Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Once, paper products were so scarce in Syria that only rich families could afford them. Fathers bought each of their children one notebook for the entire school year.

During the 1980s, Syria was isolated economically because it sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. At the time, no Syrian factories produced paper and it suddenly became a precious commodity.

Entrepreneurs sold black-market paper towels, smuggled from neighboring countries, by pulling them on carts from neighborhood to neighborhood and shouting, “Mahareeeem! Mahareeeem!Maharem can mean paper towel, paper napkin, toilet paper or tissue. In Syria, they are often the same thing.

Today, those trade sanctions are long gone, Syria produces its own paper products and they are available in any corner store. But the itinerant maharem salesman remains, doubled over from the weight of his cargo, plying the streets and shouting rhythmically like some specter from Syria’s austere past.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Time for a Shawarma

The hummous is good, and the mohammara is better, but perhaps Syria’s greatest gastronomical gift is its shawarma. Ubiquitous in Damascus, shawarma comes in two forms: chicken and lamb. The best shawarma stands offer both.

Once I discovered Syrian shawarma, I could barely go a day without it. In Abu Mousa’s absence, the Al-Raie shawarma restaurant has become my home away from home. For lunch or dinner (unfortunately, shawarma is not available at breakfast time), I order my usual: one chicken sandwich, one beef and to wash it down, a bottle of ayran, a Turkish salty yogurt drink. It comes to 90 lira, or $1.80.

Shawarma is meant to be eaten standing. Outside most shawarma eateries, between 10 p.m. and midnight – dinnertime in Syria – crowds form, some eating their sandwiches, others waiting for their turn to order.

Once a fellow foreigner asked me, as we were enjoying our shawarma, “I wonder how they make the shawarma? How do they make it stick together?” I thought for a moment, and decided they were questions best not pondering.

The shawarma sandwich is shaved meat rolled in pita bread, which is almost always dipped in the grease that runs off the spit. It is then heated on a skillet until crispy or seared on the gas flames that cook the meat. A dollop of garlic mayonnaise comes at the end, the cherry on top of the cake that makes it taste that much better.

I like Al-Raie because they add sliced tomatoes to the usual pickles in the chicken sandwich. The lamb comes with tomatoes and parsley. I also like it for the quality of the meats. The lamb is so good that some people forgo the sandwich trappings and simply order a plate of meat.

But Al-Raie, which means “the shepherd,” is a 10 minute walk from my house, so I sometimes settle for the inferior local shawarma stand, which offers only chicken. The Kurdish shwarma chef there knows my order: one large sandwich with hot sauce and dibis romman (pomegranate extract) and one ayran. That comes to 65 lira, or $1.30. Mmmmmmmmm.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Since the spread of Islam centuries ago into southern Europe, the Caucuses and southern Russia, Damascus has served as a gathering place for pilgrims from these lands, as they travel to and from Mecca on the annual hajj.

This year is no different. The pilgrims congregate in a southern neighborhood called Zahira, which means, “radiant” or “shining,” parking their busses, trucks and campers – dozens of them – and set up a black market of goods from their homelands to sell and help pay for the journey.

Mostly from Russia, they sell fur hats, plastic jewelry, clothes and crystal, spreading out their wares on the sidewalks, or displaying them on shelves from the backs of trucks. In decades past, they would sell highly-coveted handmade carpets, but those have given way to brightly-colored, factory-made imitations.

Damascenes come to check the prices and, often, to buy.

These days, the hajjaj are parked in Damascus on their way home, having already performed the pilgrimage. Sleeping on their busses, they typically stay for a few weeks on the way down and sell their remaining goods on the way back. The other day, the Russian crystal was flying off the shelves.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


From December 28 to Jan. 8, I visited Yemen, a beautiful country of friendly, if drug-addled people. (Most Yeminis are addicted to the psychoactive plant, qat, which they spend hours every afternoon chewing. Tekhazen? Do you chew? Literally, do you store?). I visited the capital, Sanaa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; cloud-draped mountaintop villages to the west of Sanaa; and the Red Sea Coast, where daytime temperatures reached the upper 80s.

Everything feels ancient in Yemen, as if little has changed in hundreds of years. Men still wear white robes and daggers sheathed in ornamental belts, or outside the capital, Kalashnikovs, and houses are made of mud brick or stone. There is very little sign of Western intrusion. That can be refreshing for the Western tourist searching for what some call the real Arabia, although Yemen's preservation is also its curse: isolated walled stone villages with spotty electricity, no phone lines and unreliable hot water survive intact only because poverty and lack of opportunity keep people there. Still, Yemenis are proud of their traditions and their strong faith.

On the day before the start of Eid al-Adha, one of two eid festivals Muslims celebrate, the boy pictured above sits with his lamb (or is it a goat?) in the back of a pickup truck in Sanaa's Souq al-Milah -- the Salt Market -- the largest in the old city, which today includes much more than salt. All families slaughter their finest domestic animal, usually a lamb, but sometimes a cow or goat, to honor profit Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael for God.

A few days after the start of the eid, I came upon children playing in the street with the skin of a cow's head. I'm sure the meat was good.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


For all of the cold in Syria, snow is rare. I happened to experience, in greater intimacy than I would have hoped, the season’s first snow. On Christmas night, an American friend and I traveled to Aleppo, where it was cold and rainy. We stayed two nights. On the way back to Damascus, we visited Syria’s famous crusader castle, Krak de Chevalier, which sits atop a mountain near the Lebanese border. There, it started snowing.

We made it to Homs, Syria’s third largest city and an important crossroads, where we caught the last bus to Damascus, normally a two-hour trip. After one hour, the road became icy and snow-packed, and traffic came to a halt.

The bus driver and passengers engaged in a 45-minute discussion over whether to turn back or continue onto Damascus. The driver favored returning, but the passengers convinced him there was no sense in turning back as the road was surely slow-going both ways. There are hotels in Homs, the driver said. Keep going, the road will clear, the passengers said. I was among them.

Over the next 17 hours, we moved perhaps a kilometer. Finally, facing a second night on the bus and missing a flight to Yemen, we ditched the bus and hired a passing taxi, which ran on mud tracks beside the highway until the road cleared, some miles later.

Incense, icons and a message of peace

Sometime ago, the Orthodox churches in Syria agreed to celebrate Christmas on the same day as the Catholic and Protestant churches. (The Western churches, the story goes, were to agree to move their Easter to the same day as the Eastern churches, but decided against it. In Syria, there is one Christmas and two Easters, except every fifth year when the Easters coincide.)

So, Syria’s two million Christians – Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean, Protestant – celebrate Christmas on the same day – Dec. 25 – unique in the Levant, and perhaps the world.

I attended midnight mass at the Greek Catholic cathedral called Al-Zeitouna (the olive, or olive tree) with Juliet, Basil, Lena and Mimi, along with a couple American friends. The church, a short walk from our house, just across Straight Street, near Bab Sharqi, the old city’s Eastern gate, is an impressive stone edifice with marble floors and lots of iconography on the walls. The two-hour service was in Arabic and featured incense and singing by a choir that I couldn’t see as my view was obstructed by a (beautiful) stone pillar. It was broadcast on state television.

Presiding was Gregorius the Third, Patriarch of Antakia, Iskanderia (two predominantly Arab cities in southern Turkey, historically part of Greater Syria) and Jerusalem (also once part of Greater Syria). In his homily, Gregorius prayed for peace in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, never mentioning Israel, and said that man, inspired by God, must build peace on the shoulders of reconciliation. He also sought common ground with the country’s majority Muslim population, saying that Syrian Muslims and Christians both pray to the same God.

Afterward, a youth marching band played American Christmas carols in the church courtyard. The crowd slowly dispersed and headed home, as did we, into the freezing cold, and it felt like Christmas.