Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Jerusalem street food

“This man has a very low sperm count,” said Uzi-Eli Hezi, pointing to a customer at the other end of his Mahane Yehuda market stall. “But I created a special remedy for him and in a few weeks time he’ll have lots of sperms.”

While I was spared this particular remedy, I was still treated to a bewildering variety of unusual treatments Hezi has on sale. A lotion that prevents wrinkles (true, at least in Hezi's case) was rubbed into my face and hands. A chocolate that causes weight loss (not true, at least in my case) was swallowed. And a juice made from pure qat, a stimulant banned in several countries, was hesitantly consumed. By the time both “natural Viagra” and “natural Prozac” had been sprayed into my mouth, I wondered if I’d make it back to my hotel without causing an international incident.

As it happened, I felt fine. It seemed his whispered blessing, offered while I closed my eyes and tried to block out the noise of a bustling food market, engendered an extraordinary sense of calm, just as he said it would. Hezi, known locally as the Etrog Medicine Man (“etrog” being a citrus fruit that’s symbolic in Judaism), descends from a family of Yemeni healers - he makes the same formulas his grandfather taught him. When he was nine his family emigrated to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet, a secret mission that saw almost 50,000 Yemenite Jews airlifted to the newly-formed nation. The family continued their healing work on their Jerusalem farm, and ten years ago Hezi opened this utterly unique stall.

There are approximately 300,000 Yemenite Jews in Israel today and the food they brought with them have become fixtures of the culinary landscape. I headed to Jachnun Bar on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem, where owner Yariv Gury bakes malawach, a thick, fried pancake, and stuffs it with hard-boiled eggs, tomato, tahina (crushed sesame seed paste) and a spicy sauce to create the eponymous jachnun. “Not that long ago, this food was only eaten by Yemenite Jews in their houses,” says Gury. “But now it’s everywhere - you can even get microwave jachnun in supermarkets.”

Uzi-Eli Hezi says he loves Mahane Yehuda because he can get all the fresh produce he needs from its 300 or so traders. But it’s so much more than just a market. I could eat there three times a day for a week and not repeat myself. I loved starting my days at hip, laidback Cafe Mizrachi, where I sipped Jerusalem’s best coffee, and for a mid-morning snack you can’t beat Turkish burekas (filo pastry stuffed with spinach) from Ramleh, a stall just outside the main market on Agrippas Street. 
Mahane Yehuda is the perfect place to sample Israeli cuisine, which combines food native to the region with dishes brought by Jewish immigrants from around the world. Change doesn't come naturally to Mordoch on Aggripas Street, where the interior design belongs firmly in the 1950s. But it's worth entering this time-warp for the Jewish-Kurdish dish kubbeh, a beetroot soup containing meat-stuffed semolina dumplings. At the edge of the market, I found Khachapuria, a small bakery established by a Jewish immigrant from Georgia. A first wave of Georgian Jews reached Israel in the early-1970s and a second wave arrived after the fall of Communism in 1991. Here you can eat authentic versions of the country’s national dish, a cheese-stuffed bread with either meat, potato or egg.

Downtown Jerusalem isn’t so great for food, but nestled amongst the frozen yoghurt bars, chain coffee shops and vegetarian pizza parlours - practicing Jews can’t mix meat and cheese - is the hole-in-the-wall Sabichiya on Shammai Street, specialising in Iraqi fast food. After the Second World War, several Jewish targets in Baghdad were bombed and almost the entire Jewish population of Iraq, around 120,000 people, were airlifted to Israel. Sabichiya sells sabich, a flatbread stuffed with hummus, boiled egg, fried aubergine and spicy sauce. Like jachnun, its popularity has surged in recent years.

I also found fantastic food in East Jerusalem and the Muslim parts of the city. After all, a third of Jerusalem’s population is of Palestinian origin. On Rashid Street I found Petra, a restaurant specialising in Palestinian home-cooking such as maqluba, a hearty casserole of lamb, aubergine and rice. And at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street I escaped the heat with refreshing lemon and mint juice, and sandwiches made with zaatar, a herb similar to thyme. But the most atmospheric experience can be found at Ikermawi, a no-nonsense hummus shack tucked behind the kebab stalls of Damascus Gate.

“My grandfather opened this place in 1953 and hardly anything has changed here since,” said owner Mohammad Ikermawi. He charges NIS15 (€3) for the world’s best hummus with tahina, ful (mashed fava beans) and falafel, a recipe originally from Damascus. “The Israelis are starting to come here and discover the real hummus,” he laughs. “They say they have hummus too, but to us it’s not edible!”

Speaking of inedible, I finish my tour of Jerusalem street food with a dish many people won't touch. The walls of Chatzot, another famous restaurant on Agrippas Street, are lined with photos of Israeli celebrities who’ve ventured here to sample meorav yerushalmi, the notorious Jerusalem mixed grill (pictured above). The mix in question contains the heart, liver and spleen of chicken with pieces of lamb and a devilishly spicy sauce. It’s wonderful. In fact, it’s so good I craved a second one. But then I saw sense, crossed over the road, and asked the Etrog Medicine Man for more of that chocolate that will help me lose weight.

An edited version of this article was published in Germanwings magazine, Dec-Jan.

Crossing The Line - The Jerusalem Light Railway

Nothing in Jerusalem is straightforward. Ehud Olmert, who was the city mayor before becoming Israel’s prime minister, should have borne this in mind when he promised a rapid transport system would open within five years. This was 1995. Construction on the project began in 2002. An original deadline of January 2009 was extended to August 2010. A further year was required.

The Jerusalem Light Rail project has been plagued by problems ever since Olmert’s ambitious pledge 16 years ago. Orthodox Jews have complained about the lack of gender segregation, environmentalists have argued that it’s not green enough and just about everybody has moaned about the years of traffic congestion caused by the construction. The track had to be rerouted after ultraorthodox Jews claimed the Torah prohibited its passage over ancient Jewish burial sites and there were further delays when archaeologists discovered the buried remains of a sixth-century monastery in the Light Rail’s path. CityPass, the international consortium in charge of the project, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the Jerusalem municipality over culpability for the embarrassing delays and escalating costs, and two French multinationals have dropped out of the consortium after coming under intense pressure from anti-occupation activists.

And when the Jerusalem Light Rail finally opened a decade overdue and billions of shekels over budget, the problems continued to pile up. Its security guards have been criticised for using pepper spray on Palestinian teenagers. Stones have been hurled at windows, there have been punch-ups between Jews and Arabs on the trains and the American consulate in Jerusalem has barred its staff from using the light rail, saying it’s too obvious a target for terrorism. Recently the drivers have been on strike over wages and working conditions. But in the long term, it’s the debate over the route the track takes through the eastern side of the city that is most likely to bring the service to a permanent halt. According to international law, the light rail trespasses on illegally-occupied land and therefore some believe that it symbolises the permanence of Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem.

Given the Light Rail’s chequered conception, it’s no surprise that there’s a limited service on the day I spent riding the trains. Although it has been open for six weeks, faulty signals mean a reduced number of vehicles are running at close to half-speed. The good news for a city in the midst of an economic crisis is that it’s free. Thanks to malfunctioning ticket machines, the CityPass consortium hasn’t yet taken a single shekel for its troubles. Perhaps the allure of free travel explains why the train I enter at King George station is as busy as a rush-hour tube in London. The first thought to cross my mind is: “Am I safe?”.

“This is what it’s like to be an Israeli,” the receptionist at my hotel says when I admit to my fears later that evening. “I used to have similar thoughts every time I got on a bus. Could this man be a suicide bomber? What’s in his bag? And sometimes I still have these thoughts. It’s what we grew up with and what we’re used to.” Only one suicide bombing has occurred in Jerusalem since the end of the Second Intifada. It happened a few months ago at a bus stop and the sole fatality was a Scottish woman. At the height of the Intifada, you would have to be brave, stubborn or desperate to take public transport. Between 2001 and 2002 there were 87 suicide bombings in Israel, approximately a quarter of which targeted buses and trains. And now public transport seems a more obvious target than ever before. According to some of its critics, the light rail’s very presence strengthens the Israeli occupation.

I ride until I reach Shuafat, one of several stations in East Jerusalem, the land captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1980 when the Knesset passed a law declaring the whole of Jerusalem to be the undivided Israeli capital. This worldview isn’t generally shared outside Israel – the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution declaring the Knesset’s ruling a violation of international law, there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority regards East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. It’s troublesome that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, often say exactly the same thing: there can be no peace unless East Jerusalem belongs to them.

On the platform at Shuafat, an Arab neighbourhood, I meet two Palestinian men. One man lives nearby and his friend is visiting from Jericho in the West Bank. “We call this the peace train,” laughs the local, who didn’t want me to print his name. “No, really it’s more like the conflict train. But the situation here is complicated. Many in Shuafat are boycotting the train but some Arabs are happy because they want to be better connected to West Jerusalem and Israeli society.” I ask if he’s seen any problems on the trains. “I’ve seen orthodox Jews saying they can’t wait until it starts costing money because it’ll get rid of the Arabs who can’t afford tickets. And I’ve heard Arabs say insulting things about Jews too.”

I travel six stops to the south with them and leave the train at Damascus Gate. Here it feels like Jerusalem is divided in two, right down the middle of the road, but unlike the very real separation barrier a few miles away, the wall here is psychological. It would be an over-simplification to say that from where I stand on the Damascus Gate light rail platform the Jews are on the right and the Arabs are on the left, but it’s not far from the truth. Five minutes to the west is Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish area with street signs demanding that female visitors wear modest clothing. On these streets, where a man wagged his fingers at me for using my mobile phone on the Sabbath, you won’t find much in common with a modern city such as Tel Aviv.

A year ago, under pressure from the orthodox Jewish community, the head of CityPass stated that he was willing to introduce “kosher” men-only and women-only carriages. This would be nothing new in Jerusalem. For several years there were segregated buses in the city, with women only permitted to sit at the back.

In January 2011, an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling determined that segregation by gender was unlawful and CityPass has been prohibited from offering female-only carriages. For these reasons, the ultraorthodox remain broadly opposed to the Jerusalem Light Rail.

On the other side of the Damascus Gate train station I stop for lunch at the Ikermawi restaurant Mohammad Ikermawi, whose grandfather opened the eatery in 1953, tells me that quite a few Israeli Jews visit his bare-bones hummus and falafel stall. “Israelis are now discovering real hummus,” he laughs. “The hummus they eat is inedible to us!” Ikermawi benefits from being on a busy and well-lit street corner. Rashid Street in East Jerusalem is only five minutes away from Damascus Gate but you could go weeks without seeing an Israeli there. On this road I meet the manager of Petra Restaurant who says that before the Second Intifada he had many Israeli customers. Now he gets practically none. Israelis are too scared to venture east of Damascus Gate, he says.

I get back on the train and return to where I came from, travelling past Shuafat to Pisgat Ze’ev, a large Israeli settlement founded in the mid-1980s. The shop signs turn from Hebrew to Arabic and back to Hebrew again, and I start seeing roadsigns for Ramallah and other towns in the West Bank. I’m sitting next to Ariel Nura Cohen, a 25-year-old resident of Pisgat Ze’ev who tells me the Jerusalem Light Rail has improved his quality of life because it connects his home with the shops, restaurants and nightlife of downtown Jerusalem. It’s also opened his eyes to new parts of the city. “The train passes through neighbourhoods like Shuafat that I’ve never visited, even though it’s only ten minutes from my parents’ house”.

I expect that through Cohen’s eyes, dilapidated Shuafat must look like another planet. Next to the Pisgat Ze’ev stop there are modern apartment blocks and a mall covered in logos for Pizza Hut, The Body Shop and Home Center among others. I expect to find some Arabs inside the mall; after all, shopping options are limited in the neighbourhoods of Shuafat and Sheikh Jarrah. But I don’t see any. Perhaps they remember the incident in 2008 when a large group of Jewish Israeli youths attacked Arab teenagers with bats and knives by the mall’s entrance.

Binyamin Netanyahu has often reiterated his belief that both Jews and Arabs must be free to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem. And due to an acute housing shortage in Arab neighbourhoods and an understandable desire of wealthier people to move to areas offering better public services, around five per cent of Pisgat Ze’ev residents are Arabs. Although ultra-orthodox groups have tried to prevent Jewish residents selling their properties to Arab families (with those who do branded as traitors), it continues to happen.

In 2009 the Jerusalem Post reported that members of the volunteer group Eish L’Yahadut were patrolling the streets of Pisgat Ze’ev in the evenings to make sure young Jewish girls weren’t dating Arab men. I ask Ariel if he ever questions the legitimacy of his own home. “Let’s look at the facts,” he says. “Before they built the neighbourhood, this area was a desert and not an Arab zone. A few Arab people lived around here and nobody told them that they can’t stay – and today there is an Arab minority here.” He can’t foresee a future in which Pisgat Ze’ev would be handed to a Palestinian government. “We have to remain realistic,” he replies. “Settlement or not, Pisgat Ze’ev will remain part of the Jewish state in any future agreement. It’s not possible for any Israeli government to evacuate 40,000 people.”

I’m curious to hear why he’s never been to a neighbourhood just a few minutes drive down the road. “You’ll find no Jews in the Arab neighbourhoods and it’s because we’re scared. We all remember the lynchings that happening in Ramallah in 2000 [two Israeli non-combatant reservists accidentally entered the city and were brutally murdered by a mob] and for us there’s no difference between the people in the east of Jerusalem and the people in Ramallah.”

I leave Ariel at Pisgat Ze’ev and catch a train heading south. We pass Giv’at Ha Mivtar, also known as French Hill, a Jewish settlement that’s home to a small Arab population. And at Shim’on Hatsa-dik, a Jewish enclave in the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (it’s interesting they’ve given the stop a Hebrew name) I go for a walk.

It’s very quiet here on a Wednesday afternoon, but on most Fridays it becomes a focal point as Jews and Arabs stand side-by-side to protest against settler efforts to demolish Palestinian homes and take the land they believe was historically theirs and should be reclaimed.

On my journey back to downtown Jerusalem I sit next to an orthodox Jew whose tzitzit – the string attached to the prayer shawl – drapes down the edge of his chair. Opposite us sits an Israeli soldier in full uniform, carrying a gun in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. It’s the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and he’s returning home for the holiday. Almost everyone else on the carriage is speaking Arabic. It’s clear that a significant number of Arabs are using the light rail but it’s not easy to gauge how much support for the transit system exists in their neighbourhoods.

The only data we have comes from a poll carried out by Veolia, the French construction company that won an estimated US$500 million contract to work on the Jerusalem Light Rail in 2003. By the time they conducted the survey in 2009, it was in dire straits. The Association of France-Palestine Solidarity had commenced legal proceedings against the corporation in 2007, questioning the legitimacy of construction work on what it considers illegally occupied land. And a concerted effort by anti-occupation groups led to the company losing out on billions of dollars worth of contracts as local authorities in cities across the world dodged association with a company tainted by its links to the occupation.

It may well have been a PR offensive rather than a genuine attempt to understand the impact of the train track, but the results of a poll of 639 people of Arab origin in the East Jerusalem districts of Shuafat, Beit Hanina and Sheikh Jarrah are fascinating. Sixty-two per cent of respondents were in favour of the Jerusalem Light Rail. Two-thirds of people said that the Jerusalem Light Rail will “encourage economic development and appeal to the Arab population”, while 60 per cent agreed that it would “improve the quality of life in Shuafat and Beit Hanina”. Despite such positive feedback, Veolia later announced that it intended to sell its five per cent stake in the CityPass corporation.

It’s not impossible that Veolia acted in good faith, guided by a genuine belief that a non-discriminatory public transport system could help bring together a divided city. There are certainly some Arabs who see things this way. And then there are people like the Palestinian I spoke to at the Educational Bookshop and Café in East Jerusalem. He labelled the Jerusalem Light Rail a “settlement by train track”.

Before I disembark the train to shop for dinner at the Mahane Yehuda food market, I meet a tourist from Tokyo who’s thrilled by the whole Jerusalem Light Rail experience. “It’s so awesome that it’s free,” she says to me. “I came here five years ago and it was really hard to get around. Now everything is so simple.”

She’s wrong, of course. Nothing in Jerusalem will ever be simple.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Battle Of Stokes Croft

On 21st April Stokes Croft – the northwest area of Bristol known for its graffiti, squats and anti-capitalist culture – erupted in violence. The media dubbed it the ‘Battle of Tesco’, claiming the disorder sprang out of anti-supermarket protests. But, as Matthew Lee finds out, there’s more to the story – and to Stokes Croft – than a simple dislike of the red and blue grocery giant…

Entering a supermarket rarely feels like a political act. But in Stokes Croft pushing a trolley through the store’s sliding doors seems as wilful an act of defiance as crossing a picket line. It’s an unnerving experience. Walking up and down the aisles, past piles of fruit and vegetables, I feel like a Clubcard-carrying member of the opposition. Although I exit empty handed – a carrier bag here might be a red rag to a bull – I glance in both directions before stepping on to the street. Nobody saw a thing.

From the perspective of an outsider, the Tesco Express on Cheltenham Road seems perfectly innocuous, like any of the other 1,300 or so branches found on high streets throughout the country. But on 21st April this year this shop found itself at the centre of a storm. Nine police officers were injured in what the papers called the ‘Battle of Tesco’, an evening of violence that saw 160 police confront 300 protesters, meeting a barrage of missiles and retaliating with truncheons and riot shields. Could this really all have been over a supermarket? To answer this you need to know Stokes Croft…

The community
At Stokes Croft’s heart is a famous piece of street art. Bearing in mind what happened here, an image of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police might seem provocative, but the local authorities won’t be painting over it any time soon. It’s by Banksy and represents the acceptable, sometimes profitable side of Bristolian activism.

A few years ago Hamilton House, next door to the Asbo-courting cuddly toy, was derelict; now it’s run by a group called Coexist and is the area’s cultural hub. On a tour of the building I’m shown dozens of spaces used for yoga, meditation, theatre, live music and arts classes. Across the road is the Stokes Croft Museum, a one-room exhibition celebrating the area’s uniqueness. It’s charmingly eccentric and well worth a visit, as long as you’re not looking for an educational experience – a plastic dog turd takes its place alongside a portion of chips (yes, actual chips) that has been Blu-Tacked to the wall. But there’s nothing abstract or indirect about the biggest sign there – “People’s Republic of Stokes Croft: We Make Our Own Future”.

Established by Chris Chalkley, the The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is essentially a large-scale arts project, an effort to promote creativity and re-establish Stokes Croft as Bristol’s cultural quarter. It’s also about preserving the area’s character and encouraging sustainable development, in part by turning the neighbourhood into an outdoor gallery.

Art is everywhere: barely a patch of Stokes Croft’s walls is untouched by paint. Empty retail units have been turned into “free shops” where items are exchanged but no money changes hands. There are an incredible number of yoga classes on offer for such a small community. Bar one, there are no chain stores here, despite the fact that it’s only a five-minute walk from the city centre. In this setting, the supermarket at the end of the street seems incongruous – a banal sight surrounded by science-fiction street art. It’s mostly pure fantasy on display on Stokes Croft’s walls but among the dragons, aliens and dope-smoking cyborgs are paintings of Tesco shopping bags. They carry the slogan: “Very little help."

The campaign
It’s unlikely any citizens of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft shop at Tesco. The PRSC aims to protect the area from corporations which, they argue, have local government in their pocket. In his website’s mission statement, Chalkley writes that Stokes Croft “has been deliberately and criminally neglected” by a government that “favours powerful corporations over the interests of the local community”. The failure of a popular local movement to prevent the opening of Tesco bolsters his theory.

“This area is fiercely independent and it’s a designated conservation area,” he tells me. “It’s written in the conservation-area documents that it’s an area for independent traders, so when a multinational such as Tesco arrives – in a city where 84 per cent of retail is run by multinational companies – it’s hardly surprising that there’s a groundswell against them.”

A section of Stokes Croft had been quietly protesting the arrival of the supermarket for 18 months before the Battle of Tesco. The campaign against Tesco appeared to unite the community. No Tesco in Stokes Croft’s (NTSC) co-ordinators organised several peaceful protests, and there’s a huge piece of street art which proclaims,“Think local. Boycott Tesco.” The group argues that 93 per cent of local residents don’t want Tesco in the area. The supermarket chain disagrees, claiming it has support from the community. The campaigners’ arguments were ideological – they were opposed to Tesco’s business practices and wanted to support local shop owners – but they were also practical, centring on noise and congestion. The campaign failed: Bristol City council approved the plan and the store opened on 15th April. Six days later the violence began.

The Battle of Tesco
The riots initially had very little to do with the supermarket. For all the activism waged against the store in the preceding months, no official protest had been scheduled for that evening. Instead it began with an eviction. On Thursday 21st April, the last remaining squatters in Telepathic Heights – a residential building opposite the supermarket – were due to vacate the property so the council could redevelop it. The previous night they had held a pre-eviction party.

The police had received a tip-off from an undisclosed source that the squatters possessed petrol bombs which they were planning to use in an attack on Tesco – an allegation the squatters have consistently denied, claiming they knew nothing about any petrol bombs and that they were not part of the NTSC campaign. Around 160 riot police moved in at 9.15pm to seal off the road and raid the squat. A group of local residents arrived to confront the police and support the squatters, who were a long-established part of the community and were generally liked. Fighting broke out between the police and members of the public, which increased in intensity as people left local clubs and bars, and others from across the city heard about the disorder and arrived looking for a piece of the action. The police left the area in the early hours of the morning and the protesters proceeded to cause damage to the Tesco Express shopfront.

A week later, there was another riot. More injuries, more arrests, more damage to the supermarket. But people in Stokes Croft are asking questions. Why did the police raid the Telepathic Heights squat on a Thursday evening before a four-day Easter holiday at a time when so many people were out drinking? Why was a force of more than 160 riot police, plus vans, horses, dogs and a helicopter, necessary to raid a squat that consisted of only four people? If the police were rapidly responding to a sudden threat, how do they explain the presence of Welsh police officers, who are likely to have been draughted some time in advance? Who was the police’s source for information on the alleged petrol bombs in the Telepathic Heights squat? And can the police be believed when they say that petrol bombs were seized when, at the time of going to press, nobody has been charged with a related offence and no evidence of a seizure has been presented?

In riot footage posted online there are scenes of people reaching into wheelie bins for glass bottles to throw at the police. There are riot police on horseback charging at protesters. There are people being dragged along the street by officers and there’s a policeman being hit by a slab of concrete thrown from a building. And then there’s other footage, mostly from earlier in the evening, of police officers chatting quite amicably with local residents. It’s hard to put one’s finger on how, why or when things spiralled out of control.

The fallout
Two months on and the people of Stokes Croft are still looking for answers. They want to know how such a thing could happen on their streets. They’ve had countless meetings, debates and discussions. They’ve scanned the hours of footage of the riots on YouTube. And yet so many things still don’t make sense.

Chalkley argues that the underlying cause of the violence in Stokes Croft is that corporations have become more powerful than governments to the extent that they can bully them around. “When you have a very clear mandate from local people who say they don’t want something and it’s completely ignored by the people who are meant to represent them, frustration occurs and that ultimately manifested itself in the riots in April,” he says.

While some of that resentment may have been a contributing factor to the unrest, representatives of the NTSC are adamant the official campaign had nothing to do with what happened. “I was in my back garden having a few drinks when I saw a police helicopter above,” says Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the anti-Tesco campaign. “Even when I explained to the police who I was they wouldn’t give me any information on what was happening. We could have passed information on to the community and helped calm the situation.”

Milne believes that the authorities must have decided that it was “useful to create a riot” in Stokes Croft. “In terms of violence it’s an edgy area,” she says. “But in any city there are elements like that. When word gets out that 160 riot police are in Stokes Croft, hundreds of people will turn up and some of them will be looking for a fight. I can’t help but believe there was an intention on the part of the police to make people opposed to Tesco and corporations generally look like violent thugs. And the media colluded completely. If there had been a petrol bomb a small police presence would have defused the situation safely.”

Milne found herself fielding questions from the media, which were looking for an explanation for the violence. She struggled to condemn the behaviour. “I still don’t know what I think,” she tells me. “I’d never condone violence to another human being, but for me smashing Tesco’s windows is insignificant compared to the damage I would argue Tesco does in a fundamental way on a daily basis. I’m committed to peaceful and non-violent communication in every circumstance and I’m confused by the fact that I can’t condemn somebody smashing a window. The devastating reality is that the media only become interested when it gets violent. I spent over a year and a half working peacefully [on the campaign] and nobody wanted to know.”

Now, like the rest of the community, she’s torn between the necessity to move on and the desire to establish the truth about what really happened. “We need an inquiry, and it’s the right of our community to have it, but I’m going to have to distance myself from it. I’m totally burnt out.”

The man leading the charge for a national public inquiry is Bristol Green Party councillor Gus Hoyt. He tells me that the petition for an inquiry has received more than 1,000 signatures but that Theresa May, the home secretary, doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating the violence in Stokes Croft at a national level. “We want to know what happened on the night and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he says, before explaining how Stokes Croft is a part of Bristol that’s been neglected for decades. He describes it as a “place you used to hurry through on the way to get somewhere else” but applauds the local revival sparked by the work of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.

Like everybody I spoke to, he doesn’ t deny there’s a thuggish element in the area, but he says that he’s been surprised by the relative restraint Tesco’s many critics have shown. “While I’m not in any way condoning the action, I’m amazed Tesco hasn’t had its windows smashed in every night since it opened,” he says. I ask him whether, with his insider knowledge of local politics in Bristol, he thinks there was ever any chance of the anti-Tesco campaign being successful. “No,” he replies. “There was never a chance of people being listened to. There was never any proper consultation.”

The squat
Telepathic Heights is covered top-to-bottom in alien owls and talking ice-cream cones, either a colourful statement of artistic self-expression or an off-putting eyesore, depending on whether you’re a local resident seeking spiritual fulfilment or a major retailer with a new shop nearby. The building is right across the road from Tesco Express, making it easy to see how two different but ideologically interwoven local issues – a campaign for squatters’ rights and a campaign to prevent a supermarket opening – could become conflated when 160 riot police suddenly appear on a balmy, boozy evening.

Standing in the middle of Cheltenham Road, I study the scene. The supermarket is empty. Following the eviction, Telepathic Heights is also empty. This is a battle neither side appears to be winning.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Very Swedish Safari

There’s blackcurrant herring, dill herring, fennel and schnapps herring, black pepper herring, Scotch whisky herring and plain old pickled herring,” recites our waitress, pausing to catch her breath. “And, of course, we have herring tartare for an appetiser!”

It must get repetitive doing an impression of Bubba from Forrest Gump every five minutes, but when you’re working at Salt & Sill, the world’s first herring-themed hotel, you can’t expect customers to order spaghetti.

If herring tourism dries up, Salt & Sill can turn to its other USP – it floats. It’s moored to a giant raft at the edge of Klädesholmen, an island responsible for almost half of Sweden’s herring production. There’s also a floating sauna – Sweden's fastest, apparently – where I take my cue from the locals and get in touch with my inner Scandinavian. We heat up until it’s time to cool down, and with bellies full of pickled fish and boiled potatoes we fling ourselves into the sea, arms and legs flailing.

I’ve come to west Sweden to experience the seafood it’s so celebrated for – and the following morning a herring-heavy breakfast fuels photographer Per and me for the northbound drive to Strömstad and the ferry to the island of South Koster. After a hearty lunch of seafood stew we’re introduced to Kenneth Myrvold, the softly spoken Norwegian manager of Ekenäs hotel (tel: +46 (0)526 20250), and Johan Andersson, a South Koster native and, I’m about to discover, owner of Sweden’s firmest handshake. Every time he picks up a crab, I feel its pain.

As a child, Johan fished these waters with his grandfather. He’s tried and failed at city life (“I just start to panic”) and local bar work (“I prefer to drink drinks rather than serve drinks”), but he couldn’t be more comfortable than when he’s on his boat, hauling crabs, mackerel, lobster and shrimp onto the deck. He throws out salmon as bait, lowers a cage attached to a 40m rope, waits a few minutes, and then wheels it up triumphantly. Every 10 minutes, another 10 crabs appear. It all seems too easy.

Johan grapples like a wrestler with his catch and skilfully deactivates the crab’s desperate clawing. Not to be outdone, I reach to grab a crab by its shell. “It’ll take your fingers off!” screams the fisherman, showing me the scars on his arms. “When a crab attacks, you have to wait until it let’s go,” he warns. “If you try to pull it off, it’ll clamp harder.”

With our work done, we take a leisurely cruise past rugged, rocky landscapes; tiny islands inhabited only by horned goats. Back on dry land, we follow our bounty to the Ekenäs kitchen, where a team bakes bread, sautés scallops, roasts lamb and, upon seeing our catch, boils water in gigantic pots. The crabs re-emerge on a platter; a mass tangle of claws jostling for space with shrimps, mussels, cockles and oysters, all caught that same day.

By the time we’ve prized every speck of meat from every pincer it’s gone 10pm, although there’s still enough sunlight for a bike ride. With no cars on the Koster islands – the ferries aren’t big enough and the roads aren’t wide enough – it’s the main mode of transport for the 400 or so permanent residents. We pedal to the north side of the island, where we find two buildings: a ferry terminal and a bar, Johan’s former workplace. He’s sitting on a terrace, catching up with friends.

“My grandfather lived on South Koster until he was 92 and he never visited North Koster,” says Johan as we marvel at the midnight sunset. “These islands are at war!” We laugh – the north island is no more than 50m away, within earshot of a choice Swedish insult.

By buggy and by bicycle, we move en masse to the Blu Bar, a lovely pine and oak venue so hidden it seems surprising anybody finds it – then return to our hotel for a party, rural Sweden

style. The whole island appears to be here, dancing to Madonna and drinking schnapps until the start of another long summer’s day.

It’s a day that finds us a little worse for wear, and the lack of pickled herring at the breakfast table feels like a betrayal of biblical proportions. But we pick ourselves up for the ferry back to Strömstad and the stunningly scenic drive to Grebbestad, home to 90% of Sweden’s oysters. We head to a yellow sea hut perched on poles above the water. It’s home to a fishing tours business called Everts Sjöbod (tel: +46 (0)70 672 5208), run by the Karlsson brothers, Lars and Per.

It becomes quickly apparent that the brothers, born and raised in Grebbestad, are standing on a goldmine. Lars sweeps his net through the shallow water where their boat is moored and heaves up six oysters, each of which could sell for £10 at a top Stockholm restaurant. When we’re at sea on their wooden boat Per hands me a knife and gloves, and teaches me a key life skill. I make a mess of the first few shells, but the press-nudge-twist-lift technique soon comes together. And if I keep practising, Per suggests, I could represent the UK in the Nordic Oyster Opening Championships, which takes place in Grebbestad every spring.

Feeling like the luckiest man in west Sweden, I eat the two-dozen oysters on the table on deck. I close my eyes to focus on the lively, complex flavour – somehow sweet, salty and creamy at the same time – and miss out on much of the gloriously rugged coastline. But my oysters are just a warm-up for the main event. Back at the charming 120-year-old fisherman’s hut there’s bread, cheese, Champagne and a vast seafood platter. Almost anywhere else, this would be considered the height of luxury. Here, it’s simple local fare.

The brothers used to own a furniture shop, but didn’t like working indoors, so they turned to something they’d been doing for as long as they can remember. “It was the right decision to fish full-time,” says Per, who also runs an organisation dedicated to promoting the wonders of the Grebbestad oyster throughout the world. This is a town of seafood addicts – they even celebrate a dedicated Oyster Day, held every September.

The fishing seasons, we’re told, are mind-bogglingly precise. The lobster season, Per insists, begins at 7am on the first Monday following 20 September. Before then, fishing for lobster is a waste of time. It seems crazy, but it’s precisely this obsessive devotion to their craft that’s made Scandinavian food the talk of the culinary world. The emphasis is on seasonal ingredients and simple, unfussy preparation. As I help myself to one last mussel, Per shows me various clippings and certificates stating that Grebbestad oysters are the best in the world. I’m not going to argue.

Originally published in Ryanair magazine

Friday, 5 August 2011

Marathon Men

Yes, that's me. Right at the back. It's the taking part that counts. Photograph by Yigermal Getu Tarekegn, the best tour guide in Ethiopia (

It’s six in the morning, yet I’m running late. By the time I enter Ethiopia’s national stadium in Addis Ababa and rub the sleep out of my eyes, Haji Adilo’s athletes have already completed several laps. They glide round the track in an unchanging formation, tight as aerobatic pilots, matching each other’s stride. After an hour they’ve barely broken sweat. They slow to a halt, change out of their clothes while crouching behind an advert for the city’s first 3D cinema, and gather round coach Haji for a post-run pep talk. The sun is still to rise.

I’m in Ethiopia to learn how to run. It’s certainly the right place for a lesson. If it weren’t for the country’s Kenyan rivals to the south, no other nation would get close to the podium. Ethiopian men hold world records over 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, while the nation’s women are almost as dominant. “For Ethiopians, running is an obsession,” says former marathon runner Adilo. “But to be successful you need both talent and determination. It’s not enough to be one or the other – you need both.”

Every week, Adilo coaches almost 100 athletes, all of whom hope to emulate the heroic feats of Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or Tirunesh Dibaba, who matched his achievement in the women’s competition. But few will dare to dream of being as brilliant as the man whose smile beams out from hundreds of billboards across the city, the greatest long-distance runner in history: Haile Gebrselassie.

When I meet him later that morning and he reaches for my hand, it’s that smile I see first, a toothy grin instantly recognisable from finishing lines the world over. Over two decades of competition, Gebrselassie has broken no fewer than 27 world records and, in 2008, at the age of 35, he ran the fastest-ever marathon. He’s been in the office since 8am overseeing his vast business empire, incorporating property, coffee, cars, cinemas, gyms, luxury resorts and two schools, although he stresses that investment in education is not about making money. Before starting work most days, he runs 20km in the Entoto Mountains and, after our interview, he plans to go running again. He’s a busy man with much on his mind – he talks of a possible future career in politics – but one thing takes precedence over all others: the London Olympics. Although he’ll be 39 years old next summer, and his injuries have taken their toll – he flirted with retirement after a disappointing 2010 New York marathon – he says he’s now fully fit and ready for the challenge.

Not one to rest, Gebrselassie has also accepted another, more paternal role, to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. He works with G4S 4teen as a mentor to 14 young sportspeople from around the world, all of whom share his dream of success in London. Despite the fact that only one of the hopefuls is a long-distance runner, he is using his experience to train everyone, from a sailor to a boxer. “Whatever the sport, there are three things you need to become a champion,” he tells me. “You need discipline, commitment and hard work.” He certainly knows a thing or two about hard work. As a child, he ran 10km a day to and from school; his distinctive running style resulting from carrying schoolbooks under his left arm.

This was in the Arsi Province in the centre of the country, an area many Ethiopian athletes now hail from. “If your neighbour becomes an Olympic champion, you think ‘why not me?’” he says. “Arsi is 3,000m above sea level, so when athletes come down to compete at lower altitude, they have a big advantage – more oxygen.” I look through his top-floor office window, towards his training circuit in the mountains that rise above Addis Ababa. To continue my long-distance running education, I need less oxygen and more hard work.

The following morning, I rise early for a trip out of the city. En route to the top, I stop at the Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto, the home of dozens of gold and silver medals (it’s customary for runners to donate their trophies to the church), before catching up with a group of long-distance pros sipping water at the midway point of a 25km run. They’re in no mood for interviews – their schedule is tight – but they don’t seem to mind an out-of-shape European with a notepad and camera running alongside them. Next to them rapidly becomes behind them, and after a kilometre or so I’ve lost touch. The roads are steep and the air is thin, and bearing in mind several of my opponents will be running in London next year, I don’t think I’ve performed too badly. I simply need weaker competition.

For the third morning in a row, I wake well before dawn and take a shared taxi to Meskel Square, where hundreds of children are wide awake and playing football before breakfast. Beside them is a vast, 300m-long amphitheatre with wide steps, which doubles as a running track for the city’s amateurs and the odd professional. If the locals are not good enough for a coaching session in the nearby national stadium, or on the foggy mountain roads, they come here to run with the people. Despite the rain, there are still 100 or so hardcore athletes in training.

As I climb to the top step, several runners approach me. Their stories are often similar. They used to be contenders but have suffered from illness, injuries or loss of form. One man, Taye Aduna, blames a leg injury for his lack of medals, but he’s still here every morning, working hard and hoping for a break. “Ethiopians love long-distance running,” he enthuses. “It is part of our culture and our identity.”

It’s impossible not to be inspired by their stories. I think of Haile Gebrselassie’s words and make a pledge to be disciplined and committed – at least for the next 45 minutes. I scrape the mud off my trainers and begin a light jog along the bottom step. I run out of Meskel Square, down Jomo Kenyatta Avenue and across the river. I run through muddy puddles and past the shoeshine boys perched opportunistically next to them; past the Bank of Abyssinia and its yawning security guards; past donkeys and phone salesmen, and street cleaners with straw hats; and past the booksellers with English-language books piled high on the pavement.

I run past taxis stuck in traffic, past the restaurant, past an orthodox church and the neighbouring mosque, and behind kids in Chelsea shirts giggling as they run past me. By the time I reach Kaldi’s coffee shop, I’m sweating and panting, but I’ve run the length of Haile Gebrselassie Street. The man himself would be proud – and finally, albeit wearily, so am I.
For more information on G4S4teen, please visit

Originally published in the August issue of Gulf Life magazine

Sunday, 5 June 2011

"The ice cream is just a cover"

Matt O’Connor was once labelled a political extremist. Now he makes a living selling ice cream. But after his headline-grabbing launch of Baby Gaga – an ice cream made from human breast milk – Matthew Lee wonders whether anything in O’Connor’s world has actually changed…


Westminster Council is digging up the road in front of The Icecreamists. It’s perfect ice cream weather, a beautiful spring day in Covent Garden, but the air out front is loaded with dust and the growl of drills. Matt O’Connor isn’t impressed. It’s bad for business and no one, he says, will inform him when the work will end. We retreat to the far corner of the shop – essentially Häagen-Dazs reimagined by Peter Stringfellow – and he recounts the events of a few weeks ago, his “storm in a D-cup”. Baby Gaga, the Icecreamists’ human breast milk ice cream, went on sale on 24th February, only to be confiscated by the local council five days later. After a week of tests the authorities declared it perfectly safe for human consumption.

Matt O’Connor and the authorities in Westminster have history. Before the dramatic seizing of Baby Gaga, this spiky-haired agitator was a constant thorn in the council’s side. As the founder and leader of Fathers 4 Justice, he saw members of his group throw condoms filled with purple flour at then-PM Tony Blair in the House of Commons and climb Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman and Robin, coming close to getting shot by police. The attention-grabbing stunts may have been more Jeremy Beadle than Jeremy Bentham, but they got him noticed. A man denied access to his sons was getting his powerful message – that family courts are biased against fathers – on to the front page of every newspaper in Britain.

He talks about the Baby Gaga saga with relish. This crusader may have long hung up his cape, but I find it hard to believe he didn’t expect a stranger’s mammary glands to land him in another spot of bother. If O’Connor was seeking publicity, he succeeded spectacularly. After the launch (“Sick shop sells breast milk ices”), the confiscation (“Ice cream causes hepatitis fears”) and the test results (“We boobed – council chiefs admit it’s safe”), there was a more worrying headline: “Lady Gaga puts the squeeze on breast milk ice cream”. The pop star is threatening to sue for alleged damage to her reputation.

The fun started, as all controversies do these days, on Mumsnet, with a post calling for donors. Initially, O’Connor used the milk of 15 mothers but now he’s overwhelmed by willing suppliers. “We could turn this place into a milking parlour,” he jokes, and as if to prove his point, an email pings into his inbox from a willing supplier. She’d like to earn some extra money, she writes. She’s just the latest in a long line of lactating ladies who are ready to join the catering industry. Victoria Hiley was at the front of the queue. The Leeds mother and “qualified breastfeeding helper” provided enough milk for the first 50 servings of “Baby Gaga” and wrote an eloquent opinion piece about it for The Guardian.

“The idea for breast milk ice cream isn’t that original,” admits O’Connor, showing me a letter he’s drafting in response to the pop star’s lawyers that references both the Oxford English Dictionary and the traditions of pastiche and mockery in British satire. “But the concept and mix of ideas is original. Look, Lady Gaga borrows from everywhere, and then she turns round and says she wants to own the utterances of our firstborn: ‘ga ga ga ga’.”

O’Connor doesn’t miss a trick. Lady Gaga’s team, he tells me, has described his ice cream as “nausea-inducing”. He points out that this comes from a woman who has appeared in public wearing cow’s flesh, and claims he’s ready for a fight. But surely, I suggest, he saw the lawyers coming? He doesn’t disagree. “If you put out the bait somebody will come along and take it.” O’Connor, quite clearly, is a man with a whole warehouse of bait. His Fathers 4 Justice stunts were often dismissed as irresponsible, careless and dangerous, but they succeeded in getting people talking about a possible maternal bias in the UK’s child custody laws. Back in the heady days of the mid-’90s, he was using his experience in marketing and his uncanny knack for creating controversy to fight for something worth risking everything for: his children. But surely this is different. Surely it’s just a publicity stunt?

“This is entirely political,” he replies. “The ice cream is just a cover. It’s to challenge how we view food. The food industry in this country is a disgrace. The supermarkets are a disgrace. They’re killing innovation. We need to get back to local farming and reduce travel costs. This is meant to make us think about where our food comes from.”

“I wasn’t going to do it,” he continues. “But then I read about Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] saying they’ve approved milk from cloned cows. I don’t want to be part of this experiment, this fucking around with things; it’s like with nuclear power, they said nothing could ever go wrong. People say breast milk’s designed for babies, but cows’ milk is designed for calves. We are force-fed a diet of indoctrination and stupidity.”

You can draw a straight line from Fathers 4 Justice to the Icecreamists. The message has changed but the methodology remains the same. The personal, the political and now the commercial are fused and frozen together, to be scooped up and served with half a snarl and half a smile. O’Connor clicks off his screensaver, a photo of his three beaming children, and opens the plans for his new shop on the edge of Covent Garden Market. He shows me illustrations of Adolf Hitler and Colonel Gaddafi eating ice cream. It’s called “The Dictators of Cool”. It’s about financial and nuclear meltdown, he says, and it’s partly inspired by the time as a child he dropped his ice cream on the promenade at Margate. He cried but his father laughed, and at that moment he realised ice cream – much like Batman and Robin risking their lives to tell the police and camera crews gathered below that they desperately, urgently wanted to be fathers to their children – could be both funny and sad at the same time. “It’s about shock and awe,” he says. “We want to start a debate, not a David Cameron-style big wank conversation.”

This is how he speaks – freewheeling and unfiltered, with swearwords and puns tumbling out with dizzying speed. You can see why he says he’s inspired by Spike Milligan and ‘Monty Python’. From the prime minister (“a wanker, a lying gobshite”) to the hypocrisy of the Catholic church to Mumsnet (“Guardianistas, up their own arses”), he’s never short of an opinion, a joke or a delightfully filthy turn of phrase. While he’s occasionally prone to laughable self-aggrandisement, telling somebody who suggested “Baby Gaga” was anti-feminist that “It’s the most pro-feminist thing of the past 30 years and it’s taken a man with meat and two veg to do it”, he’s persuasive and consistent. From his uninhibited speech, it’s clear he’s an impulsive decision-maker, not letting fear of prosecution get in the way of a spectacular stunt and another round of tabloid headlines.

“Risk assessment!” he laughs, when I ask a question about planning. “Fucking hell, mate. It’s instinctive assessment. We don’t speak to lawyers unless we really have to. I try to avoid them.” I suggest that some of his stunts came close to breaking the law and he gets a little prickly. “Seven jury trials out of seven we won,” he says, twice. “We were never convicted of anything and even if we were I wouldn’t give a flying fuck. I’ve refused to sign a census form. I don’t trust the government with my information. The government’s tried to finish me off a couple of times, directly or indirectly, and it doesn’t recognise me as a father. You know what? It doesn’t recognise me as a citizen. I don’t vote, I don’t have anything to do with the state. I won’t sign a census form: a “nonsense-sus form”, that’s what I call it. It’s fucking nonsense. I will not sign it. Over my dead body.”

It may come as a surprise that O’Connor was briefly a politician himself. In 2008 he stood as an English Democrat candidate in London’s mayoral elections. He withdrew from the race a week before polling. “I must have been at a vulnerable point in my life where my ego needed feeding,” he recalls. “It was an interesting exercise but I learned that British politics is as fucked at the bottom as it is at the top. And I’m not really cut out for politics.” But then he reveals he’s working on “the most serious thing I’ve done in my life”, something tied to Fathers 4 Justice, which is now managed by his wife. We can safely assume it’s not the Fathers 4 Justice stage musical, another work in progress.

In January 2006, O’Connor disbanded Fathers 4 Justice after press reports revealed that fringe elements of the group were planning to kidnap Tony Blair’s five-year-old son, Leo. He announced that extremists had infiltrated the group and that despite his best efforts to expel the hardliners he was unable to control them and no longer wanted to be associated with an organisation whose legitimacy and credibility had been undermined. A few months later, he announced a reformation with trademark O’Connor panache, invading the stage during the National Lottery show on live television. But he’s no longer at the forefront of the group’s activities. “I had to get out,” he says. “I was getting depressed. It was a labour of love and it cost me a fortune. I’ve worked in ice cream for over 20 years and needed to make some money. I need to keep my soul intact by keeping it edgy, but at the same time I hope it’s commercially successful without compromising my politics.”

Although he insists he’s dropped Spider-Man, Superman and Batman from his act, I wonder if that’s how O’Connor has always seen himself: a superhero. An ordinary bloke battling for justice against institutions that have too much power and are out of control. His critics may call him a rabble-rouser and an attention-seeking merchant of talk radio bluster, and they may question how much he’s actually changed child custody laws in this country. But there’s no questioning his passion and talent for ice cream.

We’ve barely discussed the stuff. We talk about whether breast milk ice cream appeals to people with very specific sexual fetishes (“I don’t know, I’m more an M&S than an S&M kind of guy”) and then he expresses his concern that the quality of his other ice creams will be overshadowed by the controversy.

He’s worked in marketing for ice cream brands over the past 20 years and it’s long been an obsession. He trained in Bologna and travelled around Italy comparing gelaterias. He launched the Icecreamists as a pop-up shop at Selfridges (that infamous hub of anti-establishment activity) and has been working over the years on hundreds of flavours. He’s promising something in the near future involving nudity, which has made his Covent Garden landlords nervous, as well as the most fattening ice cream ever made. “We’re full fat and getting fatter,” he explains. “We’re size maximalists, not size-zero.”

Disappointingly, they’re not serving “Baby Gaga” until new supplies of milk arrive, so I request a portion of the chilli, ginger and lemongrass flavour. It’s the perfect Icecreamists specimen, sweet and smooth until the generously-speckled chilli subjects to me an almighty kicking. I’m loving it, but as I walk out of the shop, a sudden gust of wind sprays dust from the roadworks towards my ice cream. I’m caught in the crossfire of a long-running battle. O’Connor walks me to the new branch, soon to be home to a cone-licking cartoon colonel from Tripoli. Hostilities are unlikely to end any time soon.