Monks and Mokhaberat

So a while ago habibi and I had this idea. There’s a monastery in the desert. It was resurrected by an Italian monk who found the ruins sitting at the top of a gorge looking out into the desert. He spent 3 days meditating in what was left of the church and admiring the incredible frescos, then set about repairing the buildings and recruiting monks. 25 years or so later, it’s very right on. The nuns and monks are multi denominational, multi cultural and multi lingual (one of them spoke Madagascaran), they pray the fatiha* and have long term Muslim guests. I went there at Christmas and had been wanting to go back for ages. Habibi was missing the physicality of his life in the UK and the moon was reasonably full. According to the guide book Dair Mar Mousa is 13 K from Nebik. We thought we could get the serveecee after I finished work, eat in Nebik then walk. There was a bit of a lapse between having this genius idea and implementing it, which we filled bickering about weather the moon was waxing or waning, and which ones which anyway.

 

When we arrived in Nebik we discovered the moon had definitely been getting smaller. Going to Dare Mar Mousa is absolutely the only reason anyone, ever, would go to Nebik and every car owner in town offered to be a taxi. They all told us we were crazy to walk. On the edge of town a guy stopped.

 

‘What did he say? Habibi asked.

 

‘Be really careful of the dogs’

 

‘Oh. I’d forgotten about dogs’

 

‘Me to. He also said something about a junction’

 

‘What?

 

Um, I’m not entirely sure. He either that we can’t take it, or that we mustn’t miss it

 

‘Oh. Do you remember it’

 

‘No. Um another thing. If the monks arrange you a taxi its 250. He offered to drive us there for 50 lira,

 

Needless to say we ignored the temporary bad feeling. After we’d been walking about an hour we saw a sign. A bad sign (or an omen as a friend of mine once said in similar circumstances.) Dair Mar Mousa 17 Km.

 

‘Um, they’re probably Syrian Kilometres, ‘ I said…

 

‘Fuck it, you can walk 17 K’ Habibi replied, which kinda meant I had to

 

Anyway, everything went more or less ok, but we’d forgotten one thing. We’d spent at lest half an hour talking to the various security guards at the bus station, all of which asked us if we were going to Mar Mousa and how we were getting there from Nebik. Syrians don’t really get walking. I think it’s a hang over from the heat. They’re just too used to getting taxis 2 blocks to remember about walking. They all pointed out it was night time and a long way. I assured them we knew, and were happy about that, but clearly we were pretty fucking weird. This was about a month ago, and Nebik is in the Homs governorate, it could conceivably be used as a backdoor into the city, so they dispatched the mokhaberat to check our story. We’d curled up for a nap and taken a short cut, so we’d been MIA for a couple of hours before he drove past us in his lorry. . He was very pleased to see us, asked us our story, and gave us lots of chocolate. I asked him what he was doing out so late at night. Selling heating oil, he replied· now? l asked? Yes he said·.

 

‘No. um another thing. If the monks arrange you a taxi its 250. He offered to drive us there for 50 lira, Selling Heating Oil. In July. In Syria. At 2 in the morning. Without a tank of heating oil

 

Sometimes you wonder if people overestimate the feared and despised secret police.

 

We continued walking, reaching the foot of Mar Mousa’s gorge just before dawn. We sat at the bottom of the wadi, waiting for the community to wake up, watching the sun rising, big, round and cool, totally unlike its midday self. We were not pleased to hear an engine stop. While our mokhaberat friend was genuinely friendly and enthusiastic about inflicting god awful Syrian chocolate on us I was worried that he’d want to play us music on his phone and I just didn’t feel like making polite chit chat. Thankfully his phone was an old one, but he force more chocolate on us and ask us about the situation. Keen to underline his point that we could be shot if the government wasn’t looking after us he whipped out his pistol and waved it vigorously at the desert. This was an improvement on encouraging us to drink local brands of fizzy drinks, but still not quite as serene and peaceful as things had been before his arrival. ‘Eventually he left and we walked up to the monastery.

 

While I definitely did my share of helping, I mainly enjoyed the peace of Mar Mousa by sleeping through it, but I did wake up for the church services, all 3 of them. They were in Arabic, making the call and response stuff kinda cool and good reading practice, and there where lots of bibles to follow the readings in. Mar Mousa’s too cool for pews, people sat on sheepskins on the floor, prostrated themselves while praying. A youth basketball team turned up during one service, I kid you not, and since they were dressed for the courts not church, leaned through the door taking videos on there phones. A French guy who’d been staying there searching for god got baptised, and a German woman had decided she was ready to ‘enter this church which is as imperfect as I am.’ Both of them gave speeches, one in English, one in Arabic that were translated by other European members of the community. I wish I had some relationship with god that would allow me to live at Mar Mousa, the foreigners there all spoke amazing Arabic, way better than anyone in Damascus does and they have visions in the desert and live in caves and things. It’s just a lot more alive than any manifestation of Christianity I’ve seen in the west.

 

The baptism and conformation lasted over 3 hours, but was so full of drama it felt much shorter. That said while I spent the first half thinking I should convince some recently engaged friends of mine to get married there in the second half wondered how long a wedding would take. The guy being baptised entered the church in grey, stripped naked behind a sheet being held by two rather inattentive assistants who let it droop down low enough to worry him and stood in a bowl while people liberally poured water over him, before putting a white outfit on. At the end of the ceremony a group of nuns started leaping up in the air and dancing, while singing in Arabic. It was a pity the basketball team had left, the nuns could have taught them a thing or two about jumping

 

Father Paolo, who found the monastery, also told us, forcefully and seriously, that people who are inadvertently setting out allow soggy cucumbers on to the breakfast table hate themselves, hate their god and hate their guests, which left me glad I was staying in his monastery rather than having him in my house.

 

*

 

The Qurans opening sura, which calls for help following ‘the straight path, not the path of those who have gone astray, nor those who have earned your anger.’ The Saudis like authenticating translations of the Quran as an exercise in propaganda. You can tell if you have a Saudi certified translation as they’re so covered in footnotes that they’re unreadable. In the footnotes Saudi translated Qurans say that it’s the Christians who’ve gone astray and the Jews who’ve earned gods anger.

 

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A Filmstar in the Forbidden Cities

My film star days are officially over, alhamduallah. In March they were having serious trouble getting permission to film on the coast and saying all sorts of exciting things about Turkey, Abu Dhabi and Morocco. By July Syria had got used to the situation. While in the beginning Damascus was dead, people were unwilling to travel from one side to t´other and no one did anything that wasn’t essential, by July the wasn’t a restaurant in the city showing Al-Jazeera or BBC Arabic, but life was continuing again. Also probably cus it´d annoy my friends and me, we were given permission to spend a weekend filming in Baniyas and Lattakia.

 

After we’d finished work, we missioned through Damascus, The Fixer marshalling his foreign friends as extras before heading north. Our driver got a bit lost in Lattakia, where we glimpsed several tanks and tank sized sandbag encampments through the otherwise deserted night, before arriving at a 5 star beach resort. Talk about how the other half live. My room was almost as big as my flat, but then again with a list price of $300 a night I suppose you’d expect a lot. The three Jermaanarites were particularly impressed. We’d kind of forgotten that showers are supposed to spurt rather than dribble, and I had my first bath since leaving the UK.

 

I had time to study on the beach (alas, having been forced into make up I had to limit myself to paddling) before we were rounded up and sent to Banyas. Again, we got lost. I suspect the driver as interested as seeing the ‘forbidden cities’ as we were. In the bits of Lattakia we passed there were lots of Bashar posters but not much that was more sinister than that. Banyas was a different story. Every intersection had a checkpoint; lots of corner flats had been commandeered and turned into observance posts. Some had had walls ripped out to allow the solders better views. At one of the checkpoint a young man with an arm in plaster had been detained, but convoys of chanting youths were let through. Our driver brazenly asked the solders for directions, who in best Middle Eastern style were all sure it was in different places. The worst of it was the people. We drove past long lines of angry, sullen silent people who were unimpressed by our SUV. It felt like the city had been fighting a civil war that had temporarily been forced on hold and it was pretty clear that some horrible things had happened in the divided coastal cities.

 

It turned out we were filming outside the city at some oil refinery, but it was the first set that actually had enough places to sit, and the sea breeze meant my Ottoman gear was bearable and although it was a long, boring day half of us got our filming done. The other half of us didn’t film at all, and never could have done.

 

Back at the hotel; Lattakia’s rich were filling the seafront restaurants in little dresses and suits that were for all I know Armani. I liked being by the sea, The Fixer liked looking at the girls and ‘passivity brown’ was living up to his name so we decided to stay in 5 star, air con, bikini world that we found ourselves in. Unfortunately the film crew had other ideas and at 12 on Friday summoned us instantly and ordered us into the car to collect the others and take em back to Cham. The Fixer was asleep, I was in the pool, the film crew was furious we weren’t leaving 5 minutes after their order had been delivered. A far bigger delay was due to the film crew having got permission for our characters names to go through the checkpoints. Inexplicably these names are not the ones in our passports.

When we got to set, without a diversion to Banyas this time, we discovered the film crew had played a horrible trick on us and the boat set was just sailing away with our friends on it. I went swimming, with 19 guys all lined up on the harbour wall, waiting for mew to drown and be rescued. Spoil sport that I am I didn’t endanger my life in anyway. Several hours of studying and bitching about the film crew (the others have all been bit parts in films before. They say these guys are the worst they’ve worked with) later the boat brought our friends back and we were off home. We’d not had any food and we didn’t have permission to stop off in any of the coastal towns and buy any, but worse was to come. They promised to pay us the following Sunday. Ahmed the eternal optimist, so called because he believes in film companies and governments, who we’re hired through, couldn’t contact them. Silence. Ahmed being the optimist he is, with a fortnight till Ramadan and filming not yet completed assumed they were too busy to pay us. We’ve now had 2 weeks of Ramadan, we’ve, been on TV, but they´re a month behind schedule and still filming and I sill want my cash.

 

Cant think of a witty heading

I know I haven’t updated my blog for ages. At the moment I feel like any time spent not studying Arabic is time wasted, so I haven’t got much to write about and if I have done something (attending the début performance of Syria’s first privately owned baritone saxophone, some leaving parties, going to the train museum.) then I need to make up for lost study time, rather than wasting yet more time writing about it. Today however it took me 6 hours to extend my visa, in August, in Ramadan (coming soon), and I think that was enough Arabic for one day, so I’m lying on the balcony wondering if I’ll ever rehydrate while writing about my recent adventures.

 

Damascus neighbourhoods have character; in fact I know a lot of people who are more nondescript than the average Chami suburb. Jermanna lets the good times roll, my hood in Jermanna Owl deals with having the blues by getting itself some rhythm to go with em. A suspicious Palestinian clearly thought Habibi and I were up to no good until we told him where we live, when he became all smiles. Sahilya is a Costa Coffee embellished yuppie land, while neighbouring Mohajaeen is half warm and traditional and half the exclusive home of the president. Living where I do its easy to forget the rest of Syria and think its all pretty much like where I live. It’s hard to believe that only 40 minutes away, sandwiched between Mohajareen and conservative, drab, Roknadeen a friend of mine pulls on long sleeves until she’s safely out into a more western part of the city.

 

They are also incredibly self-contained. Everywhere I’ve lived I could have lived happily without ever leaving my street and the two next to it, had I not studied and worked. People tend to work and socialise in their hood, and with their family’s. One of my Syrian friend’s lives in a building where every single one of the flats is lived in by her family, bar the hottest, top floor flats and an estate office on the wasteland outside my flat has a banging sound system and metamorphoses into the hangout for local whisky drinkers. Arbeen might be closer to me than to you, but it has as much impact on your life as on mine.

 

Before things started happening their life was taking me to Roknadeen quite a lot. In Jermaanaa I am pretty much the only 20 something not wearing skin tight jeans and a top with cleavage. In Roknadeen, the corner, of religion, I am the only 20 something not wearing an ankle length coat and head scarf. In Jermanna we say ‘Hows you,’ or ‘Good morning,’ when we enter a shop. In Roknadeen they start by saying ‘peace be open you, we say ‘health’ when some one sneezes and reply ‘on your heart.’ they both say ‘praise to be god’ it’s very strange.