Posts filed under ‘Middle East’

Olive Oil

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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.

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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.

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

Christmas

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.

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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.

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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). 

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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

Miracles

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Malika took us to see the house/shrine Wednesday evening. Twenty-five years and two days earlier, a young Greek Orthodox bride (the new husband was Greek Catholic) noticed that her postcard of Mary and baby Jesus had begun to drip olive oil. Rumors began to circulate around the neighborhood, and in a short time, the security services came to investigate. They tore off a small corner of the icon, found nothing unusual, said God is Great, and left the woman with her icon, still standing in a bowl to catch the oil that continued to drip.

Over the years, the house has become a shrine. Mirna has reported visitations from Mary (who speaks in colloquial Arabic) and Jesus (who speaks fusha, the formal language). Pilgrims visit from many places to give thanks, to pray, to ask for Mary’s intercession. The pilgrims include Christians and Muslims alike.

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There is a sign asking that people do not contribute money, and balls of cotton with the special olive oil are freely given. We had just missed the anniversary celebration two days earlier, in which, we were told, hundreds of people held a candlelight procession and prayer service.

But we did get to see the shrine, in the central courtyard space of the family home just outside Damascus’ Bab Touma, in a small neighborhood called Soufanieh. Mirna still lives there with her husband and two children. People are welcome to come any time of the day or night. A small publishing phenomenon has described the olive oil, the icon, the stigmata on Mirna’s body, the messages from Mary and Jesus, and associated phenomena. To get a sense of its scope, Google “Our Lady of Soufanieh.”

December 3, 2007 at 11:19 am Leave a comment

Assad Library, Access to Information

We spent two wonderful evenings with Raghda and Faraj, another of UNC’s terrific group of 2004 Humphrey Fellows. Faraj works as a consultant based in Ramallah, and, as many Palestinians, is “stateless.” He has no passport, and has to work out “coordination” with other governments in order to travel abroad–a bit of a challenge to anyone, especially a consultant who works internationally. The Syrian government refused his recent request, so to see him, we decided to go to Amman again, where he was training teachers in new reading techniques.  When Faraj returned to the West Bank, we left for Damascus.

In addition to the Turkish newspaper published in 1930s Antakya (currently housed in the Antakya public library–I’m still awaiting Turkish government permission to read it) there was also an Arabic newspaper. Hoping to get access to at least one of the newspapers, I took a taxi to Assad National Library, directly opposite the Opera and down the road from the University. I showed my passport to the guard at the security gate, and walked into library, a very modern four-story building. The woman who took my bag sent me to the second floor, where the reference librarian used a computerized catalogue to find not only al-Uraba, the newspaper, but a variety of other books and documents about Antakya, Turkey, and the French mandate.

I had a bit of trouble finding the microfilm collection around the construction of the fourth floor, and when I arrived, the librarian looked at the print-out from the reference desk. She unlocked a microfilm reading room, set up the reader, and told me what kind of information they would need if I wanted copies (3 l.s. a page). I was disappointed to find that the newspaper (which the French shut down in early 1938 after only 117 issues) had many editorials but little actual news and no photographs. I gave the librarians a list of the pages I wanted copies of, and asked where I might find the two other items I was interested in. Sawsan, one of the librarians (the great majority of the library staff is women) walked me from floor to floor, staff member to staff member, trying to help me find out how I could find the materials. When we finally got to the right reading room, the librarian told her that I needed a card.

Oh, no! After repeated requests and months of waiting over the years for permission to use various libraries, I feared this had been too easy. Now they were going to ask me for an application and tell me to wait.  Instead, the library manager, another woman, filled out a slip of paper, told me I could copy some pages but not entire books, and sent us back to the reading room.  Sawsan left me (I was quite grateful for all her help!), the library staff soon brought the books, and I worked for a few hours.

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I wanted to make sure I got to visit the history department at Damascus University, but when the driver let me off, I was very unsure which way to go. I asked directions from a young woman wearing a pink coat, white pants, a pink headscarf and sandals (the weather in Damascus has been warm and beautiful!). Hiba is a student in the English faculty, right next to the History faculty, and she took me all the way into the building and up the stairs. There I met a young professor, Mahmud, who teaches Ottoman history, Ottoman paleography, and modern European history. He offered me tea, explained that the rest of the faculty members had already left for the day, and suggested I return the next day, when he took me to the library, found me an MA thesis on my topic, and introduced me to some colleagues.

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Damascus University is enormous, many thousands of students spread over both academic and professional schools. There seem no real gathering places except an outside park in the center of campus, which was alive with small groups of students walking, sitting, and talking. I am quite grateful to the two women and my new colleague for their help getting through the day.

I have found myself musing intermittently over the past few months on the nature of open societies and police states. Now I have another confusing example: democratic Turkey tightly controls access to information, even published information in public libraries. Syria, on the other hand, allows free public access to published information in public libraries. Turkey blocks wordpress blogs, while Syria blocks blogspot blogs (and for a few days recently also facebook and skype).

December 2, 2007 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

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