Saturday, December 23, 2006

Clark W. Griswald

In the middle class Christian neighborhood of Qasaa, not far from where I live, the spirit of Christmas, or at least the spirit of putting up gaudy Christmas light displays, is alive and well.

The wattage from the lights, strung along apartment balconies, is enough to light up the streets. Icicle lights are mandatory; if they blink, all the better. The best displays include flashing bells, as if ringing; flashing stars, as if shooting; flashing reindeer, as if prancing.

Some spell Christmas greetings, always in English. Others include, “2007"; in one display, the "6" blinks to "7".

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Protest or party?

A young Lebanese man, hoisted on the shoulders of his friends, leads chants on Friday night calling for a new Lebanese government. (Among other names, he called the pro-Western Druze leader Walid Jumblatt a donkey, an insult in the Arab World.) The ongoing protest, in downtown Beirut's Marytrs Square, has taken on a carnival-like atmosphere. Some five thousand Lebanese are camped in giant white tents. At night, they sit around bonfires, some singing and chanting, while vendors sell food and souvenirs under a nearby highway overpass.

The protesters -- mostly Shiite Muslim and Christian -- come from Beirut, as well as villages from the far corners of the tiny country. Their tents are painted with the Cedar tree symbol of Lebanon. Both sides in this political struggle (the government coalition is backed by Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze) have adopted nationalist iconography to boost their claims to power.

What is most remarkable is that such a protest is taking place at all. Lebanon, for all its problems, protects freedom of expression in a part of the world where such freedoms are virtually non-existant. The protestors and their leaders have said they will stay until the government resigns. What happens next is anyone's guess.

On my way home later that night, our taxi driver passed by the protestors and called them zabaleh. Garbage. And who do you support, we asked. I'm Druze he answered, smiling. I'll show you. He flipped open his cell phone, which flashed a photo of Walid Jumblatt.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Long-distance runners

For three decades, a fleet of mid-1970s Dodge Coronets has plied the taxi routes between Damascus and Beirut and Damascus and Amman. Long and expansive, while retaining the muscle-car styling of its origins, the four-door Coronet comfortably carries five passengers -- two on the bench in front next to the driver and three across the back -- for $10 a person. The twin round headlights, roaring engine and ever-forgiving shocks conjure carpools of years past.

The system of acquiring passengers at the parking lot terminals in Damascus and Beirut is a delicate art that often escalates into fighting matches and occasionally fisticuffs.

This is the Coronet I took on Friday from Damascus to Beirut. The driver averaged 120 miles an hour on the gradual rise to the Syrian-Lebanese border -- if the speedometer was to be trusted. (These Coronets, unlike American car brands imported to the Middle East today, register only miles, not kilometers, per hour. Often, as on the ride back yesterday, the needle was missing all together.) The driver settled for about 100 miles an hour on the Lebanese side, as the curves and traffic can, thankfully, limit speeds. Passing on the wrong side of the yellow line on blind mountain curves is another skill entirely.

Passengers are typically strangers, usually from various Arab countries. They strike up interesting, even if predictable, conversations, almost always turning to politics: American imperialism is a favorite topic, as well as intra-Arab rivalries. On the ride back yesterday, a young Lebanese man in the front seat -- with a newly minted master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University in Beirut -- agreed with a Syrian man and woman in the back seat, sitting on either side of me, that Sykes-Picot, the British-French agreement that carved up the Levant after World War I, is their scourge and that they are really one people. In the next breath they drew sharply critical distinctions between each other and their countries: Syria's socialist economy, Lebanon's free market economy; Syria's large middle class, Lebanon's widening gap between rich and poor; Syria's wheat production; Lebanon's banking; Syria's meddling in Lebanese affairs, Lebanon's feudal politics masquerading as Democracy.

At the end of the ride, the driver thanked God for our safe arrival; the passengers asked God's blessings for the driver, they fetched their baggage from the Coronet's roomy trunk and paid the fare in any one of three currencies (American dollars are always accepted), then quickly bade each other farewell.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Abu Mousa's kitchen

Abu Mousa left last Saturday for America. He'll be spending Christmas with his two sons and their families in California. His return ticket is in early March, although the notice he put on the kitchen door, temporarily closing his kitchen "restaurant" is a bit more vague.

His visa is good for two years. "I'm coming back," he assured me. "I don't even like America." Aside from the comparative high cost of tomatoes, eggplants and dates, which he has mentioned more than once, he said most of all the problem with America is that almost no one speaks Arabic.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fries with that?

I was too embarrassed to tell the taxi driver, "Take me to the nearest McDonalds," so I asked that he take me to a location near a McDonalds I knew. It could have been the farthest. The trip took about 20 minutes, but the fare was only about a $1.50.

I was in Amman last weekend and decided to indulge in the guiltiest of American pleasures: the Quarter Pounder with cheese. While I normally don't crave McDonalds -- I typically partake only on roadtrips in the States -- the absence of McDonalds in Syria seems only to make the heart grow fonder.

Sadly, the quarter pounder had been sitting under a heatlamp for a bit too long, as were the fries. Still, it was a familiar taste. Just as I remembered it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A late fall afternoon

It’s cold in Damascus, and I relish the strips of sunshine on the south-facing sidewalks in the early afternoon. The people complain that it hasn’t rained much at all this fall (low water supply, withering crops); I am secretly happy for the sun.

Daylight is in short supply, however. The maghreb call to prayer – exactly at sundown – now comes at 20 minutes ’til five.

The temperature isn’t cold by Minnesota standards, or even compared to winter in Kentucky, but it feels colder. A friend from New York who spent a winter here once told me that it was his hardest. You never really get warm, he said.

In the old Arab houses, the rooms are connected by an outdoor courtyard. In the morning, I wake up in a cold room, walk outside and into a bathroom that is yet colder. The toilet seat is the coldest.

At night, I twist the knob above my stove and set the diesel fuel trickling down a long shaft. I light a used Kleenex – no sense in using a new one – and drop it through the hatch. In no time, flames are lapping at the stove’s spider web window. I may yet learn to love the smell of burning diesel.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Going to Baghdad?

One of my favorite signs in Damascus, on the windows of the Royal Jordanian airlines office, announces a special promotion for daily flights to Baghdad: "Choose your Own Valuable Present with Your Ticket."

There has been some speculation what that present might be, or what it should be. I haven't asked.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mimi waits for the porridge

Levantine Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, celebrated yesterday the annual feast of St. Barbara. In Damascus, children wore masks and families gathered to eat oatmeal. Some add raisins; Juliet put walnuts on the top as a sort of crust and baked it in the oven. Be sure to drizzle syrup on your helping before eating.

The wheat of the oatmeal symbolizes the wheat stalks that, according to local tradition, St. Barbara hid among before being discovered and killed by pagan rulers in early Christianity.

Children wear masks, invoking the black tar that she apparently put on her face while hiding.
In addition to the oatmeal, Juliet and daughter, Lena, made an assortment of helowiyat – deserts – also typical of the holiday. The qatayef, stuffed with crushed walnuts, were the sweetest and best I’ve ever had. I told Juliet so; she deflected my compliment by saying that’s only because they’re homemade. I replied by eating another.