Global warming is a hot potato these days. In Europe just about the only thing all political parties agree on is that to help slow the effects of climate change carbon emissions from aviation must be reduced; a bevy of taxes are currently under review, essentially to make people think twice, or even 10 times, before forking out to board an airplane.
Although I have no wish to further pollute our planet, I have my doubts about imposing these punitive levies. Sea travel, except for the wealthy is a thing of the past; it is aviation that has opened up the world to most of us. Back in the 1920s-30s, Britain’s relationship with the Middle East was an uneasy one. British troops were stationed in various parts of the region: Transjordan, Iraq and Egypt. Dispatched to the latter as a soldier of the British Army was my Uncle Fred.
Born in 1890 in the industrial north of England and a cobbler by trade, Uncle Fred had no argument with the Arabs but, as Lord Tennyson said: “Ours is not to reason why, Ours but to do or die.”
When he finally reached Cairo after a sea voyage of several weeks Uncle Fred fell in love with the bustling exotic city so far removed from anything he had ever known; with an ancient culture that rose up from the plains of Giza to cast its mystique over every nook and cranny the glorious sunshine – so very different from industrial Lancashire – touched, and with the Egyptian people who he found to be friendly, good humoured and robust. They had no reason to look favourably on young English “tommy”, part of an occupying army but, according to Uncle Fred, the Egyptians treated him well.
His love affair with Egypt continued for the rest of his life although he never returned to Cairo or travelled overseas again after leaving the army. An avid reader he continued to consume, along with the works of Charles Dickens and other classics, books on ancient Egypt and its dynastic kings and queens. He would pass these stories on to me as I sat watching him repair the never ending pile of boots and shoes in his workshop at the bottom of the garden.
Sadly, Uncle Fred died when I was a student but his legacy lived on. As soon as I was earning my own money and able to buy a ticket, I travelled to Egypt where I too fell in love with the country and its people. I took my daughter to Luxor when she was just five years old and watched as she listened spellbound to our guide speak about Horus, Osiris, Amun and Ra, captivated as I had been by stories of legend and lore.
Since then I have been fortunate to travel to various parts of the world, both for work and as a tourist, and believe the countries I have seen and the people I met there have enriched my life immeasurably.
Having watched vibrant, dynamic 21st century glass and concrete cities emerge from sleepy dusty streets in the Gulf States, it makes me want to shout about the miracles of economic development that have been achieved in the region. Visits to Albania and China during the 1980s persuaded me to take a cautious view of communism, whereas trips to Hong Kong and New York forced me to confront the dangers of rampant capitalism.
It is because I have seen and talked to Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla that I call for a peace settlement with the Israelis that includes “the right of return”, and because I have walked the streets of Bethlehem and Jerusalem that I demand the demolition of the obscenity known as the apartheid Wall.
Books, films and lectures can be wonderful educators but I believe there is no substitute for interaction between people at a personal level. And for that reason, much as I fear for the future of our planet, I oppose these crippling taxes on air travel and implore exhaustive searches for alternatives.
It was not Uncle Fred’s decision to travel to Egypt, but observing and absorbing another culture, even for just a few months, changed the way he looked at life and, in turn, created and nurtured my own early fascination with Arabic culture. I can only hope the opportunities for my children and grandchildren will be no less in this global age.