Saturday, May 26, 2007

Our mascot friends

I love billboards and advertisements in foreign languages. I think there is a lot of language that can be learned just by observing the posters and signs around you. But even if not, there is always fun to be had learning about foreign mascots.

Squeeze is a sickeningly sweet, Tang-like powdered beverage that you’re sure to be served if you visit a Syrian friend during the summertime. I have no problem with their product – it’s their advertising campaign that disturbs me. This is their “mascot:”

Yes, a mustachioed, smarmy Egyptian dressed in Hawaiian style is the face of Squeeze in the Arab world. I was more inclined to buy Squeeze before I saw this billboard and its accompanying TV commercials.

Speaking of smarmy, here is my all-time favorite Arab mascot. It’s Uncle Chips!

I think the question here is not so much “would you buy chips with this guy’s image stamped on the package,” but “would you allow this man to be in the same room as your kids,” don’t you think?

The best part is that in Jordan, there is a brand called Mr. Chips. And the mascot Mr. Chips, by all appearances, is a law-abiding, well-dressed, upstanding member of the community. Why his slimy brother can’t keep his act together (or at least shave off the dirt ‘stache) is beyond me.

The last mascot I’ll show you is another snack brand (in case you haven’t noticed already, the Arabs take their snacks very seriously). Here’s another chip mascot, Mr. Corn:

I don’t know what it is about Mr. Corn that I find so amusing. Maybe it’s the apparent lack of inspiration involved in its design, or perhaps its childish rendering. In any case, he looks like he’s way overdue for a makeover.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

An all-American Syrian

Let me tell you about Charlie.

He lost his leg when he stepped into traffic and was hit by a car years ago, but that’s not the most interesting thing about him.

If you ever go to Baramkeh, a major transport hub in Damascus, you might meet him. He hangs out there most days – maybe even every day. Every time we’ve gone to Baramkeh at the start of a trip to Jordan or Lebanon, he’s been there.

The first time I met him was as we were setting out on a trip to Irbid, Jordan in September of 2004. As our small group of travelers was standing around waiting for our service taxi, I heard someone call out, “Hey, blondie!” I had been subject to a lot of different catcalls from strange men on the streets of Damascus, in both English and Arabic, but until now, “hey, blondie” had not been one of them.

Our small group of travelers turned around to see Charlie. He loped towards us and continued talking in English. “Whatcha doin’ out here, eh, fellas? You’re a heckuva long way from the States.”

You see, Charlie speaks a very rare and rudimentary form of English. He spent several years working for the American navy in Lebanon during the 1960s. And as you may have guessed, that’s where he learned English. His speech is made up entirely of 1960s military slang, and it hasn’t changed or evolved in the 40 years that have passed since then.

The Wednesday before last, we showed up at Baramkeh to get a ride back to Jordan. We were waiting outside the service taxi as usual when suddenly I heard, “Hey, blondie!” Only this time, I think he was talking to Miriam. And this time, we made sure to get a picture.

And so he hangs out at Baramkeh calling the girls “darlin’” and the boys “buddy.” A conversation with Charlie is so bizarrely out of place in Damascus, Syria, that after it’s over and you’re driving away toward wherever, you’re not quite sure it really happened.

Charlie says he doesn’t have a job, but I think he does – it’s entertaining (and probably helping many of) us tourists and reminding us, in case we’d forgotten, that everything in Syria is a surprise.

And if that is his job, at least he’s very good at it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Local Nuggles and Gordon Bleu

Almost our first act upon arriving in Damascus was to go to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Siwar al-Sham. It’s a non-pretentious place behind the Meridien hotel, serving a combination of Syrian and European cuisine. But the prices are so low that it actually shouldn’t even be called “cuisine.”

We came here a lot when we lived in Damascus, and the waiters often gave us the Arabic menus. Our favorites were the soups and the Arabic dips (I think little in-utero Miriam subsisted almost entirely on Siwar’s baba ghanouj). Sometimes, however, we were given the English menus, and that was always a special treat. And today I bring you something obtained at great peril to my personal sense of shame at being caught taking a photograph in public: a picture of that menu.

This is a newer version of the menu we remember. They removed a few items (no more “local nuggles”) and corrected a few of the more egregious errors (“gordon bleu,” for example). Bizarrely, however, new errors were somehow introduced to items that were previously correct. We spent a few minutes deliberating, and we think that our old favorite, “steak with lemon juice and garlic” is now “slices with citric acid and garlic.”

Miriam Damascus with a hummus mustache

Other highlights include “spinal cord pane” (I wonder if that’s like the “juicy pain” they give you on the Aleppo-Damascus train?), “tongues salad,” and “Spresso.”

For the record, we had baba ghanouj, hummus with meat and pine, and vegetable soup. It was delicious, unlike those nasty local nuggles.

Welcome (back) to Sham

Damascus received a bit of a makeover while we were gone. Specifically, they took some ugly areas of town, removed them, and replaced them with small parks.

One of these areas was the Souq Saroujah (?) near the Old City. To tell the truth, this Souq was always a mystery to me. It had the highest “unsightly hell-hole” to “proximity-to-major-tourist-destination” ratio that I’ve ever seen. Although it was technically a souq, it was not one of those charming bazaars full of atmosphere you would hope to find so near the Old City. Instead, it was a filthy, abrasive market where the vendors overcharged you for bananas.

The other place where we noticed an improvement was our very own Sheikh Saad. First, they took down the derelict wall near the traffic circle so that the small park there is visible from the street. Also, the mosque is finally complete. They put in a median with trees and some off-street parking (!). Finally, they removed the “tire district,” as we used to call it (it was actually a group of car repair garages), and put grass and trees in its place.

Whoever was in charge of making that particular decision deserves a medal. The tire district was a blight on Sheikh Saad – those car repair shops attracted large groups of leering shabaab, were the source of annoying sudden loud noises, and took up all of the sidewalk and half the street so pedestrians were forced to walk in traffic.

The only other big changes I noticed were that there is, in fact, a KFC in Damascus. I had heard this before, but I refused to believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. I sincerely hope that other fast food chains do not follow. Where else in the world today is there such a large city – nay, an entire country – without a McDonald’s, Hardee’s, or Pizza Hut to destroy its enchanting atmosphere? OK, I know there are other places without American fast food, but that is just one of the things that makes Damascus so unique and authentic. Because how foreign can a country really be when you can still biggie-size a burger and fries, or be sure of a clean public restroom? Not very, in my opinion.

Also, Amideast is closed. I have no idea of the story behind that one, but it makes me sad.

Otherwise, Damascus seems to be much as it ever was. And that is a wonderful thing.