To Damascus

September 15, 2007 at 11:01 am 2 comments

It had been six weeks since we had moved into Ahmad’s house, and we hadn’t left the Aleppo. A party in Damascus provided the opportunity.

The bus ride lasts about 4 hours, shades of beige out the window all the way. It is a beige rocky desert with tan hills, and the houses in both the cities and the towns are made of the same stone as the hills. Even the intermittent tents are beige (best missed shot of the day: a satellite dish next to a bedouin’s tent). The red checks on men’s headscarves are a welcome color change, as are the scattered trees.

Bus rides longer than two hours are interrupted for stops at central restaurant areas that seem to be dedicated to the long distance traffic. Most of the companies stop at a place just south of Homs offering various kebabs, drinks, sweets and sandwiches. There were many travelers Thursday, the first day of Ramadan, but few eaters.

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The party was on the roof of a flat in one of Damascus’ suburbs. We arrived early for tea, and watched the sun set over the city. There was what journalists might call an “expectant quiet,” as the sun was setting. Immediately after the call to prayer, there was a remarkable quiet and the streets emptied as people went to break the fast. One of our hosts said that she remembered, as a child, hearing only the “sound of eating” all over the city.

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The party began about an hour later, about 25 people, all of them dancing. I asked one of the best dancers where she had learned. She smiled and said she had never had lessons. “We drink it with our mothers’ milk.” The organizers were all tenants of the flat on the floor below, Christians and Muslims, married and not. One, a theater director, vied with William for photographs. Two of the residents work with the UN High Commission for Refugees, struggling to provide services to the nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees currently in Syria. The lives of these 20 and 30 somethings seem quite similar to those of my own children. They work (or try to find work), many studying at the same time, living in a room of a common flat to try to save money, and partying on the weekend when they can. The music they dance to and the food they serve seem the biggest differences. (“Steve” a.k.a. Mustafa, is both a terrific cook and very good in figuring out how to run a recalcitrant “sound system.”

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In Damascus, like in Chapel Hill, we can’t stay awake much past midnight, so we left early. We were staying in a hotel in the city center, and the next morning we found the French Institute. While I checked their catalogue to try to figure out what I would need to look at there on our return later in the fall, William wandered the area. He greeted me with news about bookstores, espresso shops, and an Indian restaurant! We stopped at the Indian restaurant, apparently the only one in Syria, for a terrific meal. The bus home showed two movies consecutively. The first, apparently Egyptian, seemed to be patterned on the Pink Panther, featuring slapstick, silly injuries, and lots of shouting. The second, a cop movie about the LAPD with Arabic subtitles, featured lots of car chases and wrecks and a few murders.

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Damascus seems a long way from Aleppo. It was only during the French mandate in the 1920s and 1930s that it surpassed Aleppo as Syria’s biggest city. I can’t think of any area in Aleppo similar to downtown Damascus. Downtown Damascus has wide, straight streets, a large foreign presence, and the stores that come with that. The party hosts, and a number of people in Aleppo, talk about how different Damascus is than other places in Syria. “More nightclubs, more action,” one told me. “More diversity, more freedom,” another said. I’m not sure how one would ever be able to scientifically measure social freedom in the two cities, or the extent of diversity. We live in a particularly conservative part of Aleppo, and visited an especially progressive group in Damascus, hardly a valid comparison. I’d love to extend my time in Syria, to live a semester in Damascus, another in Latakia. (I keep running up against the limits of travel accounts, limits I hadn’t even thought of when I listed my concerns as I began this blog.)

Perhaps the most curious thing to me this weekend, in Damascus as in Aleppo, is the lack of newspapers. In small towns like Chapel Hill, one can buy newspapers at the grocery stores, the drug stores, and from metal boxes on the streets. In big cities like New York and London, there seem to be newsstands on every street corner. In all the cities of Morocco, people spread newspapers out on the streets for sale. In Syria, it is extremely difficult to find newspapers. They are not for sale in the grocery stores, small or large. There are no newsstands on street corners, no informal piles of newspapers for sale on the streets. One has to go to hotels or bookstores to find newspapers. Has TV news completely overtaken print journalism in the country.

On the news, for more on last week’s Israeli attack on Syria, see Josh Landis’ blog. It’s hard to get information about it from inside Syria, and people don’t seem to be talking about it. Hala hadn’t even heard about it–she doesn’t watch the news, she explained. Seems another similarity between Americans and Syrians!

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Entry filed under: Syria, Travel.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Syria » Blog Archives » To Damascus  |  October 25, 2007 at 11:31 am

    […] To DamascusThe party was on the roof of a flat in one of Damascus’ suburbs. We arrived early for tea, and watched the sun set over the city. There was what journalists might call an “expectant quiet,” as the sun was setting. … […]

    Reply
  • 2. Sasa  |  November 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    It’s true there are fewer newspaper sellers in Damascus than London – but there’s also a lower literacy rate, and the papers aren’t written as well.

    But to say that you can only get them in bookstores isn’t true. Every street in the city centre has a kiosk selling papers. And under every bridge you’ll find newspapers and books spread out on the floor. In some areas, that extends to the Herald Tribune, the Guardian and the Times.

    Sasa, the Syria News Wire.

    Reply

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