Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Still more adventures

My Adventures in Tucson is up and running. See you there!

The spice of life

I never saw a region take its spices so seriously as the Middle East. They sell them in bulk in open-air markets - I've always said everything is sold by the kilo in Damascus, and spices are no exception. If you want to take home two pounds of oregano, in Damascus, you can do it.

When you walk through the spice section of the souq in Damascus or in Aleppo, the aroma is almost overpowering. It's almost too much, especially because it's usually mingled with the smell of the fresh meat section just down the way, or, heaven forbid, the perfume section the next aisle over.

The vendors often create elaborate spice displays such as the ones above. These particular works of spice-y art are in the Aleppo souq.

These are the shelves at a spice shop in the Sha'alan neighborhood of Damascus. As you may recall, it's a language-learning strategy of ours to take pictures of menus so that you can memorize any unfamiliar words. I don't think we got very far with this one, though, because some of these spices aren't known to me even in English!

Here is the other side of the spice shop. In addition to the canisters on the shelves, this shop also had large barrells of spices on the store floor.

My favorite thing about this spice shop was that one of the "spices" for sale was actually
Milo, that pseudo-Ovaltine drink from Nestle.

So whether it's 500 grams of za'atar or enough Milo to last you a few months, you can be sure that Syria's spice vendors can meet your needs.
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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Giant red ball, anyone?

Aleppo is known for being more conservative than Damascus, and you can tell just by looking at the crowd. Even at just a casual glance, it is apparent that more women wear
the veil in Aleppo, and when they do, more of them choose the full black covering.

This particular crowd is mingling at the souq area in the Al-Jdeide quarter of the city, not far from Bab al-Faraj.

If you're in the area, you can buy one of these huge red balls for yourself. They're only five lira, direct from China.

I find the contrast in this picture between the garish red ball and the quiet, conservatively dressed women very striking. I also remember how the busy, bustling souq atmosphere disappears suddenly and entirely as you step off the main thoroughfare into one of the cobbled sidestreets in Al-Jdeide.

You may recall that our favorite
splurge hotel and restaurant are located in this area.

But whatever you do, do not take the overnight train from Aleppo to Damascus. It may only cost five bucks, but you will wake up feeling (and smelling) like you spent the night an ashtray. Trust me on this one.
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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reverse music

In America, large vehicles emit a beeping noise when they go in reverse to warn anyone who may be standing in their path. In Syria, they have a bit more class - when cars or buses back up, they play a catchy little tune. The tune always bothered me a little bit because although it would get stuck in my head, I never knew what song it was. I asked a lot of Syrians if they knew what it was, but no one could give me a definitive answer.

Fast forward to now. For fun, I programmed the tune into Jeremy's cell phone and made it his ring tone.

The other day we were out and about with some of the students and Jeremy's phone rang. One of the students, a girl from France, laughed and said she couldn't believe we had "Lambada" as our ringtone.

Finally, someone who knew this song! I was able to come home, look it up on the internet, and hear the original, non-monophonic version in all its glory.

Now my only question is why on earth drivers in the Middle East chose a 1989 dance song sung by a French band inspired by the native music of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia to be played every time they put their cars in reverse.

(There are plenty of places on the internet where you, too, can watch the video and hear the song, but I won't link to them since the band is French - let's just say that their policy on displaying one's undergarments while dancing doesn't match my own.)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

It's what I miss about you

After sunset in Dummar, just on the other side of the mountains from Damascus.

Some thoughts before I turn in for the night...

I miss Syria. Here are some things that I find myself missing.

I miss little white service vans and never paying more than 50 lira for a taxi, even for a ride across town. I want to eat Uncle Chips, not Mr. Chips, even if he is sleazier. I miss having a mosque on every corner. I miss the genuinely amicable relationship between Muslims and Christians. I miss the Old City! I miss gorgeous coastal scenery like this. I miss public transportation that criss-crosses the country so you can get anywhere without owning or renting a car. I miss Qadmous buses and, yes, even the obnoxious Egyptian movies they play on board. Heck, I miss Happy Journey buses, too! Or at least seeing them from the outside.

I miss Dance and Ruby and Hum-Hum and Jexy and Metro and Ugarit Cola and those Malto crackers that were always kind of vaguely disgusting but single-handedly got me through my first trimester. I miss that goofy David Beckham poster near Baramke where he's endorsing Casterol (or a similarly random product) and his name is misspelled.

I miss pining away after all those Western restaurants, like Pizza Hut and Cinnabon. I miss being excited when a new Western product showed up at the grocery stores - I well remember the day when they finally got Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. It was all my class at Amideast could talk about the next day.

I miss saying "shu" and "mu" and not feeling like I have an accent.

I miss living in a place where the guy at the corner grocery store doesn't speak English.

There's so many things that I miss. I love Jordan and I love Jordanians, but that doesn't mean I can't miss Syria and Syrians. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Our best friend, Syria

I wrote about these events at the time they happened, but here are additional pictures and videos.

A week after the university rally, a city-wide demonstration took place, culminating in a pro-Syrian celebration at the stadium in Jelaat Park. As you can see, this pro-Syrian and anti-nothing (almost) march was a very jovial affair. And although we're counseled by our embassy to stay away from public gatherings such as this, Jeremy managed to go undercover and get some good photos and videos.

Unfortunately, despite a few shots from different angles, we never found out who gets Freedom, Justice, and Our Love. The last line of the poster was obscured in every one. My guess is that it said Syria or Palestine. Ten points if you can spot the mukhabarat agent in this photo (and we know they were there, because one of them approached Jeremy about taking pictures).

I don't know where the march began, but these pictures were taken as they marched down Autostrad near Kuliat al-Adab. Eventually, they wound their way up El-Eskaan and parallel streets, including "Iron Maiden" street that runs directly next to our apartment, and then up Sheikh Saad to Jelaat Park.

"Yay, Syria!" was the primary message of the day. The secondary message was "Yay, Bashar!"

I can't understand exactly what they're chanting, but it certainly has rhythm. The building in the background is one of the DU dorms, the one on which someone spray-painted "Che Vive" in big letters (what is the Arab fascination with Guevara, anyway?).

I don't know where they got this pickup truck, but I love it.

The nastiest the rally got were two signs we saw that said "Bush, Go To Hell," and "Bush, Shut Up." That was it. From my point of view, it was a tame, fun, citywide celebration of Syrian nationalism, and everyone seemed to be on their best behavior. I'm sure some of you could tell me you saw otherwise, but on the whole, it was an impressive display.
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Our good friend, Lebanon

Syria was an especially interesting place to be in February, March, and April of 2005 in the aftermath of Rafiq Hariri's assassination in Lebanon on Valentine's Day. That event, and the subsequent calls for Syria's complete withdrawal from Lebanon sparked a level of political activity in the country that I had not yet witnessed. Previous public displays of politics consisted of displaying President Assad's picture on one's automobile. If you were an especially fervent admirer, maybe you had a picture of his family on there, too, riding bikes in the Swiss Alps or among the tulips in Holland.

There were also very occasional (and small) anti-American demonstrations held outside a building on the north end of Jesr ar-Rais leading into Abou Romaneh, but those usually consisted of someone taping an American or Israeli flag to the road and then cheering as cars unwittingly drove over it.

But after Hariri's death, there was an upsurge in the public display of Syrian patriotism, or at least allegiance. First, there was this display of Syrian solidarity with Lebanon, held on the campus of Damascus University on 2 March 2005. Students gathered outside of Kuliat al-Adab, played music over a loudspeaker, and waved Lebanese flags around. That's as far as it went.

Something bigger was coming up, though, and it would spread farther into the city than the campus of DU. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Call to prayer

The view from Jebel Qassion over the city of Damascus is breathtaking, especially as evening falls. There are so many mosques in the city that when the call to prayer comes, the intermingling of the voices of the different muezzins is eerily romantic.

All the little green lights are shining from the minarets of every mosque in the city.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Biking to Ugarit

Springtime in Syria is the perfect time to travel. In the western and northern parts of the country, wildflowers are in bloom and the sun is beginning to shine reliably again. In the east, it’s not yet too hot to be exploring ruins.

One of my favorite trips we took in Syria was to Lattakia in mid-March. The Mediterranean coast of Syria is refreshing any time of year, but in the spring, the orange groves that spread across the countryside are just beginning to bloom and so the air, cooled by sea breezes, smells heavily of orange blossoms.

The historical site of Ugarit (Ras as-Shamra) is located near Lattakia. If you stay at the Blue Beach (Shaati al-Azraq), it’s even within biking distance along a pleasant, flat country road. Bicycles are available to rent for a few dollars at the traffic circle in front of the Cham Palace.
Jeremy and I went with three friends, and chose to rent a four-person bicycle to ride to Ugarit. Since there were five of us, I squeezed into the middle of the back seat and did my best to weigh as little as possible.

We started off briskly and made good time at first. Gradually, however, our excitement wore off and we realized that the 4-person bike was a piece of junk. The tires were low on air and the gears did not turn smoothly. What’s more, the metal it was made out of was really heavy, making it hard to pedal even with four of us working at it. We took a pit stop by this stork, who was tied by the side of the road, to decide what to do – there were still several kilometers to go before Ugarit.

We decided to stash the bike somewhere and take a service the rest of the way. After struggling for another kilometer pedaling our increasingly massive, awkward bike, we saw a stone building off the side of the road that looked vacant. We rode the bike over and hid it behind the building, and then caught a service to the ruins of Ugarit.

Most of what’s left at Ugarit are foundations of ancient buildings, which makes it a great place to play hide-and-go-seek or sardines. The setting, of course, is gorgeous, with the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains on the border with Turkey visible in the distance. In its prime, Ugarit was located right on the coast of the Mediterranean, but the sea’s coastline has since retreated.

After clambering around the ruins for a while, we caught a service back to the bike’s hiding place and rode it back to the rental shop, and they were none the wiser.

You would think we would have learned our lesson, but when we were in Lattakia a month later, we rented bikes again. This time, we went for single bikes, so everyone could have their own. Before setting off, Jeremy was skeptical about his bike. He pointed out to the renters that the wheels looked dry and cracked. The employee assured us there wouldn’t be a problem. But as soon as Jeremy pedaled into the parking lot at Ugarit, one of the tires popped with a loud bang.

On the way back, Jeremy flagged down a passing Suzuki truck to take him and the bike back to town and even managed to get some of his money back from the bicycle renters.

Despite all this, I would still recommend riding a bike from the Blue Beach to Ugarit. It’s a pleasant ride and a great way to stretch your legs after traveling by more traditional methods in cramped buses and services. Just don’t hold me responsible for anything that happens to you along the way. :)
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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Street dance

While wandering around among the backstreets of the Souq al-Hamadiyya, Jeremy and I stumbled upon this gathering. It was great fun to watch - everyone seemed to be having a great time, even as they blocked traffic along the small alleyway, both pedestrian and vehicular. It looked like the groom's wedding party from a distance, but as we grew closer, we could tell that it wasn't quite the same. A bystander confirmed that it was not, in fact, a wedding dance, but he couldn't tell us exactly what it was, either. Upon closer inspection, we could see that it wasn't a groom in the center of the circle, but a water salesman.

So I'm still not sure of the occasion for celebration. Whatever it may have been, it sure was a lot of fun for everyone involved, including us onlookers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Smells funny

Here's another item hanging up at Kuliat al-Adab, except this one was put there by my husband. He saw this advertisement in a newspaper and cut it out to put on their classroom wall (it may not be there anymore).

Looking at the picture, I still can't believe this is a real advertisement for a real product. I think the fact that stuff like this exists is a small part of the charm Syria holds for me -
where else does stuff like this happen? I don't mean silly English in Japan or instructions translated from Chinese. I mean a cologne, called NOSE, that has a picture of a guy's nose on it, and it's not at all disingenuous.

What's not to love?
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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Guessing game

This French alphabet poster is hanging up in Kuliat al-Adab.

One of these things is not like the others...

Can you guess which one?
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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Back in the Arab world

My Adventures in Jordan is up and running. Insha'allah I'll have time to update this blog, too.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Beautiful Quneitra

So there's this town in the Golan Heights called Quneitra. You can only visit it by obtaining a special permit from the Ministry of the Interior (the obtaining of which is a blog post all in itself, but that will have to wait for another time). To get there, you take a regular old service to Khan Arnabah, and then wait inside a small guard shack to have your permit inspected. The guards must work round-the-clock shifts, because the shack is fitted out with sleeping bunks and a small stove.

If your permit is in order, you're allowed to proceed to the town itself, which is currently under UN administration (if you want to know more about Quneitra's history, I advise you to look elsewhere, lest I make a political statement on this blog). There, you are assigned an "interpreter," who doesn't speak a word of English. His main job is to walk you around the town and make sure you don't go anywhere you shouldn't. Ours was very friendly and helpful.

Quneitra is one of the most gorgeous places I have ever visited, which makes what happened to it even more shameful.

Here you can see bulldozed homes in front of the area's prominent hilltop, which is covered with Israeli satellites and such (our friend's GSM cell phone displayed the message "Welcome to Israel" as soon as we entered the area).

This is the hollowed-out Orthodox church. The interior has some Hebrew newspapers plastered on the walls (and some Arabic graffiti, I should add).

A panorama view of the town from the roof of the town hospital, which is quite a wreck these days.

I can't say that I enjoyed my visit to Quneitra - I don't think walking through the bulldozed ruins of a once-normal town can be enjoyed. I did, however, think it worthwhile. The setting of the town is absolutely lovely, and I can really sympathize with the feelings of those Syrians whose families come from the Golan and who cannot live there now.
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Friday, April 28, 2006

A day's work

Syrians are very industrious workers, and some have jobs that you just can't find in the US. Here are a few (more to come if I can dig up the pictures).

This water salesman is vending water in the center of Damascus. Some beverage salesmen have a special call that they use to advertise their service, and they also clean the water or tea glass with a nelaborate flourish after each customer. You can find the most entertaining ones in the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh. (As a side note: I know I keep mentioning this, but look at this guy's coloring! Besides his costume, he could be walking on the streets of Stockholm and fit right in!)

Grandpa and Grandson together in the Aleppo Souq. They are selling magazines, candy, and various other items.

Also in the Aleppo Souq. We asked permission before taking a picture of this woman. She assented, paused, posed, and then went on her way, all without losing her carefully balanced load.

A shopkeeper in the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh. Believe it or not, there are far glitzier stalls than this one with so much gold on display that it's almost blinding.
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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Crying Dima

We've asked many Syrians and no one can give us a definitive answer: Why is Dima crying?
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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Just can't get enough

A promised land of sorts: a view of Damascus from Jebel Qassioon

Well, it's official: we're going to visit Syria this summer!!!!! I spent part of the morning filling out Syria's much-improved visa application, scrambling to find those old passport photos, and mourning the loss of $300 (the visas are $100 a pop, and the baby has to pay, too). I just hope the Syrian Embassy can get our passports and visas back to us before we leave the country in two weeks.

I don't think I've mentioned it on this blog, but Jeremy, Miriam, and I will be spending the summer in Amman, Jordan. The new blog, My Adventures in Jordan, will be
here. We debated for some time about whether to visit Syria while we were in the neighborhood. The problem is that the decision has to be made waaaay ahead of time since an American can't obtain a visa to enter Syria in Jordan, at least not reliably (there's always the odd report claiming otherwise). And the $300 price tag was admittedly a deterrent.

But we've decided to go for it - how can we go so close and stay away from our former home? - and I'm really excited. To tell the truth, I've felt a bit...unfaithful for planning to live in Jordan for the summer. I've been reading the new Lonely Planet Jordan and looking up
Talesmag's Amman reports, and it seems like I'm doing it behind Syria's back. But now that we'll be visiting Syria as well, I think I can bring the relationship out into the open.

I can't imagine loving Amman as I did Damascus, or having comparable adventures. But I guess time will tell, and hopefully I'll have something to write about at the end of it all.
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Monday, April 17, 2006

Home Sweet (Syrian) Home

Let's take a tour of a Syrian apartment, shall we? This particular apartment (ours) is typical in the sense that most of our friends lived in similar dwellings, some lived in better, and some lived in worse.

Here's our front door, on the fourth and top floor of our building. As you may recall,
there is no elevator, which wasn't a problem until I was very pregnant. We loved the round knob in the middle of the door - I felt like a Hobbit every time I came home. The Christmas wreath hanging over the door...what can I say? We put it up and then never took it down. If nothing else, it helped differentiate our door from everyone else's since it was not uncommon for me to become so involved in climbing the multitude of stairs that I'd go up one flight too many to the roof and panic, thinking that our apartment had somehow disappeared.

The main living area of our apartment was decorated in classic Louis XIV style, or at least that's what we called it. And believe me, this is very typical. The decor you see above and below is not even the most ostentatious to be found in Damascus. The more gilded, ruffly, and chandelier-y, the better.

The chandeliers were lots of fun. The one in the top picture had many candle-shaped lightbulbs in it, but I don't think more than half a dozen worked at any given time. If the draw on power for our building was especially strong, several of the bulbs would go out and then come on again when the power surged. The chandelier in the second living room picture hung really low. My husband and I are short, but some of our taller friends never did learn to duck when they walked under it.

If your apartment is on an upper story of your building, you probably have a balcony. Nicer apartments will sometimes have two or even three balconies. Here's the view from ours, overlooking the all-important clothesline.

The Syrian bathroom is somewhat of a curiosity, but I've stopped short of posting a picture of ours on a public website such as this. In many apartments, the bathroom is an all-in-one; that is, it's a completely tiled room containing a detatchable showerhead ("dush-telefon"), bidet, toilet, sink, and mirror in one. The best thing about this design is that it was super easy to clean. All I had to do was soap everything up and then spray it down with the showerhead. After showering, you squeegie the tile floor dry (there is a drain in the corner). The other cool feature of a Syrian bathroom is that it's often equipped with a buzzer that rings in the living area of the house. None of our friends were ever able to explain its exact function - they'd usually come up with some explanation involving a forgotten towel.

If you live in the Old City or in a country villa, your house probably looks different from ours, but now you at least know what one typical apartment is like.
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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wide Load

This angle doesn't do it justice, but this is a particularly precarious load on a truck on the highway from Tartus to Homs. Overloaded trucks and Suzukis are a common sight, and this load of lumber isn't the worst I've seen. We often saw tiny Suzukis loaded up with what seemed like a dozen huge, red, plastic barrels (I think they're the ones used to store water on the roof). Unfortunately, we were never able to get a picture of one.

Notice the
Happy Journey bus on the right.

Also notice that the driver of the service we're in is not in any particular lane.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the truck did manage to make it underneath the bridge in the distance without losing his load.
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Friday, April 07, 2006

Even more children of Syria

Children playing in the courtyard of the
Marqab crusader castle.

Syrians love to go on picnics, and they have ample gorgeous locations in which to do so. A group of women and children were picnicking in the courtyard of Marqab Castle during one of our visits. We asked to take a picture of the whole group, but the veiled women declined - and then happily volunteered their children for the task. :)

In the depths of the Aleppo Souq.

More unsupervised children having fun on their own in the labyrinthine souq of Aleppo. We also took a short video clip of these children talking, but I don't think they realized what we were doing since they just stood still the whole time (they probably thought it was just a still shot).

At the Cham Cinema in Damascus.

Can you guess what movie we're going to see?

Answer: it's Spiderman 2, which opened in Syria just a week or two after its American premiere. We had only been in the country for a very short time, and my impressions of Damascus were forming quickly. I will always remember the opening sequence of the movie: Tobey Maguire (in non-Spiderman form) weaves in and out of busy New York City traffic on his motorbike, narrowly missing being hit by taxis, semis, and car doors that are suddenly opened. I imagine the filmmakers wanted to convey a sense of breathless chaos as the main character rushed to deliver a pizza, but even after only a few days in the country, that scene was nothing special compared to Damascus traffic!

Exhausted after a day of sightseeing in Aleppo.

OK, so this isn't actually a Syrian outfit (jalabiyye and keffiyeh). In fact, that isn't even a Syrian kid sitting with my husband and me. It's my brother, Steven. But I think he looks like he could be Syrian, don't you?
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