Two different edits on a story which really seems to have touched and resonated with people across the world. The Yemen cyclists story shows that people who read newspapers aren’t just interested in bleeding, misery and suffering. They are interested in colour, life and stories that they can relate to. The response i’ve had from the Yemen cyclists story has been immense and i’ll continue to follow Yusuf, Tariq, Coach al-Riashi in the future.
This is the first two pages of my feature on Yemen’s cyclists as featured in Esquire ME’s February 2013 edition. This feature took a long time to get finished, but i’m pleased with the results.
They also decided to publish a horrible picture of me on the inset page, with a little bit or a rant I had about Lance Armstrong; I like a little rant, its good for the soul.
As the sun rises over the mountains shadowing the ancient tower houses of Old Sana’a, seven men dressed in Lycra meet for early morning tea. They are accompanied by seven bicycles, which are carefully lined up on the pavement outside the cafe.
The riders prepare themselves for the day with mango juice and plates of fasolia beans, Yemen’s national breakfast staple. It’s a spectacle which most of the other customers are finally getting used to, albeit slowly, although one which still attracts abuse from passers-by. “The way you dress is Haram!” chides a passing motorcyclist, as the riders make the final checks and repairs to their loved, but tired steeds. The comment is ignored as inner tubes are patched for the umpteenth time and rusting chains are lubricated.
Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation members train three mornings a week and preparations usually begin this way. Their bikes would long since have been consigned to the scrap heap by even the most amateur of teams across most of the world. The oldest is over twenty years old and the newest a little over three.
Yet against a backdrop of crumbling colonial bungalows, peeling plaster and red postboxes I don’t even need to volunteer the question. This is the crowded “crator” district; the downtown area built in the bowl of an extinct volcano which once served as the very heart of the crown of the British empire in Arabia; the port of Aden.
“You are a Britisher!” exclaims one of the chewers, stood to attention in near word perfect English “Welcome back to your country, you will find the place in a slightly worst condition than you left.”
The group’s slightly eccentric leader Dr Farook Hamza greets me with a letter addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, which he reads to me several times upon my reception.
“We are calling on the British army to rush. That is rush in to Aden to help us rid ourselves of the filth and Bedouin rubbish who call ourselves our leaders” Hamza adds with his finger jutted in the air, referring to the country’s politicians many of whom come from tribes and lack formal education.
The members seated attentively in front of me range in age from 27 to 67, and include former revolutionary fighters from the FLOSY, one of the Arab nationalist guerilla groups who eventually persuaded the Macmillan government with their grenades and bombs that the sun had finally set on Britain “ruling the waves”.
This week thousands of Yemenis in the former crown colony of Aden are celebrating, (or perhaps for some that should be only commemorating) the final departure of British troops on the 30th of November 1967 from their foothold in South Yemen.
It’s a poignant anniversary as Yemen is currently struggling its way through a difficult power transition after its Arab spring revolution. Faced with an ongoing insurgency in the country’s North, continued Al Qeada militancy in the East and a struggle for independence in the South, including Aden city, by the so called Hirak movement, the “National Dialogue” is already testing the patience of representatives of the UN who are overseeing it.
Brokered by the Gulf States in light of the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dialogue which is already stumbling over the so-called “Southern Issue” is important not only to Yemen, but to the whole region and world.
Britain’s own reason for getting involved in the hot, sweaty and rocky colony of Aden port in the first place should be a reminder of what’s at stake if Yemen’s rival factions descend, once again into war. The British had seized Aden in 1839 because it was a nest of pirates threatening maritime trade with Bombay. They stationed a few soldiers there to prevent any recurrence of the threat. A totally unappealing piece of real estate, it had no intrinsic value.
Today the Bab el-Mandab and Gulf of Aden remain some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world linking the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal remains.
So while the views of the “Aden Born Community” may seem unrealistic and even amusing they remain in some way very important.
As I’m leaving the meeting the youngest member of the group, 27 year old Osama Abdul Jeba takes me to one side.
“We need the British to drive out the current system…of course we are not simply asking for our colonial masters”
Yemenis neither trust nor believe in the ability of their leaders, and without this trust the country’s power transition and the National Dialogue will fail. A failed Yemen, means a failed Arabia… so possibly, just possibly for the sake of what remains of the city which was the jewel of Arabia, Mr. Cameron should take notice.
Challenges for Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation include steeps hills, a lack of money – and angry locals trying to kill them
Originally published in the Guardian on Monday 31st October 2012.
The cyclists have been pedalling through the dusty outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, for just 30 seconds when the first rock comes hurtling at their wheels.
None of the seven riders of Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation so much as flinch, as the perpetrator, a local shopkeeper, identifies himself. He shouts and waves an arm. “You gays! Cover up!”
Dressed in an eclectic assortment of sun-faded Lycra cycling attire, and riding an archaic selection of bikes in varying state of repair, the group keeps silent, and together, as they keep on pedalling.
Yemen must be one of the few countries in the world where a group of young men, on their morning ride can, and regularly does, attract such anger and ignorance from passersby. Their crime? Wearing shorts and tight jerseys.
As the riders approached the first steep climb, their coach, Saleh al-Riashi, emerges from the sunroof of an accompanying vehicle. He makes this trip three times a week, every week, with near-religious devotion, barking commands out of the car’s roof, much like the director of a pro-team on the grand tour.
It is inaccurate to describe the team as the national cycling team of Yemen, simply because they have lacked the resources to travel anywhere as a team since 2006.
Riashi is the only member of the current team to have competed abroad. He says that when they arrived in Egypt in 2006 to compete in the Arab Club Championships, his Yemeni team were almost laughed off the starting line.
“Our bikes were probably 20 years old, and our clothes worn … but we soon showed we are serious racers … we finished sixth out of 13 teams and received an apology,” he says.
Riashi, who competed in the 2008 Tour of Sharjah, is now preparing his team for the next challenge, this year’s Arab Club Championships, despite some key shortcomings. “We are probably $2,000-$3,000 dollars short of money to even get our riders to the start line, beyond the problems with our equipment.”
Money, though, is probably the least of the team’s worries ahead of the event, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates next month. Leading up the first climb is Yusuf al-Bandani, a skinny grimpeur (climber) who dances on the pedals of his steel bike like a champion from the late 1980s.
The mountains surrounding Sana’a are almost Pyrenean in feel and as Bandani climbs by the bleached, jagged rocks, he could almost be on the famous Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France. The air is suitably thin, and as he makes the summit of the climb he is already more than 500 metres higher than that French summit.
It is the scars on the young man’s arm that serve as a poignant reminder that he is actually training in Yemen’s highlands. “We had been preparing for ourselves for a regional competition, near Lahj, when an SUV started driving erratically near us.”
Lahj is not somewhere many cycls find themselves. It is the location of al-Anad airbase, which is home to a contingent of US troops and also a hotbed of insurgent activity. It is firmly in the middle of Yemen’s wild tribal hinterland.
“We were riding along, when suddenly we were swept off our bikes by a man in a Toyota Landcruiser. Four of our riders were wiped out. We all needed stitches and one rider needed surgery on his arm,” Bandani says with a matter-of-fact air and a shrug of his shoulders, as if being attacked and nearly killed for riding a bicycle is a normal daily occurrence. “It’s just simple ignorance.”
Sitting down for a post-training tea, Riashi is keen to explain his motivation for cycling, and his determination for Yemen to compete again, at least regionally. It takes him back to the country’s civil war in 1994: “In Yemen, every small kid has a bike and loves riding. I had to stay inside during the war, and came across the Tour de France on French satellite television. I was hooked on racing bikes from them on.
“Most families in Yemen watch the Tour de France on TV and it’s extremely popular. My hero is Mark.”
The British sprinter Mark Cavendish is fast becoming a global cycling celebrity and superstar. “No,” says Riashi, using his hands to mime a bald head. “Not Mark Cavendish.”
The group, sensing confusion, jump up in unison and begin to emulate the late Marco Pantani, climbing vigorously on sets of imaginary drop handlebars with his trademark shaved head.
How a diminutive Italian grimpeur, famous for his tenacity in the mountains, became the inspiration for a squad of Yemeni cyclists is still slightly unclear. But if Riashi and his team want to make it to race in the UAE next month, they’ll need all the Pantani attacking spirit they can muster.
The dull hum of the diesel generators has become like an old friend too many of Sana’s residents in the past year, easing them to sleep or keeping them company during the day.
Since last year’s revolution, the capital’s power supply has at the best of times been unpredictable, and at worst non-existent. Many of the city’s residents receive four or less hours of power a day.
The cause of the frequent outages is fiercely debated on street corners across Sana’a. The Electricity Minister Saleh Sumaia has directly accused deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh of using his militias to target the country’s power lines Yemen.
While the former president’s role in the frequent power outages remains unclear, the systematic sabotage of the main Marib-Sanaa power line has caused an estimated $13 million in power lines repair since the beginning of 2012 and caused further damage to the capital’s already stricken economy.
In the south of the country the frequent power outages are having more serious consequences. The lack of power for mosquito fighting fans and air conditioning units has caused a surge in Dengue fever, leaving hundreds in a critical condition. In Hodeida the Public Health Office has said that 10 people from different districts in the governorate have died of the disease.
Back in the highlands, Sanaani’s have tried to continue life as normally as possible, running their businesses by gas lanterns and illuminating their wedding parties with flares and fireworks. Even the metal workers of the old city’s souqs continue to work away in the pitch black of their cavernous workshops and I saw an opportunity to show a little bit of the humanity which oozes out of every corner of the city at night.
Why the mk3 might prove to be the invaluable stealth companion to an intrepid cameraman and why it trumps the mk2…
It’s been an exciting couple of weeks. After a few days exfoliating my lungs with tear gas, I got to spend a night being entertained by Bahrain’s cops, offered a chance to practise my Arabic flirting skills with a pretty police lady and was then offered a complimentary one-way ticket back to the UK (but surprisingly not business class). Sometimes life doesn’t get much better; except I had been shooting all week with a new camera as part of a Channel 4 news crew in Bahrain, which always makes me giddy.
I don’t normally write about gear online and so I’m sorry if I bore anyone; there are enough people online who seem to have enough spare time to analyse, study, argue and critique every aspect of the way every camera behaves in the dark, light, wet, dry and then spend more time insulting each other about their findings.
The problem with many of the excellent web forums, blogs and scientists who offer camera eulogy on the web is that they often don’t offer a particularly real life perspective on the gear they review and often modify. The result of their collective work and cunning is often stunning, but for a news cameraman, using hacked software, homemade cables and relying on little Chinese adaptors throws up a whole host of problems, which would result in you getting a P45 in the post.
Shooting on DSLR cameras on a news job already throws up enough workflow headaches, without having to spend any more time worrying about the reliability of a home soldered cable for your audio or a piece of tofu which you’ve been advised makes an excellent microphone. News equipment has to be quick, simple and most importantly offer reliable results, especially when operating under difficult and sometimes stressful circumstances like the ones we were working under in Bahrain.
Our team arrived in Bahrain on tourist visas in order to cover the protests around the Grand Prix after Channel 4’s previous attempts at obtaining journo visas had fallen flat and so the decision was made for me to shoot DSLR in order to remain discreet.
In addition to the camera, I arrived in Bahrain with a skeleton kit including a zoom recording device, a fast 50mm lens, my 24-105mm standard zoom, a Zacuto Z-Finder, a couple of ND filters, a MKE400 microphone and a gorilla pod to offer me some support and act as a guerrilla shoulder mount. I really felt this was the minimum I needed to do the job well, but even looking at this meagre collection before leaving for Bahrain I felt that it was starting to look like a professional set up.
Before Bahrain I had written off the 5Dmk3 as an unnecessary addition to my arsenal; at the moment it is horribly expensive and on paper doesn’t seem to offer an additional £2000 worth of bang to a journalist who already owns a couple of mk2’s. There are now a wealth of new cameras which shoot both interlaced and progressive HD footage, which arguably make even Canon’s new generation of DSLR cameras look expensive and out of date, but when our producer David rocked up on the third day of shooting with a new mk3 I was eager to give it a go.
During the first two days of shooting with my mk2 I had really struggled with light in Manama’s back streets where most of the clashes between the country’s Shia youths and police happen. The revolution in Bahrain has been played out for the last year on dimly lit streets, which are often completely blacked out before the police arrive which makes shooting the clashes a massive challenge. Conventional DV cameras would have been left completely in the dark and LED flood lights or torches would have been an open invitation for the cops to practise their shotgun skills.
Under these circumstances the new mk3 was a lifesaver. It offered a pretty faultless solution to reliably shoot at night up to 12800 iso, which up to a couple of years ago would almost have been considered night vision. When I compare footage shot at night from the mk2 from our first couple of days in Bahrain, it is lousy in comparison to our later work with the mk3. It’s noisy and grainy to the point of sometimes being unusable at full resolution; particularly in areas of high contrast and in shots with large areas of black. With a fast prime attached, the new mk3 offers journalists a compact and most importantly reliable low light solution.
The second advance in Canon’s mk3 for news work is the option to change the way the camera compresses its footage in camera, before going back to the hotel to edit. The mk3 offers the chance to choose between shooting in either “All-I” or “IPB” modes in 1080p; both of which offer a variation of the H264 codec used on the mk2.
I’ll leave it to the internet bores to explain the difference between the two, but to cut a long story short shooting in “All-I” seems to cost you around 25% more memory-card space, but considerably improve ingestion times on both my I7 Macbook and Channel 4’s Avid equipped Dell laptop (It’s important to note that I still had to transcode my footage to prores 422 to edit the All-I footage in FCP7, despite the fact the footage appeared initially to be behaving normally under normal editing. On both Apple laptops I have tried to edit anything more than 2/3 All-I clips on, I receive a general error/out of memory message from FCP despite having large amounts of RAM and Scratch space free and allocated to the program – at the moment I can’t seem to find a solution to prevent this happening, but this might be due to my impatience/incompetence with my system settings! Trying to edit raw IPB footage presents the same problems as trying to edit native mk2 footage. As far as the footage itself, for broadcast/news use I could see no real difference in picture quality between the two new compression methods, although other people on the internet are particularly keen to argue with each other on this point.)
I can’t begin to reiterate how important this was in Bahrain, when we were producing a 5-minute package every day, which had to be ready for broadcast in London by early evening. It’s also interesting to note that regardless of the compression type you choose to shoot, the mk3’s files seem to be on the whole at least 25% smaller than those captured on the mk2.
Even so, while the mk3’s compression is a big improvement on the mk2’s, there still doesn’t seem to be a really rapid, mobile workflow/editing solutions for DSLR news shooters. It is a camera which still makes me bite my nails when I have to make a same day turn around, albeit a little less than the mk2; and that’s invaluable. A huge amount of the day still seems to be spend waiting for files to ingest onto laptops.
The final real bonus of the mk3 is the headphone jack on the side of this camera, which is a real lifesaver. Normally I use a Juiced Link DT454 for my DSLR audio needs; it gives me headphone monitoring on my mk2, a proper set of XLR inputs and proper levels meters but it is also not without risks. The build quality of the unit is questionable; it takes 9v batteries that are a pain to get hold of in the Middle East, it adds bulk to your camera and it adds another 3.5mm cable to your setup, which of course adds another potential fault line to your setup. It also looks like a professional piece of equipment. How many tourists do you know who wonder around with little field mixer in their bags? For working in a country that requires discretion, the DT454 needed to stay at home, which means working without headphone monitoring when shooting with the mk2.
As far as audio went the team used a little Sennheisser MKE400 microphone for the majority of our sound work. The quality of the audio it produces remains as crap as ever; it’s a horrible little microphone by all accounts but its also tiny and in loud environments it does exactly what it needs to do, which is record some of the atmosphere. For run and gun news it does a fine job of offering an uncomplicated sound set up without any of the nightmares of syncing audio in postproduction. For interviews, pieces to camera and anything else we could be bothered with we used a Zoom audio recorder with a sennheisser lav mic which I’d brought along and synced the footage using plural eyes.
This may well be one of my most boring blog posts that I’ve ever had the misfortune to write, so excuse me, but the 5D mk3 does offer the news shooter a whole lot more than any other Canon DSLR to date, particularly those who are already heavily invested in EOS glass.
Canon’s C300 might well be a wonderful video camera, but at £10,000 is a pretty risky piece of kit to be dragging about on stealth missions (the Bahraini authorities ceased all of our equipment when we were arrested…it has subsequently been returned to us; but if we had been operating in any more of a banana republic, it would have been camera shopping time). It’s also a blaringly obvious piece of professional equipment which doesn’t lend itself to pretending to be a snap happy tourist with a midrange DSLR – every third tourist at the Grand Prix in Bahrain seemed to be wearing a 5D as some sort of expensive pendant.
There’s a lot of hype at the moment about cameras like the Panasonic GH2; and there’s no doubt for commercial or features work that the camera is fantastically priced and some of the results online are stunning, but at the moment nobody can offer any real solution for a general purpose wide, fast zoom lens for the camera, making covering a running news story too much hassle for me. For the time being at least the 5D mk3 is a far more practical solution for fast news for me and the changes Canon have made to the 5D mk3 make it a far more attractive, and financially sensible option for me than jumping on whatever the current camera bandwagon is now.
The Olympic judo hopeful on why he joined the frontline of the Arab spring protests
Originally published in the Guardian on Monday 16th April 2012.
Rain pours through bullet holes that pierce the roof of Yemen’s national judo centre and is being collected in small plastic buckets on the blue matting of the training area. The agricultural-style tin hut is just metres from Change Square, scene of much of the bloodshed in the country’s recent revolution to depose President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it also home to one of Yemen’s only Olympians.
Inside, the national champion is training in the gloom, while his coach barks instructions over the din of the rain hammering on the roof. The electricity has been off for three days, but Ali Khousrof is busy preparing for London in July, a little over a year after he was shot in the abdomen during Yemen’s Arab spring uprisings.
Khousrof seems as unlikely a judo fighter as he is a revolutionary. When we sit down together to drink tea in Sana’a's old city he is polite, gentle and candid about both politics and his country’s problems. The 23-year-old, who represented his country at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, talks at length and with pride about the achievements of the Arab spring, despite the fact that his injury prevented him training for nearly eight months. His coaches still feel he is far from ready for the Games. But the fighter seems at peace with his decision to participate in the revolution despite the sacrifice it has meant to his chances of Olympic glory.
“I fell in love with judo when I was five because I saw it as my calling, so of course I thought about the risks of getting hurt. But from the very first day of protest, my personal belief was that I had to be with the youth through everything.”
On the day he was injured, Khousrof had been running in the mountains outside Sana’a with friends. He explains that he and his fellow athletes protested every day with as much devotion as they dedicated to their sport. They had finished training and were relaxing over lunch when they received a text message about a protest outside the city’s athletics stadium. They drove straight there. Before long Ali felt what he describes as a rock hitting him. He was knocked back by the impact, but got back on his feet. He looked down and saw blood on his jacket.
“I was due to compete in Moscow 10 days after I was hit. All I could think about that I had ruined my chances of going to Russia.”
The young athlete was rushed to hospital on a motorcycle. He had, in fact, been hit by a deflected bullet, which had shattered into 11 pieces that were now lodged in his abdomen.
“After a while I started wondering, would I be able to continue judo? Had the bullet hit the bone or was it just a flesh wound?”
Nobody at Yemen’s judo foundation had any idea about Khousrof’s daily participation in the running street battles between protesters and forces loyal to the regime.
“At the beginning, my coach just thought I was going to college after training, but he didn’t know I was protesting. The day he found out was when he first visited me in hospital after I’d been shot. He was furious.”
“He told me: ‘You’re with the team of the republic, you shouldn’t be protesting.’ He told me to represent Yemen through my work, not through protest.”
Khousrof needed specialist care not available in Yemen and for a while it looked as if no one could help. The country’s Olympic committee was politically paralysed: it could not to help an athlete injured battling the regime.
“They couldn’t come into my private affairs. I’d hurt myself in a protest and it wasn’t their job to come and save me,” says Khousrof.
Eventually it was the president of the country’s judo committee, Noman Shahir, who took the risk of personally paying for him to fly to Jordan for treatment. Khousrof says he will be permanently indebted to the man he calls “The Captain”.
At the moment nobody in the tents that still line Change Square is even considering Khousrof’s chance of winning a medal in London, despite his gold at the Arab Games in December. For many of the shabaab, or youth, the revolution is unfinished and it is enough that one of them will represent their country at the Olympics. But Ali is adamant he is not interested in playing the wounded revolutionary or going to London to “be a tourist”. His determination allows his coach to dream briefly.
“If Ali Khousrof got a medal? That would be the biggest dream of ours and everyone in Yemen.” He pauses, his gaze switching to his feet. “Ooh … for Yemen … That’s a very, very big deal.”