Category Archives: interviews

robert king

I first entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in the early 60s, at the age of 18. I was in and out of that place for the rest of the decade. Back then, if you were young, black and had a record, police in New Orleans would come looking for you when they had a backlog of unsolved cases: it was called cleaning the books.

In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn’t do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.

It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.

Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.

At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.

I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.

The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn’t care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.

The worst punishment was the “cold box”, our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.

One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.

Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.

They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re innocent.

Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called “cruel and unusual punishment”, and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.

When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I’ve found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.

As told to Paul Willis

To learn more about the Angola Three go to this Website.

This story first appeared in London’s The Guardian newspaper on 28 August, 2010


the nuns in the tower block

In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.


Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel. Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.

Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.

Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.

In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.

If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.

Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.

Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.

“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.

Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.

The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.

“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”

For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in
Kent.

She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.

It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.

Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.

In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.

Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.

“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”

Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.

Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.

After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.

The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.

Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.

I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.

This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010


father james curran

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible: “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.

This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010


james lovelock

James Lovelock refers to himself as a “planetary doctor.” As someone who has studied his patient for over 40 years, the 88-year-old scientist and originator of Gaia theory, has reached a bleak prognosis: the world as we know it is ceasing to exist.

The impact of humanity has set in train processes that, according to Lovelock, are irreversible. Pollution, overpopulation and carbon emissions have already pushed the earth’s delicate regulatory systems beyond the point of no return, he says, and steps to address the climate crisis can do no more than slow down the inevitable.

“What we did was to pull the trigger in all of those things and set in course a motion, a change in the Earth, which is to all intents and purposes unstoppable,” he tells CNN.

The legacy for future generations is a world where droughts and extreme weather are commonplace, large portions of the planet are turned to uninhabitable desert and billions of people destined to die off.

He has predicted that by 2040 the Sahara will be encroaching on Europe, and by 2100 there will be only 500 million of us surviving close to the poles.

It is a grim account of what’s in store, and at odds with a large portion of scientific opinion that contends that if we take action now to cut carbon emissions, we can at least mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.

So why should we take notice of him? Well, for one thing history is on his side: The British scientist’s seemingly fanciful assessments of our world have proved right in the past.

In the 1960s he came up with a revolutionary understanding of how the world works. All living things, he theorized, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment, working together as one complete “superorganism” to sustain life.

In other words, life itself creates the conditions for life.

This holistic view of the planet he named Gaia after the Greek goddess of the Earth on the suggestion of his neighbor at the time in the English county of Wiltshire, William Golding, the author Lord of the Flies.

At first embraced by the New Age and environmental movement but almost totally ignored by the scientific community, the essential truth of the Gaia hypothesis — that the Earth regulates itself — has since been adopted by the scientific mainstream.

“It’s a top down view of the planet looking at it as a whole system, and science unfortunately in the last century divided [the study of the earth] up into numerous specialties,” he says.

According to Lovelock, this is why his predictions on climate change are more extreme, but also more accurate than those of leading scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he claims is limited in its assessment because it is made up of specialists whose focus is too narrow.

“The IPCC is made up largely of atmospheric physicists who are good at predicting the weather, but I’m not so sure that they are very good at predicting the future of the Earth.

“Likewise, the biologists who should be working with them are working separately and have produced the Millenium Ecosystem Assessments Commission’s report and that’s quite different from the IPCC and it’s mostly concerned with biodiversity and things like that.”

Although he offers some points of light — putting an aerosol layer of fine particles into the stratosphere to reflect back sunlight may, he says, could buy us some time by slowing down the rate of decline for a decade — his projections are on the whole brutally pessimistic.

Oddly however, he insists that he is himself an optimist by nature.

Listening to Lovelock it is easy to see why his theories caught on with New Age thinkers — there is a strain of spirituality in much of what he says.

He’s philosophical about the extinction of the human race, for example, viewing it as just another stage in the Earth’s life cycle.

“Humans always think of these things in grand and big terms, rather than as part of the natural course of events. There are all sorts of organisms that have evolved on the earth in its long, long four billion years of history.

“For example, organisms like the photo-synthesizers appeared and, ultimately turned the atmosphere into one with lots of oxygen in it … all sorts of dreadful things must have happened when that change took place.

“What we’re doing is small beer compared with what has happened in the past, and that’s why the earth is so robust and strong and will cope with it.”

As an environmentalist, he is also surprisingly upbeat about humanity in spite of the apparent mess we’ve made of the planet.

Without realizing it, he says, humans set into motion a train of events we didn’t realize we were in no position to control.

“We’re a wonderfully valuable species to our planet,” he says. “You see the great system has existed all those years and for the first time ever it’s had people talking about it, and we’re part of it, you see. So it’s beginning to understand its position in the universe.”

Humans may face an uncertain future but Gaia, it seems, will live on.

This article was first published on CNN.com on 18 April, 2008


survivalists ready themselves for meltdown

(LONDON, England) Derek is compiling a survival guide on how to cope after the total collapse of society. It is, as you can imagine, a big job.

Already he has 58.8 gigabytes of material stored on his computer, he tells me impressively.

Derek (this is not his real name — he says he doesn’t want me to use his real name “for obvious reasons” that he never gets round to explaining) considers himself a survivalist.

The survivalist movement grew up in America in the 1960s. Encouraged by Cold War-era government’s calls to build nuclear fallout shelters, and concerns over currency devaluation, individuals and groups began to take steps to prepare themselves against the worst.

Many survivalists in the U.S. relocate to the northwestern state of Idaho, stockpiling food, and quite often guns and ammunition, and learning how to be self-sufficient in order to survive or “disappear.”

To those who have heard of it at all, survivalism is sometimes associated with extremist views. In the U.S., the movement has occasionally been hijacked by far-right groups attracted by its rejection of much of government and its fierce defense of the right to bear arms.

For example, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was obsessed with survivalism as a teenager, setting up a generator and a store of canned food and potable water in his basement.

For defenders of the movement, like Jim Rawles who runs a survivalist blog and lives “in a very lightly populated region west of the Rockies” this perversion by a “lunatic fringe” distorts the true message of survivalism, which is, in many ways, just about personal freedom.

Derek, 60, who moved from London to the countryside in the southeast of England four years ago, puts it another way.

“There’s going to be absolute pandemonium when it does happen, so I just want to be prepared so that I’m not a burden on anyone,” he says.

What this disaster might be is anyone’s guess, says Derek, but he’s got his hunches.

Climate change is high up on the list. Also up there is the fallout from a global economic collapse, possibly resulting from a state of peak oil — the point where oil production reaches its peak and thereafter goes into freefall.

Even so, Derek suspects he may not live to see the meltdown he predicts is on its way.

This is perhaps why his own preparations are rather spartan. Aside from the survival manual, he has a backpack filled with a few essentials – what survivalists term a “bug-out.” He keeps the rucksack in the trunk of his car; it contains a stove, dried food, blankets, boots, clothes and “a spare set of me and the wife’s pills.”

Jim Rawles is taking no such chances. A former U.S. army intelligence officer, he lives on a ranch in an undisclosed location with his wife (who he refers to in his blog affectionately as “the Memsahib”) and their children.

Their life is almost entirely self-sufficient: They keep livestock, hunt elk and the children are schooled at home. Stored away in the ranch somewhere is a three-year supply of food.

For a city dweller it sounds almost idyllic, though Rawles — a gently spoken and affable man — insists it’s a lot of hard work.

“The majority of survivalists live in suburban areas and they see a life away from that as an ideal,” he says. “Unfortunately, from a practical standpoint it’s not possible so I think for some of these people we’re living out their fantasies.”

When he’s not looking after the ranch or re-ordering the food supply, he devotes much of his time to the blog, which he says now receives up to 70,000 visits a week.

A life-long devotee of survivalism — he had his first “bug-out” packed when he was just 14 — the 48-year-old has become an unofficial spokesman for the movement.

He has penned a number of books on preparedness, including a novel called “Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse.” Set in the near future, it imagines a period of hyperinflation and socio-economic collapse, providing guidance on how to cope.

Although a work of fiction, Rawles believes the reality is not far off.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest lynchpin is the power grid. If it were to go down, either through economic collapse or a terrorist atrocity, then the cities are going to become unglued.”

Of course, none of this kind of talk is that new. The nature of the threat may have changed but groups of various descriptions have been predicting a breakdown of society since biblical times — and very occasionally they’ve been right.

What does seem to have changed, according to Rawles, is the type of people willing to take that threat seriously.

Not only does he believe that the movement is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s, but he counts among the new converts an increasing number of greens and left-wingers.

“They’re worried by peak oil; the climate shift; the fragility of the economy. They share a lot of the same concerns as our conservative readers,” he says.

But with so many possible doomsday scenarios to choose from, isn’t it difficult to know what preparations to make?

Rawles says you need to be versatile. For example, a home shelter, he says, should be able to serve as a storm shelter against hurricanes, a pantry, a secure room for storing weapons, and as a fallout bunker in the event of nuclear attack.

It all sounds vaguely terrifying — but Rawles insists he’s not being paranoid.

“I really don’t consider it alarmist, and knowing what I know about the fragility of society I wouldn’t sleep soundly if I hadn’t taken the preparations that I have.”

This story was first published on CNN.com on 2 May, 2008


ibogaine: ‘like watching a movie of my past’

Extracted from the rootbark of an African plant used in tribal rituals, ibogaine takes users on a mind-altering journey in which they face their own fears. Paul Willis reports on a radical new treatment for drug addiction.

(DARLINGTON, England) ALTHOUGH the details of Louise Young’s life make for shocking reading, for those used to working with drug addicts, they have a depressingly familiar ring.

Louise, from Brotton, near Saltburn, was just 12 years old when she started using heroin. Beset by family problems and caught up in a relationship with a drug dealer boyfriend five years her senior, Louise was a lost soul. Between bouts of pickpocketing and shoplifting to feed her £50 a day habit, Louise hardly found time for school or her family.

Before long she was living in crack houses in Middlesbrough, stealing, doing whatever she had to in order to survive and, by her own admission, out of control.

“Through the drugs I was more violent than anything else,” she says. “I think I was very angry at the world and that came out when I was on heroin.”

A short stint in prison for an assault on a girl in a children’s home and a move to London didn’t change things and, as Louise drifted from hostels to crashing on friend’s floors, she seemed destined to become just another statistic.

But then, two years ago, something extraordinary happened. At a friend’s health shop in London she bumped into Edward Conn. The pair soon started seeing one another and Edward, who had had his own issues with drugs in the past, heard about Louise’s heroin habit.

He told her about a treatment clinic for drug addiction he had set up using an unlicensed drug called ibogaine. Ibogaine is a psychoactive alkaloid derived from the rootbark of an African plant called iboga.

Iboga has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by tribes in The Gabon, in central Africa, as part of their social and religious rituals.

In recent years, it has been adopted in the West as a radical, if largely unknown, treatment for drug and alcohol dependency.

But for Louise, her own immediate concerns and the destructive cycle of addiction she was caught in meant that, at first, she was not much interested in a cure, let alone one as crackpot-sounding as an African tribal drug.

She says: “My over-riding concern at the time was getting a roof over my head and my next fix. I think I was afraid of getting better. For nearly ten years heroin had been my life and it was really scary to imagine what I’d do without the drug.”

Not long after meeting Edward, Louise’s needle use led to an abscess which needed 12 operations and nearly resulted in her losing her hand.

“I was in hospital a long time and not well at all through the drugs,” she says. “I was very wary of trusting anyone, but Edward came to visit me a lot and little by little he began to win me over.”

Despite continued reservations, Louise, who is now 22, decided to try ibogaine. Edward, however, was reluctant about giving the treatment to his girlfriend.

The few scientific studies conducted with the drug appear to suggest that a single dose has the ability to remove the symptoms of drug withdrawal and reduce drug-craving for a period of time after it has been taken. Taken in large doses it produces a dream-like state lasting for hours and, during these trances, users often describe witnessing scenes from their own past.

It is widely believed the drug’s psychoactive properties help people understand and resolve the issues behind their addictive behaviour.

Last year, Edward was featured in a BBC documentary helping film maker David Scott get off methadone. He has been treating people with ibogaine for four years.

But this was the first time he considered administering the treatment to someone so close to him.

Edward, 34, says: “I had a lot of resistance to it because of my emotional involvement with Louise. Here was someone I was in a very rich relationship with and who I was starting to get to know, and the idea of unlocking her psyche actually scared me quite a lot.”

Louise’s first treatment with ibogaine was unsuccessful. Her father had recently died and, after taking the drug, she was confronted with images of him. “I saw his eyes vividly in front of me,” she says. “I couldn’t really deal with that emotionally so I went back to heroin, probably to block out the pain.”

Despite this setback, a few months later Louise plucked up the courage to give the treatment a second chance and, under the watchful eye of Edward, she spent 24 hours under the effects of the drug.

Many of the accounts of those who have taken ibogaine include seeing vivid hallucinations involving real scenes from the person’s past. Tribal members taking part in rituals involving the iboga plant often describe being visited by spirits from the forest.

“It was like watching an old movie reel of your past,” Louise says. “I saw lots of scenes from my childhood, scenes where I was abused. And, for the first time, I could make sense of them. That is, I understood what had happened to me and I understood why those people had done it. I wasn’t afraid because I could talk about it with Edward as I was seeing it.”

Later, during the treatment, Louise vomited, a common side-effect. “I was sick, but I didn’t feel nauseous. It was more like I was getting rid of all the negative emotions.”

That was 18 months ago and Louise hasn’t touched heroin since. After spending half her life under the control of the drug she has finally been able to reclaim her life. And though she says the ibogaine hasn’t taken away the temptation to use heroin, it has helped put her drug use into context.

Edward, too, is careful to explain that ibogaine is not a one-hit cure for addiction, but is only effective as part of a long-term course of treatment which also includes counselling and therapy.

He says: “Ibogaine takes away your need for the drug for a few months but when it comes to examining the cause of your addictive behaviour, you’re talking about a lot of therapy. I think what ibogaine does as much as anything is provide addicts with the will to get better.”

Despite the apparently miraculous results that ibogaine seems to offer, health authorities around the world are stalling over its development as a licensed drug. Although it was licensed for trials in the US in the early 1990s, these were discontinued. In the UK it is classed as an unlicensed experimental medication. It is not an offence to possess ibogaine, but distributing it may be breaking the law, although this is a grey area.

Edward’s own treatment centre is one of only three in the UK and is the only one to provide a full holistic service. The main stumbling block seems to be the hallucinogenic properties of the drug.

“It is a totally revolutionary way of treating addiction and I think governments have a lot of difficulty getting their minds round that,” he says.

Many in the West wrongly assume that the use of mind-altering drugs is a modern trend. In fact, right back to the ancients, civilisations from as far apart as Siberia and South America have been experimenting with drugs.

It is not inconceivable that, at the same time as cultures in Asia were first learning to get high on the opium flower (from which heroin is produced), the shamans of Africa were themselves beginning to understand the unique effects of the iboga plant.

It is ironic that our desire to seek out mind-altering states provides both the cause and a potential solution to the blight of drug addiction.

For Louise at least this seems to ring true. She is now taking the first tentative steps towards putting her life back together, including enroling on a college course.

She says: “It’s great to just wake up in the morning and feel happy. That’s enough for me at the moment.”

First published in Britain’s Northern Echo newspaper on April 14, 2005


two families on opposite sides of historic conflict

As Israel and her neighbours again teeter on the brink of war, Paul Willis meets two former Leeds families, each with their own religion, cultural customs and political perspectives…but sharing a common desire for peace.

(RAMALLAH, The West Bank) DANI Margolis is pensive. “What you have to realise this is that Israel is only a small country,” he says.
People tell you this everywhere you go in Israel. It usually comes by way of explanation for the current conflict here – land is at a premium in the Holy Land, they say, therefore every acre is vital and must, when necessary, be fought over.
But when Dani Margolis tells me this is a small country he has a different point to make.
“Everywhere is just a few hours drive away,” he explains, as he pours us both a beer. “It means you are close to the sea and mountains and amazing landscapes. But it also means you’re never far away from trouble.”
We are sitting on the porch of Dani’s house in the Ramat Hashoste Kibbutz on a warm late summer evening. Dani lives on one of the 270 Kibbutzim in the country – the self-supporting, mainly agricultural, communities, which account for four per cent of the Israeli population. It feels a million miles from the “trouble” Dani is talking about, the kind regularly swamping TV news and newspapers throughout the world.
Inside the house his wife, Lilac, gets their two young children ready for bed. It is an idyllic scene, perhaps the fondly-imagined future Dani envisaged when he decided to emigrate here from his native Leeds 12 years ago.
Tension
But scratch the surface and the tension is never far away.
“You know I went to Jerusalem last week,” Dani says. “And for the first time since I can remember I took a taxi into the city centre – I avoided the bus.”
Jerusalem had been rocked a few days earlier by a suicide bomb attack on a trendy cafe in the west of the city. The attack followed one earlier in the day at a crowded bus stop in Tel Aviv, no more than an hour’s drive away from the Kibbutz.
Trouble, as Dani says, is never far away in Israel.
Brought up in Alwoodley, north Leeds, by a strong Zionist family, Dani spent most summers holidaying at the Kibbutz where he now lives, and where he and his wife first met as children.
This early immersion in the promised land together with the anti-semitism he encountered in Leeds led to a growing sense of ‘not belonging’ in England.
Eventually this translated into a desire to make ‘Aliyah’, the word that Jews use when they emigrate to Israel – it means literally ‘going up’.
Today the 36-year-old lives with Lilac, 32, who was brought up on the Kibbutz, and their two beautiful children Talia, five, and Ori, three. He works as the Kibbutz’s gardener.
The youngsters finally settled in bed, Lilac joins us on the porch. Having lived her whoIe life through the conflict, how does she deal with it?
“Well you get scared a lot, of course you do,” she says emphatically. “Sometimes I don’t sleep at night for worry. I hate it most when Dani goes to the army.”
As a fully-fledged Israeli citizen Dani is expected to serve in the army. He served for three years when he first arrived and has been called on every year since to do a month of reserve duty.
Since the break out of the second Intifada that has meant the unenviable task of enforcing the occupation inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If he wanted to, he says he could probably get out of serving, but though he admits to hating the work, Dani claims it is necessary for the survival of Israel.
“I hate going to the army every year to do this, but I want to sleep safe in my bed at night. And the only way I can do that is if I know there are people out there patrolling our borders and checkpoints.”
The next day Dani takes the family to Daliat-El-Carmel, a nearby Druze village. The Druze are a religious sect descended from Islam who fled persecution in Egypt hundreds of years ago. They are Arabs, but live in peaceful co-habitation with the Jews.
The irony of this is not lost on Lilac. She tells me that before the latest Intifada they used to visit Palestinian villages like this one.
“We had Arab friends,” she says suddenly. “If you sit and think about it for a minute you want to run away, you really do. It’s an absolute tragedy for both sides.”
The town of Ramallah is a dusty, but bustling centre at the heart of the West Bank.
Home to the Palestinian Authority and the beleaguered Yasser Arafat, it is less strife-torn than other areas of the Occupied Territories. But with its bombed-out buildings and barbed wire this is nevertheless a world away from the affluence of nearby Jerusalem – a 15-minute drive to the south, minus the checkpoints.
Munir Quazzaz meets me at a bedraggled row of shop fronts in the centre of town.
“I got this in Leeds,” he tells me, smiling and pointing to the flat cap he has perched on his head and which, if nothing else, sets him apart from his Palestinian brothers.
Munir returned home from Yorkshire six years ago. A university professor, he completed a doctorate in physiology at Leeds University, living in the city with his young family for five years.
Now he lectures Palestinian students at the nearby University of Birzeit, where he has come from to meet me today.
Arrest
We take a taxi to Munir’s flat on the edge of town, passing by Yasser Arafat’s compound on the way. The Palestinian leader is still under house arrest from the Israeli army, a situation which began in March 2002 when they launched a siege on the compound.
The compound, supposedly the headquarters for the Palestinian Authority, looks more like a junk yard than a centre of government. Buildings have been reduced to rubble by Israeli tanks and at the back of the complex burnt out cars piled on top of each other are all that remains of Arafat’s presidential cavalcade.
“I want to show you something,” Munir tells me as we arrive at his flat. He leads me to a window at the back of the seventh floor apartment. “Look at that. That’s the way I go to work every day.”
On the road below us a long line of people snakes into the distance. At either end of the line there are stone bollards blocking the road and beyond them taxis queuing up to ferry people away.
“This is the Surida Checkpoint. It was set up by the Israelis three years ago.”
I ask Munir what’s on the other side.
“My university,” he says, “and a few small Palestinian villages, nothing much. Most of the day it is unmanned so it serves no security purpose – anyone can cross as they please. It means we can’t take our cars to work and our lives are disrupted, that’s all. It is just a way for the Israelis to humiliate us.”
So many times throughout our interview Munir talks about the humiliation he feels at the hands of the Israelis. The daily grind of being told where they can and cannot go, of seeing their homes destroyed and their streets overrun by tanks has taken a terrible psychological toll on the Palestinians.
When Munir’s wife, Hadil, appears and offers Arabic tea her face looks drawn and anxious. As we talk about the conflict she grows passionate, struggling to contain her emotions.
“This effects everything for us,” Hadil, 36, says. “We can’t have a normal life. You know the Israeli soldiers came here at three o’clock one morning. They insisted on turning on all the lights and waking up our children. They said: ‘Where are your weapons?’ All we could do was show them our books and tell them my husband was a professor.”
The couple have three children, aged from four to 13. Hadil, who also has a PhD from Leeds University, works for a German charity in Ramallah.
Hospital
Munir, 38, tells me his father is in a hospital in Gaza but because of the strict travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinians he cannot visit him.
Munir says: “He is 89 years-old and probably dying but it is impossible for me to get to him. You know I was in Leeds a few months ago – it’s crazy, but it’s easier for me to get there than to go to Gaza.”
I ask them if they would move back to England and flee the conflict if they ever got a chance.
“We had the chance,” Munir tells me, to my surprise. “Not long ago I was offered a job in London but I refused.”
Why?
“Because whatever happens this is my home, these are my people. Every day is difficult, but we have a duty to stay and help them.”
First published in Britain’s Yorkshire Evening Post on 9 October, 2003