Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Start the day with a song

This morning I couldn't sleep so I got up and lay on the cool pavement of the courtyard and listened to the night air fill with prayers. The particular songmeisters in my neighbourhood
are quite tuneful fellows so it wqas actually a really peaceful way to start the day. Normally the courtyard is abuzz with shrilling tortoises, chickens, children, adults etc so it was really nice to have the place to myself.

Here is a picture of Jemaan one of the daughters in the house where I live. Every morning she gives me a kiss on the cheek and says 'I love you'.

Yesterday I had dinner with another family from Damascus. The food was absolutely amazing even for a hesistant diner such as myself. I can't believe they just whip these amazing

dishes up. It puts my salad and Thousand Island dressing skills to shame. Of course there was way too much food for me to eat so I had to make room in both my lungs so as not to offend.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

a good day for bad news

I think I am sharing my bed with some rather amorous bugs because I keep waking up with lots of frenzied bites on my legs and back. Much as I appreciate their rabid attention I think a course of extermination may be in order. Or I could probably buy a new mattress at Souk al Hamidiyya and be done with it. I can practice saying ‘adesh’ (how much?) and feel smug.

Today I had bread straight from the oven for breakfast. It is so pleasant to stroll down the street and pick up my food fresh off the street. Orange juice from Ali, bread from Assad – I mean I say this now of course – later when the food turns I will have panging thoughts for Sainsbury’s. I have just finished a short Arabic lesson for the day. I am not naturally gifted in the world of pronunciation ( a fact confirmed by an Italian teacher many years ago who said my pronunciation was ‘an abomination’ – I don’t tend to use that sort of language with my students. I find it can be a tad disheartening.)My Syrian friend is trying his best to give me lessons. Susan allows him into her sacred courtyard because he is ‘my teacher’ which holds a lot more water around these gossipy streets than ‘a friend’. It seems that it is just not possible in their minds for a man and woman to be friends without some sort of frenzied passion taking place behind closed doors. I tend to listen to him talk more about Syrian life than I do learn Arabic. He tells his stories almost crying with laughter/ sorrow and then at the end will raise his hands and exclaim ‘but what I do’.

I have just received very disappointing news that my publisher, Swimming Kangaroo, is going under thanks to the recession. Right now I feel quite heartbroken about it as they aren't far enough in the editing process to continue with my story so I will be released. I always knew this was a bit of a risk with a smaller indie publisher and they had admitted to having problems earlier so I suppose deep down there must have always been a part of me cushioned for a blow. It still hurts though and I'm really trying to put this in the perspective it deserves. I have my heath ( now!) I have a good job, I have an imagination and right now I am living a magical existence here in Damascus. So the road has thrown me another obstacle, I'm sure I'll find my way round it some how. And in the meantime I can celebrate my small writing triumphs and value them even more for what they mean to me :-)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Visa extension joys

Today I had to get my visa extended which ended up being quite a protracted affair - of course. Fortunately I have experienced getting a permesso di soggiorno in Italia before so I am familiar in the way of the orderless queues and lack of structure. My Syrian friend has come down from the desert so I was able to employ his native tongue to great effect. By the end of the process he had a whole team of gringoes he was working to help. From what I can tell getting the visa involved going to one man and filling out a very unintelligible form. Then taking the form to another man who looked at it, nodded and grunted. Then taking it back to the first man who looked, nodded, grunted and wrote something. Then we had to go to the big cheese's room ( with the only air-conditioner) where he looked at it and grunted. Then we went back to the first man again who gave it another stamp. Then we took it back to the big cheese again who did another stamp and a sort of a 'you-are-finished' grunt.

To celebrate my visa extension I promptly passed out on my bed for a nap. I really should call this blog ' from where I am sleeping'. Actually I don't feel so bad for sleeping in the day because it is far too hot for everything else and it is only at night that the streets wake up anyway.

Tonight I am going to enjoy Nargileh ( and perhaps a glass of wine) in Bab Tooma. Ah these wild wild days.

Another day in paradise

The night before last I dreamt I was bitten on the finger by ‘Bitey’ and had to go to hospital for a tetanus shot. Fortunately I knew exactly how to get there. No such drama in the real world though. It seemed hotter than usual today and this evening I will be able to employ my latest Arabic phrase ‘leyleh kteer choob’ (tonight is very hot!) I am looking forward to stunning my family no end with my prowess.

Did a bit of writing this morning. I have become fixated with the third step leading down into Sharia Al-Qaimariya from the Umayyad mosque. I can’t help feeling it has seen a lot of action and would quite like to speak to any bottom open enough to listen. (Open in a literal sense you understand.) I sat there earlier today and I could hear the mew of the tiny tabby kitten I have watched playing amongst the shops the last few days. Today is Friday so his usual shop is shut with him locked inside but we soon found a way to play a game of fingers and paws from under the grill.

I walked the back way to the new town today past Bab Salaam where people were buying watermelons and peaches under the shade of its grand arch. It was a silly time to walk really – mid afternoon – but I was looking for a money exchange because I want to buy some rather pleasing Barbie dolls who recite the Qur’an. I couldn’t find a money exchange place in the end so I had a coke at one of the outside coffee shops near my haunt from visits past. I met two lovely girls from Denmark there who were just beginning their trip through Syria. We had a great bond over Prince Fred and the importance of hairy knees to detract from would-be gropers.

Tonight I will meet a friend for dinner and enjoy the Damascene sky at night . The lights of the city have a beautiful way of merging with the night so you don’t know where the stars begin.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

My relative Saddam

This morning I went for a walk along the Street they call Straight. I end up here most days at some point, poking my nose in the dusty shops, trying to tempt ginger cats into my clutches. The street is very narrow in parts (although this is no deterrent for an ambitious Syrian behind the wheel) and it is far from straight. I like this street because here you can see the craftsmen still toiling away in their dark, windowless workshops making things that have been made for many years now. There is the wooden-utensils-man whose front is overgrown with carved spoons, rolling pins, back scratchers, bowls etc and out the back you can see him bent over whittling out another. Near him is the-straw-man with a shop full of straw inspired instruments and he too sits in his dark cave weaving new products. There is the man who sells labbeneh and another who fixes bikes. A man with a painted goblet shop and another with lanterns. Each one is the shopkeeper but they are the creator as well. The old city really is its own little self-sufficient ecosystem and despite all the consumerism that has taken over much of the world they still produce individually for the locals not simply for passing tourists. I met one man who has offered to make me a mosquito coil holder out of an old lidded pot of his. I will probably go back and ask him to do it because I can see he is itching to try his hand at a new creation.

Last night I had success in the cupcake department and I also found a little restaurant to push some food around my plate. As I ate I watched a man and his many wives tuck into a feast in the courtyard below.

After I strolled the night streets near my home. At night they take on an almost fairy world appearance. Faint yellow light and the luminescent green of the mosque lights glowing between the vine leaves. People in cloaks, hoods and beautiful women in sparkling shoes jostling down the thoroughfare. I got caught up in an Ishr at one stage. I don’t know much about this Muslim tradition but it happens in the evening and tends to involve a lot of men in skull caps and jalibehs singing and shouting in the street while beating out drum rhythms. Eventually they go into a house to continue their frenzied almost trance like homage to Allah. The other day I was invited to have a look in a room where one was in full throttle. The men were singing and sweating, ripping off their shirts I was very surprised they let me see such secret men’s business. I didn’t stay long though in case they invited me in as an honorary man and I had to strip too.

An immigration officer came to the house this morning. Poor Susan has been visited numerous times since I went to hospital. They want to know if she poisoned me (and get money from Susan to say she did not). The walls have ears though so generally we just pay the small bribe and he goes away.


It's now much later in the day. I have had a busy afternoon having my knees groped by a street cleaner who pretended he was picking up rubbish. Fortunately I have legs like the amazon jungle a hundred years ago so that must have shocked him; that and my mighty push perhaps. I also supervised a heated game of hopskotch although to be honest I had no idea what the rules were because they were jumping on lines everywhere. Every so often they would turn to me for an adjudication and I would say 'tamam tamam' (ok ok) and everyone seemed pleased. I did well scoring on the sweets and biscuits front too - every shop I went to wanted to give me a 'welcome gift' ; ah if only my stomach was a little more open to such treats.

Tonight I learned some Arabic from my family and discovered they are all lovers of Saddam Hussein. He was a relative of theirs and they liked him very much. Given Susan married her third husband because he looked like SH I can't help wondering how close the family is??

Now it is after 1 am and it is time we Damascans went to sleep. xo

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

food - ish

The street I live on is called Al-Shamiya, which means long, winding lane with no room for cars but plenty for willful donkeys loaded up with watermelons. It may also mean place of insane boys riding bicycles three sizes too big; cat alley; or perhaps even the tunnel of a 1001 wails. I quite like the wailing. Some of the participants are actually quite tuneful. The only time I don’t hear it is at 4 a.m. which one might think is a blessing but I find disappointing. I love lying in bed listening to the day break. I can’t think why I don’t hear it since I hear every other wail of the day. Perhaps they whisper this one in deference to all the crazy neighbours who have been up until the wee hours drinking shandy and watching Turkish soaps. Then again I can’t quite imagine the sheik deferring to sleep over Allah. I must be sleeping well – at last!

This morning I made myself a boiled egg. Progress! Everything in my kitchen has a touch of Uri Geller to it so it was quite a challenge to find a pot that could hold water, a knife that would cut and a spoon that could hold egg. I felt quite a sense of achievement at the end. Perhaps that’s why I travel: why I want to live in foreign towns: so I can appreciate the simple things in life once again.
After breakfast I had a rest – as you do – and went for a stroll in my hood looking for water and deodorant. I stopped at the coffee house beside the Umayyad mosque and watched all the old men gossiping over their pipes. There was quite a lot of lip licking going on so obviously something very salacious had happened – a wantonly exposed knee perhaps.

In the afternoon I met up with a brother of my friend A. A is in the army right now out at some inhospitable stretch of desert by the Euphrates. His brother was in town to do an exam so we met for tea. I wondered if I would recognize his brother amongst all his ‘other brothers’ but as soon as I saw his face I knew they were family. They have very delicate features – not really the type you imagine crawling the sands in camouflage and khaki. We walked through the old town and he told me of his dream to be a journalist and a nurse. I believe the nurse part is to help him avoid the full army experience by working in a hospital instead. He was very interested in inspecting my bruised arms (from the IV in hospital) and to learn words like ‘ambulance’. I almost taught him tachycardia too – ah the gift of ER it just keeps on giving.

Now I am back home after dodging a near kiss by a shop-keeper and I am seriously contemplating eating a meal tonight. What I would really like is one of the freshly baked cupcakes the baker down the road makes in his hole-in-the-wall oven. When they are finished they sit in their little metal holders cooling at his window and I feel they would make a mighty addition to my egg and potato diet.

Let’s hope he bakes tonight. Insha’Allah!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Syria - at last!!!!

So the plan had been to blog about Damascus for the entire month I was in Syria. Now that I have been here for over a week it is clear that this plan has gone in the way of all my other best blogging intentions – down the Great Brown Tube. Still, in my defence, it isn’t the only thing to have gone the way of the GBT so perhaps a little leeway is in order.

I’m not even going to bother to give a blow by blow of the last week, perhaps just a few of the highlights ( or lowlights) to bring myself ( and my one reader – I know who you are!!) up-to-date.

Arrived in Syria last week loaded up with duty-free perfume to combat stinkiness - ready to live La Vida Arabia. Took me a few days to find a room to move into largely due to my trusty contact going to the beach/ to bed/ out instead of meeting me as arranged. It actually made me laugh. I wonder what it is exactly about Syria and Italy that I love so much. Probably not their respect for the appointment. Anyway I finally found a great room off a courtyard in an old Damascene house not far from Bab Tooma. I have the bottom floor to myself not counting the rabid, hungry tortoise (‘Bitey’)who has taken a shine to my red toenail polish. She lurks amongst the courtyard greenery waiting to ambush my toes and makes this gorgeous shrilling sound like a lost baby dinosaur when she wants attention. There is also a deek (rooster) living above me who likes to crow through the hours. I have decided not to bond too closely with him as he is off to the market this Friday.

The family living above me is very friendly and crazy in that uniquely Syrian way I have come to love. Susan is in charge. She speaks quite good English and likes to eat from dusk until dawn. As she said to me over a mouthful of biscuits “when you go to grave you can only take the stomach.” Her husband Mahjoun looks like Saddam Hussein (the reason why Susan fell for him in the first place). He is husband number three. He currently has no elbow after falling off the roof of his house and is waiting for an operation. All he does is smile and then wince; smile and then wince. There are five children – 2 boys and three girls. The youngest Ahmed likes to spend his days running to the mosque to read the Qur’an. Apparently the sheik gives him a sweet every time he reads a little bit more. Mahmoud the older son is fourteen and desperate to marry a European girl preferably one with a big bottom. The three daughters Ayah, Doha and Jemaan are very beustiul and sassy. Ayah is 15 and thinks Syrian men are very very bad because they just look at women’s bodies. She thinks European men are much better (must remember to burst that bubble pronto.) Today I spent most of my time in the courtyard with them and a visiting neighbour, a very old man with a penchant for beer. I taught him what a shandy was and he has been happily guzzling this ‘revelation’ ever since. He says that the shandy has ruined his heart forever for he will love beer even more now. I think because I am western he assumed I would drink beer and used me as an excuse to crack open the tins. Given I am currently on a potato and water diet I think I was a disappointing sidekick. Still he has promised to return with more tins and 7-Up (sob – I don’t even like beer.)

I actually moved into my room a week ago but am only finding my way about now thanks largely to the great bacterial beast who decided to visit me last Wednesday and then forced me to stay at Shifa hospital, Damascus, instead of my new home. I have never passed out on a bathroom floor before but when I woke up to find my head wedged beside the toilet and a vague idea that I must be somewhere in the world but no clue as to where exactly, I knew it was time to go (to the hospital that is although if you’d asked me at the time I might have thought the hereafter as well.) The hospital staff were great. They attacked me with all sorts of needles simultaneously which was actually a little terrifying (particularly when one of my veins wouldn’t work and they had to dig about for another) but then once I was tested and hooked up to fluids and drugs I could see how their terrifying tri-pronged assault had actually distracted me from the excruciating stomach pains for at least a solid ten minutes. My first nurse was a Palestinian called Mohammed. He was responsible for me in the ICU and had to spend a lot of him time shooing away the onlookers, which tended to be anyone passing by. My doctor, Dr Bishar, was brilliant and could teach other doctors a thing or two about combining the fine art of professionalism with bedside manners. He was so clear and compassionate and honest and it was very exciting when he mentioned my heart was a little tachycardic because I felt all my diligent study of Grey’s Anatomy and ER had finally found some meaning. He told me it was a bacterial infection and that as revolting as it was at the time I would survive. When I was stable I was sent down to the normal part of the hospital where I was given my own room with a lovely big window overlooking the city and out to the desert hills – apparently – I wasn’t in the mood for appreciation at that time. There was a full length sofa in the room which D was allowed to sleep on (D and I happened to overlap our visits in Syria just long enough for me to throw! He has now made a very thankful escape.)In the evening nurses came in and made up his bed and gave him a hummus ladened dinner. I passed! The night was long. I had an awful fever for hours and a Charlotte-esque moment ( a la SATC in Mexico) which was quite pleasing. In the middle of the night a patient in an adjacent room died and the corridors were filled with this terrible, broken wailing. It made me sad to listen.

Now I am home again. Chugging down drugs, imagining a day when food is once again friend not foe. Tonight I shall go to the market to find a fine potato and ‘Bitey’ and I will enjoy a quiet mangiare a mia casa.

ps today my family sang me a song about two moons. It goes something along the lines: ' When I step out my door I can see two moons. One in the sky and one in my eye.' The moon in the eye is supposed to be their lover but whether they are also standing rear -naked is probably a matter of interpretation.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Just to let you know 'Clockwork Phoenix 2 -More Tales of Beauty and Strangeness' is out now for your reading pleasure. :-) See here for further details http://www.clockworkphoenix.com/#buy2

On a completely different note, happy impending first birthday to the A-star and the C plus (just in case my crappy head fails me on the day).