Thursday, November 30, 2006

If you would permit ...

Public transportation in Damascus comes in the form of the bus and, most prevalent, the service taxi, servees in Arabic. Japanese-made vans packing in 12 passengers, sometimes more, run several dozen routes through the city, and to villages in the surrounding countryside. They stop at any point along the way to drop off and pick up, providing there is space. (In the early afternoon, when students and civil servants head home for lunch, it's hard to find one with an empty seat.) The cost for routes within the city: 10 cents a ride.

In other parts of the Arab world, there is just one, or maybe two or three, ways to request that a driver stop his taxi. In Damascus, there are more than a dozen well-worn expressions, most exceedingly polite. Damascene Arabic is known for its flourishes of politesse, and there is no better place to observe them than in the service taxi.

I take service taxis most days, often several times a day. I’ve kept notes on some of the ways Damascenes request a driver to stop:

*Let us down on the right, if you wish.

*On the right, if you would permit.

*May God grant you health.

*On the right, ballah.
(Ballah roughly translates to, "for God's sake," or, "I implore you." It is a way of saying, "please," while invoking God's name.)

*Let us down on the right, for God's sake, if you please.

*At the corner, zakatak
(Zaka is the almsgiving required by Islam. To say zakatak to the driver means that to stop the taxi and allow me to disembark is a deed akin to giving charity to the poor.)

*At the intersection, if it is possible.

*At this place, if you order it.

*Slow down, mo’allem.
(Moallem means teacher, as well as someone who is a master at his trade.)

*May God grant you success.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fall colors

I escaped the city one day last week with my Syrian friend, Itab, to hike in the mountains and visit some minor Roman ruins -- an aqueduct and cisterns. (In Syria, one is never far from Roman or Byzantine ruins.) In the Barada River Valley northwest of Damascus, where the air is crisper, the leaves are changing.

We hired a taxi to visit a valley of fig trees and the driver, Bakr, invited us to his home for tea and for breakfast -- in truth it was the afternoon, but the only food he could offer us was breakfast. I enjoyed some Syrian staples: labaneh, makdous, pickled olives. I left some food on the table, even though I was hungry, to which Bakr said, “You haven’t eaten anything. Eat! Eat!” So, I finished it.

Members of his family were harvesting olives in the terraces below the house. The harvest season started about a month ago and continues until the olives are collected -- for some families, the activity can continue into the new year. To Bakr's objections, we insisted on helping. His father, Abu Bakr, has 700 olive trees. He was joined by his two sons, their wives, two grandchildren, and us. Small black olives went in one basket -- for pressing -- and large black olives in another basket -- for pickling.

Itab and I worked for an hour or so, helping to harvest a half-dozen trees, then we plucked some pomegranates and sat down to eat them. As the afternoon sun began to ebb to the ridge line, we bid farewell and walked back down to the road to catch the 20-cent, 20-minute service taxi back to Damascus.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dar al-Opera

When you ask anyone – Syrian or otherwise – of their favorite buildings in Damascus, they will inevitably list structures built hundreds of years ago. Past civilizations, going back to the Umayyads, who ruled the Muslim World from Damascus in the 7th and 8th centuries – left a remarkable architectural record. The same cannot be said for the rulers of modern Syria.

One exception, however, is the Assad House of Culture and Arts, often referred to simply as Dar al-Opera -- the Opera House. Built only a few years ago, it is a monument to the nation’s commitment to the performing arts, and its reputation as a cultural capital – along with Cairo – of the Arab world. Performances there are free, subsidized by the Ministry of Culture.

Last week, I attended a performance of the famous Iraqi singer, Faridah Muhamad, who sings in the classical Arabic style, called Maqam. Her seven-piece band, which included a violin, an oud – the Arabic precursor to the guitar – and a table harp, were also Iraqi. Since 1997, they have been based in Holland.

The performance was riveting. After the first song, she apologized for her voice; she said that it felt tired – she had also performed there the night before – but I couldn’t tell. The man sitting next to me, a French literature student at the University of Damascus – whispered to me, “If her voice is tired now, can you only imagine …”

One of the loudest applauses came during a song, when she sent a "salutation from Baghdad to Damascus." More than a million Iraqis – by some estimates, three million – have fled to Syria, most to Damascus, since the Iraq War began. The influx has increased in recent months. The newcomers have strained Damascus city services and driven up rents. Similarly, Lebanese sought refuge here by the hundreds of thousands during the war with Israel this summer. And Palestinian refugees and their progeny have lived here since 1948.

A Syrian friend explained to me that Syria has become home for the hanan – those who yearn for their homelands.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving in Damascus

Thanksgiving came a day late in Damascus, but it was well worth the wait. The director of the American Cultural Center hosted a catered meal for the Fulbright students in his sprawling flat in an upscale district of West Damascus.

But for the absence of American football on television, it was an American Thanksgiving like any other: turkey, stuffing -- both cooked inside the turkey and separately -- mashed potatoes, gravy, steamed carrots and cauliflower, yams, cranberries. For desert: pecan and pumpkin pie. The harder-to-find-ingredients -- cranberries and canned pumpkin -- were obtained at the well-stocked commissary of the U.S. embassy in Amman. I ate two heaping plates of everything, then a piece each of the pies.

A few hours later, an American friend hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. Rarely one to turn down an invitation for food, or to lose my appetite, I attended. Her turkey was actually a large chicken, but it was a good substitute. She also served diced, sautéed potatoes, scalloped onions, stuffing and a wide assortment of wine and beer. I served myself just one helping, saving room for chocolate cake and Lebanese beer.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Casino Royale

Syrians love James Bond. The twin-screen theater in downtown Damascus, which always shows one foreign film and one Arabic film, shelved the romantic comedy “The Break-Up,” which enjoyed a much longer run here than it did in America, for the new Bond film. It opened in Syria at the same time as in America.

An American friend who grew up in a household somewhat obsessed with Bond – his dad had a replica of the original James Bond gun – asked me if I wanted to join him for the movie.

We went to a matinee on Sunday, the first day of the work week in Syria. Despite that, there were about 50 people in the theater, mostly younger Syrians. The movie cost $3, a bag of popcorn $1. The seats were comfortable, but the theater was built before the advent of stadium seating, or at least before its advent in Syria.

The movie itself was great – if not for the storyline itself, which wasn’t bad – but for the strong dose of American movie culture. We made the mistake, however, of sitting close to Syrians.

Most Syrians, my Arabic teacher later explained to me, like James Bond for the action. Most don’t go to follow the plot – which would involve reading the subtitles, written in the formal and often stilted classical Arabic – so their attention span wanes during the dialogue. That’s when they talk.

Not just a word or two, but complete conversations. Not in whisper, but full voice. Men and women. Talking, laughing. My friend, who was determined not to spoil the experience for himself, shushed them repeatedly, to no avail.

Still, he enjoyed the movie and so did I. As all experiences in Syria, one’s enjoyment as a foreigner comes partly from what one learns of the culture. We learned that Syrians haven’t developed a movie-going etiquette – the vast majority of Syrians watch movies on television, or on pirated DVDs, less expensive than going to the theater – and that next time, we’ll sit in the front.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Abu Mousa's porridge

This morning, along with my Turkish coffee, I ate a bowl of leftover Turkish porridge, which Abu Mousa prepared yesterday afternoon. Consisting simply of wheat, raisins and apples, along with some sugar and water, he calls it ashlamish.

Abu Mousa served a stint in a Turkish prison as a young man – the details of which I have yet to glean – but he says he learned a bit about Turkish cuisine while there.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The former president's shadow

At every turn, Syrians are reminded of their former president, Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, after serving for 30 years. Recalled officially as the father of modern Syria, his likeness remains in villages and cities in the form of portraits, statues and car decals.

His son, Bashar al-Assad, president since his father’s death, has taken a more modest approach to the cult of personality. In government offices and school classrooms, Bashar’s head-and-shoulders photo in three-quarters profile often appears beside his father’s – son typically slightly larger than father –– but he has not commissioned statues at the rate of his father.

In Damascus, the father left his imprint on one of the central parks in the new downtown. He looms above Arnous Square, standing rigidly, wearing a western-style suit – the uniform of the secular Baath Party – and benevolently raising his right arm, not quite a wave, but more as if to pat a young boy on the head.

In the evenings, under the shadow of the former dictator, Syrian boys ride bicycles, young couples stroll arm in arm and old men sit on benches, talking. Recently, as I was walking through the park, I came upon two Chinese tourists photographing each other in front of the statue.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Syria has long offered its citizens political news from a choice of three government-run daily newspapers: The Revolution, The October, and The Baath.

Five years ago, however, the government began to permit independent media – up to a point – and last week, the independent daily newspaper al-Watan – the Homeland – was launched to some fanfare. It is routinely sold out at newspaper stands.

The 16-page broadsheet offers Syrian news written by journalists not employed by the official Syrian news agency. It also includes news from Israel, something not offered by the government dailies.

Al-Watan’s independent status is central in its marketing: on billboards and bus stops around the city, the newspaper is introduced as, “The first independent political daily newspaper in four decades.”

Still, the newspaper is subject to government censorship and it hasn’t taken on controversial issues that Syria’s opposition figures champion: political and human rights reforms. There are limits to Syria’s press freedoms: a popular, independent satirical newspaper launched recently was promptly shut down.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Diesel warm

For the three months or so of winter (which has yet to arrive; the temperature reached into the 60s today), I will keep warm by the heat of a diesel-fired stove. On Saturday, Abu Mousa installed in my room the standard Syrian heating system, called a sobia.

The diesel, which I may replenish from a big blue drum on the terrace, sits in an enclosed, bowl-shaped receptacle above the stove. After lighting the mechanism by dropping a make-shift torch – Abu Mousa recommends a Kleenex – into the main chamber, I twist a knob above the bowl, which sets the fuel dripping down a shaft and into the stove. It only takes about five minutes for the room to warm.

The byproduct coils up through a stove pipe, which shoots out my window. As I stepped outside and watched the plumes of thick black smoke spiraling upwards, Damascus’ pollution problem came into clearer focus.

A few old-fashioned types, Abu Mousa including, prefer the wood-burning variety. In the kitchen on most nights these days, he sets firewood to blaze. Last night, he invited me in for mint tea, which he heated on the stove top.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Head of the Ghost

I attended a Syrian play last night called Ras al-Ghoul -- Head of the Ghost. It was part of a government-sponsored theater festival this week, which comprised several dozen plays, mostly from Syria, but also from Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco. (Plays, as with literature in general, are written in formal Arabic, so there are no dialectical differences between countries.)

Admission was free, which may not entirely explain the overflowing, enthusiastic crowd. When the seats were filled, people crammed into the aisles. The audience skewed young – next to me were three students in the college of mechanical engineering at the University of Damascus – and secular. Very few women were wearing head scarves and none were wearing the more conservative niqab, which covers most of the face. In introducing the play, the director honored the Syrian who wrote it, and died earlier this year.

I found the play itself very good – I understood it as an impressionist painting; I didn’t catch everything, but took in many of the principle points. As well, the guys next to me called it moomtaz. Excellent. It was a montage of social commentary and political criticisms, mostly addressing Arab leadership in general, but leaving some ambiguity as to the target of the critiques.

It addressed a pervading Syrian sense of uncertainty about the future, a lack of personal freedoms, as well as a fading sense of Arab nationalism. It criticized Arab governments’ treatment of Palestinians, the borders between Arab countries – an oft repeated theme in contemporary Arabic literature and film – and it put violence on trial.

In the end, the characters, who were frightened of most everything, were afraid of liberty as well. They wouldn’t allow her to join them. This clearly invoked a rising fear among Arabs, especially since the Iraq War, of democratic reforms. The status quo, though unappealing to many, is known. “Democracy,” as the experiment in Iraq has proven, can be much, much worse.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Nobody knows for certain the origin of the word Damascus, in Arabic, Dimashq. The Syrian capital is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dating from 8,000 to 10,000 BCE, and its name may be almost as old.

In Aramaic, the vernacular of the region during the time of Jesus, the city was called Darmeseq, meaning “a well-watered place.” However, scholars believe the city's name is older.

A Syrian friend who was born and raised in Damascus, and whose family traces its roots in Damascus – a fact which apparently gives him some authority to speak on the subject – told me the other day that Dimashq is in fact an archaic Arabic word meaning “to build a foundation.”

Perhaps in the ancient time that the city was first named, it was already home to the half-ruins of yet more-ancient times. They say you can dig a hole anywhere in the old city of Damascus and find the remains of earlier civilizations. (Roman Damascus lies roughly 15 feet below the modern city.) There are stories of people finding buried treasures, usually gold, under the courtyards of their homes.

To my American eye, Damascus looks plenty old on the surface.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The AIDS test

The Syrian government recently decided to allow Fulbright students to register as auditors at Damascus University so that we may apply for residency permits. The first step in that process is the government-administered AIDS test. All foreigners seeking residency must be cleared of AIDS. Results of tests from other countries are not accepted.

This morning, we crammed into a room in a building that is dedicated to testing foreigners for AIDS. Outside, were several hundred people, including Iraqis fleeing the war, and a couple Russian prostitutes.

A man recorded our names by hand into a log book, gluing our passport-size photos next to each entry. The needles came from sealed plastic packaging, a good sign. A dead cricket was in the trashcan, which was used for regular garbage, as well as medical waste. Thankfully, the man who drew blood was efficient.

An American friend, who went separately, was less fortunate. The nurse probed her arm with a needle ten times before deciding, as my friend originally suggested, to draw blood from a vein on top of her hand.

The results come back in two days.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Grapes of Syria

Every fruit has its season. In the summer, there are melons and mulberries. In the fall, cactus and pomegranates. In the winter, there will be oranges. And then, there are grapes, which have been plentiful since I arrived.

If Syria were to designate a national fruit, surely it would be the grape. Usually green, but sometimes red, and always with seeds, they accompany breakfast, and follow lunch and dinner. And they are offered with tea in between meals.

The other day, Abu Mousa put out the usual plate of grapes after lunch. I ate about 10, then declared, diameh, which means, roughly, “Thank you for lunch, I’m finished eating now.” Abu Mousa, still eating the grapes, looked at me and asked, as if his feelings were slightly hurt, “Why don’t you like grapes?”

“I like them,” I said, attempting a diplomatic retort. “But, perhaps not as much as Syrians like them.”