Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Adventures in Al-Shem Part 2: Damascus, Syria

Border crossing between Lebanon and Syria can be notoriously difficult, especially for Americans. We were warned to be prepared to spend up to 10 hours at the customs office, while we wait for our passports and papers to be shuffled around and our backgrounds to be thoroughly scrutinized. So, once we answered a few questions and handed over our passports to the Great Beyond past the glass barrier, we settled in for an afternoon of reading, napping, daydreaming, and walking back and forth to the Duty Free Shop (picture a mini mall with cheap alcohol, cartons of cigarettes, and souvenirs).

After Hour 4 of the wait, Anissa and I began to devise a brilliant plan to get across the border, involving fictitious “Lady Problems”, tears, and the Daily Show. Thankfully, however, the security guards said we all had passed, could buy our visas, and could enter Syria. Imagine how anticlimactic it was, however, when we exited the customs building and had to walk along a deserted asphalt road with our luggage in tow, to the taxi stand. We were expecting more pomp and circumstance for having gone through an American Gladiators-esque test of endurance and will. “Congratulations! The Arab Kingdom of Syria deems you sufficiently patient to cope with what lies ahead. Welcome, suckas.”

After wrangling the price of a grand taxi to Damascus, we got a hold of Cait’s friend Jamie on our borrowed Syrian cell phone (thanks, Susannah!), who met up with us in the center of town and took us weary travelers back to his home to chill for a minute. I left to meet up with my old college friend, Lexi, with whom I would spend the next 3 days.

Lexi and her boyfriend Dimitri are stellar. We first met in Arabic class at Uni, and she pursued the language wholeheartedly, ending up in Cairo, then Damascus. I admire her so much for picking up and shipping off, putting one foot in front of the other and trusting the ground ahead. Rollin’ with it, whatever came her way.

Damascus reminds me a lot of Fes, but less touristy and colorful. It has its ancient bits interspersed with cosmopolitan commercial centers, government buildings, and renowned universities. An old medina (the oldest in the world, apparently), distinct from the “Ville Nouvelle” or newer, colonial-style quarter. In contrast to Morocco, I rarely heard any English or French, and the Syrian dialectical Arabic is pretty close to Fusha, making Damascus one of the most popular places for foreigners to study Arabic. (In effect, I found the expat community to be pretty small and tight). Of course, as a crossroads for trade and scholarship, there is some extremely important history in Damascus for all three monotheistic religions, which run up against each other in different facets of the culture (the city is mentioned in the book of Genesis, then was established as the capitol of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century) Damascus sits on the slope of a mountain, leading down into the oldest parts in the valley. Fun fact: Wikipedia tells me that Damascus is a sister city to Rabat!

The next 3 days in Damashq were a blur of friends and sightseeing and great meals and conversation. Highlights include:
  • -Ancient ruins! Damascus claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It may very well be true, from the looks of it. New markets and high rise buildings have grown like unruly weeds between crumbling ancient ruins.
  • -visiting enormous restored riads deep in the medina. Sam the Historian was like a kid in a candy store. I have to admit, I’m not one for architecture, but I thought it was pretty stunning.
  • -Slipping into a Rental Jelaba and touring the Umayyad Mosque. I wandered into one room, where a bunch of Iranian tourists sat on the floor, listening to a storyteller (called a Hakaweti) sing the tale of the death of Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet’s grandsons, and their mother Fatima. This just blew my mind. I couldn’t understand a word the storyteller was saying, but I knew I was listening to one of the most tragic stories of my life. His voice wavered and cracked as he brought the story up to a crescendo and eventually finished at barely a whisper. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say there was barely a dry eye in the room. Some of the women hunched under their niqabs were wailing and even the men wiped away tears. This story has been told this way for centuries. Just observing this process was moving to me.
  • -Jamie’s friend Mohammed leading us all around his favorite parts of the Old City
  • -Rose Saffron Pistachio Ice Cream at Damascus’ most famous ice cream parlor. Need I say more?**
  • -The dioramas at Azm Palace. Took me back to Milwaukee’s History Museum, complete with creepy mannequins in display cases and funny Engrish placards.
  • -Exploring the spice market in the Christian Quarter by myself for a while. You truly understand a place by getting the feel of its markets.

We celebrated our last night out by having drinks at a western-style pub in the ancient medina (what a trip). Then left the next morning for more border-crossing shenanigans.

**I tried this at home! Watch for the recipe coming soon.

1 comment:

Lynda said...


So great to read about the symposium and your travels since I haven't been able to talk with Cait for 3 weeks!

Sounds like an amazing adventure.