Saturday, June 23, 2007

Seen on the Syrian highway

I made a special goal on our most recent trip to Syria to capture some images of strange loads seen on the Syrian highways. I've said before that everything in Syria is a surprise, and believe me, their vehicular traffic is no exception.

A big, but probably extremely light, load. My best guess is that these will be cut into mattresses. I know all we ever slept on in Damascus were foam pads like these.

Here is a truck containing bottles of ghaz - fuel for the stove. This must be a distributor truck that delivers the goods to the smaller Suzuki trucks. The Suzuki trucks (kind of like the one in the top photo) then putt around the neighborhood with smaller loads. There is always one guy driving and one guy sitting in the bed of the truck, banging on the cans with a wrench and yelling "ghaaaaaaaaz! ghaaaaaaaaaz!" at the top of his lungs. Ostensibly, this system is great because when you run out of ghaz while cooking a meal, you can easily run out and get more. In real life, however, mostly you just end up being annoyed at the noise. The price we pay for convenience, I suppose.

I spotted this strange load in the traffic circle east of Sheikh Saad. If you look closely, you'll see a pickup truck with a water storage tank in the back of it. To keep it steady, there's a guy riding in the back with it. The water storage tanks generally go on the roof of the apartment building. Sometimes, you have two tanks, and one of them is in the basement. If you run out of water from the roof storage unit, you can pump up spare water from the basement storage unit. In theory, anyway. We ran out of water on occasion in Damascus, but I don't think we had a basement unit, on account of the fact that our building didn't really have an empty basement.

Who says you need a U-Haul truck when you're moving? This is a version of the truly ubiquitous Suzuki truck I mentioned earlier. They have extremely small cabs and not very much power, but they certainly have maximum truck bed space. This is the functional vehicle in Syria. We used one to move into our apartment in Damascus. A friend of ours got turned away from entering Jordan at the border and hitched a ride late at night back to Damascus in one (driven by a total stranger and filled with others in his same predicament, I might add. And also free of charge).

I'm not sure what is inside the bags in this gigantic pile. At first glance, I thought it might be bags of bags, perhaps fresh in from a harvest of the land near the highway (it's always strewn with cast-off plastic bags). Upon closer inspection, however, I think it might be something more substantial. It can't be too substantial, though, because even by creative Syrian standards, I don't think this truck could handle too heavy of a load.

Keep a clear eye on the roads of Syria - you just never know what you might see.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

World's youngest muezzin

I already shared with you the lovely sound of the call to prayer as heard from Jebel Qassion overlooking Damascus.

But have you heard the call to prayer as rendered by Miriam Damascus?

That's right - "muezzin" has been added to her repertoire of sounds, alongside "cat," "dog," "fire truck," and "yellow car."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jesr ar-Rais: The Transportation Underbelly of Damascus

I have a love/hate relationship with Jesr ar-Rais (The President's Bridge). On the one hand, I've spent hours of my life in this place, waiting for, boarding, or exiting some form of public transportation. Jesr ar-Rais has always gotten me where I've needed to go. It's an "all roads lead here" kind of place - not too far from downtown, the Old City, Baramkeh, or the University of Damascus. Plus, it's conveniently located off of Autostrad. It is the very symbol of an efficient, thriving public transportation system.

On the other hand, Jesr ar-Rais is like a neverending shabaab convention. If you're going to survive a trip across it, whether over or under, you have to steel yourself against being eye candy for the masses. There are also sundry messes you have to pick your way through, and I don't mean just lane after lane of services and busses coming and going suddenly, spitting out exhaust as they do so. There are also vendors hawking their wares, and snack salesman camping out with huge vats of hot corn-on-the-cob.

There's the pile of trash that has inexplicably gathered at the bottom of the high-traffic staircase to the top.

But the scariest hazard of all is that red van that sometimes pulls up near the west end and somehow brings a cloud of bees with it. Yes, actual bees. I have never been able to figure out what this red van's purpose is - I always just make sure to stay as far away from it as possible.

To take a peek under Jesr ar-Rais is to catch a glimpse of the bustling industry of the people of Damascus. Everyone is coming or going, setting off for work or finally done with errands for the day. Services and busses line up in (mostly) orderly fashion before scattering around the city on their various routes.

It was an unfulfilled wish of ours to make a master map for the service routes. The key to the plan was to find out where services sleep at night, something we were never able to discover.

Services are a marvelous thing. They're not unique to Syria, but the service drivers of Damascus have the execution of their task down to an art. You can ride for as long (or as short) as you like for only 5 lira, and the driver even makes change without taking his eyes off the road, at least not for long. Services will pick you up and drop you off just about anywhere along their route. Sometimes, the driver or fellow passengers will even orchestrate a shuffle in seating so that women (especially veiled women, but not only veiled women) and men don't have to sit next to each other. If you have a small child with you, you can always count on help loading him/her in and out of the service.

Enhanced services feature a door that opens by a control from the driver, and sometimes creative lighting within the vehicle for interesting evening rides. There was one service in particular that ran the Vilaat Garbiye route - we called it "service of the night" because it featured a dark blue van color (instead of boring white), fluorescent lights inside, fancy headlights outside, several different deluxe horn sounds, and stickers and fringe all over. Whenever we were lucky enough to catch it, we rode with satisfaction as other service drivers hailed the driver of the "service of the night" and expressed their admiration.

From looking at the surface of the bridge, you wouldn't think so much is going on underneath.

But believe me: there is tons going on down there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bashar and Hafez around town, some more

In response to a few of the comments from the last post: I am purposely refraining from making this a politically centered article, much less a politically centered blog. I am posting these pictures because I find them to be so uniquely Syrian, and I think they say a lot about the culture that produced them - whether or not you agree with all the political implications.

Plus, they're fun.

Also, I take issue with the claim that these kinds of pictures are only on pro-Assad people's cars, homes, shops, etc, as well as the claim that they're all government made (however, it is true that most of these excerpted photos are probably from such sources). But if you try to tell me that "the government" produced a sticker of Bashar al-Assad with his wife and kids surrounded by a superimposed rose garden and encircled by a gaudily pink glitter heart (such a sticker is in my actual possession), and then chose to distribute it to the public by having a guy selling it and others like it on Jesr ar-Rais, then I'm sorry, but I don't believe you. There has to be a market for such things in order for them to be (so shoddily and kitschily) produced - and I don't think it's necessarily a statement of full support (or fear!) of the regime for someone to buy one.

Politics (mostly) aside, I bring you a few more pictures from around Syria.

This poster is hanging next to the entrance to the Souq al-Hamadiyye, not far from the statue of Salah ad-Din. It says, "God will protect Syria."

My only regret about this picture is that it's so blurry, because it has one of our favorite posters on it. Do you see Bashar in the picture above the bus? Then, do you see the ghost of his father hanging out over his shoulder? Even if the symbolism was unintended, it's brilliant.

There is also a poster we used to see in many places that actually had a picture of the heads of Hafez, Basil, and Bashar, kind of floating on a black background. We used to call this one (irreverence alert!) the Trinity. You know: father, son, and holy ghost.

Here is a sign celebrating Bashar's recent win in the election. That's all I will say about it.

This is actually a gorgeous mural not far from the road to Baramkeh. I think there is a similar, bigger one in the Panorama museum, but that one focuses more on the diverse peoples of Syria. This one has a few of those elements, but also some representations of events in recent history. See, for example, the dam built with Soviet cooperation in the north of Syria.

I think this one takes the cake. What more needs to be said about a cult of personality than that there exists on the road outside of Aleppo a giant picture of Bashar al-Assad's head? And that it's not even a flattering picture? (It's almost as bad as the one of Hafez that's hanging up in the border crossing areas, where he looks like he's suffering from a bad case of rosacea.)

I heard that Bashar himself actually requested that people not display photos of him or his family, presumably in order to stop the image worship that started with his father. I wonder if this was the photo that spurred that request. If so, I don't think I blame him.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bashar and Hafez around town

It's difficult to explain the cult of personality surrounding Syria's most recent leaders. The same phenomenon does not exist in the United States. We do not plaster our vehicles with holographed silhouettes of George W. Bush (even if we are fans of him), nor do we put up billboards urging him to hang in there when international events turn sour. The closest we get to expressing national pride in visual form is by displaying the American flag on stickers or shirts, and even that is technically against the flag code.

But Syrians love to honor their leaders as individuals. Representations of Hafez, Bashar, and even Basil al-Assad, in many different forms, can be found all over the country. Here are a few examples found in Damascus.

Can you find Hafez in this photograph? Hint: he's larger than life and on top of a tall building. And he probably lights up at night.

This one says it all. I suspect the heart lights up at night, too, though whether the lights are white or red (or if they flash in alternating patterns) is anyone's guess.

Here is a more stately tribute to Bashar - no aviator sunglasses here.

Old posters of Hafez have nearly peeled themselves off of this wall. He died seven years ago - have the posters been up since then? (I just checked and it was seven years ago exactly yesterday.)

Another classy tribute, this time adhered to the window of a service. It is not unusual to see entire rear windows of vehicles dedicated to Bashar al-Assad and his family. And by 'family,' I literally mean his wife and children. Often, they are depicted as being on holiday in either the Swiss Alps or in a sunny, beachy location. Oddly, both pictures feature the same pose.

I have a few more examples to post later. Unfortunately, we were unable to photograph any of the afore-mentioned holograph-Bashar-in-aviator-sunglasses. Fortunately, we have one on our car back in Tucson, though it's not as large as many I've seen.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Mezze Mural of Mystery

The service (vilaat gharbiye) I used to ride to work drove past this mural every day. And even in a whole year of living in Damascus, I was never able to figure out what, exactly, it was a mural of.

As best as I can figure out, it has something to do with Iraq. But that’s about all I’m certain of.

Even if the contents of the mural were, by some miracle, explained to me by someone, one mystery remains: what are kids doing drawing pictures of soldiers shooting at people on a public wall?

It makes only slightly more sense than this (which, if I remember correctly, was actually staged) (it's Israeli children writing messages on missiles destined for Lebanon during the conflict last summer).

Can anyone figure this out better than I’ve been able to?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Categories of Syrian Hijab

(If you're the one who made this picture, please let me know. I tried to find out its source but was unsuccessful.)

**Edited to add: The artist is Puppeteer, which explains the last item in the graphic. Thanks for the tip, Golaniya!

This is a pretty accurate representation of many of the kinds of hijab you will see in Syria.

For my take on the veil in Syria, read Hijab Envy 1 and Hijab Envy 2.

The only version I really notice is missing from this depiction is just plain 'manto.' This is my favorite style - it's like 'manto sport' but with a plain white hijab and a classier version of the trenchcoat. I maintain that if I ever took on the veil, this is the style I would choose (am I allowed to do that?).

And if anyone gets the last one, let me know. My friends and I are stumped (actually, not anymore. See above!).