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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Unfortunately - the Syrian government just blocked the internet address, so I can't even see my blog once it's published. Lucky for me, the address where you publish from is different, so hopefully I can continue the blog.

This weekend we went on a trip to Maalula, one of the few villages in Syria where they 'supposedly' still speak Aramaic, the language of the bible and Jesus, etc. However I paid close attention to all of the old people we passed and I only heard Arabic, so I'm going to throw some ash in the soup and call the story only plausible.

It is an ancient christian village that houses a ton of old churches dating back to bible times, and a handful of saints that performed various wonderful miracles, one of which was the splitting of a nearby mountain to effect the escape of a nun. It is the maalula gorge where you can walk down a narrow canyon not unlike zion canyon in utah, and exit into a wide, round opening with a lot of old graves cut out of the rock. There are caves everywhere full of roman and byzantine carvings and habitations of ascetic monks, some of whom still live there.

We also saw a bunch of modern monestaries built on older roman or greek temples and that incorporate the ancient temples into their modern structures. They are mostly syriac orthodox, greek orthodox, or greek catholic monasteries, each with thier own unique style of worship.

The northwestern mountains of Syria are full of mostly christian villages that rich Syrians are now building houses in to escape the summer heat of damascus.

The heat is becoming quite hot, not as bad as DC, but especially for all of us living in the old city without any air conditioning. The highlight of the night is when you move out of the wet sweat spot in your bed for a minute and then roll back into it when it's cold. Quite refreshing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

fumigated turkey sandwich

The menu's really should be collected in Syria and the Middle East in general and be made into a book, every meal includes ten minutes of laughing at the english mistakes on the menu. One of my recent favorites was a "fumigated turkey sandwich", "rough beef", and "salted cock".

Other than attending classes studying late into the night I haven't been up to that much recently. Of course I am the type of person who always has to be doing something if I think there is something out there worth doing. So at the expense of my sleep I grab an hour or two whenever I can and explore the city from end to end and try to visit everything listed in every one of the three existing guidebooks to Syria. I've pretty much worn out every street of the old city and have cataloged every restaurant with a rooftop patio, cool mosque or church, traditional arab house, bath house, or interesting shop that I want to come back to. Speaking of bath houses, I think a visit to a bath house is a cultural experience worth describing.

I just got back from a trip to the traditional syrian bath house and am feeling fresh as a lime. First you enter the main courtyard that has a bubbling fountain in the center, and is surrounded by benches along the wall for people to rest on after their bath. You put all of your valuables in a lock box, and are given a towel to put on while you change out of your clothes - all of your clothes. Then you traditionally get a shave, if needed, or go straight back into the main steam room, with a long slab of heated marble in the middle, and steam coming out of small pipes all around the room.

You can sit on the marble slab if you are brave and look up at the large domed ceiling covered with small glass lightholes that stream in sunlight and give an unearthly feel to the room. There are marble tubs around the room that have faucets running cold water, and you are provided with a little plastic bucket to occasionally throw over yourself to cool down. Once all of your pores have opened and you are ready to die of heat exhaustion, you go out into an antechamber and call for the guy to help you, usually his name is Abdu. He sits you on the floor and takes out a glove that is a mixture of course wool and some sort of rough sticks that he proceeds to rub you down with, which at first feels quite pleasant, but then turns excruciatingly painful as he ruthlessly tears away at your skin. Tears were in my eyes, but I dared not cry in front of the Arab. He rubs down your whole body - yes, the whole body, and then washes you down with soap that stings your skin as it enters the abrasions. When he turned me over, he showed me piles of my dead grey skin, rolled into little worm-like strands littered on the floor. Then he calls another guy, usually named Ali, who lays you down on a big stone slap and proceeds to give you a full body massage. Once he is done, you are shown back into the main entry courtyard and are wrapped with towels head to foot and sit down like jelly and are served a cold drink. Once you are done, you leave the bath house feeling like a new man.

Vanessa is in South Africa and I have not heard if she is alive or not, but hopefully all is well. I was also able to attend church this friday and increase attendance at the service by 50%. I also found out that the park I was hanging out in on Fridays to speak to people and improve my conversation skills is a park primarily frequented by gay Syrians - no wonder they were so friendly!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dimishiq at last

For some reason I am not able to access my rockwoodsindc address from Syria and so will have to maintain this as our main blog for the time being.

In any case -

It is so great to finally be here! The lure of the east - strong in me it is. After my luggage was lost in Frankfurt by Luftansa for almost a week, I had to wear same clothes everyday and every night wash my underclothes and hang them up to dry in my hotel room. Most people at school didn't know I didn't get my bags and assumed I only brought one shirt to Syria. The food really amazing, the stuff in the restaurants anyways where you are brought about 8 plates of food - two or three kinds of salad, babaganoush, hummus, more eggplant stuff, bread, yogurt, a plate of mayonaise with garlic (which I don't touch), and about 4 different kinds of meat - all for only about 4-5 dollars aperson. Below are also some of the sweets available off the street.

I am surprised at how much more moderately dressed people are here compared to Egypt - girls with veils walk down the street with thier friends who are wearing skimpy skirts and skin-tight tank-tops, and the majority of Syrian guys don't even cat-call and ogle at every female walking past, something almost incomprehensible from my experiences in other nearby countries.
I'm living with a Syrian family in the old walled city of Damascus for the summer, together with about 200 other foreigners that rent rooms from the christian quarter of the old city. I hear just about as much German and Italian as I do Arabic walking around my neighborhood.

The most amazing thing about the old city is how a crumbling, dirty, wall will have a small door with a sign above it to a restaurant, and once you go in the door to the other side, you are met by a beautiful courtyard flowing with mosiacs and flowers, and flat-screen tv's on the walls playing Arabic MTV and hip Damascenes eating lunch. One I went to the other day had these little hoses strung over your head, and everyfew minutes they would spray mist into the air to cool you off.

Today I went to what's called the 'palace of bones' built by the ottomans, gorgeous tile and woodwork and colors, and they had these manequins set up doing different things, but all of the manequins were male, and so all of the female characters looked like men in drag. Here is a picture of the place:

I miss Vanessa and Alexa like crazy and can't wait until they join me in August. And until I get our digital camera from Vanessa there will be few pictures. She will be in South Africa next week and I'll be sure to post her news from there.