Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Can't get you out of my head

Took another trip through central Syria with some of my classmates, all places I had been to two or three times, but I'm running out of things to see and this trip was financed by the school. I'd rather hang out with fun people and eat good food and sleep in nice hotels than travel another weekend budget style and end up looking like death on Sunday morning. We saw the more prominent cities of the dead, saw the sights in Aleppo, Hama, Homs, some castles, and a few random tell-style ruins like Ebla. I learned that there are over 3,000 prominent archaeological sites in Syria and less than 1000 have been even partially excavated over the last century. There is such a potential for tourism here it is incredible, but there is absolutely no current infrastructure. Dirt roads with no signs mark most of the major sites (enormous ruins that would be the main attraction in any other country), nobody speaks English or even knows where the site is to direct you, entrance fees are a dollar or so per person (if there is one), there are kids climbing all over the ruins breaking things and families eating picnics and throwing their trash all over, beduin scavengers digging in broad daylight looking for coins and other trinkets to sell to the few buses of European tourists that come through, etc. To the right are some of my colleagues at the Qasr al-Azem in Hama.

We have a funny list going around us students entitled "you know you're studying Arabic in Syria if", a few of the good ones are:

-You still have scars on your body from bedbugs and various other ailments suffered during your "homestay" in Bab Touma
-Even though a ton of Syrians got paid to hang out with you you still couldn't make any friends
-You're still waiting for your residency, 11 months later
-The theme songs of the year were: Acon's "Smack dat," George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and, of course, anything Fairuz.
-You've seen more of Syria than 95% of Syrians
-The veiled women wore tighter clothes and more make-up than you did
-The phrase in shah Allah now means "it ain't gonna happen"
-You've begun to attribute all physical ailments, no matter how unrelated to one another, to a mysterious phenomenon called "greeb."
-You've forgotten what it's like to talk to friends/family from home with even the slightest degree of privacy.
-50 percent of your daily activities are governed by whether or not you have appropriate change in Syrian lira.
-That being said: you will tell bald-faced lies to store owners and even friends, claiming that all you have is a 1000 lira note, in order to hang on to your small bills.
-You speak English with "dangling modifiers" ie. "The town which I traveled to it"
-You sweat in places you once thought impossible
-You feel like a slut wearing a short sleeve shirt
-You've smoked more (second-hand) than the Marlboro Man
-You go to Turkey and think its Amsterdam.
-Your internship teaches you to become an expert on tea and turkish coffee
-Fake eyebrows and leopard print start to look like normal fashion statements
-You don't need the menu's at restaurants any more, (there are the same 5 dishes in all 2000+ restaurants)
-You look over your shoulder before logging onto Facebook
-Your home stay family is still calling for money
-You've learned how to hack blocked websites.
-You have time to cook dinner and watch a boot-leg dvd in the time it takes to load one web-page.
-The sound of dial-up doesn't seem that strange any more.
-You have contracted strange uncommon diseases and rashes that were eradicated in the west decades ago
-Personal dress now includes pointy shoes
-you've acquired at least one disease that no doctor can diagnose
-the more popular you are, the more gel you have in your hair
-there is no such thing as a line or "I got here first"
-you got frostbite in your apartment
-Depending on the day, Syrians will either tell you that you speak better Arabic than they do or that you should really consider taking beginning classes
-"Wallahi ma b'arif" (I don't know) is the national motto
-Everything was first invented/discovered in Syria, including the pyramids and the Japanese language
-Correct English is now your second language

Monday, April 14, 2008


I had a low key birthday, I made some vanilla cake and watched "death-defying acts" with Zeta Jones while knitting a sweater for Alexa. This weekend I went up to the northern Kurdish region of Syria for a three day weekend and saw some amazing sights. This area is called "the island" as it is bounded on all sides by major rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, and Khabur. To the left is the Tigris. It is part of the fertile crescent that extends up from Iraq and is very green and flat and consists of Qamishli, Hassaka, and Deir Az-zour. That is until you reach the Turkish border at the Tigris where huge mountains jut up out of nowhere. Below are some kids playing in the Tigris with Turkey just a stone's throw away, no guards or border agents, I could have just swam across. There are remains of an old Roman bridge there that I paid some Kurdish guys to take me out to, and then they got in trouble by the secret police because they hadn't registered me at the main police station. Of course they didn't know they were supposed to, but after a few cups of tea and small bribes we were on our way again.

The most unique part of the landscape is the utter flatness of green mud/dirt fields broken only by intermittent tells that rise out of the ground marking where an ancient city once stood. I visited tell Barak, where TE Lawrence and Agatha Christie met when she was writing "Murder on the Orient Express". Archaeologically there isn't much there, as their building materials were made of only mud bricks mixed with straw (see below). Mud mud mud everywhere. What a place. The modern houses are still made of mud bricks and have a unique slightly domed mud roof that I haven't seen in any other part of Syria. You see a lot of oil rigs across the landscape, but the locals don't see any of thier profit, as it is probably the poorest part of Syria. There were very few pictures of Al-Assad and most of the people I talked to seem to wish they were part of Turkey instead of Syria. They were a really friendly people though, and I even learned a few Kurdish phrases "chawai"!

I made my way down to Hassaka, a predominantly Christian city by small minibuses and to my dismay most of it is of the newer, ugly Syrian-Soviet style construction excepting a bunch of sparkling new Churches. Many Syrian Christians have relatives in the US or Canada that send over loads of money to finance the building of fancy new churches and country homes. Then I went down to Deir Ez-zour which is right on the Euphrates and saw some of the ruins around there. Mari and Dar Europus were the highlights, two really important cities back in the day, but all that's left are crumbling mounds of clay bricks and broken pottery. I was scouring the ground continually for relics and found a few cool partial glass vases. It's my new hobby. To the left is a castle built by nur ed-din, destroyed by the mongols. Below is the Euphrates river at Dar Europos, a place founded by Alexander the Great, the place they found the only Jewish synogogue ever with frescos.

My favorite comment of the trip was from one guy I was talking to from Ad-deir who told me in his thick, thick beduin accent that the dialect of the people from up in Qamashli was "tageela chiteer" (very heavy), which is like a Scotsman saying an Irish accent is thick.

Now I'm back back in the groove in Damascus, hanging out with friends and studying less and less. I've gotten into a romance-movie kick, probably because I miss my family. I'm slowly picking up all the things I want to buy before I leave, some traditional artistic ceramic tiles, some decorative elaborate wooden cookie molds, about 8 pairs of Syrian shoes (they are cheap and awesome), some calligraphy art, textiles, tableclothes, lung cancer, etc. If anybody wants me to bring them anything, now is the time to tell me, including lung cancer.

Below is the monthly Alexa shot - these are her modeling pics. She was "discovered" by an agency the other day in a park in Lima. I don't like the pics very much personally, but fair, blue eyed babies are apparently a rarity in Peru and can fetch quite a price.