Monday, February 25, 2008

The Hawran

I took a long weekend trip with some classmates down to the mountainous area south of Damascus known to the world as Jebel Druze, but known to Syria as Jebel Al-Arab (the name was changed in the sixties to promote Arab unity, even though 95% of the population is Druze). The Druze who live there now came from Lebanon about 200 years ago as a result of a bloody conflict with Christian Maronites. What they found was a mountainous region full of Roman and Christian cities that had been abandoned in the 7th century after the Arab conquest spread out of Arabiad. So all of the villages today are built among the ruins of ancient houses, temples, baths, and theaters. Some years ago they cleared the residents from around the biggest ruins and you can visit some pretty impressive structures all made out of the characteristic black volcanic stone that covers the whole area. For some reason I was expecting some real mountains, an was kind of disappointed at the hilly nature of the region. There was some snow in the higher areas around Salkhad, but it's mostly just black volcanic rocky hills with a volcanic cone or two sticking up on the horizon. The tops of all of the mountains are Druze holy sites with little temples where they light candles. We stopped on our way back at Bosra even though I'd already been there during the summer, but it is a different place when it's not 120 degrees and you can actually wander around and enjoy it.

Of course from the minute we arrived we were followed around by the secret service to make sure we weren't doing anything fishy, although I don't know what anyone would do in this remote mountain wasteland. After being followed around all morning, I finally just I went up to one of them and asked him if he'd drive us around himself as it would be easier for all of us. He had no objection, so we got a free ride and a free guide for the rest of the trip! The only drawback was that we weren't allowed to take many pictures of anything, we weren't told why, just that it was "forbidden". But we successfully teamed up and distracted them to get a few.

Many (usually older) Druze dress in a traditional outfit that consists of some really baggy pants called Sirwal (said to be designed to catch the next Messiah safely in it's folds when it is born to a man), belted at the waist with a white cummerbund, white cap, and huge, HUGE mustache. We met one guy who used hair spray or gel or something till it was at least two feet from tip to tip. It was a really interesting trip though and well worth the trouble.

Alexa and Vanessa are in Peru and loving the food and the warm weather, and the relatives are all loving meeting Alexa for the first time. She is starting to speak, but only knows Spanish for now, I guess that's what you get when your father is absent for 6 months of the first year of your life.

Lesson of the week: if your shower is above a hole-in-the ground squatter arab toilet and you drop your soap - it's gone.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Goodbye Hiz Bully

I wonder how much market research Coca Cola did when it decided to start this campaign of female Arab singers dressed like American housewives from the 50's. Probably not much.

We all heard the big explosion echo around the city last week at around 11:00 pm, but the local news reported a gas truck had blown up and nobody was hurt. It continued with that story until evening the next day when every Arab newspaper in the world reported that a Hizb leader was martyred in Damascus and their denial was starting to look ridiculous. In 2004 another Hizb guy got blown up in a car bomb as well, but people don't get concerned here, they know that when this type of thing happens the target is some high profile leader and the goal isn't general destruction of human life like in Iraq or even in America (latest University massacre, for ex). At first it Israel's fault, then the CIA, but now, experts on the Arab news channels agree that it could have been pretty much anybody, and one guy on Al-Arabiya even told off all of the Arab media for jumping to the same conclusion (zionist-American conspiracy) every time something happens.

The picture to the right is the latest mess in the old-city reconstruction project, they hit some water pipes while digging and have had to dig deeper and deeper and now there's this gaping hole about 100 ft. deep in the middle of one of the main roads with broken electric and water pipes sticking out, and some of the nearby shops are starting to lose thier floors and foundations as they cave in. They've dug down so far they've uncovered an old roman temple, and there are columns sticking out of the dirt all over the bottom, but the tractors have destroyed most of them, and the rest they're just going to cover right back up once they're done fixing the water. You really can't turn over a stone in this part of the world without exposing something ancient, but nobody has the money, time, or even interest in excavating it.

I finished filming this video for a new Syrian Arabic book after three 18 hour days in a row. It was mind-numbingly cold and tedious, but I got to meet a lot of famous people and make a lot of new friends. Below is a picture of us filming in one of the big famous Arabic houses in the Souk Sarouja area where they film the majority of the Syrian soap operas.

I also went to the huge Shia graveyard just south of the old city where there are a bunch of the Shia leader Hussein's daughters buried as well as a number of important Turkish sufis. It was filled with highly emotional Iranian tourists as well as a large number of Mongolian Muslims, who I thought were supposed to be Sunni?? I'm not sure they really knew where they were, but not to be left out they cried and wailed at the tombs along with the rest of them.

Here's a good article on Damascus from the Washington Post, as well as some great 360 views of a bunch of sites from 360 views of Syria. My family visiting in March will not be able to see these famous sights, as I've planned a much more interesting week-long tour of the botany of the Syrian countryside, which I'm sure they'll enjoy much more. Check out the new Alexa video in the video column - Alexa in Syria.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Wandering the Streets

So I've been wandering around town alot the past few weeks, taking some crappy pictures and whatnot. With the departure of my family, there's nothing to do at 2 am anymore so I've been trying to catch up with all of the oscar nominations (each DVD has the warning across the bottom "this copy is for academy screening purposes only"), my pick this year is Juno, it put me in a good mood for about a week. I'm also starring in a lame video production of an Arabic language series with some of my co-students, so I am also busy after school memorizing scripts, and don't have that much time to sit and miss Alexa (and..., oh yeah, Vanessa).
I'll also be moving into a new apartment this next week closer to the University, which is in a poorer and thus cheaper area where I'll probably have more interaction with 'normal' Syrians, as opposed to the wannabe cool kids that hang out in my area in front of the expensive coffe shops and eye me warily when I pass by. I actually found a gypsy camp in Damascus down by the river behind the Sheikh Saad area and was considering renting a room from one of them in thier mud hut for $40 a month, but it had no washing machine or fridge or hot water or kitchen, etc. and I didn't want to go to the bathroom in a hole three feet from where I laid my head for 4 months, even though the gypsies would probably be good for my Arabic.

So tomorrow I have to devote an entire day to getting my new apartment contract approved by the Syrian gov. It goes something like this:
1. go to the ministry of housing and pay a guy to get some forms,
2. go the the US embassy to get one of the forms notarized and stamped,
3. go to the Syrian ministry of foreign affairs to get that paper stamped again,
4. return to the ministry of housing and present the stamped papers which they then stamp again,
5. go to the ministry of finance to pay the taxes on the contract (need stamps from 7 different offices),
6. return a third and final time to the ministry of housing and get my rent contract approved (stamps from four different offices)! and I used to complain about the DMV...

Axexa is doing fine at her grandparents house in Maryland and is apparently a child prodigy, reading Balzac and composing symphonies, they are off to Peru in two weeks and will stay there for almost three months. My mom is going out to DC see her before they leave, sure wish I could be there, or they could be here... or we could all be somewhere else.

I'm sure glad to be away from the hype of the primaries, nobody here really understands what is going on in the US or seems to care. The only thing that anyone has said to me is that if Clinton wins they'll be convinced that the US is a dynasty like Saudi Arabia. First Bush and son, and now Clinton and wife. He said this standing right under a big sign of Assad. Like Saudi? I said. But he didn't seem to get it.