Monthly Archives: February 2017


Rory spoke at the Centre for Policy Studies tonight to launch The Marches. He spoke about the book, the experiences described within it, his interest in borders and the history of Cumbria. Watch it here:

Herald Article – Saturday 25th February 2017

Three years ago, I saw hundreds of Yezidi refugees from Northern Mosul, huddled in an abandoned building site in Northern Iraq and heard one family describe being forced to abandon a dying grandmother as they fled from ISIS; and how another had lost a baby. Again, last December, I met a man in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, whose sister had been killed by a landmine, and another who had lost his fourteen year-old son.

I am now the Minister with responsibility for humanitarian disasters (whether driven by floods or civil war), and for refugees outside the United Kingdom. I was reflecting on these conversations when I saw that Mr.Tidbury, who has just launched the Green Party in our area, has written a letter to the Herald questioning my stance on refugees.

A refugee, in my experience, faces a triple horror – at home, in flight, and at their destination. The individual may have been driven from their house by barrel bombs, experienced abuse at the hands of governments and traffickers, and will now be struggling to reconcile themselves to a foreign country – millions of them are marooned, often in a tent, or a shipping container for years with no home, or school, or apparent future.

I am proud that British people – through our Department for International Development – are the second largest contributors in the world to the cause of Syrian refugees. I am also an admirer of Lord Dubs – with whom I have discussed these issues – and supported his desire to bring children from France. But addressing the needs of every one of the five million refugees from the Syrian crisis, let alone those of refugees currently displaced by famine and state collapse in the Chad basin, in Somalia, in Yemen and in South Sudan is a vast and overwhelming task. (Since 2000 the world has faced one famine, this year we may face four). And although, I am lucky enough to have spent much of my life living in the countries from which many refugees come, know the cities from which many of them have come, and can in some cases speak their local languages, I don’t feel I have any easy answers.

Last year, for example, I visited empty buildings in the suburbs of Athens, which were filled with hundreds of makeshift shelters: acrylic blankets strung from the ceiling, and behind them families whose relatives I often knew, talking to me in Dari about their homes in Kabul, about hiding from the Iranian police, wading through marshes on the Turkish border, and finally clambering onto tiny boats in the Aegean.

But I don’t think I was well-placed to decide whether it would be better for Muhammed, a fifteen year-old, who was sent by his parents from Kabul, and whose uncle lives in Hamburg, to be moved alone to Britain, or to be reunited with his family. And I didn’t know what to say to a father who had bankrupted his family paying people smugglers, endured terrifyingly dangerous conditions with a baby in his arms, in the hope of a better economic life, and who now felt he had made a mistake and wanted to return to Pakistan.

I have no formula, which allows me to weigh our obligations towards young men in Calais, against those of Syrians in Turkey, or the needs of the ten million still trapped in Syria itself, who are exposed to unimagineably worse conditions than anyone outside – subject to barrel bombs striking their homes and hospitals, or the mass executions of militia.

There is no ‘right’ answer to any of these things. Instead, each of us has to struggle to determine where we feel our greatest obligations lie, and where we feel we can make the greatest difference – without ever allowing complexity to become an excuse for doing nothing – which is why I am proud to be responsible for a department, which supports millions of refugees worldwide with water and sanitation, food supplies, shelter, education, and counselling, often in very dangerous situations.

But my experience – working with DfiD staff on the ground, our international partners such as UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or Save the Children, and our local partners – suggests that the best way to do this, cannot be through competitive moral outrage, but must be through very practical programs, which can involve making the difficult choices to help a hundred people in one country, rather than two people in another.

Very few of these ‘crises’ are short-term. Many of the refugees will be trapped in these conditions for more than a decade. Ninety per cent of refuges live not in the West but in neighbouring poor countries, which struggle to look after their own populations. And in order to help we need strategies that support the long-term government and economy of countries like Jordan or Kenya.

And our prime focus must be on preventing these horrors happening in the first place. What more can we do to really understand the local politics, influence events before they get out of control, create the structures, which allow local societies to respond more effectively to disaster?

Mr. Tidbury asks what I feel personally. My answer is that I think of the mother I talked to on an earth floor in a camp in Jordan a few weeks’ ago. She had fled four hundred miles across the desert from Palmyra with her young children, leaving her sheep behind. And was now living locked behind a wire, her only possessions two blankets and a child’s teddy bear. Her home was a simple shelter, on a dirt lane, leading a hundred yards to a water-pump and two shared latrines. And she is one, not of a few thousand, but of seventy million refugees, who we are struggling to help, with the number growing every day.


How to Serve Coffee

Article first published in the London Review of Books on 16 February 2017.

Aleppo Observed: Ottoman Syria through the Eyes of Two Scottish Doctors, Alexander and Patrick Russell by Maurits H. van den Boogert
Arcadian Library, 254 pp, £120.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 958856 5

The fighting that began in Aleppo on 19 July 2012 lasted four years, five months and three days, killing more than thirty thousand people – almost three times the number killed in the siege of Sarajevo twenty years earlier. Most of the tens of thousands of buildings and apartments which were destroyed lay in the modern residential areas in the east of the city, but fighting in the winter of 2012-13 and a bomb in 2014 destroyed almost every shop in the historic souk, damaged the ancient citadel, eviscerated the city’s largest ‘khan’ or trading courtyard, blew up two medieval seminaries, and brought down the 11th-century minaret of the great mosque.

But the worst of the damage has been to the life of the city, and it is for this – the human dimension rather than the buildings – that Aleppo was chiefly famous. The old city, which achieved its current form by the mid-16th century, largely presents windowless walls to the street; and these are not, like the walls of Kabul, made of warm, sagging, straw-flecked mud: they are rigid blocks of grey-white stone. Foreigners have consistently perceived this aspect of the city as – in the words of the French gem-hunter Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1640 – ‘not very handsome’, or, in the words of Bartholomew Plaisted in 1752, ‘very disagreeable to Europeans’. In 1898, Baedeker simply told tourists that they ‘present an unpleasing exterior’. The ‘two Scottish doctors’, Alexander and Patrick Russell, explained in 1792 that it was particularly the height of the walls which made the streets appear so ‘gloomy’: ‘little better than alleys winding among the melancholy walls of nunneries’. The people of Aleppo, on the other hand, were consistently captivating; ‘the gentlest, the least kenniving, and the most accommodating in this vast Empire’, as a 17th-century French diplomat put it. And it is the people who form the heart of the Russell brothers’ account.

The city, which Alexander Russell first saw in 1740, was already well known in the West. It was two hundred years since a permanent Venetian consulate had been established there, and 150 since the third English consul, John Eldred (who sailed to Aleppo on the Tiger, like the man the witch in Macbeth plans to kill), observed that it had been described so often it was hardly worth saying anything more about it. For Ralph Fitch, in 1594, Aleppo must have seemed one of the least exotic places he had seen in journeys that had already taken him to Fallujah, Baghdad, Basra, Hormuz (where he was arrested as a spy), Goa (where he was imprisoned), Agra (where he met the Great Mogul), Allahabad, Varanasi, Bihar, Chittagong, Burma and Malacca. The rooms the Russells stayed in – under the soaring domes of the 16th-century Khan al-Jumruk, in the very centre of the souk – had housed John Verney’s cricket bats at the time of the English Civil War.

Alexander Russell had read many of these earlier accounts of the city – Ross Burns, in his excellent summary of Aleppo’s long history, counts 17 separate accounts produced in the late 17th century alone – and he didn’t think the previous descriptions were outdated; he uses the 1574 account of the German doctor Leonhard Rauwolff almost as though he were a contemporary (although he notes that there were fewer wooden locks than Rauwolff had seen in the gates). But he points out that most of his contemporaries and predecessors – like most expats today – could hardly be bothered to learn conversational Arabic, let alone read and write it, had ‘little or no social intercourse with the Turks’, and lived a secluded life within their warehouse offices, from which they ventured for prolonged and extravagant feasts and drinking bouts with fellow foreigners, interrupted by expeditions for sport and picnics in the surrounding countryside. Russell was resolved to attempt something new: a complete ‘natural history’ that would include

“a Description of the City and its Environs; of the Seasons, Agriculture, and Gardens … the Manners and Customs of the Mohammedans; of the interior of the Turkish Harem; and a Sketch of the Government of the City … an Account of the European Inhabitants; of the native Christians and Jews; and of the present State of Arab Literature in Syria … of indigenous Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Insects, and Plants; Meteorological Observations; with an Account of the Epidemical Diseases at Aleppo … [and] of the Plague”.

Alexander Russell remained in the city, recording such things, for 13 years, and then handed his medical practice and research over to his brother Patrick, who stayed a further 18 years. Alexander’s first edition of the Natural History of Aleppo was published after his return to London in 1756, and Patrick’s very different second edition almost forty years later, in 1794. Their combined work still represents the most comprehensive and compelling account of the city written in any foreign language (its only rival is Jean Sauvaget’s Alep, written in French in 1941).

Their intellectual ambition is overwhelming. Alexander apologises in the second chapter for the fact that ‘many [birds] must no doubt have escaped my notice,’ before listing 109 of them (107 of which were native to Aleppo) – each catalogued by its Latin Linnaean name and, in the case of the hunting falcons, their Arabic names. Maurits van den Boogert, the author of Aleppo Observed, establishes that Alexander Russell was the first European to record the existence of the little brown bittern, or sulwa (beautifully shown with its neck croquet-stick-straight), and the first to provide a scientific description of the little pintailed grouse. And although van den Boogert is more disparaging of the Russells’ ichthyology – ‘based almost exclusively on what they were served at the consular table, and possibly what they observed in the stalls of the fish market’ – he cannot fail to be impressed by their catalogue of more than seven hundred Syrian plants, two of which, a sage and a milk-vetch, are now named the Phlomis Russeliana and the Astragalus Russelii.

And so the book continues, examining agricultural techniques, providing a comprehensive description of Aleppan clothing, horse furniture and every step of the massage in the hamam (through to the rough sponge and the deliberate clicking of each finger at the finale), and laying the foundation for the Russells’ comprehensive census of plague deaths in the city, achieved by paying informers to record the exact number of Muslim, Christian and Jewish funerals (the population was then about 80 per cent Sunni Muslim, 15 per cent Christian and 5 per cent Jewish).

For a reader with less appetite for Enlightenment encyclopedias, the spice comes from the hundreds of meals the Russells ate in different Aleppan houses. These allowed them to develop a keen taste, not only for the 141 local recipes they transcribed (‘exclusive of Khushafs, creams and confections’), but also for Aleppan manners. And it is these years of feasting that give verisimilitude to their accounts of political business, childish practical jokes, and the exact sequence for serving guests (‘the first page, carrying a large silk, or embroidered napkin, advances on the Divan, drops down on his knees, and, resting on his hams, spreads the napkin over the stranger’s robe, so as to prevent its being accidentally soiled. A second, in the same attitude, presents the sweetmeat in a chrystal cup, together with a small spoon with which the guest helps himself’), or the gymnastic contortions required for the proper serving of coffee (‘he does not kneel, but stooping gently forward, first lowering, then quickly advancing the hand, delivers the cup … The moment the coffee is finished … [he] is ready to receive the empty cup, which he catches as it were between both hands, the left palm turned up’).

They formed close friendships with a succession of Ottoman governors and senior officials – preferring the ‘somewhat prolix’ monologues of these magnificent figures, who had risen from comparatively humble backgrounds, and fought in the most far-flung corners of the empire, to the literary quotations of the mullahs. Their relationships with politicians allowed them to observe how consistently the removal of a grand vizier led to reckless outbursts of court gossip and speculation, which reverted to bland circumspection as soon as the new vizier was in place. But their closest friend was a cleric who was also a judge and the head of the local family of the prophet, with whom they collected medieval Arabic documents.

They analyse the blend of prejudice and toleration in the Ottoman attitude to the Jewish population, and disagree with the suggestion that Christians are suffering under the Ottoman yoke (‘they often complain of being the partial objects of petty tyranny, when in reality the Turks of similar rank are equal sufferers’). They chide the English merchants for their long dinner parties and their lack of interest in local culture, and they mock the Christian missionaries (‘the conversion of the Turks and Jews being an enterprise too seriously hazardous to be ever attempted, the pious labours of the missionaries are confined solely to the Christian natives’).

They are scathing about the limitations of Aleppan doctors, who ignored 17th century discoveries about the circulation of the blood, relied almost exclusively on early medieval textbooks, stuck rotting sheeps’ tails to people’s heads, flung impressive-sounding names around, and invented ‘new bones unknown in the European skeleton’. But they also observe that the refusal of Arab doctors to follow modern Western medical science probably ‘saved them the fruitless labour of wading through the ingenious and exploded theories’ fashionable in Europe (including, although they don’t concede it, the bleeding and blistering that the Russells inflicted on their own patients).

This wonderful book – which was courteously reviewed by Dr Johnson, and on their return to London enabled both brothers to join the Royal Society and advise the Privy Council – was almost entirely forgotten by 1800. Nineteenth and 20th-century readers, who continued to read the description of the Ottoman Empire by the Russells’ contemporary Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and later accounts by Sir Richard Burton or Gertrude Bell, ignored the Russells. A new imperial readership expected ‘serious’ writers like Burckhardt (who was sent to Aleppo in 1809 to study how to disguise himself as a Muslim) to provide a detailed account of political rivalries (Burckhardt’s magisterial account of the monthly tussles between the janissaries and the descendants of the prophet is unreadable). Or, at the very least, to focus, like Cardinal Newman’s brother who was studying Arabic in Aleppo in 1831, on the contrast between Christianity and Islam. Ethnographic detail was increasingly fed to a popular audience only as the background to an adventure story in which a narrator like Sir Alexander Burnes, or later Sir Richard Burton, gained their knowledge of Central Asia or Arabia by travelling in disguise and evading murderous emirs and roadside bandits with the nerves of a soldier and the cunning of an intelligence officer.

Meanwhile, less learned and less official travel writers began to describe the culture of Aleppo with the self-regarding swagger of a militia officer stationed in an English provincial town. In 1816, James Silk Buckingham (a future MP) devotes the first few thousand words of his account to the complaint that he has not been treated as a gentleman by the English consul. In 1850, another naval tourist and future MP jokes about being ‘unable to procure lodgings in the convent’, comments cheerfully on the looks and dress of the local women, and disparagingly on the shabbiness of a local garden, which he has hired for a drinking party. Extracts from all these accounts are printed by Philip Mansel in his stylish and affectionate history of Aleppo alongside those of later Victorian visitors, who are focused on an eternal round of consular picnics and drinking parties, punctuated by sardonic observations on the ersatz taste and slovenliness of Ottoman officials. (Gertrude Bell makes an exception for her friend the pasha, married to ‘a pleasant little lady from Brixton’.)

But the Russells, living in an earlier age when the communities of Asia were not primarily regarded as potential imperial subjects or Christian converts, wrote little about politics or Islam. They acquired their knowledge not in disguise but through long medical practice. And nothing in their account allowed the reader to revel in European vigour, courage and panache, or sneer at Ottoman decadence. (‘I wish,’ Alexander Russell remarks, ‘I could say that those who profess Christianity were better than their neighbours.’) And their knowledge built on 31 years of experience undermined all the claims to insight made by latecomers who had acquired it at a brisk cavalry gallop – or indeed by a visiting war reporter or an official locked, for a short tour, in a heavily secured international compound.

Even their visits to the harems fail to match the predictable fantasies of the European reader. Their access was unique – only made possible because they were doctors, and trusted long-term residents – but they don’t draw attention to this. Instead, they insist on the limits of their knowledge before describing each stage of a typical visit, beginning with their entry behind the slave – ‘Dirb, Dirb, al Hakeem Gia-y. Way! Way! the doctor is coming’ – and their first sight of their veiled patient, proferring her ‘naked wrist … for examination’. Having briskly rejected the wrist (the Russells were convinced that the pulse was a useless and ‘vulgar’ means of diagnosis), they proceed to question the patient on her case-history, and, if necessary, examine her:

“She then describes her complaints and, if it be necessary to look at the tongue, the veil is for that purpose removed, while the assistants keep the rest of the face, and especially the crown of the head, carefully covered. The women do not hesitate to expose the neck, the bosom, or the stomach, when the case requires those parts to be inspected, but never without extreme reluctance consent to uncover the head”.

Finally they describe their exit – continually interrupted by other members of the harem shouting medical questions from behind curtains, or by servants asking for prescriptions at the door, and then infuriating the chaperone by refusing to clear out of the way. Throughout this comedy there is no hint of anything out of order in their repeated access to other men’s naked wives. Contrast the impudent tone of Lieutenant Vernon, who visited ten years after the Russells left:

“My respected relation the Consul had amply participated of the sweets of Aleppo; and after some visits to Aleppo, from his consulship at Tripoly, became celebrated for his gallantry; for the Turks once on hearing of his arrival, exclaimed, Voilà! encore Monsieur V.: il a baisé une moitié de notres femmes; et il a retourné pour baiser l’autre. So much for harems!”

By the time van den Boogert and Janet Starkey, who produced a monograph on The Natural History of Aleppo in 2013, began to rediscover the brothers, they had been out of print since 1794, the only surviving portrait of Alexander had been lost, and all Patrick’s papers destroyed. So van den Boogert and Starkey did not only need to analyse mid-18th-century botany, ornithology, epidemiology, ichthyology, Orientalism and medicine, and master the literature on Enlightenment scholarly societies, Scottish freemasonry, the politics of the Ottoman Empire, and the fortunes and governance structure of the Russells’ employer (the Levant Company); they also had to labour to re-establish the simplest facts, such as the name of Alexander’s wife.

Van den Boogert’s research has been revived in a beautiful and costly volume of the Arcadian Library. Aleppo Observed is more than a foot high, weighs more than a kilo, and the elegant font runs between margins three inches wide. It includes fine reproductions of the Russells’ handwritten letters, engravings of Dutch 17th-century travel books, 18th-century Danish maps of the citadel, Italian florilegiums, 19th-century watercolours of English authors ‘in Syrian costume’, and a splendid double-page illustration of an Aleppan eel. And, alongside Starkey’s work, it not only provides invaluable context, but provides a strong incentive to reread the original.

Despite all the careful scholarship, however, reading the Natural History of Alepporemains an overwhelming and disorienting experience. At the heart of the work lie the continual arguments between the Ottoman physicians and the Edinburgh doctors (the latter sometimes turbaned and sometimes in wigs), each circling back to Avicenna’s 12th-century Arabic translation of works by Galen, written when Syria and Britain were both part of the Roman Empire. And each encounter suggests another cultural paradox. Why, for example, when both Britain and Aleppo had been for four hundred years part of the same empire, sharing, at least among the elite, a single diet (including imported olive oil and fish paste in Carlisle) and identical courtyard buildings and bath-houses, had all those features been preserved in Aleppo, but abandoned in Britain?

The differences in culture were not simply a product of different climates. Wealthy Londoners could, like the Romans, have imported olive oil, just as they imported wine; and they could have constructed a good bath-house (after all, Russians and Scandinavians in much harsher climates enjoyed their own version of nudity and heat). But they didn’t. As the Russells note, the Ottomans could have eaten the abundantly available local beef, fish and game of Aleppo, but they didn’t. There was no geographical reason why tattooing was restricted to women among the Bedouin, and sailors among the English. The Ottomans, who were fastidious about their clothes from their three layers of furred gowns to their yellow leather boots, could have been as susceptible to fashion as the British. Instead their fashions changed so little that a bride’s trousseau could retain its value for forty years.

And why exactly did these two brothers devote so much affection and curiosity to such questions, when so many of their fellow expatriates couldn’t be bothered to learn a word of Arabic? And what – to emphasise an issue van den Boogert underplays – of their Scottishness? How did being born shortly after the Act of Union, living through the Jacobite rebellions and the extinction of Gaelic and Highland dress, shape their perspective on Ottoman statehood, the Arab nation, Islam, or traditional dress? Why would two such energetic Enlightenment scholars from Edinburgh University – who knew Adam Smith and William Robertson – choose on their return from the East to establish their intellectual life in London, rather than the Athens of the North? And why – when Dr Johnson’s contemporary portrait of Scotland is neurotic about the loss of authenticity and tradition – does their account of Aleppo seem so uninterested in historical change, or loss?


Rory Stewart MP on Friday met with Jacob Reid, Member of Youth Parliament (MYP) for Carlisle and Eden, to discuss the role of the Youth Parliament, the issues facing young people in Penrith and The Border, and to establish a strong working relationship together.

Jacob  – a 14-year-old pupil at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School – was elected as a MYP last May, triumphing in a closely fought seven-way election. The UK Youth Parliament consists of 364 MYPs all of whom are aged 11-18. It provides opportunities for young people to use their elected voice to bring about social change through meaningful representation and campaigning. Once elected, MYPs organise projects and events, run campaigns, and influence decision-makers on the issues that matter most to the UK Youth.

Rory was keen to meet with Jacob, and together they discussed a range of issues – from votes at sixteen, to Jacob’s priority as a MYP, which is tackling mental health. He allowed Jacob to shadow him at his Penrith “surgery” and has committed to meeting him regularly to keep him involved in parliamentary work.

Speaking about the meeting Rory Stewart said: “Jacob is an impressive young man, and has provided me with a fascinating insight into the work of the Youth Parliament, and I was keen to see how similar our roles were as elected politicians. The work of Jacob and his colleagues is invaluable to getting the views of young constituents heard and I look forward to working him over the coming year.”

Jacob Reid said: “Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting our MP for Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart, at one of his Constituency clinics. Being our first meeting, we discussed the UK Youth Parliament and its workings generally, as well as mechanics behind Make Your Mark; we also grilled each other over Votes at 16 – the UKYP’s National Campaign – and Stop Cuts Affecting the NHS, Eden Youth Parliament’s new campaign. Rory was engaged, interested, enthusiastic; and having arranged regular quarterly meetings here on in, I very much look forward to developing our seemingly promising working relationship in the future and being able to stand up for the wishes and views of young people in Eden.”



Rory Stewart MP attended the first anniversary of the Penrith-based Triple A Project (All About Autism) – a project which works towards eradicating the inequalities, challenges and difficulties faced by those living with autism who have become known to or involved with the criminal justice system, whether perpetrator, victim or witness.

The event was a celebration of the project’s highlights and it provided an opportunity to discuss the shared aspirations for the coming year. The project was established as a response of a perceived vulnerability with the autism community, whereby individuals are susceptible to becoming perpetrators of criminal behaviour as well as becoming victims through naivety, which is exacerbated by a lack of understanding and misinterpretation.

Triple A project was founded and is managed by Helen Storey, who has a long and successful track record of developing innovative projects, working in the community with offenders and ex-offenders. The project aims to bring about change for the autistic community by developing specialist projects, interventions and support individuals and to eradicate risk as much as possible for those affected.

The event was a well-attended celebration, with Rory being one of several speakers who praised the work of the project.

Whilst there, Rory was told about a unique research project by the University of Cumbria which will investigate the issues of autism and criminal justice. As part of the project the university will be working in partnership with Triple A Project. By working together, the two-year research initiative will seek to change clinical practice within Cumbria, receive national recognition via publication of any findings and lay foundations for more formalised means of support. The project uniquely combines the university’s academic and educational experience with Triple A Project’s knowledge and understanding of criminal justice, along with the issues and challenges for the autistic community.

Speaking about the event Rory Stewart said: “The event was a wonderful celebration of a very worthwhile cause. The Triple A Project highlights a neglected area of support and research into autism. I am particularly impressed with the selfless dedication of Helen Storey, without whom, this project would not have got off the ground. Because of her work, people with autism are less likely to get caught up in the Criminal Justice System, and I wish her, and all involved with Triple A Project continued success in the coming years.”