2018)

Conflicted Country, article for Business Spotlight (issue 6/2018)

Writing about Israel is rarely straight forward – for the simple fact that so many people have an opinion on it. Nevertheless, it can be hugely rewarding. For my article in Business Spotlight magazine in September 2018 (Spotlight Issue 6/2018), I talked to Berlin-based artist Amir Fattal, who discussed his family origins in Iraq, why some creative people feel the need to leave Israel and his passion for 3D publishing (bigrep). British economist Paul Rivlin (senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies) provided wise words on the Israeli economy while Osnat Lautman Mansoor (who is part German, part Brazilian) did likewise about Israel and cross-cultural communications (her latest book, Israeli Business Culture Building Effective Business Relationships with Israelis, has just been published)

Business Spotlight is available in shops across Germany, and by print or digital subscription or one-off copies via Spotlight Verlag.

Business Spotlight magazine: South Korea

“Divided into democracy and dictatorship after a catastrophic war. Separated by a militarized border. And home to vastly different economic models. Sound familiar? Yes, there are more than just symbolic similarities between post-Second World War Germany and the post-war Korean Peninsula.”

In a recent article for Business Spotlight magazine I pick up on the striking parallels between South Korea and Germany in the 20th century. But, as I make clear, these similarities shouldn’t be overdone, because at the same time they also have much that also separates them.

South Korea article for Business Spotlight (issue 5/2018)

South Korea article for Business Spotlight (issue 5/2018)

The article includes interviews with, for example, Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, Anne Ladouceur, the Canadian-born owner of the website Korea4Expats.com, and Susanne Woehrle, who worked for BMW for 25 years and now works in vocational training for the German Chamber of Commerce in Seoul.

Pardo delves into the tricky business of Trump, relations with North Korea and the challenges of future economic growth. Ladoucer stresses the importance of personal networks and Woehrle goes through the intricacies of doing business there.

Business Spotlight is available in shops across Germany, and by print or digital subscription or one-off copies via Spotlight Verlag.

Thousands of dead fish ... the rivers of Babylon

After all the troubles that Iraq has suffered in past decades, as recent reports have highlighted, it has also added the environment to its long list of serious woes. The proclaimed defeat of ISIS in 2017 was followed by elections in May 2018, but the country is still waiting for its next government to be finalised. And in Basra, fed up protesters took to the streets during the scorching summer heat, demanding everything from a reduced Iranian influence in Iraq to reliable supplies of electricity and water.

Uploaded by عراقية on 2018-11-02.

As this video shows in the historic region of Babylon, this part of the Euphrates River is suffering from what seems to be lack of water, which is killing what looks like tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of fish. I’m not familiar with the reliability of the sources here, but according to Kurdistan24 it appears it’s not clear exactly how much of the cause is environmental (i.e. water shortages) and/or disease. The latter report I’ve linked to also says, ‘The Ministry of Agriculture has not ruled out that the deaths were intentional, though the exact strategy behind any proposed scheme was unclear.’

What is absolutely clear, however, is Iraq’s national – as well as its wider geo-political – challenges might end up being the least of its problems if the wider world doesn’t begin to seriously address water shortages and other major environmental issues there.

Lacrosse interview – German and US players in Munich

 

In almost two decades of journalism, my writing has taken me on a cruise down the Danube, to Michelin-starred restaurants in London and South Tyrol, Bayern Munich’s training ground to speak to star players, and refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria. This morning, on a particularly chilly autumnal Munich morning, I’d arranged to meet two Munich-based lacrosse players for an article in Spotlight magazine.

Jackie Klaus, outside the HLC Rot-Weiß München club house ( © Paul Wheatley )

Jackie Klaus, outside the HLC Rot-Weiß München club house (© Paul Wheatley)

Laura Koroschek (below) came south to Munich from Kiel more than a decade ago, and quickly joined HLC Rot-Weiß München. She has gone on to represent the German national team (German). She was accompanied by Jackie Klaus, (left) originally from the US, who moved to Cologne in search of adventure – and to coach the local lacrosse team. She now coaches and plays for HLC Rot-Weiß München.

Laura Koschorek, outside the HLC Rot-Weiß München club house ( © Paul Wheatley )

Laura Koschorek, outside the HLC Rot-Weiß München club house (© Paul Wheatley)

We met for the interview on the edge of the huge Westpark (German), outside the HLC Rot-Weiß München club house, and in total we talked for around an hour, with my kids watching and listening intently in the background (if they found it still fascinating after an hour, that’s good enough for me!). These athletes are increasingly professional in an amateur sport, and such interviews can often prove to be the most interesting and rewarding - this certainly was.

The interview will appear in Spotlight in early 2019. In the meantime, thanks to Laura and Jackie for taking the time to talk about lacrosse, and for providing so much interesting background information on a host of lacrosse-related issues – and thanks for letting me know that today is a bank holiday! Being a freelancer and working ostensibly from home has many positive sides, but one of the things not so great is so often losing track of days.

Thanks very much, ladies! And I hope to see you in action for your final home game before the winter break on 11 November (see map above for location).

Book review: Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News. The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now

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‘‘Will the public rediscover their appetite for good, old-fashioned reporting and investigations?’ asks Alan Rusbridger in the final pages of his fascinating Breaking News. ‘Will Facebook and Google sweep all away?’ he continues. ‘Might there, in the end, be no conventional economic model for news? Will the remaking of journalism be far more radical than most people can currently begin to imagine?’[1]

Rusbridger, who for two decades from 1995 led the outstanding Guardian newspaper as its editor, is not ashamed to admit that he still isn’t sure. Indeed, this refreshing readiness to publicly accept that journalists do not have, and have never had, a monopoly on knowledge and good sense is a central theme running right through his book. In an age when newspapers are no longer the main source of ‘news’ for many people, it matters that the newspaper industry recognises that serving information from upon high to a compliant, paying readership will no longer suffice – in fact, it’s no longer possible.

Rusbridger had loosely recognised that the internet would radically transform the news business before he took up the editorship position at the Guardian. But though to a large degree he successfully drove his newspaper through an insanely turbulent 20 years, from conventional news gathering to digitalisation, just as today, he had few notions about exactly where it would all lead.

This book, therefore, is far from the usual journalistic walk down memory lane (compare the fantastic My Paper Chase by former Times editor Harald Evans); in fact, what makes it so interesting is the fact that Rusbridger gives us a revealing behind-the-scenes view of the utter bewilderment across the industry as newspapers struggled for their very existence.

Amidst diminishing paper sales and attempts to come up with a functioning digital strategy as advertisers abandoned print for online, which split old-style believers in print with those (often younger) who saw digital as the future for the newspaper, the Guardian broke some of the most sensational stories of this century so far, such as phone hacking by the tabloid media, Wikileaks and Snowden – not to mention taking on numerous legal fights.

Window of the building housing The Guardian newspaper, London England © Bryantbob~commonswiki

Window of the building housing The Guardian newspaper, London England
© Bryantbob~commonswiki

For years now, such stories have ensured the Guardian could acquire and hold a huge readership in the US, which, of course, is where major revenues lay. It’s interesting to learn how this once unfashionable ‘liberal-lefty’ newspaper from Manchester (which had relocated to London), with its relatively small UK readership (ninth biggest in the UK[2]), transformed itself into an internationally renowned publication with a huge readership reach, including across North America.

No doubt for some, the over-focus on US news can be irritating (and some find it hard to forgive the Americanisms), though it’s difficult to criticise when it also does UK news so well; and its worldwide news, including through various innovations and collaborations (micro-sites, for example), is doing so well. As with everything nowadays, you need to adjust your preferences on the Guardian homepage to focus on the news you want to read.

Thousands of newspapers, many that had been around for many decades, simply couldn’t cope with the digital onslaught, as the likes of tech giants FaceBook and Twitter either took advertisement money (which had always been the basis of newspapers’ viability)[3] or readers’ attention - or both. Many closed, others went exclusively online (the Independent), some are still struggling, newsrooms depleted, ‘journalists’ churning out articles unworthy of their profession.

Data, technology and the internet has helped destroy many newspapers. Others have - eventually - made it work for them, by allowing newspapers to know their readers better than ever before, and tailor ‘news’ accordingly. The Guardian knows that in 2016 in the UK, ‘the average income of a reader … was GBP24,000 – or GBP20,412 online,’ – the medium household disposable income in the same year was GBP26,300.[4] It confirms that a small readership and paywall model would never work.

Though far from smooth, and with still uncertainty of how the next digital innovation will batter it, the Guardian is now flourishing. Underpinned by a GBP1 billion endowment, which is meant to ensure its long-term survival, by 2011 it was the second-most read English-language newspaper in the world, behind the New York Times.[5] So far, its determination to a reject a paywall, its turn to the US[6] (there ‘was no such thing as “abroad” any more’, he writes on page 169) and its digital-first strategy, complemented by setting up an office in Australia (that is now making money) is working. In October 2015, the Guardian became overtook the New York Times (though the click-bait happy Mail Online was by then number one in English).[7]

‘The weakness of the press,’ writes Rusbridger, ‘was slowly eroding its watchdog functions, enabling the rise of fake news.’[8] And in a period of populism, Trumpism, racism, and antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and countless other challenges to the tolerant, fact-checked world we thought might be possible, newspapers who can be relied upon to tell the truth are invaluable.

The Guardian and other reputable sources of information and opinion certainly do not get everything right, and they should also be challenged and fact-checked. But proper journalism is expensive: the cost of a Washington correspondent, says Rusbridger, can cost GBP500,000 and Baghdad close to a million.[9]

Nevertheless, journalists holding the powerful to account, producing articles that seek truth not hyperbole, in which readers can place a high degree of trust, no matter their imperfection, are vital for a functioning democracy.

On his website, Rusbridger has a link for an extract for the book.

[1] Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 379

[2] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 336

[3] Rusbridger says that a GBP5,000 newspaper ad would cost GBP400 online (this seems to be around 2006)

[4] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 211

[5] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 275

[6] See pp. 133 for conclusion about paywall and the US; on a trip to the US in 2007, ‘people wanted to know when we would do more in America …’ – just one of many indicators of the reorientation towards the US, p. 137

[7] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 336

[8] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 176

[9] Rusbridger, Breaking News, p. 209

Food: Sababa, Munich's best falafal restaurant

Sababa, Munich’s king of falafel

Sababa, Munich’s king of falafel

What? Falafal and other Middle East food
Where?
Viktualienmarkt: Westenriederstr. 9, 80331 München
When?
Every day except Sundays

Open for more than a decade, from the outside, Sababa seems an unpropitious place to earn the label as one of the best spots in Munich for Middle Eastern-style food. But don’t be put off by the rudimentary set-up here. The food is simple, and it’s delicious.

 

Located in the city’s Viktualientmarkt, an historic open-air market just off central Marienplatz, it sits in one of the many small series of ‘houses’ that typify this popular shopping area of Munich. Next door on one side is the very good fish restaurant (and ‘wet fish shop’), Fisch Witte; the other side is a typical Turkish-style kebab shop - I’ve never been in, but if it’s tasty falafals you’re after, don’t make the mistake of entering next door (the doors are metres from one another and it might appear to be one shop).

Once inside, staff invariably meet visitors with a warm smile, already a contrast to that found in most Munich restaurants - so often, there is a disarming coolness in cafés and restaurants across the city. (This is not a criticism - Munich in general sets a pretty high bar for cafés and restaurants regarding quality, but there is no point pretending that as a rule service comes with warmth – maybe what you lose in service you gain in quality and professionalism?). And they all originate from various Middle Eastern countries, including Palestine, and most speak German, English and Arabic,

Sababa does pretty much straight up and down Middle Eastern food that nowadays you can find in many cities - they just do it better than most. It’s predominantly meat-free, and the most popular orders are the home-made deep-fried falafal in home-made pitta bread laced with home-made hummus. You can then add lettuce, red onions, red and white cabbage, peppers, a spicy sauce and so on. My children love this, and it’s a healthy, filing and tasty meal.

Alternatively, there’s pitta bread with halloumi, or an assorted selection of plates packed with falafal and/or halloumi, salad, tabula, bulgur, stuffed grape leaves and whatever else you prefer. There is a small seating area under the temporary cover, plus a few tables and seats outside – and all meals can be taken away.

Prices
4 falafals in pitta with salad: €4.90
Halloumi in pitta with salad: €5.50
Falafal plate with salad, tabula, hummus, pitta and so on: €8.60
Halloumi plate with salad, tabula, hummus, pitta and so on: €9.40

 

Gozo's Ta Tumasa & hints of the Middle East

View inside entrance of Ta Tumasa, In-Nadur, Gozo

View inside entrance of Ta Tumasa, In-Nadur, Gozo

Hotel review: Ta Tumasa, Gozo, Malta

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‘Paul, you’ve got to go to Malta,’ Ian said, in early 2018. ‘It’s packed with history, the weather’s great, they speak English and it’s not too far.’ Another good friend, Wayne, proposed to his now wife, Petra, on Malta 24 years ago. They have two grown up sons – and a dog – and they’re still very happy.

Ian then recommended Ta Tamusa, based on a recent visit with his partner. ‘Lovely place, quiet, nice people.’ A holiday on Malta seemed a great idea, so we booked Ian’s Ta Tumasa.

The good feelings we had about Ta Tumasa lasted a full six months … until a week before our flight, when Ian casually asked if were ready for Gozo. ‘Gozo!? What do you mean, Gozo?’ I asked. ‘Oh, didn’t I tell you?’ he answered, surprised. ‘Ta Tumasa’s on Gozo.’

We didn’t know anything about Gozo. We wanted to go to Malta. Once home, we scrambled about for an hour or so, but without much conviction, looking for somewhere in Valletta, Malta’s capital.

 But our hearts weren’t in it.

Yes, we wanted to stay on Malta, but the pictures we’d seen months earlier made Ta Tumasa look fascinating, Middle Eastern. And Ian had recommended it – even if he’d forgotten to mention Gozo.

So, we didn’t cancel, and instead of spending hours looking for a Malta alternative, we spent it looking at Google Maps, wondering how the hell we’d get from this tiny Maltese island that we knew just about noting about to Malta every day.

We shouldn’t have bothered: both Ta Tumasa and Gozo were fantastic, and we visited Malta just once, for a day trip.

To be honest, we were still a touch unconvinced as we landed in Valletta in early October. We were pretty certain we’d enjoy it, but in our hearts we both wanted to be in Valletta, see the museums, eat in good restaurants and – as this was our first real holiday in quite a long time (I can’t seem to count visiting ‘places’ for journalism as ‘proper holidays’) – just be tourists.

Getting to Ta Tumasa
There are two choices for getting from the airport to Gozo: bus, taxi or hire car. Bus is not only the green option but it also only costs just €2 to the ferry terminal at Ċirkewwa. The ferry for a single passenger across to Gozo, without car or motorbike, is a reasonable €4.65. You then need to take another bus from the Gozo ferry terminal to your hotel (fantastically, your bus ticket is valid for two hours so you might be able to use it for this stage also).

The drawback of the bus from the airport to Ċirkewwa is that it takes between 1.14 hours (direct) and 1.42 (one change), and even the shorter journey feels like a long time on a bus on Malta’s roads – lots of ups and downs, veering between not particularly fast and slow, and invariably the bus is jam packed.

Most hotels will likely organise a taxi direct from the airport – to Ta Tumasa, in the town of In-Nadur, the total cost is €67, which includes ferry crossing, and it might save you half the time. Compared with a bus, it’s hardly the most sustainable option, and it obviously cost a lot more - both Malta and Gozo have hire car companies, including the usual international firms, and bike rentals.

Ta Tumasa
Our ferry journey was a joy, with a cerulean, calm sea, and view from the front of the ship first across to the small island of Comino, and then the approaching Gozo. A further 20-minute journey towards Ta Tumasa left us fascinated by the wonderful Middle East-like architecture, and as we climbed higher up the valley, the views of the small settlements and agricultural land.

Of course, we’d seen the photos of our hotel, but we’d both presumed the impressive Middle East design of the place was mainly for effect. While it is true that it’s been built and designed to impress guests, we quickly realised that it perfectly fitted in with the feel of the local area, In-Nadur, and the traditional architecture of the whole island.

It was a promising start, and we began to wonder whether maybe Ian’s forgetfulness could turn out to be a blessing.

Though quite an imposing building of sandstone blocks, high ceilings and open plan reception leading into the kitchen-cum-dining area, Ta Tumasa is also in many ways pretty basic. Owner Samara met us at the entrance (the hotel is situated slightly off the main street, along a narrow alley) and after paying (€240 for four nights), it was the last we saw of anyone in charge – except Francesca every morning for breakfast. To be clear: this is not a criticism. It works perfectly well. It’s a mid-range ‘farmhouse’, in which all the basics are supplied, and guests are expected to get on with it.

Francesca
Francesca was one of many stars during our trip to Gozo: she cheerfully made breakfast, and she loved to talk about the island (even though she’s originally from Malta), it’s history and culture; she gave good on advice on where to go and what to visit, and how to get there; and, similar to so many people there, she was a warm and open host.

And to prove it, the morning before we were due to leave, we mentioned that we’d spotted some Imqaret, a biscuit-kind of desert filled with dates, and wondered whether she had a recipe. She did, but insisted that she make some, freeze them, and give them to us to take home as we were leaving, in order to deep fry when we got home. As we were leaving the next day, she handed us the promised Imqaret, replete with detailed recipe, and we baked them at home that evening. They were delicious - just as she’d promised they’d be. Thanks, Francesca - for everything.

The swimming pool at Ta Tumasa isn’t huge but it’s a good place to cool down, then laze around before or after a day out on the island

The swimming pool at Ta Tumasa isn’t huge but it’s a good place to cool down, then laze around before or after a day out on the island

Ta Tumasa has five rooms, all of them decently sized, with marble floors and sandstone walls. Our room, No.4 - Double Deluxe, measures 22 square metres, with the familiar sandstone walls. It has a large wood-framed double bed, three large fitted double wardrobes (a shelf in one is home to the fridge, which was a touch noisy) and two chests of drawers in dark woods either side of the bed (matching the bed) and another larger one near the door.

It has a modest balcony overlooking neighbouring buildings, with the swimming pool 15 metres away (beneath), with a glimpse of the sea in the far distance. The usual flat-screen TV (international news channels and BBC Entertainment, for example), kettle for tea and instant coffee, and a very small bathroom. And don’t forget, the sockets are British-like three pin versions.

View from the balcony, across to the swimming pool, with San Blas Bay 2km away in the distance

View from the balcony, across to the swimming pool, with San Blas Bay 2km away in the distance

Francesca arrives early to prepare breakfast, which is available from 8 till 10. Guests can have an English breakfast (fried bacon, eggs and so on), cereals (nothing particularly healthy), and a large selection of fruits (such as apples, bananas, grapes and oranges) and yoghurts.

Where are the prickly pears!?
Similar to much of the island, there were none of the ubiquitous prickly pears available for breakfast - though Francesca would likely get some, if requested (if you want things like croissants, you need to fill in a form the day before, and you’re charged extra). We saw the elegant green cacti across Gozo, thriving in the dry island heat, but we were puzzled as to why they weren’t more prized for their delicious, healthy fruit.

We’ve subsequently read that they are somewhat looked down upon by some locals, who see them as cheap food for the less well off. We’ve also read hopeful speculation that they might become the next big fashionable ‘super fruit’. While it’s clearly bollocks that fruits are branded and propagandised to the degree that they becomes a ‘super fruit’, with their rich flavours and colours surely it’s only a matter of time … well, at least before someone becomes even richer on the back of them.

Taxi driver, wife on speaker-phone and delicious prickly pear - a great combination!

Taxi driver, wife on speaker-phone and delicious prickly pear - a great combination!

These fruits are not easy to pick and prepare, hence, their moniker of ‘prickly’. But their widespread availability across Gozo make it appear on occasion that they’re hanging from every field. Red or yellow, from around August, this ripe fruit is abundant, and delicious.

They were as delicious as they looked, and much more juicy than anything coming from a cactus should ever be.

Of course, like typical tourists, we may have been looking in all the wrong places, but we never saw any for sale - that is until on our way home, being forced to (guiltily) take a taxi for fear of missing our flight home, our unforgettable taxi driver – after waxing lyrical about everything on Gozo, but mostly prickly pears, and after getting his wife on the taxi’s speaker-phone to fabulously support her husband’s viewpoint (thanks, Mary!) – stopped to buy us some at a small out-of-the-way shop. They were as delicious as they looked, and much more juicy than anything coming from a cactus should ever be.

We ended up spending one day on Malta, leaving just three whole days for Gozo. It wasn’t enough. Ian, however, was right: it is packed with history, the weather is great and they do speak fluent English. Admittedly, getting to Gozo, rather than Malta, takes a bit of time and effort, but we did love Gozo.

We’ll definitely be back.

Nadur Basilica, the heart of In-Nadur

Nadur Basilica, the heart of In-Nadur

In brief

Local area, In-Nadur, and getting around: Ta Tumasa has bikes for hire, costing €5 for a day, though we opted to walk everywhere or take buses. We used Google Maps for timetables and to locate bus stops, which on the whole worked, though in In-Nadur not all buses seemed to go where promised on bus stop timetable signs, and a couple of times buses went straight past because they were packed. If this is going to bother you too much, you can hire a car … or , to be honest, go somewhere else on holiday. It’s a small-ish island, and getting to anywhere is not overly troublesome.

Eating: Ta Tumasa is bed & breakfast only but there is a modern kitchen and guests can cook there - you’d obviously need to tidy up afterwards.
Restaurants: it’s best to avoid pizza restaurants in In-Nadur’s market square, near the impressive Nadur Basilica (dating back to 1760), unless there is noting else. We arrived on a Saturday evening and it was our only option. It wasn’t awful, but it’s basic, cheap and cheerful fare. The Fat Rabbit (with accompanying hotel) is the best restaurant in town and the Italian Osteria Scottadito has a good reputation.

And if you’re in In-Nadur, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the excellent, rustic Maxokk Bakery for a traditional ftira (similar but superior to any pizza). For a post-meal drink, head across to Gebuda, which is a small bar with a huge array of craft and familiar beers, plus wines and cocktails - and the owner’s affability lends it a fun, friendly atmosphere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Price of Plastic - For One Turtle

 

Valletta, Malta: a turtle struggles to eat what looks like plastic waste

After watching so many documentaries over the past few years about the utter catastrophe that plastic has caused to our environment, it was disturbing to see this turtle attempting to eat what we think was plastic.

We spotted it when we were walking walking along the sea front in the capital of Malta, Valletta (along Xatt Pinto - the Valletta Waterfront, near The Grand Harbour), in early October 2018. At one point, it dived down after dropping the plastic, bringing it back up in its mouth, before continuing to try to swallow it.

With ugly ironic timing, the day we saw this, the world's leading climate scientists released a much-discussed report warning that we probably have just 12 years to limit the effects of human-made climate change to a maximum of 1.5C. See, for example, this Guardian report.

Further information on the report is on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change website.

Video © Paul Wheatley

A close up of the turtle trying to eat the plastic waste (Picture © Paul Wheatley)

It was impossible to say how long the turtle had been trying to eat the plastic (Picture © Paul Wheatley)

Cruise ship, Malta's Grand Harbour, not far from the struggling turtle (Picture © Paul Wheatley)

Xatt Pinto - the Valletta Waterfront, Malta (Picture © Paul Wheatley)

Visit Malta, stay on Gozo

Visit Malta, stay on Gozo

With settlements stretching back seven millennia, leaving it with a fascinating cultural heritage, the island of Gozo is a wonderful place for any traveller with an appreciation of history. Measuring just 26 square metres, this Maltese island is not, however, always an easy holiday destination – it can be hugely rewarding, but to make the most of it, be prepared for plenty of walking, bumpy bus journeys and a dry sunny climate.

View of Gozo from the island’s ferry terminal © Paul Wheatley

The people - Gozitans
‘I’ll call my wife,’ said the taxi driver, who we’d met just 15 minutes earlier, as we rushed around looking for a taxi, desperately hoping not to miss our plane back to Munich. ‘She’ll tell you all about prickly pears, how tasty they are, and about the population of Gozo.’

Before we realised what was happening, Mary was on the line in the taxi, explaining the virtues of everything from Gozo’s fresh fruit and veg to the warm-heartedness of the island’s inhabitants. We’d already learned from her talkative, amenable husband that they had a daughter living in Cornwall, on Britain’s south coast. In truth, if it had been at the beginning of our trip to this wonderful Maltese island, we might have passed off such behaviour as an oddity. But this was our last day, our return trip to the airport, and we knew full well that Gozitans were as warm, hospitable and friendly a people as you might ever meet. We were disappointed to be leaving after just five days here.

Occupations
Gozo has a history of civilisation stretching back to around 5,000 BC (check out the Ggantija Temples, dating from 3600 – 3200 BC), well before ancient civilisations such as Greece and Rome, both of which later occupied the island. Byzantine occupation was followed by that of the Arabs, from 870 to 1127, which today is recalled in countless place names (including Gozo itself) and the local Punic language – many words can be understood by contemporary Arabian speakers.

Inside one of the 46 churches on Gozo © Paul Wheatley

More recently, European dynasties dominated Malta and therefore also Gozo. There was the epic 1565 Turkish siege of Malta, famously fought off by the Knights of St John, who in turn lost the archipelago to a Napoleonic-led France, in 1798. Brief French rule was quickly followed by British rule, who finally left in 1964 – the legacy of this final colonial power is seen in the almost universal use of English (as a second language), the availability of British food (some good, some bad), British three-pin sockets, driving on the left and fabulous red phone boxes – it even has its own rugby club.

In short, the result of 7,000 years of settlement on Gozo, taking in ancient civilisations, Arab rule and European domination, leaves today’s 37,000 Gozitans (Malta has a total population of 416,000) with an island rich and diverse in culture, language and architecture.

Sunset view from the ferry, on the way from Malta to Gozo © Paul Wheatley

Getting there
Getting to Gozo from our base in Munich wasn’t difficult, but it’s easy to see why some people might feel it is a bit more of a burden than a modern break to recharge the batteries might be. The flight to Malta airport is two hours, and it costs around €65-€80 for a taxi from there to your destination on Gozo – a taxi to our hotel, Ta Tumasa (review to come), in In-Nadur, would have cost €67 and taken around half the time as a bus. Such taxis include a 20-minute ferry journey from Malta – past the tiny island of Comino – to the ferry terminal on Gozo.

Without a taxi, visitors need to get the aforementioned bus from the airport, which goes right through the heart of Malta and takes around an hour and 40 minutes. From Gozo’s ferry terminal, it’s then a 20-odd-minute bus trip to the capital, Victoria, where many people choose to stay – it’s around the same to Ta Tumasa.

Tip: Taking a bus from the airport saves money and you get to see towns and countryside across the island. But it’s a long time to be on a bus, which is often packed, though public transport is clearly much better for the environment than a taxi.

Getting around: buses and walking are best
Visitors can hire cars, scooters and bikes, but all three have drawbacks. While the odd taxi makes life easier, using cars and scooters for days at a time are far from the most environmentally friendly mode of transport – and add to the cost of your holiday. In addition, there are far too many cars on the roads of Malta and Gozo without tourists adding to the burden.

Bikes can be a good idea, but Gozo is a very hilly island and you’d need to be fairly fit and determined to successfully navigate the sometimes hazardous roads and lanes. Bikes may be best when you are confining yourself to small, local areas that you are familiar with. For travelling in a locality such as In-Nadur, walking is certainly the best method of getting around and seeing the sights.

Gozo has a new fleet of buses that you can take to just about anywhere across the island. Admittedly, they were a bit hit and miss in In-Nadur, sometimes full so they went straight past, and often even the locals didn’t understand which was the correct bus stop. We never had any problems with buses from Victoria Bus Terminus, however - all were pretty much on time and it was east to work out from where we had to catch them. Overall, buses are the best option for getting around.

Prickly pears, deliciously fresh, whether red or yellow © Paul Wheatley

A little piece of the Middle East?
I travelled to Gozo with my partner, who is from Iraq – much travelled around the Middle East, she was astonished at how familiar the landscape and architecture was to her (as an aside, the dry arid landscape is perfect for cacti, for example, and when we were there, early October, there was an abundance of prickly pears, which sprawl down from the edges of numerous fields and gardens, their delicious fruits waiting to be picked). Lemon trees are abundant, as are limes, and we even found wild parsley growing somewhat unlikely from under the corner of a street house in Victoria.

Measuring just 14 x 7.25 kilometres, and still largely Catholic, the island is home to an incredible 46 churches, some of them superb. Nevertheless, traditional-looking Middle Eastern architecture is everywhere – we didn’t expect it to such a degree: vernacular, low-cost (not to be mistaken for low-quality) cube-shaped housing (clearly, climate and the local environment play a role) predominates, created from sandstone blocks with flat roofs and often with bamboo or white linen across windows and doors for shade. Particularly in the In-Nadur area (but perhaps across Gozo?), late every evening, we saw old men, skin deeply tanned by years of exposure to the baking sun, often with slender, lithe bodies, sitting morosely on the invariably narrow pavements until the early hours. We could never work out why. Regardless, the atmosphere was lifted as soon as they spotted us, greeting us with a friendly smile and an instant ‘Good evening!’ or ‘Good night!’

Indeed, the genuine friendliness – manifested in countless examples of helpful advice – of the islanders was the most uplifting experience of the entire trip.

Gozo is packed with architecture reminiscent of the Middle East-like © Paul Wheatley

Little Heaven Fish & Chips © Paul Wheatley

The capital: Victoria
It’s a few minutes by foot from the capital’s Bus Terminal to the heart of the Victoria – on the way, look out for the handful of bakeries that sell fabulous traditional pasties and pies (see Food below), filled with choices of cheese and meats ... and peas, which somehow work as the main ingredient.

Off St George’s Square, the heart of the tourist area, with its cafés, restaurants and bars, is a warren of wonderful narrow streets (roughly along and off Triq That Putirjal Karta), with a mixture of traditional houses and shops. Testament to years of British rule, there are a handful of fish and chips shops, with Little Heaven Fish & Chips at St Francis Square serving up excellent fish.

Naturally, the further you go from the capital’s tourist hot spots the more you see where and how most Gozitans live, notably reflected in a plethora of run-down and impressively renovated homes side by side – such as along Ghajn Qatet St, off St Francis Square, also home to the impressively housed Ministry for Gozo. An hour’s walk up and down this street is a pleasure for anyone interested in a glimpse of the old-style architecture of the island.

Most visitors will visit the Cittadella, a complex of buildings that makes up the ancient fortified city, to where the population would retreat when under attack. It costs €5 for the museum, which is pretty unremarkable, though the cathedral is well worth a visit. Much more fun is to simply walk around the whole Cittadella, take in the amazing architecture and sit in awe at the sensational view across the island from this historic, elevated position.

Gozo’s Citadella is a big draw for visitors © Paul Wheatley

Summary
When to visit
: its climate ensures that there is pretty much year-round sunny, warm or hot weather across Malta. For me, this means the best time to come is early autumn, after the crowds of tourists have subsided somewhat, or in spring, before they arrive. If you want to enjoy the late fruits of the prickly pears, they’ll still be there in October.

Food: to be honest, many restaurants and cafés were pretty underwhelming. Perhaps, this is because the comparison for us is Munich, where the overall standard is high. While there may (or may not) be something in this, more likely is that we were only there four nights (five days) and could obviously only try a limited number of eateries.

You can get a British breakfast in many places (not sure why you’d want to leave Britain and then eat a British breakfast) plus Italian pastas and pizzas, neither of which were great. We found that rather than look for the usual international cuisine, it was best to opt for local Gozo dishes.

The famous miniature pies and pastizzi (similar to small flaky pastry pasties, mainly filled with peas or local ricotta, but also meats), found in countless small bakeries, are a joy, and great as a quick bite when walking around. There are a handful near Victoria Bus Terminus, on Triq Giorgio Borg Olivier, that were as good as any we found across the island – eaten not long after baking, but not too hot, was best. If they’ve been sitting there for hours and start to look very brown, look somewhere else.

The two best places we visited for food were places you’ll find in most travel books about Gozo, and both are in In-Nadur, the location of our hotel – of course, they’ll be many other places serving good food.

1. The Fat Rabbit: attached to the Quaint Hotel (there are five Quaint hotels across Gozo), this is a decent restaurant – and it serves more than rabbit. We ordered fish, which was succulent, clearly fresh, though puzzling our salads were served without dressing (it surely can’t be one of those odd hangovers from British rule!). The service was – as expected from such hospitable people – excellent and overall the both meals were good, if not outstanding. If you’re located in the area, then it’s certainly worth eating here. It’s probably not, however, somewhere you’d travel across the length of the island for if there were a good restaurant nearer by.

2. Maxokk Bakery: this place really is as good as its reputation. Ftira are a Gozo speciality, and though they are compared to pizzas (which they also serve), they are much better. The bakery (Google Maps here) has been in the family for more than 90 years, and luckily for us, it was next door to our hotel (not by design – purely by chance). Entry immediately sets the scene: a long dark room, lit by a few lights and the glow of the blazing oven at the far end. There are few airs and graces, and you’ll be greeted by perhaps a son, grandmother or another member of the family, at the same time as they’re busily putting together the ftira. It’s more like a food workshop than anything else, and much better for it.

Bread forms the basis of every ftira, and there are a choice of toppings (sea food, meats and vegetables, for example). The basic version, potatoes and local cheese, plus a feathering of herbs, is enough, baked at a high temperature for a few minutes, emerging partly golden and steaming. They’re delicious – once cooled down, not hot, because this is when the tastes comes together.

If you have the time when on Gozo, head over to this In-Nadur bakery, get a take-away (they also sell beer and soft drinks) and wander around the roads, check out the street scenes and take in the sandstone houses – and when you pass a local in the street, don’t put your head down or look the other way. Many will be happy to pass the time of day, even it it’s a simple ‘Good evening!’

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