President Trump’s list of bad countries – Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya – bears an uncanny, and unfortunate, resemblance to my own list of favourite places. Except I was often lucky enough to be in some of those countries before the current round of foreign interference, globalisation, climate change, arms-dealing and war dragged them to ruin and misery. Looking back though, the signs of problems ahead were there, but I still believe that travel is a powerful ally in the war against ignorance and suspicion. Here are some of the people and places I encountered on my travels.


Zaghawa nomads in El Fasher in 1983

Zaghawa nomads enter El Fasher in Sudan’s Darfur province in 1983. The delicate balance between camel-herding nomads and farmers was about to come under pressure from drought, but the first tremor of unease was when, in September of that year, President Nimeiri introduced sharia law. In El Fasher the town’s beer-makers, all women, were publicly flogged. Next day they were back, selling beer to the same policemen who had whipped them, but the mood in Darfur had subtly altered. An austere and intolerant form of Islam had arrived.

Black and white image of a man from the Hawazma tribe, Sudan, 1983.

In those days I carried a photo darkroom with me and printed up pictures like this one (above) of a man from the Hawazma tribe, also in 1983. I had ridden by bike across part of Sudan’s Kordofan to stay with these friendly and hospitable people. Two years later they were being attacked by South Sudan secessionist rebels. Once the traditional spears were replaced with Kalashnikovs, the war would escalate until the country split in two.


Men at al-Tur market in north-west Yemen

Arriving in Yemen for the first time in 1986, I found the hospitality and friendliness of the people were equal to that of Sudan. I spent great days out in markets like this one (above) in an area on the Red Sea coast close to Saudi Arabia, a country that has been bombing Yemen.

Man sleeping next to a stack of landmines near Aden, Yemen, 1994.

A hardline form of communism was imposed on southern areas of Yemen in the 1960s and by the 1980s alienated young men were heading off to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. On their return they would form a hardcore of militant Islamic fighters. I remember one telling me off for wearing trousers – a sign of western decadence. Here a man sleeps near a stack of landmines near Aden after the 1994 Yemeni civil war.


Iraq. US sticker on burned out Iraqi tank

Inspired by those Yemeni mujahideen, Osama Bin Laden among them, the 9/11 attack was undoubtedly a turning point, a moment that Donald Trump can always return to in justifying his actions in banning travellers from certain countries. This is an Iraqi tank, hit by US shells, and then given a forthright sticker message. FDNY is the Fire Department of New York.

Old couple in Basra

The 2003 Iraq war was an egregious moment in the history of foreign meddling. In Basra I found a complex and diverse society bracing itself for the disaster they knew was coming. This old couple, baffled by all the violence, but determined to continue old traditions of hospitality, invited me into their house.

Basra kids with British soldier

The young lads, however, were more interested in the weaponry that surrounded them. Here a group play around with a British soldier and his SA80 rifle.

Iraq. Shatt al arab near Basra. Boys and Saddam Hussein’s damaged yacht al-Mansur

Others paddled out to Saddam Hussein’s yacht, al-Mansoor, which was about to sink in the centre of the Shatt al-Arab. I was one of the last people to stand on it because next day it sank.


Syria. Hama. Traditonal towels and robes at al-Madani workshop

Syria was next to reap the poisonous harvest of radicalism, violence and hatred. In 2009 things were still peaceful and this shopkeeper in Hama was more interested in discussing Shakespeare than politics.

Syrian shepherd boy at Mushabbak near Aleppo

Outside Aleppo at Mushabbak, a boy cradles his favourite goat kid in front of a ruined Byzantine church. Within a year war would break out and steadily engulf the whole country.


Iran. Girl at Persepolis, 2004.

In Iran in 2004. It’s hard to imagine more vibrant and intelligent young people than the ones I met then. Their country, however, was about to go into yet another period of tortuous relations with the west, a period that looks set to continue with Donald Trump. It is, however, currently the only country that is safe to visit from the seven on the travel ban list – a trip I strongly recommend.

Iran. Isfahan. Young man

Travel, I firmly believe, helps break down ignorance and suspicion. And that means freedom to move around, not just for a privileged minority.

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