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).