Saturday, April 30, 2005

Apartment shopping in Damascus - Part 2

In addition to the normal questions, there are plenty of things that nobody ever told us to ask, but that we wish they had. So, for our next trip to the Middle East, we’ve prepared a list of stuff that’s really important to ask about.

  1. Out of all the closets in the house, how many of the doors actually function? By function, I mean that they shut completely instead of hanging open.
  2. Is the bed mattress supported by a piece of flimsy masonite board, which is in turn propped up on an awkward rigging of cinderblocks and 2x4s? Is this arrangement so precarious that the bed squeaks loudly even if you just flex a muscle while lying in bed?
  3. Is there even a real mattress, or is it just a foam pad, or perhaps pieces of foam pads welded together to make a big enough sleeping surface?
  4. Are the windowpanes paper-thin? Are they loosely placed in a window frame, which in turn is loosely placed in its sliding track, which in turn does not even remotely form a seal when closed? Or, alternatively, has the window pane been broken and is now just held together with strips of tape? Regardless, do the windows offer zero sound protection and rattle whenever there is the slightest breeze?
  5. Is there an oven? Before you answer yes, does the oven actually work? Furthermore, is it of sufficient size to fit a standard baking pan or sheet?
  6. In relation to question 4 of the previous post, does the paint peel so badly that large flakes sometimes fall from the ceiling and land on you while you are sitting on the couch minding your own business?
  7. In relation to question 7 of the previous post, are there any especially undesirable businesses nearby? For example, are there busy car repair shops down the street that emit loud, random explosions throughout the day, or a bakery that runs its noisy water pump at night, keeping you awake?
  8. Similarly, are there any businesses located on the first floor of your building? If so, are any of them tailor shops that have erratic work schedules and whose industrial-strength sewing machines and sergers will shake the whole building at any time of day or night?
  9. If there are not any businesses on the first floor of your building, and you think you are lucky to move into a quiet lane, are there potential places for businesses to move in on the first floor? Realize that if it is possible, they will move in. Also be aware that they will not complete their noisy, poundy, early-morning until late-night construction in a timely manner, nor will they all do it at once. Rather, one store will move in and gradually be completed, and only then will the next begin.
  10. During the holy month of fasting, Ramadan, will your neighbors sleep all day and be active all night? Do these nocturnal neighbors include several employees of the above-mentioned tailor shop? Furthermore, is the owner of the tailor shop the same guy who owns your apartment building, so that there is no one you can complain to about the building shaking all night for the whole month?
  11. Does your apartment have a Turkish toilet as well as a Western one? If so, does the Turkish toilet sometimes reek for no reason, usually when the wind blows a certain way? Is there absolutely nothing you can do about this smell, no matter how much bleach you pour down the drain or how tightly you seal the door with duct tape?
  12. Have you been lucky enough to find a bookshelf in all the city of Damascus? Or are you stuck with using a kitchen utensils cart to unceremoniously cram your books on?
  13. In relation to question 10 of the previous post, how loud is the call to prayer broadcast from your local mosque? Does the muezzin sing in a melodious manner, or does his particular style grate on the ears like so much aural steel wool? Does he give a special extended edition of the call to prayer at 5 am, often continuing long after every other mosque in town has finished already? Are earplugs useless against him?
  14. In relation to question 15 of the previous post, do any of the nearby single-family apartments actually have three families living in them? Do these three families single-handedly make more noise and ruckus at night than any of the other sources of midnight disturbance mentioned above? When, at 2.30 in the morning, you finally break down and politely ask them to consider pounding on their wall with a sledgehammer or forging heavy armor at another, less midnight-y time, do they reply in a snarky manner and often continue anyway?
  15. Is the lighting in your apartment so poor that you are reduced to using a white-light headlamp to complete simple reading tasks?
  16. In relation to questions 17 and 18 of the previous post, does your landlady live downstairs from you, and thus, can she track your movements at will? Does she ask for the key to your apartment when you travel? Furthermore, does she ask for extra money a lot? When she has received it, does she ask for more, as if you are her personal bank?
  17. In spite of all this, are you having a great time living in Damascus, making friends, learning to speak Arabic, and enjoying all the character-building experiences your crazy apartment offers you?
The answer to number 17, at least, is a resounding "yes!"

Friday, April 29, 2005

Apartment shopping in Damascus - Part 1

Syrian apartments are full of idiosyncrasies that we Americans aren’t used to. If you ever move to the Middle East, here’s a list of things to check in the apartment. The first part of this list is practical stuff that you’ll find in many apartment-shopping guides.

  1. Is the furniture in good repair?
  2. Is there any evidence of bug infestations?
  3. Is the mazzot (fuel used to heat hot water) tank full? If not, what arrangements has the landlord/lady made?
  4. Are there signs of water damage on the walls or ceilings, usually indicated by peeling paint?
  5. How many functioning phone jacks are in the apartment, and in which rooms?
  6. Are there enough power outlets in the apartment? If not, are powerstrips provided?
  7. What kinds of businesses are nearby? Will you need to travel to another part of town to take care of basic shopping needs?
  8. Are there cleaning utensils already in the apartment? Are they of good quality?
  9. Is the kitchen adequately furnished with the utensils that you need?
  10. How close is the apartment to the local mosque?
  11. Is there a refrigerator/freezer? Do they work?
  12. Is there an iron and an ironing board?
  13. Is public transportation easily accessible from the apartment?
  14. Are there enough floor drains in the apartment? Do they have covers that fit tightly?
  15. What kind of people are your neighbors? Do you prefer living near all foreigners or all Syrians?
  16. What is the arrangement for paying the rent? Does your landlord/lady want a year in advance, or can you pay by the month?
  17. How close does your landlord/lady live? Is this acceptable to you?
  18. Do you feel that you can have an honest and good relationship with your landlord/lady?
But there's plenty more idiosyncrasies and potential annoyances that they don't warn you about...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Stickers on a hotel window in Deir ez-Zor, Syria

We have no idea what exactly the top one is prohibiting. Back-stabbing, maybe?

Girl at Petra, Jordan

This little girl was selling necklaces at Petra in Jordan.

Hijab Envy - Part 2

Not only do hijab-clad women look classy, they also act in a sophisticated manner. Last summer, Jeremy and I went to a Kazim as-Saher concert in Lattakia. It was the end of August – peak season for hanging out at the beach and swimming in the Mediterranean. The concert took place in the evening, but it was still very hot and humid. A lot of the women in attendance looked like they had come in from Lebanon – at least, they were almost certainly not from Syria. Tight, revealing tank tops and short skirts were everywhere, along with overdone makeup, garish gold jewelry, and extreme hairstyles. Yes, these women were technically beautiful, but in such a worldly and ostentatious way. About halfway through the concert, several women came in and took their seats in front of us. They were all wearing the hijab. I couldn’t help but compare them and their sophisticated appearance to the more scantily clad ladies around us. Amount of exposed skin notwithstanding, the hijab ladies were definitely more attractive and seemed more composed, mature, and graceful as a result.

Hijab women, if they smoke at all, never smoke in public. They’re long-suffering in summer: just when your instinct is to wear as little clothing as possible, they’re still layering it on, committed to their promise. And they always outsmart us non-hijab ladies when visiting famous mosques (like Omayyad or Seida Zeinab). While I have to shroud myself in a raggity old black sheet handed out by the guy at the gate, they walk in serenely, already appropriately dressed for the occasion. The whole time we’re in the courtyard or prayer room, I’m constantly worrying that my hood will slip back or that too much of my arm is sticking out of the sleeve. Meanwhile, they’re busy enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

Veiled women are careful to be discreet and avoid unnecessary contact with unknown males. That’s why you’ll often see three or four hijab-clad women packed into the back of a taxi so that nobody has to sit in the front seat next to the driver. Other times, they have a younger, unveiled sister sit up front, or even a small child. On services and buses, men are conscientious enough to shuffle the seating arrangement to allow veiled women to sit alone or next to other women, and not have to share a bench with an unknown man. Sometimes the driver will even call out instructions from the front, orchestrating the arrangements so that there’s an acceptable seat available for a waiting hijab woman. As an unveiled woman, I am not always extended the same courtesy. The hijab also offers protection from shabaab, the young men who love to hassle women on the streets by catcalling and making kissy noises. I’ve never seen a hijab woman get tough-guyed walking across the President’s Bridge, or whistled at when she passes a group of idle security guards.

Women who wear the hijab are good moms, students, and sisters, or so I’ve observed from watching TV. The moms in commercials who send their kids off to school with a good lunch, tidy the house, go to work, and still have dinner ready in the evenings always wear the veil. And their children are always well behaved. I’m always telling my husband that when we have kids, I need to be like a hijab-mom. Once I saw a commercial where an unveiled woman complained of being tired and run-down all the time. Who did she turn to for advice but her hijab-clad neighbor? We unveiled women are usually relegated to superficial roles in cosmetics or perfume commercials.

The hijab simply allows a woman’s inner beauty to be obvious to all. When you interact with them, you realize that you’re dealing with a real person, not a certain brand of clothing or a certain level of wealth or status or attention to personal appearance. We in the western world can learn a lot from these women who don’t show a lot of – or any – skin, yet still manage to be excellent, upstanding examples of beautiful, feminine, extremely capable women.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Hijab Envy - Part 1

There’s just no reason not to admire a woman who wears the hijab (the Muslim dress code of the veil). It’s one of my favorite things about living in Syria. There are so many different styles and colors and levels of strictness the women observe, from a head-to-toe black covering to a chic scarf barely covering gorgeously styled hair. Some women don’t even wear the veil at all, even if they are Muslim (this often comes as a surprise to us Americans).

Most Westerners are familiar with the loose, black covering (I think it’s called a chador) style of hijab. But here in Syria, sometimes they don’t even have a slit for the eyes. Instead, the face is covered by a slightly thinner piece of black fabric that works like a one-way mirror: they can see out, but we can’t see in. It’s not uncommon to see a woman draped in black chatting on a cell phone while shopping, or passing an object of interest under her veil to get a better look at it before she purchases it. At night, they usually have a younger, unveiled companion, like a son or daughter, with them – I imagine it’s to help them navigate the streets in the dark.

The next level seems to be the “trench coat hijab.” These women wear long, loose, yet stylish belted trench coats in blue, tan, or black, and a simple white headscarf. The belts are usually left untied so that the body shape remains hidden. This is one of my favorite styles of hijab – it just looks so classy, all year round. I sometimes tell my husband that if I were Muslim, and if I wore the hijab, I would choose this style.

From there, it’s a descent into a myriad of different levels of hijab observance. The most common seems to be almost normal clothing styles paired with a colored or patterned hijab, except the clothing is usually longer, looser, and higher-collared. Some of the headscarves are absolutely beautiful, and the women are always finding ways of wrapping them creatively. The great thing about this style of hijab is the butt-covering feature of the shirts. I’ve learned from the natives that this can be a very helpful deterrent to male hecklers (don’t ask me why, but it works, somewhat). They pair these shirts with loose trousers or a skirt in a drapey fabric and the effect is very elegant.

There’s also an in-between category of women who wear normal clothes but never a patterned hijab, only pure white. It seems to me that these are generally younger women or teenagers, and you can sometimes see herds of them wandering around together. It makes me wonder if it’s a case of friends choosing to dress alike. In the States, girls might wear the same style of jeans to show solidarity; here, if one girl wears the white hijab, her friends do, too.

It’s pretty rare, but sometimes you’ll see a woman wearing a headscarf paired with a tight shirt and a calf-baring skirt. I’m not sure what exactly is going on here, so I won’t try to explain it. Other times you’ll see a beret or an oversized baseball cap being used as a headscarf, but it usually doesn’t work and ends up looking silly (in my opinion).

But the hijab is more than just a dress code: it’s a method of behavior as well. More about that later.

Monday, April 25, 2005

"A candy lineup?"

My husband pointed out to me that this post doesn't technically relate to adventures in Syria, but I thought I'd share anyway.

Jerry Seinfeld says that when you’re a kid, your ultimate goal in life is to get candy. I agree completely.

When I was 13, my family went on a vacation to Alaska. My mom and dad stocked up on snacks for the kids during the trip – pretzels, goldfish crackers, and the crown jewel: a whole box of peanut butter Twix from Costco. My little sister and I really, really looked forward to eating those. But my dad rationed the snacks pretty well and by the middle of the trip, we had each only had one or two. This was fine with me, because it meant more Twix to look forward to.

At one point, we took a ferry between two cities. We got to sit on movie-theater style seats with a nice view over the water. It was a fun adventure for us young ones. I remember seeing the treasured peanut butter Twix stowed safely underneath my dad’s seat, thinking again how good they tasted, and wondering when we’d get to have another one.

When we got off the ferry, to my horror, the box of Twix was nowhere to be found. My dad had left it under his seat on the ferry. All those Twix, gone forever.

I still mourn the loss of those Twix. I don’t know that it’s something I’ll ever entirely get over. No matter how many Twix I can buy with my own money now, it’s just not the same.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Buying maternity clothes from men

I finally broke down and went shopping for maternity clothes last week. Rigging the fly of my jeans with a rubber band through the button hole was just not working anymore. I’m not big on shopping, even in the US, but I was feeling like an oversized slob in all my pre-pregnancy clothes. Gathering my courage, I headed out to a women’s clothing store down our street, next to our favorite juice shop, that often has maternity clothes in their display window.

Strangely, all the workers at the small store were male. But it seemed to me that the other Arab women shopping paid no attention to this. They came out of the dressing room – there was only one – and preened in front of their friends and the onlooking salesman like normal. I was having trouble approaching the decidedly Arab male just to ask about a size.

But as it turned out, sizes didn’t matter anyway. Most of the shirts I looked at were marked as “standard.” When I finally gathered the guts to ask the salesman about it, he explained that it was basically one-size-fits-all. Hmm.

What was also interesting about the clothes is that they were all very hijab-friendly. In other words, they fit the standards of women who wear the veil. That means high necklines or collars, long, loose sleeves, a decidedly non-form-fitting torso, and plenty of fabric to cover your bottom. This was fine with me – the more modestly you dress around here, the less you get hassled by local males. But unfortunately, the hijab-friendly styles mixed with one-size-fits-all meant that some of the shirts looked more like dresses on me.

Finally, I found a few shirts that were actually sized, and very cute. And the bottom-covering feature is a big plus. It’s at least a small deterrent to the would-be oglers.

I decided that if I’m feeling really brave, I’ll get around to going shopping for a bra. There are these things that Jeremy and I call bra-mobiles that appear on the streets in the evening. They’re just large, flat carts piled with a random assortment of bras, peddled by a male. Now that will take some courage.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Visa #1559

Earlier this month, my dad, mom, brother, and I took a quick trip to Lebanon. Border crossings are always a tricky process; no matter how many times you've done it, it's still never quite routine. Your successful entry/exit depends entirely upon the disposition of the individual border official handling your passport. If he's suffering from indigestion that day, you may be out of luck, even if all your paperwork is in order. This is especially true on the Syrian side of the border, but the Lebanese side is no piece of cake, either.

We had made it through the Syrian side and were now in a shabby cement block building on the Lebanese side, waiting for them to finish processing our passports. We hit a minor snag when I used a green pen to fill out my entry card - the border officials insisted I fill out another one in a more tame color such as blue or black.

Suddenly, one of the officials beckoned my 12-year-old brother Steven over to his window. I was momentarily seized with panic that there was a problem with his passport - what possible reason could they have to single him out?

"Your visa number," he announced in a stern voice, calling the attention of the other officials, "is 1559." At this, all of the workers' faces broke out into grins. My family looked bewildered. Quickly, before the guards decided we didn't appreciate their humor, I explained that 1559 is the number of the United Nations Resolution that calls for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. This particular resolution has obviously been in the news a lot lately, and is a popular one with the Lebanese people. We all smiled and laughed along with the border officials.

As the officer handed back Steven's passport, he said, "This means good luck in Lebanon." They all laughed again and we were free to enter the country.

There was a fitting coda to this story...

On our way out of the country, we passed through the Bekaa Valley on the main Beirut-Damascus highway. Just before the border, at around 11 pm, we passed a convoy of huge military trucks packed with troops, tanks, and weapons, also leaving the country. We witnessed 1559's implementation - here was Syria pulling its army presence out of Lebanon.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kung-fu taxi driver

One time we were in a taxi and the driver told us that his name was Bruce. Needless to say, this is not a standard Arab name. We didn't believe him, so he showed us his ID card. Sure enough, it was Bruce Mohammad Abdullah, or something like that, with Bruce spelled out awkwardly in Arabic script.

It turns out his dad was a big kung-fu fan 30-something years back, and so he named his son after Bruce Lee. Weird.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

An unwilling participant in smuggling

The best way to travel between Syria and its neighbors in the Near East (Lebanon and Jordan) is in a service taxi. These taxis are specially labeled vehicles licensed to cross the border on such commonly traveled routes as Latakia – Beirut, BeirutDamascus, and DamascusAmman. Sometimes the taxis are well maintained, newish KIAs with room for four passengers. More often than not, however, you’re stuck with a huge, unwieldy “land yacht” that reeks of diesel inside and out but whose cavernous interior can fit five passengers. All you have to do is buy a single seat in the taxi (usually about $10) and then wait for other travelers to do the same and fill up the car. Or, you can pay for all the seats and have the taxi to yourself.

The taxi drivers are an ambitious bunch, always looking for ways to make extra money without doing much extra work. The easiest way for them to do so is to fill up on certain goods on one side of the border at a cheap price and then unload them on the other side for a profit. From Lebanon to Syria, it’s usually western snack foods. From Syria to Jordan, it’s cigarettes. They usually stash the goods in the trunk, but some of the drivers are audacious enough to ask if they can put them inside your luggage to ease their passage through customs. When Jeremy was in Syria four years ago, his taxi driver from Damascus to Irbid, Jordan asked him and his fellow travelers (also BYU students) to hide large quantities of cigarettes in their luggage, explaining that the customs officials never checked foreigners. When they refused, the driver strapped the cigarette cartons to his body and put on a jacket over them, even in the warm spring weather. On our more recent trips, the preferred method seems to be to casually scatter the cartons around the vehicle, as if it’s normal to have two dozen packages of cigarettes on the dashboard, in the glove compartment, and by the rear windshield.

This small-scale smuggling never really bothered me, to be honest. It usually doesn’t take up any of our time, except at the designated purchase point before the border (which can be used as a bathroom break, anyway). The only way in which it starts to infringe on our convenience is when they ask to be paid their $10 per seat ahead of time. This means that they don’t have ready cash on hand to purchase the goods and want to use your money to do so. We always refuse to pay the whole amount before the requisite service has been rendered – it’s just common sense – and most taxi drivers don’t press the issue.

On Monday night, we returned home from Amman to Damascus. The various taxi drivers at the depot in Amman fought over us like vultures to get us to go in their car. When we finally got settled in a taxi, everything seemed like it was going well. Then, just before the border, the driver pulled off into the parking lot of a convenience store. As expected, he asked for his money up front. Jeremy refused, again and again, as the driver tried in all the usual ways to make his case – they usually try to claim it’s for the payment of taxes at the border, which is a total lie. Eventually, Jeremy struck a deal with the driver that if he would drop us off at a certain place in Damascus, instead of just at the central depot, we would pay him his money ahead of time. Of course he agreed immediately, and we handed over the cash. In he rushed to the convenience store to make his purchases. In the meantime, he asked Jeremy to fill out the taxi passenger register for him in Arabic – something that is really his job. I was beginning to wonder just who was rendering a service to whom.

At last, at last, we were on our way again. This smuggling run was taking longer than usual and we were anxious to get home at the end of a long period of traveling. It was already 9 o’clock at night, with a tedious border crossing and many kilometers still ahead of us. As we finally finished passport control on the Syrian side and prepared to get back in the taxi for the last time, Jeremy reiterated our agreement to be dropped off at a specific place in Damascus, not the general depot. To our surprise (or perhaps not so much), the driver now disavowed any such agreement, firmly stating that as part of his contract with the taxi company, he was strictly forbidden from taking the taxi off the main route from Amman to Damascus. If he were seen off the main route, he insisted, he could be fined. Arguing didn’t help at all, despite Jeremy’s best efforts. Seeing it was fruitless, we gave up and resigned ourselves to having been taken in.

Notwithstanding this setback, once we were on our way again I was sure we were on the home stretch. There were less than 100 kilometers of good highway remaining between us and Damascus. But suddenly, the driver turned off the highway onto a narrow village road. This was definitely not the usual route. Jeremy immediately confronted him – where were we going? The taxi driver at first tried to pass this off as the normal road between Amman and Damascus. We didn’t buy that for a moment, having traveled the right way before. Of course, Jeremy then brought up the driver’s own words about not being allowed to go off the main route, lest he be fined. These words, so recently spoken by his own mouth, somehow didn’t seem to ring a bell with him anymore. Then, Jeremy flat out told him that we knew he was dropping off his smuggled goods somewhere (this was obvious to us from the frequent cell phone calls he was suddenly making, talking about meeting with someone at a certain place). The driver took great offense at this allegation and began spewing angry, illogical arguments in response to Jeremy’s accusations, his attention to the road drastically decreasing even as the vehicle’s speed drastically increased. It took Jeremy yelling at him in Arabic to get him to slow down. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with his inability to admit – or at least recognize – his dishonesty, especially since it was delaying our return home.

Jeremy kept insisting that he return to the main highway. In the end, he called his contact back and canceled whatever drop-off had been arranged. He did, however, pull over and switch drivers with some random guy who turned out to be his brother. I’m sure that’s not part of company policy, either. And as it turned out, we didn’t even get dropped off at the main depot – the driver stopped a kilometer or two short and said it was the end of the line. When we pointed out that we weren’t even close to the depot yet, he just shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing to do but get out of the car.

To be honest, I think this small-scale smuggling is starting to bother me.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Funny things my brother has said

My 12-year-old brother, Steven, is here in Damascus visiting for a few weeks. Watching him adjust to life here can be hilarious at times. Here are some of the things he's said that caught me off guard and made me laugh:

On the night of his arrival, when talking about our plans for the next day:
Me: I'm glad you guys came in when it's dark. Wait till you see the city in daylight!
Steven: Why? Is it more...alarming?

Before our visit to the Seidnaya convent, my mom and I were telling him stories about all the women (both Muslim and Christian) who go there to pray for babies. They will spend the night in the same room as a famous icon of the Virgin Mary and then eat the wicks of candles that have been burning there.
Mom: And in nine months, most of them come back with babies. One woman ate 20 wicks and came back with triplets!
Steven (a bit confused): So, don't they have men?
I mean, don't they need men to have babies?

Steven is still trying to convince us to take a trip to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (deep in Hezbollah territory).
Me: Steven, I don't think we're going to go. Sorry, but we don't want to get kidnapped. Do you want to get kidnapped?
As long as we're released, it's OK with me.

An honest taxi driver

Jeremy and I were in Hama, Syria the other night with my little brother, dad, mom, mom’s friend, friend, and friend’s friend. The eight of us formed an unwieldy group for getting transportation around the town; to get to a restaurant for dinner, we ended up splitting into two groups of four and traveling in separate taxis. There was a bit of confusion involved in flagging down two taxis and coordinating who would go in each one, then telling one taxi to try to follow the other.

The taxi that I was in got to the restaurant without a problem, but Jeremy’s taxi got lost and took another minute or two to show up. They piled out of the small car and came in to start ordering some food (we were exhausted and famished after a day of traveling). About forty-five minutes into the meal, Jeremy looked through the restaurant’s front windows and noticed the same taxi pulling back up to the restaurant. Immediately, he asked, “Did someone leave something in the taxi?” Then, he realized that yes, someone had forgotten something, and it was he! Our two cameras – a video camera and a digital camera, each worth about $400, were in a bag that Jeremy had left on the seat of the car.

Jeremy ran out to meet the driver, who handed over the forgotten cameras. He offered him money for returning them, but the taxi driver refused. We were so relieved and so grateful. A friend of ours left his video camera in a taxi in Beirut, Lebanon earlier this year, and hasn’t seen it since. All of his Syrian friends chided him, saying, “If you lost it in Beirut, it’s gone forever. You should have lost it in Syria – then someone would have returned it!” As we saw, this turned out to be very true.