Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Speaking Arabic with a Syrian accent as a foreigner in Lebanon can be tricky business. During my most recent visit, last week, I was met with bemused smiles and retorts in perfect English or French.

The first thing to know about the Lebanese, or at least the educated classes in Beirut, is that they are proud to speak English and French well -- whereas the Syrians are proud to speak Arabic well. (Syrians are coveted as news presenters by the Arabic cable news channels because they are renowned for their flawless formal Arabic.)

The Lebanese reasoning goes: If I speak English better than you speak Arabic, why are you wasting my time with your Arabic. So when an American insists on speaking Arabic to waiters in restaurants, soliciting directions in Arabic on the street, the answer is never in Arabic, no matter how well he is understood. And if he speaks in the Damascene dialect, a barrage of English is often coupled with smirks, even outright laughs.

In Lebanon, Arabic dialects are linked closely to religious and national identities and tied to regional and sectarian strife. During the country’s long civil war, Maronite Christian militias were known to kill a man if he pronounced the Arabic word for tomato -- bandora, or is it banadoora? -- with a Palestinian accent.

The Damascene accent is that of the army that occupied parts of Lebanon for 30 years, until it left year. It is the accent of the government accused by many Lebanese of assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. And it is increasingly the accent of poor guest workers. (Higher wages in Lebanon attract Syrian laborers.)

I don’t blame the Lebanese for preferring to hear their own Arabic from a stranger, if any Arabic at all. The next time I visit Beirut, I think I might stick to English.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Abu Mousa goes to America

The other day, I returned to the house and Abu Mousa practically came running. Wasalt al-visa! I received the visa! He proudly showed me the document glued to the first page of his new passport. He’s already planning his trip to America.

He would update me on the application process over foul or fattoush. He never asked for help. I offered to accompany him to the embassy to help translate. His son, Ghassan, who speaks flawless English, joined him. He submitted the application.

Then, the interview. He counted down the days with me. I e-mailed a contact in the embassy to ask if there was anything I could do, as an American citizen, to support his application. The answer, swiftly: no.

Abu Mousa said the interviewer, a woman, was very nice. He carried across his message in his village Arabic, peppered with his broken English: I wish to visit my two sons and their families in California. I do not wish to stay in America. My home is in Syria.

A week later, the embassy issued a two-year visa. He is planning to fly to California at the end of November and stay until early January.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Winter comfort food

Winter is fast approaching in southern Syria, and with it, comes Arabic comfort food.

Yesterday, a Syrian friend fixed me lunch, which included steamed molokhiah -- it sort of comes close to spinach -- an egg, cheese and pea omelet, along with sliced tomato, cucumber, hommous, and an assortment of homemade foods she brought back from her mother's kitchen in the village where she grew up: pickled black and green olives, makdous -- cold, stuffed eggplant -- labaneh -- not quite yogurt, not quite cheese, my favorite Levantine food -- and delectably sweet apricot jam.

Today, I ate leftover potato and pea soup from Abu Mousa’s kitchen, followed by Juliet’s stewed okra, lamb and rice, and rice-stuffed zucchini. It tasted good on a cold, rainy day that approximated a Chicago fall.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Jesus, Bacchus, and modern-day reds and whites

Lebanon, my Lebanese taxi driver said proudly as we left dry and brown Syria en route to Beirut, has the world’s best natural environment. It may be true.

One can experience four seasons in two hours, he continued. Winter on the mountain peaks, summer on the coast, and spring and fall in between.

The in between is the Beqaa Valley, a striking fertile plain framed by Mount Lebanon and the anti-Lebanon range. It is a stronghold of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, as well as one of the oldest wine-making regions in the world. Wine heritage here dates back 5,000 years to the Phoenicians. Later, Jesus turned water to wine in nearby Cana. In 150 CE, the Romans built a temple to Bacchus in Baalbek, today the largest city in the Beqaa.

I visited two wineries yesterday with a friend, as the Beqaa was drenched by a typical, cool fall rain, good for the grapes, I imagined. Lebanon ranks 47th in wine-production in the world, and its wines may be among the most overlooked. Influenced heavily by French techniques over the past 150 years, many of the grapes are French varieties.

Half of the bottles produced by the country’s largest winery, Ksara, is exported to Europe and the United States, our tour guide told us. Fortunately, it is also available in Syrian restaurants and liquor stores.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Waiting for the cannons

Last night, Damascenes were anticipating the sound of cannon fire, which signals the end of Ramadan and the start of the three-day feast holiday, Eid al-Fitr. But, the night was silent.

The streets filled with people through the night, anticipating the cannons. There is an Arabic verb for staying up late -- saher -- and that’s what most folks, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, were doing -- shopping, eating, strolling. As I made my way home from a Syrian friend’s house at 12:30 a.m., the streets were as crowded with people and cars as they are at mid-afternoon.

But, the moon did not show itself to those charged with scouring the skies from the mountain tops for the first trace of the new crescent. So the fasters must fast one more day. And so, they say, Ramadan will definitely end tonight. Akeed. For sure.

Dinner for 3,000?

Throughout Ramadan, the Umayyad Mosque -- also known as the Great Mosque, Damascus’ oldest and largest -- provides free meals at sunset to any comers. I came on Saturday evening.

I arrived an hour before sunset with an American Christian friend, dressed in the traditional Muslim black robe called the abayah, and black hijab. (All women must dress according to the Muslim traditions of modesty when entering this, or any, mosque.) We happened by chance upon some American Muslim friends, also taking part in the ritual at the mosque for the first time.

As we waited in line to enter the “family section” -- where men and women may sit together -- of the large courtyard, one of the mosque officials asked me where we were from. (I gave us away, as the only tall, pale-skinned person among us.) America, I responded. Come right this way, he told us. He led us to the front of the line. For our American friends, he said.

We were directed to one of hundreds of piles of food spread evenly in rows throughout the vast stone square, which is located in the mosque compound, but outside the mosque proper. As the courtyard filled, a group of ten men, wearing red tarboushes, stood on a stage and sang religious hymns, amplified through the premises. A television camera on a boom captured the scene, broadcast live throughout Syria.

Then, the imam began to recite the Quran, a signal to the faithful that the time to eat was close at hand. At the words, Allah Akbar -- God is Greatest -- the several thousand people sitting on the ancient cobblestones at once broke their fasts, some with dates, some with juice.

Each family received two large trays of rice, with peas and chunks of tender lamb, along with four containers of yogurt, bread and apples. The rice and bread were still warm, despite the wait. I ate as much as anyone else, despite the fact that I wasn’t fasting. Afterward, people filtered into the mosque to pray and poor people collected the leftover food to take home. And I walked the 20 minutes, through the Muslim Quarter, then the Christian Quarter, home.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Kentucky fried

In a moment of weakness and desperation the other day, I dined at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the only Western fast-food restaurant in Syria. It was past 2 p.m. and finding my favorite coffee shop shuttered, as well as several other restaurants, on account of Ramadan, I spied the familiar white-on-red “KFC” letters, perched above a busy corner of Damascus’ answer to Massachusetts Avenue -- embassy row. The restaurant that locals refer to simply as, “Kentucky,” was open.

The spacious interior was virtually deserted, and I imagined that the “chicken” that I was about to order had been sitting under heat lamps for hours, if not days. I chose the three-piece dinner meal, original recipe, no super-size, which came to $5.50, quite a hefty sum for lunch in Damascus. You could buy nine shwarma sandwiches for that chunk of change and still have 10 cents left over.

I hadn’t eaten at Kentucky Fried Chicken for three and a half years, when, in a similar state of yearning for a taste of fried Americana, I sampled the Colonel’s secret recipe in Kuwait. My Syria experience reminded me why I had stayed away.

One of the reasons Syria is attractive to a Westerner learning Arabic and learning about Arabic culture is that it is still very much “Arabic.” There are no McDonalds or Pizza Huts, as there are in neighboring countries -- the Kentucky Fried Chicken, which arrived earlier this year, said to be owned by a Kuwaiti, is an anomaly -- and the walled old city of Damascus, a warren of bazaars, medieval churches and mosques, and Ottoman stone houses, is one of the gems of the Middle East. And not one Starbucks.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ramadan, on American soil

On Monday night, I attended an extravagant dinner affair, on the occasion of Ramadan, at the residence of the American ambassador in Damascus. The residence, which has been unoccupied since the United States recalled its ambassador from Syria a year and a half ago, is the envy of the diplomatic community here. It is a stately two-story residence with sprawling grounds, including a swimming pool, in the center of a city where virtually everyone lives in apartment buildings.

The party was attended by diplomats, journalists, Syrian doctors, lawyers and businessmen, as well as members of Damascus’ Jewish community. The spread of food was somewhat obscene, occupying one of the larger rooms in the house, and entertainment included an oud player, as well as Damascus’ storyteller. (See earlier item, “The Storyteller.”) A traditional coffee seller, dressed in Ottoman garb and carrying a giant tin coffee pot on his back, served up warm shots of Arabic coffee.

I snapped this photo from the front door as I was leaving, before a clutch of well-armed Syrian security guards rushed toward me shouting, “mamnoo’a al-tasweer!” -- photography forbidden. I quickly pocketed my camera and headed out through the front gate, guarded by dozens of security agents I could see, as well as many more I imagined lurking in the shadows of the well-manicured hedges.

Monday, October 16, 2006

No alley too narrow

The city plan of old Damascus was drawn centuries -- millennia, really -- before the advent of the automobile. Streets are generally wide enough for pedestrians and donkey carts.

The many scrapes on the sides of the stone houses that line the twisting, narrow lanes suggest that cars don’t fit. That hasn’t stopped Syrians from attempting to navigate their cars, trucks and taxis through the old city streets, often forcing those of us on foot to press against the walls in order for them to pass.

The labyrinth of streets -- some truly too narrow for vehicles -- has a complicated, unmarked system of one-way directions, which sometimes converge, setting off a frenzied dialogue of honking and gesturing out of car windows in order to determine who must back-up and yield.

Friday, October 13, 2006


Many Syrians view the United States as a dangerous place. Their impressions are shaped by friends and family members who go to live and work there, and by Hollywood. Most Americans consider places like Syria dangerous.

There are no official crime statistics for Damascus, but when Syrians tell me that crime is rare, I believe them. At a security briefing at the U.S. embassy, we were told that no part of Damascus is considered dangerous for Americans, day or night.

Yesterday evening, I discussed crime with my Arabic tutor. I meet him at his home in a poor area, high on the side of the mountain above the central shopping and business districts. He said he had never heard of a robbery, by knife, gun or any other means, in his neighborhood. Is it true, he asked me, that America is as dangerous as they say. My good friend lives in Chicago, he said, and tells me that when he leaves his house, he never knows if he'll come back alive. Is it true? Well, not exactly. Depends on the area.

According to an article in today's Washington Post, an average of 11 robberies occur every day in the nation's capital, concentrated in some of the wealthiest areas. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/12/AR2006101201813.html?nav=hcmodule)

The only crimes reported over the past several years to the U.S. embassy by American citizens in Damascus, a city many times larger than Washington, have been pickpocketings in the crowded market called Souq al-Hamadiyyeh. And even then, an embassy official said, those reports are rare.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


The air pollution in Damascus is bad, although not as bad as in Cairo, where, within 24 hours, every visitor’s snot turns black, the annual rain shower is the color of coffee, and after about two years, ex-pats start to lose their hair. Next time you’re in Cairo, count the number of bald people -- men and women.

I took a taxi with some friends the other day to near the top of Mount Qasyoon to view the sprawling Syrian capital from above. Depending on who you ask, the population is between three and five million. My house is a speck left of center.

Monday, October 09, 2006


One of the best parts of Ramadan is the desert. For one month, sweet shops roll out their best varieties of creamy, nutty, cheesy delicacies. As each day progresses, the labor of Damascus' pastry chefs is piled on counters inside and tables outside their shops. They are typically mobbed in the last hour of the daily fast by men and children on errands to pick up the evening’s piece de resistance. They stay open late to satisfy any lingering sweet tooth. The other night, on my way home, I met Khaled, who offered me a Turkish cream-filled pastry called garbar. It was a gift, he said.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

September's tail

When I arrived here, the days were hot and so were the nights; now, finally, the weather is beginning to turn. Rhyming Syrian proverbs put it this way:

Ab al-lahaab (August is aflame).
Aylool danabo mablool (September’s tail is wet).

Yesterday, the rain came three days late. It was hardly a storm and the sun emerged after half an hour, but it began to clean a summer’s worth of dust off the city and signaled the changing seasons. The days are still warm, but the nights are cool; last night the coolest yet.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Damascene courtyard, in progress

Ghassan, one of Abu Mousa’s sons, is planning to move his family next year into the bottom floor of the house, currently rented out to students. Ghassan is a petroleum engineer in Abu Dhabi, and when he comes home to Damascus, he finances a home improvement project. He is mostly transforming the first floor into a new, old Arab house, tastefully constructing a marble fountain, and now, overseeing the addition of a new stone floor in the courtyard, made of basalt from the south of Syria and rose-colored stone from the north. The colors are banded in the style of old Damascene courtyards. Few craftsmen still know how to make these floors, Ghassan said. Later, he will sandblast the old stone walls, which Abu Mousa once painted white. For his part, Abu Mousa, wearing his long, white thob, proudly surveys the progress.

The two Beiruts (Beirutein)

Beirut, more than ever, has become a city of contradictions. South Beirut has long been densely packed, poor and religious, home to Lebanese Shia and Palestinian Sunni. Downtown and adjacent Christian neighborhoods are bastions of European-inspired secularism, high-end dining and conspicuous consumption. Today, the contrast is yet more stark, after Israel’s 33-day war with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that draws its support from South Beirut and South Lebanon. Destroyed apartment blocks lie in rubble, or have already been cleared away by Hezbollah’s fast-acting contractors. Cars weave around tangled ruins of highway overpasses, apparently, one of Israel’s favorite targets. Billboards announce in English, “Made is USA,” below photos of the destruction. Indeed, the United States made the bombs and Israel dropped them.

Just a few kilometers away, affluent Lebanese promenade on clean sidewalks, untouched by the war. All 12 Starbucks locations have reopened, as has TGI Friday's, the sushi restaurants and the wine bars.


A friend and I escaped to Lebanon this weekend -- the U.S. embassy in Syria recommends against travel to Lebanon -- and hired a Shiite taxi driver named Hussein, who was bursting with pride over Hezbollah’s “divine victory,” to show us the detritus of the latest Arab-Israeli war. We toured devastation in South Beirut and made it as far south as Qana, the site of one of the most punishing Israeli airstrikes. Twenty-nine women and children, taking refuge in an apartment building, were killed. The site is now a cemetery for the victims. A girl, who said she knew those who perished, was praying there alone. The rows of stark, white marble tombstones were framed by the yellow and black flags of Hezbollah.


Fasting isn’t easy. Observant Muslims abstain from food, water, coffee, cigarettes and sex from sunrise to sunset for 29 or 30 consecutive days every year. I tried it on Thursday. Two Fulbright students hosted an iftar -- the meal that breaks the fast every evening. As part of the fun, I decided to come as hungry as anyone else.

Luckily, I don’t smoke, and I’m not addicted to coffee. The hardest part was the prohibition on water, or any fluids for that matter. My head began to mildly throb as the day stretched on. Concentration, which is meant to become easier, became more difficult. I was hungry to be sure, but not doubled-over hungry. Thinking ahead, I ate half of an extra-large pizza the midnight before.

The fast is meant in part to remind one of his or her relationship with God. I mostly was reminded of how great a cold glass of water can taste on a hot day.

Our hosts tuned their television to the state channel, with a live feed from the Umayyid Mosque. Most Syrians do the same. When the call to prayer goes out at sundown, the eating begins. I broke my fast with dried dates, which is how the Prophet Muhammad is said to have broken his fasts. Most Muslims do the same, then proceed to water and soup.

The iftar was potluck: some people made their own dishes and others, such as myself, bought them. I brought 20 cream- and walnut-stuffed pancakes, called qatief, a traditional Syrian Ramadan desert, and one of my favorites (I ate one of each). There were the predictable Middle Eastern rice and meat recipes, but my favorite was a pasta that was touted as a triple-fusion dish, combining spices from America, India and Libya. It looked and tasted an awful lot like macaroni and cheese, which I hadn't eaten since leaving America. I came back for generous seconds.