Blog – Matthew Teller https://www.matthewteller.com Writer, journalist & documentary-maker Fri, 02 Dec 2016 09:42:56 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.1 119987631 Talking to people https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/23/talking-to-people/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/23/talking-to-people/#respond Wed, 23 Nov 2016 18:18:14 +0000 https://www.matthewteller.com/?p=1992 I’m very happy to have given two talks in the last few days, both in my home town, Banbury. The first was an “Antarctic Evening”. Soon after I got home from my trip to Antarctica earlier this year with the BBC weather presenter Peter Gibbs, a local friend – community organiser Steve Gold – suggested...

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I’m very happy to have given two talks in the last few days, both in my home town, Banbury.

The first was an “Antarctic Evening”. Soon after I got home from my trip to Antarctica earlier this year with the BBC weather presenter Peter Gibbs, a local friend – community organiser Steve Gold – suggested people might be interested to hear about my experiences. Would I do a talk? Maybe for the local young homeless charity BYHP? I agreed, then Peter agreed, and Steve and the tireless Tim Tarby-Donald of BYHP took over organising venue hire and ticket sales and a raffle. Last week Peter and I spoke to 170+ people in the Town Hall. It was standing room only.

What a thrill, talking to a receptive audience about Antarctica. Rather emotional, actually.

I talked about ways we might be able to understand what Shackleton meant, when he wrote – after his safe return from Antarctica – “We had pierced the veneer of outside things.” And I’m afraid I also quoted myself, because I’m proud of the blog post I wrote in my cabin on the ship heading south – click here to read it.

Peter’s talk, after mine, was brilliant, mixing personal reminiscences of his posting to Halley in the 1980s and his emotions on returning this year with explanations of some of the science being done there today, using animations and video clips. Few people can explain why Antarctica matters for global research and climate science better than Peter. It was a pleasure to listen.

And he also played a breathtaking short video made by BBC polar camera specialist David Baillie, who was with us on the journey south, filming for the Horizon programme, aided by expert sound recordist Doug Dreger. View it here. It’ll knock your socks off. It held the hall transfixed.

Later, BYHP said the evening raised the largest amount they’d ever made in a single event. Which made me even happier.

Then a few days ago I spoke at Banbury’s Literary Live festival, talking about changes in travel writing over the last couple of decades, some of the places I’ve been – including Antarctica! – and some of the challenges now facing journalists, media and publishing.

For those who were there – and those who weren’t – I mentioned the brilliant Jordanian film Theeb (which I’ve written and spoken about before), the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Lydia Ngoma, Lola Akinmade Åkerström, Raja Shehadeh and Tharik Hussein (listen to Tharik’s award-winning two-part documentary on America’s mosques here) – as well as my favourite book of the moment, The Good Immigrant.

Literary Live is a lovely small event, very grassroots, very personable, cheerful and worthwhile. Lots of interest from families and teenagers. And they pay their speakers.

I feel very lucky. It’s been a brilliant few days.

 

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Relaunch day https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/17/relaunch-day/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/17/relaunch-day/#respond Thu, 17 Nov 2016 10:45:49 +0000 http://www.matthewteller.com/?p=1976 I’ve been waiting almost a year for this. Today’s the day I relaunch matthewteller.com, with a much-needed new design by the brilliant, patient and all-round excellent Tom Hole, who runs his own design studio named Stirtingale. The delays – and the lack of momentum on this blog over 2016 – are all down to me: first I...

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img_8790I’ve been waiting almost a year for this.

Today’s the day I relaunch matthewteller.com, with a much-needed new design by the brilliant, patient and all-round excellent Tom Hole, who runs his own design studio named Stirtingale.

The delays – and the lack of momentum on this blog over 2016 – are all down to me: first I was away on a long trip to Antarctica, via South Africa, the Falklands and Ascension Island (that blurry hand pic is me on one of Ascension’s beaches), which punched a big hole in redesign planning. The motivation during and after that to keep updating two crappy sites that I knew weren’t right – website and blog, then hosted separately under its own URL – was flagging. That Antarctic trip led me to rethink lots of things in the first half of the year. Progressive political failures and resurgent right-wingery did the same from June onwards. I lost heart in social media and the online life, and that included feeding my blog.

Tom stayed with it, pushing things on bit by bit. I’m glad he did. If you like the way this site now looks, it’s all down to him.

(If you don’t, please tell me why in the comments below.)

Also, the world has changed utterly in the last six months. From a point where social media had become stifling and counter-productive to informed debate, we’re now in a place where I suspect social media – or some form of online organising – is going to become increasingly important, and desirable, in the years ahead. I’m happy to be blogging again.

How did I find Tom? Last December, while I was contacting a lot of designers about a site revamp, I read something by journalist Christopher Lord. I hadn’t heard his name before, so googled it, then went to look at his website. The design wasn’t right for me, but something chimed. The copyright line at the bottom said “Site design tjhole”. So I found tjhole and tweeted him. He followed up with a sharp, detailed email. Yes, I thought.

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I flew / In my dream https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/16/i-flew-dream/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/11/16/i-flew-dream/#respond Wed, 16 Nov 2016 15:11:04 +0000 http://www.matthewteller.com/?p=1958 I flew In my dream   Striding through the night fields My pliable legs grew to spindles And I left the pursuers and their furrows And I watched myself, beside myself, with my spindled legs below Striding through the night fields   And then “Forget the legs” And they retracted As I flew In my...

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I flew

In my dream

 

Striding through the night fields

My pliable legs grew to spindles

And I left the pursuers and their furrows

And I watched myself, beside myself, with my spindled legs below

Striding through the night fields

 

And then

“Forget the legs”

And they retracted

As I flew

In my dream

 

Have you flown?

You make it happen in your core

It is full expression of will

 

I heard the swoosh

I tasted the wet night air

I looked down on the dark summit terrace of a mountain

Square and green

I heard the TV of the sleeping mother-in-law

And knew it was the end of the night

 

Flying close to the ground I found you

There she was

She’d come all the way back

(Even though it wasn’t “back”)

For me

It was intimate

In my dream

 

I woke with ears plugged

Blissfully quiet

With eyes masked

Blissfully dark

 

Like a pilot

In reverse.

 

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Movies on a ship https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/01/17/movies-on-a-ship/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/01/17/movies-on-a-ship/#comments Sun, 17 Jan 2016 13:34:40 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1457 I never liked that whole thing of bringing your music along. It can be funny, listening to James Brown while driving through the Jordanian desert, but I always thought it was a con. You’re just giving yourself a bogus lifeline in the turmoil of travel, setting one movie in your head against another, like they’re...

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I never liked that whole thing of bringing your music along. It can be funny, listening to James Brown while driving through the Jordanian desert, but I always thought it was a con. You’re just giving yourself a bogus lifeline in the turmoil of travel, setting one movie in your head against another, like they’re real. Better to feel the dislocation. Let the ideas of the place you’re in infiltrate.

Our ship left Cape Town yesterday, bound for the British Antarctic Survey’s research station Halley, where I’m making a radio programme. Until we get there, in two weeks’ time, there’s not much to do. Lying on my bunk yesterday evening, as the ship rolls and pitches in a Force 7 gale, I tap on Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons.

I’ve loved it ever since I heard it as a teenager in the 80s. It’s a shouty, teenage thing, Kennedy self-consciously shoving a firecracker up the backside of Vivaldi as phone-hold music, screeching and sawing as he drives it all onwards. No hanging about. He’s trying to reclaim ground once thought lost to older, wiser heads.

Unexpectedly, the screechings help me see more clearly, like the Blue Danube in Kubrick’s 2001.

Antarctica is absence. Absence from loved ones, gaps in children’s lives. It is darkless, then lightless. It has no colour, no water, no people. No smell. It is rock, unyielding, or touchless powder. Comfort is there, but not of this world. It has no stories – or, rather, its stories are silent to us, played out in geology and atmospheric chemistry and indifferent forces of magnetism.

In other wildernesses you tread through people’s lives. The Sahara is a human place. Notwithstanding the bleak poetics of outsiders, purportedly empty Arabia rings with humanity. Arizona and Australia and the Gobi and Siberia have always nurtured human purpose.

But not Antarctica. The Greeks and the Romans guessed at the existence of some southern continent – it had to be there, they reasoned, to balance the great lumps of land they knew about in the north. Books have been written about the idea of Antarctica as an unknowable, unreachable presence at the farthest edge of consciousness.

And it’s only in the last fifty-odd years that visiting Antarctica has become anything like routine – for science chiefly, though there is tourism, now, too. It’s like the oldest country in the world, and the newest. But nobody owns it. It is unclaimable territory, with no permanent population, No person lives there who could reclaim the place from the bearded ghost-explorers of the Heroic Age, a hundred years ago. The names of their imperial benefactors live on unchallenged, in the capes and the coasts and the ice shelves.

Like a teenager, I want to scribble them out sometimes, and write in my own.

Shadows lie long in Antarctica. Men go there, predominantly. White men, overwhelmingly. Former colonisers and the once-colonised are just starting to jockey for position there. Perhaps, I think on my bunk as Kennedy screeches, it, too, could do with a few firecrackers. What do we want this place far away to be? What are the movies it should play in our heads?

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South https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/01/08/south/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2016/01/08/south/#comments Fri, 08 Jan 2016 09:30:02 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1323 On 13th January 2016 I’m due to fly from London to Cape Town, alongside a BBC TV crew and BBC presenter Peter Gibbs. There we’ll join the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Ernest Shackleton, for a two-week voyage south across 2,500 miles of the roughest seas in the world, to reach the British Antarctic research station Halley in the...

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On 13th January 2016 I’m due to fly from London to Cape Town, alongside a BBC TV crew and BBC presenter Peter Gibbs. There we’ll join the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Ernest Shackleton, for a two-week voyage south across 2,500 miles of the roughest seas in the world, to reach the British Antarctic research station Halley in the last week of January.

antarctic routemapIt’s a big trip coming up. Two years in the planning.

We stay (only) a week at Halley, then depart northwest, through the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and across the Drake Passage to reach Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands in mid-February.

After a couple of days there, we board an RAF charter flight from the Falklands to Ascension Island, in the middle of the Atlantic near the Equator. The TV crew fly straight on to Britain, but Peter and I disembark for a few days. From Ascension we fly on to the UK, due to touch down at RAF Brize Norton about breakfast time on 24th February.

Why? The backstory is here – click to read.

I’m producing two documentaries for BBC Radio 4, both presented by Peter Gibbs – one on Halley (Peter’s return there after 35 years, the journey, the location, the science), the other on Ascension Island (its unique ecosystem, conservation issues around the introduction of invasive species). There’ll be more radio from the Falklands, blogs and features, and – bandwidth permitting – I’m hoping to be able to tweet and send short videos for social media throughout the trip. TV is there to film a separate, full-length science documentary, also presented by Peter.

But there can’t be any guarantees. I may be off-grid for the whole six weeks. The sea ice might slow us down – or, perhaps, trap us for a few hours. Or days. Or longer, if we’re unlucky. Impossible to predict.

You can follow the journey.

Track the progress of the Shackleton here, hour-by-hour.

There’s a webcam on the ship here, updated hourly.

There’s also a webcam at Halley here, updated hourly.

I will try and tweet from @matthewteller.

Also follow these Twitter accounts for details as the journey unfolds:

@PeterGWeather

@bas_news

@BBCScienceClub

@BBCScienceNews

@BBCWeather

And also the BBC’s news feeds on Twitter, BBC Science News on Facebook, etc etc, as well as updates on the BBC Weather website and elsewhere. There might be hashtags, I don’t know.

You could try following me on Snapchat @matthewteller – I’ll do my best to upload snaps & stories. Instagram? If I can.

Antarctica is absence. Absence from loved ones, silence in children’s lives. It is darkless, then lightless. It has no colour, no water, no people. No smell. It is rock, unyielding, or touchless powder. Comfort is there, but not of this world. I have, almost literally, no idea what’s going to happen.

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The rise and rise of Jordanian cinema https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/11/09/the-rise-and-rise-of-jordanian-cinema/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/11/09/the-rise-and-rise-of-jordanian-cinema/#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 10:03:49 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1314 A wonderful recent assignment in Jordan, writing about the growth of independent cinema. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook: Copy/pasting the FB status here: I had such fun writing this article on Jordan’s emerging film industry, and the work of the amazing Nadine Toukan as creator, mentor, guide and inspiration. It’s an article I’ve been wanting...

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A wonderful recent assignment in Jordan, writing about the growth of independent cinema. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:

Copy/pasting the FB status here:

I had such fun writing this article on Jordan’s emerging film industry, and the work of the amazing Nadine Toukan as creator, mentor, guide and inspiration.
It’s an article I’ve been wanting to write for years, since Nadine and director Amin Matalqa were so generous as to invite me on set for the last night’s filming on ‘Captain Abu Raed’, back in 2007. That was a night to remember. Amin’s work – and the work of so many others since, not least the team on Theeb – ذيب – felt to me like Jordanians starting to reclaim ideas and stories and identities that had, for too long, been shaped and controlled by outsiders. That’s vitally important and, without Nadine, it seems to me it would have been harder to sustain that effort collectively. Almost a decade on, Jordan is now able to demonstrate how a small, resource-poor country can – and should – nurture the creative arts independently, free from state patronage. The benefits that can bring, domestically and on the world stage, are, perhaps, starting to show.
Without meaning to sound melodramatic, this is a story about much more than cinema.
I hope I’ve been able to convey something of the energy and excitement I’ve felt over years as a bystander watching Jordan…
And what a privilege to share a byline with the exceptional photographer George Azar!

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I’m delighted that the incredibly hardworking team at 7iber (“hibber”), an independent media site in Amman, have also translated the whole piece into Arabic – click here to read.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen Theeb yet – go. It’s superb. My film of the year. I reviewed it for BBC Radio 4 – listen here. After runs in the Middle East, the UK, across Europe and elsewhere, it’s just opened in the US. Details here. Fingers crossed for the 2016 Oscars

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Naked diplomacy – digital in Beirut https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/28/naked-diplomacy-digital-in-beirut/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/28/naked-diplomacy-digital-in-beirut/#respond Mon, 28 Sep 2015 09:52:57 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1309 I was lucky to visit Beirut recently to make a documentary for BBC World Service radio about the remarkable outgoing British Ambassador, Tom Fletcher. You can listen to it here, or alternatively, download it as an MP3 podcast here (or via iTunes here). I wrote an accompanying piece for the BBC News website – click here to read it. Full...

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fletcherastonmartinI was lucky to visit Beirut recently to make a documentary for BBC World Service radio about the remarkable outgoing British Ambassador, Tom Fletcher.

You can listen to it here, or alternatively, download it as an MP3 podcast here (or via iTunes here). I wrote an accompanying piece for the BBC News website – click here to read it.

Full credit to Jo Meek of Sparklab Productions, who saw the potential of what was exceptional access straight away. She backed the idea, secured the commission with BBC World Service, and then turned more than ten hours of recordings into a brilliant half-hour for broadcast.

Inevitably, there was much that didn’t make it. Had there been more than 26 and a half minutes to play with, we could have perhaps dwelt a little longer on how Fletcher isn’t universally admired – how (and why) his approach annoyed some Lebanese, passed others completely by, and also got up some Foreign Office noses. We didn’t really touch on the issue of privilege – how Fletcher’s contacts in (and out of) Number 10, and, perhaps, his own personal background, helped add another layer of Teflon to high achievement and apparently unerring self-belief.

Despite a bit of script that looked past Fletcher’s image to point to concrete changes his PR-boosted diplomatic initiatives have brought to Lebanon, in the fields of defence, business and education, those lines very regrettably didn’t make it into the final mix, for reasons beyond our control.

And then, over four days in Beirut – far from any front lines of conflict – I also burst into tears in public twice. So much for professionalism. That, perhaps thankfully, also didn’t make it into the final mix.

But what a privilege. What a story. What a country.

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BBC Front Row on Theeb https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/05/bbc-front-row-on-theeb/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/05/bbc-front-row-on-theeb/#comments Sat, 05 Sep 2015 12:41:32 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1303 After a few tweets and a bit of pestering, I was lucky enough to be invited by presenter Samira Ahmed onto Front Row, the main daily arts programme on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, to talk about Theeb, a new and – in my entirely humble opinion – brilliant film by Jordanian director Naji...

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jordantheebAfter a few tweets and a bit of pestering, I was lucky enough to be invited by presenter Samira Ahmed onto Front Row, the main daily arts programme on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, to talk about Theeb, a new and – in my entirely humble opinion – brilliant film by Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar.

The programme page is here, or you can click on this autoplay link for my bit, which lasts about five minutes. It was live and a bit nerve-wracking, but still lots of fun to do – and great for the chance to yacker about such a great piece of work.

I’ve done more on Theeb recently too – watch this space…

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Jordan Pass – don’t pass on it https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/02/jordan-pass-dont-pass-on-it/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/09/02/jordan-pass-dont-pass-on-it/#comments Wed, 02 Sep 2015 18:03:39 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1296 Yesterday – oddly, yesterday in the late evening, Jordan time – I spotted, by chance, this Facebook status by Adel Amin, director of marketing at the Jordan Tourism Board. It announced the Jordan Pass, a unified ticket for many of Jordan’s historical sites that is an attempt to help revive the country’s desperately struggling tourist trade. Looking...

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wadirumredsandYesterday – oddly, yesterday in the late evening, Jordan time – I spotted, by chance, this Facebook status by Adel Amin, director of marketing at the Jordan Tourism Board. It announced the Jordan Pass, a unified ticket for many of Jordan’s historical sites that is an attempt to help revive the country’s desperately struggling tourist trade.

Looking at the detail – which, initially, wasn’t easy, because the Jordan Pass website has been coded poorly and didn’t display properly on my phone; I had to resort to my desktop – there is much to praise.

First, the idea is simple. One ticket, bought before you leave home and sent by email, serves to waive the 40 JD fee charged on arrival for a visa and grants free admission to over 40 sites (including Petra).

It shows a bit of innovative thinking – the idea of trying to make a visit to Jordan easier, less bound up with red tape and restrictions, is a sound one. It also shows that there is some degree of cooperation emerging among stakeholders in the industry. Cooperation is good.

Most importantly, it’s one of the first steps by the Jordanian authorities to recognise that tourism patterns have changed and that independent travellers really matter. Group tourists will remain largely unaffected by this product (they already benefit from a visa fee waiver and usually have the cost of site entry fees bound up in their total holiday price).

The Jordan Pass is about making life easier for individual tourists. And the future of Jordanian tourism lies in encouraging individual tourists.

The pricing is good. At 70/75/80 JD – depending on whether you choose 1, 2 or 3 days at Petra – it’s a bargain. With a visa at 40 JD and entry to Petra alone costing 50/55/60 JD – before you even consider Wadi Rum, Jerash and the rest – most people will save money. Sometimes, quite a lot of money.

(Whether the Jordanian public funds spent on developing this product would have been better spent on reducing Petra’s fees to stimulate more headline growth is another argument.)

Idiosyncrasies

But there are a few idiosyncrasies – and a few problems.

Buried in the terms and conditions, it says the pass is only valid for 2 weeks. To see 40 sites in 2 weeks, especially some of these farflung spots, you’d have to race. The standard tourist visa is valid for a month – I wonder why the pass wasn’t also valid for the same period.

There are some significant ticketed sites omitted from the scheme. These include the Baptism Site (admission 12 JD), Mount Nebo (2 JD), the Church of the Map in Madaba (1 JD), the Jordan Museum in Amman (5 JD), the Royal Automobile Museum (3 JD) – and probably more, including the hugely popular candlelit Petra By Night walk (12 JD).

And this totally ignores the non-historical sites, such as the Dana Biosphere Reserve (7 JD), Ajloun Forest (7 JD), Wadi Mujib (13 JD) and so on.

On a supposedly universal pass that already costs 70 JD, having to fork out anything from 15 to 50 or 60 JDs extra to see such key sights is very disappointing.

Equally, there are many sites included in the pass which are either free anyway (Pella, Umm Ar Rasas, Shobak Castle, Qasr Al Hallabat/Hammam As Srah, Lahhun, Humeima, Tell Mar Elias, Qasr Mushatta, Salt Historical Museum, etc) or which, in my ignorance, I’ve never been to (Rehab, Umm as Surab). I don’t know which site is meant by “Al Sarhan”.

It’s a pity that, on top of the poor website coding, the list of included attractions has mistakes. Humeima is listed with a photo of Aqaba. The photo of Al Sarhan – an image watermarked by APAAME – looks like it has been used without permission. And wouldn’t it have been nice if this page – a dead gallery – could have included some information on each place, linking to a map, to help inform people and entice them to visit? The map provided is very poorly executed.

Good thing

On a 70 JD pass, I make the total cost of admission to every included site, were you to pay separately, 83 JD in total. (It’s unexpectedly hard to work out, exactly, but I think that’s right.) Add in the 40 JD visa fee waiver, and a total saving of 53 JD is enough to get my vote.

On balance, the Jordan Pass is a good thing. It’s a start, and it follows up the announcements made earlier in the year, which would have been better kept back until now. As it is, I can’t find a press release about the Jordan Pass anywhere – at the time of this writing, the only info to go on is a Facebook post and the website itself. Some of those earlier announcements about visa regulations remain unaddressed, incidentally.

The test will come, firstly, when someone tries to buy it (does the online purchasing work? Please tell me in the comments below) – and, as always, in whether the effort can be sustained. Will the scheme be honoured at every site? Will a nervous foreigner who doesn’t speak Arabic or English showing a QR code on a cracked phone screen to airport immigration staff – or officials at one of the quieter border posts – at 3 in the morning really be granted a free visa? Will the QR scanning technology work every time? Do you need a charged phone battery in order to be granted admission, or can you print out your QR code in case?

Will the scheme still be up and running in a year’s time? Two years’ time? Five years’ time?

I hope so.

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The churches of Dubai https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/07/13/the-churches-of-dubai/ https://www.matthewteller.com/2015/07/13/the-churches-of-dubai/#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2015 16:32:09 +0000 http://quitealone.com/?p=1285 When I knew I would be stopping over in Dubai on a recent trip, I began casting around for story ideas. I wouldn’t be there long. Food? No, kind of done it. Old Dubai? Well, maybe, but what, on a short trip? I’d never yet made it to the Hindu temple which I knew stood...

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IMG_6331.JPGWhen I knew I would be stopping over in Dubai on a recent trip, I began casting around for story ideas. I wouldn’t be there long. Food? No, kind of done it. Old Dubai? Well, maybe, but what, on a short trip? I’d never yet made it to the Hindu temple which I knew stood just back from the Creek in the Bur Dubai souk – and that set me thinking about religious tolerance. At some point I started googling churches.

This was the result, a (necessarily short) story for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondentthe radio version is here (my bit starts at 11’30”), and the transcript was published by the BBC News magazine here. Please do go and have a quick read.

BBC Arabic made their own translation here.

Of course, there was tons more I couldn’t fit in. Vast numbers of people attend Dubai’s tiny Hindu temple, only a few tens of metres square, in a constant in-and-out flow – “not less than 25,000” every Friday, I was told, with big occasions attracting as many as 100,000 people in a day. I chatted a little to one of the caretakers about Sheikh Rashid, who allowed the temple to be built in 1958. “He believed in Indians,” the caretaker told me. A lovely line.

Father Lennie at St Mary’s Catholic Church, who kindly saw me at a few minutes’ notice on a busy Thursday evening, talked freely about his “floating population” of parishioners, most from India and the Philippines. “People don’t belong here [but] they have very strong faith,” he said, adding: “They may not be as faithful back home” – which I thought was fascinating, and insightful.

“This is a life of triangle,” he said. “Home, work, church.” I wondered how people, particularly South Asians and Filipinos, at the bottom of the UAE’s social heap, cope with the uncertainties, anxieties and insecurities of living as expats in Dubai. “Maybe it leads people to be more spiritual,” he said. I don’t know about degrees, but the passionate expressions of religious fervour I saw at St Mary’s, and at Holy Trinity during the many services I observed, suggests he is on the money.

Father Lennie told me many Muslim people – from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – come to him for conversion, but because of the UAE’s strict laws on proselytisation, he sends them away, telling them to go back to their own country to be converted there.

I wondered how someone in Dubai could be identified as a Catholic, with the prohibition on public displays of religious imagery (other than Islamic). Father Lennie told me to look at people’s rear-view mirrors. A rosary draped over the mirror shows the driver to be a Catholic, apparently. How you tell a rosary apart from a misbaha (a.k.a. subha) – Muslim prayer beads – at distance, on a sunny day, in the dust of Dubai, I have no idea.

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There were so many more details. In the Coptic church, I noticed how the prayers that were being chanted in Coptic were simultaneously being flashed up on big screens, both in Arabic and (a detail which dropped out of my published piece) in Coptic that had been transliterated using Arabic letters. After it had been explained to me that the lines I couldn’t read were Coptic transliteration, I wondered why both were needed. A woman at the back of the church, who was preparing sandwich lunches for the congregation, told me. The young generation can no longer read Coptic – they understand the spoken language, but are no longer taught the letters. So the church authorities wanted them not only to grasp the meaning of the prayers (in their first language, Arabic) but also to be able to speak the words too.

It’s a device I’ve seen used by other religious congregations finding mechanisms to cope with assimilation. Reform or Progressive Jewish prayer-books will often have key Hebrew prayers translated into English and also transliterated into English syllables, so that people can chant along with the prayers in the original language. I’ve seen Progressive Haggadot – a Haggadah is the Jewish prayer-book used at the Passover ‘Seder’ meal – without a word of Hebrew, all in English translation and transliteration.

The same in Islam, and, I suspect, many other religions.

Any thoughts and insights, please do share them in the comments below. A final question: is this the only example of Hebrew script on (semi-) public display in the UAE? The Korean church isn’t exactly on the street: it stands within the guarded compound of Holy Trinity. But above its external door is a phrase in biblical Hebrew referring to “a light unto the nations” – not uncommon in Protestant churches. I don’t remember seeing Hebrew anywhere else in the Gulf, now I think of it.

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