Wednesday, August 24, 2005

نقتة للاعلانات بين مسليمين وميسيحيين

A man goes into a sex shop to buy an inflatable doll.

"Would you like male or female?" asks the assistant.

"Female, please."

"Would you like Black, or White?"

"Black, please"

"Would you like a Christian or Muslim?"

This question confused the man.

"What has religion got to do with it? he asks.

"Well," explained the assistant, "The Muslim one blows itself up..."

Catholic Herald article قصة في جريدة ميسيحية بريطانيا

Hi Mum ;-)

I would normally put in a link to stories I have had published, but the Catholic Herald doesn't yet have a website so I'm pasting in the unedited text I sent them below...


In the early 1980s, young Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall'Oglio was sent to the Middle East to build bridges between Christianity and Islam. There was war in Lebanon and Paolo was worried.

"I felt I needed ten days of prayer. I like the mountains and nature and the life of monasteries in the desert fascinated me. I felt a strong desire of the simple life."

Paolo came to Deir Mar Musa, a ruined Syrian Orthodox monastery in the rugged valleys an hour north of the Syrian capital Damascus - and stayed.

Now 50, he has overseen the restoration of the church and its beautiful 11th and 13th century frescos. There are monks, nuns, staff, goats, hens, dogs and a tortoise and work is well underway on the nearby al-Hayek hermitage, previously home to a sewing hermit, which will accommodate 70 people for seminars, conferences and retreats.

The Muslim holy day of Friday begins in Deir Mar Musa with Mass in Arabic after which monks, Christian and Muslim Syrian visitors and Western travellers staying at the monastery for free eat breakfast together under a goathair Bedouin tent before volunteering for communal tasks.

Muslim families come and go throughout the day, climbing the winding steps up from the valley below. It's an idyll, utterly silent at night, far removed from the mistrust and violence that brands today's Middle East.

But the monastery is also Paolo's response to that mistrust - a space where Muslims and Christians can encounter each other in mutual respect and interest. Give people the chance to get to know each other, he argues, and things flow from there.

"The most important thing is to build a place of meeting, of welcoming, of discussion and dialogue. Post-restoration, the monastery's main act has been opening its doors to the outside," says Paolo, a big charismatic man with a big voice that booms fluently in Arabic, French and English. He has a shock of short greying hair, wears a long grey robe and is smoking a Lucky Strike.

"Today in the world there are big difficulties. You have Muslim Arabs with this strong desire to find their own identity and play their own role in global society. They feel very bad about the aggression of the West - the cultural and financial pressure and the strategic power. In the West people are not sensitive to this but here we feel like the colonial aggression never ends. Especially the big symbol of the Israeli state. The Jewish element has always been in the local society - it was only with the establishment of the Israeli state that things changed."

It's a feeling the West dismisses at its peril, says Paolo.

"Here we build bridges through a meeting in which Christians do not just communicate towards Muslims but also vice versa. If this communication from Islam to Christianity is not received peacefully then it will be polemically imposed by Muslims. There is an Islamic role in the universal spiritual society and it is to be recognised and welcomed otherwise the polemical attitude will rise - of defence and of Islamic mission through polemic propaganda."

Syria is multicultural - ten per cent of Syrians are Christian. Although Sunni Muslims are the majority, President Bashar Assad is from the minority Alawite sect and the country is also home to Shia and Druze.

But even in relatively tolerant Syria there have been problems, says 25-year-old nun novice Dima Fayyad from the central city of Homs. In 1982, the Syrian army was ordered into the conservative city of Hama to wipe out armed Islamists in violence that left thousands dead.

"Blood was flowing in the streets. Everywhere there are fundamentalists," says Dima. "But Christians here as a minority have to know that this is their country. Recently a lot of Christians have stopped thinking the Middle East is an area of Christians. They consider Europe as an area of Christians because they are the majority. Actually the two communities here don't know much about each other - everyone is generally happy just dealing with their own religion."

The tension has led some Christians in turn to feel persecuted by Muslims.

"They feel the attraction of the West and many emigrate," says Paolo. "They have a tendency to copy the West, which creates a larger gap in local society because the Muslims instead react against this occidentalism."

In an attempt to meet Muslims halfway, Paolo has shaped Deir Mar Musa in the image of the local civilisation.

"In the church we have carpets instead of benches. It's just a symbol - we are not copying the West. The local mosques have no benches because the local traditional society lives on carpets. We pray in Arabic although the monastery is Syriac and there is a Syriac liturgical language. It's a choice.

"Our Bedouin tent was a concrete need. It's a real local tent sewn from goat hair by Christians and Muslims together and naturally became the symbol of this meeting of religions. In the bible, Abraham received his guests in his tent so ours became the tent of Abraham in Deir Mar Musa."

And just how important it is to welcome visitors - with cups of water after the long climb and the ubiquitous Arabic greeting Ahlan wa sahlan - is illustrated by a group of six first-time Muslim visitors, who bent in through the pygmy-sized entrance (to make life difficult for invaders), were not seen, felt awkward and left.

"We felt we were strangers when we entered the monastery but it is probably because there was no one there to welcome us," said Saad Al-Jaraa, 28, from a Muslim village near Nabuk, the closest big town. "We felt new in the place and we didn't know exactly what to do. It is difficult for first impressions to be reconsidered."

It's an issue for Deir Mar Musa's handful of busy monastics, a mix of Syrians and Europeans, who have little way of knowing who is coming for the first time and who has been many times before. But more positive was Ahmad Ismael, 25.

"I want to know more about Christians because we don't know a lot - that's why we came today," he said. "The monastery gives the impression of a holy place. Each one has his own way of worshipping but we all worship the same God. We have a relationship of friendship and love with Christians - we are one people in this country."

Echoing him was retired Nasser Aran, 60, who was with a group of 50 Christians and Muslims from Homs.

"The people here are good - they love God, religion and they want to go to paradise. My interest in Christianity is the same as my interest in Islam. All religions are the same. These are not diplomatic or political words - they come from my heart. We must live together and love each other."

But as Paolo says, the monastery is not just about making Christianity accessible to local Muslims. It is also a way for Paolo and the monastics to discover Islam - and to help guide the Catholic church in its encounter with Islam..

"We believe in this Islamic society," he says. "We want an Islamic body of our Christian faith.

"The presence of Islam is a big challenge and question mark for Christianity - how can it happen that a religion of law comes after the gospel of grace? There is no doubt that Islam gives witness to a desire of uniformity in life conditioned on worship of one God. According to me, Muslims react to Christian theology by feeling often that the nice words in the bible remain nice words and that the moral lesson for society is not properly realised.

"Muslims are somehow asking Christians to give more transparent witness and clearer realisation of Jesus's words. They are asking us to be current - not to speak about love while having nuclear weapons; not to speak in terms of solidarity while making colonisation; not to speak in terms of poverty while making the idolatry of capitalism; not to speak of the simple life and then campaign for world glory.

"Muslims are criticising us, thank God, and Christian dogma - they don't accept the Trinity, the incarnation of the word of God or the Cross of Jesus. This refusal obliges the Church to give a more existential body to this dogma. Many Christians come back to faith from their witness to the Muslim faith in God - this overwhelming feeling that God is there, is merciful and is taking care. In Islam there is strong criticism of capitalism, of motives of profit - it's extremely important.

"We want to offer to the Catholic Church another way to look at Islam and to give witness to some of these values of Islam that we have discovered and wish to share. The Catholic Church is anguished about self-conservation, especially in Europe and the West, and sometimes has a defensive attitude, but I'm radically optimistic about her ability to listen."

But some in the Catholic Church authority have not always been pleased with what they have heard. Paolo will only say that he was pushing for deeper dialogue with the dogmatic authorities in the Vatican, that he has responded to their criticism in writing and that he is now waiting to hear back from Italy.

For French monk Frederic Massoun, 32, from Savoie in France, discovering Islam means praying from the Quran.

"In my personal spiritual life I am studying the Quran, praying from the Quran. Jesus is the way, bringing me in front of the door, giving me the desire to knock on the door. I knocked at the door and the Quran answered and said 'Please enter'."

Frederic has been at Deir Mar Musa for almost three years and speaks good Arabic. As he talks he turns woollen prayer beads in his hand - a good symbol for Deir Mar Musa: the wool is the style of Orthodox Christian monks but the 99 beads correspond to the 99 names of God in the Quran.

"This special vocation of hermit - if someone is living by himself he will not have enough feedback," he says. "All religions have to face this problem - and not just religions. I grow in my Christian faith through Islam. We are making this history now. It is so much bigger than me. It is fragile to talk about it but it is a communication that is striving to be stronger than violence and incomprehension.

"One day I received some Europeans, the guide was a Muslim. I was discussing this respect with him. I felt he was touched deeply. He started to open up inside like a flower. There is a place in the church especially for Muslims to pray, facing the side wall towards Mecca. This man prayed. After we sat together, we felt him and me this communication. I have learned that there is within Islam a very strong thirst for communication and for union."

To slake this thirst, the monastery holds regular meetings and seminars, Paolo participates in Islamic events and Arabic-language pamphlets are being prepared with an introduction by the orientalist Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam who wrote about the Palestinian issue before his death in 1962.

Paolo also recognises the potential of the mass media - he has appeared on Syrian TV and radio and an Italian war photographer has taken photos for an exhibition in Damascus. As a result more and more Muslims are making their way through the otherwise empty valley and up the steps to visit.

"Muslims are believers, they offer their lives to God," says Paolo. "They visit a place meaning something special and they recognise that value. I said on TV that if only Christians came here I would leave. The next day many Muslims came.

"There is big discussion about interreligious dialogue in the Catholic Church. For some of any religion, in order to feel good about their faith they need to say that others do not have the truth, otherwise an anguish comes to their heart. I have my own experience of truth and I will be faithful to it - this will allow me to recognise it in others. It's a dynamic process."

And beyond the immediate challenge of Christian/Muslim relations Paolo has identified a further, perhaps more baffling mission - reaching a new generation, primarily of Westerners, who visit the monastery on their travels but do not belong to any religious tradition at all.

"Irreligiosity is the story of an individualistic society. It gives a free pattern to spiritual research. But if you want to find faith you may not have the words or categories for the spiritual experience itself. You have a very wild experience, unknown and unspeakable," he says.

"I believe in dialogue between this generation and mine. How can people come across Jesus Christ outside of the pattern refused by their ancestors in Europe? This can be a new story."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

إرحربي أو حبيبتي؟

Originally uploaded by Langoustine.

Illa alliqaa habibty

So my source of Spanish insults has left the country. It's a new situation for me. We would not have split up if she had stayed so why should we if she is going? But if we are not splitting up how can we be together? We spent a long time sitting by the Omayyad Mosque late at night talking about all this - I still in my white Jelabiya, she had taken off the Hijab which she said was unbearably hot and itchy. We didn't reach an agreement. We talked more in the taxi on the way to the airport and decided to try to make it work. There is a time limit - we have come together sometime in the next two months. A long distance relationships is not something either of us wants. So we'll see...

Apparently, the word Catalonia comes from the Arabic word Qatala, meaning to kill. So Catalonia is the 'Land of the Killers', possibly because the Arabs in the south may have spent some time fighting the Christians to the north back in the old glory days when Muslims ruled part of Europe. Ask any Arab/Muslim and there's a good chance they will tell you at great length that this was the highest point of world civilisation to date, when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together under Muslim rule, all paying different levels of tax, and it might be better for everybody if we could just adopt that model for the whole world... I was reading a historical novel about that period - Leon L'Africain by Amin Maalouf but unfortuantely it is now back in Barcelona.

For me it's back to work, or maybe that should be forwards to work because I have done pretty much sod all in the last couple of months. I gave myself yesterday off, I will give myself today off as well because it is Saturday so both Muslims and Christians are on hols and because old habits die hard...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Spanish are rude

Yes they are and they have some choice phrases as I have been discovering. I particularly like their choice of people to shit on...

'Me cago en la madre que te pario' - I shit on the mother who bore you.

'Me cago en tus muertos' - I shit on your dead people - i.e. your granny, anyone you like and who has died.

'Me cago en dio' - I shit on God.

I am genuinely shocked....

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Hafez Al-Assad in Hama

Hafez Al-Assad in Hama
Originally uploaded by Langoustine.

Hama - destruction, religion and homosexuality

I was interested to see the usual iconography of Hafez Al-Assad (Bashar's dad) up in Hama because it was he who pretty much flattened the city. There are only two streets of Hama's old town left, awesome atmospheric alleys and tunnels next to groaning Norias - waterwheels the scoop up water from the Orontes river and lift it up onto raised viaducts which in the past irrigated the high lands to either side. Now they are for show - the city's symbol.

I don't know a vast amount about it but it seems that in 1982 members of the Muslim Brotherhood (an Islamist Sunni Muslim group opposed to Assad/Ba'ath rule) were hanging out in Hama, which is one of Syria's most religiously conservative towns. Lots of Hijabs. A detachment of the Syrian army went in to look for them. The MB got wind of this and massacred the soldiers. Hafez responded by sending in 8,000 soldiers and razing the city, killing between 30,000 and 40,000 people - probably including more civilians than are said so far to have died in Iraq (about 25,000). After that membership of the MB became punishable by death.

So Hama is a new-looking place, adorned by the usual Bashars and Hafezes. I particularly like the Hafez next to the Noria. I wonder what the people of Hama that remember 1982 think when they see it. We arrived in Hama late at night, wandered around a bit, slept, wandered around a bit more the next day and left. I only asked one guy if he remembered 1982, a hilarious taxi driver who ran out of petrol halfway along our journey. He said he had been working in Saudi at the time.

Other foreign students in Damascus told us before we went that Hama was a strange place. We found people in general to be incredibly generous - taxi drivers wouldn't take our money, wedding revellers covered in glitter forced cake upon us and so on. One gang of drunkards (there are also Christians in Hama) in a minibus hassled us as we tramped around looking for a place to eat but they were the exception.

Hama is also said to be one of the gay centres in Syria - the most gay town is apparently Idlib, which is near Aleppo. Both Hama and Aleppo are extremely religiously conservative places. My feeling is that is likely to have something to do with it. The more non-marital relationships - or any interaction at all - between young men and women are barred, the more people's emotions and physical needs must find another outlet. Sexuality is a bit like liquid, you can move it around but you can't compress it - at least not that much. If you push it down in one place it will pop up in another.

Maybe aspects of modern life are making the repression worse. In the past people got married younger - for example Abu Moussa in my old house was married aged 17 - now young men in particular have to wait until they have a job, a house and a car before they are considered ready to marry. If you add in a couple of years military service and a few years university study then they are waiting until their mid-to-late twenties at least. At least they have a long-term perspective on regular sex - the poor perhaps have no chance. Of course a lot of young people have clandestine relationships but probably not all. So could modern economics combined with traditional Arab/religious ways lead to more sexual frustration and thus homosexuality?

Homosexuality is illegal in Syria. The law is a bit odd. Were the police to burst in on a buggering pair, only the buggeree would be arrested - the man doing the buggering would not be guilty of a crime. But physical closeness between men is much more usual in Syria than in the West. You often see men walking around hand in hand, or sitting with their arms around each other. In the UK that would be a pretty firm sign of gayness, here it's mostly an expression of friendship. So it's difficult to tell who is gay and who is not. I once saw a couple of soldiers sitting together in a minibus - one had his arm around the other, who was fondling a small pink flower in his lap. They looked devoted to each other but I don't know that you can draw the conclusion. We weren't in Hama long enough to have a proper look - the sign for the Hercules Gym next to the Cairo Hotel showed a muscular Hercules with suspiciously full and red lips but that was about it.

It was also interesting to walk around the riverside park in the morning. It reminded me of Victorian paintings of English park scenes, full of families and groups promenading, picknicking and hanging out in quite a formal way. Substitute the flowery bodices and skirts, hoods and umbrellas for white Jelabiyas and red headdresses for the men and black Hijabs and robes for the women and you have the Hama park. This is also what you get in Hyde Park in the summer - London's rich Arab community promenading. It's a good way for young people to meet, in theory always under the eye of their families.

After Hama we went east into arid windswept desert country to see the beehive houses - stone homes made in the shape of a beehive in which people still live, although not many. They are extremely cool and most are used for storage. Then further into the Martian landcsape to see Iban Wardan castle. It's quite ornate but is in the middle of nowhere and was apparently built to impress the local Bedouin and thus keep them under control.

Then back west to the other side of Hama, where there are green hills and mountains. Musyaf is an Ismaeli town on the mountainside where the foothills end and the mountains begin. There is an old Crusader castle there perched on a crag which doesn't get anything like a good enough write-up in the Lonely Planet. But the LP was solid on the history - after the Crusades it was taken over by the Assassins, a mystical Ismaeli sect. Apparently the word assassin may come from the Arabic Hashashim, which means grass/hashish. The Ismaelis apparently used to get really stoned before going out and murdering their enemies, including Crusaders and other Muslims. Saladin wanted to crush them, but is said to have decided against it after finding a note and a dagger at the foot of his bed.

There is an incredible neverending wind sweeping across Musyaf from the mountains, which tires you out in a wholesome way and leaves your skin salty as if you had been on the beach. We couldn't find bottled water in any of the shops - they all had old Coke bottles filled with natural spring water which they said was the best in Syria. The atmosphere was relaxed, not groups of young girls walked around without Hijabs and the people were friendly, easy to talk to, had good English and were keen to use it on politics.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bashar and Galloway, in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G.

Bashar and George Galloway
Originally uploaded by Langoustine.

Respect MP George Galloway in Damascus

Bought one of Syria's Arabic-language dailies yesterday on the way to Suweida and who was there sitting on the front page next to Bashar - none other than the rebel MP Mr Respect George Galloway. According to the headline (via my limited Arabic) Bashar 'insisted on confronting terrorism after ascertaining its causes' in his conversation with George.

Galloway actually only appeared late on in the Tishreen article, after a list of the day's procession of important people to Bashar's 'Home Palace' - a sprawling modern Bond Villain-esque bunker that dominates Damascus from the top of a small mountain nearby - and the brief subjects of their discussions.

Chief among them was Lebanese premier Fouad Sinoria in the hope of calming tense relations between Syria-Lebanon, which have seen Syrian border guards pretty much blockading Lebanon, not letting trucks out and generally losing the country an estimated $300,000 a day in trade, probably using the excuse that they have to stop militants and weapons entering the country on their way to the Iraqi insurgency. According to today's Lebanon Daily Star, quite a lot of the trade hit is actually Syrian, with Damascus apparently feeling that 'damaging its own transport transport industry is a small price to pay in order to deal a major blow to the Lebanese economy and remind them to have a little more respect for their larger neighbour'.

Anyway, George and Bashar chatted about Iraq, Palestine and terrorism, which issues they blame on bad policy. They agreed to support the right of Arabs to struggle against the occupations of Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Galloway praised Syria's insistence on its sovereignty and the right of the Arab world to freedom.

What chance to see the tan-suited rebel MP reclining in an easy chair, hands clasped, clearly well ensconced in a discussion, with Bashar taut and upright, his sharp features pointed unwaveringly at the Scot. I wonder if this photo will reappear in the unlikely event that the US and UK go for an Iraq encore and blunder into Syria. You could build up a nice photo album of George chatting to the despised enemies of world democracy. Who's next? Ahmedinejad in Tehran for a bit of back-slapping about hostage-taking? (presumably if suicide bombing is Halal in the fight against imperialism hostage taking is positively laudable). Then maybe Kim Il Jong or whatever the north Korean guy is called to deliver him a few new DVDs.

To be fair to him, I like what Galloway is doing, even if he does come across as a bit of a slippery character. If it's strange that someone so slippery (can't say oily - might attract a libel suit. But good on him for screwing the Telegraph) is taking over the role of moral mouthpiece that was hitherto seemingly the exclusive province of the venerable Tony Benn, then at least he is doing it (admittedly leaving Labour was not his decision) outside the establishment, unlike the big TB.

And at least the Respect Party, however cringeworthy a name, is an attempt to update the vocabulary and image of the old left, most of whom still insist on proletarian revolution, Marxism and other cold war semiotics that do more to turn off than attract the new generation of those disaffected with the system. It's not that the ideas of justice, equality, internationalism and so on are discredited - far from it - it's more that the way they have hitherto been expressed suffered a credibility blow with the failure of the Soviet Union and generally bore people these days.

I was pretty sceptical about the Respect antiwar link-up between old Lefties and young angry Muslims - Marxism and Sharia Islamic law are not necessarily a perfect fit. But since I've been in Syria I'm getting more into the anti-capitalist exploitation inherent in Islam. According to a guy from Abu Nour, the big Islamic teaching foundation and mosque here which caters to a lot of young Muslims from the non-Arabic speaking Muslim world - Indonesia etc etc, being rich is not against Islam, but getting rich by screwing other people is. Islam's explicit rules governing finance are interesting - interest is Haram - what impact might that have on capitalism as we know it. No more credit cards, no more enormous mortgages, no more buy now pay later deals that appear to underpin western prosperity. There are dire warnings about the Day of Judgement - not the Islamic one but the capitalist one - when everything crashes. The Economist is warning of a global property crash. The dollar has plunged, allegedly because so much of America is financed by foreign investment. The further the US is leveraged, the greater the risk that investors won't get their money back and thus the less attractive an investment it becomes.

Every individual also has to pay Zikur/Zikat (can't remember which) - a payment to charity which is 2.75per cent (I think) of what you earn. It's a bit like the UK aiming for developed countries to spend 0.7per cent of their GDP on foreign aid - but four times as generous. Anyway, without the interest repayments on international loans these countries would have the opportunity to improve their situations a lot more quickly than they do now.

More fundamentally, Islam insists that the family is the most important thing. Western capitalism clearly does not have the same priority. The chap from Abu Nour cannot understand why not. What is the point of being alive? To have kids - arguably. Therefore what is most important - the family and its relationships. In the western world it looks like the priorities are elsewhere. We insist on complete individual freedom. But work takes precedence over our personal lives. It becomes expensive to have children. Buying stuff becomes your function. The fewer human relationships you have, the more you need to replace them with relationships to things. Consumerism likes a breakdown in family and social structure. Further down the road, the human relationships you do have become themselves consumable goods - your girlfriend that you pester with laddism-inspired requests for a threesome or anal sex, your mates with whom you go out on the lash.

Who benefits? Shareholders. How is it possible for us to make these shareholders rich? Interest loans. Can we boldly go into infinitely increasing debt? Don't know but common sense would argue no.

So maybe Blair/Bush are right when they say that Islamic terrorists want to 'destroy our way of life'. I've always thought that this was bollocks but I guess it works if Islam = a big refusal of global capitalism.

It is true that there is a pipe dream of the world as a Muslim Caiphate that serves to inspire these nutters - and that would annihilate multiculturalism, pubgoing and casual sex, as Tony and George point out.

But taking an objective look at the world, it looks like Muslims (those who see the world as made up of Muslims and non-Muslims) have more to be paranoid about than the West. When it comes to war Muslims are taking a pummelling in Iraq, the Palestinian bit, Afghanistan, Chechnya. (They ignore Western intervention to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo). Most Arabs don't see much oil money. They don't like the history of colonialisation. They don't understand American support for Israel, which is baffling on some levels and would appear to undermine the American position in Iraq. They mistrust the order to become democratic as a way for the West to take over. In some sense it is they who are saying 'These people want to destroy our way of life' (although I'm sure the Kilroy-Silks of this world would have a good deal to say about what they think that way of life consists of).

In this context, the global caliphate becomes to my mind a kind of Muslim-nationalist myth born either of a feeling of powerlessness or as a response to it - perhaps in a similar way to the rise of Nazism.

So for Blair to say the London bombs have no link to Iraq is I think wrong. Iraq is just another example of what is seen by disaffected Muslims as a policy of aggression against them. I read in today's International Herald Tribune that the guy arrested in Rome for the botched bombings is reported to have told investigators that he was pissed off about the war in Iraq. He probably knows better than Tony what is in his mind. What about all the young Jihadists who leave France/Spain/the UK to go and fight in Iraq - is there also no link between that and Iraq?

Anyway - I was always going to have to ramble on about Al-Qaeda at some stage - thankfully I have got it out of the way early doors. It's now 6pm, I'm still in my pyjamas, my plans to get up and go this morning were scuppered by my inability to sleep in the same bed as my girlfriend C - I eventually crept out at 6am.

Before that we had an awesome day visiting the Druze towns of Shahba and Suweida. Not a Hijab in sight. It's mainly the men who have to wear funny little bobble hats - and you don't hear anyone kicking up a stink about that. Bizarrely, a solid proportion of Suweidans went to work in Venezuela 50 odd years ago - about 5,000 of them (I think there are some big similarities between Arab and Latin culture - but another time). Their remittances apparently finance seriously opulent villas back in the home town. The place was wealthy and trendy, taxi drivers can't be bothered trying to rip you off - they are more interested in chatting up your bird. We drank Suweidan white wine in a restaurant in the mountains above the town - it was freezing and we had to wear the restaurant's burqa-style robes
to stay warm as night fell in the way it does here - like an anvil dropped from the sky.