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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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More children of Syria

This is 3-year-old Karim, the son of Jeremy's barber. He has two older brothers who helped out with their dad's work every once in a while, and "Karmo" liked to pretend that he was helping, too. In fact, he liked to pretend he was doing most anything his older brothers were, including fasting during
Ramadan ("I'm fasting," he told us one Ramadan day, even as he chomped happily on potato chips).

Joseph also helped out at the local barbershop. It is not uncommon for Syrian boys and young men to get part-time work at a local shop, either with their father or someone unrelated.

This young girl was selling ice cream on a hot April day in Dura Europos near the Iraqi border in the east of Syria. Bless her heart. I think that's all there is to say.

This kid lived down the street from us, and I often saw him perched on the windowsill in the early afternoon around the time when school was dismissed for the day. I don't know if he was watching for an older sibling to come home or if his mother just needed a few moments to herself to get some things done, but he always seemed perfectly content. Sometimes, he even had a snack to munch on.
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Saturday, April 01, 2006

The children of Syria

Syrians love families and children (remember?), and their kids are some of the cutest around. Here are some pictures and stories of Syrian kids from different areas of the country.

Schoolchildren in a small village in northwestern Syria, not far from the Dead City of Serjilla.

The school day was just ending as we drove through this village in our hired service on our way from Serjilla to Hama. They were minding their own business until Jeremy leaned out the front window and called "Hello!" in English. Boy, did that get their attention.

The bright blue uniforms are standard issue in Syria. The littlest kids even have small aprons that go over the uniform. Older children and teenagers wear darker blue suits with pink or blue undershirts.

Notice the blue-gray eyes of the boy in the bottom of the frame. Northern Syrians often have striking blue eyes and sometimes, even blondish hair. I've heard from several Syrians that this is a result of European Crusader blood mixing with Syrian blood way back when, but I don't believe it :).

Joseph and Mohammed from the Dead City of Al-Bara.

While we tramped on rich red soil through the olive groves and ruins of Al-Bara, these two young boys happened upon us and accompanied us for the rest of our visit. They had fun showing us an alternate route through the ruins to reach an enclosure of tombs not visible from our original location.

A "bicycle gang" hanging out in the Sha'alan neighborhood of Damascus.

This group of children was having lots of fun riding their bikes around the shopping streets of Sha'alan in central Damascus (notice that there is no supervising adult in sight).

In many ways, Syrian children have idyllic childhoods that no longer exist for American children. They can play outside without being supervised, they don't wear helmets and padding any time they play on something that has wheels, and they're often sent by themselves (at a very young age) to accomplish simple tasks for the family, such as buying lemons at the local fruit stand.

Shabaab-in-training in Sha'alan.

"Shabaab" literally means "youths" in English, but the word conveys so much more than that. A more accurate translation might be "guys" or "dudes." This isn't the greatest picture (especially of the boy in the middle), but what amused me was how these boys are dressed exactly like a lot of young Syrian men, just in miniature. The boy on the left is an especially good example of shabaab fashion. Posted by Picasa