What the eye doctor sees

Yesterday was a hastily arranged national holiday. It allowed the people to take part in the planned demonstrations of support for the Government. According to Syria TV (which, according to one of my students ‘is reporting from paradise’) there were 2million out on the streets of Sham, and 1 million in Aleppo. Both cities have populations of roughly 6 million (and I am not getting involved in the never ending argument about what does, and does not constitute part of Damascus). It certainly looked massive on TV, although a (Syrian) friend of a friend lives in the official university accommodation, known as the ‘medina,’ or city, which has a curfew and all sorts of other things designed to stop the party. She says that all of the students were told that they absolutely had to go to the rally, and couldn’t stay in the accommodation. She missioned back to her village and is hoping the authorities didn’t notice her absence.

Today I met my friend from the mosque to have lunch and watch the president give a speech to the Parliament. It turns out that punctuality isn’t one of ‘Abu Hafez,’ as his supporters are now calling him, many virtues. We watched in a restaurant and everyone was transfixed. My friend says she cannot remember him ever giving a speech to the people; he always does it out of sight somewhere. He does look very shy. I, and I think a lot of Syrians, find him strangely endearing, a tendency I’m fighting against. As someone pointed out, just because he looks like a Disney mouse doesn’t mean he’s got any legitimacy, He should be head of his local Specsavers*, not Syria.

Anyway, we were pretty disappointed by his speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by deputies telling him how great he was, much to his embarrassment. My favourite was the politician that told him that the Arab countries were too small for such a man to lead, he should lead the whole world, I’m sure no one (apart, perhaps, for his mum) has ever told Cameron that. Assad blamed outsiders for fermenting a plot, using what’s been happening elsewhere where as cover, announced it was defeated, said no blame can be attached to the people in Dera, announced some economic benefits, assured us he’d have made them anyway, shook the hand of every single MP and left, driving his own car.

*he’s a British trained eye doctor.

 

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Parties and protests

There should really have been a post in between my last two. I’ve moved (entirely in Arabic, I’m hoping that I don’t have any nasty surprises about the electricity bill) to a little flat just outside the by no means picturesque but none the less lively district of Jermaana. Its pleasingly foreign – I’m about 10 minutes walk away from owning a monkey!

 

On Friday night the whole neighbourhood turned into a pro-Bashar rally. Cars waving Syrian and Baath party flags raced up and down the road that forms the backbone of the settlement with whole families hanging out of them chanting ‘God, Syria, Bashar and only,’ and ‘my soul, my strength for you Bashar.’ Men stood on the roofs and bonnets of slower moving cars and a budget version was devised by three boys with a bicycle, who somehow managed to stand one of themselves on it. Religious minorities have done well in Assad’s Syria, and Jermaana is predominately Druze with a large Christian population. However like the ‘real people’ demonstrating at the mosque, the was a fair few headscarved women, including five in a car that also managed to get three men hanging out the windows and four children in the boot. Some of the vehicles were big, white 4x4s with tinted windows that scream ‘security’ in any language and some of the hooting was probably because of frustration about the traffic, which was stationary as people danced in the road. Others walked past the whole parade like it wasn’t there, or just stood and watched it. Al Jazeera is reporting that upper-class Syrian liberals are saying that pro-government rallies are theatrical spectacles arranged by the regime, and to an extent this is true. However the government does genuinely have a lot of support. Today I received a text message from ‘info,’ thanking me for my support but asking me if I could stop driving like a maniac and go home.

 

After getting bored of watching the rally some friends and I went to see a Syrian journalist. He didn’t tell us much that Al Jazeera and the BBC hadn’t, but he did confirm that Duma, AKA ‘Burkastan,’ part of greater Damascus, had ongoing anti government protests. We worked out from sources that this man regards as honest that 63 people had been killed on Friday. According to him security was spraying chemicals into activists faces in the room my friend and I had seen at the mosque before taking them away. The government spokesperson is a woman, but apparently some Syrians have been deaply offended by a female offering condolences for the dead, tradition demands the highest ranking man available offers them. I’ve also been told that a former collage of the ex governor of Dera used the word ‘bastard’ to describe him.

 

Saturday felt a world away from the troubles. My friend and I met up at the mosque, and chatted in the sun and turned down the beggars and street sellers that mistook us for the tourists that had taken the place of Friday’s demonstrators. We walked laughing through one of the worlds most beautiful cities, marvelling at how it felt a world away from the disturbances of the south or the day before. We had tea with a surgeon my friend knows. He was on call and his Fridays leave had been cancelled so he could treat four protesters rushed in from Dera. It was clear that officials had expected more people to be hospitalized. The surgeon told us there was talk of sending Chama doctors to the overwhelmed southern hospitals, and that none of the people he’d treated had abdominal wounds. We didn’t press him to tell us what was wrong with them, and he told us a story about a king with donkeys’ ears, whose barber was commanded on pain of death, not tell anyone. In the story he digs a big hole and tells his secrets to it. We’d all been kept awake by rallies in our widely dispersed neighbourhoods and eventually decided on an early bed time.

 

By the time I got home Friday’s rally had turned into a Bashar themed street party. People had managed to get chunks of drum kits onto car roofs and two sound systems were playing hastily recorded pro-government songs. Kinda Wagner does tinny Arabic pop.

 

 

I’ve got a job teaching English in a community focused but unorganised little institute in a Damascus suburb, something for which I’m totally unqualified, untrained, and as a dyslexic, unsuitable for. I do however enjoy it. One of my students assured me that the people singing ‘my soul, my strength or you Bashar,’ didn’t really mean it; they just enjoyed a good party. Dancing on moving cars does look like a lot of fun, but I quashed the urge to join in. Last week another of them told me how pleased she was that the international community was imposing a no-fly zone on Libya. She said Britain was wiping out her past mistakes, looked at me shyly and told me that ‘together we will write the future,’ to the equally shy giggles of rest of the class. This week one of my students had been stuck in one of the towns where people had been killed, they said, in a strangely neutral way, that the situation as ‘bad.’ They will all talk to me about politics, but not to each other. They’re scared of who they might be.

 

More wobbles.

I’m writing this wired on excitement with intermittent chants of ‘God, Syria, Bashar, and only,’ and car horns as a soundtrack. I’m in my second internet cafe after the first one stopped working as I attempted to look at the news. The man running it clearly thought it was a result of the content I’d been viewing.

Today is Friday. I met my new Syrian friend at the Umayyad mosque. We agreed that while there was about double the amount of Mukhberat present the atmosphere was less threatening than it had been the week before. While prayers were taking place inside the mosque the men started their chanting, which isn’t the kind of behaviour to endear them to devout. My friend and I leant against a car in the sun and descended the concessions the regime has announced, she doesn’t take them seriously, and watched tourists strolling past without much more than a glance for the protesters. The atmosphere changed a bit though when a second group as far away from the shwyia (kinda the Arabic for pikies) as possible started chanting as well.

‘They are real people,’ my friend cried, ‘but they support the regime as well!’

A young lad from Swadia approached us. He was friendly enough, but found it hard to believe we were tourists. He told us how he hated the French because they were fighting Libya. I was noncommittal.

‘Go away!’ my friend screamed at him.

We moved to the doors of the mosque and stood on the ledge that runs round the building providing a convenient seat, or for us a viewing platform to see what was going on. Then we heard a noise inside the mosque, the crowed surged forwards and we managed to cover our hair and join them. It was chaos inside. A member of security wanted us out.

‘It is prayer time, no tourists allowed.’

‘You’ve got your shoes on’ I replied. A scared looking woman with a pushchair intervened.

‘They will be safer in here.’

It was chaos inside. People were literally fighting to get in to the prayer hall. There were women trapped inside the mosques courtyard, a few children that had been separated from there parents crying and some people ignoring the whole thing and praying. About a third of the people were carrying their shoes, adding to the surreal overtones. My friend and I ran across the courtyard of the mosque to see if we could get in to the prayer hall from the other side when I heard my name. We joined my friend and swapped what we knew. Not much. It looked like everyone had left the prayer hall, or been driven back or something, so my Syrian friend and I ran back to see what was happening with the man that had greeted me checking out the prayer hall.

‘I want to talk Arabic,’ my companion told me ‘but I’m too scared of these people.’ Between the prayer hall and the gate of the mosque that opens into the square, the gate we were running towards is a small room. We only really noticed it because of the line of men, arms folded, that were cordoning it off. As we watched they opened the door and pushed another, limping, man into the room.

‘They are crying in there.’ My friend said. ‘We were not supposed to see that. We should leave.’

I hadn’t been able to see into the room, but I wasn’t arguing.

Outside the mosque we saw another of my friends. He’d been into the mosque to pray. Apparently they’d got in a special prayer leader who looked pretty scared as he told the faithful that they didn’t know who was behind the stuff on facebook and Al Jazeera. It is the Americans or the Israelis, or maybe both he told them. Someone stood up.

‘You are a liar.’ he yelled out, and the chaos irrupted.

Mukhaberat, about a third of the total people inside according to my friend, emerged from among the faithful ‘like serpents appearing from beneath the leaves of the rose.’ Some people yelled freedom; some ignored everything and continued praying, others shouted that god wouldn’t hear prayers after lies. This mans verdict was that there are too many undecided people for anything to happen. Mine is that there is too much fear. People are too afraid of who they are talking to make friends, let alone strategise, or even decide on chants. My Syrian friend was too busy trying to hide her tears to have a verdict. We watched another limping, but defiant looking man being pushed into the mosque, and consoled my friend. People we knew gathered and someone suggested that we go to a restaurant with a TV. Once there we fielded calls from family and friends, and phoned round finding out what had been happening in other areas of the city and trying to confirm what Al Arabya told us – people chanting Allah Akbar in Douma, a super conservative outlying suburb of Cham. We decided that we’d be far too obvious to be safe there. We glimpsed a bit of state TV, which had lots of photos of pro-government demos. The most convincing of these was in Swadia. I wanted to ask R about it, but his phone was off. I guess he was at work.

I did however get a call from a Syrian I know slightly who’d seen me. We met up and walked around the half-dead Friday streets, talking quietly when there was no one there.

He had somehow ended up just outside the Old City on a road leading to the central square of the New chanting ‘ freedom’ with about 50 others when the mukhaberat attacked. My acquaintance saw people curled up on the ground being kicked, but had personally been rescued by a shop keeper who’d reached out and pulled him into his shop. We went to join some friends of his, passing tourists and dodging the convoys of chanting youth, which annoyed my friend. He said he wasn’t scared for the moment, but I think he’d phoned me because he’d look less Syrian next to my white skin, and his English was a lot worse than usual. As we walked round the city we marvelled at how normal chunks of it were. ‘The problem is the people,’ my friend grimly pronounced. ‘Look at them. They have had no education. And those that have are afraid.’

And if some of those bottles should wobble…

I went to the Umayyad mosque at midday prayers yesterday, and saw rather less than I’ve heard about. There was an atmosphere of tension outside it, lots of people waiting. A young girl approached me, she’d disguised herself as a tourist, but she was still afraid. Could we be together? She’d look more foreign that way. The were around 200 lower middle class men of a variety of ages hanging around the square watching the mosque, and traditionally dressed women watching them. As the midday prayers ended and the doors opened half the men surged forwards. ‘God, Syria, Bashar, only,’ they chanted, waving Syrian flags and pictures of Hafez. I’ve been to demonstrations, I know that edgy excitement and party atmosphere. This was thuggery. ‘These men are security,’ my new friend explained as she tried to take a photo of the pro-government ‘demo,’ but some of the other men, also security, in the square stopped her.

‘Come this way,’ a man said, ‘you’ll be safe, away from security, you can take pictures. Are you journalists?’ He looked disappointed when the girl I was with explained we were tourists. ‘These men support the government, but they are security, there is another group inside the mosque. I am with them,’ our new friend explained. While the man we were with hopefully claimed he could hear anti-government chanting from inside the mosque, I couldn’t. At that point the doors to the mosque were slammed shut.

‘Don’t take any pictures now,’ the man who’d adopted us said. ‘It’s not safe.’

A young, rich man in tears came and got into the car (again the piazza was full of vehicles) we were next to and my ‘travelling companion’ slipped into it to talk to him. It turned out his fiancé was praying in the mosque and she wasn’t picking up her phone.

The protesters opened the doors of the mosque and surged into it. ‘They haven’t taken of their shoes,’ the Syrians I was with gasped and the old women in the square all drew in their breath. I noticed my fellow ‘traveller’ was crying. The crowd of men came back out again, still chanting, and set off round the city. I saw a friend of mine and, running into various other foreigners we knew we went to eat ice cream and discuss it. The girl explained she hated these people who were prepared to sell out their country, her country that deserved better. The other foreigner argued that it wasn’t Syria’s time yet. Immediately the girl, who’d been to university in Europe, countered ‘It is now. Maybe in ten days, when Gaddafi has fallen,’ but my friend argued that it wasn’t just her country, it was the country of the South and Deir az Zour, in the East, which are different worlds to civilized Damascus.

The NY Times is insinuating that what I saw was an anti government protest. My opinion of the NY Times is plummeting.

That evening I was round some western friend’s house when various Syrian friends of theirs came round.

‘Have you heard?’ one, a journalist said ‘the have been riots in Deir az Zour, and 5 have been killed in Dera.’ He explained, in beautiful Arabic as another foreigner translated, ‘they were chanting, ‘‘This is the Sunna revolution, this is the national revolution.” The regime has sown the seeds of hatred against the Alawi sect (a pretty heretical branch of Shia Islam that the ruling family belong to) in the hearts of the people. This is the beginning.’ We listened as he hypothesized that in the next couple of days the government would cut communications, but that the people wouldn’t back down like the Damascus merchants had in ’82, that ‘This is It’.

The Syrian government loves religious tolerance, although its debatable how deeply rooted it is. During the French Mandate religious differences were exploited in an attempt by the metropole to maintain power. Syria was then the Bolivia of the Middle East, with coup after coup after coup, often with religious element, until the present incumbents father came to power. My Sunna family were very proud of their religious tolerance and the high position of Christians in Syria, but explained that the Shia are behind all the Trouble in the region, and Ali was almost certainly killed by his own companions. My mother and grandmothers Sunna tour guide warned them not to listen to the Shia in the Sidia Rouqa mosque. One of my friends has a hilarious story about going on a kebab crawl with some Christians who wanted to warn him about eating halal meat, and its well known among other religious groups that the Druze have an annual orgy and sleep with their sisters. That said an educated, well read Syrian friend of mine had a good rant the other day about how his non-Syrian girlfriend keeps on asking what sect people belong to. He finds it truly shocking.

At that point more Syrians came round, telling us about the protest at the Omayyad Mosque which had grown in the telling, though it looks like some brave, brave people tried to start something.

‘Has there been anything in Hassake?’ someone asked, referring to a large Kurdish town.

‘No. It is very bad,’ the guest explained. ‘I want to get married. These people will destroy us.’

Maybe they’re right, maybe this is the beginning. However things are not looking good elsewhere in the region. It also seems to me that the Syrian stuff is getting a disproportionate amount of coverage compared to the stuff in the West’s allied nations. One man went to protest on Saudi Arabia’s day of rage. One very brave man. I wonder where he is now.

19 Green Bottles, Sitting on a Wall.

I was sat with some friends, 1 westerner and 3 Syrians, at about 10 last night when one of the Syrians got a phone call. There were protesters outside the Umayyad mosque, about a 1000 them. The police had apparently tried to disperse them, but failed. We started talking about government corruption, and how the government needed to get rid of people who use their position to enrich themselves, by whatever means that takes, even if they were brothers, mothers, or more pertinently cousins of the people who are supposed to make sure it doesn’t happen. Thinking about it now though, it was the other Westerner who did most of the talking, though he does like the sound of his own voice so this is hardly unusual. Pausing only to concoct a cover story (we wanted ice cream from Bakdash) the Westerner and I got a bus into town to check out the action. Two of the Syrians felt the protest was good news and were quite excited; the other seemed quite ‘whatever’ about the whole thing. None of them came with us, one of them on the grounds that if the revolutions come it’ll be there in the morning, which while probably correct, doesn’t seem to be the logic of a newly empowered youth, taking his and his countries destiny into his own hands. When we got the mosque nothing was happening, nor was it actively not happening like in Saudi, where there were police stationed every 5 meters. The piazza in front of the mosque looked its usual night-time self, with cars parked and a few street sellers. We repaired to the ice cream shop and discussed Ameya grammar while watching a woman in a face veil eating ice-cream. It’s not unusual to see veiled women with an ice cream, but I’ve never seen their faces while they eat and have no idea how they do it.

 

Today I passed the mosque shortly after midday prayers. Other than a denser than usual tour group presence, the mosque and Hammedya were pretty much the same as usual. The square in front of the mosque is used as a car park overnight, but is normally empty of cars in the morning, I don’t know if there’s a bylaw enforcing this. Today the cars are still in place, which could be a coincidence that signals how confident people are that nothing will happen and trash their vehicles, or it could be a way of making it harder for people to assemble. Nothing online about yesterday’s protests, but from asking around it seems that something, though no one knows what, happened.

 

There has never been a better time to study media Arabic.

Syria has evacuated all its citizens from Libya aboard two hired warships. A friend knows someone who’s been working in Benghazi for the past few months. He says that Al Jazeera has been massively exaggerating the scale of the protests. All my friends are asking him how much Gaddaffi paid him to say that, but they might be joking. They are certain Gaddaffi’s doomed, but less excited about it than the Egypt stuff.

I’m not studying media Arabic, but this week a crucial grammar thing that I haven’t understood since about week three suddenly made sense. And all the things leading on from it made sense.  My spoken Arabic’s getting better to.

Sex and Sensible Behaviour

Having C here was great. Running around with such a fine specimen of masculinity, however, did make it more obvious that I was a second class citizen. Some men wouldn’t talk to a mere woman like me when there was a man available. In Islam men become ritually unclean through physical contact with women. I don’t see why this means they can’t talk to me. The tout who wanted us to hire his taxi and addressed ¾ of his conversation, despite it being wholly in Arabic, to C would have been amusing, except I find it harder to understand what people say if they stare into my habib’s eyes, not mine. I think the tout thought my refusal was unreasonable, and was therefore appealing to a nicely rational man. C, very annoyingly, made a lot of excuses and denied this dynamic for two and a half weeks before a man came up to us on a bus and chatted to C. The closest he came to acknowledging my existence was standing on my foot.

 

R and I were walking through Jermanna the other day when someone asked us ‘how much?’ R said something in Arabic, and unless it was in deep Swaida Ameya he didn’t say ‘for you, a good price,’ but again the man asked ‘ardesh?’ At this point I lost it.

‘Who’s a prostitute? You pikey animal! How am I a prostitute? You son of a prostitute!’ I yelled in Arabic. ‘I’m a student, you seller in the street of overpriced, poor quality goods.’

It’s hard to know who was more surprised, the wannabe punter or R.

‘Sorry, sorry.’

‘O.’ R looked at me, ‘who taught you these words?’

‘Ibn Sharmoutas the name of one of the cats, H gave it to me. Hwain comes from the hairy one and D taught me the others.’

‘Did you make sentences?’

‘No. I remembered these words pretty easily, but I did write most of them down.’

‘One day, you will be good in Arabic. You are very good in these words. Fast, good lufzz…’

‘Shukran shabeb.’

 

Animal is pretty much the worst thing you can say in Arabic, street seller of overpriced crap is all one word, and I may have used the plural of pikey. It’s the total extent of my ability to be non-sexually rude in Arabic.

 

Most of the time I don’t really notice that I’m a woman in a man’s world. All the foreigners here get stared at, alot and I often don’t notice when it is a sexual thing. P does, my good lufzz (pronunciation) of these words probably actually comes from him vocally defending my honour. It’s not wise for me to randomly make friends with men when I’m out or smoking argelia like the boys all do, but I’m not a massive fan of random people anyway. As a woman I do get to have a closer relationship with Syrian girls though, a whole word that’s shut of to the guys.

 

What annoys me, and it really annoys me, is the way men think they have a right to talk to me. The winter here was hard, but it’s often warm during the day now, and there’s a bit of spring in the air. H calls it ‘the month of the cats.’ men in the street step out in front of me and say, in a tone that expects compliance, ‘I want to talk to you’ or ‘I want to be your friend.’ As they’re stood in front of me I can’t really ignore them. ‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ I reply in Arabic and walk round them. ‘Why,’ they ask. My Arabic doesn’t extend to asking ‘what do you think gives you the right to demand an explanation of me? Who the hell do you think you are to presume you can just talk to me? Bugger off.’

It’s the assumption, implicit in the question ‘why,’ that their desire to talk to me overrides my desire to be left alone or to listen to music that angers me. It’s symptomatic of the relationship between men and women here. The sense of entitlement and superiority men have in their relationships with women.

People follow me, demanding ‘why won’t you talk to me?’ Syrian men are renowned for being pussies, its not really threatening, but these guys sense that they are justified in doing what ever they like is extremely unattractive.

 

There was no one around at 11.30 AM the other day in Jermanna when I walked to the cash point, and some how it was different. No one apart from two men on a motor bike, slowly idling along besides me. There’s not much pavement, but I pretty much managed to keep some parked cars between me and them. I could get a PHD in walking confidently while ignoring people, but that didn’t mean I liked it when, at the deserted junctions, they circled round me. Eventually I made it to the main road and lost them, but it did shake me up.

 

Jermaanas not the best neighbourhood and some horrible things have happened to women in it. Something like 8 women have been pulled into cars in broad daylight, raped and either murdered or tortured and abandoned in the countryside. When the police asked people why they didn’t intervene they said that they didn’t want to get involved, that they thought it was a family thing and therefore OK.

 

A friend is dating a girl who works in the justice department here. The above isn’t a rumour, it is fact. I’ve always assumed that, provided I don’t do anything stupid with sex or drugs I’ll be fine.

The problem is that people do sometimes assume I’m doing something stupid with sex*, or that I will do if they ask me enough. A taxi driver curb crawled me the other day, he started be telling me he’d drive me for no money, he ended up offering me money. Spring has its downsides, I’m telling you. Jermaana prostitution is an Iraqi thing, but there are Eastern European and Russian girls working in Cham. It’s important, as a woman, to establish that you do not come from Russia, ‘Ruski’ is one of many words that means prostitute here, but nowhere else.

 

People will say that it’s Jermaana that has the reputation for prostitution because it’s a Druze area the Druze have loose morals. This is just untrue, it’s because it has poor and desperate people in it. Besides, the Druze can be really conservative, R’s sisters barely allowed out, and he hopes she’ll get married soon although she’s 18 so she can have the greater freedom that comes with more responsibility. According to the woman who works in the justice department, Douma, a neighbourhood that’s name is used as shorthand for ‘extremely devout and traditional Muslims,’ has the highest rate of sexual abuse anyway.

 

R warned the other girls that there are some bad people in Jermaana. He thinks I can look after myself, he’s never said anything to me. I think that’s a complement.

 

* Unlike in Egypt people don’t attempt to sell me hash. Which is not to say it’s not available if you know who to ask. A significant number of language students think the worst that’ll happen is they’ll be deported. I think that A) they’re wrong and B) being deported would not be cool. One of my housemates goes to Turkey to smoke dope. He’s too scared of the mukhaberat to do it hear. A wise man in my opinion.