food / travel

Seduction And Sedition Haunt A Different Palmyra Landmark

With ISIS terror reigning in Palmyra, where treasured Roman ruins are at risk, reflections on a fascinating if less ancient part of its history: the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel.

The Zenobia hotel in Palmyra before Syria's civil war began
The Zenobia hotel in Palmyra before Syria's civil war began
Boris Mabillard

In his satirical Dictionary of Received Ideas, French author Gustave Flaubert gave his definition of Palmyra. “An Egyptian queen? Famous ruins? Nobody knows,” he wrote, back in the 1870s. The ancient Syrian city is all of that at the same time. But since the novelist’s passing, another symbol has come to highlight the city’s glorious history â€" as well as its tragic present.

This is the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel, named after the queen who ruled the city for a short time from the year 267, following her husband’s assassination. Legend has it that Zenobia, the “Warrior Queen,” defied Rome by striking her own coins.

The single-story hotel, built in 1924, is located along the original site of ancient Palmyra and the building bears the same grey, yellow and ochre colors as the famous ruins. A small colonial-style parapet is the only thing separating the terrace, where a few palm trees provide shade, from the vast fields of legendary ruin. A magical perspective on the iconic Temple of Bel, the agora, the old gates, the Great Colonnade.

A 2005 photo of the ruins of Palmyra, seen from the Zenobia â€" Photo: Wilhelms/GFDL

This is perhaps what seduced the French adventurer Marga d’Andurain when she bought the hotel in 1927. As the one and only place to stay for those travelling between Damascus and Baghdad, the inn must have looked like a juicy business opportunity. Still, caravan trade was in its final hour, and a road further south soon supplanted the old dust and sand track, with travellers eager to avoid the oasis and its infamous surroundings, where Bedouin tribes would rob incautious convoys.

Naked in the dunes

For a few years, Marga d’Andurain persisted, welcoming other adventurers and archaeologists, and becaming friends with the tribes’ leaders. She relegated her husband to the back of the garden, in a modest annex that looks onto the street and later became a souvenir shop.

The few witnesses of that time contributed to the legend’s making. It is said that Marga used to ride her horse naked through the oasis and the dunes, and that late in the evenings she would go see her lovers, Bedouins and French soldiers. Swiss writer and journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach was one of her guests in 1933, and was so amazed by the eccentric Marga d’Andurain that she wrote a short story about their meeting.

Herbert Schmalz's Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra â€" Source: Wikimedia

After all these years, it seems impossible to separate the legend from the facts. Marga D’Andurain did her utmost to build a character while keeping her life a mystery. She saw herself as a reincarnation of Queen Zenobia.

We do know that she eventually married a Bedouin leader, converted to Islam, and tried to become the first Westerner on the holy sites of Mecca. But her project failed when she proved unable to convince the authorities that her conversion was authentic.

The rest was a deadly rout. Her Bedouin husband died after being poisoned. She was accused of the murder and imprisoned in Jeddah in April 1933. After two months in prison, she was acquitted thanks to the French consul’s intervention, and was authorized to return to Palmyra. There, the tribes wanted revenge for the death of one of their leaders: Her first husband, Pierre, was killed, stabbed on the hotel’s terrace. The Zenobia also died, little by little, as tourists stopped coming.

Forced to flee Syria, Marga d’Andurain sold off the furniture to an antique dealer in Aleppo. The jolts of history and tribal rivalries froze the oasis for 50 years. A godsend for the Zenobia, which reopened in the 1980s, taking advantage of then-President Hafez al-Assad’s bid to boost tourism.

Early 20th-century rotogravure of the Zenobia â€" Photo: Fonds Raoul Brandon

The group that owned the hotel banked on its exceptional setting to attract visitors. Everything was left untouched, as it had been for all these years, offering just a basic level of comfort. Only Marga’s bedroom and office were turned into a suite with a view, while the terrace became a haven of the rest for the foreigners visiting Palmyra.

Syrians, however, shiver at the mention of the oasis. The modern city of Palmyra, Tadmur in Arabic, is also known across the country as the home of one the worst prisons of the Syrian regime. Hafez, followed by his son Bashar al-Assad, held Syria with a tight grip, jailing opponents by the thousands.

Life in Palmyra went by to the slow rhythm of the oasis, but the palm grove rustled with a thousand seditions. And the tribes, with their conservative interpretation of Islam, embraced the revolution from the start, driving away the tourists. The hotel was soon abandoned, plundered and partly burnt. ISIS jihadists, with their thirst for death and destruction, turned it into a military base after taking control of the city in May 2015.

The memories of Queen Zenobia, captured by the Roman Emperor Aurelian and taken to Rome, and of Marga d’Andurain, killed aboard her yacht off the Moroccan city of Tangier, have left Palmyra forever.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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