Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kash hamam

On nice days, locals and visitors alike flock to the plaza in front of Damascus' most famous gathering place, the Umayad Mosque, to see the pigeons. Old women toss them handfuls of seeds and children run in their midst as they peck the cobbles. They nest along the crenellated walls of the mosque and, every day, swoop down for food and attention.

The pigeon has long captured the imaginations of Damascenes. Pigeons are pawns in an ancient, secretive sport, long since banned, called kash hamam. Men known as kashash own flocks of pigeons and compete with one another by trying to steel away each other's pigeons as they circulate in the skies above the old city. The sport is banned because it is considered a form of gambling, forbidden in Islam. The kashash also draw scorn from society as they are believed to be voyeurs, operating on rooftops, which often offer views into upstairs windows.

Some say the final blow to the sport was the bird flu scare two years ago, which prompted the government to crack down on the kashash. Still, I often see flocks of pigeons circulating above the rooftops of the old city, and wonder to whom they belong, if anyone at all.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Matar al-kheir

Contrary to Western attitudes toward a rainy day, Arab sentiments range from tolerating it – without complaining – to embracing it. Instead of "rain, rain go away," it's the oft-repeated, "Matar al-kheir" – Good rain.

In the Middle East, where rain is scarce, everyone, from farmers and sheep herders to city dwellers, whose water supply is dependant on rain, notices when it rains and when it doesn't rain when it's supposed to rain.

Rain comes between October and March; the other six months are dry. This year, rain has been thin; as a result, the city cuts off tap water most days by 3:30 p.m., unusually early, especially for winter.

Yesterday it rained. A lot. The people were happy.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The once mighty Barada

The modern traveler often wonders why Damascus, one of the oldest cities on earth, is where it is. Framed by brown mountains on one side and brown fields at the others, the city is dry eight months out of the year, save for a trickle of water, known as the Barada River, which runs through the city center.

The Barada was once worthy of being called a river, swelling during winter rains and flowing year round, supporting vast orchards just outside the city. In ancient times it was like an oasis; The prophet Mohammad is said to have refused entry, explaining that one can only enter paradise once.

Today, most of the river's waters are siphoned at their source, a spring in the mountains northwest of the city, and used for public drinking water. The remainder makes its way down a trash-strewn concrete canal, picking up raw sewage along the way. The stench is particularly strong just west of the old city, as it passes the old horse bridle market.

Occasionally, work crews wade through the water with rakes, collecting the garbage. The next day, it always seems to return. Syria has a poor environmental record, as the non-governmental organizations here to help clean it up will attest, and the Barada is a constant reminder.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lebanon: skiers' paradise?

Was it a looming civil war or a weather forecast that called for clouds -- Lebanon's skiiers are known to be fickle -- that kept people away? We didn't search for answers. Instead, we skied.

Saturday's sun, fresh powder and no-wait lifts kept us on the mountain all day. Not even a break for lunch. How could you stop with conditions like that?

Sprawling across three peaks in Lebanon's northern mountains, Faraya-Mzaar compared favorably with Colorado skiing. We found plenty of wide, steep faces with enough virgin snow to carve our own tracks all day long.

One of the unique aspects of the ski area are the views it affords. From atop Dome du Mzaar, with an elevation of 8,087 feet, the snow-capped mountains give way to brown hills and villages, which unfold toward Beirut and the sea. On a clear day, it is said one can see the shores of Cypress.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Garbage collection

In a practice that must date to the construction of the city walls, Damascus residents are fond of throwing their leftovers, banana peels and any especially stinky trash, over the edge. The cats consume it below.

Abu Mousa taught me how; it ran against my American, anti-littering instincts, but now I do it, too. There's a little strip of unused ground – very little space in Damascus is unused – which runs between the old city wall and a fence, sidewalk and road. Cats roam down there and they feast off of whatever the humans don't want and discard below.

One day, I caught a cat, which had snuck through the open door, crouched on the kitchen table, gnawing through a raw fish that Juliet had bought to cook for lunch. I brought this to her attention; she shooed the cat away and then asked me to throw what was left of the fish over the wall. Too stinky to put in the trash can.
I dutifully tossed the half-eaten fish over the wall. I wondered if the cat was smart enough to know where he could find the rest of his lunch.

(We toss the refuse from the terrace, between my room, the triple windows on the right, and the kitchen, on the left.)

Monday, February 05, 2007


At first blush, all Syrian taxis are the same: small, boxy, and with very little leg room. But, look closer, and you'll notice a dozen or more makes and models, a virtual showroom of minis and compacts, built and sold often exclusively to the developing world.

Perhaps the most common is the Iranian SAIPA Saba. (I rode in one today.) SAIPA stands for Societe Annonyme Iranienne De Production Automobile, and began in 1966 producing a two-cylinder Citroen mini passenger car, as well as versions of the Renault.

Also common are the Romanian-made Dacia Solenza and Dacia SuperNova, which comes with a stylish racing fin on the back.

Then, there's the Russian Lada Samara, which was sold in Russia under the name "Sputnik." The Samara started production in 1984 and enjoyed modest success in Western Europe (one common glitch, according to a Web site, was that the hazard and reverse lights would often illuminate when the driver applied the breaks, which was known as the "disco lights" problem). But after 1997, it was sold mostly domestically, as well as in countries with lax emissions standards.

Then, there's the Fiat Palio, which is known as Fiat's "world car," aimed at developing countries; the Turkish Sahin, the Chinese Chery; the South Korean Daewoo and Kia; the Japanese Mitsubishi and Toyota.

Finally, there's the Chinese Geely (pronounced with a soft "G") whose parent company began making refrigerators in 1986, then motorcyles, and later became the first independent automobile manufacturer in China. It exported its first cars in 2003. It expected to begin selling cars in North America in 2008, according to the Wikipedia Web site, but test vehicles failed U.S. crash and emissions test; so the roll-out date was pushed back to 2009.