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:
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.
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.
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:
Ladies, 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:
As for the guys… uh, just take off your shoes and you should be cool.
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.
This is how you keep your prayer times straight.
You can hear the call to prayer here.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Here we are at Palmyra, home of the Warrior Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, Zenobia. You could easily spend days wandering through these ruins.
This is Apamea. I know, yawwwwn, another incredible ruin in the middle of nowhere. Those columns go on for something like a mile.
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.
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.
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…
The solution for peace in the Middle East?
What–they were out of Stepfather Cheese Curls?
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:
Stylish ladies’ headwear
fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice
and 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:
To paraphrase Sting, The Syrians love their tourists too.
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?"
"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.
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.
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***
They dress their kids alike!
They think our alphabet looks weird and hard to write!
They keep up with current events!
!عن الحاجة تنظيف القطط
They watch “The View”!
They want to know what your problem is!
They anthropomorphize their meat!
They’re midnight tokers!
They let their babies wear makeup!