Last night we went to a riveting talk at the Stratford Arts House given by the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner for the final night of the Stratford Literary Festival. The event was moved from Wednesday to last night owing to the fact that Frank had been sent off to the Amazon by the BBC!
He was a most interesting, knowledgeable and personable chap, and spoke at length about the Middle East without any notes. He started his talk with a montage of some of the interesting photos he’d taken on his extensive travels in the Middle East, accompanied by an exhilarating Arabic soundtrack designed to show a side to these countries that we often forget about when we see Middle East in the news.
He began by talking about Egypt, where he had spent a lot of time in his student years and had been appointed the BBC’s Middle East correspondent in charge of the Cairo bureau. A few times he demonstrated his proficiency in Arabic, which was really impressive! He spoke about his experiences of living in the desert with the Bedouin for a month or two, including fasting with them during Ramadan. He said that the people he met in the desert could have lived in the city if they’d wanted to, but they chose to live in the desert because they had freedom there; they had the stars, their poetry and their camels.
He then moved on to talking about the Arab Spring and its effects in various Middle Eastern countries. He had experienced life in Egypt under Mubarak; during his time at the Cairo Bureau, he regularly experienced phone tapping, which he could recognise because he could hear heavy breathing on the line! He said that he would ask in Arabic if they could move the phone away from their mouths and then he would hear a quiet gasp and they would hang up. Apparently Mubarak employed a million people just on internal security, doing things like that. In relation to the Arab Spring, Frank made an interesting point about social media. He said that many people, including journalists like him, saw Egyptians tweeting emphatically about the revolution, and this led them to believe that they were witnessing an entire country shaking off the shackles of the regime. In fact, social media users constituted only a small fraction of the population, and many more people were opposed to the revolution and supported Mubarak. Their overriding priority – in common with those in other Middle Eastern countries – was security and stability. The ‘Arab Spring’ is seen by many as a dirty word; many now refer to it as the Arab Winter because it has robbed them of stability. Life under the regime was bad, but without the regime it’s even worse. As Frank commented, when you take away the backbone of a country’s government, just like in Iraq, anarchy is inevitable.
From Egypt and Mubarak, the talk turned to Assad and the terrible turmoil in Syria. In Syria, an entire generation will miss out on an education because their security and stability has been taken away. Frank had recently been on the ship carrying the chemical weapons surrendered by Assad, but said that it’s assumed that he still has some that he hasn’t relinquished, and some may also have got into the hands of the rebels, who are now fighting each other as well as the regime. Frank also spoke about Colonel Gaddafi and how bad things are in Libya, and about Bahrain and how its ruler took a different approach to protests, employing an international commission to highlight things that needed to change.
Finally he spoke about Saudi Arabia. This was where he was shot six times at point blank range ten years ago, which has left him in a wheelchair. He said that he had gone back to film a documentary about his return visit, an understandably emotional experience. He had promised his parents that he wouldn’t go back in their lifetimes and had promised himself not to go back while al-Qaeda were there (they’re not anymore, apparently). His visit almost didn’t happen, as the Saudis, having offered him lots of support with the trip, then said they weren’t going to give him a Visa. But then he “managed to get hold of the right Saudi prince” who let them in. He says that the Saudis are still embarrassed by what happened (their official minders led Frank into an unsafe part of Riyadh, the capital, and then ran away when they were accosted by the gunman), but haven’t given him the compensation he’d been promised. While filming for the documentary, he went back to the hospital to which he was brought after the attack and met some of the staff who were on duty that night. They had been convinced he wouldn’t make it, so it’s testimony to the expertise of the surgeons and to Frank’s own resilience that he’s still reporting and travelling to far-flung corners of the globe.
After talking about the many troubles of the Middle East and taking questions from the audience on a similar theme, Frank wanted to finish his talk on a positive note. He told us that in spite of all its problems, the Middle East is a wonderful part of the world: very friendly, with incredible architecture, costumes and so on. He recommended Oman as the place to visit if you haven’t been to this part of the world before, as it’s safe.
Frank was at the Stratford Literary Festival promoting an updated version of his first book, Blood and Sand, to which he has added a new chapter about his return to Saudi Arabia. After the talk he was signing copies; sadly I couldn’t buy one, as they didn’t take cards!
If you’re interested in buying the book, you can do so here: