Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Telephone bills

We had dinner at the phone bill lady’s house the other night. Does that happen anywhere else besides Syria? We see her maybe once every two months when we go into the phone office to pay our bill. Out of all the ladies who work in the office, she has been the most helpful. The first time we went to pay our bill, we had no idea where to go, what line to stand in, what procedure to follow, etc. I think all the other workers just didn’t feel like dealing with some dumb foreigners at that moment (it can get very hectic in the office since all the bills in a particular area fall due at the same time). She was very patient and showed us the ropes. We’re still dumb foreigners in many respects, but at least we know how to pay our phone bill now, thanks to her.

So last time Jeremy went in to pay the bill, she invited us over to her apartment. She lives in a suburb outside of Damascus, on the road to Beirut. She speaks very little English, but her husband, to our surprise, spoke moderately well. It turns out he used to sell concessions during intermission at a movie theater here in Damascus. While he wasn’t working, he watched the movies (all American, in English), and practiced the words and phrases he heard. He says his favorite movie is “Die Hard,” which gives you an idea of the caliber of the American movies they show over here.

The phone-bill-paying system they have going here is quite interesting. Unlike in America, it can’t be done over the phone, by mail, or on the internet. It simply must be done in person, meaning you have to take time off work, school, or whatever else is going on in your life to physically show up at the office between the hours of 9 and 2 on weekdays, 9 to 1 on Saturdays. (…come to think of it, this is the way most things are done here in Syria – in person, at the convenience of the business, liable to change on a whim. Basically, everything here runs like the DMV in the US.) Also, at least that we have been able to figure out, there is no way to know when the bill is due. Your phone just stops working. Apparently, our landlady is supposed to tell us, but although she insists on being invasive and involved in every other aspect of our life, telling us when our phone will get cut off is not one of them.

During Ramadan, I had a reduced working schedule, which made it convenient for me to be the one to go and pay the phone bill. Before I continue, let me explain something: our internet usage is billed to our phone line. In other words, we don’t use the pre-paid internet cards that are available (the cost is the same). Thus, our phone bill came to about 3000 lira (60 bucks) for the two or three months in the billing cycle. Not a particularly astronomical amount, considering that some of those costs would be reimbursed by my work (I do work for them through the internet sometimes). Anyway, I mention this because a normal, non-internet-included phone bill usually comes to about 150 to 250 lira (3 to 5 dollars).

It must have been the last day to pay without losing your phone line, because the office was absolutely packed. Also, they were closing early because of Ramadan. So everyone – the workers and the customers – were in an absolute frenzy to finish up and go home. Long lines from each payment window stretched all the way outside the building. People were jostling for position in the different lines. As I approached, I could tell that there were different lines for different areas, but the signs explaining the system were posted way up front, out of my view. So I chose one and hoped that the long wait ahead of me wouldn’t end in being told to stand at the end of a completely different line.

The guy standing behind me in line was particularly antsy. I have no idea what his damage was – there was no way the line could move any faster, and his pushing and making exasperated comments about how long it was taking were not helping the already tense situation. As we got closer to the payment window, he found an interesting way to amuse himself: listening to the worker tell each customer the amount due for their phone bill, and then re-announcing it to everyone in a loud voice!

So far, the amounts were all small: 100 lira, 150 lira, 250 lira, 200 lira, etc. Still, the guy behind me felt the need to repeat each amount loudly, making sure everyone around could hear. I was really, really dreading my turn at the window. I silently hoped that when it was my turn, the worker would assume I didn’t speak Arabic and write the amount down, instead of saying it out loud. Alas, I was not so lucky.

Sure enough, the worker told me, in Arabic, that my bill was 3000 lira. I thought the guy behind me was going to have a heart attack. He faltered, and repeated the amount to himself several times before letting everyone else know about it, too. I was so embarrassed. He kept on raving about it the whole time I was at the window handing over the money, getting my receipt, etc. As I walked away, and it was finally his long-awaited turn, he was still marveling about it, inserting some choice comments in Arabic that I couldn’t understand (I’m sure it was about the foreign girl who must talk on the phone ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, FOR THREE MONTHS in order to run up a phone bill of 60 dollars).

I haven’t been back since. We decided that it would be Jeremy’s job to pay the phone bill from then on.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Syrian restaurants

Restored courtyard restaurant in Aleppo (Beit Wakil)

One of my favorite things about living here in Syria is the food. It’s delicious, unique, healthful, and there are tons of good restaurants around town willing to serve it up for cheap. Some of these restaurants are located in beautifully restored courtyard houses within the walls of the Old City. In fact, I think that eventually the Old City is going to be filled entirely with restaurants – there are new ones opening up all the time.

Sometimes, you can make a meal entirely out of appetizers: hummus, muttable, baba ghanoug, muhammara, etc. This is especially delicious when the restaurant serves the appetizers with fresh, hot flatbread to dip in the various bowls. The best part is that at certain restaurants, the appetizers are the cheapest things on the menu, sometimes costing as little as 60 cents per bowl.

If you need more than just appetizers, there’s always the soups: lentil, vegetable, French onion, or cream of chicken or mushroom. Each restaurant does their lentil soup a little differently. Sometimes it’s dark, chunky, and heavy on cumin; other times it’s a lighter yellow and pureed to a smooth texture. Either way, it’s served with broiled pita chips and lemon wedges. You can also get yolangi (rice and spices wrapped up in grape leaves), kibbe, burak, French fries, and garlic bread to complement the appetizer dips.

The meat dishes are next. You can order grilled meat by itself, or a more standard European-style “main dish” with meat, sauce, rice or potatoes, and vegetables on a plate. My favorite is the Syrian shish tawouk – they call it barbequed chicken in English, but it doesn’t have barbeque sauce on it. It’s skewered chicken roasted over a fire or coals.

For dessert, you can order fresh fruit or some kind of pistachio-based pastry drizzled with honey.

You can get all of this for far less than in America, and the eating atmosphere is very unique.

On Thursday, the University took us out to dinner at a restaurant in Jebel Qassioon, looking over the city. We were part of a large group of visiting professors and a few students of Arabic. We were served a set menu – basically, the waiters brought out the restaurant’s best, course by course.

First were the appetizers. Besides baba ghanoug and muttable, there were salads of every kind: Greek style, Caesar style, fattoush, olive salad, and plain freshly chopped onions, parsley, and pickles to serve with it. They brought out fresh bread to enjoy with all of it, as well as fried potatoes, seasoned chicken wings, and garlic-roasted eggplant wedges.

I was full already just from the appetizers, but there was more to come. Next was a savory chicken dish, with seasoned rice and a yummy gravy sauce. The chicken was very tender and absolutely delicious – I only wished I could have enjoyed it more, but as it was, my stomach hardly had room.

Then, they brought out another main dish – this time, some kind of lamb creation with creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. I could hardly touch this one, though I did manage to eat a lot of the vegetables and some of the potatoes.

Finally, dessert arrived. Fresh cherries, peaches, and apricots as well as pistachio-laden baklava variations. A perfect end to a fabulous meal.

As we left, we asked one of the waiters how much the set meal cost. It turns out that for all that (and a nargileh, if you smoke), you pay 750 lira (about 15 dollars). Certainly the most expensive meal I’ve eaten since being in Syria, but it was also one of the nicest restaurants I’ve seen, with a gorgeous view over all of Damascus. From what I remember in the US, it’s getting harder to spend less than $15 per person even at a place as ordinary as The Olive Garden.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Behind every good woman...

Another billboard story, though I didn’t manage to get a picture of this one (they change the billboards so often here in Damascus!).

The latest fad in advertising here seems to be two-part billboards. First, a billboard with a question or an incomplete phrase on it will appear. Sometimes, there is no text at all, just a curiosity-inducing image. Within a few days, the second part of the billboard will replace the first and the mystery product is revealed along with the answer to the question or the completion of the incomplete phrase.

Last month, a new one showed up all over the city. It showed only a close-up of a woman from the waist up, arms crossed, looking very empowered. Written to the side was, “Behind every good woman is…” In the background, there was a vague shadow of a bottle of some kind. It was impossible to tell what exactly it was.

Sure enough, a few days later, the billboards were changed and the answer was revealed. I was fully expecting it to be an advertisement for a brand of shampoo. The woman in the picture had gorgeous hair, after all. Instead, however, it turned out to be dish soap! Behind every good woman is this particular brand of dish soap!

I was very surprised. Somehow, I don’t think an advertisement like that would go over very well with most women in America. Shampoo, perfume, even a new hip kind of yogurt – each of those could probably have fit the ad without raising the ire of American women were it displayed in the US. But dish soap?

For a moment, I found myself trying to decide whether to be offended (because being offended is a decision). What kind of message does that send, that a good woman is best represented by something as domestic and mundane as dish soap? But then, I wondered – if the bottle had been shampoo, perfume, or yogurt, would the message have been any better? I think not.

In the end, I decided that I was not offended. In fact, next time we run out of dish soap, I just might give that brand a try.

Monday, May 23, 2005

From Love to Murder

Billboard on El-Eskaan in Damascus

There's one billboard spot on our block that seems to be reserved for public service announcements. Here's the latest one.

Believe it or not, the situation depicted above - a young child sitting on the lap of the driver, completely unrestrained - is far from uncommon here in Syria. The only difference is that usually, the driver isn't wearing a seatbelt, as he is in this picture.

I've even seen a man riding a bicycle through busy city streets, managing the handlebars with one hand and balancing a 2-year-old child in the other arm. Very cute, but very dangerous.

I wonder if they'll come up with a new series of billboards after this one...once they've taught us how to put children in the back seat, maybe they'll make a billboard teaching us how they should wear seatbelts. Eventually, maybe they'll even encourage the use of child carseats!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

My husband and I went to see Kingdom of Heaven the other night. It’s playing here in Damascus at the Cham Cinema. I thought this film would be a particularly interesting one to watch with an Arab audience, given its subject matter (the Crusades).

From what I’ve read about the movie on the internet, Kingdom of Heaven has been lauded in the western press for being “even-handed,” whatever that means these days. I think they mean that its depiction of the Muslim warriors in the film is not overly derogatory, and that it also does not glorify the European crusaders. I was curious to see if I agreed. I was also curious to see Salahadin portrayed on-screen – by a Syrian actor, no less.

We arrived at the theater a few minutes before 9 to meet some friends. At the Cham Cinema, shows are listed as starting on the hour, but they usually don’t begin until half-past the hour to allow for seating, previews of the latest American B-movies and upcoming Egyptian films, and latecomers. My husband got in line to buy a ticket – the young Syrian male in front of him nonchalantly asked for a ticket to the movie “Salahadin,” and the cashier didn’t even bat an eye.

As we waited in the lobby, I noticed that there were signs everywhere announcing Syria’s own Ghassan Massoud in the film, starring as Salahadin. The movie crowd was pretty mixed – not quite all young men, though they were by far the largest presence. There were plenty of young women in the audience as well, some of them veiled. Justified or not, I always feel better if there are veiled women around. It is usually a good indicator that whatever place I’m in is probably respectable. I already attract enough attention as a foreign woman, without unknowingly breaking social taboos left and right, and the muhajjaba’s lead is generally pretty safe to follow. Oh, and I even saw another pregnant woman, which made me feel still more comfortable.

The movie was really good. I would even say excellent, except that I had my eyes closed for about 1/5 of it (I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to violence). And I agree that the portrayal of each side, Muslim and Christian, was very sensitive and balanced. In fact, it may even have been too balanced at times. I wasn’t always sure who I should be rooting for – aren’t movies always supposed to have good guys and bad guys? – and even the main character, Balian, was not a clear-cut hero, at least at first.

I thought Salahadin’s characterization was wonderful. For starters, it was so refreshing to see a Muslim character played by an Arab actor. Omar Sharif’s Fusha-speaking role in Hidalgo notwithstanding, such linguistically/culturally accurate casting seems rare for Hollywood. (I remember going to see The Sum of All Fears in Moscow, Russia. Ciaran Hinds’ performance as the Russian president was fine, as long as he kept his mouth shut. Why not cast a Russian to play a role that had so much Russian-speaking in it??) Massoud did a good job making Salahadin a non-cardboard-cutout character. He had one of my favorite lines in the film, in response to Balian asking what Jerusalem was worth: “Nothing…Everything.” (My other favorite line was when a Christian cleric of some kind, realizing defeat at the hands of the Muslim army was imminent, suggested the crusaders “convert to Islam, repent later.”)

Our seats were in front of a large group of women. Throughout the film, I noticed the ladies making the tongue-clicking sound of disapproval at choice moments (in Arabic, to signify dissent or disapproval, you can just click your tongue on the roof of your mouth, kind of like “tsk-tsk” in English). They clicked their tongues when certain important characters suffered or died or made bad decisions, but the tongue-clickingest moment, at least that I noticed, was when a few renegade crusaders captured Salahadin’s sister (and presumably killed her, although that was only implied, not shown).

It's amazing what a difference the surrounding audience can make when you're watching a movie, and I can't help but wonder what it would be like to watch the film in an American or European audience. I've heard that Kingdom of Heaven isn't doing spectacularly well at the US box office, but I think it's doing just fine overseas.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Being the foreigners

The Convent at Seidnayya

My little brother and I went to the Christian village Seidnayya earlier this spring. There’s a big convent on a hill, built kind of like a fortress. The nuns there generally let visitors have the run of the place. We had fun exploring while trying not to go anywhere we shouldn’t. The convent is like a maze, with staircases to random levels that don’t connect and courtyards that are visible but seemingly inaccessible. Everything is well maintained and kept very clean. From the top level, if you can find it, there are views over the whole valley north of Damascus, as well as the town stretching out before you on the steep hill down to the valley floor.

When we were finished exploring, I decided to visit the restroom before the 45-minute trip back into Damascus. I asked Steven to hold my purse for me while I went. He waited patiently out in the courtyard, which was deserted at the time.

I’m sure I was gone for no more than two or three minutes. But when I came out, I couldn’t even see Steven. Instead, I saw a large swarm of young Syrian schoolchildren, randomly shouting out standard phrases in English like "Where are you from?" and "What is your name?" to an unknown target. Looking closer, into the center of the mob, I saw that the target was my brother! He was slowly being backed into a corner by the overeager schoolchildren. They were obviously excited to talk to a foreigner, but Steven was having trouble fielding all their questions at once. It was a hilarious sight. As I watched, one young boy took over the role of designated spokesman. The others started shouting their questions to him in Arabic and he did his best to translate them into English and ask "the foreigner" (ajnabi).

I made my way through the mob and rescued Steven. I spoke in Arabic to the children, but that just excited their curiosity even more. A foreigner is one thing, but a foreigner speaking Arabic? They’d never seen anything like it. After ascertaining through several questions that I was indeed a foreigner...

THEM: Where are you from?
ME: America.
THEM: Yeah, but where are you really from?
ME: Um, America.
THEM: Yeah, but where is your dad from?
ME: America.
THEM: No, but what is your blood? (Arabs love this question)
ME: American.
THEM (completely mystified): Then how do you speak Arabic???

...they were finally able to get answers to all their eager questions. Their curiosity satisfied, they left Steven and me alone. I was impressed with how much they wanted to speak English. And for how young they were, their English wasn’t half-bad.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Every color of the rainbow!

On Easter Sunday, Jeremy and I sent my mom and little brother out to the Christian Quarter of the Old City. They were pretty sure they could get around by themselves (we had gone with them several times so they knew the way).

A few hours later, they came home. As they walked in the door, I heard a chirping sound coming from my brother’s hands, which were wrapped around something. I thought it was some kind of a toy that Steven had bought. But no – it was a real, live chick, and bright yellow. I couldn’t believe it. It was so cute and fuzzy, but I was afraid to bond with it because I knew we couldn’t keep it. Steven had named it "Chirp," and for good reason: it was chirping wildly and seemed very flustered. Jeremy took it and wrapped it in a warm towel and gave it some water to drink. It calmed down and rested for a while.

It turns out that in the Old City, mom and Steven had passed vendors selling baby chicks dyed all different colors, in celebration of the Easter holiday. Steven wanted to buy one, with the intention of giving it to another little kid. My mom gave him 50 lira (about one dollar) for this purpose, but it turns out the chick only cost 15 lira (about 30 cents)! But before he could give it away to any of the eager children in the neighborhood, they wandered a little and got lost, and then just came straight home.

But what to do with the chick? I knew we couldn’t keep it. I washed my hands of its fate and delegated that responsibility to Steven and Jeremy. They went outside, intending to give it to the barber’s kids (his shop is just downstairs from us). They weren’t out. So he walked to the main road, looking for a deserving candidate. A kid on a bicycle stopped to see what was going on (two foreigners holding a wildly chirping baby chick was attracting attention). Jeremy asked him if he wanted it, and he said yes. So he handed it over, still wrapped in its towel, and the kid rode off, happy as could be.

We hope the chick had a good home, for at least a few days.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


On Sunday morning, our apartment started to reek like tar. We couldn’t tell where it was coming from until Jeremy did some investigating outside. It turns out that the rig you see pictured above was set up just outside our apartment building, spewing smoky billows of tarry goodness into our home. Our only defense against the stench, some thin, loose window panes, was breached almost immediately.

We suffered all that day until the afternoon, when the smell gradually disappeared. It looked like they had quit work for the day. They had, however, left out all their equipment and leftovers, and we saw some kids playing in it later.

Fast forward to midnight. The tar smell, to our great, great disappointment, began to return. Unbelievably – or perhaps not so much, really, now that I’ve lived here for a while – they were firing up the tar vat in preparation for work the next morning. At midnight! Jeremy went out to talk to the workers and they helpfully explained that the reason they were doing so was because tar takes 8 hours to heat up to a temperature of 400ºC (who knew?). Never mind the nearby apartment buildings full of sleeping residents, unknowingly breathing in noxious fumes.

Jeremy went to the police station but suffice it to say, nothing was resolved. The workers promised they’d be done the next day (bukra, insha’allah) and that seemed to satisfy the police officer. Meanwhile, we were absolutely gagging on the fumes. At three in the morning, we finally fled the apartment to find a cheap hotel room for the remaining hours of the night, casting nasty looks in the tar-mongers’ direction as we walked down the street.

Needless to say, they weren’t done the next day. What’s more, they quit working at the leisurely hour of 1 o’clock, for some reason preferring to let the tar cool down all afternoon so they could heat it up again at midnight. The funny part is that this work was being done on the entrance to a girls’ school next to our building. During the busiest hours of the day, when class was in session and young students were walking in and out of that entrance, there was a large, open vat of boiling tar in their way, with workers slinging it around as they labored. As soon as school let out, the workers quit, too.

We ended up spending one more night as refugees in our own city. Words cannot describe the relief we felt when we rounded the corner later that afternoon and saw that the tar-mobile had packed up and gone away. What a luxury it is to be able to breathe freely in your own home.

The way you say tar or pitch in Syrian Arabic is “zifit.” They use the same word as a mild expletive, similar to the English “crap!” or Russian “блин!” The connection between the two meanings is now unfortunately part of my life experience.