Scott Bridges

Vanity Online Brand Facilitation Node

War, battle, soldiers and elements

On Monday, Mohanned and I were discussing the military operation in Mosul as he prepared to set me a homework task. Mohanned repeatedly referred to it as the Mosul al-harb (war) and I questioned whether there might be a better noun since we’d probably call it a battle in English. He said he’d think about it and then set me a homework task for Thursday: write a report in Arabic on the Mosul campaign.

I kept the report simple (in line with my meagre skills), outlining the various actors and the size of their forces, and chucking in a couple of points raised by Iraqi generals I’d seen in various English-language articles. When I sat down with Mohanned yesterday, we went through the report and he awarded me a solid distinction after only needing to correct about 20% of it.

One of the errors he fixed was my use of janood (soldiers) when referring to people fighting for Daesh (ISIS). Mohanned explained that a lot of people use aanaseer (elements) when speaking of those fighters, in part because the term is somewhat delegitimising. I was initially surprised by this choice of language — why can’t we just call them all soldiers? — until I very quickly realised that we make such distinctions in English all the time. I wonder if my reaction has something to so with language learners having a very limited vocabulary to work with, forcing us to artificially simplify the way we think about things so we can select appropriately from that short list of words we know. Or maybe we’re just so focused on getting the construction of language right that we lose focus on the content of the message.

Anyway, we then watched an Al Jazeera Arabic report on the Mosul campaign which referred to it as al-maarakah (battle) instead of war. Conundrum from Monday solved, and another simple but useful reminder that there is so much depth, texture and nuance in language beyond simply learning words and establishing one-to-one correspondence with their English equivalents.

Belco votes

Driving back home from my run early this morning I passed a lonely figure standing on the side of the road waving a huge yellow sign at essentially nobody. Were it not for the peculiarly Canberra tradition of planting a forest of campaign signage at the sides of roads I’m not sure the 2016 election would’ve been on my radar, but our sign-waving friend reminded me that it was ACT election day. So, after breakfast, I decided to enjoy the sunny spring morning and go for a stroll with my camera to take a highly unscientific reading of the buzz around the 100m exclusion perimeter of the central Belconnen polling booth. I started by heading back up to the guy with the yellow sign to say g’day.


Tom Chen is the campaign manager for Kim Huynh, an independent candidate better known to basically everyone in northern Canberra as “Kimbo” due to his unique and attention-grabbing Go Kimbo campaign. Tom was the only person I could see campaigning away from the Westfield side of the exclusion zone, and the only other corflute sign in sight was for another independent candidate. He said the Go Kimbo campaign decided that being visible was the most important thing and that the team believes voters don’t necessarily respond well to having volunteers rush them with fliers and how-to-votes. After a long day in the sun, the Go Kimbo crew will hit the Belconnen Tennis Club tonight for an election party.


Leaving Tom to untangle his balloons, I walked around to Margaret Timpson Park where anyone wishing to transit for the past couple of weeks has had to dodge dozens of corflutes and volunteers crowded around the edge of the park facing the shopping centre. I couldn’t not grab a photo of a corflute belonging to prominent Belconnon identity and now Labor candidate Tara Cheyne. Over the years, Tara has waged war on the scourge of abandoned shopping trolleys lining the streets of Belconnen and the shallows of Lake Ginninderra. I think she’d appreciate the #belcopride irony.

Tara trolley

I spoke to a couple of volunteers from major parties who were happy to chat but didn’t want their names and photos shared. One lady has been handing out HTVs throughout the pre-polling period and said that she felt it was a way of making her contribution to democracy and to advocate for what she believes best for Canberra. Most punters have been polite, she said, even those who disagree with her party’s positions.


At the corner of the park I ran into two Greens volunteers, Ebony Holland and Sam Hussey-Smith, who were enjoying the morning despite the noticeably slow pace of voters heading into the booth (perhaps due to the fact that over 80,000 Canberrans had pre-poll voted before election day — roughly one-third of enrolled voters).

Sam and Ebony

Asked about the general vibe of this election they said there is an undercurrent of antipathy, perhaps due to this poll’s proximity to the July federal election. However, both said they’d had some great conversations with voters about in-depth issues while handing out and door knocking.

It was time for lunch so I put away my camera, met up with my wife and daughter, and we all walked up to our favourite local pho restaurant. After a typically delicious meal, and as we were paying, I noticed a sign in the front window.

Kim pho

“Do you know him?” I asked the owner, pointing at the sign.

“Yes!” he beamed.

Meetings and conferences

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through the first unit of Media Arabic which deals with “meetings and conferences”. By concentrating on and drilling down into one theme of news reporting per unit, the textbook aims to introduce vocab and unpack writing styles related to the more common genres of reporting. The first ten pages have presented a series of progressively longer news stories which I’ve been translating with the aid of a table of key terms and then answering questions designed to elicit the key points.

The texts have been quite repetitive — Arab League leaders met and pledged democratic/social reforms, and progress on the issues of Palestine, Syria and Libya — but I guess this repetition serves the purpose of reinforcing my learning at that same time as being a realistic representation of those meetings and the reporting of them.

The other day, Mohanned set me a homework task: translate this real news article about the most recent Arab League meeting into English.

Arabic article

And sure enough, there is a beautiful predictability to the content and the vocab of the article which I’m surprised I’m surprised about given the similar paint-by-numbers nature of such reporting in English. The trickiest part is my ongoing battle with Arabic grammar and sentence structure, like being 15 or 20 words into a sentence and still waiting to encounter the subject, or the baffling lack of comma methodology and infuriating lack of full stops in some Arabic writing. But even so, it’s a really nice feeling finding myself having to flick over to Google Translate less and less, and being able to actually *read* Arabic ever so slightly less haltingly.

Agree to disagree

I recently asked Mohanned to refresh me on the cardinal numbers which I think I learned long, long ago but had since forgotten. This gave him a good excuse to launch a full-scale assault on the grammar of numbers which we’d been toying with here and there over the past few years. As a native English speaker, getting my head around gender has been one thing, but the rules of gender and other grammar when it comes to Arabic numbers is next level. One language website gives a handy overview of the rules:

The numbers 3–10 are nouns and diptote in declension (with the exception of 8). They take inverse agreement with the nouns they are counting. So, if you have a masculine object, you use the feminine form of the number, and viceversa. Yup, doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it works.

Ok, so far, a bit tricky, but manageable with a good bit of practice. Once you get past 10, though, you start having combinations of tens and ones. The numbers 11 and 12, using the single digits 1 and 2, have normal gender agreement, both with the ones and with the ten. The digits 1 and 2 are in their nominal forms.

The numbers 13 – 19 have normal agreement with the ten, but inverse agreement with the ones digits. These numbers (along with 11) also take the accusative case themselves — the tamyiiz accusative, or “accusative of specification.”

The tens (20, 30, 40, 50, etc.) are sound masculine plural in declension and don’t change. Complexity is over? Nope. If you have 31–39, you have to account for the agreement of the ones digits, and the rules of regular or inverse agreement.

The process continues into the thousands, with each new numeric level taking on a new set of rules. The word hundred is feminine, so to make 300, the “three” must be masculine in form to agree inversely with hundred, which is confusing, because you may have got used to basing the gender of ones digits on the counted noun, not another component of a compound number (here, the “three” is counting the noun “hundreds”).

On top of all this, you have to learn how the nouns themselves are actually paired with the numbers. One object is in the singular, two objects are in the dual, and three to ten objects are counted in the plural. Eleven or more objects actually take the singular of the noun being counted, and the noun is in the accusative case (again the tamyiiz accusative).

This covers the cardinals. Then you have the ordinals to worry about, as well as how numbers are used in dates, phone numbers, mathematical equations, measurements, designations of rulers, etc …


Another online Arabic learning site notes that “the grammar related to the numbers in Arabic is considered to be the most complicated thing about the language”.


I’ve been plugging away at work sheets trying to internalise the rules but I still feel like I’m drowning. There’s so much to think about that I end up freezing while working through the processes and whatever clarity might have been emerging just vanishes. It’s super frustrating and also a huge knock to my confidence.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been dipping in and out of The Arabic Language by Kees Versteegh which tracks the historic and linguistic development of the Arabic language. Rather serendipitously, I came across this line at the same time as I was grappling with the Arabic number grammar rules:

The morphology and syntax of Arabic numerals have baffled even the Arabic grammarians.

I found this strangely comforting — if even the experts are baffled, then I don’t feel quite so stupid for feeling the same.

While Mohanned and all the learning resources stress the importance of learning these grammar rules even though they are often ignored in colloquial spoken Arabic, I keep reminding myself that many native Arabic speakers don’t know these rules and I won’t be struck dead by a lightning bolt when I incorrectly pair a masculine number with a feminine noun while having a conversation on the street. So, me and the grammar of numbers will agree to disagree from time to time, and that’s okay.

The Arabic Diaries

After spending so long focused on proper grown-up writing that requires research, synthesis and endless drafts (i.e. a PhD thesis in the form of a book and a clutch of journal articles), I’ve decided to start this little project where I can punch out random, sometimes half-formed thoughts as they occur to me, just like during that golden era of the internet between LiveJournal and Twitter. So, welcome to 2007 and Welcome to My Blog. I’m going to publish these semi-regular Arabic Diaries to reflect in real time on something personal that is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life.

I’ve been learning Arabic on and off (mostly off) since 2009, although notes and links I can’t remember emailing to myself since 2007 suggest I was thinking about it for a while before that. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to learn Arabic. I do know that I’d always wanted to learn a second language because I was (and am) embarrassed that I speak only one, and I’d long been interested in the Arab world which at that time for me was an exotic abstraction. I guess that was enough.

I started as an absolute beginner in 2009 with two back-to-back short courses at the Centre For Adult Education in Melbourne, and by the end of that year I could read and write the Arabic script, and hold a basic conversation (greetings, food and drink, directions etc.). I spent much of 2010 travelling, including to Arabic-speaking countries like Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, although my language skills weren’t yet good enough to do much beyond deciphering signs. I then lived in Qatar for almost a year, although the ubiquity of English in that country combined with my work and social situation meant I wasn’t really immersed in Arabic at all.

After returning to Australia at the end of 2011 I knew I really should get learning again, especially because by then I’d lost essentially all of the vocab I’d learned in 2010. Eventually, in 2012, I did a short course at the ANU, and shortly afterwards I resolved that if I was ever going to make any real progress I needed to find a tutor and take regular classes. In mid-2013 I made contact with Mohanned Qassar, a local Canberra educator and businessman, and barring some breaks for travel, childbirth (my wife, not me) and the like, Mohanned and I have been meeting for 90-minute lessons in a quiet corner of a local community club every week since.

I’ve learned *a lot* in the three years since then, and it’s mostly down to Mohanned’s teaching because I’ve not exactly been a diligent student — it has been hard to find time for homework in between writing the PhD, teaching, working on AMEJE, and home duties. But that’s an excuse. Recently I realised that if I truly want to learn Arabic I need to get serious otherwise I’ll just spend the rest of my life treading water. So, about a month ago I started seeing Mohanned twice a week and (probably more importantly) trying really hard to do at least 30 minutes of Arabic study on most days. I also have ~~~plans~~~ … but more about that later.

Anyway, here is a picture of all the Arabic stuff I could find sitting around in my study.

Arabic books

A pair of articles

As part of my PhD research into Al Jazeera’s expansion I’ve written a couple of journal articles about the network’s presence in Australia. If you’re into that sort of thing …

‘Al Jazeera in Australia’:

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera has expanded at great pace since its inception in 1996, growing from a single Arabic-language news channel serving the Middle East, to a multilingual network of dozens of channels broadcasting around the globe. Al Jazeera’s growth in many parts of the world depended on securing satellite and cable/pay television carriage, but neither of those broadcast channels offered the network significant access to the Australian market. While Al Jazeera has for most of its time in Australia struggled to attract a large television audience, it has experienced success via partnerships with the Australian public broadcasters and through online engagement. Drawing on interviews with key managerial and editorial staff at Al Jazeera and the Australian public broadcasters, this article tracks Al Jazeera’s presence in the Australian media landscape from the network’s launch until the present day and analyses the network’s strategy with respect to Australian expansion.

Bridges, S. (2016). Al Jazeera in Australia. Communication Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/22041451.2016.1209273

‘Al Jazeera and the Australian Public Broadcasters’:

The Al Jazeera Media Network had a relatively low profile in the Australian media landscape until its English-language news channel signed reciprocal broadcast agreements with the two Australian public broadcasters in 2010 and 2011. As a result of those agreements, Al Jazeera English programs are now rebroadcast on the ABC and SBS’s terrestrial TV channels, and its content has become an important component of the public broadcasters’ in-house television and radio news bulletins. The agreements are mutually beneficial: through them Al Jazeera has achieved its greatest ever Australian broadcast reach, increased its brand awareness among Australians, and gained credibility through association with the respected ABC and SBS; while the public broadcasters have added breadth and depth to their international news at little-to-no cost in an age of shrinking news budgets. Drawing on content analysis and interviews with key managerial and editorial staff at the ABC and SBS, this article examines exactly what Al Jazeera English material the public broadcasters use, and how, finding that Al Jazeera offers the ABC and SBS’s viewers and listeners an additional perspective on news from around the globe. The article also summarises public and commentator reaction to Al Jazeera’s partnerships with the public broadcasters, demonstrating that the Qatari broadcaster does not face in Australia the kind of opposition it does in countries such as the USA.

Bridges, S. (2016). Al Jazeera and the Australian Public Broadcasters. Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, 9(1), 99-118.

Love it or leave

Last Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a long press conference on the broad themes of terror, policing and relations with Australia’s Muslim community. While Turnbull was carefully navigating through his vocabulary to avoid mouthing the slogans so beloved of Tony Abbott, he nonetheless chose to play the “love it or leave” card. Albeit a very Turnbull version of it:

“If you find Australian values unpalatable,” he said, “then there’s a big wide world out there and people have got freedom of movement.”

In re-wrapping the tired Southern Cross bumper sticker meme in his flowery waffle, Turnbull actually helped to highlight one of the core contradictions at the heart of the current political debate around citizenship in this country. Earlier on the same day, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton stood next to Major General Andrew Bottrell to deliver one of his regular briefings on Australia’s militarised ‘Stop The Boats’ program.

“The Prime Minister has made, and I have made [clear] on countless occasions,” said Dutton, warming to a now-familiar theme, “we are not going to allow people to turn up again unannounced on boats.”

The contrast between Turnbull and Dutton’s statements raises an obvious question: why does one group of people (asylum seekers) have extremely limited freedom of movement, and the other group (Australia haters) have an apparent surplus?

The idea that people can simply pick a country of residence, let alone citizenship, as if perusing a restaurant menu, is absurd. Freedom of movement is relative, and largely a privilege enjoyed only by the privileged. Do you have the money, networks, literacy and cultural capital to navigate complicated bureaucracy, along with the “right” passport? Congratulations. Do you have a criminal record or an empty bank account, or did you lose the lottery of birth and get stuck with a passport that has you automatically red-flagged by immigration departments? Bad luck. Even the very privileged likely have a very narrow range of options for residence and possible citizenship outside Australia, so it’s questionable if those being inviting to “leave” could even do so if they wanted. It’s unlikely this troubles Malcolm Turnbull, though.

The “love it or leave” rhetoric long employed by Proud Aussies, and more lately our political (and religious) leaders, is, if taken at face value, simplistic and dumb. What exactly does loving or hating Australia entail? What precisely are “Australian values”? Perhaps a better challenge to those who would channel their grievances through violence is: “hey, look, don’t, it’s against the law and there are consequences.” Citizenship as a legal concept requires adherence to the law, not the love and embrace of a concept as nebulous as “Australia”. But this is a pretty boring message which is difficult to succinctly express on an Aussie flag tank top.

As is pretty obvious, “love it or leave” is not a face value threat issued to Australians who allegedly do not love it. Rather, it’s a dog-whistle slogan targeted at Australians who say they do and are concerned about those who might not. It’s political messaging through and through, and rather than uniting, it further entrenches an “us and them” divide between citizens. But good on Turnbull for for not saying “Team Australia”, hey? What a guy.

Socotra: prologue

I woke quite early and well before my alarm, and lay in bed feeling a bit sad about leaving. I read my book for a little while and when Penina woke up we went for one last swim in the ocean. The water was luxuriously cool and we floated in the pure, blue water enjoying the view back inland. It was very difficult to get out.

Beach shelter


After packing our bags we enjoyed breakfast of eggs, cheese and tea, and Wasa arrived from town wearing a crisp, white shirt. “I have some good news,” he announced, smiling. It turned out that the police had offered to guarantee to Wasa’s tour company the money owed to us by Abdullah, meaning that we needed only to pay the difference. Wasa said that the local police chief wanted to meet us before flew out.

Faisal drove us through Hadibo to the police compound which was busy with people scuttling back and forth across the dusty courtyard. We waited a few minutes in the car before a battered police vehicle pulled into the compound and the chief got out. We followed him into the building, past several machine gun-toting officers, and into his office. Wasa, Penina and I sat around the edge of the room on chairs, with about ten random people standing and watching. The chief began speaking to us, pausing occasionally for Wasa to interpret. He expressed his regret on behalf of the Yemeni people and government that we had been victims of crime, and wanted us to know that the actions of Abdullah weren’t reflective of all Socotrans. He hoped that we’d enjoyed our stay on the island and that we would take good stories home for our family and friends. After the chief had finished, I replied — through Wasa — telling him that we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of Socotrans and the Yemeni authorities, and that we were in his debt.

As soon as I’d finished, everyone in the room nodded to each other and the chief came forward to shake our hands. The machine gunners stepped aside to let us out of the room and we walked back to the car. On the way, Wasa received a call from his friend at the airport who reported that our flight was running a couple of hours late.

Back in Hadibo we visited the sole bank to sort out payment for the tour and then dropped into a travel agent to kill some time before going to the airport. Since mains electricity was on, Penina and I were able to use the slow, slow internet to check our email for the first time in a week. Just down the road from the travel agent a large crowd was gathering outside a store and getting quite rowdy. Wasa said a mainland trader was widely assumed to be jacking up prices which was having a knock-on effect along the street, and the crowd of customers had had enough. The police soon got involved and slowly dispersed the crowd.

At the airport we were the last to check in for the flight and the airline staff jokingly told us that we were too late and would be kicked off the flight. While they processed our passports and tickets, we were informed that since our flight had been delayed by a couple of hours we were going to miss our connection in to Sharjah. Luckily, there would be another Sharjah flight later that night but we would have a ten hour stopover at the tiny Mukalla airport.

Penina and I said our goodbyes to Wasa and Faisal, thanking them for such an unforgettable week, and the airport’s smiling tourist policeman held out his phone to me so I could take yet another lovely phone call from his boss, Dr Az-zahri.

The officer at immigration (a desk at the entrance to the single gate lounge) was a bit thrown by our lack of the normal visa paraphernalia and one of the Felix staff had to explain to him our unusual situation. Inside the lounge we were approached by a pair of BBC Arabic journalists who had been visiting Socotra who asked us informally about our experience in Yemen. They seemed surprised that we were positive and enthusiastic about our time in the country, and full of nothing but praise for the people.

Eventually, our flight arrived and we walked out into the hot wind towards the plane.



At Mukalla airport we settled in for a long wait. After surrendering our passports to an official we chose one of the metal benches in the small area between check-in and the flight lounges.



A large pot of rice and fried fish was brought in for the 30 of us waiting, and served on plates to each individual group. It was simple but delicious, and Penina let me sit afterwards with rice in my beard for only ten minutes.


At dusk, we left the air conditioned terminal to sit outside in the fresh air for a while, even though it was very hot and uncomfortably humid. We bought a couple of bags of peanuts and some soft drinks from a little stall — the owner taking my wallet from me, extracting a US$1 note, and returning the wallet — and sat on the kerb listening to the call to prayer echo around the deserted forecourt.

A couple of young men joined us to practise their English. One of them was Socotran and had just started work at the airport as a trainee fireman. He spoke English with a distinct Aussie twang thanks to his Australian English teachers.

After prayers, an airline representative approached, apologised again for the delay, and told us that we could take a free meal at the small restaurant nearby. With the help of a friendly local to translate, we ordered a couple of plates of eggs and bread, and washed them down with tea.

Finally, at close to midnight, and close to falling asleep, we boarded our flight to Sharjah. As we walked past the cockpit door, out popped Captain Aiban from our very first day. He was so excited that we’d made it back to Socotra.


Socotra day seven: fishing in Yemen

We were awoken just before dawn by a sprinkle of light rain on our faces. The last thing I remember seeing before falling asleep was a big sky full of stars, so I was a bit shocked at the sight of low, dark clouds wrapped around mountain peaks. We considered moving into the car but instead wrapped ourselves in blankets and hoped the rain would pass. It did, and I woke up an hour or so later as the sun quickly warmed my little cocoon. A group of kids sitting around a nearby bush watched us fold our bedding and pack our bags. Faisal brought us hot tea, bread and cheese.

Wasa had last night promised a swimming hole nearby, so after breakfast he lead Penina and I about 20 minutes further up the canyon to a small pool of water. We startled a few goats who were drinking from the water hole and Wasa left us alone to swim.

We had a quick dip and sat on the rocks to dry ourselves and our clothes in the hot sun, and then walked back towards camp and found Wasa and Faisal in the village doing some washing of their own. The four of us piled into the 4WD and drove back down the canyon, wet clothes and towels flapping out of every window. Back near the airport we stopped at the qat market so Faisal could stock up for that afternoon.

Back in Hadibo we opted for an early lunch at one of the few restaurants in town. Mains electricity was still off so inside the gloomy Taj Socotra about a dozen men sat at dirty tables eating from large plates while a goat ate used tissues from the bin. Penina and I, perhaps subconsciously inspired by the non-human patron, ordered goat; Wasa and Faisal got chicken. Wasa ducked out and procured a couple of cold drinks from a store with a generator, and very quickly our meat arrived accompanied by piles of rice and bread. The food was great and a round of tea was the perfect finish.

Bellies full, we drove across town to Socotra’s “fancy” hotel to hire snorkels, goggles and flippers. Inside the foyer we were shocked by the icy blast of air conditioning in the lobby — I’d forgotten what it felt like! Equipment for our afternoon sorted, we headed on to the Deleisha campsite and were directed with smiles towards “our” hut. Being just after midday and stinking hot we settled in to relax for a few hours. A lovely, refreshing breeze flowed through the hut, and one of the staff brought us a pot of tea. I reclined on the floor mat, soaking in the view and reading, and Penina napped. It was just glorious.

A couple of hours later we changed into swimmers and met Wasa and a local fisherman down at the water’s edge. We climbed into the long, narrow wooden fishing boat with our snorkel gear and motored east, staying close to the coastline. It’s almost impossible to describe how perfect the clear, blue water looked, offset by the dramatic mountain range. We passed another enormous sand dune blown up against a cliffside.

Just before we got to Di Hamri (where we’d snorkelled a few days ago), the fisherman slowed his motor and told us, via Wasa, that there was a good crop of coral below us. Penina and I put on our gear and jumped out of the boat about 300m from shore, and for the next 90 minutes we swam around the area while the men moved between fishing spots within sight of us.

The view under the water was incredible: multi-coloured coral, all manner of animal life, and epically huge schools of fearless small- and medium-sized fish — one school of hundreds and hundreds of long silver fish completely surrounded us and swam so close they were nearly brushing our faces. Every now and again we’d stick our heads out of the water and enjoy the feeling of being totally alone (except for the boat just visible way over there) and surrounded by such natural beauty.

As the sun began to sink towards the western horizon, Penina and I signalled to the boat and the men came to collect us. We’d obviously interrupted a productive fishing session so we emphasised that we were more than happy to chill out in the boat and enjoy the spectator sport. The fisherman, however, decided to get us in on the action and he rigged up a pair of hand lines wrapped around an empty bottle and a piece of driftwood, showing us how to load our hooks from the pile of small baitfish.

For the next two hours the four of us sat there fishing as the sun set. It was, quite simply, magical. One of those travel experiences you couldn’t plan if you tried.

Penina obviously had a special touch and she managed to bring in three good-sized fish without any trouble. I was struggling and it took me ages to catch one, and then a larger second which made me feel a bit better. When the sun had completely disappeared over the horizon, the fisherman washed his hands and feet in the sea, moved to the front of the boat, and quietly prayed. After he came back and resumed his position next the outboard motor it was on — he and Wasa must’ve brought in over a dozen fish in the time it took to get completely dark. On our last throws of the line I got a massive nibble and lost the hook; Penina hooked something big and lost her grip on her line, but Wasa managed to catch it and help her to pull in a huge fourth fish.

The sky was by now a beautiful canopy of stars, so we weighed anchor and headed for home. I have no idea how the fisherman navigated in the darkness but he obviously knew what he was doing. We pulled into the Deleisha campsite beach and Wasa, Penina and I jumped out into the water. The fisherman reached into the boat’s water-filled storage compartment and pulled out half-a-dozen fish for us to keep, placing them in a plastic shopping bag. One of the fish managed to wriggle out of the bag, though, and swam away.

Wasa rushed off to the kitchen to see if we could get a few of the fish cooked up for dinner, and Penina and I went off to have a shower. When we got back to the main building we were ravenous but unfortunately the staff had already cooked up other fish for our meal. They were delicious even if they weren’t our own. We had a great chat with Wasa over dinner about our adventures so far and he outlined the plan for the next day. Our flight was scheduled for around 10am so we didn’t need to get moving too early.

Laying in bed after the generator had been turned off, listening to the ocean and reflecting on yet another special day, I was really quite sad to be leaving.

Socotra day six: the fountain of youth

The only problem with sleeping in our little cave was that the sun woke us as soon as it poked its head over the horizon. The morning got really hot, really quickly, and there was little shade to be had. We had a quick breakfast with sunnies on and packed the car.

It was a short 15 minute drive to the small village of Tarbak. We pulled off the road and Faisal honked the horn to get someone’s attention. After some negotiation, Wasa secured the services of a young man to guide us up the mountain and deep into Hoq Cave. We grabbed a water bottle each, shoved head torches into our pockets, waved goodbye to Faisal who was staying behind, and headed off.

It took about an hour to hike up the mountain and it was a punishing climb. I was a bit too preoccupied with the heat and the steep, rocky climb to fully appreciate the view behind me. We finally arrived at a vast opening in the side of the mountain and scrambled up a steep, narrow goat track to a flat and shady resting place. Guzzling water, we finally got a chance to take in the view, the whitecaps again signalling the strength of the wind.

Coast view

The entrance to the actual cave was about 50m further inside the hollow. Removing our sunnies and testing our torches, we plunged into the darkness. The little sunlight that penetrated the first 50m or so caused the stalactites and stalagmites closest to the entrance to shine green and orange.

Cave entrance

The clay floor was damp and slippery and the air became more humid and oppressive as we went on. The cavern was vast — our head torches struggled to find the edge and the ceiling. After a few minutes we stopped walking and turned out the torches to experience the darkness. It was completely silent except for intermittent water drips. Torches on and walking further inside, the scene around us was alien. Enormous coral-like structures reached out towards each other from roof and ground, shining moistly in greens and yellows and dull reds.

The walk into the cave took about 45 minutes, and the path continued to narrow until we were forced to follow a piece of string that had been installed to guide visitors. We arrived at what Wasa called the “fountain of youth”: a vast pool of water fed by an enormous stalactite plunging into the pool. The water, Wasa said, had taken many thousands of years to filter through the mountain and into the pool, and here it was laying completely still, undisturbed by wind or light. And with that, he dipped his empty bottle into the pool and drank deeply. The water tasted perfect, in that it tasted like nothing at all.

It was so humid by now that my glasses were fogging. After another lights-out experiment which was possibly the closest I’ve ever come to total sensory deprivation, we turned around for the walk back out. At the entrance, Wasa and the guide left Penina and I to spend some time soaking in the sights and we came across some scrawny looking cows who’d scrambled up to the cave for a drink of water. They didn’t take much notice of us as they exited.

Walking back down to the village was much more pleasant than the trip up due to the view, but the sun was really heating up now. I was drenched with sweat by the time we made it back to the car.

Walking down

Bottle tree

We found Faisal drinking tea in the courtyard of a family’s compound and the men invited us to sit with them. A glass of hot, sweet tea was delicious but it only made me sweat even more.

Back on the road, plans got discussed. We had only one night left so Wasa was keen to know what we wanted to do with the rest of our time. Penina and I said a swim in the ocean at Deleisha beach would be pretty much perfect right now. We arrived there just before lunch time and Penina and I changed clothes and jumped straight in the water. It was every bit as delightful as we remembered. Being the first day of the weekend in Socotra, the huts were full of families daytripping from Hadibo and other villages. Food was being delivered to the huts on large trays.

After lunch of rice and fish we drank tea and read our books through the hottest hours of the afternoon. Wasa and Faisal laid themselves out for naps. Late in the afternoon we drove into Hadibo hoping for ice but mains power had been out for most of the past few days due to the wind. We bought a few litres of petrol near the airport and turned off the main road, driving inland and up a narrow track beside a wadi. Halfway up we gave a lift to a man who was walking home from town with a cloth bag full of shopping.

Just as the sun was setting we arrived at a small village in Ayhaft canyon and set up camp near the small mosque. It was getting dark very quickly but it didn’t affect the beautiful scene around us: big sky, dramatic mountain peaks, and the sounds of kids playing off in the distance. Penina and I hung out the hand washing we’d done in Deleisha while Wasa and Faisal threw together some food.


After dinner I tried a few long exposure shots of the stars framed by the mountains, but the wind made it hard to keep the camera and tripod still.

Long-exposure sky

Wasa and Faisal set up their beds next to the car and lay quietly talking. Penina and I fell asleep next to a tree, staring up at the sky.

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