Travel: Question time in the near East

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The Independent Online
Go and visit Petra, Jerusalem and Damascus, by all means. But while you're there, set the tour guides thinking - your remarks just could make a difference to human lives.

Back in the days of the Greek colonels, Labour ministers would appear on television - along with the exiled actress Melina Mercouri - urging British holiday-makers to avoid Greece and its islands. The regime in Athens was oppressing its own people, they said, banning free elections and torturing opponents. Tourism there would support the economy of a brutal dictatorship, the British were told. But today, despite moralistic "mission statements" from Robin Cook and his chums, the Foreign Office issues warnings about visiting only those countries in which Britons might be in danger - not the countries which might be a danger to their own people.

Today, therefore, holiday-makers flock to the eastern Mediterranean without a thought for the evils that go on around their air-conditioned hotels and tour buses, unaware that their money is supporting regimes that have perfected the art of torture chairs, extrajudicial killing and fake elections. That's no reason not to visit them - if economic sanctions don't work in the Middle East, tourist sanctions certainly won't. But this doesn't mean you can't ask - politely, without intending to cause offence - about the less savoury aspects of the country into which you are pouring your hard-earned pounds. Here's a guide.

Turkey: Enjoy the beaches, the wine, the Topkapi museum. But why not ask that friendly tour guide what's happening in the forbidden south east? Is it true that thousands of Kurds have been "resettled" by the government, that hundreds have been mysteriously assassinated (by policemen as well as by the ruthless Kurdish Workers Party)? Why does Amnesty International carry repeated reports of police torture? And why aren't the Armenians mentioned in the local guidebook? Because there are none left? (Answer: because the Turks massacred 1.5 million of them in the world's first genocide in 1915, but have never admitted it.)

Egypt: Take in the Pyramids by all means. And the Tutenkhamun treasures. Even Luxor, despite the recent massacre. But why not ask the tour guide to point out the Lazhougli Street security police headquarters in central Cairo - systematic torture with electrodes is carried out against suspected militants on two floors of the building. If travelling outside the capital, ask the friendly guide where the Tora prison complex is - it's where opposition militants are given women's names and forced to rape each other as a punishment. If you're staying at the downtown Cairo As-Safir hotel, it's worth remembering that a previous guest, the Libyan exile Mansour Kikhiya, was last seen there in 1993 while attending a human rights conference; the Americans believe the Egyptian police kidnapped him and sent him back to Libya for execution. The Egyptians, of course, can find no trace of their visitor.

Jordan: The rose-red valley of Petra, the resort of Aqaba, are unbeatable. But you might ask why electoral laws were changed to keep Muslim opponents of the so-called peace process out of parliament, why dozens of political detainees are held after unfair trials at the State Security Court, and why Jordan is hanging more of its citizens (including women) for crimes confessed to under fierce interrogation.

Israel/ Palestine: While enjoying Jerusalem, why not ask your Israeli tour guide to point out the Russian Compound where Palestinian prisoners have been brutally tortured and where torture (by "shaking") continues to this day? Ask the Palestinian merchants how many of their families have had their land taken by Israelis for Jewish settlements. Ask to visit the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Shaul and ask the locals what happened there (answer: the Jewish Irgun massacred Arab residents in 1948, when it was called Deir Yassin). If you're staying in the splendid King David hotel, ask reception who blew it up in 1948 (answer: Menachem Begin, when it was the British military HQ). In Hebron, ask local Palestinians why their forefathers massacred the Jewish inhabitants in the Twenties. And if you visit the nearest Jewish settlement, ask to see the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque; his grave is now a shrine. In the Palestinian West Bank, you could ask local guides why Arafat pays no attention to his parliament, and why he maintains 14 different secret police forces. And when you see the PLO's police stations, ask why so many prisoners are beaten to death by Arafat's thugs.

Syria: Ancient Damascus is the most unspoilt of cities; Aleppo's castle is spectacular, Roman Palmyra a joy. But you might ask, gently of course, who are the civilians with guns on so many street corners (answer: members of the various secret police units). Ask the voting pattern of the latest election for the government (be sure we're talking percentages in the high nineties). In Palmyra, glance across towards the hills on the other side of town and ask what the long, low buildings are (answer: Tadmor prison, site of a massacre of inmates by special forces troops in 1982). And while travelling north, if you stop to see the beautiful houses of ancient Hama, you might ask why there are so many bullet holes in them (answer: Syrian troops ruthlessly suppressed an Islamist uprising here; original figures of 20,000 dead may be exaggerated, but it was a bloody business). Syrian officials may say that the rebels of Hama were cutting the throats of families loyal to the government and threatened an Islamic revolution - and that if the uprising had not been crushed, Syria would have become another Algeria. They may well be right - but there's no harm in asking.

United Arab Emirates: There is swimming, desert exploration, gambling and lots of money, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But over a G&T, you might ask your Emirates friends how many young Sri Lankan and Filipino women have been viciously flogged for supposedly "illicit" sexual relations in recent years (answer: hundreds). And what happened to the Sri Lankan teenager in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimar who was convicted (despite her claim to innocence) of killing the baby she was looking after? (Answer: she was shot by a firing squad just before her 19th birthday.)

Of course, I've left out the non-holiday spots.

In Baghdad, you're likely to be invited to visit the torture chamber for a prolonged stay, if you ask about it. In Saudi Arabia, you'll be put on the first plane home if you complain about the regular public decapitation of convicted prisoners on Friday mornings.

Even those old, perennial tourist haunts of Tunisia and Morocco are worthy of a few questions. In both countries, opponents of the rulers regularly "disappear" - in Morocco for up to 30 years; and why, you might ask the waiter in your favourite Tunisian restaurant, does he always seem to be hanging around your table when you talk politics?

Be assured, you will be told everywhere you go that the President/ King is both popular and god-like, beloved by his people, ruling benignly under God's heaven. Your tour guide will absolutely insist that this is his own personal conviction. But when you have gone, he will report all this to the authorities, who might - just might - worry that pulling out local fingernails could reduce the millions they make from tourism.

If you do ask questions, remember, too, that your tour guide will also love his country, and be deeply offended if he thinks you are trying to insult him. But even if you don't ask any questions, why not read Amnesty International's latest human rights report on the country you plan to tan in? It never hurts to know where your money is going.