Wednesday, May 30, 2007

97 percent

The billboards changed overnight from campaign to congratulations. This one reads: "Congratulations; Congratulations; Oh, our country; To you, our Asad." Or, "To you, our lion." In Arabic, asad means lion.

Bashar Al-Asad won a second term – somehow three percent of voters disapproved – and the city was awash in more parades, fireworks and street parties, both planned spontaneous rallies and planned planned rallies. The president himself briefly appeared at one yesterday.

(Erring on the side of caution, the U.S. embassy evacuated yesterday afternoon because one of the marches was headed past its front doors. Nothing happened.)

If Syrians associate one thing with democracy it may be bad traffic. With all of the celebrations, most major traffic circles and downtown streets have closed.

On Saturday, a merchant in the old city told me the story of his brother-in-law, a physician, who was driving home from work, a distance of 8 kilometers. It took him four hours.

"We hope that after tomorrow, this will all return to normal," he said, never mentioning the presidential referendum. "Inshallah," I replied. God willing.

He's still waiting. Word spread of more official celebrations today.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My new house

Weery of the kitchen construction, the perpetual car horns from the busy street below my room, and the early-morning sun from the east-facing windows, I moved.

About 10 minutes walking from my old house, in the Muslim neighborhood called Qaimariya, which speads along a straight, cobbled road from the Umayyid Mosque, I found a new house, which I share with five other foreigners. My room is the largest, with a ceiling high enough for a basketball hoop.

This is my view, from the two upstairs windows.

In the late mornings, Abu Tareq, the elderly caretaker who wears the same blue sweat pants and white t-shirt, or brown galabiyah, comes to water the many plants and vines in the courtyard, occasionally wash the dishes, and clean the common areas, including the liwan, the large outdoor covered patio, which is frequently bombarded by birds who nest in the wooden beams above. It's designed to be the coolest part of the house -- as every liwan, it faces north, so receives the least direct sunlight -- but sitting there brings unique risks.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Syria: Not just sand

In my continuing effort to deconstruct the image of the Middle East as sand dunes and camel caravans, I offer this view, from the Syrian coast.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reelecting a president

Presidential campaigns without an opponent are short. But this one was to the point.

Two weeks ago, the bus-stop advertising appeared with the Syrian flags and a new portrait of the president, introducing the slogan, minhebbek – we love you, in the Syrian Arabic dialect.

Then, the billboards with the new portrait, and the slogan, Hamat al-diyar aleykum al-salam – "Defender of the homes, upon you peace," or, more loosely, "We salute you who defend the nation." It's the opening line of the national anthem; here, the defender is understood.

Then, the banners, and more billboards, and more slogans and signs and flags, and yet more portraits, the largest of which spans four stories, hanging from the front of the finance ministry, an iconic building in the center of Damascus that is featured on the 25-lira coin. The portrait is framed by two long banners, one the Syrian flag, the other the pan-Arab flag.

Then, a new ode to the president on government radio, Sawt al-Shabab, Voice of the Boys. The chorus: "Bashar, Bashar." And the jingles between radio segments, "Minhebbek, Minhebbek."

Then, the tents, festooned in the national colors, in every neighborhood, with stages for bands to play their latest Arabic pop songs honoring the president, and complimentary tanoori bread and shawarma sandwiches for the merry-makers.

Then, the poets, who performed at the university, reciting their latest muse in praise of the president.

Then, the coverage in the government dailies. Al-Baath, taking its name from the ruling party, led Monday with a story on the upcoming election. "Yes, for the symbol of pride, power, and dignity," read the headline, in bold type. On Wednesday, the lead was similar, but different: "Yes for he who strengthens the power of the homeland and secures the country's foundations."

Today, the parade. The government declared Thursday an official holiday in order to allow bureaucrats, undercover security agents and students alike to express their support, providing free bus transportation to and from the event. Responsible parties noted the names of those who might have forgotten to attend.

Tens of thousands – official accounts will tell us hundreds of thousands – of participants crowded downtown, waving likenesses of the president and nylon Syrian flags that were already frayed by 10 a.m.

They chanted, "God, Syria, Bashar, and that's it," and, the ever-popular, "With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice for you, oh, Bashar." In Iraq, they used to chant the same, substituting Saddam for Bashar, of course.

On Sunday, the ballot choice will be simple: yes or no. Bashar al-Asad is seeking a second seven-year term under a constitutionally-mandated presidential referendum, which produced his landslide victory in 2000, and landslides five times before for his father, Hafez.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Another weather story

On average, Damascus receives one-tenth of an inch of rain in May. So, it was strange that it rained all day here. And all of last Thursday, too. Strange, I told the sandwich seller, all this rain.

He smiled. If God wills it, it will rain.

On Friday, God has more rain in mind, according to the Internet weather forecast. On Saturday, a cloud, then Sunday it's sun and 91 degrees.

On average, the long-range forecast is mostly sunny and hot, until roughly Oct. 20. The average annual rainfall in June is .03 inch and in July and August it has rained so little in recorded weather history that the statistical average is 0.

But, that's up to God.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jewish Quarter revival

In the Old City's quietest, most neglected neighborhood, a collection of crumbling, once-grand homes known as Harat Al-Yahud -- the Jewish Quarter -- an artistic revival of sorts is underway. It is now home to a dozen Syrian artists, who have converted old Arabic-style courtyard houses into studios and sometimes galleries.

(The Syrian government continues to respect the deeds of the absentee owners, most of whom emigrated to New York in the early 1990s, which makes renewal a slow process.)

This art colony of sorts is anchored by well-known Syrian scupltor Mustafa Ali, who four years ago moved into the former home of the Bukais family, Jewish silk traders. He uses the house to exhibit his own work, as well as that of other artists, and occasionally hosts free music concerts and dance performances. On Sunday, the young Syrian jazz singer, Rasha Riziq, performed to a packed house.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Poison wind

From the deserts of Egypt and Arabia, the poison wind -- riha al-summoom -- visits Syria every May, carrying sand so fine it can be perceived only by taste and by the film it leaves on our sweaty limbs.

Friday's cloudless, sepia-tone sky was either the poison wind, or the end of the world. We're all still here, most of us, and we've since showered and dusted off.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Cedars of the Lord

Towering cedar trees once shaded the whole of Mount Lebanon, according to the ancient sources. But, a parade of ancient civilizations -- Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Israel, Rome, Byzantium -- exploited the trees, finding the long, straight timber suitable for building ships and temples.

Today, old-growth cedars number just a few hundred, and are concentrated in two areas. Above Kadisha Valley in the north, Arz al-Rab, or Cedars of the Lord, more than 6,000 feet above sea level, were first protected by Queen Victoria, who ordered a wall built around them in 1876. Scientists estimate that 12 of the cedars there are more than 1,000 years old. They are also large in girth, as demonstrated by this guy (my dad).

The cedar is exploited these days by competing Lebanese political interests, which drape themselves in the Lebanese flag, emblazoned with the image of Lebanon's national tree.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


This truffle season was the best in years, this man told me at the Baghdad Cafe, in the Syrian desert, near the road to the Iraqi border. Bedouin wisdom says winter thunder and lightning brings truffles. This was a stormy winter in the desert.

In the spring, herders scour the rocky moonscape for the delicacy -- called kema in Arabic -- and carry it to markets, like the Baghdad Cafe. In Aleppo, I ate a truffle kebab: alternating slices of truffle with tender chunks of ground lamb. Mmmmmm.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Desert rainbow

On a recent drive through Syria's Eastern desert, known as Al-Badia, it was raining. Patches of rain mixed with sun.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The kitchen and Abu Mousa

Since he returned from America, Abu Mousa had moved back into the kitchen, against the family's best efforts to keep him out. His granddaughter, Lena, says old people like to be near food. He avoided his own room and slept in the kitchen and cooked there, leaving dirty dishes and often molding fruit and vegetables.

The solution: Build a wall through the kitchen so it's too small for a bed, forcing Abu Mousa elsewhere. He wasn't happy. True, it was often filthy. But, I've enjoyed many meals there with Abu Mousa. Now, it's too small for a chair and a table, as well.

"Allah yarhamo," I said. God have mercy on it, oft-repeated to express respect for the dead. "Indeed," Abu Mousa said. "Allah yarhamo."


Between the cold, damp winter and the hot, dry summer is the Syrian spring. It was slow in coming this year, which means it will be shorter than usual. Short sleeves and sandals are close at hand.

Dappled with the gentle sun of a Damascus spring, rabia, Syrians sipped cappuccinos and Lebanese draft beer last Friday, the Muslim day of rest and the start of the weekend, at the fashionable Steed Café, in the Christian district of Ghassaneh.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Christians in Damascus place greater significance on Easter than they do Christmas, which, my American friends here who know about such things tell me, is how it's supposed to be.

This year, the Eastern Easter and the Western Easter coincided (three weeks or so ago) and the Christian quarter of the Old City was a tableau of parades, fancy dresses, fig-filled sugar cookies, even children dressed as Easter bunnies. The Orthodox churches went first, with services starting at midnight; the Greek Catholics offered two, at midnight and 5 a.m. Others observed the anniversary of Christ's resurrection at more civilized times.

The 10 o'clock Anglican service was followed by a cascade of balloons in the church courtyard. Kids grabbed them to pop and moms snatched them up to decorate the house.