The last time I saw Paris . . .

Two months ago I was in Paris, enjoying a short holiday in a beautiful city that I first visited as a teenager. It was warm and sunny; I enjoyed a meal with a friend near Sacre Coeur and reflected on hoLes Deux Magotsw well  it had worn over the years.

We went to the charming district of St Germain des Pres with its distinctive atmosphere of  fun and freedom.

Today Paris is a city in mourning as yet another terrorist atrocity turns death into a shared spectacle; ugly, needless, cruel and so very public. Raw grief unites humanity as nothing else; the stunned, dazed, stupefied expressions of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances  . . .

“Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”


Auschwitz revisited – a chilling parallel

Last year a record 1.5m people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Oświęcim, Poland. In ‘dark tourism’ terms the former concentration camp is a success story. A Google search pulls up more websites advertising  tours than relating to Holocaust history, but underlying this phenomenon there is a message.

(*Originally published in UK Progressive )

“I don’t think he needs those” said the young boy’s mother as we approached the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei arch spanning the entrance to Auschwitz.

She was waving away a set of headphones, offered to amplify the audio commentary delivered by tour guides to the complex. Of course ‘complex’ hardly describes what remains of this notorious death camp and in the fading light of a September afternoon it resembles more a neglected school or hospital, with its institutional layout and designated departments.

Barbed wire and sections of once electrified fencing still serve to remind visitors that it was neither, but any sense of  menace is dissipated by the theme park atmosphere as coaches disgorge tourists from all nations to queue for tickets.

Our small group is constantly reminded that we have a ‘slot’ and that we must move briskly. Cameras and smartphones click and flash constantly as we are herded up slippery stone staircases to rooms displaying shoes, artificial limbs, hair, clothing, spectacles and innocuous-looking pellets of Zyklon-B. Inert until activated by exposure to air, these latter are perhaps the most sinister of the Auschwitz artefacts.

This is my first visit to a former Nazi concentration camp. It is in Poland, just over an hour’s drive from Krakow and not far from the equally notorious extermination facility of Birkenau. I am numbed less than I expected to be by the apparatus of death, knowledge of which I’ve subconsciously assimilated over a lifetime of reading and learning. What does stun me is the scale of the visitor operation at this living museum.

The child deprived of headphones looks bewildered as his parents are nudged by the momentum of the crowd from room to room. Fading black and white photographs replicate families like his own; they peer down from the walls, frozen in time with their pitiful belongings and anxious expressions. They reach out over the years to remind us that, like the refugees moving across Europe today, they are just human flotsam with no assurance of safety or welcome ahead of them.

Following the child’s gaze my eyes are drawn to the image of a man. Tall and dignified he wears a dark overcoat not unlike one my father once owned. He and  the well-dressed woman I assume to be his wife hold the hands of a little girl. In his other hand, a small suitcase. They are new arrivals, photographed at a point where they are uneasy but have no intimation of what is to come. Maybe they still have hope?

Later we move on to Birkenau for the last admission of the day. The threatened light shower has materialized as torrential rain and the temperature has dropped significantly.

Sometimes described as ‘Auschwitz 2’ Birkenau was the largest of more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. It opened in 1942 and approximately 1m people died there – Jews, Poles, Gypsies Soviet POWs and many other nameless individuals considered undesirable by the Nazis.

As we walk into the wind and rain a bleak and empty vista unfolds; ghostly railway lines describe a path towards a stark memorial. To one side of it are the remains of a hastily destroyed elimination facility; beyond that, on the walk back we enter the barracks where women deemed of no further value were  contained until they either died or were ready for disposal.

By this time I am soaked to the skin and numb with cold. The barracks we stand in are dark and the tiered wooden ‘bunks’ where sick and expendable women lay stacked like sardines represent the only furniture. “Two stoves would have been in here” observes our guide, “but there was rarely fuel – and no water or toilets. Death by disease or starvation was the only way out.”

In the warmth of our transport back to Krakow my fingers begin to tingle as life returns.  The members of our small group are tired and quiet. An English newspaper shows images of refugees struggling under razor wire, huddling in the mud as they wait to be ‘processed’. Families stare bleakly into the lenses of strangers’ cameras.

I wonder if I am alone in seeing a terrible parallel?


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Burnt Norton – T.S. Eliot

Afghan women declare “We are ALL Farkunda”

A documentary chronicling events immediately before and after the murder of Farkunda Malikzada has just been released. It is a harrowing story, told mainly through the anguished tears of the student’s mother and father. (Background) 

Woman's Hour - Farkhunda

Not for the faint hearted, it is  a timely reminder that even in Afghanistan’s capital city the power of the (male) mob is still  potent and the most fortified bastions of ‘law and order’ are not safe. (Kabul Police HQ bombed).

Watch/listen HERE.

A scholarship established in memory of Farkhunda has been established. More information about it can be found on The Afghan Women’s Support Forum website by clicking HERE.



Afghanistan’s First Lady backs battle against silent killer

Taraki 1 New

Dr Zarghuna Taraki, University College Hospital, London. Pictures © Glyn Strong.

A killer disease has united two women living 3,500 miles apart. One is a sufferer, the other a surgeon. Until recently they were strangers, but a London-based networking group brought them together in the wake of a campaign that has now attracted the support of Afghanistan’s First Lady writes Glyn Strong (UK Progressive).

When a Kabul mob turned on a devout young woman and publicly beat her to death, the world was shocked; Farkhunda’s murder in March was frenzied, brutal and barbaric. Yet every year hundreds of Afghan women are killed by a stealthy, silent killer that attracts no international protest.

It is breast cancer, a disease that goes undetected and largely untreated in a country where routine screening is impossible and timely treatment, rare. Those lucky enough to be diagnosed while there is still hope have to go abroad to get specialist treatment.

Shinkai Karokhail, was one of them. The 53-year-old mother of four had to leave her home in Kabul, pay for treatment, undergo a double mastectomy and aggressive chemo/radiotherapy to save her life. She is still recovering, but Shinkai knows she is ‘one of the lucky ones’.

She is also an MP and one of the very few Afghan women willing to talk openly about this taboo subject.

“Even friends and educated people don’t want me to mention it, but I think now it is time to speak out and take steps to raise awareness and fight against cancer.”

Shinkai did more than talk; she initiated a breast cancer awareness campaign, picked-up and implemented by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health: “We founded a ‘Let’s Fight Against Cancer’ group to advocate for a cancer centre, and I invited the First Lady  (Mrs. Rula Ghani) to lend her voice and support.”

Three and a half thousand miles away, another Afghan woman is fighting breast cancer, but in a very different way. Dr Zarghuna Taraki specialises in treating the disease at University College Hospital, in London although, like Shinkai, she was born in Kabul. The parliamentarian and the clinician have never met and live very different lives – but they are both Afghan women, both mothers and both passionately committed to tackling a disease that is needlessly killing thousands of people in their country

Zarghuna, whose UK patients have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

“Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer –  so they die without ever knowing the reason.  This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide – it accounts for about 12% percent of all new cancers and 25% of all cancers in women.”

(The former Head of Kabul’s Malalai Hospital, Dr Nasrin Oriakhil  (now Minister for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled) was once quoted as saying, “There are no precise statistics for breast cancer in Afghanistan; however, we know that there are many patients. Just looking at our hospital, five of our employees have breast cancer and they do not have access to proper treatment.”)

We are sitting in a London café, not far from Warren Street tube station, doing what women the world over do – drink coffee, chatter and share cakes. Zarghuna, who speaks four languages, is telling me about her own struggle simply to practice as a breast cancer physician.

“It’s difficult to say why I became a doctor but I know that I really do want to help people, especially as, for women in Afghanistan you know, it’s not easy for them . . . but I never imagined that I would end up in the UK working as a doctor.

“My childhood was very colourful!  I grew up in a big family – five brothers and a sister. My family was always supportive of me studying and my mother and father always told me that education was vital. Three of my cousins are doctors. We lived in Kabul but went on holiday to villages so I experienced city and rural life.  Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan got worse . . . so it was not such a hard thing for me to leave.”

Zarghuna qualified as a doctor in Moscow, returning home to work as an obstetrician/gynaecologist.

“But once again the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and I fled the country. I came to the UK in 1998 with my small family, consisting of my husband and 18-month-old daughter.”

With only a few words of English and their old life gone Zarghuna and her husband had to pick up the pieces and start over.  He had been a lawyer. She had been a doctor. It was a low point, but she recalls her husband’s words with a smile: “He said to me you still ARE a doctor!”

dr zarghuna taraki 2Working as a driver to support the family, her husband insisted that she fight to practice medicine again.

“I went to college to learn basic English, then intermediate, followed by high-level English for academic purposes. It was hard, because around this time I also had my second child.”

With the tenacity and courage of so many Afghan women Zarghuna passed her English exams and went on, once more, to qualify as a doctor, working her way up through a variety of clinical attachments, learning about health priorities and rising expectations about cancer treatment.

Clearly a compassionate and highly intelligent woman, Zarghuna cares deeply about her British patients, but part of her is always in Afghanistan, where things are very different, as Dr Karokhail discovered.

“I have tremendous respect for Shinkai Karokhail and what she has done,” says Zarghuna, “because it is not easy to speak about these things publicly there.”

When NATO formally ended its commitment to Afghanistan, after 13 years of conflict, the country that had dominated Western news channels for over a decade, slowly slipped off the international radar. “Our Afghan partners can and will take the fight from here,” said Commander ISAF, General John F Campbell at the departure ceremony. He was referring to insurgency and drugs, but in fact there were many other battles to be fought, against a background of shattered infrastructure and political uncertainty.

Former Medical Director of Kabul’s CURE International Hospital, Dr Jacqui Sinclair, left Afghanistan with her husband Eric in 2008 but remained in contact with colleagues. She welcomed the news that initiatives were afoot to tackle breast cancer adding, “It’s hard for Afghan women to qualify as doctors and they are almost exclusively working as paediatricians or in obstetrics/gynaecology. As it is not ‘appropriate’ for women to see male doctors, and there are no female breast surgeons, the situation is very depressing.”

After  ISAF troops left, many NGO and charity workers followed. Foreign doctors who brought expertise increasingly became targets and several known to the Sinclairs were attacked and killed after they left.

Currently there are no public information campaigns about self-examination, or the screening programmes that would enable early detection and less invasive surgery; nor are there dedicated treatment facilities where the psychological and physical aspects of breast cancer treatment can be delivered side by side.

Afghanistan is a vast, landlocked country – extremely poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid. Its savage beauty may be breathtaking, but without a safe, effective transport network to traverse its challenging terrain, communities are isolated in every sense of the word. For women, denied the socio-economic freedoms of men, it is worse. Solutions that would work in more developed countries are irrelevant in Afghanistan where access and security challenges obviate even the deployment of mobile screening units.

But for a woman suffering from breast cancer, what happens on the global stage is an irrelevance. Her world shrinks to one circumscribed by diagnosis, prognosis and fear. The outlook for sufferers is bleak as Shinkai, despite her education, status and tenacity, discovered.

Conscious that she was an age group that elsewhere warranted routine breast screening she went to India for a mammogram. “We (in Afghanistan) have no such facility or system to take care of our health. In the beginning I was told that there was ‘some calcification’ but a later ultrasound result showed that all was normal.”

Still Shinkai had a feeling that something was amiss. “I felt I had the beginning of a cancer and a few months later I suddenly found that my left breast had changed in size a lot. I went to a doctor and, after a very unprofessional examination; she told me that nothing was wrong. ‘You are absolutely fine’ she said. I tried to convince her that I was sick but she refused to accept it.”

Pressed about the change in breast size Shinkai’s doctor said it was due to breast-feeding – 13 years earlier!

“Three months later, I went to the US and while there my nipple started bleeding. My friend, who is doctor, sent me for mammogram and ultrasound.”

On 8th October 2013, in the USA, she was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer and too ill, according to the American doctors, to go back to India for treatment.

For Shinkai the news that she was out of options was a heavy blow.  “I felt like all patients, especially women, but the most depressing part was when I was told they had to remove both my breasts. It is difficult for a women to lose part of her body.”

Sadly, that wasn’t all she’d had to contend with. “The worst part was when the hospital refused to do my test because of the fee. I had to get money from family and friends. It was difficult to get money from Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan Embassy and an NGO this was eventually resolved.

“One of the women’s organisations which has an office in the US called Women for Afghan Women helped me to get money through their account. Everyone sent me a financial contribution toward my treatments – family, friends, members of civil society and government.

“Chemotherapy was the worst. Each stage was very painful but when I was passing through difficult times I thought of cancer patients in Afghanistan, especially those who had no money to pay for treatment and just had to wait to die. When I thought about them, I really understood how lucky I was.”

So what, realistically, can happen? And how quickly?

Soon after the London-based Afghan Women’s Support Forum started its social media activity about breast cancer the CEO of Alem Health, Mr Aschkan Abdul-Malek, got in touch. He wrote, “Our company provides high quality diagnoses for mammograms in Afghanistan through a network of over 400 US, EU, and India-based radiologists. There are plenty of facilities that perform mammograms in Kabul, but awareness on the part of patients is limited, and healthcare spending on screening and preventative care is quite low in general. The breast cancer cases we do see are all Stage 3 or Stage 4, whereas we’d like to diagnose things much earlier.”

He claimed that the problem was compounded by poor standards of service delivered by local radiologists and technicians. “When we first go into a facility, the images being taken by the technicians are often of unacceptable quality for diagnostic use, but we know somewhere a radiologist or someone else has been reading them, so we work with the technicians to get their skills to a global standard so our radiologists can confidently diagnose.

“A mammogram costs about $30 US for a facility to take. We charge a little less, in addition to having an Indian, European, or American doctor read it, usually within three hours. We don’t charge for any of the IT infrastructure, we’re fully private sector and work with private sector hospitals, so unlike aid projects, our entire budget for a year is a fraction of the cost of a Land Cruiser!”

But is an internet-based service really of significant value? Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world so paying for anything – diagnosis, treatment or aftercare – will put help beyond the reach of most women.

The good news is that in October 2014, something unprecedented happened; the country’s new First Lady, Mrs Rula Ghani, accepted Shinkai’s invitation to support the breast cancer campaign she had initiated.

In terms of credibility, that public commitment by the president’s wife was a game changer. Now, through the continuous efforts of Shinkai Karokhail and the First Lady’s Advisor on Health Affairs, Fawzia Alam, a variety of key players have started working together on cancer control. What was initially a loose alliance soon developed into the Afghanistan Cancer Control Coalition (ACCC).

Its co-ordinator, Dr Maihan Abdullah, said from Kabul, “The ACCC is an extraordinary alliance of organisations and individuals committed to working for cancer prevention and control. The political commitment alongside ACCC has given its members new hope in the fight against cancer. In a meeting with H.E. First Lady and the Health Minister, ACCC convinced the Minister to form a Technical Committee consisting of members from ACCC and the Ministry.

“It decided that a Cancer Centre was urgently needed and that efforts should be started as soon as possible for its establishment. ACCC members – a variety of public health specialist, midwives and surgeons  – vowed to provide their expertise voluntarily in the proposed facility and, in subsequent meetings, Dr. Zarghuna will participate from the UK, through Skype, to offer her recommendations.”


The Afghan Women’s Support Forum, a UK-based networking group is trying to focus attention on the issue. Its  eclectic membership, a loose alliance of individuals with an interest in Afghanistan and its women, was brought together by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.

Fiona, whose first visit to the country was nearly her last, escaped death by hiding in a wardrobe during the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in 2011. But she has been back since and, like all members of AWSF, is conscious of how big a divide there is between what western women can expect when serious illness strikes and what happens in Afghanistan.

She said, “The group relies on its membership to provide intelligence about what issues are of most importance to Afghan women. We don’t want them to be forgotten. When Zarghuna told us about the lack of provision for identifying and treating breast cancer, and the human tragedies associated with that, it became a priority for us. I have several friends in the UK who have had breast cancer and it was further personalised for me because I know Shinkai, so this dreadful disease had a ‘human face’.”

First published in UK Progressive 7 June 2015.



Can charities afford to abandon stereotypes?

An interesting proposition aired in Third Sector this week.

The magazine  reports that “It would be risky for homelessness charities to use less stereotypical imageThird Sector - stereotypess of homeless people in their fundraising materials because they would not match up with the images in the minds of potential donors, according to new research.”

So how are stereotypes created? By either narratives or images – and as we all know ‘a picture is worth a 1,000 words’ etc.

But are the ‘words’ that a picture tells honest? Fair? Accurate? And does it matter, as long as  the money rolls in?

I’m reminded of TFL’s advertisement advising passengers who contemplate travelling  without a ticket that inspectors are easy to spot because ‘they look just like you’.

I wonder how many homeless people also ‘look just like you’? Search on iStock for images of homelessness ( link ) and you’ll find the usual suspects – men with sleeping bags,  gaunt figures in hoodies. . .  a few outstretched hands, empty food bowls, doe eyed children. There are some  less obvious images there but they look oddly out of place – and that, presumably, is the point.

Stereotypes do not drop ‘like the gentle rain from heaven’ – they are manufactured; constructs, honed and shaped for a purpose by people whose raison d’etre is to  craft extreme shortcuts.  It’s not surprising that in an age of fast moving communications technology such shorthand is employed. Charity is big business and competition for donations fierce.

Every Christmas captive TV audiences  are bludgeoned into ‘giving’ – assaulted relentlessly by  images of victims needing food, medical aid, water, accommodation. Some viewers are simply moved to give. Others are discomfited. Increasing numbers just become angry at the transparent manipulation.

Of course there’s a moral dimension to all this because, like it or not, stereotypes are educational (sic); they inform our perceptions of the world. The newspapers, magazines, films and charity flyers that depict  ex-servicemen as amputees or PTSD sufferers imply causal linkages that are at best disproportionate  and at worst  dangerous. ( You won’t find too many of these images on recruiting posters!)

PRs and ‘creatives’ are frequently allowed to exercise  power without responsibility. Campaign success is reduced crudely to reach and impact – and because  reach can be driven by budget,  wealthy organisations  will always have an advantage over smaller counterparts. (Wildcard creativity and random viral take-up aside!)

Impact, however, is a complex animal! Which is why, in that parallel universe where power and responsibility go hand-in-hand, images that are so crudely powerful  that they deal a knockout blow, are used sparingly, in context, and with caution.

Instead of warning that use of ‘less stereotypical images could be risky’ charities should toughen up and have the courage to tackle the issue head on. Use images of course, but intelligently and responsibly; put them in context – make people think, force them to consider why the person who looks ‘just like them’ can also be hungry, sick, depressed or homeless- even though they aren’t lying on a sleeping bag in the High Street.

(c) Glyn Strong



International Women’s Day

“When women are free to exercise their political, legal, and socioeconomic rights, we are all better off and we are all empowered” – Khaled Hosseini

Heartwarming to read and receive messages from so many friends worldwide – both personally and in support of causes and organisations that we all support.

A growing number of men stepped up to the plate, including author Khaled Hosseini who wrote, “The world has come a long way in the fight for women’s rights, but there is still a long way to go. In too many places around the globe, including my birthplace of Afghanistan, gender equality remains elusive.The struggle continues for millions of women. Today ( March 8th)  is International Women’s Day and it is a chance to celebrate the extraordinary achievements and contributions of women. It is a good day to raise awareness of the need for gender equality, and a good day to remember that this is not a feminist issue. When women are free to exercise their political, legal, and socioeconomic rights, we are all better off and we are all empowered” ( More HERE )

And then there were the Afghan men who wore burqas for a day . . .



Nothing will change overnight, but as long as small pockets of hope exist and individuals in every country are prepared to challenge the unacceptable we will all have something to celebrate and be proud of.

Independant platform for post-modern charity


From Angelina Jolie to David Cameron, the great and the good have stepped forward to support  the Independent/Evening Standard’s campaign for Homeless Veterans.In the run-up to Christmas it puts the spotlight on two charities; Veteran Aid and ABF The Soldiers Charity. London commuters on auto-pilot pick up their copy of the ES and, night after night, read about the hands-on work of the former and the grant-giving impact of the latter.

It isn’t the first ‘help our heroes’ campaign – but it is perhaps the most honest. This appeal looks at veterans in the round – not all soldiers, not all male, not all ‘heroes’; just people like us,  who have got into trouble.

10428488_878660315480044_2651896600302184623_nMaybe this approach will encourage members of the 4.6 million-strong ex-service community who didn’t think they were ‘worth it’ to ask for help at the first sign of meltdown?

Prevention is not only better than cure – it’s cheaper.

Veterans Aid doesn’t judge and its staff are never shocked. The charity really is the ‘A&E’ of the  ex-Service world.

I worked with and  alongside Britain’s Armed Forces in Bosnia, The Gulf, Kosovo, The Falklands, Afghanistan (and many other lively places) for many years. As an attached civilian or embedded journalist I shared many  experiences with soldiers, sailors and airmen. If I was in trouble now, and  able to access the help of organisations like Veterans Aid, I would count myself blessed.

This organisation is modern – post-modern! – pragmatic, immediate and  effective. It doesn’t pussyfoot around asking desperate people to fill-in forms or come back in a week’s time. It’s a place where people regularly find hope, humour and help.  So thanks to the organisations below for helping these charities to reach the people who need their help.


See Independent article (28/11/14)   by Chris Green HERE


Art comes to life in Andalucia

First published in UK PROGRESSIVE  


The mayor who dares to dream’ by Glyn Strong

A state of the art cemetery with no bodies, a body of art that is augmented annually at no cost and a view to die for are just three of the things that distinguish the Spanish village of Genalguacil. It’s not easy to get to, which perhaps accounts for its lack of tourists, but for the first two weeks of August, in alternate years, it becomes an artists’ paradise and ‘living’ exhibition. Participants are welcome from all over the world and carefully sifted for selection.The successful applicants are offered free accommodation and workspace – on condition that they leave some of their artwork behind.

TWO hours drive from Malaga, deep in the hinterland of Andalusia, a dazzling white walled village perches among the pines at an altitude of 1,782ft. Its population of around 540 go about their daily business surrounded by breath-taking vistas and eclectic art. Pure air, the haunting scents of olive, lemon and wild woodland tease the senses.

There is no (unofficial) graffiti, no litter and virtually no traffic. The winding white streets are narrow and lead to unexpected oases of colour provided by bougainvillea and other impromptu plantings of flowers and shrubs.

A visitor, bewitched by stillness, silence and heat, could be forgiven for thinking that this perfect pueblo is uninhabited at certain times of day. Indeed the only watchers seem to be the carved faces that look down from totems, murals and the viewing platform of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Street sculpture GenalguacilIts people consider Genalguacil itself a ‘Village Museum’. It has 134 art works – 75 per cent are outdoors and since its inception in 1994, 145 artists have taken part in the Encuentros de Arte.

Genalguacil’s Mayor (‘Alcalde’) Miguel Angel Herrara Gutierrez is 36, a small, energetic man with big ambitions for the village he is so clearly proud of. He was born in nearby Ronda but Genalguacil is his spiritual home and, despite spending time between the ages of 13 and 21 studying in Estepona he is a native (‘Genalguacileño’) to the core.

We chat in his office, on the ground floor of the pristine Municipal Building, although open windows present a distracting view of the panoramic Genal Valley where white hillside fincas dot the horizon.

Miguel is a full-time, hands-on mayor although he owns a general store ( established when he was a 21-year-old entrepreneur ) and restaurant that is due to re-open in October. “I’m not a ‘politician’, “ he insists after explaining that after gaining his first seat on the council and waiting long enough to gain experience, he ‘crossed the floor’ to the opposition party because he felt it would enable him to get more done. “Like Winston Churchill” he adds with a twinkle in his eye. “I greatly admire him”.

His humour, common sense and pragmatism are refreshing and transparent. We touch on the now overgrown ‘new’ cemetery on the outskirts of the village that was built with an unsolicited – and ring-fenced – grant several years ago.

“The thing is, no-one asked the people whether they wanted it” he shrugs. A forlorn white elephant, downwind of the site where refuse is now burned, nature has slowly reclaimed what the community has shunned.

Spain Genalguacil_3Two minute’s walk from the Town Hall the beautiful ‘old’ cemetery that hugs the walls of Genalguacil’s historic church is filled with sunlight, flowers and lovingly crafted tributes to generations past. A plaque honours those who lost their lives in combat – from the Civil War to the present day; it is easily accessible and at the heart of the community.

This would not have happened on ‘Miguel’s Watch’. Nor would construction of the empty hotel, advertised by a roadside sign, but as bereft of occupants as the new cemetery. Too far out-of-town to accommodate tourists flocking to Los Encuentros de Arte it, too, remains unoccupied.

Perfect for anyone wanting peace, a natural woodland environment and a panoramic view of the Andalusian hills, it waits patiently for occupants to breath life into it. ‘Alcalde’ is keen to find a buyer however and clearly frustrated by evidence of the misguided largesse that has been dispensed without reference to the wishes of the village’s inhabitants.

“It is a fantastic site, but it should not have been built there. If a company comes along and they are interested we will help them. A company from Seville are looking at it. We may grant free use of the land to someone who takes it on but there has to be something in it for the village, employment for example. I want people to come here who are romantic – that’s more important than money!”

Bureaucratic bungle’s aside – and frankly, what village, town or city in the world can’t point to some of its own! – Genalguacil is a pretty amazing place! I suspect that the mayor knows most, if not all, of its population by sight if not by name. His keen sense of humour, which loses nothing in translation to fluent English, belies passion and determination. He didn’t instigate Los Encuentros de Arte, but his dedication to building on its legacy is one of his three goals while in office.

“I never wanted to get involved in politics I never expected to become mayor of the village, but what I do want is to change things here. The village has always supported me – in business and with everything, all my life, and being Mayor is a way of giving something back.

“There is so much in this village; it has so much potential and there is so much more to be done. I feel it’s like starting from zero in some ways, but we have all the tools to create a perfect place, as you see we have a unique natural environment, I think one of the best in Europe, and the climate which is also important. In fact we have the most fantastic village in Andalucía in Spain, a place that everyone feels very proud of. Everyone supports the art projects, and this sense of community is what makes it such a great success.”

Ask Miguel what he stands for and his reply is instant. “Basically there are four parts to my vision. One is an ecological one because we want to develop the natural side of this area; it’s a real treasure for people who love nature. We also need to do things with renewable energy and one of my dreams is for Genalguacil to be completely self-sufficient.

Bienvenidas Genalguacil“It can be done. But politicians – regional and in central government – are not interested in us being self-sufficient. They are only interested in big companies having the power and us being dependent on them. I believe we should develop and help small communities – we have all this biomass; we have hydroelectric resources; we have so much sun! Can you tax the sun?! We could use a combined system. There are lots of possibilities.

“People say it’s not cheap, but part of the high cost of energy is in taking it from ‘A to B’. If we created the energy here for the community it would be very cheap and it would create jobs. We have researched this – many years of thought have gone into it. It’s commons sense.”

It only takes a short exposure to this very special place to realise how inter-connected everything is. The school bus also provides pubic transport. Ex-pats and locals are clearly integrated and supportive of one another. In the narrow white streets every meeting prompts a greeting, from a casual nod or smile to an embrace and conversation. The art is part of the landscape; some of the carved faces are those of villagers, past and present; immortalised in wood, stone, fibre-glass, paint or fading photographs, they sit on walls, peer round corners or simply gaze out towards the distant hilltops. A discarded beer bottle shares a plinth with two large heads, metal horses heads disgorge water into a trough and proud, stylised cats perch on a rooftop. Below them a film crew are setting up, to record oral histories with elderly villagers.

“The festival started in 1994,” explains Miguel, warming to the second element of his ‘vision’. “Many people come here just for the art and I want to keep developing it. It’s part of my dream to attract top Spanish artists but it’s open to anyone.”

“This year none of the international applicants got past the selection. When the committee got past 40 they said ‘Oh my goodness, they are all of such high quality; this is really complicated!” In 2016 the applications will open in January until June, but Encuentros de Arte is not all there is. It’s like having a wedding; it’s only the big celebration.

In Genalguacil we are ‘open for business’ to artists all round. If you want a workshop or an exhibition space just let us know. Recently an artist from Valencia rented a house because she likes it here so much she wants to come and live here!”

Can this tiny village support growing numbers of visitors I wonder, thinking back to the empty hotel so far from the village centre? Apparently yes, because during the Art Festival rooms are made available to rent, the ‘B&B’ is booked up and many visitors drive up daily from the coast – from Estepona or Marbella – or the town of Ronda.

For overseas visitors Malaga is the nearest airport. “There is a bus from Ronda and when the road is completed we hope to get run a little bus service between here and Estepona.” A further 3 km of surface needs to be tarmacked before that can be done but the ever-optimistic Miguel says, “It will happen”. That said, he has little sympathy for those put off by the lack of public transport.

“They should get a car, experience the view, walk, drive a little way, and walk again – although I would say yes to bicycles! There is so much here to explore.”

Eagles are frequently seen soaring in the distant hills; wild boar inhabit the woods and the sight of a sleepy (intoxicated?) artisan nodding off while his mule negotiates a familiar rural route is not uncommon.

Tourism is Miguel’s third focus. Visitors mean money, which has got to be good for the local economy but Alcalde is clear about who should be targeted. “I don’t want to attract mass tourism, just the discerning who can appreciate what is here and what it offers this community that lives ‘off the grid’. “We do need a small hotel here though; there is a small pension, rural homes with rooms to let, but nothing that will spoil this place.”

Not one to leave jobs half finished Miguel plans to stand for one more term as Mayor. “We have a saying here, ‘If you have planted the seeds, you want to be able to collect the tomatoes’ and that is how I feel.

“If people were not so afraid of failing they would do many more things. I’m just the opposite. This is a perfect place for art and creative people to work and sell their art. Like Pepe, who is a weaver, and makes beautiful things that can’t be reproduced by a machine. One of the top artists who came here – sculptor Eugenio Merino, a really nice guy, whose ‘Franco in a fridge’ caused such controversy at ARCO Madrid in 2012 – is to come to Genalguacil for three months to work.”

Earlier this year Spanish film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa used the village as a location for scenes from his latest picaresque comedy about a quest to establish paternity. Clearly a happy experience Miguel recalls, “What was so beautiful is that all the villagers took part in it. Ullao is a romantic, that’s why he came here. He doesn’t work for Warner or Fox or the big production companies who change everything. It’s called Rey Gitano (Gipsy King) and the film goes on release in March 2015.”

Our ‘official’ interview over Miguel and I join my English host whose finca is one of those visible on the horizon. After seven years in residence he has just discovered where to get the best bacon sandwich in Genalguacil.

Is there anything that this village can’t provide . . . . . . ?

*If you can’t wait two years for the 2016 Los Encuentros de Arte del Valle del Genal Festival and want to sample life in Genalgualcil ‘en fete’, the next official event is the annual Chestnut Festival in November. Chestnuts are one of the main natural resources and feature largely in the local economy. Alcalde explains ‘We roast chestnuts and drink aguardiente – its like aniseed, a sweet white liquor which was made in large quantities here in the old days. Now it’s just a tradition.” And the festival? “Well, it’s a big party. We like having parties here!”

For more images of Genalguacil  see