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.

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