Archive for December, 2007

Second Impressions

Bamako is different than anywhere I have been. The smells, the sounds, the clothing all seem quite unfamiliar. Only the old man kneeling on his prayer rug on the main road offered a sense of familiarity.

We took a taxi to the national museum this afternoon. The textile collection is fabulous, beginning with fabrics printed on jacquard weaves introduced through Syria.  Cotton, combination, wool–Mali’s textiles are remarkably varied in fibers, patterns, weaves, colors, and uses. The other big exhibit in the national museum right now is on ritual objects. Many are masks, with accompanying descriptions of the kinds of initiation and worship in which they are used. I was particularly struck by one placard explaining that, when Islam was introduced, local rituals were adapted to the new faith. The curator seemed not to understand the irony when, in the same hall, s/he explained that Islam forbids the representation of human figures. Human figures are present on almost all of the amazing carved masks and statues in the exhibit.

The hall portraying Mali’s long history included some pottery and glass shards that had originated in Egypt and Spain. I was impressed with the efforts to include not only all of the various groups present today in Mali, but also the museum’s efforts to place the country within its broader context. That was particularly evident in the collection of photographs, whose creators were from all over the African continent.

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The ride back was as remarkable as the museum itself. In Turkey and Syria, the large bazaars are near, in, or attached to large monumental structures. Here, the market seems to be rows and rows of temporary stalls, lean-tos, three sided single-story structures made of impermanent materials. Those with carts or tables or baskets seemed even more transient. Walking along the road this evening, driving in the taxi this afternoon, I was struck by how different Mali is from Syria, or even Morocco.

People wear remarkable clothing, varied in color and in style. At the same time, the cars seem all of one kind–very old, quite run-down, poorly maintained, all giving a sense that you may be the last passenger ever to travel within. People are all along the streets, walking, sitting, talking, getting into minibuses that share the vintage of the cars. An open ditch filled with black water and garbage ran along the sidewalk we walked this evening–even opposite an impressive looking structure with a sign reading “National Institute for Research in Public Health.” This is Mali’s biggest city, and her capital, but we have seen only one building that has more than one story. There are some real restaurants, but even more stands that cook food for those passing by. I have a strange sense that the city is temporary; in the morning, the markets and the people may have moved on.

December 31, 2007 at 10:40 am Leave a comment



Our plane landed in Mali’s capital Bamako half an hour late, around 3:00 am (with the two hour time difference, it was almost the same time we would usually be awakening in Aleppo). We had no Malian currency, neither sim nor phone card, immediately reawakening that traveler sense of needing everything at once. So we were completely thrilled to see a man holding a sign with our names on it. He put our two small suitcases into the trunk of a very decrepit 1960s vehicle that made me realize how well-maintained that car had been, the one I was so dubious about six months ago in Morocco. The driver asked whether we had ever been to Africa before. Morocco doesn’t count, he said. That’s Arab Africa. This is black Africa. No, we haven’t. First time. Welcome!

We drove along fairly empty streets to the hotel, where a man carried our suitcases down the street and into a wonderful hotel room, showed us how to use the mosquito netting and left us to sleep. When William awoke this morning with a fever and a terrible cough, we decided we wouldn’t stray too far today.


Even staying on the hotel grounds, though, it’s pretty clear we’re not in Syria anymore. It is 90 degrees and sunny here. We’re back to T shirts and sandals. The trees look like enormous versions of our own greenhouse plants, or the sort of displays one sees in the more exotic sections of a bit city zoo. I kept a cute 3 foot tall potted rubber plant in my college dorm room. The one shading the breakfast area in the hotel courtyard here must have a diameter of 8 feet. We have two ficuses (fici?) in our dining room in NC, one probably 8 feet tall, the other a climber whose size seems to astonish newcomers. Here they are gigantic! It sort of makes this place feel like home, the same trees in the dining room, but the scale is a bit different.

When I walked to the main street to get some phone minutes and buy a couple of sandwiches, I realized that this road seemed to come straight out of all those novels about Africa I’d read over the past decade or so. Bought a couple of very undercooked hamburgers from the place across the street, a restaurant with two cooks, one Indian and the other African, each for his own special cuisine. No hamburger cooks, alas.

First impressions always seem fascinating to me, though I often realize I was wrong. Today I am struck with how colorful this small section of Bamako is. No women wearing black veils over black coats, no white stone buildings. (And women are everywhere, working as shopkeepers, receptionists, and cleaners, covering their heads but not their shoulders or arms.) Men and women alike wear lots of colors, a strikingly colorful landscape, even if we hadn’t just been coming from color-deprived Aleppo. (Note, though, that, while public spaces in Aleppo seem to be uniform shades of stone and black, with intermittent red checked scarves covering men’s heads, the private spaces are incredibly ornate, and Syrian textiles are wonderfully complex.)

We will function in French here. William suggested Arabic to the driver last night, and what he spoke reminded me much more of what we had heard in Morocco than anything I’d learned in classes in the US or on the streets in Syria. It seems people go back and forth between French and the other local languages. French is Mali’s common language here, among the great diversity of languages that this country’s varied groups speak. (We have met few English-speakers, even among people who serve tourists.)

December 30, 2007 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Olive Oil


Everyone had been hoping for rain. It finally came, quite late, and in the middle of the olive harvest. It rained so hard in northern Syria that the harvest had to be interrupted for a couple of weeks. Now, our friend Nabeg is hiring dozens of workers each day to get the ripe olives off the trees. A man from “the villages” brings a group of young workers, mostly young women, but also teenage boys. One 30-something woman joked that she was still in her 20s, presumably to explain her presence. They get paid about $1 for an 8 hour day.

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The olives taste terrible right off the tree–as Katie the curious found out. They have to be soaked in salt water for three weeks, the ripe black ones straight off, and the unripe green ones after being slit in many places.But most of the olives from the area around Idlib are pressed into olive oil. Each of these bags will yield roughly one tin, weighing 17 kilos when full of oil.

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The machinery was imported from Turkey. Olive tree owners bring the bags to the press, and each is charged around $3 for each bag pressed. The press’ profit comes from selling the residue, from which more oil is chemically extracted and used for making soap.


The olive oil is terrific, and seems to be the oil most commonly used for cooking here. Sad we couldn’t figure out how to get some home.

We’re on the road again, in Beirut at the moment, awaiting our flight to Bamako, Mali.

December 28, 2007 at 9:34 am Leave a comment


Out walking with Katie in Aleppo’s old Christian quarter Saturday evening, we followed the Christmas carols to the Greek Catholic Church. A group of high school girls wearing Santa hats was practicing for a performance, singing carols in Latin. The acoustics in the small, square church are terrific. Someone was trying to make a PowerPoint presentation work behind them–tech frustration seems one of those universals.

We wanted to buy a tree, and people reassured us it was easy, just go to Sulaymaniye’s main street and look left. But all the trees there were paper or plastic! When we asked, we found it is forbidden to cut trees for holiday celebrations.  All of our advisers simply assumed that we were looking for the “regular” kind. In the end, William brought home a terrific tree, about two feet tall, with small lights at the tips of each pretend plastic branch; the lights change colors and flash in interesting combinations, apparently randomly. The box says the tree is made in the United Arab Emirates.

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Aziziya has extensive decorations, lights, Papa Noel, sleighs and reindeer. I haven’t found a nativity scene.  The radio has been playing familiar Christmas tunes, lyrics in Arabic.


It’s been nice having Katie around, and we miss Ian. And friends. And we wish you all a wonderful 2008!

December 26, 2007 at 8:10 am 1 comment

Eid Mubarak!

Eid al-Adha started on Wednesday in Aleppo, as people began visiting family and large numbers of sheep appeared in the streets. Katie tells me that in Istanbul people buy shares of cattle, and that there are specific places in which ritual slaughter is acceptable, but in the old city of Aleppo, it seems, anywhere is OK. In both places, one is to keep some of the meat, share some with family, and distribute the rest to the poor.


A few years ago, Turkey and Syria agreed to a holiday exchange to allow visits to family members who had ended up on the other side of the border. This year, Syrians went to Turkey on the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and Turks came to Syria for this Eid.

That explains why Katie was unable to find a bus or train seat to Antakya until Thursday. When I crossed the border into Turkey on Friday morning to meet her, I was stunned to see the huge numbers of vehicles, stretched across all available “lanes,” bringing Turks to Syria. Our minibus had to wait until police opened one lane so cars trying to get into Turkey could get around the press of vehicles trying to get into Syria! The vehicles all had large yellow flyers in the front windows announcing they were participating in the exchange, and their passengers already had their permission to enter the country, having been vetted days earlier.

When we pulled into Turkish customs, there were large piles of tea, sugar, and biscuits on the curb. Food is quite a bit cheaper in Syria, and the Turkish customs officials were clearly trying to prevent holiday-makers from doing imports.

I found Katie in Antakya, where we ate terrific Iskender kebab (unavailable just across the border) and kunefe, then walked to find the lot where there are usually many drivers trying to find passengers to fill their cars heading to Aleppo. This day, the area was mostly deserted–all the vehicles in the area had left many hours earlier, that large contingent I’d seen at the border.

We finally found our transportation, and arrived in Aleppo quite late for our wonderful going-away party. (Nadine, our French housemate, Makiko, our Japanese housemate, and William had all cooked wonderful food, and even our friends from Damascus came to wish us goodbye!)

The next morning, we decided it was finally time to see the citadel, but couldn’t get close to the ticket booth. The entry was jammed, and Turkish was the only audible language. The suq was similarly full of visiting Turks, and suddenly the linguistic border seemed to have moved. (I looked unsuccessfully for the numbers of Turkish visitors. Please post if you find them.)

December 26, 2007 at 7:29 am Leave a comment

Moving Day (What, no insurance?)

Our plane ticket isn’t until December 28, but Eid likely begins on the 19th, and generally lasts four or five days (but after the last holiday some people didn’t return to work for a few days extra), so we needed to get all of our things packed and to the shipper TODAY! The past few days have been a bit frenetic, as I tried to finish the last chapter (which, alas, has become only the penultimate chapter), and we looked for a shipper, had a carpenter make us a box, bought our Christmas gifts, decided what we would take with us to Mali, and packed everything else.

Our wonderful friend Muhammad took William to an amazing wood shop in a very old hammam to order the boxes, which were delivered the next day. Together, they formed a meter cubed.

The boxes were too big for a taxi. But Aleppo has a cargo equivalent, a Suzuki fleet of privately owned old battered pickups that charge about $4 to haul stuff.

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Muhammad brought a Suzuki, a driver, and the driver’s 16-year-old son over this morning, and we loaded our two wooden boxes, our two suitcases, and assorted packets of gifts and books. We followed the Suzuki through a remarkable maze of mud-covered pavements (the rains have been continuous, and the drainage seems overwhelmed), watching the young man bouncing in the back of the truck (as I thought about seatbelts). 


When we reached the Atlas office, we unloaded the truck. We put the suitcases and assorted small packages into one of the wooden boxes. We were delighted to learn that it would all fit into just one of the boxes. But then we discovered that the thing weighted 150 kilos, heavy enough that one of the workers was convinced the bottom would break. It was completely fascinating to watch the conversation. Six men discussed the various options. Divide everything into the two wooden boxes? Ship one wooden box and one cardboard box? Three cardboard boxes? What about the tray? Two tape measures, one scale, six men. Everything came out of the wooden box. The wooden box weighed 30 kg. empty. We repacked it all into two cardboard boxes. The shipper needs a complete list. Can’t send CDs because the Syrian government won’t allow them. US government prohibits sending medicine and needs a breakdown of everything in the boxes. Syrian government wants to know what kind of books and posters I am taking out of the country. Everyone was very helpful, lots of advice all around.

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We just had a few questions. What would the insurance cover?

Insurance? Muhammad asked. Haram! You don’t need insurance. No one will take your things. Why would you need insurance? I know these people, my things always arrive safely.

We explained that things get taken in Washington, the destination for the boxes. No one ships anything in the US without insurance!

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After repeated phone calls, the Atlas manager insisted it was impossible, but promised a manifest that he would sign. His signature would indicate that our things would arrive safely. Why would we want insurance?

Suddenly insurance had become a sign of our distrust. It was one of the clearest examples of cultural dissonance I had experienced in Syria– and perhaps ever. We called our bi-cultural friends. “Of course not, we never do insurance.” He called his friend, who ships containers of furniture to the US. No, he does not get insurance either.

We now have a small, green piece of paper promising that our two boxes will arrive safely in Washington, DC a few days after our return from Timbuktu. And as Muhammad points out, we have his friend’s promise, and Atlas has never lost anything, even in Washington. Why would we need anything else?

December 18, 2007 at 10:23 am Leave a comment

UNHCR Damascus

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

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