Thursday, 19 February 2009

Welcome to Morocco

We arrive at the Port of Tangier. Security is very tight, but when customs meets Munir they are so berated by him telling them that they should grow a beard that they forget to give us a customs slip.
"We will grow them next year' says one customs official, but Munir is having none of it. 'Life is like a bubble, you don't know when it will burst' he says. 'Death won't send you an email. There is no other time but now'
Later I say to him that maybe he should go carefully around authority, but he gives me a story from the Koran about bystanders to a crime being turned into swine for doing nothing. "I am protecting myself' he says.
We are going to get along fine.
As we get drawn through all the security to our parking places, we are asked to give up our green T-shirts. These are shirts with the route printed on them that should have been given to all crews, but.... It turns out that the map shows Morocco ending without including Western Sahara within its boundaries, and so the Moroccans are insulted, and confiscate all the T-shirts. Now Munir and I have a different problem, because we have no T-shirts to be confiscated, and that leads to some agitation, but anyway, why haven't those policemen got beards..? The problem goes away, but it takes several hours to do so. Of course, if we had T-shirts that showed Western Sahara as part of Morocco, then they probably wouldn't let us into Algeria, our next country.
Algeria fund and give refuge -allegedly -to the Polissario, the rebels or Freedom Fighters of Western Sahara, and of course this has led to some bad blood between the two countries. In fact the border between them is sealed, and we are only getting through because, for all Arabs, Palestine is a cause that transcends all other quarrels; but the border will be sealed behind us.
We have been talking in the van, over the last few days, about Islam and the role of Muslims in the Liberation of Palestine. About 80% of the convoy, perhaps even more, are Muslim, some ethnic British converts, and a few from all over, but most are from Pakistan origins - though everyone on the convoy has a British Passport.
We discuss the need to give charitably that most Muslims feel is a duty, and which results in large quantities of aid being quietly delivered to Palestine continually. The majority community in the UK are simply not aware of the great quantity of work done in this way, but is it enough?
Irshad, one of the two younger of our passengers, now returned home to study, feels that aid is not enough without political action, and all agree that it is therefore fantastic to see so many Muslims taking the front line role in this direct action, which may even lead to civil disobedience at the Rafah crossing. Or, of course, it may not, say others, it may simply be an aid convoy going to Gaza, controlled by the countries it passes through, and stopped by Egypt.
Which is most important - getting the aid there, or getting there and forcing the gates open? What happens if the Israelis say 'leave the aid there and we will let the UN deliver it?, or the Israelis themselves promise to deliver it?
For me, the UN can get aid there more efficiently than ever we could hope to do, although we are bringing in aid that the Israelis will not allow them to bring, such as my fire-fighter's kits. Others are driving vehicles which are themselves the donation; Stirling is sending 12 Ambulances, and Birmingham raising £100,000 for nine various vehicles, including the Birmingham's Bus. This aid is clearly valuable, but efficiency wise, shouldn't we be agitating for the UN to be allowed to deliver it?
I believe that is what we are doing by this trip. We are campaigning for open borders for Gaza to develop its own economic life, so that it doesn't need aid, and that the aid that it WILL need until it can stand on its own two feet can be delivered as easily as to any other disaster zone.
When I spend the €150 Euro given to me by the stranger on the boat - God bless him, or when I fill up with fuel from the small amounts raised by the even smaller group that support me from Chester, organising benefits and donating, I'm told, a days pay - thank you barristas! - Alexander's rocks! - it will be for the children of Gaza, by standing at the gates of Gaza and demanding that they be set free. Not just a special treat, the doors of the prison opened for a rare glimpse of the outside world, or for an even rarer special treat to come in, but open for ever, so the children, when they are grown, listen to tales of their parents captivity with incomprehension, as they travel on the same bus as Israelis, to the same promised land.
Anything less is surely a betrayal. Every mouthful of food driven through those gates of Hell is a lifeline, and getting our convoy in fills a serious need, but until the walls of the prison that is Gaza are ripped down; until we all say to our governments that we will not tolerate their inactivity, and force them to take the actions necessary to bring freedom and so make the aid unnecessary; until then, we are just scattering money and help on the wind. We simply demand exactly equal rights for Palestinians, nothing more and nothing less, and equality, release from the prison of Gaza is surely the best gift that any parent could give to any child.
So, our debate was about whether Muslims, generally agree with this, or are content to give alms, and watch the apartheid continue. Collaboration with the enemy it has been called by some, because it cleans up Israel's mess and rescues those that Israel would leave to die. In the most cynical view, only the dead get publicity!
The riotous reception that our convoy got on the streets of Tangier leaves me in no doubt that in Morocco, at least, the people know what they want their government to do. And when the walls of Gaza fall, I definitely want to be in that parade.

2 Hours in Tarifa

Munir and I arrived in Tarifa at 10pm last night. I can make it sound like a thrilling , or a tourist journey. Tarifa is a beautiful walled town, very quiet, comforting stone buildings zith ironwork balconies, and with a little bar that serves the best Pizza that I have ever eaten; real thin crust, wafer thin, melting Cheese; mmmm! To get there we went up over a spectacular pass at St Elena, named after the saint who was married to Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who made Christianity official, and who was not crowned in Rome, but in York, in England. The road will be replaced by the summer with a breathtaking, soaring new 6 lane highway, but another bit of the past will have disappeared. The spectacular engineering of the new road, can of course, only be seen from the old one. Once on the new road, all sense of connection with the landscape will be lost, and people will just sail by at 150kph wondering when they have arrived at some interesting scenery. Such a four lane highway runs down to Malaga from Cordoba, which is just a few miles from St Elena, but was the capital of the Eastern Muslim Empire of the Caliphate. Cordoba still has the largest Mosque in the world, as far as I know, but it was converted into a cathedral ( or at least the central section was) when the Christians re-conquered Spain in 1492 (A very big year in World History - the Spanish also set up the Spanish Inquisition, drove out the Muslims and the Jews, and, oh yes, discovered America.)

That road to Malaga also takes a promising route over the mountains passing, in the cold high country near the start, groves and groves of Olive trees, such as I have never seen in Palestine. Here they are planted in neat rows, all the same age and height, agricultural products, whereas in Palestine they are planted in Biblical Confusion, hundreds of years old trees sitting randomly amongst fresh plantings. Of course the number of Olive groves has been reduced dramatically by Israeli settlers and the army destroying them, and most Olive trees are now in the poorer soils of the scrub hillside. Israelis boast of making the desert bloom, but they only do it on the most fertile soils and with stolen water. So like the new road, they create agricultural deserts, while in the rest of the land they have left to the Palestinians, life has a more age-old feel to it, easy to mistake for backwardness, and something that the Palestinians would probably want to develop if they had the chance. But for now, St Elena and the West Bank both have picturesque naturalism in common.

After crossing the summit, the Malaga road begins the most insane downhill ride in the world. The gradient must be over 6%, but it is not an old fashioned hairpin bend road that deserves respect, but a modern road that invites people to forget that they are travelling in a place where gravity rules and speed kills, and suggests that they travel at 120kph or more, like on any Motorway, AutoStrada or Autopiste. But you can't because it will kill you, so having spent €billions on speeding up the road, they spend €millions on slowing you down. They don't just have chevrons on the bends, they have MANY chevrons on the bends, and on the worst bends the chevrons are illuminated with flowing red lights that travel along the bend, like Christmas Lights. The hill is continuously down for at least 20 kilometres. If you live at the top you go straight to the garage at the bottom to replace your brake-pads.

But I'm not going to make it sound like a travelogue. On Saturday night we arrived in Ostend without anywhere to stay, in freezing weather. We spent 3 hours looking for somewhere to park and then slept sitting up for four hours before setting off for Bordeaux, a distance of 500 miles. We had a great night, albeit short, in a leisure centre with fantastic food provided by volunteers, and were kicked out at 8am so they could get on with their business of doing something with local kids. So we sat around for about 4 hours, then we set off for San Sebastian where there was a civic reception for us, but most -all?- of us arrived too late, so we spent time waiting to be told what to do, and then set off for Madrid. The organisers had 'forgotten' to include the 300 miles to Madrid in the itinerary, so we didn't get going till 9pm, and then at Burgos we rebelled and got a hotel. We booked the hotel at a service station, and then about 30 vehicles raced to get there first. Our group mostly want to sleep in their vans, so they didn't, but we had a game of chicken with another -red- van to get through the toll booth first, and so to the available hotel rooms. I'm proud to say that we lost.

Munir and the Pea at La Mezquita

We got to sleep at 3.30, started again at 9, this time to Tarifa about 600 miles away. We drove at an average of 70mph, with only one break - scrumptious tapas at La Mezquita, the last services before Cordoba and the insane Malaga Hill, and arrived in Tarifa at 10pm. But during that journey we negotiated the insane hill, the breathtaking Elena Gorge and Pass, the higher and higher pass of the Mountains that protect Madrid, and stayed awake to avoid crashing on the perilous last 15km ridge to Tarifa. Oh and we left our convoy to drop our two young students - Irshad and Arif - at Madrid airport. (If you're reading this, guys, ha-ha, -ha-ha, ha-ha.) They know what we mean.

If we hadn't left our convoy, we would have arrived at 3am, because one of the vehicles broke down, although on the other hand, they welcomed back the 3 Gloucesters, who broke down in Bordeaux, and somehow, having donated the broken down van to a local children's charity in Bordeaux, had acquired another and re-joined. Heroes you are chaps. Neither was our convoy last in, and as a result, most people slept in the port for a couple of hours and then boarded directly.When we arrived refreshed and vigorous at 7.50, we were the last in the queue, meaning that we didn't get on the first boat. Or the second boat. 15 vehicles were obliged to spend 2 hours waiting for the third boat, and so that meant I got to meet the boys from Birmingham - although one is really from London - on their fantastic bus, £50 Grand's worth at least, being donated to the Children of Gaza. And while I'm writing this on the ferry, a man has just come up to me and given me €150 - 'for the children of Gaza'.

When you get depressed at all the incompetence and testosterone that makes some power hungry people think more about their image than about doing their job properly, people like this are priceless. The innocent trust of a man who will give €150 Euro to a total stranger on a ferry, and the unquestioning helpfulness of the Birminghams contrasts dramatically with the travel separately avoid blame culture that pervades this convoy from the top. People power and civil disobedience is about people, right, not about command and control. You cannot compel people to force someone to 'voluntarily' resist injustice, unless of course, you think that you're running an army on a personal crusade.

The Birminghams help me to paste a photo into this article, and we have a discussion about Birmingham humour. I believe that it is self deprecating, not aggressive like other regions. Only the Londoner disagrees.
Woman says to neighbour over fence, 'I sent Bill out for a tin of peas on Tuesday and he ai' back yet. I'm really worried, what do yow think I shud do?'
The next door neighbour replies ' I shud open a tin o' beans if wuz you'
The Birminghams offer me some eggs, but my co-driver has produced a date cake, and since its breakfast, I can't refuse.

Now I get a text from our group leader already in Tangiers. I txt him that he should go on and we 15 vehicles would follow. We already broke away from central control after the Bordeaux debacle, and are very happy with each other - except for the issue of hotels, more of which later. Group 11 rocks!!
He replies to my text that there is a full scale rebellion on the other side. People are challenging the route, which pointlessly takes us to Rabat. We want to go straight to Fez, which is our scheduled stop. Others are refusing to drive at all, saying they are exhausted. I am writing this on the straits of Gibraltar, about to dock, and I don't know what the decision is.

If you take a bunch of self motivated people and try to use them as a political tool for your own advancement, then you better make sure that they want for nothing and the organisation purrs. If you treat them like shit, they'll bite. In my two hours in Tarifa, they did bite. But then, if take a group of highly motivated people and put them together in adversity, they will help each other out, and especially if they are from Birmingham, and they are helping with your technophobia, then you will become best friends really quick (and actually it was the Londoner wot did it). What's that song about 24 hours from Tulsa? 2 Hours in Tarifa is enough to change the world as we know it.

The Birminghams

Arrive in Tangier, Many hours to disembark, sniffer dogs, gun-smelling dogs, X-ray machines, and finally, a mad dash through the City to a Banquet that is already over by the time we get there. Again. Of course, George and the organisational team get to scoff at every one.George Galloway appears at the port to rally the troops and again, I'm told, at the dinner. At the port people are very enthusiastic. George still has what it takes - but if you want to keep it George, suggest you replace your entire organisation.

The mad dash, or parade as we like to think of it, makes every one feel terrific. To have another country treat you like honoured guests, provide Police Escorts in front and to stop the traffic at every junction is another of those heart warming moments, people waving enthusiastically, horns blowing, lights flashing, victory signs, and I burst into tears several times. Old goat herds grazing the roadside pastures, breaking into a toothless grin, young boys throwing out victory signs and waving at the celebrities as they pass, business men giving power salutes, and women waving from balconies. Contrast the complete apathy of our media and Government, and the equivalent disinterest of the majority of the British People, with the genuine joy of the waving crowds (well pedestrians, shopkeepers and passers by, and on-coming traffic) and the energy put into honouring us by the King - Morocco is a monarchy with a less than powerful parliament - and the link between the peoples support and the Government's attitude is clear. You really can blame Blair, Brown and their predecessors for the lack of concern of the Brits. That official apathy, or even hostility, is the hurdle that we all have to overcome; it is much harder to get peoples attention if it's against Policy.

At the country club reception we are told to get straight back into our vans and drive under police escort for 4 and a half hours (its now 1730) where we will stay at a hotel for 2 nights. No driving at all tomorrow. Talk about babies and bath water.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Chaos and companionship

In the middle of a shopping centre in San Sebastian, just inside Spain. Writing my first on-the-road entry standing up at the information desk where a very nice lady has connected me to the wi-fi system, We keep being interrupted by English folk of all accents asking where they can change £s into €s, and disbelieving that there isn't anywhere. Why don't they have €s? Because we haven't stopped driving, or waiting to start driving since we left Hyde Park. Today at 6pm we are less than one third of the way through the days itinerary, which was listed as 151 miles from Bordeaux to madrid. It was only this morning that anyone realised that that was distance only to San Sebastian, where we arrived at 5pm, too late for the official reception that awaited us, and with no sign of the official organiser. That's the same organiser who was too busy to listen to people tell him that Spain is more than 100 miles wide.
      There are 110 lorries in this convoy, and only 2 weeks to organise it, is the constant cry, but George Galloway arrived punctually in his Mercedes in the Car Park here about an hour ago!  Is that why the schedule had us arrive here so late, and ignore the drive through the night that we must now do to get to our Madrid beds, before taking off again in the morning for Algeciras. 
  Methinks that there must be a people's revolution to take control back into the hands of those who actually do the work!!
    But team 11, the greatest team in the convoy, is learning to cope with the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune, and building bonhomie despite the setbacks, the rescuing of broken vehicles and the chaos of the organisation. We will get to Gaza because we want to, despite all.

  I'll introduce you to team 11 at my next pit stop, and especially to the drivers of the Pea, our big green Gaza machine, but right now they're calling me to get in and go to Madrid. I loved san Sebastian, or anyway its shopping centre, and the refusal of the people to speak any language but their own language Basque, and their politeness to lots of strange men in long beards and robes, with oily hands. Aiiie, life can only get better.... 

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Vehicles to Gaza from across the U.K.

This ambulance joined the convoy too from Stirling, Scotland. Picture borrowed from the Viva Palestine site: - we hope you don't mind...

Fundraiser for Gaza Aid Convoy - Chester, England Sunday 22nd Feb

Fundraiser for Gaza Aid Convoy - Sunday 22nd Feb

Fundraiser for Gaza At Alexanders Jazz Club - Chester, England Sunday Feb 22nd

The Invisible Wires (Indie Band)
Elise (amazing!) and more
Raffle with great prizes (if you can't come on the night, raffle tickets available in advance from Alexander's) Fun and Games. Food available
£3.50 entry - Doors open 8.00 p.m.

All proceeds to support the aid convoy Chester and Palestine Exchanges
message circulated on the Chester Stop the War Coalition List.

Palestinian News Network

News about Gaza is difficult to come by these days, as we know.

Rod and the rest of the convoy have now left Chester. They have their work cut out trying to get the supplies to their destination right now. Rod told me an international mobile phone is hugely expensive. I don't know how feasible it will be for him to stop in an Internet cafe and post so I've taken the liberty of posting info and a link now and then on Rod's behalf.

Check out the Palestinian News Network . They are

'a group of independent Palestinian journalists and editors who work on a strictly professional level without favoring one political party over another or any religion over another'.

They say:

'We report from a Palestinian perspective as we see that the media is rife with Israeli sources. We strive to empower the Palestinian people and their cause, particularly that of nonviolent resistance to occupation. We began in 2002 and have radio, television, and several languages to choose from on our website. PNN has won the confidence of the people in addition to local and international press agencies by providing quick, accurate, credible and objective news'.

It should be of interest to anyone who wishes to stay informed from a range of news sources.

Post by Frances Laing (in Rod's absence.)