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Time to go home


The International AIDS Conference is drawing to a close and with it, so is my long overseas journey. Tomorrow I’m off to London, then Singapore, then Melbourne and home. I’m ready.

The conference has been amazing – there is much good work being done out there and I’ve found plenty to be inspired by, challenged by, and occasionally angered by. I’ve met some fantastic people, including this guy, this guy, this guy and lots of others who aren’t so easily linked to. Plus I’ve renewed a lot of friendships built up over previous conferences and events.

The two “big deals” out of this meeting for me are the microbicides breakthrough (of course) and the focus on criminalisation of HIV transmission/exposure, and the complex legal, ethical and public health challenges associated with that. I’ll be writing about those two for an upcoming issue of Positive Living.

As the meeting winds up, it would be easy to be dismissive of the prospects for anything to really change in the course of the HIV epidemic – to judge the event as long on talk and short on action – but I’ll suppress my usual cynicism and say that I do think these events make a difference, if only to remind those of us working in the field of how much remains to be done and how comprehensively the leaders of the world have failed to take decisive and meaningful action to save people’s lives.

We are making progress. We have new prevention technologies coming on line – the successful CAPRISA microbicide trial will be a milestone in the history of the HIV epidemic, and there is every reason to expect that research into pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and treatment-as-prevention will give us new prevention tools and the hope of a prevention paradigm that goes beyond the “just use condoms” message that I have argued is unsustainable in the long term.

Unfortunately, not a lot of this is getting through to the people who have the power to make decisions, and so often we see public policy driven by prejudice, fear and moralisation rather than evidence of what works. As Gill Greer, Director-General of IPPF, said in a session the other day, “when morality gets in the way of policy, the result is too often morbidity and mortality.”

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Having spent the last six weeks gallivanting around Europe and the Middle East, you’d think I’d have become used to culture shock by now. Arriving in strange countries where you don’t speak the language and have no local currency, crossing international borders in the middle of the night – yes that’s all part of the rich tapestry of travel. But on Saturday morning I found myself in the first (pre-conference) session of the International AIDS Conference – after six weeks of holidays that was quite a culture shock in itself.

“Oh yes, AIDS,” I thought to myself. “Where were we?”

It hasn’t taken long for the old instincts to kick back in and I’m working my arse off getting to sessions, meeting people and talking, thinking, living, sleeping, eating and drinking nothing but HIV for the whole week. Vienna is nice enough although it wouldn’t have been on my list of cities to visit had it not been for this conference.

I have a nice apartment in Kuttenbrückegasse which, to my surprise, is conveniently located directly across the road from Vienna’s most popular gay sex club. Naturally I have not ventured in there, being the paragon of moral rectitude I am, but the front entrance is visible from my apartment window and I have set up an infra-red video monitoring system so I can blackmail all the AIDS Conference delegates that I catch going in and out. Please have your chequebooks ready when I call as I have a big holiday to pay off.

Things are moving swiftly here and it looks like there could be some exciting news on microbicides tomorrow. I really enjoy these events and get really energised about my work, but they run from dawn to dusk every day and there is little let-up, so they are exhausting. There are some photos in this Flickr set and that will be added to over the week. Plus I’m doing some posts for if you want the serious take on what’s happening.



Blue Mosque sketch

I am sitting on the roof terrace of the Side Hotel in Istanbul, eating breakfast, alone. The morning sun is hot on my back and there are beads of sweat on my forehead, although it’s only 8 a.m. The bright light makes me squint as I look out at the domes and minarets of Sultanahmet Camii (the ‘Blue Mosque’) to my right and the calm waters of the Sea of Marmara to my left.

The sky is full of birds – big silver gulls, calling and squawking and stealing food from the breakfast plates; crows, black and grey feathers and beaks, murderously red-eyed; and little swifts diving and weaving through the sky like kids at play. The sounds of the seabirds and the smell of the water remind me that this is a port town.

A gull has stolen a piece of bread from someone’s plate, and on an adjacent rooftop an all-in battle is being pitched over it. These birds are much bigger than the gulls in Australia; they seem to be about a metre from wingtip to tip, with long yellow beaks and big heavy bodies. One of the big gulls has forced another down onto the roof tiles with its foot and inserted its big yellow beak into the unfortunate one’s craw, trying to extract a morsel of already-swallowed food. Judging by the racket this is not a painless procedure, but it’s over quickly enough and the defeated one flies away.

Apart from the birds, and the other diners, and the millions of strangers around me in this big, noisy city, I am alone. Brent has taken a taxi to the airport and by now he’s in the air, headed for home. We said our tearful goodbyes on the doorstep this morning and I went back to my room to think about what lies ahead. The next three weeks are my own, as I get to stay in the dream world of this summer holiday while he returns to the cold and dark and drudgery of work. We have travelled well together here, as we do everywhere our lives take us, and while I have a great fondness for solitude and while I know I enjoy these next few weeks, I will feel his absence upon me until we’re back together.

Later today I will fly to Athens, and then Thessaloniki, where I plan to spend five days in a hotel by the beach, enjoying the sunshine and the solitude, catching up on some reading and, hopefully, some writing. I have Hemingway to keep me company and to inspire me.

Image above: sketch of Sultanahmet Camii, from the rooftop of the Side Hotel, 17 June 2007 – made when we stayed here three years ago.

An earlier version of this post referred to the Blue Mosque as Topkapı Sarayı, which is hopelessly incorrect. I can only blame the lack of coffee.

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Syrian Graffiti

Boys outside the Belgian waffle place on American Street. Photo by Brent Allan.

The city fathers may have designated it ‘Sharia al-Mutanabi’, but the locals know it as ‘American Street’ – a few blocks in central Lattakia crowded with western-style restaurants, fast food joints and trendy cafés, all decorated in what Syria imagines to be the American style, and where, every night, a curious Syrian version of a very American tradition plays out: young people cruising the strip.

From early evening onwards, reaching a peak about 10 p.m., young people mix and mingle along American Street, coalescing, dividing and recombining in small groups all along the street.

The girls are slim and pretty, unveiled, wearing makeup and jewellery to highlight their dusky, alluring faces. A few wear skirts but most are in tight jeans matched with brightly-coloured tops and high-heeled shoes. They chatter and giggle and snipe like girls anywhere.

The boys are all swagger in their fashionable jeans, Armani t-shirts and shiny leather shoes, their think black hair slicked back or cut short and complemented with a neatly trimmed beard and a saturnine air. They swap cigarettes and stories and watch the girls go by, like boys anywhere.

Outside the Belgian waffle place, a pair of youths lean against a steel cabinet and pass the time of day. Watching from the 50s retro diner ‘Café Express’ across the street, what they’re talking about I don’t know, but I bet it’s football. The whole of Syria is talking about football – it’s World Cup time. A couple of other Lattakian lads wander by and soon two become four, or six, then two again. It’s never the same kids standing there, but they’re always there.

Later in the evening, it starts getting busy after about eight. The restaurants fill up and the street is thick with adolescent hormones. Crowds of boys linger on the corners, lean against lampposts and sit on railings, individuals moving freely from group to group and the chatter and laughter perfuming the air. The girls move in groups too, nervously past the boys and into the cafés, all of which have big windows so no-one has to miss the action taking place on the street.

It’s a scene from 1950s America – a newly-liberated ‘younger generation’ toying with newfound freedom to occupy the streets and revel in youthful desire and desireability – but with a distinct Middle Eastern flavour: a kind of ‘Syrian Graffiti’. Despite all the primping and pouting on one side of American Street, and the swaggering and strutting on the other, the two groups rarely mingle, and you won’t see young lovers parading arm-in-arm down the street or making out in the back seat of a borrowed car: this may be American Street, but its still Syria.

Whether the dance ever moves beyond the furtive glance of the occasional exchange of a few clumsy words, I don’t know – I could only observe from a distance, through the big glass windows of the Express Café, and wonder at the familiarity of it all.

Photo above: Boys outside the Belgian waffle place on American Street. Photo by Brent Allan.

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Football conversations

“Hello! Hello! Where are you from?”


(PAINED EXPRESSION) “Australia no good. Four-zero.”


“Hello! Welcome in Syria! Which Country?”


“Aussie Aussie Aussie!”


“Hello! You like football? World cup? Which country you like?”

“I’m from Australia, so I like Australia.”




Qala'at al-Hosn

I’m sitting on the balcony of Beibers Hotel, having a cup of tea and writing in my diary. Just a few hundred metres across the steep valley is Qala’at al-Hosn, or Krak des Chevalliers, the magnificent twelfth-century crusader castle that we’ve come here to see.

Mohamed, the young kid who brought my tea, sits across from me on the balcony rail. We’ve already had the obligatory football conversation (the World Cup has captivated the interest of everyone in Syria, or so it seems) when he sees me looking at the castle and asks if I think it’s beautiful.

“Yes, of course.”

“Why? Why do you find this castle so beautiful?”

“Well, it’s an astounding piece of architecture, a tremendous feat of engineering, and so dramatically positioned there at the top of the hill with the steep valley falling away from it. Plus it’s an artefact of a bygone era, a time that was both romantic and very bloody.”

“I do not find this castle beautiful.”

“Why not?”

“I see it every day. I have seen it every day for my whole life. When I sit out here on the balcony I do not even look at it; I do not see it.”

I suppose that’s why we travel – to see things that are outside our everyday realm, and to discover the beauty that lies in them – a beauty that sometimes only a visitor can see.

(Photo above, Qala’at al-Hosn, seen from the balcony of the Biebers Hotel)



On board the Palmyra-Homs minibusRasheed is 14 years old and he is sitting in the back row of the Palmyra-Homs minibus when we climb on. After Brent finds a seat, the last available place is between him and and old man at the back, so I squeeze myself in, to the kid’s obvious delight.

I suppose for a 14 year old Syrian boy, having a foreigner sit down next to you on the Palmyra-Homs minibus qualifies as cause for excitement and a guarantee of entertainment for the otherwise dull 2–3 hour journey ahead – at least, the expression on his face and his intense interest in my every movement suggests so. I am the journey’s entertainment. The Playstation Portable of the Middle East.

We have caught the bus with seconds to spare – a feat achieved by having our taxi driver pull up in front of the bus to prevent it from pulling out – and I have the last available seat. Or so I thought, not having counted on the moulded plastic chairs which would soon be installed in the aisle of the tiny bus for passengers picked up along the way. Once those are full, additional passengers sit on the steps, or the floor, or hang on as best they can.

Up in the back row, Rasheed and I are getting on famously, although wordlessly. Not so the old man on the other side of me, who does not understand that salaam alaikum represents the vast bulk of my Arabic vocabulary, and prattles away at me, using the popular technique of endlessly repeating the same question in the hope that eventually it might make sense to me. The fact that he’s sitting on my deaf side as well doesn’t help.

Rasheed also speaks only Arabic, but his body English is easy enough to understand: You wipe your brow with a handkerchief and fold it before putting it back in your pocket? Hilarious! he mimes. You bring your own water in a reusable bottle rather than drink the free tap water available on board? Wait till I tell my friends!

He seems interested in the book I’m reading, so I show him the cover and explain, in English: “Hemingway. He’s rather good.” Not much recognition for the name but he’s smiling and making ‘thumbs up’ gestures at me, so I guess he approves.

Once we get out on the highway, the bus is getting too bumpy to read, so put the book in my bag and pull out the iPod, to escape the incessant Arabic pop music blaring over the speakers in the bus.

The bus is hurtling suicidally through the Syrian traffic, which seems always to be a kind of death-defying pandemonium where lane lines are just a suggestion and the only universally adhered-to road rule seems to be “always give a toot on the horn before doing something batshit crazy and risking your life and everyone else’s”, so I’m listening to some calming jazz to quiet my anxieties, and Rasheed’s interest is unabated, so I pass him the redundant ear bud and we share a little Chet Baker together. He sways his splayed fingers back and forth to the music in the hep-cat style, but after a few seconds he passes the earpiece back to me and shakes his head: Chet Baker’s not his style.

Eager to please, I mime hang on, I’ll find something you’ll like and flick through the playlists looking for something that might appeal to a 14 year old Arabic kid sitting up the back of the Palmyra-Homs microbus as it hurtles across the Syrian desert toward Homs, or death, whichever comes first. Got it. Put your earpiece back in. You’ll like this.

So let’s dance through all our fears,
War is over for a bit,
The whole world should be movin’ through your heart.
Your disco, your disco, your disco needs you…

Rasheed’s eyes widen and shine, and we start laughing and dancing in our seats, sharing a moment of Kylie-ecstasy so much like, and so different from, all the others I’ve shared before.

So in a few years’ time, when Kylie is about to embark upon yet another concert tour to the Middle East, you’ll know where it all started.

(Photo above: on board the Palmyra-Homs minibus. Click to enlarge.)

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At the Temple of Bel

View from the Temple of Bel, Palmyra

I’m sitting in the shade under the big stone arch at the entrance to the Temple of Bel in Palmyra when they amble up the hill towards me.

She: puffy and pink-faced in floral dress, sensible shoes and leopard print parasol, accompanied by the obligatory local guide. He: ruddy and corpulent in beige slacks, beige safari jacket (‘African Safari’ brand) and beige fishing hat, twenty metres behind. The outfits look like what English people of a certain age and class would imagine to be the proper kind of duds for a journey into the levantine, or darkest Africa. I wonder if they have steamer chests in their hotel room.

She arrives at the top of the ramp and dodders her way next to me under the tiny sliver of shade that is the only escape from the brutal sun, ignoring the guide who is pointing out the inscriptions and architectural features of the temple in a weary monotone, and turns back to the view of the temple walls, the massive corinthian columns and the rest of the ancient town and the mountains beyond. It’s the same view I’ve been taking in from my shady vantage point for the last few minutes.

“Oh how sad. What a pity they had to put that awful television tower there. I’d have thought they could have found somewhere more suitable and not spoil the view.”

She takes a photo and sighs, disappointedly.

Me: “You can always Photoshop it out later.” Look of horror #1.

Then he, huffing and heaving, finishes dragging himself up the hill, arriving just in time for her to leave him there, as she heads into the cella to enjoy more of the guide’s rote droning.

He takes off his hat and wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. “Ruins. More ruins. I’ve had enough of ruins and ruined cities,” he mutters as he galumphs off after them. “From now on I only want to visit living cities.”

Me: “Yes, get in early. After all, the living cities of today are the ruined cities of tomorrow.” Look of horror #2.

Brent, later, in the hotel room: “Sometimes I wonder if you have Tourette’s.”

Photo above: Syrian television tower, partly obscured by the Temple of Bel, Palmyra.


Bosra Panorama

A panoramic image, made from three smaller images of the Bosra Amphitheatre taken during our trip yesterday. Click the image below for the big version (1.2MB but it’s worth it).


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Syria: Day 4


Yesterday we took a day trip to Bosra, the ancient town a couple of hours south of Damascus that is home to one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres anywhere in the world, as well as a substantial Roman town.

It’s hard to do justice in words to the sight of this massive, ancient structure sitting in the middle of the desert – it was “lost” for about a thousand years, buried under desert sand and built-over with local houses, thus remaining preserved under the sand until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. One of the most extraordinary sights I’ve ever seen and all the more wonderful because there were only a dozen or so other tourists there.

There’s a set of photos from the journey on Flickr.

In other, less pleasing, news, both Brent and I have come down with a nasty case of travellers’ diarrhoea. We were planning to move on from Damascus to Palmyra today, but in our present condition a 3½ hour bus ride through the scorching desert doesn’t seem all that attractive, so we’ll stay in Damascus one more day and hopefully be feeling a bit better by tomorrow.

(Photo above: Brent in the Theatre at Bosra.)