Christmas is Syria has certainly been an interesting experience. One of my favorite bits was when I had the opportunity to have my photo taken with Santa on his sleigh. instead of playing ‘silent night’ the speakers were blaring the music from that car advert a few year ago where the vircles transform and skate on a frozen lake. maybe Syria associates ice with Christmas. Maybe it just likes the tune.

Bab Tumas been xmas excited for ages now. the shops have been attempting to sell cheep, badly made, derivative Christmas decorations. Lots of the shops and cafes have Christmas trees and fake snow, which was really odd when Syria was a balmy 15 degrees. I think for westernized Syrians celebrating Christmas is a way of showing how sophisticated they are. Jesus is a major Muslim prophet, but Mezzah, the affluent suburb that the Mahad calls home has as many Christmas trees and snowmen as the Christian quarter.

I mainly spent Christmas eve learning Arabic. I had a privet lesson with my new teacher, who I don’t like who but has some seriously skilled alumni, then went to see R. I took a couple of beers round, and tried to explain the 46 Thorncliffe RD xmas experience to an incredulous but amused R. The Druze don’t really do religious festivals. We did get down to business eventually, but some how were still chilling, listening to good music that happened to be in Arabic, at 3am. Suffice to say I’d missed midnight mass at Mar Mousa.

At only 8.20AM I removed myself from The Fixers bed (hes gone home for Xmas) and started missioning it over to Mar Mousa, a monastery in the desert. While Monks moved into the surrounding caves in the 6th century they didn’t get round to building the church for another 5 hundred years or so. It was abandoned, but its ruins were rediscovered in the 80s by a Jesuit traveling with a seriously out of date guidebook. The setting is increadable, overwhelmingly empty desert for miles around. the monastery is at the top of a rocky hill, cut into by a wadi, which is bridged by the monastery at the top. impressed by the peace of the landscape and the 11th to 13th century frescoes he sat there communing with god for three days, then set about rebuilding it. Hes built up a community of monks and nuns, both catholic and orthodox which has raised some local eyebrows, and does lots of work bridging the divide between muslims and christians.

its quite an athletic hike up to the monastery. I got there at half 12, just as the monks were serving breakfast. i was still bewildered by the clean, beautiful peace of it after Damascus when Frenchy found me, got me a cup of tea, sat me down to eat and told me what I’d missed. aparently midnight mass had been in arabic, then theyed all gone outside at 12 and danced round a bonfire. In the morning the had been another service, again in Arabic, then everyone sat in the church in silance foir an hour. We all helped clean up. A German man at Mar Mousa for a year on sabatical must have taken a shine to me and Sophia; he let us feed the hens, which have a little cave to shelter in.

A novice took us to see ‘his’ cave, where he tries to live. He also showed us the ‘cave of the sleepers, ‘ which they try and have as a more muslim friendly prayer space, Then I went into the church. Sorry to sound hippyfied, but it felt really loving as well as calm. It was a bit like a mosque – you had to remove your shoos to enter and the was no furniture, just sheapskin rugs and upholstered back rests. the layout was mosque like as well, with a feeling of open space, despite the church’s small .size and heavy colloms deliniating the nave. the frescos were beautiful. painted over 150 years the latest ones had arabic spript and showed a strong muslium, almost persian, influnce. instead of an alter two beautiful bibles were laied on the floor surounded by candels and stary cloath. the was a man in there sat in a budist meditation pose, and the whole place was decorated for christmas with candels in coulored glass dangling from the celling.

At dinner, a sit on the floor eastern style fest, I met a couple who’d cycled from Scotland. they claimed they’d cheated – they’d taken a ferry from Italy to Turkey. They ate even more than I did. quite a lot of random kids I knew from the Mahad were there, as well as Frenchy, who I’d planned to meet. A couple of muslim family’s had come to celebrate Christs birthday as well, which was nice, but not altogether easy. liking silence and solitude are western phenomena (theres an Arabic saying ‘hell is being without other people’). the predominantly European crowd were annoyed by some of the Muslim children’s toys, which flashed brightly and made noises. while everyone would have happily told another westerner to behave better no one wanted to offend the Muslims, who had no idea that the was a problem. After dinner Father Pablo, who found Mar Mousa, expounded on his ‘clean hearts, clean toilets,’ philosophy. When the revolution comes toilets wont be cleaned by other nationalities for money, but by empowered people doing out of love. I wiped the ‘table’ mats, swept the pantry and vacumed the eating tent with a machine that looked more like a darlik than a hoover. I don’t know who won gods favor by cleaning the lavatory.s

after dinner I went back to the church, dark now apart from three candles hanging from the ceiling. Frenchy lit a candle from the side, and we sat contentedly gazing into the flame. we both felt though that we should go back to Damascus to do the things we needed to do and come back when we didn’t have any commitments in Cham. Father Pablo called us a taxi and we walked down to meet it. The desert was black but the sky was alive with stars.

we alighted from the servieece at Bab Tuma in time to catch the end of a Christmas concert in the new park that snakes along against the city walls. think big hair, poppy tunes and fully dressed up Santa clauses ringing plastic hand bells attempting to sell Christmas hats that flash the message ‘happy Christmas,’ across them in English. I’ve consequently got an Arabic language version of ‘Jingle bells’ lodged in my head. According to Mariki we’d missed a military style parade with children dressed up as Christmas trees.

My exams are now the third and fouth. confusion rages as to weather the second is a holiday. I’m not going to go back for a course there, and very few of my friends are either, but we are going to do ‘mahad Wednesdays’ and study there together, visit the coffee man, take advantage of the free wifi and see everyone.


You’ve gotta toot for mazoot

Rami yelling at my landlord in Arabic was infinity more successful than my asking him to fix the sobia (stove) in English. he came and did it almost at the time he said he would. The only problem is that all the mazoot (diesel) was in peoples sobias. Hisham and Amet are Syrian/Venezuelan and Turkish respectively. Indeed Amets from Antakia, part of Syria until the eve of world war 2 when the French tried to buy Turkish support by giving them a chunk of Syria, and his grandfather doesn’t speak Turkish, only Arabic. My point is neither of them are crippled by the European expectation that things will work and they haven’t ever been lost and bewildered in Syria. They told me to get mazoot I had to listen for ‘a special toot,’ and thought they’d sorted me out. The other foreigners in my house are also Syrian winter virgins. They have no idea how to buy Mazoot either, and are glad its my problem not theirs. I know the toot for vegetables, the toot that means the blindman is selling tissues, and the random yelling that signifies I can win gods favor by giving the beggar money. But not the toot for mazoot. Hisham says that in Lattakia the mazoot toot has been banned, so now the mazoot salesmen play a certain Ferouz song really loudly instead.
‘Its not beautiful,’ he told a doubtful Paul and me, ‘Its more than beautiful. ‘*

However the other day as I walked back from Paul and Ramis I passed something that smelt like it would sell me mazoot, so today i took our mazoot container (which would make any self respecting health and safety inspector cry) and investigated. I found a van with a pair of 14 year olds happily smoking away in it. ‘Ana bidy asteratu masoot,’ I told them. They burst out laughing, probably because I’d said ‘I want to have brought deisal.’ One of em hoped out, pulled down a flap on the van revealing a mini petrol pump, flicked his cigarette ash and asked me how much I wanted. Que very confused conversation, but eventually he filled it up, fag glued to his lower lip the whole time. I payed and attempted to run away fast; the cigarette was dangerously close to being finished and I don’t wanna die like Zoolanders friends. At this point I understood why the mazoot seller was so reluctant to sell me a gallon of the stuff – you try doing some James bond running and diving away from an explosion while lugging half your body weight in mazoot.
Taxi drivers don’t let people slopping mazoot around get in their taxis, but matha mushkala; some random guy carried it home for me. Sophia and I couldn’t get the Sobia to work, neither could Maria. Amet told us it was broken – Hishams the one who can fix things. Hisham got various spare parts and hybridized the thing.
‘Don’t go in to your room for 10 minutes,’ he told me. ‘The Sobia will probably blow up, but that is normal. Afterwards it’ll be more than perfect.’

In good news the Mahads decided Dec 26th is definitely a holiday, that Jan 1st probably is and Jan 2nd maybe to.

*Hisham finds it almost impossible not to say ‘its not x’ then stare soulfully into someones eyes, anyones eyes, and declare, ‘its more than x’. He particularly likes saying stuffs ‘more than perfect.’ Sophia, Paul and I find this hilarious, and are consequently doing it a lot to. Hisham knows their is a joke, but, despite our efforts to explain, not quite what it is, which makes it funnier still. Paul has his share of Irish charm as well, and I’ve been teasing him about being a charming bastard since we first met. Copying me Sophia has taken to telling them both that they’re ‘so charming,’ which infuriates Paul on the grounds you’d have to be blind not to see straight through Hisham. I find Pauls annoyance, the reason for it and his reluctance to explain it to Sophia not hilarious. Its more than hilarious, as is our total inability to accurately define ‘charm’ for Hisham, Amet and Rami.

Maaoula – Mark 2

Today Ullin, whose been in Syria for not quite two years but can already perform great feats of Arabic speaking, like reading books (even if it takes 3 or 4 months to get through one) and has not only mastered newspaper reading but got bored of doing it, told me that keeping an Arabic language diary is a major key to Arabic success. So I’ve started one and its practically impossible to explain how goddam excited I am about it. clearly it’ll help me master the intricacies of the past tense and, by definition, will grow my vocabulary in a way thats relevant to my life. Oh yeah! Should be good for my grammar too, and will theoretically help me think in Arabic, once I’ve got past the ‘I did X. then I did Y. Then I did Z. It was good’ stage.
Diary entry number 1 had some interesting stuff to go in it as Ullin and I went to Maoula, which was looking more like Switzerland than ever, to enjoy the remnants of the snow. I’d had quiet drinks with some people the night before and Martin showed us the photos of snowy Maoula that he’d taken that day. Martin’s Dutch, not a Muslim and has Arabic so good hes stopped studying the language and is studying Sharia law in it instead. He spent the summer in Maoula, which is cooler than Damascus, learning Aramaic. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, hes an interesting guy.

Ullin and I climbed about on the pink hued rocks and scrunched through the blue tinged snow, making our way up the side of one of Maoulas mountains. It was crisply cold and windswept up top as we looked down the precipice towards the village, me happily chattering about caving. the are two different denominations of Christians living in Maoula, and apparently the is an annual festival during which the rival churches fling burning tires down towards the village from opposite sides of the valley. The group that throw down the most tires wins. According to Ullin tires are less likely to hit the houses than you might think. Although the was less snow than in Martins photos we both enjoyed being out the city and getting some proper exercise. coming back down again was pretty physical as we got a bit lost.
Back in Damascus I met up with Rami so he could mark all my Arabic. Rami walked into my room, shivered and pulled his jacket tight, then touched my heater, bringing it down in a cacophony of falling metal. He asked to speak to my landlord and they shouted at each other in Arabic over the phone, Rami looking at me with a mixture of compassion, bewilderment and early onset hypothermia. The landlord agreed to make it better, and Rami agreed Ninar, a wanky cafe-resturant-bar thing round the corner from mine, might be a better place to work. He liked my diary, mainly because I’d managed to say ‘I’m a fridge.’ My aim for this week is to engage with my fusha ‘vocabulary.’ I’ve collated all the verbs and adjectives I’ve been ‘taught,’ Rami and Paul between them have translated/confirmed the English and now I’m going to learn them.

Walking in a winter wonderland – Sunday

Its been far walmer and dryer than it should have been and Syrias running out of water. the plumbing’s fine in the mornings, but not to be taken for granted after midday. when i moved into my house the was enough water to run the washing machine until 2pm. now if your washing isn’t in it by 9am it ain’t getting done. In the old city the waters been randomly switching from drinkable to less drinkable. Jeramana has had days on end with no water at all. the farmers arn’t happy either.

consequently a prayer drive was organized. throughout Damascus last Fridays prayers begged for rain. some of us think the faithful might have over done it slightly; Damascus is under about 4cm of snow.

it was raining stair rods on my way to the Mahad. at the bus stop i saw what looked like snowflakes mixed in with the water. by the time I’d got to the university it was snowing. by the time I got to the Mahad it had settled. After the break we discovered that an inability to function in snow is something Syria and the UK have in common. the director ran up and down the corridor yelling at us to ‘Go home! Don’t drive!'(minor exaggeration-he wasn’t running). So I did.

I thought that after Montreal snow had lost its ability to dissolve me back into a state of wonder. But In Montreal I’d never seen snow covered palm trees. Never seen Ottoman mosques with their domes under snow. As cool as Montreal is its not got Roman civic architecture standing around awaiting a sprinkling. All Damascus has a party atmosphere. I was invited to huddle round a fire and roast chestnuts with some street sellers out of a Middle Eastern Dickens tale. Hajabies, is a word created by combining Hijab (Islamic clothing) and habibi, the Arabic for darling, and used for girls in tight jeans, full makeup and headscarfs, threw snowballs at each other and tangerines peeped out from beneath the snow.

By the time I made it back to the Old City proper it had started raining and the snow was dissolving. never the less I stood on my roof and looked at the snow covered Jebel Qussan and the remnants of snow on the roofs. Then I wandered round Dimasq attempting, and eventually succeeding, in buying a coat. Shopping was enlivened by the frequent electricity cutouts and the cheers as the generators kicked in. the are just too many people using heaters for the city to handle. By the time I was home the rain had turned back into snow.

On the downside the temperature inside my room is exactly the same as it is outside. We’ve all been huddled listening to music in Hishams room in the dark-hes got an electric heater. Did I mention Damascus’ infrastructures shit? We’re going to install Sobahs bukra, inshalla. Sobahs, diasle stoves of great complexity, sound mildly terrafing. We’ve already put the boys in. This involves putting the chimney pipe through a small hole in the ceiling and connecting it to the stove. As the ceiling is about 4 meters high this is a big game and we got ash all over the entire house. As Sophia and I cleaned we danced to the music in our heads to keep warm, creating a percussion symphony with the beat of out feet, drumming against the fridge and shaking keys. we’re having a lot of sub zero fun, though the is a bit of me thats aware that novelty is always a large part of Sub Zero fun. we’re now all going off to Abu Georges, my faverout bar, because it should be warm.

I’m whereing my caving wellys. The only other person in Damascus with dry feet has plastic bags in their shoes. Oh yeah!

POST SCRIPT-Not Really Early Enough, Monday Morning.

As we spilled out of Ninar I watched Rami making a snowball with approval; throwing things, especially cold wet things, at Paul is always to be encouraged. I don’t think I’ve been quite so surprised to be hit by a flying object in my whole life as i was when Ramis snowball connected with my chest. I chucked my bag at Paul, and Rami and I, the youngest of the group, chased each other up Straight Street (mentioned in the bible), scraping snow off the cars and flinging it at each other. Rami managed a direct hit to my face as Paul advanced, having swapped my bag for a lump of snow. it ended up down the back of Ramis neck. eventually a cold, wet, bedraggled Rami called game over and Sophia and I ran all the way down Sharia Bab Toma to get shwama, me jumping in all the puddles and us both KaKaing like Aberystwyth seagulls. We warmed up again back in the house listening to music, me nagging Rami to borrow my socks, Paul supplying us all with beer. As Hisham put it when I asked ‘keif hyat’ (hows life) ‘its not perfect…its more than perfect.’

Rainy day blues-Saterday

It is pissing it down, something my house is remarkably poorly equipped to deal with. The huge hole over the stairs means its raining inside. The puddle in the hallway is slowly but determinedly advancing towards my room, and I know from experience that water can get in under my door. You have to go outside to get to the toilet and kitchen, the drain outside is clogged and consequently there’s  an ankle deep puddle by the kitchen door. I think the water might have got into the electrics as the light have flashed on and off ominously a couple of times. Also I’m doing my washing, it was nearly dry and’s now soaking.

Damascus is sulking under London skys, and I’m sulking with it.

Mauola – Friday.

In some ways Damascus is Hotel California. the is this core of people who just can never leave. On the other hand people are going all the time and I’ve been to more leaving parties than I can shake a stick at.

Some of the language students hear baffle me. they come with no Arabic, stay 5, maybe 6, weeks and spend a month at the university, then leave with better no Arabic. The Fixer tells me to stop trying to figure them out and just accept the ‘Language Tourists,’ don’t actually want to learn Arabic, just feel good about themselves in Syria.

They are extremely well organised sight sears. The Hotel California lot, including me*, are crap. Bukra my friend, bukra. However the Language Tourists are always keen to organize some Hotel Califiorniks onto there trips. The longer you stay the more desirable you become, as the better your Arabic is, though you also become harder to recruit, having seen more of the sights. As the language tourists are keen hammamers and eaters out I intend to know a couple at all times.

Which is kinda how I found myself going to Mauola, rather than learning some new words. My flat mate Frency, who I really like, is in Syria to get spatial distance between her and her broken heart until time kicks in, asked me if I wanted to join her.

Maoulas claim to fame is being one of three places where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken. clinging to the rocky hills, it’s predominantly Christian. The sights are a monastery and a convent. Maybe its the imminent birthday of our lord, but Mauola was pretty happening, with lots people, Christians and Muslims, at the sanctuarys. Somehow it kinda felt like Switzerland, though the skylines dominated by a huge, precariously positioned statue of the virgin Mary and what looks like a copy of the statue of Christ at Rio.

As far as I’m concerned the point of Mauola is the landscape. All limestone, with lots of little, formerly inhabited caves, some with long decrepit ladders up to them. it had a rather cool canyon leading down to the convent. the guidebook describes it as a mini version of Petras siq, but I thought it was more like St Catherines, (a cave we did in Clare) except with less water and no roof, obviously. The whole countryside was pink rock and the houses clung to the sides of the cliffs in an appealing way. Frency and I got excited about the various textures and enjoyed the cool, crisp air. you don’t notice smog until it goes away. It actually felt like autumn, for pretty much the first time.

The monastery is dedicated to Sts Serge and Baccus, and didn’t have a single doorway sized for normal people. it did have a really beautiful domed thing with lovely icons in perfect coulors over an alter adorned with a pair of eco friendly light bulbs. one assumes the monks find them lower maintenance than candles.

I particularly enjoyed the gift shop, not only was it staffed by someone desperate to get us to try the wine (very sweet) but it sold some of the kitschest Santa Clauses and snowmen I’ve seen this side of a coke advert.

The convents gift shop limits itself to reproductions of its icons, but it does have a cave, the home of st Thalika (who abandoned her fiance for St Paul. she was sentenced to death but the lions wouldn’t eat her, so they tried to burn her but it pissed it down. she ran off, moved into a cave in Maloula, was nearly raped but was saved when the rock behind her opened up to create the canyon). its much later than the monastery, and generally not as good.

We made it back to town in time for a beer at Abu Georges before I went off to meet R. basically Maula rocks the socks of Sedanya.

*My excuse is R is closer to free at weekends.


I’m sat on the roof of my house, thinking that in some ways this is a great country in which to be a woman. The rooftops of the old city are the dominion of women and cats, and it’s beautiful. I’m watching the sunset behind church towers, and further away behind minarets. Soon the lights on Jebbel Qussan, Damascus’ mountain, will come on, it will get too cold to sit outside and Paul and Rami will take Sophia and me to some play. A friend of there is in it (we’ve met and exhausted our linguistic overlap) and Sophia, my newest housemate, is here to finish writing her Master’s thesis on theater. Paul is utterly charmed by the way she talks to herself in French while looking for the word in English and its too good an opportunity for him to pass. Now though it is official sunset and although most of the coulor has faded from the sky the muezzins are calling the faithful to prayer. I can look into the neighbor’s courtyards, into some of their rooms, but as I live in the Christian quarter I see no one praying. Next door to has an olive tree, but what is most appealing about sitting on the roof is the higgledy piggledy arrangement of houses. I can’t work out where the roads fit in. as chance would have it while I can see into all the neighbors only two sets of them can see into ours.

My relative invisibility up here, combined both with the way I can see everything, and the way (consequently) none of the boys I live with are allowed up hear makes it an almost secret place, special at least. Its remarkably quite, it almost feels like I’m not in the city anymore.

Damascus has been here since before the dawn of time, and since before the dawn of time the rooftops have belonged to the women and cats.


Post script

Even by Syrian time the boys were late. The play had, for some unaccountable reason, started on time so we went to the Russian cultural center, laughed at the ‘art’ on display and played pool instead. Pauls excellent, Rami and I are intermittent and Sophias enthusiastic about this strange game she’d never played before. Paul wimped out at the critical moment, but has pretty much stopped beating himself up about it.