Posts filed under ‘Travel’

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

Istanbul

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Istanbul

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It’s difficult to write about Istanbul. I arrived for the first time 25 years and one month ago as a graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship hoping to carry out dissertation research in the Ottoman archives. I’m sure that I was struck then by the strangeness of the city, the challenge of the language, the confusion that results whenever such large groups of people share the same space, to say nothing of the frustration of the bureaucracy that refused me access to the archives for three months, and the remarkable camaraderie and generous assistance of all twelve of the regulars in the Ottoman reading room when I was finally permitted entrance.  (The archives some years ago moved to a larger location with better light, and when I last visited, almost 100 researchers were working there.  Some things haven’t changed–I’m again waiting for research permission, this time to use published newspapers in a public library.)

I’m no longer struck by the city’s strangeness, which may be partly because Istanbul has changed; it’s probably more because I’ve fallen in love with Istanbul over the years, and perhaps because I’ve now spent time in places even less familiar.  

Istanbul is beautiful, stunning, shockingly appealing. We approached it this time from Anatolia, riding the train for many kilometers from the furthest suburbs into the heart of the city, then taking a ferry across the Bosphorus to the old city. The skyline has changed in the past 25 years–sort of. To the right, there is a second bridge connecting Asia and Europe; straight ahead there are large skyscrapers jutting above the older buildings. To the left, though, are those seven hills and their spectacular domes and minarets. At the risk of sounding like one of those nineteenth-century Orientalist travelers, I admit that the view of the old imperial capital from the water is breathtaking.

I had three goals for this trip. I wanted to spend time with Katie, who is teaching English in Istanbul; I needed to talk with colleagues about some research questions before finishing the last chapters; and I planned to make some logistical arrangements for the student group I hope to bring with me to Turkey for seven weeks this summer.

Katie is wonderful. So is her school. The day after we arrived, she took us to see the place she works, and rumors circulated that Katie’s mother was visiting! I was reminded of that first time, when Katie was a toddler, that I heard a child’s loud whisper in an auditorium, “That’s Katie’s mom!” I’ve been quite delighted to be “Katie’s mom” ever since. Now some of her more courageous young students stood outside the door to the English department office, trying to catch a look. Two actually came inside, probably 4th graders, who ventured to answer my questions about their names and their favorite football teams. (Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have been engaged in fierce competition this season.)

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We saw her house, up five longer-than-usual flights of stairs in an old building on the Asian side of the city, in the not-yet-gentrified outskirts of Moda. Her house is in the process of becoming heated and furnished, and the neighborhood is terrific. She walks through a wonderful fish and vegetable market on the way up the hill every day as she returns home from work. She has developed a new set of friends, partly through work, partly through old friends (Katie came for the first time 21 years ago), partly through the local couch-surfing group.

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William and I were staying far from the real world of Istanbul, in the part of the old city near the great monuments most frequently haunted by carpet dealers. Within five minutes of stepping out, someone finds a new and creative way to suggest you go into his shop to look at his rugs. As I found myself warning new tourists about these men, I realized that I must sound quite like them when I suggested that the new tourists go to my long-time carpet-seller friend instead to look at his carpets!

William has been sorely missing the NFL season, and we were delighted when Katie invited us to visit one of her friends and watch a Packers game. Our Turkish host was little interested, but William was thrilled.

The rest of my time was spent walking, drinking Turkish tea, talking with friends about my book, and making arrangements for the summer. That summer plan made it just a bit easier to leave Istanbul this time.

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November 20, 2007 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

To Istanbul

We decided to try the train to Istanbul, but the closest place to get it is Adana. The bus ride from Antakya to Adana took me through places I’d been reading about for years, the mountain pass town of Belen, the port city of Iskenderun/Alexandretta, Dörtyol right on the previous border between Syria and Turkey. We got to Adana just in time to eat some spicy kebab, try the locally-favored beverage (salty turnip juice), sit in the “wait foring room,” as the sign read, and chat with the staff before boarding a sleeping car for the 19 hour trip.

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The trip was so wonderful we decided to return by train, too. We were accompanied by a large group of women on their way to an Amway convention in Istanbul. They had brought huge quantities of their own food, and took over the dining car and kitchen, laughing and talking as they prepared a spicy bulgar/vegetable/hot pepper paste dish I had never seen before.

The scenery was spectacular. I’d once driven through the Taurus mountains, but was so nervous about the trucks that I didn’t appreciate it as I should have. This time, we sat watching out the window (when we weren’t watching the food preparation).

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November 19, 2007 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

Antakya/Antioch

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.

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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.

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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.

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  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.  WordPress.com really is blocked in Turkey!

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

Home Alone

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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.

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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.

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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.”

—–  

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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

Aqaba

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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