Kiev: a stunning city which everyone should visit right now before everyone else does

“Flora, do we call security for the Ukraine flights?”

Not the best start on arriving for check-in at Heathrow. Flora reassures her colleague that the presence of G4S is no longer required for such a destination. Three hours of flight later and continent-sized fields emerge through the clouds, presumably Soviet planning rectangularly triumphant over England’s little patchwork quilts. Yellow-grey trees, familiar from elsewhere.

Hand luggage only, am in a few minutes amid the excitement of Ukrainian motorway etiquette in a taxi, 300 hyrvnia / £8 to the city centre. I gape through the window: a district of vast apartment blocks, assuredly preventing heaven from falling. A bridge over the expansive river Dnieper, and then neoclassical, brutalist, late 20th, and glass-and-steel structures. We arrive.

The first thing my host does is pour shots of Ukrainian cognac – ‘Welcome to Kiev!’ – and refill them. Another taxi, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, otherwise known as Euromaidan. Smaller than in the news clips and Winter on Fire film, built over a shopping mall. Photographs, displays. Riot shields, rusting. Leading to the poster-adorned victory column, a flight of pristine steps, one left unrepaired, smoothed battle-edges.

Independence Square

Independence Square

Up a hill closed to traffic. Shrines to the revolution’s martyrs, piles of construction hard hats – improvised sniper protection – and some makeshift balustrades. The cold and the silence. The setting sun washes all in light from the West.

Construction hard hats used as protective gear during revolution, uphill from Independence Square

Construction hard hats used as protective gear during revolution, uphill from Independence Square

Back downhill to a basement bar over the road. Ukrainian beer drains fast, a splendid porter in particular. Another bar later, we are in a warren-like canteen for soup, mayonnaise-laced salad, dumplings, and an original Ukrainian Chicken Kiev, which is pleasingly different to the world-renowned dish, but am too hammered to remember why.

Next day. A hillside monastery, overlooking the river. Into one of several churches, frescoes of ancient pallor, rescued in mid-hereafter fade. Behind thronged, robed, intonations is the grandeur, the grandeur. Rococo verdure, intricacies in gold, so bright as to need nearly no illumination despite reverential gloom. No one does majesty and spectacle like the Orthodox.

Kiev Pechersk Lavra, monastery

Kiev Pechersk Lavra, monastery

Down a cobbled street to underhill caves, where monks sealed themselves into seclusion. A chopstick candle is purchased, because there is no lighting. Within, footsteps vanish into slow, quiet darkness. A paperback-sized window for bread and water, for decades. Beneath glass, centuries-old shrouds shape a tiny figure, an emerged hand, desiccated to that of a child.

Kiev is revealed from the summit of the monastery’s bell tower. Trees, a park, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, and an island. I am informed that in the summer this is a conflagration of barbecues, picnics and river dips.

The metro: the deepest in the world, I am told, to which its escalators’ vertigo vistas attest. In recompense for depth, there is breadth, and width, with great halls, corridors, and platforms that even in crowded rush-hour seem still languid, half full. Lighting and decor by Stanley Kubrick, circa the Overlook Hotel. Hulking reliefs of joyous comrades, cameos from Lenin and Stalin, I photograph; they are soon to be removed.

Metro station

Metro station

A Georgian restaurant, the place to dine in Kiev right now, and a shot of clear, strong fluid: a horseradish spirit, piquantly refreshing, washed down with lager. Aubergine salad; decadent khachapuri bread soaked in cheese and sporting a fried egg; enormous Georgian dumplings that threaten to, and succeed in, soiling shirt, sweater, trouser, and face.

Back near Independence Square en route to elsewhere, three girls chatter ahead, returning from their own mini-protest, bearing Ukrainian and European Union flags. The two-year anniversary of the revolution is not far off.

On their way back from Independence Square

On their way back from Independence Square

Past a Soviet-demolished, recently-rebuilt cathedral, and a funicular railway taking us downhill through bleak, leafless trees to the riverfront, apparently a fixture of Kiev tourism. The seat covers by surely the same designer as the Piccadilly line of the London Underground.

St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, rebuilt in 1999

St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, rebuilt in 1999

Mikhail Bulgakov's house

Mikhail Bulgakov’s house

The house of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, now a museum. My friend, fluent in Russian, asks when the last guided tour is, and is told in Russian that he wouldn’t understand it because he doesn’t speak Russian. We laugh at this delightfully Bulgakovian absurdity, and decide instead to head for the souvenir stalls outside before they close for the day.

Soviet gear abounds, though suspiciously new-looking, along with pottery, paintings, figurines, flags. A bag lady at the bottom of the hill guards a taped-off corner of pavement where she looks after a pack of street dogs – she is a Kiev institution, I am told.

Another basement bar, and 10 drinks for just over £6. This city is comparable with Prague in the mid-1990s: intriguingly different, highly affordable, and, at the moment, barely touched by any deluge of mass tourism. Get here as soon as you can.

Soviet-era magnificence, somewhere near the river

Soviet-era magnificence, somewhere near the river

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Syria: The Raw Material; by TE Lawrence, 12 March, 1917


The following report, by the officer who became known as Lawrence of Arabia, reveals how what is known today as Syria was, and perhaps still is, a collection of very different groups, divided by mountains; trade; politics; religion; and ethnicity, among other issues, with no common or national identity. He reveals that the Yezidis are despised by all; that Syria is not an Arabic word but a Turkish term for the province of Damascus, with the capital instead known as Sham in Arabic; and that residents of cities, towns and villages refer to themselves not as Syrians but as residents of those cities, towns and villages. Fascinating; and chillingly relevant, albeit referring to an Ottoman region that includes modern-day Israel, Jordan, and (perhaps) Lebanon.     

Geographically, Syria is much parcelled out. The first and greatest longitudinal division is made by the mountains, which run like a rugged spine north and south close to the sea, and shut off the peoples of the coast from those of the interior. Those of the coast speak a different Arabic, differently intoned; they live in different houses, eat different food, and gain their living differently. They speak of the ‘interior’ unwillingly, as a wild land full of blood and terror.

The interior is divided again longitudinally. The peasants in the valleys of the Jordan, Litani and Orontes are the most stable, most prosperous yeomen of the country; and beyond them is the strange shifting population of the border lands, wavering eastward or westward with the season, living by their wits only, wasted by droughts and locusts, by Bedouin raids, and if these fail them, by their own incurable blood-feuds.

Each of these main north and south strip-divisions is crossed and walled off into compartments mutually at odds: and it is necessary, if political composition of Syria is to be gauged, to enumerate some of the heads of these.

The boundary between Arab and Turkish speech follows, not inaptly, the coach-road from Alexandretta to Ezaz, and thence the Baghdad railway to Jerablus. On the west it begins among Ansariya, disciples of a strange cult of a principle of fertility, sheer pagan, anti-foreign, distrustful of Mohammedanism, but drawn for the moment to Christianity by the attraction of common persecution; the sect is very vital in itself, and as clannish in feeling and politics as a sect can be. One Nosairi will not betray another, and they will hardly not betray Mohammedan and Christian. Their villages are sown in patches down the main hills from Missis to Tartus and the Tripoli gap, and their sheikhs are Aissa and old Maaruf. They speak Arabic only, and they have lived there since, at least, the beginning of Greek history. They stand aside from politics, and leave the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.

Mixed among the Ansariya are colonies of Syrian Christians, and south of the Orontes are (or were) solid blocks of Armenians, who spoke Turkish, but would not consort with Turks. Inland, south of Harim, are settlements of Druses (who are Arabs) and Circassians. These have their hand against every man. North-east of them are Kurds, speaking Kurdish and Arabic, settlers of some generations back, who are marrying Arabs and adopting their politics. They hate native Christians most, and next to them Turks and Europeans. Just beyond the Kurds are some Yezidis, Arabic-speaking, but always trying in their worship to placate a spirit of evil, and with a warped admiration for crude bronze birds. Christians, Mohammedans and Jews unite to spit upon the Yezid. After the Yezidis lies Aleppo, a town of a quarter of a million of people, and an epitome of all races and religions. Eastward of Aleppo for sixty miles you pass through settled Arabs, whose colour and manner becomes more and more tribal as you approach the fringe of cultivation, where the semi-nomad ends and the Bedawi begins.

If you take another section across Syria, a degree more to the south, you begin with some colonies of Mohammedan Circassians near the sea. They speak Arabic now and are an ingenious but quarrelsome race, much opposed by their Arab neighbours. Inland of them are districts reserved for Ismailiya. These speak Arabic, and worship among themselves a king Mohammed, who, in the flesh, is the Agha Khan. They believe him to be a great and wonderful sovereign, honouring the English with his protection. They hate Arabs and orthodox Muslimin, and look for the crumbling of the Turk. Meanwhile, they are loathed and trampled on by their neighbours and are driven to conceal their beastly opinions under a veneer of orthodoxy. Everyone knows how thin that is, and they maintain among themselves signs and pass-words by which they know one another. Miserably poor in appearance, they pay the Agha a princely tribute every year. Beyond the Ismailiya is a strange sight, villages of Christian tribal Arabs, some of semi-nomad habits, under their own sheikhs. Very sturdy Christians they are, most unlike their snivelling brethren in the hills. They live as do the Sunnis round them, dress like them, speak like them, and are on the best of terms with them. East of these Christians are semi-nomad Muslim peasants, and east of them again some villages of Ismailiya outcasts, on the extreme edge of cultivation, whither they have retired in search of comparative peace. Beyond them only Bedouins.

Take another section through Syria, a degree lower down, between Tripoli and Beyrout. To begin with, near the coast, are Lebanon Christians, Maronites and Greeks for the most part. It is hard to disentangle the politics of the two churches. Superficially, one should be French and the other Russian, but a part of the Maronites now have been in the United States, and have developed there an Anglo-Saxon vein which is not the less vigorous for being spurious. The Greek church prides itself on being old Syrian, autocthonous, of an intense local patriotism that (with part) would rather fling it into the arms of the Turk than endure irretrievable annexation by a Roman power. The adherents of the two churches are at one in unmeasured slander of Mohammedans and their religion. They salve a consciousness of inbred inferiority by this verbal scorn. Behind and among the Christians live families of Mohammedan Sunnis, Arabic-speaking, identical in race and habit with the Christian, marked off from them by a less mincing dialect, and a distaste for emigration and its results. On the higher slopes of the hills are serried settlements of Metawala, Shia Mohammedans who came from Persia centuries ago. They are dirty, ignorant, surly, and fanatical. They will not eat or drink with an infidel (the Sunni as bad as the Christian), follow their own priests and notables, speak Arabic but disown in every way the people, not their co-sectarians, who live about them. Across the hills are villages of Christians, yeomen, living at peace with their Sunni neighbours, as though they had never heard the grumbles of their fellows in the Lebanon. East of them are semi-nomad Arab peasantry.

Take a section a degree lower down, near Acre. There are first, Sunni Arabs, then Druses, then Metawala to the Jordan valley, near which are many bitterly-suspicious Algerian colonies, mixed in with villages of aboriginal Palestinian Jews. The latter are an interesting race. They speak Arabic and good Hebrew; have developed a standard and style of living suitable to the country, and yet much better than the manner of the Arabs. They cultivate the land, and hide their lights rather under bushels, since their example would be a great one for the foreign (German inspired) colonies of agricultural Jews, who introduce strange manners of cultivation and crops, and European houses (erected out of pious subscriptions), to a country like Palestine, at once too small and too poor to repay efforts on such a scale. The Jewish colonies of North Palestine pay their way perhaps, but give no proportionate return on their capital expenditure. They are, however, honest in their attempts at colonization, and deserve honour, in comparison with the larger settlements of sentimental remittance-men in South Palestine. Locally, they are more than tolerated; one does not find round Galilee the deep-seated antipathy to Jewish colonists and aims that is such an unlovely feature of the Jerusalem area. Across the Eastern plain (Arabs), you come to the Leja, a labyrinth of crackled lava, where all the loose and broken men of Syria have foregathered for unnumbered generations. Their descendants live there in rich lawless villages, secure from the Government and Bedouins, and working out their own internecine feuds at leisure. South of them is the Hauran, peopled by Arabs and Druses. The latter are Arabic-speaking, a heterodox Mohammedan sect, who revere a mad and dead Sultan of Egypt, and hate Maronites with a hatred which, when encouraged by the Ottoman Government and the Sunni fanatics of Damascus, finds expression in great periodic killings. None the less, the Druses are despised by the Mohammedan Arabs, and dislike them in return. They hate the Bedouins, obey their own chiefs, and preserve in their Hauran fastnesses a parade of the chivalrous semi-feudalism in which they lived in the Lebanon, in the days of the great Emirs.

A section a degree lower would begin with German Zionist Jews, Speaking a bastard Hebrew and German Yiddish, more intractable than the Jews of the Roman era, unable to endure near them anyone not of their race, some of them agriculturists, most of them shop-keepers, the most foreign, most uncharitable part of its whole population. Behind these Jews is their enemy, the Palestine peasant, more stupid than the peasant of North Syria, materialist and bankrupt. East of him lies the Jordan valley, inhabited by a charred race of serfs, and beyond it, group upon group of self-respecting tribal or village Christians, who are, after their co-religionists of the Orontes valley, the least timid examples of their faith in the country. Among them, and east of them, are semi-nomad and nomad Arabs of the religion of the desert, living on the fear and bounty of their Christian neighbours. Down this debatable land the Ottoman Government has planted a long line of Circassian immigrants. They hold their ground only by the sword and the favour of the Turks, to whom they are consequently devoted.

These odd races and religions do not complete the tale of the races of Syria. There are still the six great towns, Jerusalem, Beyrout, Damascus, Hama, Horns, and Aleppo to be reckoned apart from the country folk in any accounting of Syria.

Jerusalem is a dirty town which all Semitic religions have made holy. Christians and Mohammedans come there on pilgrimage; Jews look to it for the political future of their race. In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present: its people, with the rarest exceptions, are characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through. Questions of Arabs and their nationality are as far from them as bimetallism from the life of Texas, though familiarity with the differences among Christians in their moment of most fervent expression has led the Mohammedans of Jerusalem to despise (and dislike) foreigners generally.

Beyrout is altogether new. It would be all bastard French in feeling, as in language, but for its Greek harbour and its American college. Public opinion in it is that of the Christian merchants, all fat men, who live by exchange, for Beyrout itself produces nothing. After the merchants its strongest component is the class of returned emigrants, living on their invested savings, in the town of Syria which, to them, most resembles the Washington Avenue where they ‘made good’. Beyrout is the door of Syria, with a Levantine screen through which shop-soiled foreign influences flow into Syria. It is as representative of Syria as Soho of the Home Counties, and yet in Beyrout, from its geographical position, from its schools, from the freedom engendered by intercourse with many foreigners, there was a nucleus of people, Mohammedans, talking and writing and thinking like the doctrinaire cyclopaedists who paved the way for revolution in France, and whose words permeated to parts of the interior where action is in favour. For their sake (many of them are martyrs now, in Arab eyes) and, for the power of its wealth, and for its exceeding loud and ready voice, Beyrout is to be reckoned with.

Damascus, Homs, Hamah, and Aleppo are the four ancient cities in which Syria takes pride. They are stretched like a chain along the fertile valleys of the interior, between the desert and the hills; because of their setting they turn their backs upon the sea and look eastward. They are Arab and know themselves such.

Damascus is the old inevitable head of Syria. It is the seat of lay government and the religious centre, three days only from the Holy City by its railway. Its sheikhs are leaders of opinion, and more ‘Meccan’ than others elsewhere. Its people are fresh and turbulent, always willing to strike, as extreme in their words and acts as in their pleasures. Damascus will move before any part of Syria. The Turks made it their military centre, just as naturally as the Arab Opposition, or Oppenheim and Sheikh Shawish established themselves there. Damascus is a lodestar to which Arabs are naturally drawn, and a city which will not easily be convinced that it is subject to any alien race.

Hamah and Horns are towns which dislike one another. Everyone in them manufactures things – in Horns, generally cotton and wool, in Hamah, silk and brocade. Their industries were prosperous and increasing; their merchants were quick to take advantage of new outlets, or to meet new tastes. North Africa, the Balkans, Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia used their stuffs. They demonstrated the productive ability of Syria, unguided by foreigners, as Beyrout demonstrated its understanding of commerce. Yet, while the prosperity of Beyrout has made it Levantine, the prosperity of Horns and Hamah has reinforced their localism, made them more entirely native, and more jealously native than any other Syrian towns. It almost seems as though familiarity with plant and power had shown the people there that the manners of their fathers were the best.

Aleppo is the largest city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Turkey, nor of Mesopotamia. Rather it is a point where all the races, creeds and tongues of the Ottoman Empire meet and know one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of varied characteristics, which makes its streets a kaleidoscope, has imbued in the Aleppine a kind of thoughtfulness, which corrects in him what is wanton in the Damascene. Aleppo has shared in each of the civilizations which turn about it, and the result seems to be a lack of zest in all that its people do. Even so, they surpass the rest of Syria in most things. They fight and trade more, are more fanatical and vicious, and make most beautiful things, but all with a dearth of conviction that renders their great strength barren. It is typical of Aleppo that here, where yet Mohammedan feeling runs high, there is more fellowship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Kurd, Turk and Jew, than in, perhaps, any other great city of the Ottoman Empire, and more friendliness, though less licence, is accorded to Europeans on the part of the average Mohammedan. Aleppo would stand aside from political action altogether but for the influence of the great unmixed Arab quarters which lie on its outskirts like overgrown, half-nomad villages. These are, after the Maidan of Damascus, the most national of any parts of towns, and the intensity of their Arab feeling tinges the rest of the citizens with a colour of nationalism, which is by so much less vivid than the unanimous opinion of Damascus.

In the creeds and races above described, and in others not enumerated, lie the raw materials of Syria for a statesman. It will be noted that the distinctions are political or religious; morally the peoples somewhat resemble one another, with a steady gradation from neurotic sensibility, on the coast, to reserve, inland. They are quick-minded, admirers (but not seekers) of truth, self-satisfied, not incapable (as are the Egyptians) of abstract ideas, but unpractical, and so lazy mentally as to be superficial. Their wish is to be left alone to busy themselves with others’ affairs. From childhood they are lawless, obeying their fathers only as long as they fear to be beaten, and their government later for the same reason: yet there are few races with a greater respect than the upland Syrian for customary law. All of them want something new, for with their superficiality and their lawlessness is combined a passion for politics, the science of which it is fatally easy for the Syrian to gain a smattering, and too difficult to gain a mastery. They are all discontented with the government they have, but few of them honestly combine their ideas of what they want. Some (mostly Mohammedans) cry for an Arab kingdom, some (mostly Christians) for a foreign protection of an altruistic thelemic order, conferring privileges without obligation. Others cry for autonomy for Syria.

Autonomy is a comprehensible word, Syria is not, for the words Syria and Syrian are foreign terms. Unless he has learnt English or French, the inhabitant of these parts has no word to describe all his country. Syria in Turkish (the word exists not in Arabic) is the province of Damascus.Sham in Arabic is the town of Damascus. An Aleppine always calls himself an Aleppine, a Beyrouti a Beyrouti, and so down to the smallest villages.

This verbal poverty indicates a political condition. There is no national feeling. Between town and town, village and village, family and family, creed and creed, exist intimate jealousies, sedulously fostered by the Turks to render a spontaneous union impossible. The largest indigenous political entity in settled Syria is only the village under its sheikh, and in patriarchal Syria the tribe under its chief. These leaders are chosen, not formally, but by opinion from the entitled families, and they rule by custom and consent. All the constitution above them is the artificial bureaucracy of the Turk, maintained by force, impossible if it were to be carried out according to its paper scheme, but in practice either fairly good or very bad according to the less or greater frailty of the human instruments through which it works.

Time seems to have proclaimed that autonomous union is beyond the powers of such a people. In history, Syria is always the corridor between sea and desert, joining Africa to Asia, and Arabia to Europe. It has been a prize-ring for the great peoples lying about it, alternately the vassal of Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia or Mesopotamia, and when given a momentary independence by the weakness of its neighbours, it has at once resolved itself fiercely into Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western discordant ‘kingdoms’, with the areas and populations at best of Yorkshire, at worst of Rutland; for if Syria is by nature a vassal country, it is also by habit a country of agitations and rebellions.

The proposals to make Syria an Arab or foreign-protected country are, of course, far from the hearts of the ‘autonomy’ party, but the conviction of their internal divisions, and the evident signs that Syria’s neighbours are not going to be of the weak sort that enable it to snatch a momentary independence, have reconciled these parts to having such proposals constantly on their lips.

By accident and time the Arabic language has gradually permeated the country, until it is now almost the only one in use; but this does not mean that Syria – any more than Egypt – is an Arabian country. On the sea coast there is little, if any, Arabic feeling or tradition: on the desert edge there is much. Indeed, racially, there is perhaps something to be said for the suggestion – thrown in the teeth of geography and economics – of putting the littoral under one government, and the interior under another.

Whatever the limits of future politics, it can hardly be contested that, like a European Government, an Arab Government in Syria, to-day or to-morrow, would be an imposed one, as the former Arab Governments were. The significant thing is to know what local basis, if any, such a Government would have; and one finds that it would be buttressed on two fronts, both contained in the word ‘Arab’, which seems to strike a chord in some of the most unlikely minds. The Mohammedans, whose mother tongue is Arabic, look upon themselves, for that reason, as a chosen people. The patriotism which should have attached itself to soil or race has been warped to fit a language. The heritage of the Koran and the classical poets holds the Arabic-speaking peoples together. The second buttress of an Arab polity is the dim distortion of the old glories and conquests of the Arabian Khalifate, which has persisted in the popular memory through centuries of Turkish misgovernment. The accident that these ideas savour rather of Arabian Nights than of sober history retains the Arabs in the conviction that their past was greater than the present of the Ottoman Turks.

To sum up – a review of the present components of Syria proves it as vividly coloured a racial and religious mosaic to-day as it has notoriously been in the past. Any wide attempt at autonomy would end in a patched and parcelled thing, an imposition on a people whose instincts for ever and ever have been for parochial home-rule. It is equally clear that the seething discontent which Syrians cherish with the present Turkish administration is common enough to render possible a fleeting general movement towards a new factor, if it appeared to offer a chance realization of the ideals of centripetal nationalism preached by the Beyrout and Damascus cyclopaedists of the last two generations. Also, that only by the intrusion of a new factor, founded on some outward power or non-Syrian basis, can the dissident tendencies of the sects and peoples of Syria be reined in sufficiently to prevent destructive anarchy. The more loose, informal, inchoate this new government, the less will be the inevitable disillusionment following on its institution; for the true ideal of Syria, apart from the minute but vociferous Christian element, is not an efficient administration, but the minimum of central power to ensure peace, and permit the unchecked development of customary law. Also, that the only imposed government that will find, in Moslem Syria, any really prepared groundwork or large body of adherents is a Sunni one, speaking Arabic, and pretending to revive the Abbassides or Ayubides

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Season’s greetings from Kosovo

The ambassador opens the front door, so of course my mind goes blank.

Debrett’s said something about a particular use of Your Excellency, but I can’t remember what.

He smiles and shakes my hand, I mumble something and hurry down the hallway. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would not be impressed.

Rows of chairs face a piano and a window, in a beautiful old Bloomsbury house. A fireplace with the Kosovo and Union Jack flags at either side.

The programme says this is the Festive Season Concert 2015, and we are to hear performances from Bardh Lepaja, a young violinist studying at Whitgift School, in Croydon, and Yilka Istrefi, a London-based pianist.

A gentleman in the seat in front mentions to a woman beside him that the son of either the King or the President of Kosovo attends Whitgift School, and that the headteacher discovered Bardh while on a visit to the new Balkan country, scouting for talent to participate in an international music festival.

Another guest mentions a recent visit to Albania, and an enjoyable trip on a railway – there are plans to reopen a line to Montenegro, it seems.

While studying the programme, the seat next to me is taken. Endri is not from Kosovo, but an Albanian who came to London to study some years ago and now works in the housing department of a local authority.

He explains to me the complicated history of the region, that Alba means sunrise in Italian, while Albania is called Shqiperi by Albanians. I’d heard this before, at an event in 2009 to celebrate a year of Kosovan independence, and mention the editor of an Albanian newspaper who’d invited me back then.

Endri smiles and tells me that he’s sitting a few rows behind us.

Hush descends as the ambassador appears in front of the piano, sporting a splendid turquoise tie. He welcomes those present, promises to not speak for more than 60 minutes, and says that since pop star Rita Ora, who was born in Prishtina, has been made an honorary ambassador by the President, he has little work to do. He seems a jolly fellow, and hopefully likely to forgive a protocol malfunction at the front door.

Bardh Lepaja goes first. Bach, then the deep-rolling drama of Schumann, rounded off with the stunning virtuosity of Zigeunerweisen, by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate. It has the rapid-fire pyrotechnics of a heavy metal guitar solo, and I mean that in a good way.

Yilka Istrefi is equally adventurous, opening with Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, before the insistent, sonorous menace of Florent Shasivari’s The Journey. Next is the angular, brilliantly contemporary-sounding, Arbereshe Bells by Rafet Rudi, a Kosovan composer, if the internet is correct, and all culminating in an indefatigable tsunami of Rachmaninoff.

The chairs are cleared away, and it’s a pleasure to meet up again with my old friend Fatmir Terziu, the newspaper editor.

It’s a small world, even in London.





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Postcard from Central Asia #6: wanted for questioning

Night. A knock at the door.

Two Kyrgyz men in black uniforms and black jackets. The shorter one introduces them both as being police officers, in moderate English.

I ask to see some identification. The guy doing the talking takes out a badge in a wallet. The tall one looks on, silent. The badge is all in Cyrillic and I don’t recognise the insignia. Why would I? He puts it in a pocket before I work out what the Cyrillic says.

He asks if I’m someone else. I say I’m not, and introduce myself. He asks if the someone else lives here, because they need to ask him some questions. I say he doesn’t. I say I’ve never heard that name before.

He asks who lives here. I say just me. He asks what I’m doing in Bishkek. I say what I’m doing. He asks about the two companies I work for. I say what they do. The tall one looks on, silent.

By chance, I’m wearing a t-shirt of the Kyrgyz flag. Smiling deliberately now, I point to this while explaining about the two companies I work for, which pretty much promote Central Asia to the West as a fascinating place to visit, and perhaps do business in. My nondescript Southern Standard English accent mutates into that of an enthusiastically cheerful PG Wodehouse character. It seems like a good idea at the time.

He asks who owns the property, and is the owner available. I say no, it’s just me that lives here. I say the owner is the also the owner of the newspaper – using the Russian word gazeta – I work for. I say I think he’s abroad right now. Smile.

The tall one sniffs and looks at me. He asks when the owner will be back.

So, he speaks English.

I say I don’t know. I say I just sell advertising and write stories and don’t see the owner very much. I hand the tall one a business card and ask him to phone the office in the morning, as they might know, and might have an overseas phone number for him. He glances at it and looks at me.


The shorter one says okay, we go now. I smile and hold out a hand to shake. They aren’t expecting this, and look rather awkward while we shake hands and I say it was nice to have met them and apologise for not being able to help them further. Close the door.

They didn’t ask for my passport.

All Kyrgyz police ask for Westerners’ passports. It’s what they do. Sometimes it’s a challenge to get them back.

With both employers abroad, I phone a friend in the city. He asks about the badge. He doesn’t believe they were police. He tells me not to open the door again at night. Ever. Difficult when the football-obsessed Kyrgyz chap who mops the stairs comes knocking at all hours, wanting a few som in payment while updating me on how Ipswich Town FC, my team, are doing.

A glass of Scotch.

A few days later, a Sunday, I go to Osh Bazaar down the road. A friend had recommended this whenever things look a bit bleak. A couple of hours of tea, terrifying meat and technicolour clothes, while trying out halting Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Turkish and Russian to some amused bewilderment, does wonders.

I go home and even switch on the ancient television set, with its broken controls that limit viewing to a single channel of incomprehensible talk shows stuck on maximum volume.

They never phone the office.

Trader in Osh Bazaar. taken on an earlier visit.

Trader in Osh Bazaar. taken on an earlier visit.


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List of non-English language news media in London

In 2007 I began making a list of all the London-based newspapers, magazines, newsletters, radio and television stations aimed at the capital’s extraordinarily diverse communities: London-based media – not imports – for Londoners. I did this by walking everywhere, going into shops, cafes, community centres, asking people and so on. Somali tea I can heartily recommend, and also Albanian cuisine, among other delights encountered along the way.

It was a full-time job keeping it up to date, and since then Facebook groups and other social media have emerged to rival these more traditional news media. I hope it proves of use to someone, somewhere. If you spot anything wildly out of date, let me know on Twitter @JGWillsher or email

UPDATE: WordPress doesn’t seem to allow a new row to be inserted in a table, so some Hungarian news media will have to be added up here (kindly suggested by Endre Szvetnik):

Hungarian Radio in England –
Hunglia –

6:3 Magazin

Continue reading

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The great Central Asian fiction you’ve never heard of: part one

A sunny afternoon, and a surprise in Waterstone’s: the August book of the month is by a Central Asian writer, and from 1957.

The crystalline beauty of Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamilia was the first Central Asian fiction I’d read, back in August, 2012, after several travel and history books on or mentioning the region by Peter Hopkirk, Colin Thubron, Fitzroy Maclean, Ella Maillart, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and even Marco Polo.

I’d seen copies of Aitmatov’s novels in the Silk Road Media office in Bishkek, but would never have expected a national bookshop chain back in the UK to promote one of his works. The 20th-century writer was acclaimed in his day in both the USSR and the West, but what about other Central Asian authors?

Some weeks later at a launch of a recent political history of Kyrgyzstan, I was told by a Kyrgyz lawyer that she had met the new, Russian owner of Waterstone’s at a party, and suggested he do more to bring Central Asian literature to British readers.

November. Back in Bishkek, hosting the first Central Asian literature festival since independence and one of the novels being launched is the first translation from Kyrgyz into English of When The Edelweiss Flowers Flourish and other stories by Begenas Sartov, written during the 1960s and 1970s.

Translated by Sartov’s niece, Shahsanem Murray, also a novelist, I read it during the first weeks of living in Kyrgyzstan, and it knocked me down. Ostensibly science fiction, it becomes apparent that the otherworldly visitors are from Moscow – how this got past Soviet censors is anyone’s guess.

The scenes of Kyrgyz writers and poets arguing and drinking in cafes are a gloriously Soviet version of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg doing the same, thousands of miles away in San Francisco and a few years earlier. From there the story moves to traditional mountain life in Kyrgyzstan that you won’t find anywhere else in English, and that tourists, today in Central Asia, pay handsomely for a glimpse of while staying in a yurt.  


At Pushkin House, in central London, I’d seen copies of books by Russian writers on sale. Hurramabad by Andrei Volos, is a collection of interlinked stories about the plight of Russians in Tajikistan following the collapse of the USSR, and descent into civil war.

I read it throughout an exhausted December in Bishkek. The heat, the bazaar, the charm and the brutality are so powerful that they are in the room with you, an uncaged beast. Volos’s family had lived in Dushanbe since the 1920s, eventually leaving during the 1990s when life became unbearable. The writing, and the translation by Arch Tait, transcend bleakness into dust-fired beauty: this is essential reading, and not only for those interested in Central Asia. Hurramabad won awards in Russia, including the Anti-Booker prize in 1998, and seems to make it on to Central Asian booklists online, but it’s unarguable quality deserves a wider, mainstream audience.

More to follow.

In the meantime, the only publishing house, anywhere, dedicated to bringing the contemporary writing of Central Asia and Eurasia to the West is Hertfordshire Press.


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‘Collapsing Kurdistan government a greater threat than ISIS,’ Parliament hears

The event held at the Houses of Parliament on 26 November, to discuss the Kurdistan Regional Government's fight against ISIS

The event held at the Houses of Parliament on 26 November, to discuss the Kurdistan Regional Government’s fight against ISIS

On the day the Prime Minister asked MPs to consider air strikes in Syria, elsewhere in Parliament heard how an economic crisis in Iraq has overtaken ISIS as the top security concern.

Sparked by a dispute between the national government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq over the latter’s foreign oil sales, the situation has seen the KRG unprepared to cope with 1.8 million people internally displaced by the conflict with ISIS, also known as Daesh, with substantial proportions of the population going unpaid for months.

Karwan Jamal Tahir, the region’s High Representative to the UK, said: “We don’t think the major threat is Daesh, the major threat is an economic threat, and also a political threat.”

The KRG was at risk of collapse if the issue wasn’t resolved soon with Baghdad, he said, adding that any suggestion of an independent Kurdistan in a post-ISIS, potentially redrawn Iraq, was not being considered by the regional government, which was focused on defeating the terrorist group. Mr Tahir said that the decision on air strikes in Syria was a matter for Britain, but that he thought they would prove successful.

He was speaking at an event held in the Houses of Parliament on 26 November to debate the KRG’s fight aganst ISIS and its wider global implications.

Michael Stephens, Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said that only four per cent of Russian air strikes were targeting ISIS, with the rest aimed at forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He said that a problem with the international response to Syria was that key regional players Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Hezbollah had different priorities for intervening.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar had armed other Islamist militias in Syria, with some weapons ultimately finding their way into ISIS hands, Mr Stephens said, while Qatar halting such supplies when the international community highlighted this had unfortunately resulted in gains being made by al-Assad’s forces and ISIS.

Another issue is how various countries enacted different rules of engagement, with Britain refusing to bomb ISIS convoys with civilians present, while the United States had suggested a more flexible approach, at the cost of ‘collateral damage’.

He said that half of the arms being used by ISIS had been stolen from the Iraqi army, including 1,000 all-terrain, four-wheel-drive vehicles, with others taken from al-Assad’s forces originally supplied by Russia, such as T55 tanks.

Mr Stephens also questioned an assertion by the Prime Minister that there are 70,000 moderate rebels fighting in Syria, unallied to either ISIS or al-Assad, and that he had asked for clarification on the source of this figure.

Disrupting ISIS’s oil trade may have reduced its daily earnings to $600,000, Mr Stephens said, but that breaking local smuggling lines had cost young Syrians their only jobs amid the conflict, resulting in their options being to head for Europe, or take the $65 dollars a day and more offered by ISIS to new recruits.

He added that RAF strikes in Syria would help contain ISIS’s military threat in the region, but were not a permanent solution to the threat of ISIS-inspired terrorism in Europe.

Bill Park, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College, London, said: “The Peshmerga [KRG military] have won the battle against ISIS, they’ve got most of the territory back that was lost. But ISIS doesn’t really know what defeat is, they have snipers everywhere, and they never quite go away, they just go down the road.”

He warned of ISIS sleeper agents within the KRG, and that from now on the situation will likely go downhill, with international sympathy for the Kurds in their struggle potentially turning out to be transient and limited. Mr Park said that despite the United States professing that the Peshmerga was a key ally in the ground war against ISIS, American policy remained unchanged in that it continued to arm the KRG only through Iraq’s national government in Baghdad, which was refusing to provide heavy weapons to the Peshmerga, in what he described as ‘a big mistake’.

Mr Park said that in the past after such conflicts international diplomats would meet and redraw state boundaries, in part to prevent their recurrence. This had happened to Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the First World War, but that the United Nations had since vowed to respect existing sovereign territories. However, he said that William Hague, former Foreign Secretary, wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 24 November that these borders ‘should not be considered immutable’, and that ‘Kurds have shown their ability to run their own affairs.’

Gary Kent, administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, chaired the proceedings, saying that he had returned some weeks ago from four days in Kurdistan with seven MPs, who had been to the front line only a couple of miles away from Daesh.

He said that Daesh had captured three four-wheel-drive military vehicles and packed them with explosives at a bridge, but that the Peshmerga had stopped Daesh from detonating them, while armed only with AK-47 assault rifles. He said that there was a need among the Peshmerga for further heavy weaponry that could stop such attacks from a greater distance, and with consequently less risk to its soldiers, though adding that the UK government had supplied some heavy machine guns.

Natalie McGarry, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow East, was also billed to speak at the event, but did not attend.

The debate was organised by the Centre for Kurdish Progress, an independent policy forum that focuses on Kurdish issues in the UK and worldwide.


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