Monday, March 31, 2008

A very low Summit

This last week was the Arab Summit. That's right, if you're not into the Middle East then you probably didn't hear about it, but around here it was a once in a century event. It's the first time the Arab League has met in Damascus and they really put on a show. In fact they even closed the airport and all the borders for five days, so even if I didn't want to be here for it I had no choice. Most of the roads were closed and there were police everywhere, but the summit ended without incident besides a wave of freezing winter weather after a short heat wave. Most people here outright made fun of the summit and think it is a complete waste of time. But I did hear one person say that in the last few years they have been trying to address the issue of the broken education system, which is a step in the right direction. One of the highlights was watching Qadaffi pour out contempt on all the other Arab leaders as he sometimes does.

There was a brief resurgence of Arab nationalism for the last few weeks, with a few signs around town touting the "Shared heritage and language" of the Arabs, but in general Syria really doesn't have that much in common with any other Arab countries, it's closest allies are Iran and Russia for grace sake. I would make an argument however, that the Syrian people are some of the best candidates in the Middle East to be friends with the US. For one, Syria is the most religiously diverse Arab country with about 6 different Muslim sects, 5 different Christian sects, and throw in a few Yezidis and Jews and a surprisingly large number of Athiests. It is also the most linguistically and racially diverse, with about 11 languages and 15 or so significant ethnic groups. This melting pot effect has made most Syrians by necessity more open minded and permissive than the surrounding countries. When I go out with friends they are a religious mix of Druze, Protestant, Sunni, Alawi, Armenian Orthodox, agnostic, etc. (including two Athiest girls that wear the veil - for social / family reasons), and an ethnic mix of Arab, Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, Turkish, Tajik, and Russian, etc. This in addition to 50 years of a socialist secular government has made Syrians' attitudes closer to American attitudes than any other ME country I've ever visited. Of course there are a number of extremist types around, and some say they are growing, but they are still a huge minority, no more than I've met around DC or Salt Lake City for that matter. Too bad the politicians can't just work it out, cause even after Iraq the people still love Americans and America.

On a family note Alexa is having fun in Peru and just started nursery. The picture to the right is her "glare" that she gives to people she doesn't know or is upset at. It's so evil and scary it's cute. It looks like I'll be moving to Peru after I finish up here. Vanessa came to Syria for me, so the least I can do is repay the favor and move there for a year. She is trying to find a job and I'll mainly take care of Alexa and try to find a part-time job or something. I keep thinking I need to find a job and a career and stuff like that, but it appears I can continue frolicking around the world for a while longer. Who'd of thought.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Generous One

The family came for a ten day Easter vacation and we had a really good time. We hit all the major sites in Syria and went shopping crazy. We rented out a minibus right from the street and went up to the Seydnaya and Maalula monasteries and the tekla gorge, spent 2 days in Damascus seeing sights and shopping, Dad kept saying he was done shopping every day, but the next would bring new antiques or beduin trinkets that he had to have, Tyler liked the baths so we went to the baths three days in a row. We ate great food in the old city restaurants every night, everyone's favorite was Haretna right next to our hotel.

We took off early one morning for Palmyra which was the highlight of the trip for most of the family. We were wandering among the ruins the first day and my Dad looked down and picked up an ancient coin. After that we all went crazy and wandered over the ruins all that day and the next morning from 6 AM and we all found coins and ancient glass bottle pieces copper trinkets, carved bone pieces, etc just lying all over the ground among the 50 acres of ruins. We all love that kind of thing and with the ruins all around and Ayyubid castle overlooking us it was magical. We had dinner in a beduin tent and then went back to Damascus to get our rented car and take off north.

We hiked up to the Mar Mousa monastery and spent the night there and next morning hiking around the area. The monastery is always a cool, serene place, and you meet a lot of Europeans there just hanging out for a few months. Then we went on to the Crac du Chevalier castle, which everybody loved and I almost lost the car when I left it in drive after I parked it and started to walk away. That evening we made it to Apamea, the largest ruin in Syria, 90% still underground, and walked along the main thoroughfare with green grass covering the whole countryside. Dad got suckered into buying some questionable old coins from the illegal vendors that would hang around on the edges of the ruins and call out at us.

We spent one evening in Aleppo in Jdede, the christian quarter that has all the good restaurants and hotels, and then the next day spent a full day exploring the old city, markets, and the citadel. Although they are the most extensive covered old markets in the whole middle east, most of the stuff is for local shoppers, and I still think Damascus has better stuff. We visited the St. Simeon monastery which was fun, and stopped at the Hama waterwheels.

Ty and Dad left the next morning, and Ash, Bryan and Clay stayed for two more days. We went down to Bosra and the amphitheater and I found the perfect carpet for sale among the ruins. I'd had my eye out for a few months and this one was the perfect color and price. Then we did last minute shopping around the old city and handicraft bazaar and bought mostly old trinkets, pearl and silver inlay boxes, and one dollar bootleg movies.

It was a blast to finally have visitors to show off the fascinating place I live in, and luckily my family is adventurous, and we saw a lot of things and places that most tourists don't. There was also a lot of laughter and bonding and I don't think any of us will ever forget the experience. A special thanks to the -Generous One- who made it all possible.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Exotic Dogs

I went this weekend to the Damascus Zoo. It was a bit depressing to see all of these animals in small dirty cement cell blocks, but one of the most entertaining things was that about 1/3 of the animals in the zoo are dogs. They think of them as exotic animals from Europe, so you have all these cages with poodles and spaniels and german shepards and people pointing at them and taking pictures. People don't have pet dogs here, I haven't even seen one in the time I've been here. When I told a guy at the zoo that we had these animals as pets in the US he said it only confirmed what he thought about the US, that we're barbarians, and how keeping a wild animal in the house is unsanitary. I told him that many of the kitchens and bathrooms I'd seen in Syria were more unsanitary than any dog kennel. That's what happens when you spend a lot of time abroad, you become kind of direct and rude. I don't mean to, it just happens.

On the whole though, the zoo here was cleaner than the Cairo zoo, where if you come early in the morning you can catch a pickup truck driving through the zoo piling the dead animals of the day in the back, legs sticking out rigimortis style. The government keeps buying new ones though, as it entertains about 10,000 Cairenes a DAY. One time I saw a baboon eating a cat.

I was noticing the other day on my way to school as I walk through this really poor area, how every mud-brick falling-apart house had a satellite dish on it. Everyone gets free satellite here, all the satellites use illegal unscramblers, so they can watch any satellite channel from anywhere in the world (including showtime, hbo, trillions of european porn channels, etc.) On the bright side, everyone has access to news from around the world and is no longer limited to what the Syrian government let's through, but on the other side, I am sick and tired of my limited choices. Out of my 264 channels, about 100 are Arabic music video channels, 50 are news channels, 20 show constant Arabic soap operas, and the rest are an assortment of sports or religious shows. There's nothing interesting to watch besides the three basic choices of Arabic pop music videos, news, or soaps. There are a few English language channels that show movies, and I can even watch good morning America every morning - but I didn't come here to listen to English, so I stick with the painfully tedious Arabic stations.

That's why last month when MTV Arabia started broadcasting I got exited. They film all of thier popular reality shows and music shows in the middle east, in Arabic. There's never been anything like it in Arab TV before (MBC has made a few lame attempts...), it's amazing. It is producing home-grown Arabic stars with shows like "hip hop-na", "baq a biq", "made", "cribs", "punked", etc, all filmed in the ME for an Arab audience. There is this explosion of creative talent and Arab youth expressing themselves with music and film - and MTV is the only outlet right now catering to them. It's addicting to watch as well as a good way to get exposure to a bunch of Arabic dialects.

On the right is the countryside with the suburbs of Damascus in the distance. Looks pretty when you can't smell the scent of burning plastic and garbage.

Alexa is still loving Peru, loves the food, and doesn't like the sand at the beach.