Saturday, 12 February 2011

Jordan & Syria 2010

Well, we are home, but now need a rest! The journey back seemed endless, though it went smoothly, but I hardly slept last night, so I really ought to go back to bed. This is rather a long E mail, but a short write-up of events.

We had a great time and met lots of very generous people, including one in Damascus who, on the slightest acquaintance, took us all to lunch and insisted on paying.

The holiday included a night sleeping in the desert in Jordan. Our friend and guide, Shadi and Jane drove off across the dense darkness of the desert to collect water for the horses. I stayed in the camp with our young French acquaintance and the lad who tended the fire. It turned out that our Bedouin friend most untypically got thoroughly lost and the heavy water can that he was holding out of the window while Jane drove was bumped empty several times as Jane drove over hummocks. This meant several returns to the source of the water before we finally heard from them asking us to use torches to attract them to the camp.

Meanwhile, whilst the drama of the water carrying was going on, the quiet of the desert was interrupted by a distant cough. We thought that we were hearing things, but after a minute, another cough, much closer. Slightly unnerved we saw two shadows coming towards us. Two men approached the fire and asked where Shadi was.  With almost no language in common, I did the hospitality bit, sat them down and fed them dates, tea etc and waited and waited…and waited for the water carriers to return. I gathered that one of the two was a policeman and the other worked in a bank. We looked at one another and smiled and smiled some more. Eventually the call came through and we directed Jane towards us with torches. Shadi was exhausted having had to hold the very heavy water carrier. But he smiled when he saw our visitors.

It turned out that the men were part of a village singing group and Shadi was one of their number. The instant he was back the mobiles were humming and then the rest of the bunch of friendly Arab men tore across the desert in their 4X4 from their own camp to party with us. This included a lot of community singing, dancing, jokes and me firing off into the air the handgun of one guy, a traffic cop. For this holiday he dressed in his pure white long in Jalabiya and danced up a storm and at one point had us weeping with laugher pretending with a cushion to be heavily pregnant and to dance 'seductively'. Mind you he was still wearing his gun in its shoulder holster.

Everyone is surgically attached to their mobile phones, especially whilst driving on mountain roads. During the party most of the men had their 'girlfriends' speak to the young Frenchwoman who was sharing this night out with us. There was much mirth when one girlfriend cut the call the instant she heard the French woman speak. That guy was going to be in for real trouble, not that he seemed put out at all.

I have never seen men have so much mad fun without there being any alcohol involved.

Eventually they all bundled back into the car, which in the dark I had not been able to see but for the headlights. All seven got in with two sitting on the roof with their legs dangling through the open sunroof. While waving goodbye I then realised; it was a police car. They tore off making noise enough to be heard in Israel, waving, loud music, shouting and whistling until at last silence returned and we could lie quietly and look up at the Milky Way strewn across the sky above us.

I lasted until about 3am, but my cough got the better of me and lying flat would mean waking everyone with my hacking. I staggered to the car and slept in the front seat with it reclined. The back seat was taken by the young guy who made up the fire. He was like a whirling dervish and shook the car as though it was in a storm. At one point I got a surprise when Shadi’s cat crawled out from under my seat and jumped into my lap.

During the days either side of the sleep-out Jane got in lots of riding and enjoyed it thoroughly. One horse was a bit fresh, but riding it into a sand dune slowed it down. The first riding was in the town of Wadi Musa, adjacent to the Perta ruins. Shadi turned up with two horses, one of which had a foal in trail. The horses were brought to the street outside the hotel. Although very experienced with his horses, there was almost a serious incident when the untethered foal took it into its head to bolt off down the hill and was followed not by its mother, but by the other horse. Jane had to throw herself off the only remaining horse and Shadi leapt on to race off to rescue the situation, which he did in the teeth of some justifiably angry drivers.

Our Bedouin friend arranged all of our stay in Jordan, even a birthday party for me and Jane at the home of his sister, where everyone gave us gifts, mine including a black and gold sheikh's robe presented to me by the head of Shadi's Flahat tribe. The cake had been contentious. Afterwards Shadi explained the angry phone calls made from the desert that day. He wanted it to say 'Happy Birthday', but the baker had iced it with 'Have a Nice Day' on it. Eventually it read 'Happy Birthd

Shadi himself is an excellent cook and the meals in the desert were a highlight, delicious and varied. Although I was not riding, he made the most enormous efforts to make sure I was entertained and provided with sites to see while the others rode off.

Life with Shadi was never dull. After taking us to a crusader castle he drove us a mile or so to a friend’s cave, yes cave. This engaging old character lived in what was quite a sophisticated cave, en-suite shower and flushing loo. The real pretext here was that we had wanted to buy gifts to take home and Shadi told us this guy would ensure that we got bargains. His cave was cluttered with all manner of craft work and as soon as Shadi appeared the sage tea was put on to boil, delicious, especially without the near compulsory sugar. Many glasses were consumed. As well as the ‘business’ he entertained us by playing the flute, by singing and when Shadi brought up the issue of my back and my need to sit comfortably, the old chap at once leapt into action with plans to cure my back with olive oil and roasting hot sand wrapped in a towel. I trod a delicate line in getting out of the ‘medic’s’ clutches without causing puzzled offense. He then spent time explaining the treatment to Jane in detail so it could be carried out when we returned to the UK.

Standing outside and waiting to go, Shadi suddenly struck a deal to take ALL the stock from the tables outside of the shop. Most of this consisted of bits of rock, stone and metal objects; many small, some quite large. As the boot was being loaded, I noticed a cockerel and started to photograph him. The shop owner stood in front of me and said, “Don’t look at the bird, pretend we are talking.” He then imitated the call of the cockerel. This started the bird up and it returned the call. Getting into its stride the bird then stuck its head through the window into the shell of the part built building next door and used the interior as an echo chamber, the greatly filled out sound evidently pleased the bird, as it sang its song continuously until we were being waved off, fresh sage and many other parting gifts being generously given to us and the boot weighed right down to the road surface with the rocks mysteriously purchased by our Bedouin friend.

I even went with Shadi to a couple of football matches held in a large drill hall. The spectators sat in two lose rows round the pitch. I was instantly provided with a chair by a young lad who then stood throughout. The Flahat team trounced the opponents 10 zero. This allowed them through to the final round for the cup. Even in this huge gym hall, all is overseen by a large painted mural of King Abdulah, a portly figure who in his guise here is a patron saint of football pictured as a chunky football player with arms raised in triumph.

Child of the former king and an English woman, his ever present image with red hair and blue eyes makes him look like an Essex builder, not Arabic at all. But the tables were turned in the final match. The Flahats were mostly playing in bare feet and many had bandages round leg injuries. Their opponents all had boots on; which made their tackling much more confident. The King was clearly blessing the 'other' family who produced a spectacular result.

In fact the word 'Arabic' simply does not conjure up the wide variety of look and colouring that we encountered. There is a strain of red hair amongst them and even occasionally arresting blue eyes and some have freckles. So perhaps the King’s untypical look is from his Arabic heritage after all.
In Syria we travelled south to north and back again and saw ancient icons by candlelight, the ruins of Roman Palmyra with its stupifyingly large temple of Baal and
we got completely lost in the MILES of souks in Aleppo. Add to this dead cities in the North and St Simeon's stylite stump. It was much reduced from the 30 foot high pillar on which he lived and from which he harangued all and sundry for 20 years. Now he would be committed to an asylum, then, he was increasingly revered and when he died the Emperor sent hundreds of soldiers to retrieve his body and built a vast elegant church, an imperial statement of power, the beautiful shell of which remains in its dramatic hilltop setting, surrounded by pines and olive trees.

Internet access in Syria was patchy to put it mildly. Bizarrely the most accessible place was the desert stop-off of Palmyra where the Roman ruins were in much better condition than the modern town, which had the feel of the Wild West about it and both dust and sand to match. My guide book suggested that the main street held all that the traveler would need. Well, it did not hold an ATM machine. Walking off the main drag, we were tipped into rather strange territory, slums, filth and unfriendly staring. I think the guide book ought to have been more explicit in its warning.

It turned out that there was no ATM machine in the town and the bank washes its hands over the mere idea of exchanging money. We were assured that the only person in town who could change money utilising a credit card sat in the Monument Hotel. Seemingly he was obliged to charge tax. In fact he was a usurer and charged a whacking 20% commission. I declined. The next day we were due to pay the hotel bill. I explained that I had no intention of being swindled by Mr 20%. I asked if they would like our shoes to satisfy the bill. Reluctantly I was taken to a filthy shop where the proprietor, with ill grace, took us two stories down into the earth and provided cash at a mere 10% commission using an ancient and dusty credit card machine. The ruins had been spectacular, but we were content to leave the hell hole to the next unwary victims.

In the Syrian desert there is a town devoted to the events around the fourth century St Teckler, a beautiful place but it contains jolts for the westerners with a large statue of Christ faced across a courtyard by two substantial reindeer! The legend is that the saint, a she, was being pursued by her father's soldiers for taking up with Christians. God saved her by opening up a crack in the hill that she could escape down, or up. Either way, The Lord made it good and wide and easy to walk down....or up, which is a traditional way to get to the church of
her name at the top of the hill. She is classified as a first martyr, despite having escaped the soldiers and living to an old age, so that designation eludes me entirely.

Jane and the Arabs is a blog all of its own. With her highly coloured hair and pale skin she drew a great deal of attention.....mind you, as she related these little adventures to the rest of us, we did not relent from pointing out that her level in society was toilet attendants and sock sellers. This did not dent her amusement at the attention she was getting. 

Add to this her rapidly increasing dirty Arabic and men just fell over themselves to be pleasant and helpful. She was given several little gifts by passers by, including bread. She was given a plate when we bought coffee, because she could muster up a phrase about loving the smell in the shop. Mind you she could be foxed, as she would use one phrase in Damascus, which in Aleppo would draw a blank. A little discussion would ensue and the regional differences in the language cleared up. She was learning Jordanian Arabic initially, but had to unlearn a lot of words in Syria. I suppose like Glasgow English and Newcastle English and probably none of it classical Arabic. But it ensured that like last time; fluffy towels appeared, good tables in restaurants were secured and free drinks dispersed.

Damascus was our favorite city by far, not exactly beautiful, but certainly oriental, fascinating and atmospheric with warm, hospitable people. Our young hotel staff were hilarious especially our limpet like little Syrian catamite who took a shine to G, even to the extent of a pair of his underpants going missing whilst being laundered. I reported the missing pants and he at once shot back....'Yes, I kept them to smell them.' I arched an eyebrow and said that I assumed therefore that the cleaning of them was not on the bill. Later on he asked if pants really were missing; yes...though they did turn up in someone else's laundry a few days later.

Not quite the usual travel tale, but it seems many ancient traditions thrive in Syria, despite a very repressive government.

Our Damascus hotel was a haven in which to relax, an Ottoman palace on a small scale with fountains and lots of elegant places in which to sit. The staff spoiled us as favorites and spent as much time chatting and laughing with us as they could get away with. These young guys had first rate English and remained full of humor despite 13 hour shifts, seven days a week and no days off for as long they can recall.

The people can be eccentric in pleasant and endearing ways. When sitting in a city square in Aleppo, where most of the sparse tourists congregate for some coffee after climbing up to the fortress, an ancient man came round the tables trying to sell to the foreigners sets of hammers....surely a triumph of hope over experience. Contrast this with us walking past the large bakery in Damascus where flatbread is made each evening. One man walking away from it with his family bread thrust some into Jane's hands and said, 'Welcome to Syria Madame.' We experienced much kindness.

We visited some mosques, Jane had to don a covering with a hood and she looked like a hobbit on the photos. The grand mosque in Damascus has a stunning enormous courtyard paved in marble that is used as a family space where people meet and the kids tear around ignoring the golden Byzantine mosaics above them. Inside is a shrine containing the head of John the Baptist. In Aleppo the main mosque contains the head of his father.

There is a newish mosque built by Iranians and I don't think I have ever seen as much bling outside of Las Vegas, such confidence and swagger in the decoration, it ultimately looked spectacular with mirror mosaics and large crystal chandeliers. G and I were welcomed into the building and a worshiper stood aside to explain the significance of the shrine. It contained a niece of The Prophet. There was a deal of fervour around the tomb. Jane had been directed round the other side of the tomb to where the women worshiped. 

My birthday proper was celebrated by seven of us in a rooftop restaurant. Excellent food and as usual, riotous noise and laughter from our table. One ought always to celebrate one’s birthday in Damascus.

We associated chiefly in a world of men who were happy to interact with the foreigners, often greeting us with a ‘Welcome’ as they passed us in the street. But the women look through you and most wear the burkar. Some are totally veiled and wear black gloves, drifting around like sinister ghosts. The women often move around in gangs and have developed a way of barging you without using their shoulders, most determined.

There was one stretch of souk between our hotel and town, we named it ‘Burkar Alley’, that was constantly awash with this dense covered-up woman's brigade, none of whom would meet your eye as they barged you. But here in Damascus we glimpsed a dichotomy. The shops openly sold the most salacious underwear. Not merely skimpy and see-through, but elaborate kits and thongs with messages such as ‘look here’ embroidered in gold. Stall after stall in the souk was devoted to this fantasy unclothing. It made me wonder just what some of these women had on under their all enveloping clothes.

We did speculate on tripping one or two up to see what the results were, though a night in the cells would probably be the learning point there. They also did an exotic line in extremely elaborate wedding dresses, vast off the shoulder numbers, again mysterious how this cult tied up with the normal invisibility of flesh. We saw many all enveloped groups of women in the process of buying these 1950s style continental cocktail frocks done over as wedding cakes.

Also on that route was a butcher shop on one corner and right at the front of its display was the head of a goat, lips drawn back in a rictus grin, it was there for three days and the passing of the days did not enhance its attractiveness.

Again along this street was a set of rather westernised female shop dummies that were dressed up in the full kit, but not black, rather, like summer curtain material. One evening we saw two teenage boys walking arm in arm, they stopped before the dummies and lifted up the material wrapped round one, exposing a pink plastic breast with rosy nipple. They goggled at it fascinated and wide-eyed and literally open mouthed. Then they nudged one another, dropped the veil back and scuttled off. At one point we encountered the street of shop dummies. None look Arabic. Naked, their smoothed over private parts were covered up with newspaper.

In Aleppo two things stand out. The first was a visit to a mental asylum built in the 13th century. A beautiful place where tractable inmates were treated with calmness, music therapy, contemplation and each had a room. Mind you there were a few cells with chains where I assume the intractable ones were treated. Right across from it was the ancient soap factory, like a broken down warehouse, the soap is still made as it was hundreds of years ago and using the ancient vats and equipment. The only ingredients are twice pressed virgin olive oil and laurel. The liquid is poured across a huge floor and allowed to set and then cut into cubes by men wearing what look like wooden snow shoes. The best soap is aged for three years and then sold.

We all bought blocks, some as gifts, though it is such nice soap, I suspect we will keep most of it to ourselves. The souk was just too much to get to grips with in such a short time. We took refuge in an up-market shop in the ancient lanes. The young designer who was trying to pitch his wares started with: "Everything in this shop is beautiful, starting with myself." That had to be quote of the holiday, though boastful he was only speaking the truth.

Crac de Chevalier is the largest and most complete crusader castle anywhere. As they tend to, it sits majestically on a hilltop and G had  cleverly found us a modest hotel that looked right at it across the valley from another hill. We watched the sun go down turning the fort orange. Later having dinner on the terrace Jane and I produced new socks which we distributed in order to re-enact the 3rd Crusade using sock puppets, brown for Saladin and his hoards and stripy red and white for the Christian Knights, much laughter at our table and puzzlement from the tables around us. Next morning after watching the mists disperse in the valley and the massive castle emerge, we spent hours climbing all over it. Built so as to withstand a siege of up to five years, it had survived several earthquakes over its 700 or so years.

Maaloula sound like a place name in Ethiopia, but it is in Syria and is a desert town with a long Christian heritage. It is so ancient that the altars are of a design predating their proscription by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. One of the many laws made by the council was that altars should no longer have a lip round them. Pre-Christian altars had the lip in order to collect the blood from the animal sacrifices. So here was a church with three such outlawed ancient stone tables, but as there were no drain holes, clearly there had been no mind to utilise them for the pagan purpose. The entire site had an archaic feel to it. Here you can still hear ‘The Lords Prayer’ spoken in ancient Aramaic, the language used in the Near East during Christ’s lifetime.

There is a tiny chapel dug into the rock, ducking your head as you go in you are then surrounded, almost totally enveloped, by ancient icons, they glow, they glitter, dark and mysterious in the candle light, they seem almost to be alive. Difficult to see, difficult to penetrate to the detail of the images, they retain their mystery. Here at last the visitors maintained silence, a stillness at the centre of the rocks. Here was a quiet fervency of faith, the devotion to and of the beautiful half glimpsed images, overseen by an ancient nun rather than by security cameras.

One unsettling event; G and R who we travelled with in Syria were going to go on to Jordan to see the same friend we had stayed with. I lent my phone to G so he could discuss the arrangements for leaving Syria. About half an hour after this conversation and while still in the middle of the country, I got a text message from the Syria Tell Co saying they hoped I had enjoyed my stay in Syria and that I would visit again soon. Could they have been listening into the arrangements? A mystery.

For sure Syria is a repressive regime and add to this Islamic customs and the people do not have the kind of freedoms we take for granted. Neither the men in Jordan and the lads in the Damascus hotel are supposed to have girlfriends. Even when they do, touching them would be highly unusual. But lavishing gifts on them is standard procedure, though these romances are stillborn; as overwhelmingly, spouses are chosen and weddings arranged by the fathers.

When we visited Shadi’s family, the women remained in the background. On one occasion when we ate there one wife stood beside her husband and fed him by hand like a child. Shadi’s older sister was something of an exception. She owned the house and was divorced. Clearly the actual head of the family, when she spoke the men listened. But she respected the normal customs and ate separately with the women. She took instantly to Jane and showed her round the house, the two of them walking arm in arm promenading along the driveway with views across the valley, heads close in conspiratorial conversation.

Photos of President Assad in Syria are as ubiquitous as those of the King in Jordan. But whereas in Jordan people make frequent affectionate and admiring reference to the King, in Syria I heard not one mention of Assad.

But they also have next to no crime. In Damascus our hotel rooms did not even have locks and while I absolutely trusted the staff, I was not so sure about the European travelers. In Syria they presently have stability and religious tolerance, though that latter does not extend to the conversion of Muslim to Christianity. There are things afoot. The mosques are attracting increasingly vocal hard liners. A lot is happening, ‘under the table’. People do fear a rise of fundamentalism. But we want to go back. Apart from there being more to see, the city of Damascus and its people captured us.

So rather than our 3rd Crusade mantra of, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’; it may just be, ‘Next year in Damascus.’


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