Wednesday, 26 August 2009

nose back on grindstone

Well, I am back at work now although I seem to have adopted the way of 'Bitey' the turtle and can only move in a slow, deliberate way. I think I am more tired now than before I went away :-(
Nice to see the students again. One of my favourites has just returned from studying English overseas. He is now well ahead of my class which is great for him but sad for me. Some students are just so wonderful for class atmosphere you want to bottle them (with holes in the lid for air, of course) and cart them around to each room. Actually, I can think of a few I have had in the past that I wouldn't mind bottling sans holes in the lid but its probably best to leave this sentence at that.
Ma and Pa have gone on a mountaintrip to Jungfraujoch. Tonight they will stay in Lauterbrunnen for the night before making the ascent tomorrow ( with the help of Swiss engineering.) When I was 6 I camped in Lauterbrunnen with my family during the summer. I still have very strong memories of this trip largely because I had never seen such enormous mountains before, I also saw snow, cows with bells and one of the men working at the campsite came from Melbourne which I found beyond incredible. Fancy me being born in Melbourne and this man too! How amazing. I think this fact impressed me for the rest of the holiday.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

the Giant of Basel

I took my parents to see the giant of Basel who resides in a park near where I live. He's a friendly looking fellow, probably gets a bit cold in the winter as he only wears a toga; he's probably a bit lonely too . He actually wears his toga in quite a risquè manner - only covering half of his genitals which my dad gleefully noted by saying upon first inspection - " Look. You can see his beaver!" This I confess is all my fault as I educated my parents in the way of the beaver earlier in the week after mum kept on telling dad to put his badger away. (FYI - Dad's badger is actually the bushy mass of grey and black hairs he has on his chest that are so thick and wild up the top he sometimes looks as if a badger has been stuffed down his shirt.) Not something you want your dad shouting out in fortè voce but at least it means my parents actually pay attention to what I say ( sort of) and it is always nice to know you have been heard.

We also visited Thun which is a very pretty village situated on a lake of the same name. The water there is an icy mint blue and I would have loved to swim in it if I had come appropriately prepared. We had a lovely lunch in the town which we shared with a disabled pigeon - both of his feet appeared to be missing toes ( you know what I mean - bird anatomy is not my thing.) Dad reckons he had them lopped off deliberately. Dad is not trusting of birds at present having been recently assualted from on high. It probably explains the amount of roast chicken meals he ordered in The Lake District. Fear not though my father is a compassionate man - the memory will wane - and the birds will triumph again - insh'allah!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

body is home - heart is still enroute

Back in Basel now with parents in tow - can have a bootcamp revenge of my own! ( Or at least I would if I could drag myself out of bed.) I am very happy to have them here with me in Basel but I feel quite melancholy about being back. It is as if my capacity to feel and sense the world around me has been dulled and all I want to do is sniff a bag of arabic cardoman coffee until my senses wake again.

It is really hot here too - in a sticky humid way. Yes. yes - I know Damascus was hotter but it was a dry heat and it was perfectly acceptable to spend one's hours in the hammam or eating Bakdash ice-cream. Here the western wheels of captialism spin round so everyone marches around doing what they 'must' looking very hot and bothered. (Hmm I think I better go and sniff some more coffee before I morph into scary, grumpy, post-holiday person - although i fear it is too late.)

Yesterday I took my parents to my old ladies' class at school. Dad got to be the much prized 'only' man and was a man of great charm to all the ladies ( much to the chagrin of mama - although i think she must also have been secretly proud as one must always be proud if one's sidekick behaves in a sporting manner in the public domain.) All the ladies were in a very chatty state - very happy to see I had returned - they have plans for me to marry a Swiss man so I stay and teach them ad infinitum. Not a plan I have embraced - it is very difficult to know where my Italian-Syrian-English blood belongs but I don't think Basel is its final desitination.

Here is a picture of Basel just for a bit of colour

Thursday, 13 August 2009

New land same stomach

Finally made a break from family boot camp to eat some sticky finger buns and sloth about in the apartment; I am exhausted. It is almost a week since I left Syria and time seems to have been swallowed up by the beast-of-early-risings-and-hearty-walks-in-the countryside – a most persistent beast I would like to add – it even has two heads. Right now the beast (aka - mum and dad) are visiting in-laws in Freckleton so I am trying to catch my breath and hunt down the internet which is surprisingly more difficult here than in old town Damascus.

It has been a good week here in the Lake District despite the boot camp although it started rather unappealingly with a festival vomit last Friday morning at 3 am. It must have been my grief at leaving Damascus or alternatively the bread-that-smelt-like-a-butcher’s-shop that Susan had given me to eat the night before. Either way I was throwing up like a seasoned pro by the time I got to Damascus airport. This was compounded nicely by the news that my ticket from Syria to London had been cancelled. No reason was given as to why - just that they (as in ‘Royal Jordanian’) were overbooked and there was no seat for me. Interestingly enough they were able to muster up a seat for me from Damascus to Amman but from there on, I was informed, I would be on my own. I decided to take the seat and tackle the next hurdle once I got to Amman. I sat next to a very nice Englishman on the short flight to Amman. He even gave me his sick bag when I had finished with mine which I thought was very generous of him.
Once in Amman I staggered to the transfer desk ( after leaving another calling card on the tarmac) and explained in a froth of bile and tears that I really needed to get on the flight to London. The gentleman at the front explained ( from a projectile-measured distance) that the flight was overbooked to which I responded with an even more spectacular froth of bile and tears. He eventually said that he would arrange for me to go down to the Sales Desk and I would be able to pay a supplement for my ticket ( which is interesting given I understood that they were overbooked) and get a seat. Another man took me though immigration and down to the Sales Desk where I tried my best to neatly throw up in the corner but got the Sales Desk Counter instead. By this stage any sort of shame had escaped me and I did my best to dab up the mess with a roll of toilet paper I kept in my bag. Fortunately the sales woman at the counter decided to take a proper look at my ticket and it was established that I would not need to pay any additional supplement but I would have to wait until twenty minutes before the flight to confirm my seat. Thankfully place was confirmed and I found myself wedged in a seat at the back of the plane next to another very nice English fellow who was studying climate change in Jordan. I think he might have been quite a lovely man to chat to had I not had my head in a bag or down the toilet for the next five hours. The worst part actually came after the plane had landed in Heathrow and I had to run into the crew galley to do a mighty throw which according to my trusty seat companion was 'I'm afraid rather audible for all but nevermind. Can't be helped.' At Customs, special branch picked me up and before I knew it I was in a wheelchair being wheeled through the airport ( nose in bag) to the waiting ambulance which took me to Hillingdon hospital for rehydration and anti-sick medication. Not quite the reunion I had imagined with mum and dad - me hooked up to an iv drip; them frazzled after a dodgy drive around the London airport roads. Fortunately I soon began to feel better and by the next morning the three of us were on the road to the Lake District - anti-sick pills in one hand and a packet of wine gums in the other.

Since then we have spent the last few days sloshing about in the mud, enjoying the beautiful scenery, trying out local pub cuisine and eating kendal mint cakes. I still don't feel fabulous as I think my insides are still playing host to Syrian buddies of the small, bacterial kind but it's been a lovely week all the same - apart from the early rising of course, and the mandatory ambling, and the fact I can't face alkeehol.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Ma -a-salaame

Today was Mini-Ramadan day (before the real thing starts next week.) It has another name which I can neither spell nor pronounce so Mini-R will have to do. On this day people do not eat or drink during the day (the same as Ramadan proper) but this one only lasts one day. Some sort of rehearsal for the real thing, I suppose.
I didn’t know it was Mini-R until the late afternoon when I came up to see the family and found them all lying in various states of death around the living room. Listlessly watching the clock apart from Ahmed (aged ten) who was clutching his belly and looking rather hungrily at his mother’s ample arms. They invited me to come break the fast with them at dusk which was very generous of them.
Earlier in the day I visited an artist whom I had met the night before over a falafel roll near the Mosque. I really liked his art work. It was very beautiful and evocative but there really isn’t any room in my luggage for anything now I am stashed full of tea and pistachio-nougat sweets. I feel disappointed about this because I like to support the arts where I can and I also haven’t bought myself anything very special while I have been. (Apart from a night in Shifa hospital I guess and a very pleasing ‘I love Syria’ key ring.) But then I kind of don’t want to buy myself something just for the sake of it. Last year I bought myself a lantern and mirror that I cherish very much and I feel they are representative of my love for this country as a whole rather than any trip in particular.

I spent the rest of the day visiting my usual haunts – trailing my fingers over the crumbling walls, Moorish wooden doors, jasmine flowers and any rogue chocolate doughnuts that should happen to cross my path.

Dinner tonight with the family was very special. We waited for the Umayyad mosque to signal that the fast had broken and then the whole family dived in like frenzied piranhas. I kept all extremities close by. The dishes were simple but very delicious apart from a scary bread thing that smelt like a butcher’s shop and I tried to hide amongst my hoummus. After a few minutes the children started passing out on the floor because they had eaten too much too quickly but Susan-the-reliable kept the fires burning. I felt very honored to spend this meal with them. There was an air of excitement to the meal, a bit like Christmas, and after dinner there were sweets which were devoured in a manner not unlike Joanna J when she encounters a packet of peppermint slice. Tea was then drunk while Ayah told me how it is better to be a woman under Islam than a man. She listed things such asthe man having to provide a house, food etc all very wholesome until Susan chipped in and explained that if the husband is away too much working the wife can complain that she isn’t getting enough and the Sheik will remonstrate the man for failing her most basic needs. Hmmmm

Then it was time to say goodbye. Yes, I can’t believe my four weeks are up already. I feel I am only just getting started. I think the hospital escapade kind of threw me a bit but I know I will return – it is written in my blood. I had planned to spend my last evening in a maudlin manner wandering the streets but I am glad I spent it with the family instead. We had a really fun time and I feel really touched to have spent such precious time getting to know them and their country better. It isn’t all bad though as tomorrow I touch down in London (huzzah how Londrous) where I shall be meeting up with the pares and driving to The Lake District for a week ( because The Lake District and Damascus should clearly be twinned for their obvious similarities and the fact that they both begin with ‘D’ sort of.)

Oh, I also spoke to my Syrian Pal who is back in the desert now. It was his birthday yesterday - not that I think his current employers did anything of great merit to celebrate his life. I felt sad saying goodbye to him. He has a hard life – like so many people here. But I don’t want to end on a low note given how high I have soared while here.
Syria is a complicated, beautiful country and every day I spend in it helps me to know myself and my world a littler better.

PS – even though I leave tomorrow I am thinking of attaching some photos over the next few weeks just so I get more chances to yabber on about my current destination of choice! I have found Syria most conducive to blogging as you may have noticed.

'Ana Fattoush' - I am Fattoush

So I yesterday afternoon I went up to the fam to give them a box of dates I was given in Palmyra because I can’t fit them in my backpack and they asked me to eat lunch with them. I explained that I had just eaten and they asked what so I reeled off the usual suspects: fattoush, tabbouleh, hoummous, labneh etc and I said ‘oo-hib-boo fattoush’ (which means ‘I like fattoush’.) Mahroun (aka S.H.) who had been lying in a stupor on the floor rolled over and said with a big cheesy, moutachey grin ‘ana fattoush’. (‘I am fattoush and you can eat me.’) Racy Bugger. Susan started laughing so much she was like a little bowl of jelly fit to explode. Honestly this family has discussed cystitis, venereal disease, penis size - you name it - with such gusto I doubt there would ever be a need for ‘the talk’ with a child. I’d say it is pretty much covered by age four.
I had a nice day yesterday. I did a bit of shopping in the morning. Saw a very lovely heart pendant (to rival the heart of the ocean to be sure) but I don’t think my budget can accommodate it. Where is my smarmy Billy Zane equivalent when I need him? (I have Titanic on the brain because every child I meet seems to be gripped by the tragic romance of Jack and Rose. I believe that it is all their not-so-secret wish that their own love story befalls a similar fate - the odds of which are, ironically, probably quite high. Romeo and Juliet is also a big hit.) I met a nice American girl from Texas in the same shop as the pendant and we had a mutual bond about Syria. It’s interesting but I find most foreigners I encounter here tend to be very closed off. They wear this expression which says that I-am-currently-amidst-my Middle-East-experience-and-I do-not–wish-to- acknowledge-any-outside-influences (or inside for that matter - the number that glide past the Syrians with barely a smile or a word it is quite staggering.) I, on the other hand, probably smile far too much but I’m just making up for the times in my life when the smiles have flowed less freely.

In the afternoon I sat by the fountain behind the Umayyad Mosque and talked with some of the local shop-keepers. One of them was the Syrian twin of Jeff Goldblum right down to the pinstripe pants. They all spoke very good English but comforted me with the fact that English is very easy for them because they hear and see it from an early age whereas there are still many things of about Arabic they are yet to learn. They gave me a rather concise but lively account of what they referred to as the ‘non-shit history of Islam’ which they lamented was rather short but had some very good points. They said that 70% of what you and see and hear today about Islam is not true Islam but is the result of politics confusing itself with religion. Jeff Goldblum (aka Samir) also told me an amusing story about a trip he had to London where he met a couple of women on a bus. They asked him where he was from and he said ‘Syria’. They drew blank faces so he tried to describe where it was and as soon as he said it was next to Israel they latched on to the idea he was an Israeli and spent the rest of the bus trip telling him how wonderful Jewish people were and did he not agree it was great to be part of such a special race. Samir, himself has no problems with Jewish people from what I could tell, but he felt that by the end of the bus ride he should at least try to clarify his identity and said that he didn’t actually live in Israel but could be regarded as a very nice neighbor. The men also told me how sometimes they go to Europe to buy things to sell back in Damascus and how they once bought some trinkets in Austria for about 50 Euro and ended up selling them back to an Austrian here in Syria for 120 Euro. Really I should have been appalled at such sneakiness but there is something innocent and cheeky about the way they explain it that makes you want to forgive them of everything. Of course they then invited me back to one of their shops and I said ‘what so I can buy something from Austria?’ and they said ‘Oh no you aren’t from Austria. We will sell you something from some place else.’

In the evening Susan asked me to come on a networking excursion with her. She said it would only take an hour. Five and a half hours later we finally made it home after visiting a shoe maker, a light-fitter, a pet shop filled with jars of snakes – fifty maybe sixty to a jar squirming about in the water. Honestly my stomach dropped at the very thought of even one of these jars actually tipping over. There was also a parrot who said ‘salaam alaykum’. We then visited a coffee shop I know and a hotel I stayed in (which my story ‘The Fish of Al-Kawthar’s Fountain’ is inspired by) so she could meet the people I know and ask them to send travellers her way if they need long-term rooms. It is a very strange thing when I start introducing Syrians to each other for the purpose of business – I feel it is another step closer to my assimilation. I even thought about charging an introduction commission in true Syrian spirit.
I finally got home around 10:30 pm and went to Al-Nawfar to smoke nargileh -which made me thoroughly sick. I followed this with falafel and chocolate doughnut and went to bed feeling less than wholesome. Oh I also saw the most wonderful ‘yowl of cats’ lurking below one of the overhanging windows of an old Damascene house. I watched them for a while and then suddenly these huge meteors of meat scraps started hurtling out the window. Clearly they have an understanding with this house.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Billy Ray's Syrian cousin

Last night a man wearing a mullet to rival Billy Ray Cyrus brought his uud to our courtyard and sang for the family. It was a different man to the one we had visited the night before (apparently his attack of shyness was still in full throes) but I suspect this eighties throwback had a bit more kick to him anyway. His uud even had an outlet for electricity so he could really get down and jam when he wanted to. ( An Uud, by the way, is sort of like a guitar with the peg part bent back as if it came second in a bar brawl.) According to Susan he performs in a swimming pool on the way to the airport. I suspect she means at a swimming pool complex rather than in because all that water would wreak havoc with his stylishly waxed hair (not to mention the uud.) Anyway we were very lucky to have a private performance of some of the most popular traditional Arabic songs. They were all about love of course (those hopeless romantics) - lost love, abandoned love, denied love, forbidden love etc. the family went wild when he played certain songs – lots of clapping and singing and hip thrusting (and that was just the men – apart from poor Mahroun (aka Saddam Hussein) with his missing elbow who could only wiggle in his seat and wince.) After the show I was invited to join the uud player for dinner at a restaurant. I had a distinct ‘you-should-marry-this man-he-is-an uud-player-and-then-you–can live-in–Syria-with-us–forever’ kind of vibe from the family which made me a little uncomfortable. Fortunately I had actually arranged to meet a friend in Bab Sharqui at 11pm for a drink so I could decline in good faith.

Yesterday I treated myself to lunch in a restaurant. Many of the restaurants here are set in courtyards with climbing vines up the walls, orange trees hanging overhead and bubbling fountains filled with swimming watermelons trying to keep cool. I wonder if you get a free meal if an orange falls on your head? They are really nice places to relax and eat my favorite Syrian dish – fattoush. Apparently I have quite peasant tastes as fattoush is really nothing more than a salad and Syrian cuisine can get a lot more complicated and elegant than this. I am quite comfortable with the peasant label though – after all I do look upon Lambrusco as the drink of Queens as well. The waiter put me right next to the fountain (a highly coveted spot) which was very nice of him. At the table opposite me was a quatrobond in full force. Four women who had come together to share a meal, smoke nargileh and enjoy a cunning game of cards. It made me think of those Rickety Kate days in Ireland with my own quatrobond and I had fantasies of us all coming together in the restaurant for a game of cards as well.
After my meal I took to the streets for a purposeless meander – the best kind of meandering I find. I bought myself an enormous bag of flower tea (which I imagine would look highly suspicious if I were to stuff it in with a boogie board and bring it through customs) but I’m going to take my chances because I am sure this tea is the secret to eternal life. I also got roped into a few shops to look at jewellery and carpets although most of them really weren’t that interested in making a sale. They just wanted someone to drink tea with - oh and to go for La Fottage should the opportunity arise. La Fottage for those not in the know is the deliberate attempt to caress a woman’s breast with a passing arm gesture that the fottager tries to make look accidental. Even though I have given the word a French twist here I suspect it has its origins in the Middle East. I am quite adept at pre-empting La Fottage but on the rare occasion I get caught out I have the most excellent ‘I-know-the-Syrian-Secret-Police-personally-and-they-are–not-amused’ face.

All in all though Syria is a very safe place for a woman to travel. I feel very relaxed in the streets and most of the time the people are very kind and welcoming. I even went for a stroll through the streets last night after I had met my friend at Bab Sharqui. Apart from the green glow of the minarets, there was very little light in the streets apart from what the moon cast down from overhead. All the lanes were silent apart from little clusters of men sitting outside their houses smoking on pipes and playing backgammon. As I walked passed they would whisper ‘welcome’ and then go back to their games leaving me to enjoy their beautiful streets alone with my thoughts. After a while ( I got a little lost – am not quite a local yet) I felt hungry and was confronted with the rather pertinent question:’ Where does one go in the land of kebabs to find a late night kebab?’ I was amused to find the trusted staple of Europe, Australia and England just wasn’t available in the wee hours of the morning. I had to settle for a chocolate doughnut from my favorite bakery instead (the 7/11 equivalent I suppose.)
Today I am going to continue meandering the streets and I’ll probably stop for some nargileh at the old coffee shop by the mosque. It had been my intention to write while I was here but I have chosen to let it take a backseat to living. Besides, I really do believe that stories find you so I have just to sit and wait until they track me down.

Oh,and here are a few more pictures to entertain.

* dustbin blending doy-style
* Me at Salaam gate
*my local buddies

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Panorama-ed at last!

Well, it’s another choob kiteer (very hot) day in Damascus. There is a beautiful wind that sweeps through the lanes after dark but in the morning the streets are like ovens and the only breeze you can feel is from the swish swish of ponies’ tails as they go about delivering watermelons. There is nothing more delightful than watching a pony stare down a truck in a narrow lane and win!! Reversing just isn't in their repertoire.

Bitey, the turtle, has decided to take refuge with me which I am quite happy about because one of the other travellers staying here poured insecticide on the floor outside her room and I am terrified that Bitey will get some on her claws. I can hear her crunching on biscuits under my bed as I type.

Yesterday I finally made it to the October War Panorama after yet another false start in the morning. The first time I got there I discovered they wouldn’t let me in unless I had my passport – no spies allowed – they were very apologetic but firm so I had to try and find my way home which was quite a trial on the highway. I eventually stopped at a garden centre to catch my breath amongst the plants where I was given a tour of all the different sections by the head gardener. Things went a little awry when he tried to handfeed me a very long, phallic-shaped cucumber behind the jasmine flowers but I managed to clear that ‘misunderstanding’ up and we had a chaste cup of tea amongst the ferns. When I left he loaded me up with plants (even though I explained I really couldn’t keep them for myself) so now my family has an even more verdant oasis than before.

Once home I napped (I mean I had been up since 9:30 am) and ate another very pleasing chocolate doughnut. Doha, Ayah and Jemaan each took turns in visiting me to tell me about their days. Doha is such a beautiful girl. She studies hard every day and has great plans to see the world. She came in to see me after morning Madrassa, flopped onto my couch and said in a very perplexed voice. ‘I don’t know why I love you so much.’ It was said with such dramatic angst, as if it was troubling her to understand why this might be. As if there was some deeper meaning to it that she couldn’t fathom. I just gave her a big cuddle and she started to smile again. I feel very sad at the thought of saying goodbye to her but I don’t feel like it is forever. Just like Florence I know that Damascus is somewhere I will always return to or dare I say – belong.

Anyway in the afternoon I decided to tackle the October War Panorama again. I walked through Souk-Al-Hamidiyya first because I wanted to visit the underwear section on the way. The crazy, feathery, glitzy (complete with electronic songs in the crotch) knickers and bra ensembles never fail to amuse me; particularly when the very serious salesmen start pressing all the buttons so as to impress me with the full razzle-dazzle. I spent a good twenty minutes there being entertained before finally finding a taxi with a meter (as opposed to the let’s-pluck-a-number-out-of-our butt-method which a lot of the drivers do at the sight of a gringo.) The Panorama occupies a very grand space. Lots of water features, green trees and polished marble floors - quite the oasis of peace !?! Apparently it cost an awful lot of money to build; money which was largely fronted by the North Koreans. I asked why the North Koreans had felt obliged to give so much money to Syria to build this memorial and I was told it is because Syria and North Korea have such a good understanding. (eg ‘They both hate America.’)
On one side of the main building are Syrian tanks and weaponry from the actual war. Many of them were built by The USSR and Czechoslovakia (as it was then) and some of them still have their rockets attached. I had a very informative guide whom I shall simply call K. He gave a very interesting spin on the whole Panorama which I won’t write about here. Suffice to say I learned a lot of new things about Syria.
On the other side of the building sat the remains of Israeli tanks and weapons largely built by the Israelis, the Finnish and The Americans. A sign rather smugly referred to them as ‘booty’.
After inspecting the weaponry I watched a short film on the battle for The Golan Heights but first I had to stand for the Syrian national anthem. Quite a rousing tune actually and everyone else in the auditorium sang it with impressive gusto. The film was very old (you’d think the war had happened at the time of the Boers) but it showed the Syrians capturing a communication post or something like that. Everyone in the room applauded very enthusiastically at the apparent victory. Upstairs was a painted panorama of the battle at Quneitra, they even transported sand/mines/barbed wire from the area to give it an authentic 3D effect. This also received a rousing applause although given the current situation in The Golan Heights it makes me wonder what the accompanying oral presentation (given all in Arabic) actually says. It was all very detailed and immaculate but I can’t help wondering if the money might have been better spent helping the poor people in Syria, particularly those whose men served in the military. I guess the overall impression of the Panorama for me was what I usually feel when I see war commemorations – sadness and frustration at just how stupid it all is.

In the evening I ate with my family before visiting a man who makes and plays the Uud. He had an attack of shyness and asked that we return the following night to hear him play.
So instead of listening to music as planned I wandered Straight Street with the women of the family where we ate ice-cream, nearly got run over by insane service taxi drivers and met a man who was both Christian and Muslim and liked to call himself Joseph or Youssef depending on whether the woman he is trying to woo is Christian or Muslim.
Ah, how I adore their cunning ways.
After this I drank some wine and cosied up with my bed bugs for another dream-infested night.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Naked and shopping - another day well spent!

I have just returned from a successful shopping excursion to track down an elusive minkar for my Bellini buddy back in Australia. A minkar is a special kitchen utensil used to take the cores out of zucchinis so they may be stuffed with meat and then baked. My Bellini buddy has scoured the shops back home for such a magic wand to no avail so upon hearing of my planned trip to the homeland of the stuffed zucchini she bribed me with Prosecco to find her one. (Note to favour-hunters – Joanna J will do pretty much do anything (except George W Bush perhaps or anyone with orange peel skin for that matter) for a glass of the sparkly stuff!)
Being the local I am, I headed in a slow, almost stationary pace, to Souk-al-Bzouriyya where I had previously spied a few household stalls amongst the spices and sweets. I must confess that lady luck eluded me at first and all my cried of ‘minkar minkar’ accompanied with appropriate de-coring-of-zucchini-mime-actions seemed to bring me little joy. Someone offered me a potato peeler though which at least meant the vegetable theme had been taken on board. Anyway perturbed but not beaten I finally spied a man putting on the culinary equivalent of a fireworks display on a rug in the street by the Umayyad Mosque. Sprays of carrot, potato and tomato everywhere – cut into latticed wheels, shredded like explosions and lo and behold amidst all the vegetable-inspired frenzy sat a minkar on the verge of de-coring. I asked the man to demonstrate its wizardry a number of times before purchasing two: one for my Bellini buddy and one for myself in the hope that its addition to my kitchen tool kit will bring forth a more substantial meal than chips, salad and Thousand Island dressing.

Shopping mission achieved I then spent the next two hours roaming the streets of the souks looking for nothing in particular and finding everything instead. There are some absolutely gorgeous fabrics here in Damascus. I adore the way they sparkle in the shops but fear they would translate into tack central if I were to export them into my room beside my lava lamp and plastic plants. I ended up having tea with shop-owner Assiz and his father Mohammed. Mohammed used to manage the Damascus museum and is an expert on all things Islam. I was invited to ask him any questions I might have on such topics but all I could think of asking was how exactly they make their hoummus so creamy without a blender. The family also has an Ali Baba cave behind the great mosque full of ancient, elegant things which Assiz took me to see. Amongst all the beautiful things was a writer’s chair from the sixteenth century that a writer used to sit on outside the Government offices. Whenever someone needed the services of a writer (to scribe an official document for example) they would come to this office and choose one of the writers from the row of men sitting on their chairs. Each porcelain chair was illustrated by the writer so prospective clients could see the quality of their work; a form of early advertising I suppose – quite practical for the writer’s bottom as well. The Ali Baba cave had a terrace as well with views of Jesus’s minaret and Saladin’s dome and I have been invited to return ( with camera) to have lunch one day. Apparently Assiz’s older brother is a very good cook and it is mandatory that I taste it for myself. ‘Come around at 1 pm any day’ where the specific instructions. I told Assiz how much I wanted my parents to come see Damascus and he suggested we marry to make them come. Actually he was polite enough to assume there was a waiting list for my hand and asked only that he be added. I’d let all these declarations of love go to my head if I believed a single word.

I also went to a hammam today. Honestly some days I wear a sloth’s skin and do nothing at all and other days I am ’action man’ without the lump of plastic in my pants. So being in the latter category today I decided to visit my local – the Hammam Bakri – for a bit of a scrub down Syrian style. I am not really a hammam-type person typically speaking. Sweaty nakedness with unknown persons in close proximity is not my forté (I have very English blood) but this is actually the reason why I go. To challenge myself, to stretch my limitations, to let the hairy beast breathe where other beasts go to breathe as well.
Anyway the hammam itself was very beautiful. Carpeted seating surrounding a courtyard brimming with plants and cool, flowing water. Above it was a charming old dome with holes that let the Damascus sky in. I suppose God is allowed to peek in from above since She is a woman after all! I decided to go for the full scrub massage thing – if you are going to challenge yourself you might as well do it properly – which began with me squatting in a steam room until my eyes bled. Then a woman carted me away and got me to lay down on the marble where she encouraged me to remove my swimwear (no easy feat ) and scrubbed my flawed skin until it shone like polished sand. Then she massaged me gently ( none of this Turkish sumo wrestling style here) and left me to loofah and wash myself with all the other women. It was very relaxing and it was nice to be left to my own devices – to prance about naked with all my other naked sisters. The last time I went to a hammam ( which incidentally was my first time too) was in Syria too - in Hama, a lovely town three hours from Damascus. That experience had been completely different. The hammam had been crowded with local women all determined to scrub me senseless. It had been a wonderful experience filled with dancing, singing and a lot of home cooking but I actually appreciated the solitude this time. The quiet thoughtfulness of washing.

Now I am scrubbed and shopped and ready to face dinner with the stomach of soldier.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Passing the time

I suppose the last few days have been kind of busy although if I try and think about what exactly it is I have done it just seems to amount to a blur of dust, tabbouleh and short, hot nights. There are a few Italians staying at the house now which means any chance I have of learning Arabic has gone right down the toilet since I just love listening to the bella lingua of Italia. The girl who moved in opposite me spent her first day scrubbing the whole place down. The thing is the house is very old and run down but it is actually very clean. I think she was disappointed with the results because it looked just as decrepit after she had finished. Not being one with a close relationship with Mr Sheen or Mr P. O’Cleen I have adapted to the dilapidated surroundings with remarkable ease. I can’t believe I have already been in Syria for over three weeks.

On Thursday I climbed up Jebel Qassioun to take in a view of Damascus from up high.
By climbed, of course, I meant I took a taxi but the way it grunted and groaned its way up the hill I felt I had done the climb as well. The mountains around Damascus are really little more than great mounds of dust – very Luke Skywalker home planet if that means anything to you. On one side I could see the ranges that mark the beginning of Lebanon and on the other I could see the great sprawl of Damascus. Lots of sandy box-shaped buildings, interrupted by minarets and bursts of park green. Even though the view was quite arid and rugged I found it very beautiful.

The taxi driver stopped at a few points for me to take photographs but he refused to stop at one of the many cafes along the ridge because they are all run by the Syrian mafia. I don’ think such a stop would have resulted in anything more sinister than a rudely over-priced coke but the way he ‘tsked’ and shook his head I decided not to dabble with the Syrian underworld. (Although with the number of different Syrian officials calling at my house on an average day looking for bribes I can’t help feeling the whole country is an underworld save perhaps the little boy who sells sweets down a nearby lane. He always gives me a very good price – or does he?)

I also tried to go to the October War Panorama on Thursday with my Syrian pal . He is very horrified that I was hospitalized on account of Syrian cuisine and has made it his personal mission ( apart from meeting up with endless relatives and trying to get a transfer ) to make sure I see lots of interesting things to do with his homeland other than hospital food and IV bags. Anyway, the Panorama is an interactive exhibition (apparently you get to ‘be the battle’) created by the Syrians with the help of the North Koreans to commemorate the 1973 war with Israel. Unfortunately it was closed but I plan to return before I go. My friend has never been to the Panorama but I think he thought it might have been interesting to see it with a foreigner.

Yesterday I spent the night with my friend's family out in a town I swore never to return to after a rather challenging single-woman experience there last year. But I was eventually persuaded to see it again with new, wiser eyes. It also helped that my choices were either to visit my friend's family or go with my hoummus loving ( or should that read ‘Hamas’ loving ) host family to a ‘farm’ where they promised swimming in a stagnant hole – something I fear that my currently uncooperative immune system might just not survive.

Easy choice really!!!

Well, Maria Von Trapp eat your heart out – My friend comes from a family of 10 children and they all thought I rocked. (Who says I can’t ‘do’ children!?) The actual size of the family was originally 12 but two had died tragically in the last couple of years along with their father. Suffice to say, they are a very poor clan but they still shake their bellies and dance like the mad snakes whenever Arabic pop appears on TV.

They all live together ( apart from my friend and two of his brothers) in an unfinished house with a view out to the other unfinished homes and beyond these to Roman ruins. Quite surreal really. The family lives on the first floor because the ground floor seems to be a museum dedicated to a life not yet lived. The front room has been decorated in an elegant Islamic style but it is very hot so nobody ever wants to sit down in there. Next door is a sparkling kitchen which has never been touched followed by a bathroom with a bath which doesn’t see any action. They all seem to prefer the blue jug and bucket sitting on the floor.
Upstairs is where the family lives, sleeping along a hallway that is open at both ends. Here the ha’wa can blow straight through and keep them cool during the night. Their kitchen is a kerosene stove on the ground in a dim room. They bathe in there too. The girls seem to spend the entire day mopping down the cement floors and cleaning all the walls. They keep the place immaculate but to a naked eye on first visit you would think it was filthy. Desperate, without furniture, save for a few old mattresses and a TV, and a few bags stuffed with clothes and photographs of the dead.
Yet it is most definitely a home – it has a heart to it that I have seen lacking in places far grander than this.

For dinner they asked me what I would like to eat because they wanted to honour my visit. I said I would prefer not to eat goat head or goat tongue or balls for that matter. The mother
laughed so much she rolled about on the floor. Apparently she doesn’t like this particular specialty either. Anyway what we ended up eating was colourful and delicious and most definitely goat-free.

Now I am back in Damascus, alone with old 'Bitey'; there's a cupcake with my name on it in the baker's oven down the lane.