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.

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