Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I’m connected to the Internet at one of Damascus’ trendy Western-style coffee houses which offer free wireless Internet access. The chain, inhouse coffee -- all lowercase -- which has no Arabic spelling of its name in its signs or logos, boasts five locations around the city.

I’m at the location in Malaki, a district of quiet, leafy streets to the west of many major embassies. The music is American, the coffee European. The menu includes an array of caramel, toffee, mocha and cinnamon flavors and any combinations thereof. Who needs Starbucks?

The storyteller

During Ramadan, most Syrians, as most Arabs, spend the post-iftar food coma in front of the television to watch the latest telenovelas, in a ritual that has become as much a part of Ramadan as fasting. Television networks roll out their latest miniseries -- which usually fall into one of three categories: historical, religious or romance -- for the one-month fast holiday. Families gather in front of the television after breaking the daily fast at sundown.

One man continues to provide old-fashioned entertainment every night at a coffee shop in the shadow of the Grand Mosque in Damascus. Rashid al Halak Abu Shadi, apparently Damascus' last storyteller, starts after the 'isha'a prayer -- at around 8 p.m. -- and continues for about an hour. At the end, the cafe staff passes a tray for contributions to the storyteller.

Abu Shadi, his gray hair showing from under his Ottoman-era red tarboosh, tells serialized Arab epics of warriors, princes and princesses, told and retold for centuries. The other night, his voice was raspy and strained as he weaved a tale from the time of the medieval, Cairo-based Fatimid Caliphate. The room was packed with mostly men, seemingly familiar with the story, laughing and applauding.

The storyteller – al-hakawati – for his part, kept our attention by waving his saber, which could probably hurt someone if used properly, and occasionally, to emphasize a line, striking it against a metal table in front of him.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


It was the first morning of Ramadan in Damascus and Abu Mousa was making wine. Sitting alone in the kitchen, vigorously kneading a bowl full of grapes like a big ball of dough, he explained in one word, as I walked in to make my morning cup of coffee: wine -- nibeez.

While a good many of some 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants began the first of 29 days of fasting, Christians were apparently contemplating wine. Abu Mousa’s been making it this time of year since his formative years in the village, where all the Christian families produce their own wine every autumn. “There are many grapes in the village. Many.” Abu Mousa said, stressing, kiseer, many.

He described the process: First he sets out the grapes to soften in the sun for five days until they sour slightly, then he presses them by hand, removing the stems but not the seeds. The grapes are a mix, but mostly green since those are the most common, although he prefers “black” grapes -- what we would call red grapes. He then pours the pulp, skins and seeds into a large plastic jug, and covers it for 25 to 30 days. Then, he has wine. He started the first batch eight days ago. It will be my first Syrian wine.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Echoes of Nasser?

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, as I was strolling through the Old City, the unmistakable booming rasp of Hasan Nasrallah, the Lebanese leader of Hezbollah, followed me from street to street. From the barber shops and the souvenir stores, the sweet shops and the scrap metal and screw store, even from the music store, the sound of his voice arose from small televisions or radios perched on sales counters, carrying through open doors, and turning the narrow stone streets in some kind of echo chamber.

The speech, Nasrallah's first public appearance since the summer's war, was broadcast from Beirut on all major Arab satellite news channels, as well as Syrian government channels, and, of course, the Hezbollah channel, Al-Manar.

Not since this summer’s World Cup, had one televised event captured the nation, and perhaps not since the heady days of the pan-Arab movement of the 1950s and 60s, when the radio broadcast speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president, captivated the Arab street, has one Arab leader drawn such a popular following across the Arab world.

Arabs like anyone who stands up to Israel and they like a winner. Nasrallah represents both. He is praised for defending Arab land from invading Israeli troops, refusing to give up what they came for -- two captured soldiers -- and countering an Israeli bombardment with an unrelenting barrage of his own.

In most Arab countries there is a wide gap between street-level support for Nasrallah and the official view, which is muted. As a rule, guerrilla movements anywhere are enemies to long-serving Arab despots. Not in Syria, where the official view on most matters of international affairs mirror the Arab street. The bespectacled, black-turbaned Hasan Nasrallah, usually in a toothy grin, appears alongside images of the current and former Syrian presidents on posters in shop windows, in cut-outs in the front of busses and service vans, across the back windshields of cars. Hezbollah flags flutter alongside Syrian flags outside shops, from Sunni Muslim areas to Christian areas of Damascus. (Hezbollah is a Shiite party.)

The poster photographed above is on a pillar outside the Grand Mosque. From left, the current Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, his father, the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Asad, and Nasrallah. The caption reads: “The victory for the resistance.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

Grandpa knows best

After three days of stomach woes, and with the wondrous Western remedy of Cipro slow in acting, I turned to Abu Mousa. He led me to the kitchen this morning and opened two jars of herbs. (One jar was once honey, the other once tomato paste. In Syria, you don’t buy herbs in the grocery store in neatly labeled jars. You go to the seed souq -- Souq al-Bizereeyeh -- and buy by the gram from large sacks, or harvest them from the fields or the mountains.)

This one, he said, is good for your stomach. It’s sweet. This one, he said, is better. It’s morr -- bitter. You know, morr? Yes, I know morr. Here, smell. First, he held the sweet to my face, then the bitter. It’s best to put both in the tea kettle, he said. Just one cup. He sprinkled into the water some of the sweet -- anise, in Arabic, yansoon -- and the bitter, shreeh, a Syrian mountain herb, which I have yet to translate.

Abu Mousa left and I set the kettle to boil. I filled my cup with the elixir and retired to my room. The bitter won out. It wasn’t tasty, but I finished it in time, and, not much later, my stomach stopped its shifting and gurgling. And my appetite slowly returned. I ate a banana, made some chicken broth, ate some chips. Basil, Abu Mousa’s grandson, grilled chicken and I ate some of that. I finally feel as if I’m on the mend.

Beware the toot shami

On my first day in Damascus, after purchasing cell phone and beginning the search for a place to live, I set off in quest of the juice of the toot shami. I knew where to find it. I had tasted it once, on a whim, during a brief earlier visit to Syria, and I still remembered its natural sweetness.

I made my way through the long, covered Souq al-Hamadiyeh, the one with bullet holes in the roof from celebrations past, which today provide ambient lighting in the form of hundreds of tiny shafts of sunlight cascading upon the heads of the throngs ambling through the cavernous reaches; under the Roman arches with the Corinthian capitals, salvaged from the pagan temple by later civilizations, where, facing the Umayyad Mosque, and opposite the merchants of the Qur’an and the Hadith, are the juice vendors. In summer, they specialize in toot shami – literally, Syrian berry; in English, mulberry. I bought a glass, chilled with shaved ice, and gulped it down right there. An American friend later warned me that toot shami juice can be a Westerner’s demise. I should have paid closer attention.

In the days subsequent, I returned to the toot shami vendors by the mosque, and encountering others in my daily rounds about the city, I sampled widely the array of toot shami juice the city has to offer. All was well, until I drank one glass of bad toot shami. Maybe the berries had been sitting too long in the sun. Maybe they had just gone bad. Toot shami season is very nearly over. Some say it’s already past. Whichever, I landed on all fours in my version of the Syrian prison.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

House of nuts?

During my two-week Syrian dialect class, which ended yesterday, I’ve learned a few expressions, terms and proverbs, which may or may not open a window on the Syrian soul.

“Problems are the salt of life.” Salt in Arabic culture is highly valued. The Levantine colloquial word for “good,” or “well” -- mineeh -- in describing a state of being, is derived from the Arabic word for salt, “melah.”

“House of nuts.” In Syria, nuts, particularly pistachios, are also highly valued. This is a derogatory term for a family that compliments each other to the point of empty praise.

“What is better than honey? Free vinegar.” Said to someone who decides against purchasing something desirable but expensive, instead choosing something far less desirable but free.

“Sick, tired.” If you hear someone tell you this, it means you’re on your death bed.

“The age of hopelessness.” The Arabic medical term for menopause.

“The house of your mother’s sister”: Slang for prison.

“The coming of her mother’s sister”: Slang for a woman’s menstrual period.

The word for a woman who is well-reasoned -- museebeh -- also means catastrophe

“The horn from the neighborhood is not pleasing,” which equates to an English expression: “The grass is greener on the other side.”

“He who is not jealous is a donkey!” Some forms of jealousy are considered a virtue, not a sin.

To lend money -- deyan -- also means to make someone religious. To borrow money -- iddeyan -- also means to become religious.

“He who loans to another is a donkey and he who gives it back is more of a donkey.”

“God willing, He will bury me (before you)!” It said affectionately by a mother to her daughter, expressing hope that the daughter will outlive her mother. It is never said by a man.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tit for tat

You withdraw your ambassador, impose economic sanctions and accuse us of sponsoring international terrorism. Fine. We won’t allow your American Fulbright scholars to study at Damascus University.

I have become a political pawn.

Today, I learned at a meeting at the American Cultural Center, a branch of the U.S. embassy, that the Syrian government has decided to bar American students sponsored by the Fulbright scholarship -- funded largely by the U.S. Congress -- from studying at Damascus University. I had planned to take an Arabic placement test tomorrow at the university’s Arabic Language Center and start intensive Arabic classes next week. For now, I will look elsewhere for my Arabic training here.

Syria has little leverage to counter diplomatic pressure imposed by the United States. By limiting the scope of the U.S. Fulbright program here, Syria is returning the favor in its own small way. Whether or not this will matter or be heard in the corridors of power in Washington, and whether anything can be done, remains to be seen.

The Fulbright program is the last channel of meaningful communication between the two nations. If it is curtailed, relations can only deteriorate further.

Friday, September 15, 2006

California Dreamin’

I went dancing last night. Yes, Syrians dance, too.

We arrived at around one o’clock at one of a handful of western-style dance clubs in Damascus. The parking lot was full of luxury cars, several with Saudi Arabian plates. (Damascus, as other Arab capitals, is a popular summer vacation spot for wealthy Gulf Arabs escaping the heat and strict social codes of Arabia.)

The club was packed with young Syrians, Saudis and a few Americans, including a couple male U.S. embassy staffers. Women, drinking and smoking, their hair highlighted in blonde, were wearing what they wouldn’t dare on the streets: tube tops, strapless dresses. The scene was Damascus' best interpretation of Beirut nightlife, renowned in the region.

The music was loud -- too loud to talk, to think -- a requisite for any dance club anywhere worth its salt. It was a mix of American, European and Arabic beats. Then, at about three o'clock, came a remix of “California Dreamin',” the 1960’s hit by the Mamas and the Papas.

All the leaves are brown and the skies are gray.
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreamin', on such a winter's day.

I sang along on the dance floor with an American friend. The Syrians did, too.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

As-salam auleykum?

When I first arrived in Damascus, I greeted anyone I’d meet with the most common utterance in the Muslim world: As-salam auleykum -- peace be upon you. It is said from Albania to Indonesia. The words come from the Qur’an, but in most Arab countries, they are used so often they take on the function of “hello.” Even among Christians in Egypt -- home to the largest Christian population in the region, with roughly 10 million -- and in Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity, the greeting is exchanged on streets and in shops, Christian or otherwise, without a second thought. Not in Syria.

I was met with puzzled stares and bemusement when I pronounced the words in the Christian quarter of Damascus’ old city. An American friend said she cringed when she heard me say them. It is only used among Muslims here, my friend said, and even then, only among the most observant. The greeting is seldom heard among younger Syrians, no matter the religion. Instead, people exchange the more neutral, “marhaba,” which effectively translates to, “hello.”

Syria’s government is secular, and, despite recent incidents that might indicate otherwise, so are a good many of its people. Or, if not secular, then moderately religious. A very unscientific survey of women’s sartorial choices -- my occasional counting of the backs of heads on Damascus city busses -- reveals only about half of Damascene women wear the Muslim headscarf called the hijab. (A small number also wear the niqab, the black veil which covers all but the eyes, and a smaller number wear the burka.) That puts Damascus on par with pre-war Baghdad, at the time the most secular Arab capital.

Still, I do hear “as-salam auleykum” in more conservative Muslim areas of Damascus, particularly as one climbs higher on the side of the mountain, where the houses are more slap-dash and the people poorer. I use it there, too. It’s also a sign of respect for Islam, whether or not one happens to be Muslim. I’ll open the door to a mini-bus, quickly size up the crowd, and, as I’m climbing in, start with, “as-salam auleykum.” The response always come back: “Wa aleykum as-salam.” And upon you, peace.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Feast of the Cross

A day after gunfire and explosions at the American embassy echoed across the city for 20 minutes, the local Christians are celebrating the annual Feast of the Cross -- with fire and the sound of explosions. At sunset, they began.

I was working in my room and I heard a loud crack. I jumped -- just slightly -- out of my seat. A car backfiring? As long as it’s not followed by another loud crack, I thought, we’re all right. Then came another. And another.

I noticed the fireworks out my window, launched from the vicinity of three blue neon crosses atop churches in the Christian neighborhoods to the northeast of the old city. Loud whistles and pops and the big thuds that follow the cascades of red and blue and purple and white. Then, they came from the other side, from the old Christian quarter where I live. One seemed to whistle over my room explode just outside my window.

I have since discovered that the holiday commemorates St. Helena's discovery in 325 in Jerusalem of the "true cross," or "holy cross" -- the cross upon which, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified. St. Helena's servants, as the story goes, lit fires on mountain tops stretching from Jerusalem, through Syria, to Constantinople, so news of the discovery could reach the capital. According to my host family, in the ancient Christian village of Maalula, north of Damascus, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic churches build competing fires atop the two mountain tops above the village to commemorate the day.

In the Christian enclaves of Damascus, bond fires are alight. I stepped outside, and a few houses away, an extended family sat around a large bond fire in a small courtyard, adults firing off bottle rockets and throwing sound bombs, and children running in circles yelling, "Saleeb!" "Saleeb!" Cross! Cross!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How I almost was almost in a terrorist attack

Yesterday, I went to the American embassy in order to inquire about obtaining a letter informing the University of Damascus that I am authorized, as an American citizen, to study there -- one of the several steps involved in registering for classes. After waiting in the sun for half an hour, and passing through two security checks -- one outside and one inside -- I was permitted entry to the consular section of the embassy. There, I learned from a Syrian man speaking perfect English from behind thick panes of plexi-glass -- reminiscent of Washington, D.C., liquor stores -- that I was to formally request the letter between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. So, we will see you tomorrow, he said. Yes, indeed.

I set my alarm last night for 6:40 a.m., with the idea of stopping at the embassy before my Syrian dialect class at 10. The alarm went off and I reset it for 7, weighing whether I really needed to get the letter today or not. I drifted back to sleep. I was tired from my futile errand early the morning before in hopes of recuperating my lost (stolen) camera.

I didn’t go to the embassy today. If I had gone to the embassy, I would have narrowly missed the terrorist attack. It began at 10:10 a.m.

I received a cell-phone text message from the embassy this afternoon informing Americans in Damascus to “keep a low profile.” As a six-foot-six-inch white man that is hard to do here. So, I kept my afternoon appointment with my Arabic tutor, taking two 10-cent public minibuses to arrive at his house, and two more to return, stopping at a fruit stand on the way. Nothing felt different than before. But, now I know that as an American, I am a target. The sense of safety that Americans felt here -- surprisingly, there is a small American ex-pat community in Damascus, mostly English teachers and Arabic students -- has burst.

Westerners have not been targeted here as they have in recent years in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, and, of course, Iraq. There was no State Department travel warning for Syria. The streets surrounding the U.S. embassy here are not closed to traffic as they are in Cairo and Amman. I suspect that will change.

Monday, September 11, 2006

It's gone

I tested the limits of Syrian hospitality and goodwill, which is usually in abundance, the other night, when I left my digital camera at a restaurant. I departed somewhat hastily, having contracted the Syrian version of Montezuma’s revenge, -- Saladin's revenge?-- was it the Kabab Halabi (but they were so good!) or the hommous Beiruti or the matabbal or the fattoush? It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized my mistake. I rushed to the restaurant, a 20 minute walk from my house, and no trace of my camera. Come back at five, they told me, when the night shift opens the office. I returned at five. Still no camera. Please leave your number, sir, and we will call you if you we find your camera.

At one o’clock this morning, my telephone ring jolted me awake.

Hello, Mr. Bob. This is Ahmed from Restaurant Leila’s. We have found a camera.

Is it in a black case?


I’ll be right there.

It wasn’t my camera. Abu Mousa says, “brooh.” It’s gone.

Fortunately, a colleage is arriving from the States on Friday. He'll bring me a new camera.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Jihad and the various forms it takes in Arabic has many meanings, both secular and religious, among them, “to wage holy war against the infidels,” according to my dictionary. It also connotes devotion, concentration and exertion toward a cause which has nothing to do war. It is also a name, both Muslim and Christian. I met a Syrian Christian monk today named Jihad. He lives with five monks and three nuns at Deir Mar Mousa al-Habashi, which means the Monastery of Saint Moses, the Ethiopian. The monastery is doubly unconventional: it is home to men and women, and it is ecumenical, both Syrian Catholic and Syrian Orthodox.

This tiny religious community, perched on the side of a cliff in the desert north of Damascus, is one of the few remaining of thousands of Byzantine monasteries once spread across the harsh landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean. The monastery is said to have been founded in the 6th century by an Ethiopian prince who refused the crown to become a monk and then hermit in Syria. It was abandoned by the middle of the 19th century, but brought back to life in the 1980s by an Italian Jesuit named Paolo, who was ordained a priest in the Syrian rite.

The monastery church features outstanding 11th century frescoes, as well as an 11th century inscription of the Arabic words, which precede every recitation of the Qur’an: “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.” In the restored church, the inscription is repeated in a dedication to its reopening. Brother Jihad said the words resonate in Christianity as well as Islam. One of the missions of the monastery is to foster interfaith dialogue. Small numbers of Muslims come to pray in the monastery church, according to Brother Jihad, as they do at important Christian shrines throughout the Middle East. The church floor, which is not original, is covered with colorful Persian carpets, an Islamic aesthetic.

Today, the first day of the Syrian weekend, bus loads of Syrians, a few Europeans, and one American visited the monastery. It was impossible to tell how many Muslims were among them.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Abu Mousa

Today, when I returned to the house at about four, having already eaten tasteless pieces of breaded, boneless chicken at one of Damascus' many shwarma and catch-all short-order restaurants, Abu Mousa asked if I was hungry. By God, I told him, I’ve already eaten, but it wasn’t very tasty. I cooked today, he told me, and there’s still some on the stove. Come, eat. I couldn’t refuse. There, in a covered pot was a large helping of Arabic rice with sliced potatoes and tomatoes and zucchini, still warm. It was delicious. I finished a plate, then another. There’s fattoush in the fridge, he told me. Fattoush is a traditional Levantine salad and one of Abu Mousa’s specialties: diced cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, a bit of lettuce and pieces of fried pita, doused in olive oil and lemon juice. It was to his standard.

On other days, in the morning, he has invited me for lunch -- the principle meal in Syria, as in many cultures -- and I have accepted, but today he did not. Not wanting to take advantage of very generous hosts, I dined out with a friend. As I was finishing his rice and fattosh, Abu Mousa took a black marker and wrote in Arabic on a piece of blank paper: “Restaurant Abu Mousa welcomes you. Open night and day.” He posted it on the kitchen cabinet, his way of telling me that I am welcome to eat with him whenever I please.

Abu Mousa -- father of Mousa, his eldest son, a hotel manager in Palm Springs, Calif. -- was born in 1926 in a village in the mountains north of Damascus. The son of a shepherd, he spent the summers with his father and his sheep, sleeping under the stars. Fifty years ago, after having served in the Syrian army, where, incidentally, he learned how to cook, he moved with his family to the house where he still lives. He worked as a police officer in Damascus until retirement. During the summers, he sleeps outside on a simple bed on the second-floor terrace. It reminds him of those early summers in the mountains, he told me. He often returns to the village and brings back figs and grapes and sheep’s cheese, as he did last weekend. Everything is fresh in the village, he says. Now, he’s trying to visit America -- he’s been several times before -- to spend time with his two sons. He was recently refused by the U.S. embassy, but he’ll try again. Until then, I’ll join him for lunch.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

My window on Damascus

My plane touched down at 2 a.m. on the last day of August. By 3:30, I arrived at my hotel. Al-hamdoolilah as-salameh -- praised be God for your well-being -- I told the driver. He smiled and responded: Allah isalmak -- may God protect you. It’s a ritual exchange that completes every safe passage in Syria. I stepped onto the curb and into the warm summer early morning, taking with me my two giant duffel bags, leather satchel and hard-sided rolling carry-on -- my life for the next nine months.

Two days later, I moved into a room in the Christian quarter of the Old City. The neighborhood is called Bab Touma -- Thomas Gate -- and is home to some 500 foreigners -- mostly European students studying Arabic -- renting rooms in the ancient houses tightly packed in a warren of one-way cobbled streets and alleyways. My room sits atop the 13th-century city walls and its large windows overlook a Muslim cemetery, an old green-domed mosque and, beyond, Mount Qasyioun, the desert mountain that looms over the city.

A busy strip of pavement with an indeterminate number of lanes -- like most roads in the city, there are no painted lines -- runs 25 feet below my windows. During the day, the clip-clop of horses pulling vegetable carts mix with horns of all pitches and cadences, and the drone of city buses, minivans, mopeds, cars. At night, it becomes like ocean waves.

I live with Abu Mousa, the 80-year-old family patriarch who often wears a white dishdasha, the traditional Arabic robe, and cooks extravagant lunches for me as a stand-in for his two sons living in America; his daughter Juliet, who offers tea and candy and insists on ironing my shirts when she thinks they appear too wrinkled, and her son, Basil, an Arabic teacher and the only one of the family who speaks English.

On my fifth day, I started private Arabic lessons: Syrian dialect and Modern Standard Arabic. These will keep me busy until I begin classes at Damascus University in a few weeks. This begins my fourth year studying the language and its dialects. That’s a long time to apply to anything, much less a language that I’ll never perfect. As I once again plunge into the well-worn pages of my Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, every English- and German-speaking Arabic student’s best friend, I find myself asking why? A quest for mere competence? A yearning to discover more of the secrets of a beautiful language: its subtleties -- the myriad connotations behind a single word -- and its precision? The satisfaction that comes with conversing with a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, a Syrian on the street asking me -- me?! -- for directions? It happened again, today. A window -- my window -- on the Arab world.