Living in Syria is oh so different from living in Wales. Loud music late at night is acceptable, provided you’re not on the balcony. Undisguised empty beer bottles the next day are definitely not, particularly on the balcony. Obviously the waters not drinkable but we have frequent water cuts as well as power cuts. I’m really not that great at making up my mind, so I’m not overjoyed by having an additional decision to make – light or air con? In my ‘hood, miles from the lion’s lair in Mohajareen, there just isn’t enough electricity for both.


The range and quantity of vermin is massively increased as well. According to the Hans Weir dictionary of modern written Arabic there is no word for ‘rat,’ just ‘rats,’ in the plural, or ‘a big rat.’ I don’t appear to have these in my flat and hopefully the massive feral cat population, vermin in its own right, keeps them down. Cockroaches*, which before I moved to Syria I’d only seen in zoos, are definitely a feature of my life. What I don’t understand is how they’ve got this reputation as the indestructible insects. While it’s true that they can take a good few whacks with the Hans to dispatch of, left to there own devices they seem to do nothing apart from dying. I swear my house has more dead roaches in than living ones and a friend’s seen one die, without encouragement, as it was running across her bathroom floor. The may be more living people in the world now than history’s total haul of dead people. This is not the case with the cockroach population.


Life at the moment is focused. All my friends are having little study binges, and socializing involves telling each other the amusing new words we’ve learned. Tahitala = he imitated Hitler, qalba, he was overcome by hydrophobia. I’m also working six days a week, and now have the group from hell. One member treats it like a private lesson, doesn’t do his home work and thinks ‘us speak English good. Problem only grammar’ No, my friend, you speak English like Yoda crossed with Jar Jar Binks. The difference between the past and present tense is not ‘only grammar,’ and if I explain the difference between ‘where’ and ‘when’ one more time…


*In Arabic sasour, one of a number of words I’m quite proud of, as I’d never have acquired them if it wasn’t for the idiosyncratic, nay, substandard, nature of Syrian houses.

Little Palestine

As the situation started unfolding I congratulated myself on having the foresight to live in a Druzi suburb with a large Iraqi population. However I’d failed to take full account of the fact that my tower block is part of a row just in front of a Palestinian refugee camp. If the Palestinians home made, breeze block houses form a sea of badly organized humanity our flats are the cliffs that they crash against. I get pretty hammered by the call to prayer and the life of the community is literally broadcast from the camps mosque. The day after the last incursion into the Golan the muezzin read out the names of the martyrs and the place they’d been born. Most were from Yarmouk, a bigger camp with much more significance in the minds of the locals, but plenty were from Mokhem Jermaana. The government now pulls the plug on the internet at weekends, with far more efficiency than it displays plugging it back in again on Sundays, so I didn’t know that the had been an incursion or how the people who’s names were read out over the loudspeaker had died. Consequently I was a bit surprised when an hour or so later the chanting started. I know the word ‘freedom’ in Arabic and it means trouble. There were solders in the crowd of no more than 70, and the whole thing was pretty peacefully. While the was a temptation to create a mental montage from 30 years worth of crowd scenes sound tracked by ‘Allah Akbar’ it clearly didn’t match the Iranian Revolution in importance.


The next day a couple of friends, who live in the middle and far end of Jermaana respectively, came over. Neither of them had been aware of the local rally, but one knew about rallies in Yarmouk which had been far from non violent. Some of the crowd commemorating the martyrs thought the Palestinians were being manipulated by a government that’s only interest in their cause using it to enhance the regimes own legitimacy. They struck back. After years in which Syria’s had a more rhetorical than practical focus on liberating Palestine an office recently appeared in Yarmouk to help and encourage people to cross into the Golan. The Golan is Syrian Druze country and as students are allowed into Syria to study I know several people from there. During their degrees the only way that they can contact their families is by shouting across the border with a megaphone. A couple of the girls I know have literally not seen or talked to their mothers since they got here, 3 years ago because they think that being that close but that far would just hurt too much. After they graduate they’ll have a choice. They can either cross the border for a second and final time, or they can in stay Syria forever, with just megaphones and emails to connect them to their family’s until either judgment day or a peace agreement. ‘The Lion*’ has claimed that his anti-Zionist stance makes him a legitimate ruler and no one in Syria is happy about the Golan situation. Liberating it would go down well with just about everyone. Some of the Yarmouk Palestinians though think that their countrymen are sacrificing themselves for the Lion. More than that, they think the shabab crossing the effective border are too drunk on youth and nationalism to understand what they are doing, or why they can sneak into the Golan for the first time since the Sinai war. In Yarmouk some of the people commemorating and mourning the dead broke into the office that had encouraged the incursion and set fire to it. Apparently various factions’ swapped fire before the security arrived and ‘fired at everyone,’ as my friend put it with an eloquent, two handed swoop that took in the entire neighbourhood. No one I know was there and it’s hard to understand what’s happening if ones caught up in a mob, but other than the extent of the shooting I see no reason to question my friends second-hand account.


Nothing was said from the Jermaana Palestinians minaret, but that’s not really surprising.


Palestinians in Syria live in a kind of legal no-mans land without citizenship, subject to all sorts of restrictions, and still obliged to do military service. While the camps haven’t seen a tent in decades they’re still rubbish strewn, miserable places. On route to my place you look into the rooms of houses that were half demolished or lost a corner when the road was forced through the camp. They’re all still inhabited. I’m told that the camps are bad places for bad people with a lot of robberies, but people never say nice things about refugees. In the same way the Palestinians are in a dubious position in Syria, the Lions position with the Palestinians isn’t clear cut. On the other side of the fence people say ‘no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.’ The Lion and his father certainly haven’t made peace, but they haven’t made war either, and until now they’ve been very careful to insure that there is no independent resistance coming out of Damascus.


It’s certainly true that liberating the Golan would do the lion pack good. But it’s not just Palestinians trying to cross the border; unsurprisingly Druzi youth are particularly keen to see the Golan returned. Like so many minorities around the world they are relativity well educated, liberal and open minded (though of course those that I meet are on the whole at the extreme of the spectrum). While minorities do support the Lion’s Syria and the Druze heartlands have been pretty quiet the allegiance of the young Druze seems far less assured than that of my friends’ Christian friends’. This makes it harder to interpret the incursions. The friend of mine who demonstrated near the Umayyad mosque knew about the incursions well before they’d happened; people he’d marched with and met through that had told him they were happening and tried to get him to go along. Of course the information could have been spread by Mukhaberat trying to win the trust of the foetal opposition, but the fact remains; people going into the Golan are certainly not all sympathetic to the government, some I’m sure hate it and while the Lion’s will win legitimacy from the actions of the shabab in the Heights the opposition will gain experience and potentially some legitimacy themselves.


*The ruling family’s second name is one of many words for lion in Arabic. That they chose it is pretty certain, but word on the street is that the name they replaced meant ‘monster.’ In any other name news the Arabic for ‘thief’ is hrami. Some inspired individuals have made a ‘Hrami Makhlouf’ page on Facebook.


Habibi and I are arguing about whether people know who Rhami Maklouf is. I think any reasonably well informed person must know that RM owns half Syria, Habibi tells me that I cant expect everyone to suffer from Syria Myopia, I peer at him short sighted and say, ‘but they must do.’


But I dont want to go on holiday.

Life in Syria continues and, elhamduallah, my life continues to be in it. The was a nasty moment when ‘Saddek’ from the Department of Passports and Immigration, or al jowazat as we call it, told me he was very sorry, but he couldn’t extend my iqama. I had until midnight to get out. If the Syrians decide not to extend your iqama, or ‘stay’ as it means in Arabic then, contrary to what language and logic would have you believe, you can stay in the country for as long as you like. The problem is that you can’t leave without running around Damascus for days trying to bribe people to give you an exit visa. Not being able to leave at will seamed pretty dangerous, bribery is unethical and all 8 or so Arabic words for ‘please’ really mean ‘if you would like.’ As Saddek definitely would not like to extend my visa I stopped begging and went to Lebanon on a shotgun holiday. Worrying about getting home put a bit of a downer on my trip, but it was nice seeing R again. He’s joined the small army of Syrians who went to Beirut believing the streets were paved with gold. What they find is work with impossible hours (R is doing 9-3 then 5-1 six days a week, with a second job to fill in the split between shifts), accommodation overcrowded with other Syrian guest workers and European prices. Often they’re effectively trapped in Lebanon as they’ve not got much money to survive on until their first pay check and are fleeced for all they have. As soon as they’ve got one they borrow money from their employers ‘until they get paid,’ quickly getting into the kind of debt it takes a long time to pay off. Lebanese and Syrian Arabic is similar, but Arabs can easily tell the difference. As a consequence of Middle Eastern politics the Lebanese hate the Syrians, which adds to the fun.


As it happens getting home was surprisingly easy. A Brit who tried to renew his visa at the border the day before I did has been MIA for a fortnight, so I was pretty lucky. The story scared my boss, who has a scheme to get me a 6 month medical visa. As I keep on trying to explain to Habibi why I’d trust my life to, and sink my money into, Syrian hospitals rather than going home to the NHS is a non question.