Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all. We were unsuccessful in finding a cheap christmas tree and I didn't want to spend over $20 for the pitiful chinese plastic trees offered everywhere so I finally decorated our aloe vera plant (in the center of the picture) with the one ornament we have. It's a pretty low key Christmas. Vanessa is taking the picture and agreed to have santa sit in her place. There's not much else going on, and it doesn't feel very much like Christmas besides in the Bab Touma Christian quarter where there are a lot of christmas lights up, but we don't live there. We'll just hang out Christmas eve and day around home and sleep and make figgy pudding. We bought Alexa five dollars worth of toys at a dollar store in Lebanon, and one of her new toys is a snoopy phone that plays "boom boom boom I want you in my room" over and over. While in the house in Lebanon she was attacked two nights in a row by mosquitos and has 15 mosquito bites on her face and some of them have infected and she really looks like she has the plague. On the bright side though, when going around town everybody recoils from her in horror when they come up to kiss her, so Vanessa is planning on painting them on after they heal to keep all the strangers at bay.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Flat and Proud

Only in Lebanon will you see an ad like this, compared to most Arab countries where this ad would probably cause riots of burning TV's and protests, it goes to show you how different Lebanon is from the rest of the Arab world. Just got back from a wonderful trip there where we stayed with the family of a friend of Vanessa's that she met while working in south africa this summer and they turned out to be a wonderful Druze family that live on Jebel Lebnan in a house that is still all shot up from the civil war (their particular house was shot up by a US destroyer off the coast). Besides having no heat, being full of some strain of mosquito that can thrive in freezing temperatures, and being without power 4-6 hours a day, it was great. From what I experienced, Lebanon almost doesn't belong in the Middle East it feels so European, and parts of Beirut in particular feel like a modern european city (minus the old buildings here and there that are full of bullet holes), except that people speak Arabic. Or barely Arabic, their dialect is so chock full of english and french. It's like there are degrees of coolness, and each Arab country I go to I think they are the really cool Arabs, then I go to another one and the people I used to think were really cool seem really low-class. I started in Egypt, then went to Syria, then Jordan, then Lebanon, like rungs of a ladder the stereotypes are already setting in my head.

We rented a car and for 8 days set out early in the morning and toured around a certain area and then came back to the home base in the evening for dinner. I think we saw just about every major site there was to see considering you can drive from the northern to southern border in about 4 hours. We went south into Hezbullah country, Sidon* (star indicates very nice), Tyre, North to Byblos*, Tripoli, East to Qadisha valley (becharre*),And Bekaa valley (Baalbek*), West to Druze mountains (Deir al-Qamar, Beit al-din*, the cedars), straight up on the telefreaky gondola ride up to the top of Jouneh-Harissa*, and straight down into the Jeita grotto caves* (best caves I've ever seen in my life, part of them you take a boat into), making side-trips and whatnot. And of course one has to spend a few days getting to know Beirut. The restaurants, malls, new buildings, people with money, war-scars, eclectic shops, all make it fascinating just to walk around in. We got and insiders tour and saw places and things that made me feel like I was at times in New York or Rome or Paris, but never in the middle east.

Despite being somewhat eletist and full of themselves, I was really impressed with how open minded and educated most Lebanese were, but also couldn't help but notice thier amazing good looks - they've somehow hit the genetic jackpock with thier mix of phonecian/ greek/ french/ arab/ turkish/ whatever, because I've never seen so many good looking people in my life. There are also an incredible amount of foreigners there, I mean who knew until the war last year when Australia had to suddenly evacuate over 5 thousand Australians, and canada 10 thousand, and France 20 thousand, etc, etc, that there were that many foreigners there?
Of course most people thought we were crazy for going to lebanon right now because of the assassinations/ explosions that take place every few months, but beirut is so big, and the assasinations so targeted, that it is really just as safe as anywhere else if you ask me. Considering the crime rate is just a small fraction here than that of any large US city, you are more likely to get killed in DC or LA than in Lebanon. It's so funny to me how people here hear about the crime rate in the US and are afraid to travel there, and Americans hear about some explosions "somewhere" in the ME and are afraid to travel there. Probably just as well for both of them.

Prices for everything were so high we weren't able to buy a lot, although we did manage to buy a 200$ maclaren stroller for Alexa because the new one we bought her in Syria fell apart. She also learned to walk while in Lebanon - hooray. Now back to Christmas in Syria... :(

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The picture to the left is sunset at the citadel in the old city. That's where we actually live, inside the ancient walls of a castle, in a tent, on top of a camel. In case you were interested.

So I was blowing barbucas yesterday with Alexa (half spanish-half english word for bubbles) when three bubbles floating in the air suddenly all floated together and became one bubble. It blew my mind for the rest of the day. Otherwise it's just been studying and reading the required 50 pgs a day of Arabic novels. Vanessa has been hanging out with a new circle of friends from Spain and Alexa loves playing with the other kids. There is also a neonatal conference hosted at the University sponsored by the LDS church and I've been helping out touring the doctors around town. I find it's always more fun showing people where you live than actually living there. Everyone in Syria was holding their breath for about a week when the Lebanese elections fell through, but things look like they are going to hold and so we'll probably spend at least part of the christmas holiday in Lebannon. Below is thanksgiving with the Morgans.

We went to an art show the other day in Mezze and it was really pathetic, only about two small rooms with some really mediocre paintings. It is the best of the three or four galleries in town which are perpetually deserted. It brought to mind how lacking the cultural scene is in Syria (and the Middle east in general). People just don't care about anything outside of money, sex, and food. I guess that could be said for most of the world, but.... I really like Syria, but there is a dearth of cultural life here, there is nowhere to dress up and go out to - the few plays in town are usually really amateur Egyptian or Iraqi plays and poorly attended (we went to one on opening night and there were about 30 people in a huge empty auditorium), nobody you ask can name an artist or even tell you what the last book they read was, there is almost no live music, art shows, plays, exhibits, book signings, etc, and the few events that do come to town are usually attended by mostly foreigners and a few rich Syrians who have lived abroad. Cairo is a bit more happening than Damascus, but for a city of 10-15 million it still has less cultural life than a small city of 10-15 thousand out in midwest America. Why is that?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I had heard about Kabas for a while - it is the Syrian equivalent to the Friday market in Cairo, where the poor people go to buy anything and everything they could ever want. People set up their wares on both sides of a highway and the junk market stretches on for about two kilometers.

I love looking in these markets for hidden treasures, antiques or things you just can't find anywhere else. Vanessa thinks I'm crazy for going to markets like this, even most Syrians think I'm crazy or don't even know it exists. My favorite part of course was the Animal market where there were jars of snakes, squirrels, turtles, all kinds of birds and fish, cats, dogs, gerbils, etc.

Otherwise I have been making regular visits to the dentist because of all the sweets that I've been eating over here. Almost everything you eat here has massive amounts of sugar in it, and people eat sweets like mad. One doctor told us that almost 80% of Syrians over the age of 40 have diabetes, so pretty much diabetes is just expected. You can't believe how much sugar is in everything from the "fresh" juices and tea to the sugary syrupy desserts. Anyways, I had two cavities and went to one of the best dentists in town and it cost me $30. His office was cleaner and more modern than my dentist in the US. I love the health care here.

For Thanksgiving we ate a big meal at the missionary couples house last night complete with stuffing one of their kids sent from the states. Tonight we're going to a thanksgiving potluck dinner that all of the flagship students are having, and we're all going in on an imported turkey that will cost us about $60. Can't wait.

In their latest series of blocking dangerous websites, the Syrian authorities have blocked facebook, Vanessa's sole social outlet, so both her and I apologize for not being able to reply to any recent comments.

Hanging out in the only public garden in Damascus, called the botanical garden inside the old city. In the background you can see the Damascus citadel, a huge fortress that has been closed to the public for restoration ever since the mid nineties. If you look closely in the middle of the picture you can see Vanessa sitting on the stroller nursing Alexa.

Going shopping in the old city just outside the spice market

Alexa doing her hair.

There are a few more pics of the Kabas market here, if interested:

Thursday, November 15, 2007


This is us getting exited about winter clothing. Vanessa and I at least. We pulled our suitcases down from the little storage room everyone has above their bathroom and packed up our summer clothes until next year. It is really refreshing to own so little.

Today when Vanessa was making her daily visit to the park by our house it was invaded by some Gypsy kids who terrorized the entire playgound and fought and tossed bottles and kids around until some men got together and threw them out. Vanessa was traumatized by one kid who had been hit by a car at some point and was mangled and kept wanting to come up and bother Alexa. Gypsies are a problem here as in all eastern countries as they aren't allowed to go to government schools and so can never pull themselves out of the poverty/begging cycle. They just kind of roam the streets begging and wreaking havoc. In addition to that a guy asked her if she was Russian, which is another way of asking if she was a prostitute.

I need to post some pictures of us as relatives are starting to complain. To the right is Alexa getting ready for her nightly shower from the faucet above the toilet (see below). She is saying a few words now and almost walking without help from the wall and goes crazy over other babies, cats, and telephone ringtones. To the horror of Vanessa, her favorite music to dance to is Bluegrass Hillbilly music and doesn't really like latin.

We've been going a little crazy with the perfume shops in town, where they will mix with their magical syringes any cologne, perfume or scent on the market, and it smells exactly the same as the real thing. We found these mini pottery jugs that you can fill with the scents and it slowly seeps through like an air freshener, so we have hung them about our apartment and it smells of sweet, sweet lavender. Like I'm coming home to a fresh field.

We just got back from dinner in the old city and saw that they had torn up the entire main street (straight street) and are re-doing it in cute cobblestone with nice lighting and are doing an entire face lift to the whole bab sharki section of town (in time for the Arab summit no doubt). I hadn't been to that part of the old town in over a month and I saw about five new restaurants, the place is really becoming something worth seeing. So you should come and see.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chilly Willy

This halloween we are being party poopers and not going out. There is a party at the Marine house, but where would one find a costume I don't know, unless we wanted to dress in some crazy Syrian leapord print, but then nobody would know we were dressing up. We're probably going to pick a movie out of our growing pile of 50 cent bootleg movies I pick up under the presidents bridge on my way home from school. That's one great thing about having no copyright laws - that you can buy the latest dvds, cds, or computer software for under a buck.

We visited the shia mosque of saida zeinab the other day, and got to see people weeping and wailing around the tomb of one of the prophet's (SAS) grand daughters. It's a shia mosque built by Iranian funds and has walls that are covered with tons of really tiny mirrors. I also bought some little bricks of mud from mecca that shias touch their heads to when they pray. They make good conversation peices on our coffee table. I bought some childrens books for Alexa since she is bored of hers, but once I read through them at home I found they were full of english spelling and grammar errors, not so good for learning to read. We went to the big semi-new mall in Kafr Sousa with the missionary couple and looked around all of the overpriced clothing stores a bit then went shopping in the supermarket in the basement which is a little nicer than the supermarkets where we live, as in they have three kinds of cereal instead of two. There is also a real donught shop and the jordanian fast food chain Chili's where you can get chili cheese fries.

Speaking of chilly, the weather is getting colder, and the women that wear overcoats all year long are finally smiling (a little). Alexa wears long pants and cleans our dirty floors with her constant crawling and rolling around. No matter how often you clean, every day there is a new layer of fine black dust all over everything. Even with the windows closed it gets in. I guess that's what you get in the city with the second worse air quality in the Middle east - right behind Cairo.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome to China

The Chinese have invaded the Middle East. What started me thinking about Chinese goods wasn't the abundance of chinese crap spewing out of every store, nor was it the rows of chinese street sellers that now line upper Hamra street every night, but it was the man who said proudly "but this was made in china!" when explaining why the Arabic wall hanging was more expensive than its Syrian made rival. People actually think Chinese goods are top quality! There are a bunch of new stores in town called "The Chinese Expo" that showcase shelves upon shelves of cheap Chinese jewelry, electronics, clothes, even food, and people consider it upscale merchandise. I don't know who started this rumor or how long it will last. The chinese-made "Chery" car is also becoming one of the most popular cars (according to the internet, the name of the car was supposed to be translated as "Cheery", but after printing thier spelling mistake on all of thier cars the Chinese company stuck with the new name. You'd think one would check.) alongside the Syrian-made "Sham", and the Iranian "Saba".

In other news, the heat is finally starting to subside and we are weaning ourselves off of 24 hour air conditioning. Ramadan and Eid are now also over, and we have to adjust our night schedule to a daylight one, rather than going out to eat at 11 or 12 and walking around with the crowds of people shopping until 1 or 2.

For those of you with no kids, stop reading now.
Alexa just learned how to clap her hands and can walk along furniture and walls and says "baby" although I'm not sure if she knows what she's saying. She learned how to wave goodbye but always waits until the person has turned around, then we can't get her to stop, she goes crazy for cats and yells whenever she sees other little kids. So cute!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Things she won't remember

We just got back from a great trip down to Jordan, and it really made me realize just how dirty and isolated Syria really is. I hadn't been to Jordan for over ten years and it has really blossomed into the Switzerland of the Levant. Wide, clean streets, beautiful new and modern buildings, American and European shops and restaurants everywhere, one could really isolate oneself in an American environment there if one so desired. Good thing I don't.

We spent our first few days in Amman doing the shopping that one can't do in Damascus, there is a Carfour (the French Wallmart), and malls that have pretty much all the same shops one would find in Tysons Corner, VA. We somehow forgot our stroller on the taxi out of Damascus, but luckily there was an extra one at church in Amman where we went to watch conference. When we went to rent our car we realized that we had forgotten both our driving licesces in Damascus, so we had to do the rest of the trip by bus - which can be an adventure in and of itself with the loud music, tons of smoke, crazy conversations, people passing the baby up and down the bus, each foul mouth kissing her, unscheduled stops, etc.

This was my third time to Petra but every time it is as impressive as the first. A lot has changed in ten years, for example the canyon leading into the ruins (the Siq) is now paved, and you can't ride horses down it, in addition to paying $30 to enter instead of $2. This time we dodged the tourists on donkeys up the long trek to the Deir al-Mousa, a temple carved into the rock up at the top of a mountain which was inspiring, then we rode camels back out to the entrance of the park.

The next day we caught a bus down to the red sea at Aqaba and made the mistake of staying at a cheap backpacker hotel the first night and leaving that same night because of worms in the bathroom and the general disgusting condition of the room. So we jumped in a taxi that took us down a few hundred yards from the Saudi Border at the Coral Bay resort on South Beach and spent the rest of the time snorkeling and swimming at the pool. We ended up meeting a couple of foreign couples also living in Damascus and hopefully they will widen Vanessa's circle of (bored) foreign wives with kids living in Damascus.

After two days we returned to Amman and caught another bus down to the dead sea where we spent a restful day at the Marriott resort floating in the dead sea and swimming and eating as much as we could of our last night of Jordanian food.

Despite Vanessa wanting to stay in Amman for the rest of the year, I for one am glad to be back. There is something about Syria's backwardness that is charming, a last bastion of an un-westernized middle eastern city that has a flavor and excitement that you just don't find anywhere else, and at the rate things are changing here, may not last very much longer.

More photos can be found @

Monday, September 17, 2007

Life in Shaalaan

That is where we live, it is basically an upscale clothes shopping district. To the left is the street we actually live on (not so upscale), tucked quietly away from all the noise. We stopped at a baby store the other day and the outfit Vanessa picked out cost $160. Needless to say we looked elsewhere. The good thing is that everything you could want or need is available within a one-block radius, the bad thing is that it is mostly imported stuff from Europe or the U.S. and therefore ridiculously expensive (a small container of haagen daaz is $12). So we have to go farther afield to find reasonable prices. For some reason, leopard print is all the rage in Damascus right now, and you see women in full leopard print veils and robes and even matching nails. Vanessa thinks it's hilarious and always points out the leopard print people, in addition to clothes with lots of buttons, zippers, bright colored things hanging off them, in general it's like people are dressed for mardi gras all the time - just covered in it from head to foot (very few women dress they way the models do in the stores). There are some great deals though, like the fresh juice and vegetables, I guess if you ate simple and healthy it would be really cheap to live here, but if you want to eat a ton of fatty food American style it gets expensive - the opposite of the food system in the US.

Ramadan is going on for the next month and it's great, every evening when people are ending thier fast and eating the whole city becomes a ghost town and I take Alexa out on a walk in her stroller in the city and just walk right down the center of usually busy streets or circles that are empty and quiet. The only bad thing is that all the shops in the whole city close at four or five and it's hard to find food, but otherwise the lack of traffic, cars, noise, and exhaust make the whole atmosphere pleasant.

I went to KFC the other day, most people here think it is an American-Israeli conspiracy sent here to damage Syria in some way, although no-one can explain exactly how. One person told me KFC stood for "Kenesset Fried Chicken" and Colonel Sanders was a settler. The funny thing about it is that the KFC kiddie meal actually comes with a plastic machine gun - no kidding, KFC is actually giving out plastic machine guns to kids with their kiddie meals in Syria. It was so clean and bright inside it surprised me, I remembered what a clean and efficient fast-food place is like, with nobody squeeging the floor as I was trying to get in, it wasn't filled with smoke, the same person took my order, gave it to me, and took my money (as opposed to 3 different people), nobody tried to throw pickles in everything I ordered, etc. It's the little things you start to notice.

Below is a recent picture of Alexa. She's doing well besides staying up every night until 1 or 2 for no good reason. She just likes the night life I guess. She also likes being the center of attention wherever we go. People stop to take her picture, ask us if they can hold her, or just randomly grab her and kiss her, pet her, pinch her cheek, etc.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Horse Crac Castle

You definitely start noticing some recurring themes as you travel through the dozens upon dozens of Syrian villages and cities - and that is garbage and dirt. Syria has a lot of amazing ancient ruins to see, but nothing very impressive has been built in the last few centuries. I think it's safe to say that anything built or lived in since about the 11th century you can pass on.
We started our trip on the coast up along the "cote d'litter" and visited a dozen or so castles, Roman ruins, and trash strewn beaches. Our favorite castle was the Crac du Chevalier, or horse crack castle that reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. Since we couldn't find a babysitter for Bastawisi, my turtle, we ended up taking him along with us and of course couldn't leave him in the baking car while we toured sites, so we walked around with a baby, stroller, diaper bag, turtle in a cage, and Vanessa insisted on bringing her laptop everywhere so it wouldn't get stolen. It was like a walking circus.
Once we got to our destination of Latakia, we stayed for only one day and had to leave because the bugs were so bad and the muddy beaches that smelled like sewage just weren't worth it. The fully veiled women and kids seemed to be enjoying themselves, it kind of reminded me of Ocean City or the Jersey coast, a vacation spot for those of sunburned necks.
Next we went to Aleppo, stopping on the way at another string of castles, and staying just outside the old city for two days. Aleppo was wonderful, the food was excellent, and the old city charming. The people tended to stare a bit more than in Damascus, but were very nice, and we really got into the different types of olive oil and laurel soap they make there, the most expensive being aged over a process taking 3 years!
I soon realized that the days of cheap backpacker hotels are over now I have a baby, when we'd go to the hotel of my choice Vanessa would just give me a look and look at the baby, and I knew we were not staying there. Alexa loved the trip however, as long as she got her naps. The way it worked out though, we'd always be out and about in the middle of the heat of the day and we'd just keep her doused with water and she'd sleep while we were carrying her around. It was over 100 degrees every day, but luckily we had AC in our car and hotel.
After Aleppo, we went down to Hama, stopping along the way at a bunch of cities of the dead, huge Christian cities (over 800 of them) that were all abandoned almost a thousand years ago when trading routes changed. They are beautiful, and are full of huge stone churches, villas, bath houses, etc. My two favorites were St. Simeon's in the north, and Serjilla and Bara in the south. In this picture I'm sitting on the pillar that St. Simeon sat on for 37 years.
Then we stayed for two days in Hama, visiting the surrounding regions. Apamea was particularly cool, an old roman city that has a 2km long colonnaded street still standing. In Hama there were originally 200 of these waterwheels in the Orontes river that provided water and irrigation to the city, but now only 11 are still functioning. They make this really eerie squeaking sound like an angry whale that you can hear from a distance.
Then we went back home to Damascus and had dinner up on the top of the mountain overlooking the city, overall it was a great ending to a great week.

Check out the web album for more shots:

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I think she remembers me

My wife I mean. I'm pretty sure Alexa had forgotten all about me. In any case she's happy to have me now - Vanessa and Alexa arrived last week and we've been having a good time seeing Damascus, eating, walking, sleeping, eating, walking, sleeping, etc. Alexa has changed a lot, she does a lot more tricks, and is crawling around spilling and tearing things and starting to stand up without any help from people or couches.

We took a small day field trip to Bosra (thus the small picture), a pretty old Roman ruin made out of black basalt rock, with supposedly the best preserved Roman amphitheater in the world, along with the third mosque ever built and the third Christian church ever built - but I think I mentioned previously how Syria mysteriously lays claim to the top five of everything that happened in the world. The thing that makes the amphitheater so interesting is that is is surrounded by an Ayyubid castle.

We found a pretty good house in Shaalaan for more than it's worth, but everything is nearby. This next week we are renting a car and traveling within Syria for a bit, Vanessa also got a good contract job with the World Bank that she'll be able to do from here, so we'll take our time and I'll tend Alexa while she works.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mar Mousa

I spent this weekend in a hermits cave up at one of the most spectacular monasteries I've ever been to. It's only about a hour and a half out of Damascus, set up in a rocky outcrop of high mountains in the middle of a huge desert plain. After finding someone who will drive you to the foot of the mountain from the nearest city, nabak, you have to hike your way up a long, steep rocky trail towards what looks like a medevil castle built right into the face of the rocks above. The monastery was discovered by an italian monk abandoned since the 13th century, who found donors to restore it to it's former glory, and it is now a fully functioning monastery. The only difficulty for the monks is that it has become a destination for spiritual hippie europeans who make a sort of pilgrimage to the site and stay for weeks at a time meditating and living a sort of communal existance. Everyone helps prepare the food, everyone cleans up, there are 'silent hours' where nobody can talk for hours at a time, and most people sit in the restored chapel that has amazingly vivid frescoes from the 11th century and read scripture or look very reverent. There are rooms available to visitors at no charge, however when they fill up, the only other option is to sleep in one of the dozens of caves that surround the monastery, complete with mattresses and heaters (for the winter).

We decided we wanted to get home for cheap, and so hiked back through the mountains to the nearest village, about 8km away and ended up getting lost, asking some bedouin shepards for directions, finding a cement factory and hitching a ride back with a cement truck.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Iraqi Refu-g

I thought I could escape the Iraq war by coming to Syria, ok, not really, but I didn't think it would have such an impact on my wallet. I've been unsuccessfully looking for aparments this last week and can't believe the prices! The 2 million extra Iraqis have driven up the prices for everything from rent to potatoes. Last night I waited 1 hour for a taxi, which these days is a luxury, I would even have welcomed a microbus with an empty seat, but it's no use, everything is so crowded there are 50 people on the same corner as me all trying to get a ride. The apartments I've seen - which aren't necessarily in the nicest areas, are way beyond my price range, and are small, dingy, and dirty. The cheapest I have been able to find so far is $700 for a one bedroom on the roof of a 6 story apartment building with no elevator, and that's in Arnoos! Don't get me started with Sha'alaan, Mezze or Abu Romana. It looks like I might be staying in the old city after all, but even there the cheapest I've been able to find for a seperate apartment is $400. Most of the two bedroom apartments downtown are just as expensive as an apartment in DC! Power in all of Syria is also shut off for 2 to 3 hours a day due to the demand. It is pretty miserable in 115 degree weather with no fan or a/c. I feel especially bad for the ice cream sellers that have to try to sell tubs of melted goo.


If you thought Palmyra was just a place famous in Mormon history in upstate New York, you are not only uninformed, you're also uncultured. I went on a weekend trip to Tadmur this last week and was able to see one of the largest standing ancient cities in the world. It was mentioned in the old testament as having been built by King Solomon, and successively passed from Greeks to Persians to Romans as a major city on the silk road from China. When Queen Zenobia of Palmyra decided to create an idependant state and sent armies as far away as Palestine and Egypt rome decided they had had enough and captured her, whereupon the city rebelled, and was consequently razed to the ground by the Roman Army. If what is standing today is only the remnants of what used to be there it must have been quite an impressive city. There are hundreds of columns still standing over a huge area, hundreds of arches, you can't kick the dirt without unearthing a column, peice of a statue, or pottery shards, and intricately carved column heads lie around the city fields and sides of the road like so much rubbish. It didn't take me more than a few minutes and the right questions in the Tadmur (Arabic name of the city) market before merchants started taking out their hidden caches of "illegal" artifacts that they apparently go out and dig up at night. Of course their concept of their worth is inflated past the bounds of reality, although I bargained a small glass "tear catcher" bottle from $600 to $30, my meager stipend still doesn't allow me those kinds of extras. One of the other impressive sites in Tadmur are the above and below-ground tombs that keep being discovered by the dozen every year (a few years ago they were putting in another natural gas line and happened upon 30 new tombs). They are large and ornate and most of them haven't been touched for 4k years. We got special permission to visit one of the tombs that is off the tourist track that had a fully stone door that we pushed open and creaked and let out a bunch of dust and really made us feel like indy's.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Assad and I

Coming to Syria means getting aquainted with the president - Bashar al-Assad. You see his picture everywhere, in shops, on the streets, in people's homes, etc, and you think 'do people really like him that much? Or are they just scared not to like him?' And after being here for a month I can say that this picture thing is really quite an effective policy. I really feel some sort of afinity for him and feel like he's my friend or relative or something. He has done some amazing things for Syria since his father left which has endeared him to most Syrians, the most visible being allowing foreign banks to enter the country. Now the average person can get loans to buy cars, build houses, restaurants, stores, etc. So in a country that was once known for it's old cars, three out of every five cars are now brand new european or japanese imports, new hotels are growing up around town like weeds (although I can't imagine who is staying in them, since I only see a few straggling european and asian tourists around town), and there are new restaurants with flat-screen tv's, water misters, and remote control roofs all over, and they are full of young people with disposable income!

I went today to the suq al haramiyya - the theifs bazaar, there are two of them in Damascus, one near abasiyya and another near the old city. They're not as exiting as the grand one one in Cairo, but you can find some stolen goods, some broken electronics, bikes, your basic animals, home improvement supplies, etc. I also went with some friends to the tekiyye sulimaniyye market where there are some more traditional handicrafts for sale. I't so hot right now in Damascus that it's not that much fun to go out and do anything, so mostly I lay in my hot bedroom and sweat the days away.

Vanessa is in Seattle visiting friends, and then goes down to Peru with her Parents next week, and I'll get to see them in about three weeks! Can't wait.
Below is the tekke sulimaniyya - the handicrafts bazaar, a quaint place with some different products and better prices than some of the other main bazaars.

Friday, July 13, 2007

I falafel

What was once a quite enjoyable experience - eating, has become a chore I don't always look forward to. The once great food, when eaten everyday for three meals without variation starts to become bland, and I find myself craving such delicacies as cereal and frozen dinners. Of course there is quite a bit of variation in the restaurants, but the fast food available on the street that everybody eats when they are out and about is only of four sorts, shwarma, falafel, saaj, and fatayeer. First, shwarma, (chicken and lamb) - how long has the meat been on it's spindle is anyone's guess. It is eaten slathered with mayonaise and pickles and dipped in a puddle of chicken grease. I just get it with plain meat and bread.

Second, falafel, with it's distinctive Syrian donut shape. The part I like is when they smoosh the falafel into the bread with their fingers they just finished smoothing their hair back with. It comes with tahina and cabbage and some yogurt.

Third and fourth, saaj, fatayeer and it various bread-like brothers and sisters, is usually a pancake like bread with cheese and murtadela (the spam of the east), or fatayeer is a small pizza like bread with either cheese on it, spices, or ground meat. I don't have pictures of it to do it justice, but believe me, I have these four foods coming out my ears.

Whenever I have time to go to restaurants in between studying and sleeping it is a treat, and I get kebabs and hummus and rice and other great things that make me happy. But since I am so tired of eating the other food, I often just don't eat during the day, and have one meal at night. In between I eat slushes, fruit juice and ice cream.

This last weekend we went on a trip to Bloudan, a beautiful mountain resort of the rich and famous in the middle east and swam at a French hotel that has been 5 stars since 1950. We also went to the source of the river Barada that runs through damascus, and ate lunch in a cave in a mountain that has a restaurant in its caverns, and boat rides through the pools that fill it. Someday I'll post pictures of it. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 5, 2007


I went to see enrique iglesias in concert the other night and it was priceless. He is the first big western pop star to come to syria in over 30 years. There was a turn out of about 10k people, even though the tickets started at $80 and went up to $200. I guess it shows you the size of the emerging middle class here. Anyways, I bought tickets on the street in front of the show for $4, and that might account for a portion of the crowd.

Once I entered the concert venue however, there was no organization and my friends and I just walked right up to the $200 section.While he was singing all of these scantily clad women, along with the conservative veiled women were all going crazy yelling and screaming and crying and fainting, etc. I had no idea he was so popular here. Then they started rushing the stage and climbing all over him when he was singing and trying to kiss and hug him while the security guards just stood back and watched. Finally some order was established, but throught the concert guys and girls kept rushing the stage to try to touch him and the bouncers had to keep throwing them down. It was hilarious. Then for one song he picked a girl from the audience and brought her onstage and sang to her, and at the end of the song totally kissed her on the mouth, which, while most people were cheering and clapping, there was almost an audible gasp, and she was obviously pretty uncomfortable. That's just not something you do in a Muslim country, and my friends and I were joking that nobody's going to want to marry her now, which, sadly, is probably true.

The below picture is of Bakdash, a famous Syrian ice-cream institution. It's always packed, day and night until it closes at midnight, and they 'supposedly' were the first people to ever make ice cream. The more I talk to people here it seems like everything that happened in the world somehow happened first in Syria. Anyways, the ice cream is full of gum mastic and pistachios, and is almost a mix between taffy and ice cream, and has a unique flavor from pounding it with cedar clubs when they make it.

Vanessa is having fun in South Africa and comes home this weekend. She is at a biological reserve of some sort and has been on safaris and seen a ton of wild, nasty animals. Alexa is supposedly making a larger variety of noises and using her hands as real hands instead of just something to suck on.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

old city damascus

I just had a really neat experience in the old city last night. There was this music festival put on by the French cultural center where there was live music by different kinds of musicians in about ten different arab houses around the old walled city. You were givent a map and could walk around to all of these immaculate old arab houses with the courtyards and the fountains and listen to all kinds of traditional Arab and modern syrian rock bands. Not only was it cool to walk through the alleys of the old city, replete with hanging balconies and arched doorways, but also to see the real home-grown artsy damascus scene.

There were a lot of local Syrian youth with long hair and black clothes who belonged to the bands or were artists - it really felt like an emerging scene, like something you'd experience in Paris in the 30's or Berlin in the 60's. It's something I haven't ever seen in the middle east outside of a few small groups in the American university in Cairo.

The old city has a real magic to it and is going through a major revival. You can't turn a corner without seeing a house under renovation, and every third doorway is now a sheeshy little restaurant with an open courtyard and a remote control roof that rolls back in the evening to let the breeze in. I would even consider staying in the old city for the rest of the year if I could find a place with AC, a western toilet, and a real kitchen (not a cement block with a portable burner beside a leaky marble basin).

I also went to the international flower show at a local park, which was pretty depressing, not even as impressive as the plant section at any local home depot. Most of the plants were plastic, and besides the few potted plants for sell, there were a stalls selling honey as a natural cure for everything from arthritis to impotence. My favorite was a stall selling some creams for breast enlargement and other ones for breast reduction.