2010
02.28

SYNOPSIS:  I flew to Dubai and met my new host family.  We went on a short outing at night which filled me up with a lot of first impressions and some old memories.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE – OLD AND OLD

Emirate Airlines are considered to be one of the best in the Arab World.  I am not surprised.  We were on time, were served a wonderful meal (and drinks!) and had ample room, individual TV screens, etc.  The flight attendants wore the most beautiful outfits – cute red hats and a white shawl, but before I could photograph them, they turned casual and took their hats off.

At the airport in Dubai I was picked up by Nisreen, the sister of one of my former WCC students, Shereen.  I did not know what she looked like, but I had sent her a picture of me and there were not too many red-headed 50 year old Western women in sight anyhow.   She would have no problem finding me.  The airport was reasonably empty when I exited and from afar I saw a most elegant woman walking down the aisle in high, high heels, black traditional dress, sporting a most amazing head coiffure – it reminded me of Nefertiti.  Are you Elisabeth?  What, this was Nisreen?!  I am not sure what I had expected, but not this.  Every man in sight was turning his head after her and she knew it!  Despite her heels, she did not just walk; she slid across the floor waiving her body in confident and most elegant waves, head up high.

We went outside to her car.  Another surprise!  The biggest SUV – don’t ask me what brand, I would not know.  But this young, elegant woman next to this enormous car was another surprise.  Is this your family car?  No, it’s mine!  Ok, I guess, this is a fitting start for a country which I expect will surprise me in more than one way.   For the 26 km from the airport to Sharjah, the town in which Nisreen lives with her parents and her brother, took us 1.5 hours.  Traffic jams…  Nisreen told me that this was her way to work every day and she spends between 3 and 4 hours on the road fighting traffic every day!  I do not envy her.

I had a warm welcome by Shereen’s family.  It is because of Shereen, that I even considered going to Dubai.  On my own I would have never done this.  I could not afford the hotels here, nor would I get far in these ultra-modern, 6 lanes, high rise-filled, spread out desert towns without my own transportation.  But Shereen’s invitation to stay with her family provided a wonderful opportunity to see Dubai.  At least once in my life, for three days. I could not pass that up.

The contrast between Syria and Dubai could not be stronger.  First, I came from 2 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees – immediately, I had a violent headache.  I do not take to heat very well…  And from one of the most ancient cultures in the world, with towns settled continuously for over 5000 years, I came to a country whose history really did not start until the 1970s and whose town’s appearance today is for the most part no older than 10 years!

At night,  Nisreen took me to the old souq.  When we got there I asked:  This is old?  Yes, this is really old, Nisreen replied.  I kept looking and looking in disbelief and finally asked:  How old?  30 years – was the answer.  30 years!?  That is not old.  Not when you come from a souq that is over 700 years old.  But surrounded by buildings which are 10 and 15 years old, I guess, 30 is old.  It is all relative.  Nisreen and her brother were born here.  They are just about as old as this country (23 and 25).   To Nisreen, Dubai and Sharjah are the most beautiful places on earth.  She loves it here and seems like a fish in water.  Her brother hates it.  He is looking for a way out.

In this heat I realized that my outfits, even my “thin” ones would kill me.  Iran in certain places will be hot, too.  Since we were at the souq, I started to look for some light clothes.  But nothing appealed to me.  I found out that nearly 50 % of the population around here is Indian.  I had no idea.  Philippines and Indians and other migrant workers provide cheap labor and construction workers around here and to some degree also occupy some high end jobs.  That creates plenty of racism and prejudice if I take some casual remarks from both Nisreen and Saleh seriously.

But with Indians around there are crafts people and textile shops and you can have yourself a Shawal Kamiz tailored!  That is a two piece outfit with pants and a long shirt plus shawl worn by Indians and Pakistanis alike.  That should get me through Iran just fine.  It’s comfortable, light, and just my style.  I put an order in.  Ready for pick-up in two day.  I love that:  clothes made to fit.  Not one size fits all.

Hundreds of Indian restaurants line the streets and we stopped for tea.  It’s like a drive-through.  An employee of the restaurant hangs out in front of the shop.  You drive up and only hold up your fingers – that means you indicate the number of teas you want.  Everybody seems to come for that special Indian tea steamed with cream and sugar.  If you actually want something else then you have to talk.  Oh, that tea!  I had forgotten.  But Indian tea has its own incomparable taste.  After one sip I remembered:  That’s what I had dozens of times in 1988 at the cave site of Ajanta in India.  That was my first big trip abroad as an undergraduate, studying Buddhist architecture with Professor Spink at the U of M.  Funny, how one sip of tea opened the door to loads of fond memories.

Best of all, for the next three days I will have wireless internet and in internet professional at my side:  Saleh is a computer whiz.  In Dubai, facebook and blogs are censored just as much as in Syria.  But Saleh has his ways…  I am connected and happy to read your comments!  Keep them coming and send them soon.

Good night.

2010
02.27


SYNOPSIS:
The last day in Damascus was spent doing errands, mailing excess luggage, and getting a flight to Teheran.  I also checked off two more sights at the Christian quarter and went to the famous view point at night with Mohammed.  Also, a few words about body language, idle time, and cultural values.

FINAL REFELCTIONS ON A WONDERFUL COUNTRY AND ITS WONDERFUL PEOPLE

Shipping a package home from abroad has always given me strange feelings, almost like standing atop of the cliff and looking down to the Euphrates.  There is a turn in my stomach and I am sure that something will go wrong.  It usually doesn’t, but rational thinking is not going to help.  Some of my clothes went back home, travel brochures, receipts, camera chips, a voice recorder.  Five kilograms in all.  I finally can lift my suitcase again.  But what if my pictures get lost?  But what if I take them to Iran and they get lost there?  And my favorite coat – shouldn’t I just have carried it all along?  And worst of all – that voice recorder!  It was full of old stuff which I was going to erase.  But nothing could be erased from it.  You would think I am just an idiot not to be able to erase some old recordings, but I finally put this challenge to Hassan, the engineer – he also could not erase anything.  So it was a useless devise.  It would not record.  But it would turn on out of the blue and play!  Just imagine a voice coming out of my package somewhere in a postal carrier somewhere in the air, or at the airport, or in a postal truck.  A package going to America with a voice in it – surely it would be mistaken for a bomb and then my whole luggage would be confiscated or destroyed!  I was plagued all morning by second thoughts and awful visions, but it’s done.

What an ordeal at the post office.  There was a postal worker who just had to pack my stuff for me.  He was well meaning and started to construct an extra good lining of styrofoam.  I could see that what he was doing would not work by a couple of centimeters, for the box he had.  But I could not express myself strong enough verbally and he kept gesturing that I should be patient, step aside, and all would be fine.  Nothing was fine and when he finally could not squeeze his make-shift, taped up styrofoam contraption into the box provided and suggested a box twice the size of what was needed, I asked him to just give me the box and let me pack my own stuff.   He finally gave in.  All but one item did fit into the small box without his extra stuffing.  But now I was racing against the clock – 5 minutes before closing time.  And you can be sure that postal workers anywhere in the world drop their pen when it’s closing time.    This is the worst package I have ever sent.  Prayers to Ganesh that that all will arrive in one piece and more prayers that the recorder will shut up until it gets there!

By the way, that gesture for ‘patience’ has puzzled me for a while.  Put all of your fingers together into one tip, then turn your hand with your fingers pointing up and shake your hand up and down a couple of inches for a few times.  First I thought it had something to do with food.  Then, someone suggested that it means ‘good’ – but the context in which I saw it was not right for ‘good’.  Now I know:  It means patience.  Wait a minute.  Hold it.

Another puzzling gesture is the head movement for yes and no.  I have not gotten a straight answer from anyone – I forgot to ask Hassan!   But I noticed that whatever the head movement is, I never know what it is supposed to mean.  In Europe or America, we do a nod or a shake.  Not here.  Here is the best of what I can come up with:  If you say ‘no’ – you tilt your head towards the right and move it up.  If you say ‘yes’, you do pretty much the same but to your left.   This to me looks the same and so I have been utterly confused, even after 30 days of trying to figure this out.   One clue for a ‘no’ answer is a clicking sound you make with your tongue accompanying the head movement.  But that confused the heck out of me, too.  In Germany, we would do this when we want to say “Na so was!” In America, I am not sure we do that sound at all.

After I got my package taken care of, I headed out in search for an airline office to book a flight to Teheran.  I found a very nice small office with a friendly English-speaking staff.  I am booked now for Teheran.  Now I only have to get my visa…  I am supposed to pick it up in Dubai – In Shahallah.

At the office I observed something I have been watching for a while now:  Prayer beads.   Just like Catholics, Muslims have a sting of prayer beads which they infallibly carry with them.  Whenever there is down time, you see them praying.  Waiting, for example, at the airline office.  Riding the microbus.  Standing in line somewhere.  Sitting and waiting for customers in the souq.  People just get out these beads and you see their lips moving as they pray.  Actually, I think the prayers are more of a list of venerations of Allah.  Something like ‘to Allah, the Merciful’, to’ Allah the Allmighty’, etc.  But I have to confirm that to be sure.

Once you pay attention to this, the prayer beads are everywhere.  Even at the line dance at the wedding I crashed in Raqqa.  The first person in line, who only needs one hand to connect with the next dancer, will whirl around the prayer beads thereby dedicating the entire dance to Allah.  I have only once observed such cultural unity in behavior when people are idle, and that was in China.  There, we noticed that everyone who had nothing else to do had a book and read.  From the smallest child able to read, to the oldest man, books were everywhere.  In Syria I only observed one single man reading.  I think it was the Koran which he had in his shop at the souq.  I saw a few students with books under their arms.  And I saw one apartment with books:  Hassan’s.

I had neglected the Christian quarter during my first stay in Damascus and so I went there this afternoon.  In a compact area there are more than 5 churches of different denominations.  I listened to beautiful hymns in the Greek Orthodox Church, bemoaned the closed Armenian Church, and visited the Catholic chapel dedicated to St. Paul as well as the underground Franciscan church of the first bishop of Damascus.  Corey – there is a sculpture of Saul’s conversion from 1999 which was put in the gardens of the St. Paul chapel.  Not quite a Caravaggio, but something after all!  The memory of St. Paul  and his Damascus connections is kept alive here at various places.  I saw the gate and the opening through which he supposedly was lowered down in a basket to escape from his enemies– cool!

I stopped by the Umayyad mosque one more time.  Just to sit in its court yard and to take it all in.  I sat next to two black-clad young women, Kawther and Hanan.   We had no other way to communicate but our smiles and our hands, but I could sense how much they would have loved to talk had they spoken English or had I spoken Arabic.  Of course we went to the standard conversation which I described a few days ago.

At night, Mohammed was going to meet me to pay a final good-bye visit to his aunt with me.  But I also had one more open item – the viewing point.  It has a name, but my guide book is gone… so I will leave it at that.  Every tourist is trying to make a trip up there as the mountain top provides for unprecedented views of Damascus from above.  Best time is sun-set, which allows for views of Damascus during daylight hours and at night.  After that robbery Steve from Australia had faced when hiring a taxi to the viewing point, I was not about to go by myself.  Mohammed negotiated a good price for the taxi and the view was spectacular.  Damascus is much brighter than Aleppo.  Landmarks such as the Umayyad mosque or the Four Season Hotel are clearly visible.  The city stretches as far as the horizon.  We had a full moon, too.  What was sad to see is that the mountain top used to be lined with restaurants and cafés.  Mohammed’s aunt said that they were all closed and destroyed because of drug problems.  Who would have thought?  That made for a lot of ugly concrete, abandoned terraces, and trash…  But the view remained.

I said good-bye to Mohammed.  He said that I should look for a wife for him in America.  Corey, what do you think?  He is 33 and a really sweet guy…

I said good-bye to Syria.  It was a wonderful experience here.  Nothing went wrong.  From the weather to health, all preliminary factors important for a successful trip were in order.  Seeing something like Damascus, Aleppo, or the Euphrates are dreams that have come through now.  But most importantly, the experience with people here has been overwhelmingly wonderful.  One small episode sums it up for me:  In the microbus a few days ago, an old woman sat in front of me.  She turned around and did that checking me out top to bottom thing.  From there our standard smile and hand gesture conversation began.  A young woman next to me chimed in.  And just before I had to get off, she took a necklace out of her purse with a golden heart and put it around my neck.  The old woman heavily supported the move and the two were beaming at my embarrassment.  I was so ashamed that I had nothing to give back.  It is just a cheap necklace.  But the gesture was priceless.  It sums up my stay here!  I will miss these people and their kindness and their deeply rooted humanity.

Thanks, Scheherezade, for getting me this far.

Good night.

2010
02.26

Day 42 People

 

SYNOPSIS: I was in transit for most of the day.  At the Ghazal hotel I met Francis, Bjorn and Katja and Mohammed, the suitor was back, too.

TRAVEL IS ABOUT PEOPLE AS MUCH AS ABOUT PLACES

I had to wait for the bus until about noon today – it’s Friday.  Stores are closed, life slows down.  It’s the holiday of the week in Muslim countries.  I said good-bye to Hassan.  He brought me to the bus station, of course, and I only barely could hold him back from packing me a big lunch for the trip.  He did not like the picture I took of him at an unsuspecting moment at the bus station.  But this captures him.  He does not smile very much if at all.   He was a most gracious and most generous host.  I am grateful for the opportunity to stay with him.  Unfortunately, 25 years later, he was no longer willing to talk about his family’s history or much else in detail.  The hours of looking at the family photo album which Maria experienced are either over, or I was just not privy to it.  From all I gather, his father was struck dead by a sniper in front of his house in Lebanon, his family present.  That is certainly enough for anyone to bear.  It reminded me of the beginning of my trip when I tried to picture the stories behind those thousands of bullet holes in Beirut.  Now there is one…  It is too bad that the political developments over the last few years in the world have eliminated any desire in Hassan to ever visit the United States.

The three hour trip was uneventful, but I made a major decision:  I will not be traveling to Afghanistan.  Thanks, Solveig and Maria for your emails relating the news to me which I was trying to avoid:  The Taliban attacked a guest house of foreigners in Kabul.  That’s exactly the kind of attack I no longer can ignore.   Fighting between Taliban and armed forces is to be expected.  The occasional suicide bomb going off at an unpredictable place is part of that war, too.  But specifically targeting a guest house full of foreigners to make a point – the point being that no place is safe and out of reach for the Taliban, not even in Kabul, and that foreigners are not welcome – is a different ball game.  That is exactly what has changed in Pakistan too, since I visited two years ago.  Then, politicians and specific institutions were targeted.  I was safe except for coincidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time during some still relatively rare, random bomb blasts.  Now, foreigners are targets there too, violence has spread and my presence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan could be taken as a provocation.  I would present a sitting duck.  That’s why I backed out of going to Pakistan again, in the first place.  And now I am backing out of Afghanistan.  I am not suicidal.  I also do not want to put others in danger by forcing my way ahead.

With a very heavy heart I gave up on visiting Bamiyan; following what I started years ago:  to travel in my beloved Professor Kane’s footsteps.  To her I owe what I do as a teacher, to her I owe my love of the non-western world.  From her I have dozens of images of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas before the Taliban blew them up.  I was going to complete that set of images by recording what is left today.  To give up that part of the trip was not easy.

Not surprisingly, Professor Kane has been on my mind a lot on this trip.  When we were students and she would come back from a summer’s or a sabbatical’s travel alone- we would find that odd.  Why would anyone travel alone?  She was a loner.  She was different.  That’s for sure.  Still, we could not relate to that.  She would travel a bit more in style than I do now, typically with a driver and a car.  But here I am traveling alone, for the first time and I realize that that’s the only way to really travel.  David, I promise, we will still go on vacations together – but travel and vacation is not the same.  At this odd season and in these somewhat off the beaten path places, I meet quite a few of those fellow travelers.  Some come in pairs, but many are on their way alone.  I guess it’s a kind of a breed.  J

I checked into the hotel Ghazal again – it was like a home-coming.  The three owner brothers welcomed me with big smiles, carried the by now 26 kg heavy suitcase up the stairs – and I got “my” old room back.  A little hole in the wall, shower over sink and toilet – you remember my description of budget hotels.  But the atmosphere here is wonderful. The location is great, I have my own place, and I feel safe.   There are also interesting people here and the place is clean.

Speaking of more people…  As I entered the hotel a woman walked up with somewhat of a disappointed look on her face and said “You must be Elisabeth”.  I see – she was hoping I would not show up and she could have my room.  I felt bad.  But we immediately started chatting.  She is 58, another middle-aged, single, female traveler who just came from Iran.  She is from Great Britain; needless to say, quite a character.  For years she was part of a Buddhist sect, she has been just about anywhere in the world and her favorite 10 days of her entire life were spent on a freighter crossing the Atlantic.  Of course we decided to have dinner together – which turned into most of the evening chatting.  Based on her description, I will have a great time in Iran.  I fully expected that, but it’s good to hear that from a person in my shoes.

So far, I have had a lot of raised eye brows all along about my idea to travel in Iran.  First from Sepideh and Nikki, two former Iranian students at WCC whose opinion I value very much.  I won’t forget when I met up with them at their house in Ann Arbor to get some input and insights about travel in Iran and they both opened the door.  As if they had rehearsed it, they both simultaneously said:  “You are not still planning on going, are you?!”   Setareh, my Iranian host in Beirut repeatedly expressed her concerns.  All over Syria – whoever heard about my travel plans said that they would not go to Iran, never mind Afghanistan, of course.  It’s not easy to keep a positive outlook with so much concern, worries and negative feedback expressed.  But Francis confirmed what I thought all along.  You just go and things fall into place in ways you would never expect.  People are welcoming, the country is fabulous and by observing some basic precautions, nothing should go wrong.  It might, but it is not likely.

As we were chatting at the lobby of the Ghazal hotel, a young couple entered.  We started talking to them about the date – it is funny, that between the four of us, we could not figure out if today was the 26th or the 27th of February, if Mohammed’s birthday was yesterday or today.  From the Lonely Planet, to our watches, our camera and computer displays we got only conflicting messages…   And as we were talking it turned out that the two were from Dresden, my home town!  Bjorn and Katja.  I asked them if they knew the “Blaues Einhorn” – that’s a band two of my brothers play in.  Of course, they did.  The band had played at Gare de la Lune a couple of years ago and they know Horn Paul well.  Well – six degrees of separation just shrank into two.  The world is a small place.

And, if you have never heard of the “Blaues Einhorn” it’s time to check them out.  Between the leader of the group Horn Paul and my multi-talented brothers you will find a surprising variety of musical styles.  I will see if I can link them to my blog.  A wonderful recent CD they produced is the recent program with music exclusively by Theodorakis, the most recognized contemporary Greek composer.

I should mention, that at night when I was busy skyping at the smoky internet café, Mohammed, the suitor, came by – what a surprise.  He had kept track of my travel dates, found me, and brought me a little present.  Just that.  Within five minutes he was gone again.  Why have we lost this kind of human interaction?  What does it take?!

I have new confidence in the next and the biggest part of my trip:  Iran.  But first, I will stop over for a few days in Dubai.

Good night.

2010
02.25

SYNOPSIS:  Today is a national holiday – Mohammed’s birthday.  The blog is about nothing much.  Laundry.  Visiting Hassan’s building site.  A day of rest and some thoughts about pricing.

GLOBAL ECONOMY – A MYSTERY TO THE LAY PERSON

On the occasion of Mohammed’s birthday, flags went up outside of mosques and in the souq areas.  But that was it.  I was disappointed.  I had hoped for some extra special events, a parade perhaps, I don’t know.  Ali told me that in very religious areas such as Aleppo and Damascus a lot of extra prayers would be said.  But in Tartus, there was none of it.  So, this is another blog about nothing much.  I will just share a few thoughts I have had over time on cost of living and pricing.

Measured on salaries that are ½ or ¼ of what they are in the US, many things are still priced internationally.  For example, the notebook I bought for this trip for about $350, I found in a Syrian store also for $350.  Cars cost about the same here as back in the U.S.  Hassan said that about ¼ of a price of a car is “luxury tax” the government imposes.  That makes cars extremely expensive for locals.  But many people have cars.  Why?  Prestige, as Hassan explains.  He himself feels under pressure from neighbors, friends and family to have a car.  He hates the traffic, is a nervous man and does not want to drive, but soon he will get a car…  Go figure.   The same goes for furniture in homes.  Hassan pointed to most of his living room, well stacked with beautiful furniture.  I never use it – he said.  It’s just for show.

Other things – for example cosmetic articles, packaged food, and clothes are so much cheaper than in Europe or the US even though the brand names are identical in some cases.  How can that be?   Why would the same bar of soap be 4-5 times more expensive depending on the place where it is sold?  What is the real production cost?  Who is making the profit?  What does that tell us about the international economy?  And then I look at the public transportation.  Microbuses here are even cheaper than anywhere else I have seen.  20 cents for a ride in town, 50 cents gets you 50 km outside of town.  That does not even pay for the gas, not to mention the driver, or the wear and tear of the car.  Who can operate such a system?  It’s baffling to say the least, at least for someone like me who has never had an economy class in her life.

Today I went with Hassan.  We took the microbus to a nearby village to see his building site.  For three years he has been building a four story home – just for himself and a few guests.  For prestige?   It is way, way too big for him.  He has no family of his own.  Extended family yes, but no wife or children.  A bed and breakfast he said, if he can figure out how to have nice people visiting; not just anyone.  But definitely a place for all of his Lebanese relatives who are only a few miles away in Tripoli.  His lot is a good 3500 square meteres.  The house is built to last – construction principles completely unheard of in the US:  The core of the house is not wood but heavy clinker stones.  Over the clinkers go one to three layers of cement which ultimately will be painted.  The corners of the house as well as the window frames are accented with white polished sandstone.  All the floors will be polished stone as well.  A solid stone house of this size – I don’t even want to estimate the cost in the U.S.  Unaffordable, most likely.  His estimate:  $400,000.  That is high for Syrian standards, but completely amazing given the construction materials, the size, and the amenities.  Every room has a balcony and a spectacular view across the valley, all the way down to the Mediterranean cost, but most importantly – all the way to Lebanon, his home.  Each level has its own kitchen and bath.  And the house will have a central elevator as well.

I caught up with sorting photographs at his place as he was directing and instructing the workers.  His neighbor is his cousin and before long, the place was crawling with children, his nephews.  He also has a puppy at the place which kept chewing on my pants.

Since the originally sunny day turned into a cloudy, cold, and rainy one, I did not feel motivated to do more sightseeing.  There is an island off the shores of Tartus I was going to visit mainly to observe the ship building industry.  But today is a national holiday and most likely not much ship building would have been going on.  So, there was a slow day.  The laundry got done – most importantly, for a happy continuation of my trip.  Only three days are left in Syria.

Good night.

2010
02.24

SYNOPSIS: This is about how I met Hassan, and about the famous crusader castle Krak des Chevalier.

WHERE THE CRUSADES HAPPENED AND HOW I LOST MY INDEPENDENCE

The bus I took this morning must have been from the 1920’s.  Not the 15 person micro bus, not the comfortable, modern overland bus.  But a full-sized bus with fabrics that were worn and torn.  Temperatures were unbearable.  Plastic stools were used to fill the aisles to above maximum capacity.  And the motor sounded like it would give up the ghost at any minute.  But we made it!  Hassan got me onto it and instructed the driver personally on where to let me out.  He made sure I got a seat – the bus was full when I entered, but a guy was asked to give up his seat.  He was squeezed into the back row overstuffing it by one.  Another woman entered and another guy had to give up his seat for her, ending up on a plastic stool in the aisle.  Needless to say that there was no service on this bus not even a ticket.

What is remarkable is how fast I lost my independence with Hassan’s overbearing taking care of me.  Last night I struggled with the internet and the posting of the blog until 1:30 AM.  In order to ensure a good night’s sleep, I stuffed my ears with ear plugs and took a sleeping pill.  Even though it was 1:30 AM, I was unable to sleep because of some coffee I had earlier.  I am not use to that.  So this morning, I slept in.  By 9:30 AM I woke up.  I was surprised myself, how late it was.  Remember, there is no loudspeaker to wake me up at 4:15 AM here.  I immediately had a bad conscience as I knew that Hassan would have been waiting with breakfast.  Who knows what else he was delaying.  So I rushed through the shower, even though I would have liked to wash my hair… and got ready fast.

Hassan was on his way to his building site.  He is building a house which he will show me tomorrow.  We took a microbus to the garage (bus station) where he put me on the bus – and paid for it, of course.  But I did not know any of that ahead of time.  He went out of the house and I started to run after him.  I did not know which direction I was heading or what our next step was. I sort of guessed it.  First, he went to the wrong spot.  When we got there, he turned around, waived down a new microbus and on we went.  No chance asking what was going on.  At the garage I figured that he would look for a bus for me.  But why not a micro?  Why this big one?  When was this big bus going?  When I asked about that, he grunted something.  May be, it was the time.  May be it was just a sound that indicated that this was not a time of questioning.  Or maybe it meant that all was going to be OK and therefore there was no need to ask about anything.

I realized that I had completely lost control of my destiny!  I know Hassan is a more than well-meaning host, but he did what his culture taught him to do:  He took care of me.  And by doing so, he completely “entmuendigt” me – I don’t have the English word for it.  It is… stripping me of my capacity of thinking for myself and taking care of myself.   I am sure he did not mean to, but that’s what happened.

I had to take a deep breath – after 40 days of traveling in two countries where I did not speak the language, I had left the house every morning at my own time – that means when I was ready – left to the task of figuring out how to get to where I wanted to go and come back.  Nobody helped me or guided me.  I went on my own and not once did I get lost or did not manage.   All this was taken from me in less than a day.  Wow!  I am not sure what to make of it.  Is this indicative of the bigger picture?  Is it just a host-guest phenomenon, a male-female issue, a native-foreigner result, or a personality trait?

Let me give you a bit of background.  I am staying at Hassan’s place because of my dear friend Maria from New York.  By now you must have noticed her comments on this blog – she is the artist and hobby astrologer who read the stars for me before I went and whose website you should definitely check out if you have not already done so.  Don’t’ miss it.  It’s linked to this blog.  J

When Maria and I were traveling together last summer in Italy, she received a message from Hassan, a friend whom she met while studying in my home town of Dresden years and years ago!  It was like a sign from heaven.  She had not heard from him in years and I was going to Syria!  What a coincidence.  We responded to his message and he welcomed me to his home in Tartus.  I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to stay in a private home for a few days. And I am grateful for getting to know the Syrian hospitality in its full bloom.  It is a new experience!

When I stayed with Setareh in Beirut things were different.  Come to think of it:  In Lebanon, I stayed with an Iranian who grew up in Germany;  in Syria, I am staying with a Lebanese who studied in Germany; what a small and mixed up world!  Well, Setareh did things the “European” way:  She handed me the key, showed me the refrigerator and the washing machine, and that was the end of the story.  I was on my own.  We were independent to a degree that I wish had allowed for at least some time to interact.  But she completely lived her life and expected me to live mine – which I did.

Hassan, on the other hand is eager to be a host. I don’t know what his plans would be if I were not here.  He seems to adjust his time in order to help me out.  He cooks breakfast and dinner; he gets me to the bus, calls to figure out where I am and when I come home.  As much as I appreciate it, I also realize that this is a bit of a culture clash:  I don’t want to interfere in his life.  I don’t want him to have to change his plans because of me.  But I don’t want to reject any of his gestures of kindness either.  This is a fine line to walk and I am not sure I am walking it correctly.

But back to the events of the day:  I got on to that 1920’s bus which left me at an intersection leading to the castle I was about to visit:  Krak des Chevaliers or Qala’at al Hosn as it is known to locals.  From there I took a taxi to the hill top.  No microbus service.  I am sure I could have hitched a ride, but I saved that for later.

The castle is mainly from the 12th Century and represents one of the most significant crusader’s castles in this region.  Up to 4000 men and 400 horses could be housed and fed there (admittedly, this is my guide’s information and some books say only 2000.  I am sure you can google it if you care.  It is impressive to walk on territory on which the crusades actually happened!  The crusades seemed always such a distant thing.  But here is where history was made.  This, and the many other castles in this area changed hands many times going back and forth between Christian and Muslim forces.  Bloody battles were fought around here in the name of religion and over the nearby holy land.

This is one of the most complete castles I have ever seen. Two castles, really. An outer one separated by a moat from an inner one.  1000 soldiers could live in just the outer part.  Kitchens, bathrooms, toilets, stables, watch towers, all are preserved.  If you are into medieval things and knights, this would be a dream come true!  The views over the fertile Orontes valley are spectacular.  The valley is littered with green houses which grow fruits and vegetables out of season.  It is green everywhere you look.

The castle was very significant since it was near what was called the “Homs’ Gap” – that is a passage through the Anitlebanon mountain range that was strategically priceless.  Whoever controlled it was guaranteed control over the Syrian hinterland and its resources.  Funny enough, the castle today was crawling with actors dressed in green outfits; many looking like Russian Cossacks (spelling?), who were part of a comedy that was filmed there.

Even though I am not that much into medieval castles, I enjoyed myself.  After my visit, I decided to walk down the hill – cutting down on taxi services and photographing the views.  That was fun.  I had barely gotten back into town via microbus, when the phone rang… Hassan wanted to know where I was.  He was surprised  to hear that between walking down from the castle, being dropped off at the highway turn off outside of town, taking a microbus to the garage and walking my way through unknown quarters of town back to his apartment, I had not taken a taxi and had not gotten lost.

Good night.

2010
02.23

SYNOPSIS:

I took a full fleet of public transportation today to visit the ancient ruins of Afamia, and Hama, a city with a history and famed for its water wheels.  I also had some encounters with local women.

WATER IN THE SKY AND ANCIENT WATER WHEELS

After I took a total of two overland buses, 6 micro buses and hitched a ride on a motor bike, I felt I was on track again.  Over are the days of hiring a taxi.  I had to hop from place to place and transfer a few times before I found myself hiking up the mountain in Suqelibiyya, the small village near the ancient ruins of Afamiya/Afamia/Apamea.

I came upon two women squatting in the grass and took their picture before they spotted me.   Seeing my camera, they immediately forbade further picture taking, but waved me down to the ground with them.  They were the two wives of a single man.  Islam allows for a total of up to four wives.  As the practice today is limited, two wives still seem to be quite common, especially in rural areas or in religious towns such as Aleppo and Damascus.  Within minutes three more young women and all of their offspring gathered, inspecting that foreign specimen that had come their way.  And within a few more minutes I had an invitation for tea at their home.  We went into a room with cushions all around; the women’s quarter.  It had no decoration except the picture of an ancestor, some brightly colored fake flowers in a plastic vase, a TV, and a poster of the Ka’ba in Mecca.  None of them spoke English, but the conversation I had with them is the same I have with just about any strangers who don’t speak English.

It goes like this:

First, they look at me curiously; check me out top to bottom, smile and then point to me raising one finger and their eye brows.  Translation:  Are you traveling alone?!   When I nod, they shake their head in disbelief.

Soon after, they point to their left hand where usually their wedding ring is displayed.  Translation:  Are you married?  When I talk to men, they seem disappointed when I hold out my fake wedding ring and say yes, but the women then smile and seem somewhat relieved.  The next questions inquire about the whereabouts of my husband and the number of my children.  The word “baby” comes in handy and seems universal.  I point to myself and say “Um Martin”.  Translation:  I am the mother of Martin.  Both men and women are happy to hear that I am the mother of a boy.  Then, they start counting with their fingers which of course means that now I have to list the total of my children.  Only one, I gesture.  Infallibly, this causes amazement among both genders.  One single child – how sad!  I am competing, of course, with a minimum of 4 children – which is considered a relatively small family.  Between 7 and 13 seems common enough and with more than one wife there is no telling.  I usually add a gesture of pointing from the bottom up to the sky.  Translation: My son is a grown man now. In case of inquisitive young men, I use that fact as a weapon of defense.  In the case of women, it just explains that I no longer have any child duties and can travel. 

When it comes to my husband – pointing to my wedding ring is the key motion here – I decide what to say.  Often enough I say “Damascus – professor” – meaning he is within reach but busy working.  With the young men again, that works well as a shield.  With the women, it seems a bit less severe to be all alone if my husband is just a bus ride away.  Only rarely, do I admit that he really is far away back in Michigan and never do I reveal that I am not married at all.

The final thing I can usually get across is my travel itinerary and my travel time in Syria.  I just list the places and draw a map of my route.  I can also write numbers in Arabic now.  I usually get lots of positive reinforcement for spending so much time in Syria and for showing an interest in their country.  Welcome, welcome!  This is the most common word extended to a stranger here, anywhere you go.

When it comes to citizenship – and that is about t he final piece of information we are able to exchange without speaking each other’s language – I choose my answers depending on the circumstances.  Usually, my Syrian partners in the conversation start guessing and list various nationalities.  If they guess German early on, I agree and they are proud that they were right on the mark.  If they guess all over the place, I help them out by saying “American”.  Without fail, that causes amazement.  From so far!  They are used to Russians, Australians, and various Europeans.  Not many Americans have been seen lately.

However, if I enter a museum, a bus, a taxi, a hotel, or hire a guide at a site, etc.  I always say that I am German.  That makes it a lot easier on them.  Often they have to note my citizenship in their guest book (at a museum, for example).  Ali, the taxi driver explained to me that if I am an American – without fail he will receive a visit from the “Geheimpolice” – that word in itself is worth an examination…  half German, half English.  He will have to explain what I did, where I went, what my conversations with him were like.  If I am German, he will be left alone.  I guess that is the heritage from the Busch era…  I hope that none of them will get into trouble because of me.   Germans are well liked in the Middle East, but not always for the right reasons.  Americans are admired, envied, loathed.  But contact with an American is feared a bit more due to the governmental inquiry that may follow.

But I digress…

After tea I at the women’s quarter, I continued my 2 km walk to the site of Afamia.  If there were no Palmyra in Syria, every tourist would flock to Afamia.  As it is, it is second in line and much neglected in comparison.  But it is worth a visit even though all you really see are lots and lots and lots of columns and the usual piles of rocks of an era long gone by.  The site spreads out over more than 2 km in total and one has to back track unless you come with a driver.  Drivers drop you off at one end and drive to the other to wait for you.  Counting all my walking today, I am sure I passed the 10 km mark once again.

Reconstructive archaeology is the word used for what went on here:  As in so many cases in Syria, due to earth quakes and wars, ruined sites consist of hundreds of litters of broken stone.  A Belgian team at Afamia went through the trouble to reconnect and reconstruct.  It is a questionable practice, but it certainly makes for more impressive ruins to visit as is demonstrated most notoriously in Knossos (Greece).

Afamia is a peaceful site high up on a mountain overlooking the country side and overgrown with grass.  The weather was shaky today.  It rained in the morning.  Again and again, ominous clouds gathered threatening to rain and then moved away quickly to give way to a bright blue sky for a short while before threatening to rain again.  This made for some fun backdrops for my photos.  I stayed dry all day.

On my way back into town I was offered a ride on a motorbike with a local guy.  I was grateful to cut my walk short and zoomed down the hill with him.  My transitions between one microbus after another were never longer than 5 minutes.  I really admire this system of public transport.

I made a stop in Hama on the way back.  Shame on Lonely Planet!  I followed its map and hiked for 2 km to find the most spectacular water wheels outside of town.  But what was listed as 200 meters outside of the map was over an hour away!  I lost precious day light and just made it back into town to photograph the lesser but still famous downtown water wheels.  These wheels are hundreds of years old and are a beloved local attraction.  They shovel water from the lower river levels to high up irrigation systems which carry the water into the fields.  More modern systems have replaced the wheels, but they are maintained mainly as a tourist attraction.  However, the water levels were so low, that I was not able to see one of them in motion.  Hama struck me as a quaint little town with a wonderful medieval flair in the downtown river area.

But the appearance betrays the facts.  I found out that a major military conflict occurred in the 1980’s.  It led to a massacre in which the town was bombed and between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed.  The fundamentalist Islamic brotherhood of Egypt had established a stronghold in Hama.  Syrian military struck to eliminate them.  Almost the entire old town was destroyed.  What is there today, are the few faithfully reconstructed parts.  My contemporary history is more than shaky.  But just looking at these facts, it looks like the Syrian government took anti-terrorist measures long before we in the States even talked about terrorism.  Why then, was it put on the list of the axis of evil by Bush?  I guess I have some homework to do.

Good night.

2010
02.22

SYNOPSIS:

After a full day of travel yesterday visiting multiple sites, it was time to slow down a bit:  For today, I targeted Amrit, a Phoenician site only 8 km South.  I visited the local museum in Tartus and got to know the newer part of town a bit.  I am also contemplating a lot of differences I have encountered lately.

DIFFERENCES HERE AND THERE, BIG AND SMALL, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

The birds were chirping in front of my bedroom window this morning and woke me up at 7:30 AM.  What happened to the muezzin at 4:15 AM?!   Was it possible that I did not hear him even though I had not plugged up my ears?  Yes – the two nearest mosques are far enough.  I can sleep in here!  In Aleppo, I realize, I had been in earshot of at least 10 mosques.  I recorded the call to prayer from my rooftop terrace once. It was a concert of overlapping voices near and far.   What a difference.

I am not used to anyone taking care of things for me in general, but certainly on this trip nobody has worried about what I am doing and how and when; not Setareh in Beirut, not Olaf in Aleppo, certainly none of the hotel people anywhere else.  Hassan, my very nice and caring host in Tartus, however, is making sure that all is fine and well with me.  That will take some adjusting on my part…

Hassan insisted on pre-booking the overland bus for me for my trip tomorrow to Hama.  I have never pre-booked.  What if I change my mind?  But OK.  I am booked now and most likely, I will go as planned.  Within hours of arrival, he had organized a local phone for me.   He could not fathom the idea that I had been traveling without a local phone for over a month.  Perhaps you remember that I went through all the fingerprinting and hoopla-hoes it takes to get a SIM card here – now I have the phone to go with it.  By the way, it also is a Motorolla, which the phone guy in Deir Ez Zoor insisted was not working because it was made in Israel.  Well, this one works just fine.

When I was strolling around Amrit, I heard a faint sound – somewhere in the distance, I thought.  But it would not stop.  It finally occurred to me that it was my phone!  Hassan was calling to make sure I got to Amrit alright and that all was well!  But of course I got there and all is well.  This felt very, very odd – not even in America do I turn on my cell phone – it bugs me to think that the cell phone comes with the expectation that one is reachable just about 24/7.  I only use my cell phone when I need and want it.  But I guess that I will have to get used to this for the next few days.  I am very grateful that I do have a home and a caring host.  I don’t want to disappoint, trouble, or worry him.

I guess it is much more common here to stay in constant touch when you are family or friends. When “George” had attached himself to me in Aleppo, he told me that his wife never goes shopping without her mother in order to get her opinion and approval on purchases big and small.  She also will see her mother at least every other day.  I think Hassan visits his sister just about every, but certainly every few days.  The most striking example along those lines was a conversation I had with the taxi driver Ali.  We talked about cars.  Since he was so concerned at all times that his car was clean, I told him that I had a Mitsubishi.  Since we live on an unpaved road, it gets dirty just about every day.  Does your son clean your car every day, he asked?  I had to double-check if I heard right:  My son cleaning my car?  And he really meant every day?  I told Ali that my son does not live with us and that often I don’t hear from him for several weeks.  No offense, Martin, but I also told Ali that even if you would live with us or nearby, it would not occur to you to wash my car nor would I expect it.  He was shocked; deeply shocked!  You could see the disbelieve in his face – not only does he and will he live with his mother until he gets married, he did clean his father’s car daily when his father was still alive.  His mother has no car.  When he lived in Lebanon for a year, he called his mother every other day and his mother cried on the phone just about every time because he was not home.  He thought that was perfectly normal and it was one reason why he stopped working in Lebanon and returned home to Aleppo.  Different worlds!

But not only is our Western world different from this Middle Eastern world.  Within Syria, there are significant differences.  I already mentioned the change in climate.  Also, the transition from the harsh desert to the lush coastal plains is a dramatic one.  So is the shift from the flat Orontes Valley to the snow-capped mountains of the Antilebanon.  The difference between rural and urban is a significant one as well.  But urban and urban are not the same either:  In Aleppo on the roof top restaurant I had noticed that the town at night was unexpectedly dark.  Not like Chicago or New York, or any other larger town that turns into an ocean of lights every night.  Aleppo had its Citadel brightly lit and several larger avenues were visible.  But people close their shutters and live in courtyard homes where life is turned inwards.  Homes, even hotels, often look unoccupied because double layers of curtains are drawn.  Along the coast however, there are high rises that could be almost anywhere in the world.  The town is younger and more modern than Aleppo and at night it lights up like any metropolis in the world.

I took the microbus to Amrit, a famous Phoenician site.  I expected nothing much, something similar to Ugarit; a lot of stones, knee high.  To my surprise, Amrit has two significant sites.  One, a temple dedicated to a goddess of water which has a remarkable tower preserved in the middle of what used to be the water tank of the temple.  And a necropolis with tower tombs of which two are fabulously intact.  It was a surprise to see that when I hiked to a third tower, a bit in the distance, that I found myself within about 50 meters of a huge military camp, canon shafts practically pointing at me and soldiers yelling…  I kept my camera down and headed back to the main archaeological site fast.

In the afternoon I strolled around town.  Tartus is definitely a more “generic” town than Aleppo or Damascus.  It lacks the historic fabric and the Oriental flair.  One could easily move it to just about any other place in the world.  With its corniche – the beach promenade, as I mentioned yesterday, it reminds me most of all of Beirut but also of vacation spots along the Baltic.   The local museum was worth a look.  It is located in a beautifully restored, Crusader church.  Among the objects – all from excavations around here – there were coffins found at the Amrit necropolis.  I have never seen such a mix of styles.  The coffins were decorated with the head of the deceased.  One looked like an Egyptian pharaoh, the other like a Roman matron, and the third like a Greek maiden.  The Phoenicians obviously were in contact with the wider world and fully absorbed influences from around.  In many ways that is still true for the Tartus of today.

When I came home, dinner was ready.  Wow, I have not had that in a while.   Thanks, Hasssan!

Good night.  

2010
02.21

 

SYNOPSIS:

In order to roll three days into one, I hired Ali one more time to take me from Aleppo to Tartous via taxi.  Along the road we visited the crusader castle named Salahadin and the Phoenician site of Ugarit.  I met Hassan, my host for the next few days in Tartous.

WHY A SISTER AND SIX DAUGHTERS STILL WILL NOT GIVE ME ANY ANSWERS

When I calculated the remaining days in Syria, I panicked. There is still so much to see and so little time left.  Where did the time go?!  I wanted to take the train from Aleppo to Latakia in particular, to be able to report to my brother Christoph, the train engineer, about the state of affairs of Syrian trains.  To get from Latakia to Tartous, I would have had to take a taxi to change to an overland bus again, as train service is infrequent and unreliable.  That would have meant a full day in transit seeing nothing along the way…  I figured that three days in a hotel and local transport would add up to what Ali would charge me to go by taxi and see the important sites along the way.  A tourist per day is worth gold to him as he can make more money going a fun route rather than working all day in Aleppo.  Even though taking a taxi very much goes against my travel principles, time is of the essence now and Ali deserves it.

I said goodbye to Aleppo the evening before, looking at the citadel at night one more time, roaming some of the deserted medieval streets of the souq just one more time, and feeling very, very sad.  Aleppo was home to me like not even Beirut.   There was something special about living in the Khan and being part of a life-style of which few traces still exist anywhere in the world.  Not to glorify it too much – I would not want this to be my permanent life.  I would miss the cultural diversity and richness of our American life way too much.  Nonetheless – Aleppo, its souq, and “my” Khan will have a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.

We met at 6 AM in the morning.  No to worry about an alarm clock.  I get blasted out of bed every morning at 4:15 AM by this unusually long, extra prayer.  No matter how deep I push in my ear plugs, this prayer is broadcast with a force for which no ear plug can pose an obstacle.  For the first time I had heard that prayer in Deir Ez Zoor on a Friday.  Here in Aleppo, I have had the pleasure every day.  All I understand is “Shukran, shukran, shukran Allah…  followed by lots of syllables ending in what sounds to me like “Istanbul.”  Then the whole thing starts again and again and again for a total of about 15 minutes.  The words seem repetitive.  I asked Ali about this – how is there a 6th call to prayer every morning at this ungodly hour and for this extended time?  He said that a lot of people are very angry about that even though they are Muslims, but nothing can be done; not in Aleppo.  He mentioned that this is the “good time” of the year.  During the summer months this prayer comes about at 3 AM in the morning and one hardly can sleep at all since the last official call to prayer is much later than it is now.  If I understood him right, it is because in Aleppo there are a lot of very religious people and they want this special prayer.  He also said something about particular times of the year and that this is the week gearing up to Mohammed’s birthday, a national holiday.  For that, strict Muslims also add a lot of extra prayers.  Makes sense now.  So, with the help of the Muezzin, I was up bright and early.

We headed West and reached the famous Qala’at Salah-Ad-Din or castle of Salahadin.  It is an impressive Crusader castle at a fantastic location.   If I think about the contrast to Palmyra, Deir Ez Zoor, Raqqa – it could not be more of a contrast.  From the tree-less, rocky, cold desert I am coming to a warm,  lush, fertile area full of orange and lemon trees, cherry, apricot, and apple trees in bloom, rolling hills all green and covered with conifers.   It is beautiful.  The castle was impressive, but at the wealth of crusader castles in Syria, this is just another one and I will spare you the details.  There is still one to come.  To me they always are most interesting for the view and the location.  Otherwise, crusader castles do not make my heart beat faster.  I am sure this is different for people with a bent towards military history.  What impresses me if anything, is how they took care of their water supply.  The two cisterns I saw at Salahadin blew my mind.  Rain water was collected in underground rooms that could hold up to 48,000 gallons of water!

From here we passed the city of Latakia, the most important Syrian port town, to get to Ugarit.   Again, I am grateful for the archaeologists who make sense of piles of rock and a few remains that don’t look  like anything.  Ugarit made world history.  This is the town credited with the invention of the Phoenician alphabet which is the precursor to all Western writing.  Among other things, a clay tablet with the 30 cuneiforms listing the letters was found here!  But really, the site is a lush, grassy area with lots of two-foot high walls, thousands of rocks on the ground and nothing much else.  What caught my interest were old water pipes and drainage channels which were covered, moving alongside ancient roads.  This was a clean city.  The Middle Ages in Europe could have learned a few things.

In Latakia, we picked up Hassan Ali, my new host in Tartous.  He is a professor of engineering at the university of Latakia and had been lecturing that morning.  He commutes to Tartous twice a week – what a teaching schedule!!!  He prefers to live in Tartous which is closer to Lebanon, where many of his relatives live.  They are all Lebanese nationals and were separated by the civil war there.  I am not sure if Hassan will tell me more.  I will ask.  His sister (yes, he has one!) had made us a wonderful dinner of stuffed grape leaves and filled zucchinis.  We went for an evening stroll to get a sense of the layout of the town.  It was 26 degrees (Celsius) during the day and 21 degrees at night (For my American readers – that’s all in the 70’s but I forgot how to convert).  As far as I am concerned, this is summer!

I have a small room here which normally is Hassan’s office.  He has a comfortable two bedroom apartment in the center of Tartous.  From here it is only three blocks to the Corniche – a waterfront promenade which very much reminds me of the Corniche in Beirut.   His sister lives just two blocks away.  We went to visit and to thank her for the dinner.  I found out that she has six daughters and one son – there are my women!  I was so excited to meet them.  And I did meet three of them.  One is a hair dresser, one is still in school, one is a teacher and recently engaged. But… none of them speak as much as five words of English and neither does their mother…   I am not sure I will manage to get to talk to a single woman for any extended time here.  I am running out of options.  L

Good night.

2010
02.20

 

SYNOPSIS: I hired Ali the taxi driver again to explore the East of Aleppo.  I saw an important castle at the Euphrates and a village with traditional beehive houses.

WHAT JACQUES CHIRAC AND I HAVE IN COMMON – A DAY FULL OF SURPRISES

After the rainy, overpaid, and underutilized day with Abu Ishmail, the GTZ driver, yesterday, I was ready to just give it all up.  I had reconciled to doing a quiet Aleppo day, strolling one more time through the old city and saying goodbye.  This morning, however, the sun was shining, and I had second thoughts.  I would regret this!  One major point on my program was still open – to see the traditional beehive homes which have a history going back thousands of years.  But I needed a driver.

Half-heartedly, I started to roam the souq, visited an exhibition in an ancient, beautifully restored madrassa by GTZ about the renewal of Aleppo’s Old Town, and headed to the new city from there.  Let’s just see if I could get a hold of Ali, the young taxi driver who had taken Ian and me up to the NW the other day.  I went to the same hotel in which Ian had hired the driver and asked for him.  Within minutes he was on the phone and yes, he was available for the day!  Well, the dice were rolled now.  I would do the 120 km journey to Qasr Al Najm, which was situated in the North near the Turkish border and along the way look for some of the famous beehive homes.

You just got to love Ali’s personality.  He came, beaming of joy that I had gone through all this trouble to hire him again rather than just flag down one of the hundreds of available taxis on the street.  He told me that he could not just call me by my name as I was a person he needed to respect, so he attached the title of “aunt” to me:  Chale Elisabeth (To pronounce this, you need the “Ch” has in Challah bread-sound).  How funny! He had only been to the Qasr once in his life and was excited to be able to go again.  He had never seen any of the beehive homes either.  He navigated with great instinct through some of the towns on the back road I wanted to use in order to increase our chances to see the beehive villages.  Even the villages without the beehive homes – that means almost all the villages we passed – were clearly traditional villages made of plastered sun-dried brick homes; all one level high and hardly a sign of modernity, except for the ever present satellite dish.

Qasr Al Najm was an impressive fortification but what made it all special was its setting; once again perched high above the Euphrates overlooking a fertile valley.  The river here was wider than I had seen anywhere else.  And it was absolutely quiet.  If you would not know that there had to be a current to it, you could have thought of it as a lake.  So tranquil.  So beautiful.  So big.  A cemetery was right below the ruins which created an interesting contrast.  And the villages around were pleasant to look at with the low rising architecture, their round ovens, their stables, hay stacks, chickens, children, and dogs.  Lush green fields, perhaps, the lushest I have seen anywhere in Syria so far, stretch to the horizon alongside olive tree plantations old and new.  Cotton trucks were passing by loaded to the brim, but the cotton was just beginning to grow, so we could not see any mature fields.

The roads were sparsely populated and driving or riding, for that matter, was a stress-free and pleasant experience.  Ali was thrilled to be out of the Aleppo traffic in which he has to fight, honk, watch out and worry at any given moment. Finally, we spotted a hillside with beehive homes.  Ali took the car deep into the village and then we began to hike into the narrow walls.  I was hoping for a glimpse beyond the walls and my wildest dream came true when a young boy saw me photographing. The usual:  He came because he was curious.  I asked him if he wanted his picture taken and of course, he wanted that.  Then he gestured me to follow him and he took me right to his family’s home.  I felt so awkward to show up unannounced at their doorsteps.  Almost all the family members were perched on an outdoor platform smoking, chatting, and enjoying the gorgeous day.  But once they saw me hesitating at the threshold they gestured, too.  I was welcomed into their home!  They did not mind me photographing and proudly pointed out the various parts of their dwelling.

The main part of the home was an area with four domes.  Along the sides there were shelves, closets, and bedding.  The middle was covered with carpets and pillows on which you could sit.  Somewhere on the floor there was a baby sleeping.  The home was built by the father of the grandfather of the house, over 80 years ago.  His picture was proudly pointed out to me.  As in so many homes and stores around here, the ancestors are prominently displayed in large frames on the walls.

The entire extended family lived together here.  I saw about half of them:  Grandfather, two sons, a son-in-law, two daughter-in-laws, and five children.  The four-domed common area was also the women’s and children’s quarter.  Across the courtyard which had an outhouse and an animal area for sheep and chickens, there was a separate building – the men’s quarter.  Over the door, the Ka’ba was depicted which means that one of the men had undertaken the Hajj to Mecca – it was the grandfather with one of his sons.  Their photos were prominently displayed in that room.  Only men would hang out here and sleep together.  I was told that newly-wed couple gets their own room for a few years until there are enough babies, then they separate into the gender specific areas.

What an absolute treat!  I never would have dreamt in my life that I would be able to have this much of an insight into traditional living quarters.  Ali was thrilled as well – all this was as new to him as it was to me.  And just as we were about to part – grandfather told me that the French President Jacques Chirac had visited their village a few years ago and had stopped exactly in that house as well!  I assured them that Jacques Chirac was a very important person. I was just a teacher and very much honored and touched by the hospitality which they were willing to extend to a total stranger.  I am humbled by the fact that now I will be remembered as the “professor from America” next to Jacques Chirac.

Too bad none of them uses the internet – I would have emailed them some of my pictures.

After it rained and hailed yesterday, the sun today was shining and the temperatures felt like a mild summer day!  At the Euphrates, the river seemed as blue as the sky.  Ali was glowing and I was very pleased that I did not skimp out on this day.  What a gift traveling is.  Every day there is an unexpected turn.  How could any of this have been planned!

Good night.

2010
02.19

 

SYNOPSIS:   I hired a driver to cover some ground around the SW area of Aleppo.  I visited three important archaeological sites and a mosaic museum.

DEAD CITIES, EXCAVATED MUD WALLS, OLIVE TREES AND SHEEP

I should have called Ali, the young guy who took Ian and me around NW of Aleppo.  We had told him what we wanted to see and not only did he know perfectly well where to go, he suggested at least two if not three extra sites along the way and got us there and back without problems.  I made the mistake of asking the GTZ driver if he would take me around.  I felt I owed him the loyalty and the business, but I deeply regret it!  He was clueless.  One of the sites I wanted to see he had never heard of – the quite famous mosaic museum.  The other, listed as especially important on my map – he could not find.  And finally, I wanted him to take me to the bee-hive village near Aleppo and he claimed he did not know anything about such a village.  He asked me where to go – just picture that!  We had to rely on a very rough map that I had gotten from the tourist office and thank goodness, had brought along.  And then we got lost and had to backtrack a few times.  Oh, brother!  And after all that he charged as much as Ali would have.  Oh, if I could just turn the clock back!  But OK – this will go into history as a bad day, but I still saw a few things.  Just to round things up, we had a few downpours, including hail, to create the perfect backdrop for the scenario.  But with a private car I could at least stay inside when needed and did not have to get soaking wet – my memories of that in Lebanon are not so fond.

On the program were some of the dead cities that are famous around here.  I got to see at least the two most important ones.  It is still a mystery how these cities came about in the first place.  People built them to last – and they succeeded as the remnants prove – but around the 8th century, they left and moved elsewhere, why?  Today, in the case of Serjila, there is grass all over the site and fields around.  A guy plowed a small plot with two horses right next to the ruins and a shepherd ran his flock through the site.  In the case of Al Bara, the old town is huge and spread out over several small hills.  Between the houses hundreds of olive trees have been planted that are still the backbone of the local economy – olive trees are worth gold.  That means the ruins are not as accessible, but they exist side by side with the locals and their needs.  These are dead cities, but given the sheep and the olive trees and in some cases, locals making storage rooms out of them, they are not as dead as one might think.  Usually, I cringe when I see that locals will use precious ancient remains for contemporary needs.  The worst case and the most typical is garbage disposal – but in this case it makes sense.  These ruins are unique to Syria and to a visitor.  But there are 600-800 of these sites around here, large and small.  It is impossible to give preference to the past over the present in all of them and a happy medium seems to have been found.

We stopped at a town called Al Ma’ara which houses one of the most extensive mosaic collections of Syria.  Many of the mosaics were taken from exactly these dead cities.  Some are of enormous dimensions – they must have embellished the floors of the wealthy in local mansions.  What makes this collection so wonderful is that it is housed in the largest Khan of Syria.  The building itself is as much worth a trip as the collection of mosaics themselves.  Hunting scenes and geometric motifs seem to be in the majority, but there was one very Roman looking motif that seems to have depicted Greco-Roman mythology.  The guard who followed me on my heels, graciously allowed me to take one photograph.  All the other pictures I have, I had to take behind his back…

And finally, we stopped in Ebla. I am so grateful that there are archaeologists out there who are having as much fun digging in the ground as I have talking about what they dig up.  I could not make heads or tails out of all the knee-high walls and fragments.  Supposedly, there was a mighty Sumerian kingdom there and this was their palace.  You have to have a lot of imagination.  What impressed me is that a huge library of 15000 cuneiform tablets was found there.  The site museum was closed – what a shame, but I hear it is awful anyhow…  I would have enjoyed a bit more background on all this as could not conjure up the full pictures by just looking at a few mud bricks and rocks.  But if fit into the tenor of the day, that the driver was clueless, the weather, shaky, and the museum closed.  You got to take what you can get.   And at times it isn’t what you paid for.

Good night.