TWO fascinating pieces about the Middle East this week,
illustrating two entirely different modes of journalism.
Anthony Lloyd of The Times, in a dispatch filed before
he and his photographer were kidnapped and shot by their fixer in
northern Syria (they escaped), produced a startling vignette of
life in the Syrian war. He found the last seven Christians in the
rebel-held quarter of Aleppo. Five are pensioners in a hostel for
poor Catholics: the oldest is a woman, aged 97 and blind, and most
of the rest are in their late eighties.
These five are looked after by the other two: a sprightly
59-year-old and his wife. When the war began, there were 12
pensioners. Three were taken away by their relatives; four have
since died of old age. The remainder live on the charity of their
Muslim neighbours in a building without water or electricity, 200
metres from the front line. Conditions are now so dangerous that
the last resident to die is buried in the hostel's courtyard,
because it was impossible to get his body to church.
"I want to stay here until God finishes my life," said Maggie
Anstas, 85. "I have no relatives since my husband died and I came
to live here 20 years ago. Where else would I go? This is my home."
This story, in which the violence is off stage, carries more of the
pathos of the Syrian war than almost anything else I have
PAUL VALLELY, in The Guardian, was at the opposite
place of good journalism with an analysis piece showing what to
watch when the Pope visited Israel. "Francis, a man known for the
potency of his symbolism and gestures, is making a point.
"You see that point more clearly if you look at the official
itinerary issued by the Vatican. The first thing the Pope will do
when he enters the Israeli-occupied West Bank is to call on 'the
president of the state of Palestine'. The wording is significant:
Francis is announcing that he is visiting an entity that Israel,
like the United States, insists does not exist."
This was followed by a lovely piece of prophecy: "The nearest
Pope Benedict got to politics on his trip in 2009 was to describe
the 26ft-high Israeli security wall, which cuts through the West
Bank like a concrete scar, as one of the 'saddest sights' of his
visit. But Francis, known for his off-the-cuff remarks and vivid
turns of phrase, could well say something explosive when, after
saying mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he has
lunch with Palestinian children from the Aida and Dheisheh refugee
In the end, of course, he did something much more eloquent: by
praying at the separation wall, beside or beneath anti-Israeli
grafitti, he added an unforgettable image to the memories of the
trip. Prayer is only sometimes effective as theatre, but this was
almost up to the standard of John Paul II's dropping to his knees
to kiss the Polish tarmac when he returned to his homeland as
Of course he said - and meant - all the right things about
Jewish suffering when he was in Israel. He was a Jesuit, after all.
But they will be forgotten, because everybody says them.
ON THE other side of the world, The New York Times had
an entertaining pop at Cardinal Dolan of New York: "Cardinal
Timothy M. Dolan lives in a 19th-century Madison Avenue mansion
that connects to St Patrick's Cathedral. A cook and two
housekeepers serve him and three other priests. A driver chauffeurs
him around, though in a Chrysler minivan.
"It is a comfortable, if not necessarily extravagant, lifestyle,
one in keeping with that of past archbishops of New York. But in
the age of Pope Francis, who has captured the world's imagination
by rejecting many luxurious trappings of the papacy, is the
cardinal's lifestyle humble enough?"
MEANWHILE, a piece ran in the Guardian comment section
condemning the hypocrisy of the British press in its treatment of
the Duchess of Cambridge's bottom, which had been bared by a rude
republican gust ofwind on her visit to Australia. The German
tabloid Bild Zeitung published the resulting photograph,
together with shots of two other celebrity bottoms.
Perhaps a royalist should have been outraged by the fact that a
future Queen of England is thought to have a bottom less noteworthy
than an American reality-television star; but I was amused by the
high-minded device of writing about otherpeople's hypocrisy in
writing about the royal bottom.
So, naturally, I must draw attention to the hypocrisy on display
in writing about the hypocrisy with which we treat the royal
bottom. If anyone writes to the editor on the salacious sanctimony
of this very paragraph, the universe might just explode.