Matt Himes
We Went to Syria Five Years Ago

On Christmas Eve 2007 my wife and some friends arrived in Damascus for a 10-day trip. Here’s the account I originally posted online not long after we got back:

Su-Su-Syria

We went to Syria for Christmas/New Year’s. It had never been on my list of places to visit, but our friend Mohammed was planning a trip and we decided to tag along and let him do the Arabic-speaking.

We also decided to let our friend Mark do all the driving. Driving in Syria makes you long for the nice orderly traffic of Rome or Athens. On the plus side, being able to make a U-turn in the middle of the highway is pretty convenient.

 
image

Dave Dudley can say what he wants, but those Syrian gearjammers know a thing or two about hauling heavy loads too.

We flew into the capital, Damascus. It was founded around 8,000 - 10,000 BC - that makes it one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities.

image

image Is it just me, or does it seem like the Christian quarter gets their decorations up earlier every year?

Here we have the courtyard of the Grand Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque. It’s one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world: image

imageLadies, if you want to go into the mosque, just throwing a scarf around your luxuriant, blonde, Western hair isn’t going to cut it.

Stop by the conveniently-located “special clothings room” on the way in and slip into something a little less… leggy: image

image

image

As for the guys… uh, just take off your shoes and you should be cool.image

image There’s something to be said for taking your shoes off in a house of worship. Inside was pleasant and lined with rugs. People were sitting, talking, praying, reading the Koran. A lot of kids were running around. That green thing in the distance is supposedly where John the Baptist’s head is enshrined.

image This is how you keep your prayer times straight.

You can hear the call to prayer here.

image These posters are everywhere. That’s Syrian president Bashar al-Asad on the left. He’s slowly introduced some reforms (he let the country get on the Internet when he took over in 2000), but he’s still a dictator who more or less inherited the country (and an abysmal human rights record) from his father. Next to him is Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The poster reads “God, protect Syria and Lebanon.” 

Syria’s connection to Hezbollah is one of the reasons it is on the U.S. State Department’s shit list of terrorism supporters. Syria is hostile to al-Qaeda, however, for those of you interested in such distinctions. Here’s a handy round-up of where Syria stands terror-wise from the Council on Foreign Relations. And here’s what the U.S. Department of State has to say.

  image

The U.S. currently maintains only “low-level” diplomatic relations with Syria. President Bush (portrayed above by Timothy "That’s My Bush!" Bottoms in Showtime’s laughable 9-11 docu-drama/’04 campaign propaganda, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, which we caught on a Dubai satellite channel) has said this won’t change until Syria stops harboring terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. 

But the Iraq Study Group (chaired by Bush’s dad’s old Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III), suggests that we be more pragmatic, and seek Syria’s (and Iran’s) cooperation in cleaning up the mess in Iraq. It is right next door, after all.

image 

It’s not as if the U.S. hasn’t enlisted Syria’s help in the “War on Terror” before. In fact, Syria has helped us “interrogate” at least one “terror suspect.” “Extraordinary rendition”, anyone?

image

Another entertaining American show we caught on TV in Syria. Must have been “sweeps week” or something. 

Sorry for the inexpert and incomplete primer on U.S./Syria relations. Just a little something I needed to do before moving on to some more… aesthetically-pleasing history. You know, the kind that’s been safely “wrapped up” for hundreds of years.

Cannaanites, Hebrews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, European Crusaders and more have all occupied Syria over the years. This has made for some spectacular–and extremely well-preserved–ruins.

image

Here we are at Palmyra, home of the Warrior Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, Zenobia. You could easily spend days wandering through these ruins.

image This is Apamea. I know, yawwwwn, another incredible ruin in the middle of nowhere. Those columns go on for something like a mile. 

image
And this is one of Syria’s ancient “Dead Cities,” Serjilla. Like Palmyra and Apamea, it was all but deserted when we were there. We should’ve packed a picnic. 

———————————-
 image
Syria makes it hard for some people to be themselves, but there’s no law against being a fun and stylish host. This guy owns the Al Kalaa restaurant near the old Crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. He was hilarious and served up a roast chicken that was one of the best meals of the trip. I wish I took a hundred pictures of him. 

image

I also wish I had a picture of our tour guide at the Mar Sarkis monastery in Maaloula. She recited the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. This is the only place where people still speak Aramaic, outside of Mel Gibson movies.  

One cool thing about road tripping in Syria, if we ever got tired or down, all we had to do was drink a nice tall glass of…

image

The solution for peace in the Middle East?

image What–they were out of Stepfather Cheese Curls?

image

One thing you have to watch out for is the evil eye. That’s when you’ve got something so nice (like a sweet, late-model Iranian-made taxi) that people stare at it longingly. The force of their envy can cause it to break down or otherwise go bad. That’s why you’ll want to stick some eyes on there. It can also apply to kids. Instead of gushing over how beautiful someone’s perfect new baby is, it’s better to take subtle approach, and say “Masha’ Allah” (God has willed it). 

(The sticker on the back window of the taxi is the President’s face. They’re about as ubiquitous as “Live Strong” bracelets are over here.)

To me, the craziest, most “intense” part of the trip was the souks, especially the one in Aleppo. I’ve never seen so many people crammed together to shop (except maybe at the Barney’s Warehouse sale — just kidding). It’s easy to get stuck. Everyone–from little kids to old ladies–just barrels their way through like pushy jerks. Once you give up your precious idea of “personal space” and join them, it’s a lot easier to navigate — and start focusing on the fabulous bargains:

image

Spices

image
Stylish ladies’ headwear

image fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice

image fresh-brewed perfumes

imageand sheep parts

I’ve seen so many mobs of angry Arabs on the tv news, I have to admit being adrift in a sea of turbans, robes and red-and-white scarves made me a little nervous at first. How many of these people want to chop my head off?

I soon realized that the only thing most of these people wanted to chop were their already low, low prices - all the better to get me to spend my money on ridiculous souvenirs:

image

To paraphrase Sting, The Syrians love their tourists too.

image 
These scarves seem a little less “terrorist-y” once you see shoppers rummaging through piles of them like they’re 3-packs of Hanes crewnecks.

Some memorable sales pitches from the Aleppo souk:

"I will make you exploding offer."

"I give you temptation price."

"You are from New York? You know Steve Austin? Six millions dollar man?"

image

"My nephew, he looks like Bette Midler when she was little girl." (actual quote)

The above Divine Miss M lookalike worked in his uncle’s scarf shop. We all hung out there for a while, drinking tea, while Ingrid chose some stuff. The uncle told us he was related to Moustapha Akkad, Aleppo-born director of 1976 story-of-Islam epic "The Message." I had never heard of it. That night in the hotel, it was on TV.

image 

Turns out it’s a bit of a holiday tradition (we were there during Eid ul-Adha) to watch this movie — sort of a Muslim “It’s A Wonderful Life.” 

Rent the DVD to find out how they made a movie about the birth of Islam without being able to depict Mohammed onscreen. 

Moustapha Akkad is also famous for producing horror classic “Halloween” and its many sequels. He and his daughter were killed in 2005 when a wedding they were attending in Jordan was bombed by terrorists.

—————— 

image

Something else about Eid ul-Adha. It’s called the Festival of Sacrifice and commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham, to you Old Testament readers) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Which explained why we kept seeing herds of sheep in the city. Everyone was taking delivery on the sacrifical sheep they ordered (people reserve them ahead of time, like Thanksgiving turkeys). You have to kill your sheep, then divide up the meat and give some to your neighbors and/or the less fortunate. 

***SPECIAL BONUS SECTION***

image

image

They dress their kids alike!

image

They think our alphabet looks weird and hard to write!

image

They keep up with current events!

image

 !عن الحاجة تنظيف القطط

image
They watch “The View”!

image

They want to know what your problem is!

image They anthropomorphize their meat!

image

They’re midnight tokers!

image

They let their babies wear makeup!

Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay. In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’ definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.
Zadie Smith, in the New York Review of Books. (via thebronzemedal)
williebhines:

I know this possibly the least interesting and accessible post on tumblr, but this Italian tourist in Greepoint was accidentally dressed exactly like Mike Doonesbury.

williebhines:

I know this possibly the least interesting and accessible post on tumblr, but this Italian tourist in Greepoint was accidentally dressed exactly like Mike Doonesbury.

danharmon:

Expert, Airtight Political Punditry by Dan Harmon

I don’t think Mitt Romney actually wants to be president. Not being, myself, a politically clued-in guy, I base this mostly on body language and tone of voice in these fun video clips that get posted by the other side. I see him getting pouty and…

dynamoe:

The other big comedy casualty this week, other than David Rakoff, was Mark O’Donnell (1954-2012). He did the book for Hairspray on Broadway and theatre stuff like that.
He wrote strange magazinish high-concept comedy pieces, some of which were collected in books like Vertigo Park (above), which was really weird and funny, and also did very poorly drawn cartoons.
His identical twin brother was the headwriter for Letterman for like a zillion years (and is currently at Kimmel I’ve just discovered). Both twins (separately) spoke to my comedy writing class when I was at NYU. (So did David Rakoff, actually.)

"Let Nothing You Dismay" is a great Christmas/NYC novel.

dynamoe:

The other big comedy casualty this week, other than David Rakoff, was Mark O’Donnell (1954-2012). He did the book for Hairspray on Broadway and theatre stuff like that.

He wrote strange magazinish high-concept comedy pieces, some of which were collected in books like Vertigo Park (above), which was really weird and funny, and also did very poorly drawn cartoons.

His identical twin brother was the headwriter for Letterman for like a zillion years (and is currently at Kimmel I’ve just discovered). Both twins (separately) spoke to my comedy writing class when I was at NYU. (So did David Rakoff, actually.)

"Let Nothing You Dismay" is a great Christmas/NYC novel.

The Beatles - No Reply
319 plays

williebhines:

“No Reply” by The Beatles.

Here’s what’s weird about The Beatles, or maybe special —- biking home tonight this song came on my iPhone (yes I listen to music while I bike, but only once I start crossing the Williamsburg Bridge because from there until my home in Greenpoint there’s no traffic, really) and it struck me as the perfect song that could be. It’s a minor Beatles song but tonight it was the best song I could imagine — for these three minutes it was my favorite song!

Maybe because it’s cool windy night, and Brooklyn looked pretty as I biked through it? Maybe the song fit that environment. It’s a sparse song with a fair amount of reverberation, as if it were recorded in a basement. Still very crisp. Somehow old Beatles albums sound both crisp and full of echo. I guess George Martin knew what he was doing, or was this Geoff Emerick who would handle that? Anyway, it sounds very cool. 

John is so angry on this song — mad at this girl for sleeping with someone else. (I love “walking hand in hand in my place” as a euphemism for “fucking someone else” or at least I assume that’s what it means. Hand-holding = sex in pre Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles songs). What strikes me as strange about THAT is … when was John Lennon rejected by a girl? The Beatles were probably getting laid during most of their waking hours starting from when they were in Hamburg. By the time John wrote this song, he was a rich and internationally famous 23 year old — married and also thick with groupies at all times. He was wanting for nothing. Did he have an affair with a girl one night who snubbed him the next, and he parlayed that feeling into this song? Did someone make him wait 10 extra minutes for a blow job and he got so mad he wrote No Reply? Or was he still so crushed by his mother’s death 4 years earlier that could just tap into that whenever he wanted to sound like Buddy Holly but better, way better?

Paul’s harmonies are nice and angry. Someone real angry — like Afghan Whigs angry, like UNFAIRLY angry — should cover this song. Not big and loud — but SEETHING and QUIET and SO SO SO MAD.

The Beatles made a simple deal when they all sold their souls to the Devil: pack into our songs every feeling that everyone will ever have.

funnyordie:

God’s Craigslist Ad Looking for a New Candidate to Endorse
With Rick Santorum out of the running, God is searching everywhere for a new candidate to support.

funnyordie:

God’s Craigslist Ad Looking for a New Candidate to Endorse

With Rick Santorum out of the running, God is searching everywhere for a new candidate to support.

Waiting on This American Life’s blanket retraction that none of their contributors ever actually “realized something that day” at the end of the third act.
(via dynamoe)
scottgairdner:

Just spending my Monday night remembering a classic.

Not sure if Mr. Gairdner is being ironic here, but JUST FRIENDS, while no “classic,” is certainly a prime example of a shitty-looking movie that is far funnier than it needs to be. Ana Faris, Ryan Reynolds and even Chris Klein do nice work here - and Julie Hagerty plays Reynolds’ mom! Great for recommendations, because your friends probably haven’t seen it and will be pleasantly surprised. See also GRANDMA’S BOY. 

scottgairdner:

Just spending my Monday night remembering a classic.

Not sure if Mr. Gairdner is being ironic here, but JUST FRIENDS, while no “classic,” is certainly a prime example of a shitty-looking movie that is far funnier than it needs to be. Ana Faris, Ryan Reynolds and even Chris Klein do nice work here - and Julie Hagerty plays Reynolds’ mom! Great for recommendations, because your friends probably haven’t seen it and will be pleasantly surprised. See also GRANDMA’S BOY.