Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tool ma al-nasrani sayam, al-bared 'ayam

As long as the Christian fasts, the cold lasts.

Damascenes of all stripes are eagerly anticipating Easter because once it arrives, winter have officially ended – or so says one of the many proverbs by which many people here live their lives.

During lent, Syrian Christians refrain from eating meat, a form of fasting. They attend weekly Friday night church services dedicated to Mary. Every evening, church youth bands rehearse in preparation for Easter Day parades. And daily, Christians light candles at the many Christian shrines built in nooks along the alleyways of Bab Touma.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shades of green

Damascus -- like Cairo, Baghdad, Amman, and most Arab capitals, I suspect -- gives the impression of desert. The natural landscape, beyond small parks tucked amid low-rise apartment blocks, like the buildings themselves, is shades of brown.

But, just three hours to the north, the desert gives way to green, as far as the eye can see. Syria's bread basket, the plains surrounding Homs and Hama, is another world -- more so after winter rains. At the Roman ruins of Apamea, in the countryside northwest of Hama, which I visited last week with Syrian friends, stone columns and scattered remains of a 2,000-year-old city are nearly engulfed by rolling green fields.
Along the edge of a graveyard of ancient building blocks, boys directed their sheep, in search of yet greener grass.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Putting on special clothes

The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, is the Notre Dame of Damascus. It's an architectural gem and still a center of worship in one of the oldest Islamic capitals. The Sunni Muslim mosque is open to followers of all religions -- John the Baptist's head, buried inside, is of interest to Muslims and Christians; Hussein's head, of interest to Shiite Muslims.
But in order to visit, female visitors, Muslim or non-Muslim, must obey this sign at the entrance.
Many Syrian women arrive properly dressed, wearing the floor-length abayeh, as they do everyday, but foreign women are often woefully unprepared. Thus, the special clothes: a gray, hooded cloak of modesty, which can be rented for $1. Some call it the Jedi robe. Men enter without restriction.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mother's Day

It was Mother's Day here on Wednesday, which was made a national holiday around six years ago, as people remember it. All government offices, schools and universities close on March 21, but most businesses remain open. (Private companies often don't observe national holidays, even ones that are meant to be patriotic.)

Aside from the official recognition, the day wasn't much different for Syrian mothers. They mostly still cooked and performed household chores as they always do. (Few Syrian men know how to cook, as women -- first their mothers, then their wives -- have always cooked for them.)

For students and bureaucrats, it meant a day to relax, to drink fruit juice at Abu Shaker in Salhiya, to stroll in Tishreen Park, and to gather in the courtyard restaurants of the Old City and the fashionable sidewalk cafes of Shaalan.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


A friend visited last week for a week vacation, giving me the chance to see the Syria of postcards and guidebooks. (I also introduced him to the Syria I know, my friends and favorite places.)

We explored the Roman ruins of Palmyra, an obligatory stop on any tour of Syria. At sunrise, we walked across the vast landscape of scatted pillars and colonnades, fragments of stone temples and towers, and over the remains of the city walls, across the desert, tinged green after winter rains, and up to a 17th-century castle, sitting atop a rocky perch overlooking the ruins, pillars appearing as toothpicks and the palm-studded oasis as an island.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Capricious spring

Spring made a brief, welcome entrance last week across Syria. (It's since turned cooler.) In the north, outside Aleppo, the wildflowers were in bloom. Here, they spring from a rocky face below the ruins of a Byzantine church at Mushabak.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Saturday before last was the culmination of the annual Shiite commemoration of the anniversary of the traditional 40-day mourning period after the death of Hussein, who was killed in 680 in a battle for succession of the leadership of Muslims. The event set about the permanent split between the sects. Shiites remember his death by inflicting physical pain upon themselves. The often bloody self-flagellation ritual is repeated at shrines holy to Shiites across the Middle East.

About 15 miles east of Damascus, the tomb of Seyda Zeinab, the sister of Hussein, drew thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and south and central Asia. (Mainstream so-called Twelver Shiites are a tiny minority in Syria.) They gathered to recite the story of Hussein's death, speaking in the tongues of their native lands; they touched the gilded shrine to Zeinab; they wept and they prayed to Mecca.

Dozens of barefoot and bare-chested men chanted and rhythmically beat their chests and whipped themselves with chains tipped with small blades. Some reopened the scars of past flagellations. Their backs ran with blood and it glistened in the sun. As they rocked and flailed, blood splattered nearby onlookers, who didn't seem to mind. It was as much performance as religious practice. A throng surrounded the men, packing a street by a side entrance to the shrine, and recorded the proceedings with cell phone and video cameras.

(Sunnis call the ritual heretical. Later the same day, a Syrian friend, who is Sunni, apologized over dinner for the impression that the event may have given me. Cutting oneself has no place in Islam, he said.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Names of the dead

The walls of the city's churches and mosques are plastered everyday with notices of the dead. On one page, sometimes framed around a picture of the deceased or a cross or a crescent, are the details of a person's life, often condensed to dates of birth and death, and of funeral arrangements and burial.

There is no obituary page in Syria.

New deaths cover old ones; they line up side by side, with time flaking from the sun and rain. Sometimes they peel off completely, revealing an old death, announced anew.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Like in most cities in the world, folks here complain that the traffic has gotten worse. It's a simple formula: more cars and the same roads (plus no new transportation alternatives) equals more traffic. The Damascus taxi driver's most-repeated word is zahmeh – (traffic) jam.

There are no posted speed limits in Damascus – on one of the two "autostrads," which lead out of town, there is a sign politely requesting drivers – "Dear driver," it starts – to moderate their speed – but, in truth, there is little need for speed limits or traffic police to enforce them. There are so many cars on the streets at virtually all hours of the day that it is impossible to drive fast.

An old plan to build a subway in Damascus has been shelved indefinitely, pending funding. But four rail lines are scheduled to be rebuilt starting this year for high-speed electric trains, with suburban stops.

There are also plans afoot to tear down a 15th-century neighborhood – historic preservation often takes a backseat to progress – to make way for an autostrad through the center of the city, with traffic lights on either end. One European expert advising the project, however, told me in a chance encounter at my neighborhood watering hole that it will do nothing to ease traffic congestion.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Star of the Prophet David

In the Judeo-Christian Western World, the six-pointed Star of David is the symbol of Judaism. Since the formation of the Jewish state, it also carries political freight – it is the central feature of the Israeli flag. In the Muslim World, the six pointed star is a Muslim symbol.

From Yemen to Egypt to Syria, it was incorporated in Islamic architecture from the first centuries of Islam. David is considered a Muslim prophet (along with Moses and Jesus); the six-pointed star in Islam is also called the Star of David.

Last weekend, a Syrian friend invited me to his family home in Homs, Syria's third largest city. We visited one of the city's oldest mosques, located in the labyrinthine souq. Under an archway and down a few well-polished stone steps from the market bustle, black, metal doors opened into the serenity of the mosque. The doors were decorated with a familiar symbol: a repeating Star of the Prophet David.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Save your biggest coals ...

There's a saying Syrians take to heart: Kheli fahamtek akbar laamek ithar. Save your biggest coals for your uncle, March. Another version warns of saving the largest logs.

The sun is warmer these days, and the nights not as cold, but that can be deceiving, they say. Winter's not over yet. Nowadays, it's diesel, not coal or firewood. Better catch the diesel man when he comes honking.

You can always tell when he's in your neighborhood from the sound of his horn. Most wandering venders, their wares – fava beans, steamed corn, banana crepes, goldfish, strawberries and apples – borne aloft push-carts or bicycle baskets, advertise their goods by shouting. The diesel man is silent. He is accompanied by the clip-clop of his horse and his helper, who marches 20 paces ahead, honking his horn at his side.