Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A random thing I miss about Syria

There is one thing (among others) that I miss about Syria. I wish, sometimes, that when in public I could just pass off my baby to a stranger for a moment or two, like you can in the Middle East. People there are always happy to help out with a little one, whether it be handing them into a service van or helping a mother balance an armload of groceries with a small child. Here in America, it's just not done, at all. We're far too paranoid that someone will run off with or somehow harm our baby if we let them hold her.

In Damascus, I saw a mother pass her toddler through the window of a service van to the man sitting in the passenger seat, a total stranger. Her husband was the driver of the service, apparently, and it was his turn to babysit. But in the meantime, the child was content to sit with the unknown man, and the father was content to let him. I've also seen young children (but not very young) put in a taxi by themselves, the parent giving the fare ahead of time to the driver and telling him where to drop the children off. Once, when we traveled by bus to Aleppo, the bus stopped at a rest area for a few minutes. In the women's restroom, one mother handed her baby to another woman to hold while she used the facilities. I would never dare do such a thing here (though I have often wished I could) for fear that the stranger would kidnap my child. Heck, I'm even afraid to turn away from my baby for a moment when changing her diaper in a public restroom.

I can hardly count the number of times I've wished I could avail myself of a stranger's help, even for just a moment. There are some things that just can't be accomplished with a babe-in-arms when in public, and since I'm not able to hand Miriam off, those things usually just remain undone.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Adventures in Jordan and Egypt

My husband and I traveled through Jordan and Egypt last Christmas with his brother and sister. The journey by ferry from Aqaba, Jordan on the Red Sea to the Egyptian capital of Cairo was quite the experience. And although it doesn't take place in Syria, and therefore doesn't necessarily fit on this blog, I've decided to share anyway. It begins as we wake up on a Wednesday morning in our hotel in Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Breakfast in our hotel was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were the only customers in the entire breakfast room, and the décor was a little outdated and had lots of teal and gold in it. They had soft music playing, but after a while we realized it was actually only one song: the theme from Love Story. But instead of just repeating the same version over and over, there were a dozen different versions that played in tireless rotation. There was original Love Story, saxophone Love Story, salsa Love Story, piano Love Story, Spanish guitar Love Story, New Age Love Story, etc. Finally it drove us so crazy that we just had to leave. We were due to be at the ferry station, anyway.

Two words sum up the entire ferry experience between Jordan and Egypt: Bureaucracy and Confusion. On the Jordan side at the ferry station, nobody seemed able to give us simple instructions on where to go and what to do. Instead, there were people on all sides of us alternately demanding money, giving us documents to fill out, giving us back too much money in the wrong currency, pointing out a dozen different lines to wait in, and urging us to hurry along. It was extremely stressful. Now I know why the guidebook recommended arriving at the dock 90 minutes early. It took us that long to get everything straightened out, including paying a surprise exit tax in Jordanian dinars, when we had been so careful to spend our last ones the night before leaving the country.

At last we made it onto the ferry and settled into our seats for the one-hour ride. We met an acquaintance from BYU who, with his family, was also trying to get to Cairo, and so we made sure to stick with them. By this time, Jeremy was growing weary of being the on-demand tour guide, interpreter, and facilitator, so he sent me to a counter to secure bus tickets to Cairo (a 7-hour bus ride from Nuweiba, Egypt, where the ferry would land). I wandered over to the ticket counter and submerged myself in the mob of shouting Egyptian men thrusting fistfuls of money towards the cashier. I felt very awkward, and it was made all the worse because there was a seating area full of still more Egyptian men at my back! As a foreign woman, I’m already on display at all times, even without putting myself in their view. I did my best to hold my place in “line,” but thankfully, Jeremy came to my rescue a few minutes later. We bought bus tickets from Nuweiba to Cairo for 9 dollars each, which I thought was quite expensive. I’ll come back to that later.

In between the stresses of figuring out where to go and what to do, in the process of which we handed over our passports to an Egyptian official so that he could expedite the entry process, we had a few minutes to relax in our seats and enjoy the ride and the view. We could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea’s eastern shore, and we approached the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt on the west. The mountains rise quite dramatically from the seashore – there is no gentle, hilly lead-up to them as I’ve seen in other parts of the world.

As the ferry docked, they sequestered all the foreigners into one cabin room. To our surprise, before they would let us out of the room and onto the shore, the officials demanded our passports! Of course, when we explained that we had already handed them over to another official, who was now conveniently nowhere to be found, confusion resulted. It took Jeremy yelling in Egyptian Arabic to finally get them to let us through.

We emerged out of the ferry into a mass of people and a sea of even more confusion. There were buses pulling up everywhere, and people were piling onto them. We had no idea what to do, so we followed the family we had met on the ferry. However, an official separated us and again demanded to see our passports. With growing exasperation, we explained, once again, that an official had taken them from us on the ferry. He looked suspicious, but let us get on the same bus as the other family. It pulled up to an even more crowded area of the ferry dock and let us off, with no direction as to what we were supposed to do at that point.

I’ll pause here and mention again the absolute chaos this place was in. It was as if no ferry had ever arrived at the port before, and even if one had, there had certainly been no foreigners on it. There were no signs, not even in Arabic, just a dozen concrete buildings holding various, unlabeled offices. In actuality, a ferry arrives at that dock at least twice a day, carrying tons of travelers from Jordan to Egypt. The lack of organization in spite of this was absolutely appalling.

By a combination of following the other family and asking various officials dozens of times, we managed to buy our visas. The visa official, however, needed our passports, which situation we again explained. He grudgingly gave the visa paper stamp to us separately, and we wandered from building to building before being told to wait at a specific concrete office. I cannot remember how many times we were asked for our passports in the process. I was beginning to think that they were already for sale on the black market, since every single worker seemed surprised that someone had taken them on the ferry. Finally, some dude showed up with a bunch of American passports, and we all gave a huge sigh of relief, but not before Jeremy had resorted to yelling, in Arabic, “THERE IS NO ORDER HERE!!!!!”

But there was still customs to go through, and we weaved our way through Jordanians and Egyptians toting cumbersome, metal carts piled high with suitcases, boxes, crates, and bicycles, as if they were fleeing the country forever with all of their possessions, and the possessions of all their extended family. The customs officials noticed the souvenir Damascus steel knife Sarah had in her suitcase, and started to make a fuss about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t sharpened at all. Jeremy again came to the rescue and finally convinced them that it was safe to take into the country by repeatedly and exaggeratingly attempting to slash his hand with it (it didn’t even come close to breaking the skin). This was a hilarious sight, and they laughed and let her through with it after all.

Now we had at last reached the bus that would take us to Cairo. I mentioned before that I had thought the tickets were a bit expensive at 9 dollars. However, I was comforted by the thought that this probably meant the bus would be really nice – after all, the most expensive bus ticket in Syria didn’t even cost 9 dollars, and those buses were still super nice. Needless to say, I was grossly disappointed. The bus had indeed at one time been a luxury bus, but those days were long gone. It was old and rickety, the seats were cramped and clunky, and the upholstery was smelly. I shuddered to think what a cheaper bus ticket would have brought us. The driver loaded our bags onto the bus with great urgency, as the bus was due to leave any minute. We dashed to a nearby kiosk to buy some snacks, and we each downed a can of pop before being informed that the bus would be delaying its departure for 90 minutes to wait for another ferry passenger. I panicked, powerless to stop the can of pop from working its way through my system, as I realized that there were no usable bathrooms at the ferry terminal. I was cursing Egypt already, and we still had a 7-hour bus ride to go.

I will spare you some of the details of our bus ride. Suffice it to say that they were some of the lowest hours of my life in recent memory. About 2 minutes into the ride, the driver put in a tape of unpleasant music. At first, I thought it was just a few introductory songs, but after two hours of nasal, atonal singing, it became apparent that was not the case. Sneakily, we turned off the speakers above our seats to dim the sound a bit, but the driver caught on and cranked the volume up even louder.

A little before the halfway point of the trip, the bus pulled into a rest stop, our only break for the whole bus ride. I was grateful for the rest stop and rushed in to use the bathroom. In the Middle East, you almost always have to pay to use the facilities – nothing much, just a few cents to cover the cost of toilet paper and cleaning. As I entered, I noticed they were only charging for the men’s bathroom, but not the women’s. My lucky day! – or so I thought. Once inside, I realized why they weren’t charging the women any money: surely no one had ever, ever cleaned this bathroom since its creation, and there certainly wasn’t any toilet paper. There were already a few women and a child from our bus in the bathroom, staring at the ramshackle stalls with similar horror, and I asked them what we should do. With the typical Arab female fortitude, they straightened up, squared their shoulders, and explained to Sarah and me that there was nothing else to do but use the toilets as they were. We had no other alternative.

With my mood even more dampened, enlightened albeit a little by the discovery of some fake but delicious Oreos (called Borios) for sale at a nearby kiosk, we boarded the bus again. By this time, I was terrified of drinking anything for fear of what the next bathroom would look like. For the next several hours we had to deal with people sneaking cigarettes even though smoking was forbidden on the bus. Jeremy went back once or twice and tried to find the offenders, chastising them and reminding them of the no-smoking policy. But wafts of reeking cigarette smoke kept creeping up to the front of the bus and choking us. I was at a breaking point. Over Jeremy’s objections, I marched to the back of the moving bus and demanded to know who was smoking. An older man meekly raised his hand and I berated him as best I could in Arabic for making me sick with the smoke. Then I softened and asked them to please not smoke because it made me sick, and if nothing else, to do it for God (you can say stuff like that in Arabic). Trembling with anger and nervousness at having confronted half a bus-full of Egyptian men, I returned to my seat triumphant.

Sadly, my triumph didn’t last too much longer before we smelled smoke once again, and I settled down into a resigned, strangled pessimism.

Anyway, we did eventually arrive in Cairo, dehydrated and somewhat demoralized. We said goodbye to the family who had accompanied us all this way and found a place to stay. We then ordered the most delicious food I have ever tasted – delivery from Pizza Hut. Throughout our journey from Jordan, Egypt had sunk very, very low in my favor. This hot, cheesy, western-style pizza was its first step toward making it up to me.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween musings

We dressed up for Halloween as you see here and went to a couple of parties. Some of the more interesting comments we received were:

Guy, to Miriam: Do you have any bombs strapped under there?

Guy #1, to me: Are you a ninja or a terrorist?
Guy #2: If she blows up, we'll know.

Guy, to Jeremy: Are you Jesus?

Guy, to Jeremy: Are you an angel?

Besides that, we got plenty of strange, even fearful looks. I know it's just Halloween, and maybe I'm overreacting, but since when is it not OK to dress up as an Arab, even a non-typical one? Since a dozen Arab men, who did not even dress like this, were involved in September 11, does that mean that the costume of "generic old-fashioned Arabian man" is off-limits? Of course, this would beg the question, was it ever on-limits? Why is it OK to wear a cowboy hat, a grass skirt, even a feather headdress, but not a keffiyeh or a hijab?

We asked a young man at the party to take our picture. He looked at us for a while and then moved away, without even saying a word. Now, I realize that it's possible that this young man had a pre-existing speech production problem that rendered him unable to respond, but I doubt it.

And we were just wearing the outfits as costumes. I'd hate to think of peoples' reactions if we wore such clothing as part of our lifestyle. It's times like these that I'm so glad to be able to tell people what Syria is really like, what Syrians are really like. I can only hope they'll have the courage to ask.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Welcome, Miriam!

Miriam is saying hello!

Announcing the arrival of:

Miriam Damascus Palmer

Born Sunday, 4 September, at 16.08
7 lbs. 5 oz. (3.3 kg), 19.5 inches (49.5 cm)

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Making cookies in Damascus

Our non-oven.

My husband loves chocolate-chip cookies, especially oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. When we first got married, I made the recipe from the Quaker Oats box and it was delicious. The recipe was actually for oatmeal raisin cookies, but I replaced the raisins with chocolate chips and left out the cinnamon. This is still our favorite recipe for chocolate-chip cookies.

Not long after we established ourselves in our apartment in Damascus, my husband began asking when I would make his favorite cookies. I knew it was going to be a challenge – there were a few obstacles in our path:

1. a few of the ingredients in the recipe would be hard to find, or very expensive, or both.

2. we had no cookie sheet

3. our only “oven” was really only a glorified toaster oven that came with strict limitations placed upon it by our landlady. For example, she told us (1) never to set the temperature above 200ºC, (2) never to turn both the top and bottom burner on at the same time, and (3) never to run it at the same time as the air conditioner, washing machine, or microwave. (Come to think of it, I never did ask her what would supposedly happen if we broke any of these rules...)

First, we set out to conquer obstacle #1. The basics, such as eggs, flour, white sugar, etc. were all readily available at our neighborhood stores. Vanilla was available, but only in powder form. Brown sugar, shortening, and oatmeal could be found in the city, but only at a premium price. Baking soda and chocolate chips were AWOL at every store I could think of to go to. We had to wait until the commissary at the embassy opened (an event that takes place rarely and unpredictably) to get those ingredients.

It took a few weeks to gather all the ingredients, but we managed it. Now we had to somehow acquire a cookie sheet. We weren’t very picky in our specifications – it didn’t even have to be a real cookie sheet. Any large (but not too large, lest it not fit in our tiny oven), flat piece of heatable metal would do. Our landlady, as agreed in our rental contract, took on the task to find one with great reluctance and soon claimed that such a thing didn’t exist. When I suggested a store down the street where, after an exhaustive search of my own, I had seen a metal serving tray that would work perfectly, she hesitated and finally admitted that in reality, she just didn’t want to buy anything.

I went to her apartment to discuss the situation and came upstairs with a cake pan, disgruntled but determined to be satisfied anyway. The pan was hardly well suited to baking cookies, and judging from the size of it, would only bake five or six cookies at a time. Nevertheless, we had now overcome the second obstacle.

It was time to make the cookies. I mixed up the ingredients, having lots of fun converting from American to metric measurements. I held my breath as I calculated the oven temperature, hoping that it wouldn’t be more than 200ºC. Thankfully, it worked out to be only 175ºC. After making sure that the AC, microwave, and washing machine were not in use, I put the first batch of cookies in the oven. True to my expectations, only six or seven cookies fit on the pan.

At first, I turned on only the bottom heating coil of the oven, in accordance with my landlady’s instructions. As I monitored the first batch, however, I noticed that the bottoms of the cookies were burning while the tops remained doughy and uncooked.

For the next batch, I tried turning off the bottom burner halfway through the cooking time and turning on the top one. This yielded slightly better results, but still not good enough. Sadly, after more experimentation, I came to the realization that the only way to mimic the convection action of a normal oven would be to switch the burners on and off every couple of minutes for each batch. And of course, with only a few cookies per batch, it meant quite a long period of time for me to stand sentinel at the oven, flipping a switch on and off at regular intervals.

Fortunately, my husband was very grateful every time I made cookies, and made sure to rave about how good they were for days afterward. For me, this made it all worth it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

You drive me crazy

A street scene in Aleppo, Syria

This may not seem to make a lot of sense, but it’s true: I am beginning to miss the drivers of Syria. In order to understand what I’m trying to say, you need to understand one very important distinction: there is a big difference between a “good” driver and a “skilled” driver. Not for one moment would I call the average Syrian driver “good,” in the sense that he follows rules and is courteous behind the wheel. But you have to admit that the average Syrian driver is actually quite skilled, in the sense that they can maneuver through traffic and drive, simultaneously, both offensively and defensively.

The average Syrian driver has an impeccable feel for the exact size of his automobile, and can scrape through amazingly small centuries-old alleyways while dodging horse-drawn carts and soccer-playing children with astounding precision. There are virtually no American-style parking lots in Damascus, which means that drivers have to get creative when the need to pull over arises. Granted, their “creativity” doesn’t often extend past using the sidewalk, but you’d be surprised at the nooks and crannies I’ve seen Syrian drivers squeeze into. I’ve even seen a car or two parked in the middle of a road, in a small area where the road widened to allow for an easier right turn.

Of course, part of this vehicular flexibility stems from the fact that Syrians, in general, drive small cars. You don’t see many trucks (besides Suzukis, and those don’t count), vans, or SUVs driving around the city, and when you do, they likely have a Saudi license plate.

But most impressive to me is the average Syrian driver’s skill. American drivers just don’t measure up. Sure, Syrian drivers may drift across several lanes on the highway without signaling, but at least you can be fairly sure that they did it knowingly. Or, if not, then you yourself, as a Syrian driver driving defensively, fully expected them to make such a move. In America, inattentive driving is terrifyingly common – a driver drifting across several lanes of the freeway is most likely chatting it up on a cell phone or distracted by the in-car DVD player.

Syrian drivers are also intelligently aggressive. They know when to take chances and when to yield to the other guy. In America, I constantly find myself behind some dude driving like an idiot, apparently unfamiliar with even the most basic rules of driving, or else I’m dodging overly aggressive drivers who are just plain unsafe. And this is in the American traffic system that admittedly has dumbed down most every aspect of driving. You can hardly turn left anymore without waiting an eternity for a precious green arrow, instead of being trusted to be able to handle a yield-to-oncoming-traffic green light.

And I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss the traffic circles, too. True, they were usually scenes of chaos and mayhem, but somehow, people get where they need to go without waiting for a traffic light to tell them when to stop and go. In America, we spend eternities at traffic lights whose wait times are way too generously padded to favor the red-light runners. Perhaps less people would run the red light if they knew that the intersecting direction got a green immediately…

Part of the problem with the overabundance of unskilled drivers in America is that we will give a license to almost anyone. If you’re 15 or 16, have 30 bucks, and can pass a vision test and a short driving test, the local DMV will hand over a license to drive. Then, you can buy a nice car for almost nothing down – and pay for it for years to come on an installment plan – and voila! You’re on the road, driving me crazy!

Monday, July 25, 2005

A visit to Marqab Castle

The castle on the hilltop

On a school holiday in the fall, Jeremy and I visited Marqab Castle, an 11th century Crusader stronghold. We took an early bus from Damascus to Tartus, Syria, a port city on the Mediterranean. As soon as we stepped off the bus, the rain, thunder, and lightning started. Luckily, we were able to buy an umbrella from a street salesman for 2 bucks, which had broken by the end of the day. :)

This castle is a little off the beaten path, so we caught a minibus from Tartus to another small town up the coast, Baniyas. The roads were half-flooded, but the driver didn’t mind at all. He was driving so fast that we could actually feel him momentarily lose control of the vehicle each time he plowed through a deep puddle over the highway. Eventually we reached Baniyas and transferred to another minibus that would pass the village around the castle.

It was so cloudy and misty that we didn’t see the castle until we were right below it. It was very stunning. This castle was built from black basalt rock, so it has quite a different look to it than the sandy-colored castles and citadels that we’ve seen so far. It’s perched on top of a steep, green hill overlooking small villages and the Mediterranean Sea. The landscape in the coastal region of Syria is very similar to the Pacific Northwest, except without the fir trees. It was absolutely gorgeous.

The minibus dropped us off at the bottom of a dirt path leading up the hill to the castle. Fortunately, the rains had just stopped, so we started to trek up the path. At the time, we didn’t notice any other path going any other way, although we found out later that there had been.

I should mention here that our guidebook makes a brief, cryptic reference to a certain area surrounding the castle, near the castle graveyard, as being “snake-infested.” That’s all it said. So as the path gradually became less defined and we trudged through increasingly thick foliage and undergrowth, I was keeping an eye out for gravestones, or worse, snakes. Eventually, there really wasn’t any path at all, and Jeremy went ahead to break one. I was getting really nervous about the snakes – it’s not that I’m especially afraid of them, it’s just the mysterious way in which the guidebook mentioned them, with such a startling lack of details, that got my imagination going. It soon became apparent that we were going to end up doing almost a complete circle around the castle before we got to the entrance. In other words, we had somehow taken the wrong path. This also meant that I was sure we must have walked through the snake-infested graveyard at some point.

Finally, exhausted and little muddied, we reached the entrance and paid the 20 cent admission fee (the student price). The castle was very beautiful and quite romantic, in the historical sense of the word. Plus, we were the only people there. The weather had cleared up during our hike and so we had wonderful panoramic views over the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding countryside.

One of the things that I love about the sites in Syriais how untouched and un-touristy they are. There are no labels or signs, and no required route to follow. There are also no ropes or guardrails keeping you away from ancient uncovered wells or sudden crumbly dropoffs. You are simply left to explore responsibly for yourself. We found some old staircases up to the top of the castle’s tower and enjoyed the gorgeous views. In America, it seems like anything of any historical interest is roped off into oblivion so that you can hardly get close enough to appreciate it. In Syria, they let you climb all over it and really appreciate their amazing historical heritage.

By this time, it had started raining again, so we made our way down (the right way, this time, which took all of 3 minutes instead of 1 hour) and caught a minibus or two back to Tartus. We had planned to see Krak des Chevaliers that same day, but it was getting late so we decided to just see the Old City of Tartus instead. We started walking down the street towards what we thought was the sea, but Jeremy decided to ask a passerby, just to make sure. And of course, it being Jeremy, he manages to randomly ask the one guy who has lived in Ukraine for the past 10 years. He answered Jeremy’s Arabic in Russian, and when Jeremy answered back in Russian (we used to live in Moscow), he wouldn’t believe that he was American. He actually had to show him his passport to convince him. Well, this guy dropped whatever he had been on his way to do (it must not have been very important) and showed us around the Old City, speaking Russian the whole time. I have found this to be quite common in Syria - people are usually willing to put aside their own affairs to help out a stranger. A few hours later, after a thorough tour and a cup of tea (zuhurat for us), he left us at the bus station and we hopped on a bus back to Damascus, via Homs. The storm had started up again and so it was an exciting ride back home in a pitch-black, rickety bus that was packed to the brim with passengers.

After having seen many castles in Syria, I think Marqab ends up in second place, inferior only to Salah-ad-Din near Lattakia. Krak is definitely the biggest, most complete, and most famous, but there is just something about these smaller, more isolated, more romantically situated crumbling castles that appeals to our personal tastes.

We never did see a single snake, by the way, which means that all my worrying and fretting about it was for nothing!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ramadan in Damascus

Last year, the Holy Month of Ramadan was from the middle of October until the middle of November. Ramadan is a month of fasting for Muslims. They begin their fast at the pre-dawn call to prayer (often partaking of a meal just beforehand) and end it at the dusk call to prayer. Since the traditional Muslim calendar is shorter than the Western one, Ramadan falls at a different season each year. This means that the actual length of time spent fasting, while always from dawn to dusk, is not consistent. During the winter, it's from about 5am until 4.30pm. During the summer, however, it can be much, much longer (from 3.30am until 8pm, even).

I had some exposure to Ramadan in America, since BYU hosts an iftar feast each year to break the fast on the final night. But last year's Ramadan was my first time experiencing it in a Muslim-majority country. At the time, I wrote down a few of my first impressions. Here they are.

Ramadan started on the 15th of October. The night before, there was a special feeling in the air as people prepared for it. We learned only a day before if Ramadan would start Thursday (the 14th) or Friday (the 15th). Apparently, they have certain meteorologists view the moon to decide if it's in just the right stage to start the holiday (this is according to my English students and our neighbors). Of course, I’ve also heard that Syria waits for Saudi Arabia’s meteorologists to make their decision, and then makes the opposite decision. Whatever the case may be, they finally decided it would start on Friday.

After church (on Friday), we took a nap and woke up to the sounds of a live prayer going on at the mosque next door. The prayer ended just a few minutes before the regularly scheduled recorded call to prayer that comes on at about 5.10ish these days. Jeremy and I went out onto the balcony and it seemed that there was a deathly quiet over the whole neighborhood, like everyone was holding their breath. Then, the Allahu Akbar came on over the loudspeaker and we heard some little kids from a neighboring apartment clapping their hands. Almost immediately, we heard plates and silverware clanking as families began to eat. The city seemed to come alive again. Our landlady sent her son up to our apartment with some delicious food and told us to make sure to be available to accept food in the evenings during Ramadan. So we’re pretty excited about that. Since then, she’s sent up plenty of traditional Syrian salads, meat pastries, and other random dishes. Some foods are served especially during Ramadan - they often break their fast with sugary foods like dried dates to get their energy back quickly.

The next day, again right around 4.45, we managed to get into a grocery store down the street as they were closing up. They were frantically turning off all the lights and turning away customers as they closed before the break-the-fast prayer.

As we crossed the main highway (Autostrad), we saw two cops on a motorbike. One cop was driving, and the other was holding and balancing two heavily-laden bags full of takeout containers. They dropped one off for the traffic cop at that intersection and then went on their way, presumably delivering to other traffic cops at intersections all down the road. Syrians definitely take care of each other :).

We caught one of the last services heading into the city center before the roads became relatively deserted. The driver was also in a frantic/happy mood and racing to get to wherever before the prayer. The Souq al-Hamadiya was as close to deserted as I think we’ll ever see it. Only a dozen shops were open, and nobody was doing any shopping. It was an eerie sight and feeling, since Jeremy and I usually lose each other in that place among the huge, bustling crowds.

A few nights later, our landlady invited us over to partake of the iftar with them. We all sat around the table in their tiny kitchen. Her husband and two kids were very anxious to eat, telling her to hurry up putting the food on the table, even as they sat there and did nothing to help (sounds familiar)! The call to prayer went off, the dad hastily read a prayer that was posted on the wall, and then everyone dug in, quite literally. There were special foods that they eat during Ramadan, like fried pita bread with grape sauce, peach slurry, various salads, etc. It was very delicious.

I have the whole month off from work - I guess they figure that students don't learn English very well on empty bellies (and I think I agree).

In my religion, we fast all day once a month. So in some ways, I can identify with those participating in Ramadan. On the other hand, they do it all in one month, instead of being spread throughout the year. That has to be difficult after a while. In the meantime, we'll be doing our best not to eat and drink in public. Most of our friends have told us that it's not a big deal if we do, but it seems like it would be more respectful to not be enjoying food in front of people who are starving.

Performing in the dark

The lights aren't working for Kazim

Plastic lawn chair seating

...at the Kazim concert (see previous post)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

A concert in Lattakia, Syria

One of the most culturally interesting experiences we had during our time in Syria was attending a concert. Kazim As-Saher, an Iraqi-born musician whose musical style blends traditional lyrics with a modern-ish Middle Eastern sound, came to Lattakia, Syria in August 2004. If you’re American, it’s possible you’ve heard his duet with Sarah Brightman, The War is Over (a bit cheesy in my opinion, but there it is).

We took a Qadmous bus up to Lattakia the morning of the concert. We paid all of three dollars each ticket for the 4.5-hour bus ride on a pretty cushy luxury coach. Before we bought the tickets, though, we made sure to confirm that the bus was non-smoking. Besides wanting to prevent unnecessary damage to my health from breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke, I also wanted to avoid puking on my husband or other fellow passengers (I have an incredibly low tolerance for the smell of cigarette smoke). The last thing I wanted was to spend several hours in a closed environment while passengers puffed away at will. The Qadmous employee swore up and down that the bus ride would be strictly non-smoking.

For the next 4.5 hours, I choked on cigarette smoke from the driver, who chain-smoked the entire drive up to Lattakia. Apparently, the driver is exempt from Qadmous’ stringent non-smoking policy. *Sigh.*

Regardless, we arrived in Lattakia safe and sound. It was very, very hot and very, very humid. The nice thing, though, is that the Mediterranean Sea is available to cool off in. My only previous experience with swimming in large natural bodies of water had been the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon. The water there is freezing and barely tolerable without a wetsuit, even in the middle of summer. But the Mediterranean is deliciously warm, and very salty. This makes it a lot of fun to swim in, since you’re so buoyant and can float with relatively little effort.

The concert was scheduled to start at 7pm, on the private beach of the Le Meridien hotel. We showed up at the gates at about 6.30 to try to get a good seat (our tickets indicated that seating was open). There was a huge crowd gathering outside the gates, which were closed. It was also very dark. We heard through the grapevine that they were having trouble getting the lights to work, and that’s what was delaying our entrance. It gradually became uncomfortably crowded in the small area in front of the gates, with more and more people arriving, anxious to be let in. The darkness didn’t help the air of confusion. Eventually, my husband carved a small space out of the crowd for me, holding people back with his body so that I could have some room to breathe. At one point, someone official opened the gates to let another official in. Bad idea: immediately, the crowd started to stampede through the small opening, pushing the gates (and the officials) aside. It was dark, crowded, and all of a sudden very dangerous. I never understood how people could be trampled to death before, but it quickly became very clear. Luckily, Jeremy managed to preserve the small buffer of space around me, and we made it through the gates safely.

From there, it was a mad dash (literally) down a path in the sand to the small stadium/stage they had set up. The “open seating” was nothing more than row after row of those ubiquitous white lawn chairs. We found a good seat in the second row and settled in for the show, which by the clock was due to start any minute. There were still no lights working on the stage.

As the seating area filled up, I witnessed something very interesting. The resourceful Syrians were going to the seats in the back rows, picking them up, and setting them up in front of the front rows. They also were filling in the aisles. I watched in a kind of horrified amusement as our second-row seat bordering the center aisle quickly turned into a 10th- or 11th-row seat in an aisle-less mass of white plastic lawn chairs occupied by seat-usurping concertgoers. Whoever thought of using unsecured lawn chairs for seating was probably kicking themselves at this moment.

After accepting the fact that our second-row seats were gone forever, we settled back to wait for Kazim to appear. The band was on the stage, practicing in the dark, but Kazim had yet to arrive. We took turns guessing what he would be wearing when he finally did come (I thought he would come out in all black; Jeremy guessed a tux-like outfit, and he was right). About two hours later, he finally showed up. But the lights still weren’t working.

He sang several songs in the dark, which I thought was nice of him. Eventually, they got a spotlight working, which helped. I haven’t been to a ton of concerts in America, but there were some key cultural differences that quickly became apparent (besides those that had already made themselves known). First of all, everybody sang along with every song. It was fascinating. A lot of people also had their cell phones out and were calling friends to vicariously listen to the live music over what I’m sure was a poor connection. After every song, at least a couple of people went up to the stage to offer bouquets of flowers, which Kazim generously accepted. The crowd also had fun yelling certain cheers between songs. The only one I could really catch the words to was “Buss, shoof, Kazim yamel eh!” The ladies behind us were huge Kazim fans. They had scooted their chairs up as close to the stage as possible, which meant that they were practically sitting on our laps, and felt the need to stand up every time he glanced over in our direction, wave their arms wildly, and yell “Kaaaaaaaaaaazim!” in a sing-songy voice. My husband still shudders when I say his name like that.

These same ladies also asked if they could have a drink of my water, which I had thoughtfully planned ahead to bring. This is another cultural difference between the West and Syria, which happened several times during our stay in Syria. If you’re carrying a bottle of water, it’s fair game. Sometimes, they’ll ask for a drink and then hand the water bottle back to you. Other times, it’s not clear, and they may just take the whole bottle and leave. I (grudgingly, I’ll admit) handed back my precious water but stipulated that only the girls could drink out of it. It was passed around a bit and then handed back (they’re usually careful not to touch the bottle with their mouths).

After a few hours of fantastic music, I found that I needed to visit the ladies’ room. We left our seats and waded awkwardly through the mass of lawn chairs that were now arranged so haphazardly as to be entirely without any aisle of any kind. Once out of the crowd, we asked an employee where the bathrooms were, only to find out that there weren’t any. Who would have thought that an officially organized, paid-ticket event attended by hundreds of people would have bathroom facilities? At least that’s the look the employee gave us. We managed to return to our seats, only to find that my water bottle had been commandeered by the ladies sitting behind us. My mistake to leave it behind, I guess.

We enjoyed the music for a little longer and then headed out. I had already immensely enjoyed the music, and it was getting late anyway. We could hear the concert music playing for most of the walk back to our hotel.

At the time of the concert, I had only been in the country for about a month. I often wonder if my impressions of the experience would have been any different if I had gone to the same concert near the end of our stay in Syria. Many of the things that I found to be a little shocking at the time have now become quite normal and even expected of others – or even myself. I’m not sure whether to feel ashamed or proud of that…

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Two additions

My parents, who visited us in Syria in March and April, pointed out two more "You know you've been in Syria too long if..." items:

You know you've been in Syria too long if...

...you have learned the hard way not to even attempt to put on a seatbelt in a taxi (and possibly ruined a good white shirt in the process).

...you've recognized a strange epidemic among taxi drivers - it seems that they have more than their share of misfortune in the form of a sick wife, high medical bills, and 10 or 15 children.

Friday, July 01, 2005

What's next?

Well, we're back in the USA now. I haven't really decided what to do about this blog. It would almost break my heart to let it stagnate, but there aren't too many adventures to be had in the US. I think I still have at least a few posts left in me about things that happened while we were still in Damascus, so I'll probably end up posting those over the next little while.

Meanwhile, my husband is having a hard time not saying "salamtuk" when the cashier asks him if he needs anything else (in Arabic, you can say salamtuk/ik in response to such a question, meaning that the only other thing you want is that person's health. Quite a nice expression, in my opinion).

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

You know you've been in Syria too long if...

We leave Syria tomorrow. As we attempt to cope with the idea of returning to the land of emissions controls and awkward public transportation systems (America), my husband and I came up with a short list of “You Know You’ve Been in Syria Too Long If…”

You know you’ve been in Syria too long if…

…you plan the events of your day around when you will take a shower or do the dishes in order to heat up the hot water in time.
…you know what a VCD is, and you use them as a main source of entertainment.
…you’ve lost the motivation to read, even in English.
…you know just when to speak Arabic like a person from Shagur.
…you’ll never be satisfied with Jamba Juice again – it’s all about Damascus juice shops!
…you have become an expert at entering or exiting a service while it is still in motion.
…before you came, you were not a fan of the Bush administration, and now you are even less so; or, before you came, you were in favor of the Bush administration, and now are even more so.
…you can predict the exact moment in a conversation when the phrase “We love the American people, but we hate the American government” will come up.
…you know that those guys in suits standing along the side of the roads in Malki are packing heat. Bonus points if you’ve actually seen the gun underneath their suit coat (also bonus points if you have ever spotted a guard hidden in the foliage near the approach to the Presidential Palace).
…you get excited when an American movie debuts at the Cham within 3 months of its US release date.
…you a) feel bad for not being married to your girl/boyfriend, b) want to find someone to get married to, or c) feel bad for not having children and find yourself wanting to.
…during the summer, you subconsciously scowl when you see a gas-guzzling Suburban on the streets of Damascus bearing a Saudi license plate.
…you’ve come to appreciate the beauty of those rolling fields in the countryside dotted with black plastic bags.
…(on long distance buses): don’t mess with the assistant driver. Enough said.
…you expect things not to turn out as planned.
…you no longer flinch at the sound of loud explosions.
…you curse yourself for trying to get public transportation on a Thursday or a Saturday night.
…you’ve accepted that quality bookshops are a thing of the past.
…you’ve learned to drive while successfully seeing past various dashboard and windshield obstructions such as large, fake bunches of grapes or full-size hanging stuffed animals.
…you wave on a decrepit-looking taxi in hopes that one with a less sunken-in back seat will come by.
…you find yourself getting the same total amount of sleep, but in shifts from 2am-8am and then 3pm-5pm.
…you don’t go to bed until the neighbors do.
…you purchase fruit from a horse-drawn cart.
…you get really excited when your dial-up connection actually achieves a 50.6 Kbps speed.
…you don’t really notice that there are men around you holding hands or interlocking arms.
…you’re a man and you know the feeling of being kissed on the cheek by an Arab with a 5-o’clock shadow and scratched by the beard stubble (my husband finally understands what it’s like!).
…the names Nancy, Ruby, Haifa, and Elissa have taken on new meaning for you.
…you’ve learned not to call policemen “ustaaz.”
…you find yourself watching BBC for entertainment, or, if you are a man, Oprah/Buffy/Angel.
…you can singlehandedly work out everyone’s change on a service before handing it over to the driver.
…you find yourself hoarding small change.
…when haggling at the market, you find yourself arguing over 5 lira.
…you no longer notice the hoarse shouts of the sundry salesmen who hawk their wares outside your apartment. Bonus is if you actually understand what they’re saying.
…you have finally learned how to sleep through the pre-dawn call to prayer (we’re still working on that one).

And finally, you know you’ve been in Syria too long if you’ve become a nicer person (the friendliness of the population having rubbed off on you).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Our friendly neighborhood grocer

Walking home up Sheikh Saad this evening, we ran into our neighborhood grocer, Abu-Fahad. For a moment or two, I didn't recognize him out of context, but fortunately we recalled in time to say hello. After he passed, I realized that I had never once seen his entire body. What I mean is, I've never seen him out from behind the grocery counter. I had no idea if he was fat, skinny, or even short or tall, really. He has always been 3/4 covered up by the sales counter.

The grocery store he runs is amazing. It's about the size of a walk-in closet, if even. It certainly isn't even as big as a 7-11 or other convenience store in the US. And yet, he has everything. If you don't see it, ask for it, and he'll rummage around in the back or under the counter until he finds it. He also is quick to pick up on his customers' tastes. When we first moved in, he only carried certain kinds of crackers and candy bars. I don't know if he went through our trash or what, but gradually, he started carrying the kinds of snacks we liked. He also has learned to stock up on fresh milk - he used to run out all the time, but now he must have upped his order to accommodate our milk-drinking habits.

Sure, he doesn’t necessarily have a wide variety of brands – there’s usually only one kind of each product. But that means less indecision for us. In the US, trying to decide which kind of yogurt to buy can become a complicated ordeal when you have to choose between no-fat, low-fat, normal fat, light, low-carb, sugar-free, creamy, custard-style, drinkable, fruit-at-the-bottom, pre-stirred, extra calcium, 4 oz., 6 oz., 8 oz., etc. And that’s just within a certain brand, and besides the flavor. I think I’m happy to let Abu-Fahad make those kinds of decisions for me.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Unattended street kiosk?

My husband took this picture outside the gates of Kuliat al-Adab (the College of Literature) at the University of Damascus. At first glance, it might look like the vendor has left his wares unattended, but look closer. There's actually a young boy handling the booth. This is very common in Syria - if Dad wants a lunch break, he'll often put Junior in charge for an hour or two. Sometimes, "Junior" is very, very young (we've seen kids as young as four or five making complicated transactions with customers involving multiple items, change, etc. One even had been trained to ask for smaller change!).

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Cold showers in a do-it-yourself country

Just a few of the bells and whistles that keep our apartment running smoothly...usually.

We ran out of mazzot on Saturday, so it’s cold showers from here on out. Mazzot is the fuel used to heat up water in your house. If you have a radiator heating system, it’s also used to heat the water that runs through the radiators. Rather than being an integral part of your apartment’s utility system, mazzot is usually stored in a separate tank on your roof, and you have to fill it up manually. That is to say, you call a guy and he fills it up manually. Tanks vary in size and the length of time the fuel lasts depends on how much you use it – you turn on the system by flipping a switch in your apartment. The more often you have that switch on, the faster the fuel will run out.

So we’re back to cold showers again. When we got here last summer, the mazzot tank in our apartment was empty. We didn’t bother filling it up yet since it was so hot. To give you an idea of how hot it was, let me explain that I am by no means a “cold shower” person. In fact, I am one of the most “hot shower” people I know. So for cold showers to be acceptable to me, of all people, should tell you how hot it gets here. When autumn finally came, we broke down and filled up the mazzot tank. I can still remember experiencing the miracle of hot water coming from a tap for the first time last September.

All of this has reminded me of something I quickly learned about Syria. The first thing I learned about Syria is that everything is a surprise. But the second thing I learned is that this is very much a do-it-yourself country: some assembly may be required. For example, in Syria

…elevators are rare. If a building has less than four or five floors, there is usually not an elevator. Do it yourself and walk up the stairs! Take our building, for example: we live on the fourth floor (it’s the top floor). Thus, there is no elevator. Believe me, I’m having more and more fun heaving my pregnant self up four flights of stairs in the increasing summer heat. It’s enough to not want to leave the house :).

…automatic clothes dryers are nonexistent. Do it yourself and hang up the laundry on a clothesline. In the summer, the clothes on one end of the line will probably be dry by the time you get to the other end. I don’t think the electrical system in this country could handle automatic dryers, anyway.

…door-to-door trash collection does not happen. Take your trash out yourself to the nearest dumpster. Sometimes the dumpster is located conveniently on a nearby street corner. Other times, it disappears for weeks and you’re stuck hauling your garbage half a mile down the street. And you can forget about recycling. If you cringe every time you throw a water bottle away, the best you can do is take it yourself to a local street salesman – you know, the one who took you aside one day and told you he’d like you to bring him all your used bottles (they can turn them in for money).

…there is no door-to-door mail service. Granted, letters sometimes manage to make it to a residential destination, having been wedged in the crack of your door during your absence, but this is a rare exception. If you want to receive mail, you get a post office box, and go there yourself to pick it up. The same routine applies for sending out mail. (I wouldn’t mention this except that our friends in America never quite believe us when we tell them we don’t have an address. Really, we don’t.)

…a hot shower or hot water to do your dishes has to be a premeditated act. As I mentioned already, hot water has to be heated in advance by flipping a switch in your apartment. If you think you might want a shower in an hour or so, you had better turn on the switch now or you’ll be left in the cold. Also, don’t forget to turn it off, or you’ll have wasted precious mazzot fuel (or find yourself doing miscellaneous chores that require hot water just to use what you’ve inadvertently heated up).

…central heating is a forgotten luxury. Your apartment probably has a radiator heating system. First, turn the lever that opens the pipes that lead to the radiator system. Then, open up each individual radiator in every room by turning the dial on the side. Finally, turn on the hot water. Repeat the process in reverse when you’re finished, or you’ll find that the unused spare bedroom is toasty warm while you’re freezing in the living room.

…you light the stove and oven by yourself. There’s no handy mechanism to do it for you automatically. Light a match, turn on the gas, gather up the courage to bring the lighted match close to where the gas is coming out, and a flame should jump up.

…pistachios don’t come salty and green. Rather, you buy them fresh and peel off their fleshy outer layer first. Then you come close to breaking your fingernails trying to open up the hard inner shell. The soft nut inside, although it tastes completely different from its sanitized American version, is still quite delicious. You can also get roasted pistachios from nut sellers, but they’re still not green.

…you manage your cell phone plan by yourself. There’s no automatic renewal of your month’s minutes – you do it yourself and recharge your plan before you run out of time. If you forget, you’ve lost any remaining minutes and maybe even your phone number.

…if you have a job, you can forget about mindless, automatic direct deposit every month. Instead, you fill out your own time sheet, turn it in by yourself, and then insist, if necessary, on getting paid.

…there is no medical insurance system here. In my personal opinion, this is one do-it-yourself that I really appreciate. Rather than deal with bureaucratic insurance companies and inflated prices, medical care in Syria is simply affordable. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go – there’s no waiting for approval or referral or authorization. Sure, you pay your own costs yourself, in cash, at the time of service, but it usually works out to be far cheaper than paying a hefty monthly premium.

…you monitor the status of your passport and visa by yourself. There are no helpful letters or reminders to tell you when you’re running out of time – you keep track of it by yourself. In fact, since every country in the Middle East insists on taking up a page-and-a-half in your passport for each entry and exit, you might run out of room. And when you do, or even when the passport official has to flip more than two or three pages to find a space, you can expect a scolding.

…it’s up to you to figure out which light switch does what. I firmly believe that there are at least three times as many light switches in existence in this country than there are uses for them. A couple of the rooms in our apartment have four or six light switches in them. Invariably, only one or two of them actually do anything. It’s always fun to watch guests come over and fumble through row after row of light switches, just trying to find the one that turns on the light in the bathroom.

…refrigerators often don’t regulate their own temperature very well. We are constantly having to manually adjust the temperature setting on our refrigerator and freezer, and it’s still never quite right. One night, everything in the fridge will freeze, so we have to throw out any ruined food and turn the temperature up. The next morning, we wake up and everything in the freezer is soggy and defrosted. Sigh.

…there are no garbage disposals. Surprisingly, this is one of the things that I miss the most. Scooping soggy handfuls of icky potato peelings or pan scrapings from the kitchen sink drain every day can become more of an annoyance than you think. I miss being able to just shove everything down the drain, flip a switch, and not worry about it.

The good thing about living in a do-it-yourself country is that it builds character. It also builds an appreciation for the many modern conveniences we do have.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A few of our favorite things - Syrian restaurant

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Restaurant

The non-restaurant part of Beit Wakil's courtyard

Unfortunately, our favorite restaurant is not located in Damascus. It’s in Aleppo, in the northern part of Syria. As I mentioned before, it’s just around the corner from our favorite hotel in Syria, Dar Zamaria Martini, down a quiet lane in the Al-Jdeide quarter of Aleppo.

The dining atmosphere is very authentic, and like every other hotel and restaurant in the area, it’s located in a beautifully restored 18th-century courtyard home. There’s a fountain in the center of the courtyard, draped with some kind of fragrant trees (lemon, maybe?). The food is the best Syria has to offer, with a few Aleppan specialties thrown in. Our favorites are the appetizers, of course, like hummus and muttable. They also have delicious roasted vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini. For a main dish, I love their shish tawouk. It’s highly seasoned and just burned enough for my taste. If it’s available, we order one of their specialties, eggplant kebab. There are so many flavors, colors, and textures in this dish that I can hardly begin to describe them. I’m not even a big fan of kebab, and I still love this dish. If that’s not available, Jeremy goes for their other specialty, cherry kebab. This is an Aleppan dish – kebab meat cooked in a deep red cherry sauce. Otherwise, you can always try their stuffed fried casings, which is basically a fancy way of saying seasoned lamb sausage. I’ve never had it, but Jeremy says it’s pretty good. At the end of all this, you’ll find yourself paying just a few dollars (probably around 5) per person. What more could you ask for?

Beit Wakil is also a boutique hotel similar to Dar Zamaria Martini, though we’ve never stayed there. They have a similarly gorgeous courtyard setting, but they’re not as willing to give discounts on the rooms.

A few of our favorite things - splurge hotel

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Hotel to Splurge On

When you’re traveling, hotels are usually just a place to rest for a few hours before you’re on the road again. But once in a while, a hotel can become an enjoyable part of the destination itself. Whenever we go to Aleppo (and are not just passing through quickly), we try to stay at our favorite hotel in Syria, Dar Zamaria Martini. It’s located in the beautifully serene Al-Jdeide quarter of Aleppo, in three converted 17th-century courtyard homes. The bustling cobblestone streets quiet down in the evenings and a night’s stay includes a delicious breakfast in one of the restored courtyards. Since we have a Syrian residency permit, we can stay at the hotel for half of the foreigner rate. But Jeremy is usually able to negotiate a significant discount on top of that price, so we end up paying $40 to stay in a unique four-star boutique hotel. The best part is that our favorite restaurant in Syria (Beit Wakil) is just around the corner, which means that staying at Dar Zamaria can end up becoming a wonderful vacation in and of itself.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A few of our favorite things - Crusader castle

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Crusader Castle

Syria is rich in ruined castles. The most famous one is probably Krak des Chevaliers, located on a beautiful plain between Homs and Tartus, within sight of the mountains of Lebanon. Our favorite, though, is Qala’at Salah ad-Din, just outside of Lattakia.

The ruins are not nearly as complete as Krak, but the crumbling stone walls and overgrown interior areas are evocative and romantic in their own way. Its location is also more dramatic: it’s perched on top of an “island” that rises dramatically from the surrounding forest and valley. The castle walls encircle the entire top of the ridge.

To get there, you have to take a taxi from the nearby village of Al-Haffa. The road winds down a steep ravine, crosses a small creek, and then winds all the way back up. Despite the elevation climb, there’s more to do: once you reach the parking lot, you still have to walk up a long, steep staircase to reach the entrance. The entrance fee is something like 15 lira for students (probably 150 for non-students). Then, like at all Syrian historical sites, you’re free to explore. No guides, no marked routes, very few signs, and no restrictions. This is a refreshing change from the American stay-behind-the-rope-and-observe-from-afar style of tourism, but it also means that you have to watch your step to make sure you’re not about to fall into an ancient well. The best view to the east is from the top of the keep. You can also look straight down the sides of the castle hill, which is dizzying.

On the other side of the ridge, the castle descends into an overgrown area that was once the residential area of the castle. Guide books claim that it is inaccessible, but we proved them wrong on a recent visit. From the lower, western part of the ridge, you can cut through the brush and find a rock outcropping to sit on and enjoy the view.

Syrian tourist sites are rarely busy, and Qala’at Salah ad-Din is no exception. Sometimes you’ll run into a school group or two, but they usually make their rounds fairly quickly and then the castle is left to you alone. Even if there are quite a few visitors there when you go, the grounds are big enough that it is still possible to lose yourself in some forgotten corner of the ruins. We’ve been there several times throughout the year; in my opinion, the best time to go is in late February or early March when the flowers are just beginning to bloom, the sun is shining but not hot, and crowds are nonexistent.

A few of our favorite things - clothing store

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

My Favorite Clothing Store

This is the store where I bought my first maternity clothes. The top floor is all maternity clothes; the bottom floor is their normal collection. The fashions cater to veiled women, which means that most of the clothes are very modest and comfortable. Everything is Syrian-made and the salesmen, although they are all male, are very nice.

The window display in this particular picture isn’t the best representation of their cutest clothes, but it’ll do. Alrez is located right next to Tutti Frutti (see juice shop entry) on Sheikh Saad. They also have a store inside of City Mall (Queen Center).

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A few of our favorite things - patisserie

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Patisserie (The Parfait)

When my husband came to Damascus for the first time, it was in the spring of 2001. He and the group of BYU students he was with stayed in a place called Medinat es-Shebaab, “Youth City.” It was a glorified hostel of sorts: 4 people to a room, breakfast served in a dingy canteen, and one phone line for the whole building (which made phone calls home to his girlfriend inconvenient, to say the least. I should remember – I was that girlfriend). After a few days, he got sick of eating boiled eggs and flatbread every morning for breakfast, and set out in search of something new. He found a place around the corner called Barfait – The Parfait in English.

It’s a patisserie, which is more than a bakery but less than a café. They sell all kinds of pastries, cakes, and ice cream, as well as sundry little delicacies whose names I don’t know. From then on, Jeremy ate croissants at the Barfait for breakfast. When we came back to Damascus 3 years later – together and married this time – he took me to this favorite old haunt. Many members of the staff were the same, and a few even remembered him from years before. Jeremy had already raved to me about their ice cream and pastries, and I quickly fell in love with them, too.

Our favorite thing to get is just a cup of ice cream: three scoops with whipped cream, or four scoops without, for 25 lira. They have tons of different kinds of ice cream and they’re all delicious. We usually end up getting some combination of chocolate, strawberry, lemon, and vanilla ice cream with chunks of cake in it. If we’re in the mood for a snack, we love their jibnes – it’s what we call their sesame rolls with melted cheese in the center. They also have delicious mini pizzas and croissants with various fillings. For special occasions, we like to order a two-flavor ice cream cake for 500 lira. The chocolate and strawberry version is heavenly, and serves a lot of people (while still leaving enough leftovers for Jeremy and me to enjoy the next day).

If you’re in Damascus for any length of time, you simply must go to Barfait. It’s a prime example of a bustling, Syrian-owned business with excellent, friendly service and high quality goods. Their clientele is very mixed – you’ll see anyone from normal Syrian families out for a treat to fashionably dressed women picking up elaborate party trays. Of course, there is no real address for me to give you, but I can tell you that it is located down the street from (to the east) the United Colors of Benetton store in Mezze Sharqie. It’s pretty famous, so if you ask anyone in the area, they should know where it is.

A few of our favorite things - juice shop

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Juice Shop (Tutti Frutti)

One of our first days in Damascus, we set out to explore our neighborhood. As we made our way down the street, we noticed two other foreigners walking around. They were from Holland, I think, working here in Damascus. They pointed out to us this juice shop, and said it was the best juice shop in Damascus. We never saw them again, but we are eternally grateful to them for showing us Tutti Frutti, which has since become our favorite juice shop. Their juice and smoothies are so good that I can hardly stand to patronize any other shop in the city. The first time we went in, we took a picture of the menu to take home and study (there are some funky fruits available here that we weren’t familiar with). Our favorite things to order are a milk/banana/strawberry smoothie (40 lira), a milk/banana/Nutella smoothie (35 lira), or just plain, fresh-squeezed orange juice (35 lira). If it’s a special occasion, we sometimes order one of the most expensive things on the menu (and split it): a gigantic glass of blended milk, banana, and Nutella, with chopped pistachios, sliced bananas, and Kit Kat chunks distributed throughout (75 lira). They also have plenty of other elaborate fruit salad/smoothie creations that we have yet to try. I keep intending to order something new each time we go, but I just can’t pass up the old favorites.

Tutti Frutti is one of the places that I’m going to miss the most when we leave Damascus. The closest thing that we have to a juice shop in the US is a place called Jamba Juice. In reality, it doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a Syrian juice shop. Besides, their sugar-loaded, fake, non-fresh smoothies cost 4 or 5 dollars each, and they aren’t nearly as tasty or healthful.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A few of our favorite things - produce stand

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Fruit & Vegetable Stand

There are many fruit & vegetable sellers along Sheikh Saad, but somehow, we had the good fortune to stumble upon this particular one. It is by no means the closest one to our apartment – we actually walk past a few to get to it. But the vendors are so friendly and the produce such good quality that we have become loyal customers. By now, they all know us well and are happy to cater to our weird foreigner tastes (Broccoli? Yes, please. Unripe plums? No, thank you). With this produce stand, we never have to worry about them slipping us all the bruised apples or almost-rotten potatoes. Everything is always super fresh and super cheap. We can usually walk away from the stand having purchased a kilo or two each of potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers for only a few dollars. And it’s always fun to try the fruits and vegetables that aren’t commonly available in America (at least not anywhere I’ve lived). Among my favorite Syrian specialties are pomegranates (the red ones), raw pistachios, mandarin oranges, mulberries, mangoes, and figs.

Monday, June 06, 2005


My husband brought home some new music the other day. He had heard her music playing on the radio in a taxi and asked the driver who the singer was. Her name is Grace Deeb. I’m not sure where she’s from (which Arab country). Usually, it’s a safe bet to guess either Egypt or Lebanon, but you never know. The CD that Jeremy bought has her singing almost entirely in Arabic, but a couple of her songs have English or French verses in them. And unlike the vast majority of other Arab pop singers, she usually sings in the Levantine dialect of Arabic, not Egyptian, which is refreshing.

In fact, that’s why I find myself really enjoying her music: it’s refreshing. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly like my share of Amr Diab or even occasional Elissa songs. But Grace Deeb’s music stretches beyond the cookie-cutter Arab pop rhythm and beat to offer something unique. I was excited to have discovered an Arab singer whose style fit my music tastes so well. Finally, here was someone who was really different…right?

I visited her website to find out more about this talented singer, whose music style led me to believe that she seemed to care little for the mainstream Arab pop world of garish eye makeup and a plastic surgery-perfect mouth. Sadly, what did I see on her website but…well, a heavily made-up face and an impossibly pouty smile.

Granted, it’s my fault for attributing characteristics and values to her that she never professed. Still, I had hoped, and I was disappointed. Her music is so different from everyone else’s – is it any wonder that I assumed she would be different, too?

I still enjoy her music immensely, but I’ve all but given up finding a modern Arab pop star whose style I love and who isn’t afraid of how they look when they first get up in the morning. I guess for now, I’ll have to settle for halfway.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Romance lost

There are few things that say “you’re in the Middle East” as well as the call to prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s a hint: it’s that musical recitation issuing from the minaret that invariably figures prominently in the background of most any BBC or CNN report coming from Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, and all the other Middle Eastern capitals. (By the way, has anyone else ever noticed how often the call to prayer goes off during those reports? Judging solely from Western news coverage, you would think the call to prayer is going off all day long.)

There’s a reason the news channels like to feature this unique fixture of the Middle Eastern sound landscape. The call to prayer is at once an emotive, romantic element of the religion that dominates this part of the planet, as well as a commonplace event that takes place five times a day for the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world. The five calls to prayer each have their own name in Arabic and are timed to occur at certain phases of the sun’s journey during the day. They take place, roughly, just before dawn, at mid-morning, at mid-afternoon, in the early evening, and in the late evening.

Although the times for the call to prayer are standardized (roughly – it’s not uncommon for there to be a few-minute discrepancy between neighboring mosques), the style of the muezzin (the guy whose voice you hear) and the length of the call are not. For our first few nights in the city, my husband and I stayed in a well known backpacker hostel in the center of the city. The call to prayer coming from the mosque next door was absolutely gorgeous – it was everything I had imagined and hoped it would be: atmospheric, lyrical, haunting, and relatively undistorted by the originating speaker and amplifier.

When we moved to a permanent apartment, I eagerly awaited hearing the call to prayer that would become routine during our year-long stay in the country. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Our neighborhood mosque muezzin’s style left a lot to be desired, in my opinion. The problem was compounded by the fact that the speakers (or amplifiers, I can’t be sure which) on the mosque were of absolutely terrible quality, distorting the sound awfully. But oh well – it’s only five times a day, right?

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. For some reason, our local mosque changed their call to prayer. The muezzin was different now, but not really better or worse. One thing that had changed for the worse, though, was the pre-dawn call to prayer. For reasons that remain unexplained, the first prayer of the day was now being broadcast for 20 minutes instead of the usual 2 or 3. What’s more, they seemed to have downgraded the speaker quality (something I wouldn’t have thought was possible) and upped the volume considerably (to compensate, perhaps?). Something that we used to be able to sleep through, or at least only wake up briefly for, had now turned into a 20-minute intermission in our sleep cycle. It was so loud and began so abruptly and harshly that I often jolted awake, and earplugs or a pillow over the head were a useless defense.

Lest I offend, let me be absolutely clear about what I am not trying to say about Islam, Muslims, or the call to prayer. I am not trying to ridicule their religion, or this important part of it. I am not saying that they should not be allowed to broadcast the call to prayer, even before dawn. I am also not trying to make fun of our particular neighborhood mosque.

What I am trying to say is that the call to prayer could certainly be handled in a more reasonable manner that would preserve its vital religious function without becoming a nuisance to believers and non-believers alike. For example, is it really necessary for the pre-dawn prayer to go on for 20 minutes? Probably not, especially since ours is the only mosque I have ever heard of that does this. Should the prayer be broadcast so loudly that it is unreasonably audible, even when extreme efforts are made by an individual to block it out at four o’clock in the morning? Again, probably not. When the call to prayer is so loud, it interferes with neighboring mosques’ calls to prayer, producing an out-of-synch cacophony of sound that is hard on the ears. Finally – and I realize this is a huge generalization based on my limited observations only – it seems to me that such an extraordinary effort by our local mosque to rouse people from their beds before dawn to pray is perhaps not as effective as it could be.

The other night, the call to prayer came blasting over the loudspeaker as expected. Unbelievably, it was even louder than usual. The speaker quality had also deteriorated even further. There were large sections of the prayer that were completely unintelligible because of static distortion, and a loud clicking noise could be heard rattling away in the background. My husband had reached a breaking point. He said he was going to “see what was going on.” I wasn’t sure what he meant to accomplish – I’m still not sure – but he got dressed even as I tried to convince him that he was talking crazy (is there another kind of talk at 4am?). He went outside and walked to the mosque and observed…nothing. The call to prayer was just a little louder at its point of origin. Twenty minutes later, when it was over, he came back and we tried to go back to sleep. It’s not easy, when you’re fully awake for that long in the middle of the night.

I wish the muezzin didn’t sing for 20 minutes in the middle of my R.E.M. sleep cycle. I wish he would turn the volume down, and maybe get some new speakers. I wish his style were a bit more melodious. But most of all, I just wish the call to prayer could be something romantic again, something evocative of the Middle East, something that truly inspired respect and reverence for the religion of Islam in the hearts of us unbelievers.

PS – It turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way - there was an interesting article on the BBC about this issue in Cairo. Read the comments below the article and notice that everyone who claims a loud, lengthy wakeup call at 4am is OK with them also happens to be living in a non-Middle Eastern country where the call to prayer isn’t even broadcast.