Hellie and I have had a pretty action packed week, the first highlight of which was Palmyra, ‘The bride of the desert.’ It was indeed pretty spectacular, but had enough detail and small bits to allow you to get a handle on it.
I’d collected Hellie from the airport and we walked back to mine for an early Christmas. Lots of my friends had given Hellie cards for me, and they make me feel very loved. ACC seem to have had a paper and glue session, with lots of pictures of ‘social caving’ in their cards. my Neapolitan room looks much better adorned with them, a felt bat I assume Fran made me and a bottle of Potholer, all the way from Mendip. ‘Christmas’ nicely filled in the time till the first bus left for Palmyra at 6am.
A few hours and some bad sleep later we disembarked, found a hostel and hit the ruins by 10am. I’m going to cut the description short, partly as I don’t want to bore you but also because words utterly fail to convey its magic and beauty. We saw two tour groups and four sets of independent travelers on our first day there. It was nice having it so empty, but deeply disconcerting.
A highlight of our day was was strolling up the main street looking at the improbably blue sky above the low horizon, clouds framed by the colonnade, then walking through a hole in the town wall and finding an almost intact tomb tower with stairs that allowed us to scramble to the top and look at the whole site underneath us as we chatted.
our plan was an afternoon nap before viewing the ruins at sunset. As we went to bed at 4pm we toasted Hellies first 12 hours in Syria, only for her to sleep for her next 12!
our hostel was well located for a bevy of mosques to wake us at dawn, the call to prayer as iery and as beautiful as ever. Syria had put its clocks back the night Hellie arrived and predictably was confused by it. As part of this the mosques had woken us up well before dawn, and we had ample time to wander through the ruins under the stars, before choosing a place to sit to watch the sky lighten. The romance was enhanced by a Bedouin leading a camel up the colonnaded street. One of his fellow tribesman cruised by us on a motorbike.
‘Sabah hlkhra’ I said politely.
‘Sabah hlnoor,’ he replied, meaning, rather appropriately, ‘morning of light.’
We saw him repeatedly throughout the day. when we were visiting the valley of the tombs he thought we hadn’t had nearly enough warm gear on in the morning and gave us some directions, then later he eventually motored after us to tell us about an easier walk up to the castle on a volcanic crater that adds drama to Palmyra backdrop. Even though we were the only tourists the touts were so amazed that we’d walked up that they forget to try and sell us crap.
Before we headed out to the tombs and the castle the sky came alive with color as we walked through the ruins, laughing at the improbability of it all. As my grandmother had given Hellie 40 quid to wine and dine me we breakfasted an olive stone through from the ruins, at a posh hotel. everyone was confused by us, an affect we repeatedly had on people. the tables closest to the windows were reserved for a tour group, who pulled down the curtains to stop the sun getting into their eyes, so we sat outside, huddled under shawls like a pair of Victorian maiden aunts. we got Grans moneys worth from the buffet breakfast.
on our return from the castle we wandered through the oasis itself, on a raised path next to the carefully channeled, egg scented stream, looking at the pomegranates and dates, getting occasional glimpses of the ruins over the top of the palms and discovering a mosque nestling in them. We saw a man harvesting the dates. He was so surprised to see us he practically fell off his ladder, and almost begged us to take his photo.
Emerging from the palms we took a last look at the ruins and visited the museum and got on a bus back home so I could go to the Mahad and Hellie could explore the old city.
Back in Damascus a friend of mine had promised to take me to a poetry reading and introduce me to someone who edits an English language newspaper. Unfortunately she wasn’t there and I don’t think I did my job prospects any good at all when I removed the education editors hand from my leg and explained that i didn’t intent to discuss my privet life with him. this being the end to one of those interminable conversations I think of as very Arab where the point is circled repeatedly I missed quite a lot of the reading.
Hellie and I had expected striped pine, leather sofas and a young, bright crowd posing with poetry as a background.
The was leather furniture, and a lot of the crowd were young, but otherwise we discovered that thing about ‘assume making a fool of you and i’ or however you spell it. Everyone was listening to the poetry with an intensity only rivaled by the dedication they put into chain smoking and staring at Hellies hair. practically everyone was male. The drink of choice was Arak, and the was clearly no coffee to be had.
Arabic is a natural language for being rude in (perhaps why Arabs have spent so much time inventing elaborate ways of being polite) and for declaiming. A lot of the delivery was beautiful, and I even understood what some of the poems where about. we both enjoyed it once we’d got over our surprise. it was certainly an ‘interesting cultural experience.’
Other Damascus highlights included our trip to the hammam and the shia mosque in the old city, where enough of Hellies hair peeped out of her hood that some pilgrimages wanted there photo taken with her.
Soon though Lebanon beckoned for the weekend. One of my friends here said what he liked best about Lebanon was that, unlike in Syria, the girls had legs, what he found most confusing was the lack of Arabic on signs, and the whole thing felt European. we were keen to find out the truth. The best bit of our trip over the border was almost a disaster. for some reason we were kicked off the bus. we quickly established that we were not at the Charles Helou bus stop and that Hellies cash card was enabled for Libya, not Lebanon (the guy at her bank had warned her he took his holidays in Cornwall). with no hope ourselves of finding our location on one of the LP Beirut maps we dodged the traffic and went in to MacDonalds.
The boys working at MaccyDs eventually orientated us… On the map of Mount Lebanon and the Charouf. we asked about public transport into town. much impassioned Arabic followed and they concluded the was none. None of the MaccyDs boys understood what had happened. My Arabic didn’t really clear anything up, but it did charm them. Yet more impassioned Arabic. In the kitchen some people seamed to be getting out some old bike helmets.
‘fee mooterbike’ a man said
‘nham,’ and ‘yeah,’ Hellie and I replied respectively.
eventually it was decided that the best solution would be to allow the MacDonalds delivery boys, Ahmed and Hissan, to finish work early, put us on the back of there scooter and motorbike respectively and drive us to the hostel. Hellie, grinning, and I looked at each other.
‘I’m having the scooter, ok? I’ll loose my flipflops on the back of the bike.’
‘ok’ Hellie replied.
Away we went.
in terms of architecture, immigration and town planning the second half of the 20th century has not been kind to Beirut. While Damascus beguiles with alleyways and souks massive Beirut’s style is more about underpasses and flyovers that give a view over a sea of lights, of building sites, of huge, new, floodlit buildings and pockmarked remnants of any one of Lebanon’s wars. In short it is the perfect sprawl to view from the back of a bike.
‘Football Stadium’ Ahmed yelled to me as we sped past a building sporting a poster bearing the legend ‘Beirut by bike.
I just laughed for the joys of being young and alive, Hellie whooping behind me.
Eventually the boys rode next to each other and conferred. Do we want to have a coffee and nargela (a kind of waterpipe, called a shesha in Egypt and Israel)? We thought paying would be a good way to show our gratitude. A few swerves later and our expectations were confounded. our boys had taken us to Ahmeds brothers nargella delivery service. its ran out of a shipping container adorned with a parot called Coco and a poster of Hissan Nisrallia of Hizbolla fame, under a flyover which keeps the rain off the outdoor sofas and armchairs. The boys explained how they’d come to bring home two girls, instead of some left over Bigmacs and the brother produced two cups of espresso, the first proper coffee I’ve had in along time. We watched nargellas being put into baskets on scotter and cans of coals being ballenced in the footwell for lads to drive to destinations unknown as the boys tried to convince me to marry Hissan Nisrallia. I protested I was too young, but they assured me no matter what your age Hezbollahs secretary general would make the perfect husband.
We’re well aware that one is not supposed to behave like we did in the whole Beirut episode outlined above. we are totally unrepentant, though had rather more conventional fun in Balbaak and Tripoli.
After exploring Tripoli we crossed back into Syria in time for one last chilled day and a last night out (enlivened by us getting ourselves interviewed by the BBC for a program on unsavory aspects of the regime&its relationship with the people) before Hellie had to get on a plane.
This week I’ve mainly been being ill. I’ve either been asleep or at the Mahad, but i’m getting better just in time for the Mahad to announce its extending the Eid el Fitah holiday from 3 days and a weekend to 5 days and 2 weekends just as we left for the first of those weekends. Sahar, a friend from back in the day who I haven’t seen for years, and I had amazing Jordan based plans for the holiday but eventually realised they were for the wrong dates and neither of us can make them. Oops, though it does mean I can catch up with my Arabic in time for the exams. after a week of good times and a week of illness it needs it. really though I’m going to Lebanon, hopefully getting some caving in this time, though I’ve been too ill to really sort anything out.