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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