Thursday, March 30, 2006

Musyaf Castle

A view of the town from Musyaf Castle.

The Crusader Castle of Musyaf is located not far from Hama. We visited it on a day trip from Tartous, also including in our route Safita's Keep, Hosn Suleiman, Qala'at Marqab, and ending at Lattakia.

Musyaf's main draw may be that it is associated with the Assassin (Ismaili) sect of Islam. Otherwise, it is another stunning example of Syria's wonderful ruined Crusader castles. As with many other tourist attractions in Syria, half of the appeal of Musyaf is its stunning location in mountainous countryside.

There were enough sudden dropoffs, dark chambers, and pitch-black winding passages at Musyaf to keep even my little brother happy. In the early spring, when we visited, there were also many beautiful wildflowers just beginning to bloom in the cracks and crevices of the 1000-year-old stones. While not as grand as Krak des Chevaliers, as brooding as Marqab, or as majestic as Qala'at Salah ad-Din, Musyaf is still well worth visiting if you have the chance.
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Friday, March 24, 2006

Safita's Keep

Safita's Keep is an imposing remnant of a Crusader Castle, the only part of the 12th-century castle still standing. On a gorgeous day last April, we took a bus to Tartous and found a service to take us to Safita. The Keep is located in a beautiful mountain village (whose name I can't remember - everywhere I've looked says the town is also called Safita, but I could have sworn it was called something else). The village reminds me of Zabadani, just west of Damascus, but a little more upscale. There's an atmosphere about the place as if everyone is on vacation and is thoroughly enjoying his or herself. Because of the elevation (even when you're not standing on top of the 27-meter-high Keep), the town is refreshingly cool and has a fresh breeze blowing through it. The views from the top of the Keep are expansive:

If the sky is clear, you can see Krak des Chevaliers.

We paid a service driver to take us from Tartus to Safita's Keep, Hosn Suleiman, Musyaf, Qala'at Marqab, and then drop us off in Lattakia. The sites were fascinating, breathtaking, almost deserted, and completely explorable, as usual, but the drives inbetween the sites were also very scenic and enjoyable.

And below the Keep, on the way out of town, there is this charming Cave. I think they meant snack bar (and, come to think of it, cafe instead of cave).
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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Shepherd boy

We encountered this young shepherd boy at Mushabbak. He followed us around for a while and seemed to just be interested in what we were doing. One of our traveling companions, Carolyn, remarked that Americans could pay a stylist a great deal of money and not be able to achieve such a cool hairdo as this kid has. Posted by Picasa


The ruins of a Byzantine church called Mushabbak, located west of Aleppo on the road to St. Simeon's. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

First impressions

At the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus with a teacher from the University (left, in robes) and Iraqi women visiting from Baghdad.

Here's what I wrote shortly after arriving in Damascus in July of 2004. The audience was my hometown local newspaper, but for one reason or another, I ended up never submitting it for publication.

When my husband and I decided to move to Damascus, Syria, the reactions we received from friends and family were almost exclusively expressions of concern for our safety in what they insisted was an extremist, America-hating, terrorist-infested country. Granted, I had a few concerns of my own, but I was determined to give this yet-unseen country and its people the benefit of the doubt.

We flew out of PDX early on the morning of July 6th. Just two nights before, we were lounging with friends and family on the greenbelt of the Oak Hills neighborhood in Beaverton, enjoying the 4th of July fireworks display. The contrast between that mild, green, sunny day in Oregon and the drab, oppressive, dusty heat I found myself in just days later can hardly be described. I looked around Damascus and saw only unfamiliar people, dirty streets, and unfinished buildings. Where was I, and what had I done?

Gradually, however, I began noticing the elegant mosques that dotted the city. I saw beautiful women, both Muslim and Christian, with and without headscarves, dressed in all varieties of styles and colors. I grew used to the mournful, lilting tone of the call to prayer, and even learned to sleep through it at 4.30 in the morning. Most importantly, I realized that everyone who told me that Syria was a country full of extremists who danced in the streets on September 11th was, quite simply, wrong.

As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner walking through the winding, narrow streets of Old Damascus, I am constantly being welcomed to the country, either by a pleasantly accented “Welcome!” or “Welcome to Syria!”, or just the Arabic “Ahala wi Sahala!” Upon engaging in conversation, Syrians are surprised to find out that I’m from America, and living here. “Our governments are not friends,” they say wearily, but are quick to add that they love the American people. Next, they are endearingly eager to find out if I like Syria. An affirmative response usually earns another enthusiastic ahala wi sahala or two.

Damascus is absolutely crazy, with cars, minivans, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and horse-drawn fruit carts all trying to navigate the same roads, which are often not divided into separate lanes. Battered old minivans (called servees in Arabic) go all over the city and will give you a ride for 10 cents. The city gets crazier every day, but I think I’m growing crazier right along with it. The things I used to marvel at last week I now find myself doing—like navigating a 7-way, 4-lane traffic circle at night, on foot, weaving in and out between cars that may or may not stop for me.

My husband and I live not in an isolated diplomatic compound, but in a normal apartment in a predominantly Muslim part of the city. In the evenings, the sidewalks (and streets) are jammed with people – families, young children running around alone or on bikes, and groups of young men and young women. Shopping for everyday goods is not a daytime chore left to one member of the family, but a time in the evening for the whole family to go out together. Syrian society is largely family-oriented, and trusting and mindful of others, even foreigners. If there are no more seats on the servees, the driver will flag down another one for me. If the driver doesn’t hear me call out my stop, the other passengers pass on the message. If I’m short on money for a purchase, storekeepers often let me go with a smile and a promise to bring the rest of the money by another day.

I found a job teaching English courses at an organization called Amideast. My students are Syrian teenagers. For some of them, I’m the only American they’ve ever met. They ask what Americans think of Syria and its people and I can only say that we are often uninformed – or worse, misinformed. They speak heatedly about their frustration with their image in the western world. One female student pleaded with me to tell people what Syria was really like. “Tell them we’re not terrorists,” she said, “tell them we were sad on September 11th, too.”

So now I’ve told you. The warm, loving people of Syria have taken me into their homes and hearts to show me that there is often a difference between mainstream media representations and the truth, a difference between the perceptions of a faraway land and reality in the country itself. I’ve learned that there is a difference between a wholesome religion with millions of members worldwide and those few who would manipulate its teachings. And there is certainly more to a country, be it Syria or America, than politics, sanctions, and misunderstanding. There are people who are willing to put aside differences between governments and embrace a fellow human being.
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Friday, March 17, 2006

Some recommendations

This kind of thing is really my husband's job (see his blog), but I thought I'd mention a few websites about Syria that are worth visiting.

Creative Syria is difficult to do justice to in words. Just check it out. Gorgeous pictures and lots of focus on the, well, creative. The softer side of Syria.

Syria Planet was created by some enterprising bloggers in Syria. It's basically a conglomeration of all the Syrian blogs out there, and believe me, there are tons. When I started blogging back in January 2005, there were maybe a dozen blogs out of Syria; now, there are many. I believe this is a good thing.

The Damascene Blog. Ayman hardly needs the publicity, but you've gotta love his blog. Check the archives for thoughtful photo commentaries.

Edited 21 March to add: Apparently, the photo archives are located at a slightly different URL, a distinction I failed to note above. My apologies.

The Syria News Wire is good for news about Syria when BBC and CNN only give you a paltry, detail-sparse paragraph.

Real Post Reports is a wonderful resource if you're a foreigner looking for information about day-to-day life in a specific city in the world.

Sorry for the outburst, but I just had to share. :)

Happy Journey

After being in Syria for only a week, my husband and I traveled with some other students to the ancient ruins of Palmyra in the eastern part of the country. Above, you see the bus we rode in. We liked to call these buses "Happy Journey" buses, because that's what was usually written on the side of the bus, as you see below.

These buses were always garishly and creatively decorated, and they never spelled "Happy Journey" quite right. The bus above has chosen the particular incarnation of "Happy Jerny."

The 5-hour trip from Damascus to Palmyra takes you through the middle of nowhere, across a striking, windswept, slightly hilly desert landscape with no signs of life but the occasional Bedouin tent or flock of sheep. There is, however, one pit-stop about halfway along the route: a place called, inexplicably, the Bagdad Cafe (original spelling preserved). The Bagdad Cafe looks simple on the outside, but the inside is an ornately decorated living room with beautiful traditional artwork and handicrafts for sale, as well as the usual Ugarit Cola and Ruby candy bars.

We pulled in front of the Bagdad Cafe in our Happy Journey bus just ahead of a bus full of French tourists. They weren't in a Happy Journey bus, though. Their bus looked more like this, a modern luxury coach (below is a picture of my little brother in front of a Qadmous bus at a pit-stop on the way to Aleppo):

I'm sorry to say we felt ashamed of our little Happy Journey bus with its plastic bunches of grapes hanging over the dashboard. But we certainly didn't get away with not being noticed - the French tourists flocked around the bus, exclaiming at the kitschy-ness of it all. A few were even laughing and taking photos in front of it.

I guess I can't blame them. The Happy Journey buses are quite a sight to see.
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