Posts filed under ‘Travel’


Our driver began speaking Turkish with me immediately. I asked how he knew Turkish. “I’m a Turk,” he answered. As we made our way through Syrian customs and passport control, he spoke Arabic with the officials. Back in the car, as we crossed into Turkey, I asked when he learned Arabic. “I’m an Arab,” he responded. We arrived in Antakya (Antioch) two hours after leaving Aleppo, half of it at the border. Before the city became part of Turkey in 1939, no border crossing would have been necessary.

The book I’m working on tells the story of how Antakya and the province around it were detached from Syria and joined to Turkey. But it focuses largely on national identities, how people decide to which national group they belong. Our driver made it quite clear that no choice actually needed to be made. He claimed that 70% of the people of Antakya spoke Arabic in addition to Turkish. Since only Turkish is taught in schools, however, many remain illiterate in Arabic.


The city seems much more than a few kilometers from Aleppo. The color is striking on the Turkish side of the border. Syria has a monochromatic color scheme: the streets, the buildings, the walls, are all made of stone, and everything is white. Turks paint their houses, sometimes outrageous colors (lavender apartment blocks?). Turkish signs and billboards are all in Latin characters. And most women don’t cover their heads on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey’s enforced secularization actually prohibits women students and state employees from covering. Women at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya stop at a phone booth right inside the gate to remove their scarves as they enter campus. I waited to make a phone call as one student checked her hair in the little mirror above the phone. She giggled when I asked her if the mirror was hers. Apparently, it is a collective mirror for use after removing scarves on the way in and replacing scarves before going back into the street.


Our days in Antakya were enlightening and enjoyable, thanks largely to our “host,” Koray Cengiz. He runs the local university’s international exchange programs. I found him through “couch-surfing,” a movement my daughter introduced me to. Koray made us a reservation at Mustafa Kemal University’s guest house, scheduled appointments for me with local historians, introduced us to some of his friends, and walked and walked through the city with us. By the end of our visit, we had learned about the Erasmus program, teaching English in Turkey, the city, and the university. He had learned more than he had probably ever wanted to know about Antakya between 1936 and 1939.


  William consults on 1936 map: Where are they now?

William and I walked the routes of the myriad demonstrations during that period, nearly all of which focused on the bridge over the Orontes River. We found the best Iskender Kebab in town (maybe even in Turkey), and sat looking at terrific photos of Antakya in 1940. Our waiter called the phone number attached to the photos, and soon we sat in the office of the photographer looking through prints he had made of his first professional shots, when he was still in his early 20s.

By the end of our stay, I became convinced I had never seen such a bi-national city. On one hand, Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk were everywhere. I was surprised by the huge number of flags displayed, and Koray explained that flags were flying throughout Turkey in response to the recent attacks on Turkish soldiers further east. There were few remaining signs in Arabic, even fewer than we had seen in the summer of 2001 when we stayed in the city for just one night.

On the other hand, the bazaar looks and sounds like Syria’s suqs, though more of the shops have glass fronts. There is a distinctive smell in Aleppo’s markets that I noticed in Antakya, too, some combination of cardamon-flavored coffee beans, roasting nuts and corn, grilling meat, and open barrels of spices.

On the bus back to Antakya from Istanbul, we sat in front of a father and son whose conversation mixed Arabic and Turkish within sentences. As we stood waiting for our bags in Antakya, I greeted the man, explaining that we were living in Aleppo for a few months. He immediately responded with a dinner invitation, which I was sad to have to decline. The amazing propensity toward hospitality seems as ubiquitous among Turks as among Arabs–no national choice necessary.

 Thanks to Russ for posting the previous three entries. really is blocked in Turkey!

November 17, 2007 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

Home Alone


Four Brothers and a Nephew (Juma with beard)

Juma has stopped by twice during the last few days. He was worried about us, he said. Masayo had returned to Japan at the end of September; Makiko and her husband followed ten days later. Ahmad has been gone almost two weeks. William and I are all alone.

For Ahmad’s brother Juma, as he explained during his visits, the goal of life isn’t accumulating wealth. The purpose of life is to live it with people, to have friends and family all around. Now here we were, home alone! He thought we were probably quite lonely.

family.jpg kid1.jpg

Last weekend, we were invited to dinner at a restaurant outside the city. Our host brought along not only his wife and two young children, but also his mother, one of his nephews, his brother, sister-in-law, and their infant daughter. When I told his wife that my daughter Katie is in Istanbul working, she was surprised and sad. Isn’t she lonely? Intisar asked. I explained that in the US, children often leave their parents’ house when they finish high school. This idea seemed quite unacceptable. “We have close families here,” she responded.

When Hala, my wonderful teacher, left Aleppo to go to the university in Latakia, she lived with her aunt. When she finished, she returned to her parents’ home. Young men and young women generally live with their parents until they marry. Our friend Victoria, an Armenian Syrian whose family has been in Aleppo for generations, is about to be married. She and her fiancé have just bought a house blocks away from her parents.

I asked many people what they did to celebrate the Eid holiday that ended Ramadan. Each described the same program. The first day, all of the children and their families go to visit the parents and grandparents. The next day, they go to visit the next circle of relatives. Holidays seem always to be celebrated with family.

My training as an economic historian makes me appreciate the financial benefit of the close connections. Syria has just introduced its first credit card; nearly everything in the country still has to be bought either with cash or with informal credit based on personal trust. There are still no mortgages available for financing the purchase of non-commercial property. To buy a house or begin a business, people seem to rely on intra-family borrowing.


But more than financial necessity, the very close ties among family and friends seem to suggest significantly different attitudes, values, and interactions than the ones I have lived around. Americans who can afford it decorate a separate room for the new baby before s/he is even born, and most often leave their children behind when going out for entertainment. (Here babies and toddlers asleep in their parents’ arms are visible in all public places late into the night–taking your children with you to social events is simply assumed.) Our geographic mobility takes us far away from our own parents, and will likely take our children far away from us. And not relying on others has long been part of an American mantra.

In Syria, as Juma’s concern illustrates, being alone is a state to be avoided. Being surrounded by the people who love you, whether shouting or dancing, is much to be preferred. It is, as he says, the point of this life.

I think he couldn’t understand our delight in having a bit of “alone time.”



After William read the post above, he showed me “Dick and Jane: Leaving the Nest” in Pulp, a glossy monthly we picked up in Jordan. The English-language magazine, published in Amman, focuses on music and entertainment for a twenty-something to thirty-something upscale audience. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have a website. Here is one excerpt:

Jane: People want independence!

Dick: Independence?

Jane: Independence! Haven’t you ever felt so frustrated with being with your parents all the time? …

Dick: This whole grown-up-hence-moving-out phenomenon is a Western social construction. It’s not natural–for US. We stay with our families, we don’t send our grandmothers to nursing homes—our grandmothers stay with us, or at least really close by. Your grandmother is at your house all the time–everyday! So, we’re basing this desire on a system that we don’t have. This super individualism is not part of our culture, as much as others are trying to force it on us for, frankly, their own benefit. Until we have a family of our own and our parents’ house is too small and we become burdens, we stay with our parents.

October 28, 2007 at 7:46 am 2 comments

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

irishpub2.jpg  irishpubsign1.jpg

Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

diner.jpg meccamall.jpg

On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

jarash3.jpg jarash.jpg williamchecksouttheacoustics.jpg jordanianpipes.jpg

No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment


We toured Aqaba our second and last night. Malik, our long-time friend, had invited his cousin along. Basma is a human rights attorney in Jordan who has been insisting on prison reform and women’s rights through both her activism and the cases she has chosen to take pro bono. The four of us had dinner, then drove to what Malik called the “suq,” which looks like a downtown main street. Aqaba has been declared a tax free zone, making everything there cheaper than elsewhere in Jordan.


People were out in large numbers, buying gifts and the necessities for Eid, the three-day celebration that ends Ramadan and will begin either tonight or tomorrow night when someone sees the new moon that indicates the start of the new month, al-Hijja (month of the haj).

Malik’s best friend Arif met us downtown and took us to Aqaba’s brand new mall on the outskirts of town, mysteriously named “Aqaba City Center.” Basma was trying to find information on new digital cameras, and we were along for the ride. (We also found a supermarket with vanilla extract and baking powder, two things unavailable anywhere in Aleppo.)  While downtown was jammed and jumping, the mall was very quiet.


I asked to look at the Crusader-era fortress that Faysal’s forces had struggled so hard to liberate, according to the movie at least. It is quite small. A plaza has been built on the water nearby to celebrate the “Great Revolt,” and a huge, special Great Revolt Flag waves over it. A nearby nightclub was playing local music quite loudly, and the plaza was full of people.

All five of us went to the Royal Dive Club, formerly a private facililty of the Royal Family, which they handed over for others’ use. From the pier that juts into the Gulf of Aqaba, an arc of lights indicates Jordan’s Aqaba, Israel’s Eilat, Egypt’s Taba, and just beyond the last green neon, Saudi Arabia’s Tabuq (5 km away). Arif told me that there were efforts to create an infrastructure to coordinate the needs of the four countries’ ports. (He also told us that local people are ambivalent when the US Navy makes its annual appearance at the Saudi port for joint exercises; though they disapprove and dislike American policy in the region, the annual event is great for Jordan’s struggling travel industry. Why is Jordan’s travel industry struggling? I asked. It’s because people think all the countries here are Iraq, he said. They don’t realize that we are very stable; people aren’t traveling to the region at all.


The lights of Israel’s Eilat, just across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Jordan’s Aqaba.

The remarkable proximity of the four countries was startling, even after spending years looking at Middle East maps.  The lights of Eilat seemed visible everywhere; in the daylight, the mountains of Egypt seemed very close.   Back on the beach, the Diving Club’s big tent with couches, tables, and large pillows provides a comfortable place to sit while drinking coffee or wine, and listening to whatever the DJ plays. (You can ask him for your favorite music, Malik told William, but he will play his own anyway.) Over coffee, we talked about the causes of continuing regional conflict, and the ways to begin solving them, and the need for more academic, citizen, and journalist exchanges.


We said goodbye to Arif, and the next morning to Muhammad Sea and the staff, and had a nearly-uneventful trip back to Amman (until the car began making dreadful scraping noises.  It is in the shop now.) 

October 13, 2007 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment


I understand now why Petra is included in the recent list of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Back up the road to Amman for almost 100 kilometers, we got a better look at the mountains, the goats, the donkeys, the intermittent bedouin tents, and the occasional camel-crossing warning sign. The road past Wadi Musa (where some say the biblical Moses brought water from the rock) is quite beautiful, passing through a number of small villages and two huge international hotels before descending, descending down to the visitors station of Petra. This is a national monument that the Jordanian government is clearly interested in both preserving and promoting. Admission is a bit pricy for foreigners ($30 each; Jordanians pay about $1.50).


The upper plaza is open to the sun, which was still very hot in mid-October. The walking path descends for a while before entering the Siq, a canyon paved by the Nabateans and the Romans after them, whose high walls provide shade and cool. This was the place where the Nabateans processed during religious ceremonies, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. The cliff faces on both sides rise sharply in many colors simultaneously. An open pipe carved into the rock at waist-level all along the Siq provided water to the Napatean capital.


The narrow Siq ends abruptly directly in front of what appears to be a fabulous classical building. But it wasn’t built, it was carved, carved into the stone faces. The Nabateans were spectacular carvers, and Petra displays an amazing intersection between a spectacular natural rock formation and a creative and skilled human effort. The carved building facades are quite beautiful. In some, the combination of the swirling stone coloring and the carvings made them look like something Dr. Seuss might have consulted on. We didn’t walk all the way to the Temple, but did see a number of tombs and a Nabatean ampitheater that the Romans expanded. We tried to imaging what it might have been like living in this city, what people might have eaten, how they would have used the spaces.


The Nabateans were a tribe from Arabia, whose empire stretched from Damascus south to the center of Arabia and lasted from the second century BC through the second century AD. Petra, the capital city, remained important well after the empire was assimilated by the Romans in 106 AD . A pre-Islamic Arab tribe whose writing seems to have prefigured early Arabic script, the Nabateans are an important symbol of the kind of identity the Kingdom of Jordan emphasizes.

The city is spread along a valley and up into the hillside, houses, tombs, and public buildings all carved into the stone. Vendors offer coffee, tea, soda, and souvenirs at various places within the monument. One young man from the neighboring town approached us, his arms full of necklaces, speaking English. Malik explained that he belongs to a local tribe that thrives on the tourist industry, each member knowing how to speak many languages. As we admired his wares, he talked to Malik. Their business is local, he explained. They make their jewelry from local stone, camel bone, and camel teeth. The government was thinking about allowing big firms to take over the souvenir trade in Petra, he told Malik. Why don’t they just provide support to the local craftspeople instead?


We were tired, and decided to hire another young man with a horse carriage to take us back up, up to the entrance. The horse seemed very tired. At one point he handed Malik the reins, instructing him how to drive, then left briefly to talk with someone. When we got to the Roman road, he took them back–we understand why Romans had big wheels. (We didn’t!)

Suddenly, a rider galloped past us, quite a feat inside the Siq! He called to our driver, who gave up the reins and ran after him. Seems they were both trying to get to a horse that had run off. Our driver disappeared. Malik, and then William, drove the slowest horse at Petra. We must have looked quite cute, as people from a large busloads of Israeli tourists kept stopping to photograph us. I think it was our speed–our horse was apparently used to drawing an Amish-style cart and moved at that rate.

As we approached the end of the road, we began wondering what we would do with this horse, whose driver was nowhere to be seen. He appeared at the last moment, took the payment, and introduced himself as “Dr. Love.”

October 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm 1 comment

Muhammad Sea


The road from Amman to Aqaba is rocky desert, beige, and tedious until a few kilometers south of Ma’an, when it seems the tall scraggy mountains converge on the car from both sides of the road. Actually, it resembled closely the desert out the windows on the road from Damascus to Jordan the day before. It was late afternoon on Tuesday by the time we left Amman. Aqaba is Jordan’s not only Jordan’s only port, but also the country’s only access to the sea, and the road between Amman and Aqaba is filled with trucks. At sunset, we passed trucks parked along the side of the highway for nearly a kilometer, their drivers breaking the fast. One group had gathered together on stools on the shoulder, cooking from a camping stove on the truck.

The darkness prevented our seeing much beyond the immediate roadside from Ma’an to Aqaba, and we went immediately to Malik’s favorite restaurant. It was 10:00 when we arrived at Dune Beach Village to celebrate William’s birthday. Dune Beach Village is a collection of small cottages with terrific views of the Gulf of Aqaba. The owners had been displaced from their previous sites when large multinational hotel chains began building on the prime seaside property in town. People like Muhammad Sea moved further outside of town, and have created a comfortable alternative to elite hotels. When I asked Muhammad how he had become interested in diving, he told me his story.



William and Muhammad Sea

Muhammad Sea grew up in a family bedouin in Wadi Rum. He couldn’t seem to get the answers right in his three years in school; when he refused to return because the teachers kept hitting him for his errors, his parents let him stay home, help with the other children, and learn to tend the camels. Soon after his father died, he went for a month to stay with his sister, who had married a member of their tribe living in Aqaba. Muhammad was quite taken with the sea and the city, and urged his mother to move. Muhammad tried his hand at fishing, but didn’t like being under someone else’s (the captain’s) orders. He did learn to swim.

He explained that he was looking for something he could do in his country, to encourage people to appreciate Jordan and all it had to offer. He went to Egypt to learn to dive, and when he returned, Muhammad set up Aqaba’s first dive expeditions. I found the story of bedouin-camel-herder-to-scuba-dive-instructor so unlikely I asked Malik if he just made up these stories to amuse tourists. Malik reassured me that Muhammad’s story was true. Muhammad added, “I grew up between mountains and stones, not between McDonalds and Pizza Hut.”

Within a short time, Muhammad was taking trips overseas with new friends. One Australian girl he befriended took him to Amman for a visa so he could visit her country. At that time, he said, he had never seen Amman and did not know where Australia. He is now well-traveled (his favorite places in the world are the Sinai Desert and Damascus), and talk of his first visit to Amman sent him off on another story.

Back in the 1960s, Muhammad’s father came home one day and reported seeing strangers visiting near their place at Wadi Rum. As was the custom, his father slaughtered some sheep and goats and his mother began preparing bread and food. (Muhammad explained that men take care of the killing of animals and the coffee-making, and women make bread and rice and everything else needed for the meals.) After dinner, the strangers took part in a local ritual of setting the heads of the animals some distance away for target-shooting competition. When it was Muhammad’s father’s turn, he refused, saying he couldn’t shoot their kind of guns. They suggested he get his own, which he did, and got the best shot. As the strangers were leaving, King Hussein invited him to the palace in Amman for a visit. (The other two guests turned out to be Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, in Wadi Rum to shoot scenes for Lawrence of Arabia). Muhammad’s father explained to the King that he never traveled without his knife and gun, so Hussein wrote and signed a letter asking people to permit him to come to the palace wearing his weapons.

Muhammad explained how his father had to show the letter to the bus driver, the hotel manager, the Amman taxi driver, and the royal guards in order to be permitted to continue at each step. He did finally get to see the King, who was pleased to see him again and gave him 300 Jordanian dinars with instructions to buy provisions and distribute them among the bedouin of Wadi Rum.

jordanmap.pngFrom Wikipedia

October 11, 2007 at 1:54 pm Leave a comment

To Damascus

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.


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.


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.”

damascusparty.jpg  damascusanis.jpg

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.


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!

September 15, 2007 at 11:01 am 2 comments

Visa Extending

Today was the day to go to the immigration office to try to get our visas extended. There is no “security” in the building, no metal detectors or body searches. (We had noticed this at the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, too. We walked right in off the street and no one even checked our bags.) The first floor is for Syrian passport applications and renewals. The second floor is for foreigners trying to extend visas and get identification cards.

People walking, waiting, and talking in the long corriders and by the long counters were wearing the most diverse kinds of clothing. Kurdish women and bedouin women wearing colorful dresses and headscarves, men with long jalabiyas and checked scarves, people dressed in western-style clothing with heads uncovered, women wearing long black coats (it’s in the 90s here) and scarves that cover their faces, and the Gulf women–I’ve not yet understood how they can make those long black dresses, black scarves, and spiked heels look so distinctive, distinguished, and elegant.

We had gotten eight copies of our photographs from the man with the camera in the courtyard, collected both required forms, and were waiting in the downstairs lobby for Ahmad to finish his passport renewal when a man in uniform with three stars on his shoulders spoke to us in Spanish. When we obviously didn’t respond to his entreaties, an old village woman tried the same thing (I think) in sign language. When he tried in Arabic, it became clear that he wanted us to go down the hall and to the right. We stood in the hallway until he arrived and showed us into his office.

Syrian hospitality and friendliness toward foreigners is really quite remarkable. When he learned I was a history professor, he was delighted. He had studied history, Middle East history, in Chile (hence the Spanish). He wanted to know why we were in Syria, how we liked Syria, what we would be doing here, and insisted that we drink tea. The conversation became more detailed when Ahmad appeared. Our host talked about the history of Syria, its tremendous importance in the world’s past, the importance of all the varied groups in the Middle East working together. He quoted the second Caliph, ‘Umar, on protecting people during war, and talked about Syria’s historical tolerance for others. Then he insisted we drink orange juice. When two other men from his village came, he greeted them, we all drank orange juice, and they sat opposite us and listened.

Somehow, it seemed clear to everyone that the conversation was over, and everyone rose to leave. Our host walked with us to the officer upstairs, who sent someone with us to the long queue. We waited there, two Americans and dozens of Iraqis, while our various forms were signed and stamped, stapled, copied and approved. It is a bit awkward, waiting in lines with Iraqis who are trying to get permission to live in Syria because of what my country has done to theirs.

When we returned to thank our host, he offered to take us to see some of Syria’s historical sites. I left hoping Syrians receive the same kind of treatment at a US immigration office.

August 25, 2007 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Ahmad’s House

Ahmad is an artist and a designer, who put aside his paintbrushes a few years ago to devote his full energy to restoration, especially of his own house.  I feel like I’m living inside his art. 

From the street, all one can see is a door and two small windows one story above ground level.  Through the door, one enters a small room with a marble-decorated floor and many plants, roofless, from which a set of stairs leads off to the right, and a small doorway beckons straight ahead.  Up those stairs, past a terrace, is a large apartment where a Japanese couple is living for a few months while working in Aleppo. 

Through that next door, one enters the open courtyard, with its white stone floor, beige stone walls, central fountain (Ahmad’s design), dozens of plants, and a grapevine trained over a steel frame above the courtyard to provide summer shade.   

Each time I enter the courtyard, I’m struck by how that anonymous door on the street leads into a private, colorful, quiet space. 


On the wall opposite that internal doorway, Ahmad has carved poetry, painted shutters, and created a remarkable geometric screen over the upper windows.  Inside is our room, a large functional space (with a bed–also his design, sofa, table, desk, bathroom) in which he has invested an enormous amount of time, painting the wall and ceiling panels and restoring old decorative elements.  Beneath our room, Ahmad has his own. 


To the right on entering the courtyard, the Japanese couple lives upstairs, and another room at ground level is currently occupied by a graduate student on a summer internship, also from Japan.  Opposite their rooms, the left (west) side of the courtyard, is a high wall. 


Next to that inner door is the traditional aywan, a space created in Arab houses to provide a shaded area for food and conversation.  Ahmad has restored and installed seating, carved decoration into the stone arch, and painted a remarkable geometric design on the ceiling.  Just past the aywan is the kitchen we share with the student, and above that, The Tower.  The Tower is one small air-conditioned room with a bed, a wooden table, a chair, those two windows onto the street, and my dictionaries, to which I am expected to disappear for most of each day to finish The Book. 


Ahmad has created a studio in one of the cavernous basement areas, where we get to watch his work in progress.  It’s been fascinating to hear his views on restoration and redesign.  Do old structures have to be restored in ways that rigorously adhere to some absolute sense of past architectural styles?  If all those eras also drew on the work of those who had come before, couldn’t restoration be freed from the arbitrary strictures of an antiquarian outlook?   

At another level, Ahmad is completely practical.  He has created the infrastructure needed to bring a 17th century house up to 21st century standards, installing electricity and plumbing, creating a solar hot water system, and developing a massive steel framework above the courtyard to allow him to alter the courtyard climate with the seasons, a canvas overhang to protect from the summer sun, a plastic sheet to keep off rain and limit cold in winter.

August 8, 2007 at 4:55 pm 2 comments


Ahmad took us to “New Town” last night, marking our introduction to a third type of shopping in Aleppo.

So far, in our time in Aleppo, we had shopped in Aleppo’s centuries-old covered suq.  Walking east on the main street from the in-suq hotel, spice sellers lined both sides of the one-lane road, followed by a row of butchers, before one entered the textile suq, where you could purchase blankets, tablecloths, sheets, scarves, and clothing.  Aleppo’s suq extends many kilometers; there a sections where tailors work (an old roman prison; each has what used to be a cell open onto the street), sections to purchase cosmetics, rope, shoes, jewelry, antiques.  Few tourists come to Aleppo; the suq is filled with people from the surrounding countryside coming to furnish a new home or acquire everything needed for a wedding.  Bare-headed men in western dress mix with men wearing distinctively Kurdish baggy pants and others with long gray or white jalabiyas whose heads are covered with red and white checked scarves. The suq isn’t just for shopping: the Umayyad mosque is partly within the structure, many workshops remain on the outskirts, men roast meat for hungry shoppers, and sweet-sellers are everywhere.

Just outside the main suq, single-focus shops still predominate, clustered with other, similar shops.  We have walked through blocks where many shops sell only plumbing fixtures and supplies, while shops on neighboring streets offer electronics, produce, building supplies, kitchen equipment, school and office supplies.  You go to the street that offers the thing you’re looking for.

The second type of shopping relies on small neighborhood grocers who sell bread, cheese, yogurt, eggs, biscuits, rice, sugar, tea, toilet paper, things one needs every day.

Those are the ways we had shopped in our previous two weeks in Aleppo.

But buried in the middle of one of Aleppo’s newest sections is the “Supermarket.”  At 9 last night, the first floor was crowded with whole families pushing carts in narrow aisles, men and women and children together.  “New Town” seems to have it all in one structure: many options for tea and coffee (the green packages have cardamon, they aren’t decaf), biscuits, rice, all the things one would get at the corner store, but more options.  There was a meat and cheese counter, where butchers cut meat to order and deli people prepared salads and packaged cheese on request.  A cookie/candy counter attendant offered to weigh sweets, and an employee ground coffee beans to specifications (William didn’t realize he was being asked about adding cardamon.)  Foreign foods were displayed on the aisles: prepared mustards, mayonnaise, soy sauce, breakfast cereals (Fruit Loops in Arabic).  No wine, no bacon.  There were housekeeping items, soaps, plastic wraps–all in about half the space of a non-super-store grocery in the US.

The second and third floors offered most everything imaginable.  Pots and pans, dishes, cosmetics, electronics (we found a drip coffee-maker!), clothing, jewelry, flashlights.  The DVD section had a large sign offering the new release of “Hary Boter.”

It’s a high-energy place.  While the fixed prices are a bit of a relief after the bargaining required for the suq, the environment seemed somehow more demanding.  By the time we left, I had that glazed-over look that Katie tells me I develop whenever I’m at Walmart.

The store manager found us somehow, gave us a huge welcome, and insisted that we sign up for the promotional event, a raffle to receive a brand new car.  The thought of driving in Aleppo is daunting, but we signed up for the raffle and left thinking about shopping and economic transitions.

August 5, 2007 at 5:20 pm Leave a comment

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