Monday, 2 June 2008

Impressions of Syria

This week I went for a little jaunt to Syria with a friend of mine who was travelling through this way. My overall comment would be that Syria is a land of enormous potential, exceptionally rich archaeological remains, a living museum to important ancient history that is emerging out of some dark times with a smile and a chaotic air. If you travel to Syria you must be ready to step back in time in all senses of the phrase. My sense of disorder began when I applied for my visa in the embassy downtown in Doha. I waited in what I thought was a queue but soon realised that a Syrian queue is one where the front person is being served and the line from thereon bulges to an increasing size as new people arrive. You must walk around the side of the line it seems and then push your way in. Having this little bit of knowledge was helpful when arriving in Damascus at the passport line. You need to firmly hold your ground and edge up closely to the person in front who is hopefully holding his place as firmly until you kind of push your way to the counter where all manner of things might be happening. (interruptions from other agents etc). This part was relatively easy compared to the baggage claim area. We found two belts with no signs, so we were not sure which was our particular luggage. Alongside this there are men pulling bags off the belts randomly and placing them in various spots around the airport. Along with this there are people pushing trolleys they had somehow managed to pay for and picking up bags and pushing their way through the very crowded area. I found my bag sitting quietly in the middle of the baggage claim area and an abandoned trolley which I just 'took' (seemed to be the local method). My friend Christina did not manage to find hers at all and she has gone on to Jordan without it. There was a 'lost and found' place in the airport but the information that was collected from her was not correct and we somehow were not allowed to change it, so perhaps this is a truly lost bag. The next time I go to Syria I will take only a carry-on and avoid this terrible experience. The outgoing  trip was difficult but a lot easier than the ingoing experience.
Our guide was waiting for us and was a truly lovely Syrian man, Basel, with that smile that is typical of all Syrian people. His car was supposed to be air conditioned but he seemed to prefer to drive with the windows open as we hurtled towards the city centre. 
Damascus to me was a very 'untidy' city, evidence of the confusing history of change and political upheavals. The city has sprawled hugely to let in all of the refugees heading towards a safer place. There is a suburb of people from Golan Heights, another from Palestine, many Lebanese, Iraqis, Pakistanis, etc, all of whom have come to Damascus to live more peacefully. There is a wonderful hillside perching above town, of illegal dwellings built from grey brick and tin that are now permanent because of the law of habitation there. The government have now sent electricity to these hillside dwellers and a road runs nearby. At night you can see lights twinkling on the hillside, an enchanting sight. One morning I found two little boys wandering around in dirty clothes. I am sure there are a lot of street dwellers also.
Our hotel was supposed to be three star but judging from the state of the room with a window to the outside that didn't lock, and a smoking neighbour - the smoke drifting through a crack in the adjoining door- it was really only 2 star by our standards, our first night was rather uncomfortable. We soon found that throughout Syria there is a smoking policy- that is to say, even when there is a 'no-smoking' sign in an airport or such, there are still smokers who light up. The restaurants encourage smoking with lovely ashtrays everywhere and so of course our hotel did not have any smoke free areas. We found the same with shops, banks etc. so you just have to grin and bear it. 
In order to give Christina some clean clothes we set out to the local downtown area which turned out to be an older part of town with a large market place where the locals all shop until 10.p.m. It was lovely just wandering around some very old cobbled streets with prices of clothes almost unbelievable (even before you started bargaining) I found my favourite undies (Triumph) for $3 a pair. So I stocked up on them and a Puma tracksuit($20 a piece) for Jonah and shoes and such. Christina managed to find some $10 items to get her through the next few days. I suspect that the designer labels we were buying, although of excellent quality, were not truly the labels advertised, simply clever copies. I am not sure about this.
Syria is known for many wonderful crafts and our trip to the Soukh the next day proved this. They make, of course, the famous Damask cotton items, like table cloths and such. There was also carpets you would die for, silver, brass lighting, furniture with mother of pearl imbedded in it, camel hair woven clothing, beads, tiles.......what a wonderful, wonderful feast for the eyes (and the suitcase!). We sat in many shops and were served hospitality tea while we checked things out. I managed to buy three rugs and Christina a beautiful silver pendant. There were also many religious artifacts (another of Christina's purchases) and too many other treats to mention. We were really there to see the great Mosque Umayyad  where the head of John the Baptist sits. This mosque is one of the great monuments of early Islam and is huge. We had to wear a borrowed abaya in order to go in. Photographs are allowed here so we have a few to sort through. The National Museum was another of our stops with a wonderful collection of things including my favourite, the very first alphabet ever written, on a small stone. The most unusual thing about this museum is that if you manage to get a guide in a quiet place, he will take you somewhere you are not supposed to go and try to get you to take photographs of very, very old things for a small tip!! I guess this is the way they try to eke out a living on their meagre wage. Pretty sad really.
Traffic in Damascus is as chaotic and disorganised as the queue, with two lanes becoming four each moment. The buildings seem to be unfinished and tend to be built from the local grey brick often with wire and posts sticking out from the top in case someone one day will want to put another level on top. In between this there are amazing old buildings that have lasted the test of time, seemingly built out of mud, straw, wood. This makes for a rather disjointed, ugly city from the outside appearance. It is the opposite of here I guess, where appearance is everything. In Syria the outside appearance seems ugly with the inside being welcoming, charming, exciting and sweet all in one. I loved the way the ATM worked near our hotel. ATMs are new to Damascus and so there are many people in that bulging line clutching little bits of plastic with no idea how to make them give money. On a piece of paper they will have written their pin number and everyone in line will help with the transaction while all peering at the screen over the shoulder of the person in front. One woman had actually brought cards from 6 of her friends to get money for them as well, so she took quite some time. The best idea is to have plenty of time and a sense of humour at all times.
We spent an overnight in Palmyra also, which is situated in the desert on the old silk road(how exciting!). On the way we visited the Krak des Chevaliers, a beautiful medieval Crusader castle which still stands on top of its hill with the seats of the round table still sitting in the sun for all to see and sit on!! I took a moment or two to sit and ponder.  I cannot describe this tour, it would be better for you to read about it if interested. Only to say that we were overwhelmed by just being there.
On to Palmyra with the window still down and the blood heating up(38 degrees) , to another very ordinary 'hotel' where the shower leaked badly and the toilet rocked, but outside the balcony there was one of the world's great historical sites! This of course is Syria's prime attraction as the ruins of this ancient city spread over 10 square km , with parts of it clearly intact including the road that ran through the middle, a huge temple, a theatre and tombs. I am not doing it justice in one sentence, so , again you would need to read about it. The fact of being able to walk where ancient people walked and traded and dreamed is a truly humbling experience.
On our way back to Damascus we stopped at one of the Baghdad Cafes- a wonderful experience by itself. There are a few enterprising Bedouin families who have set up backpacker places with a Bedouin tent, a mud and straw dome hut and a little restaurant which has so much charm it is worth spending a while there. They are all called Baghdad Cafe and probably all offer the same charming hospitality.
I have skimmed through the trip, not wanting to bore anyone. I can recommend a visit to Syria before it is too late. It will be 'modernized' I am sure. It is such an important place in our world, representing our historical past from the Early Bronze Age through periods like the Crusades, the Marmalukes, the Ottomans, the French- who finally left it alone in only 1946! You would need a month or more to fully explore all that it has to offer. 
If you want a fully trustworthy guide choose Basel. fax : 00963-115317185
He will sort out hotels much more suitable than ours. We had ours arranged by another tour company unfortunately. He can also take you anywhere in Syria you wish to go (just ask for the A/C to be turned on perhaps!) Basel even took us to his humble home and his beautiful wife prepared a wonderful feast for us with that true Syrian hospitality. (women here are free to wear modern clothes, tourists need not worry about covering up).
We also found the most wonderful fully restored house in the middle of the Soukq which, although more expensive than our hotel, is a truly beautiful tribute to earlier Damascan times.
The Beit Al Joury Hotel, a place for movie stars and you!
Do yourself a favour and look it up! 

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