Politics and the ghost of electricity

One tends to take electricity for granted but in Syria November is a bad month for it. There’s been enough rain to stop solar production and to be seriously annoying, but not enough to repair the damage a summer of evaporation has done to Lake Assad and the turbines on the Ath Thwer dam. You would have thought that with the electricity to Homs almost permanently cut we’d have more in Damascus, but the whole city’s on two-hour blackouts. There is a massive mazout shortage and even if they can find it most people, including professionals, can’t afford it. Consequently people are trying to use electric heaters, which contribute to the problem. For most of human history people have been cold and in the dark. In Damascus we still are.

Turkey is threatening to stop selling leccy to Syria, I don’t really understand why. Bashar isn’t going to think ‘this is dam annoying, makes being a dictator pretty stressful, I’ll retire to Tehran,’ that bastard’s got a generator. Less facetiously, while people are increasingly fed up with the situation and people who in August were denying that there is a problem now just want the killing to stop, Bashar still has a significant support base. Cutting the power reinforces the wildly and deeply held believe that the Syrian government is the victim of a plot. The Blitz didn’t turn Londoners against Churchill; they thought that World War 2 was a cause worth dyeing for. Many Syrians feel the same way about preserving the ‘Souria al Assad.’ Cutting the power will polarize a society that agrees on only one thing, ‘Syria, May God be with you.’

There are daily pro-government rallies that converge on Umwyen Square, paralyzing the city. I think it’s a calculated attempt to intimidate ‘the silent opposition’ into staying silent. Obviously it changes traffic patterns, but it doesn’t mean Jermaana can’t have the desperately needed traffic cops any more. In affluent or Christian areas shops are shut as staff demonstrate, and the streets are thronged by people wandering around with posters of Assad. In conservative neighbourhoods life continues. In Jermaana, which is predominantly Druze but pretty poor, people seem to have given up proactively supporting the president.

It’s getting increasingly hard to predict people’s political views based on religion and income. The day before Eid there were synchronized anti-government protests at all the private university’s in Damascus. A friend at AIST used the word ‘riot’ to describe what happened. Half the students were shouting ‘God is great’ in the lunch hall, a quarter (including my friend) neutral, and a quarter shouting ‘abu hafez’ and even ‘there is no god but Bashar.’ The pro-government students attacked the demonstrators and the university called in the police, who could only restore order by getting the majority of the pro-government group into busses, and then ‘dealing’ with the rebels. Kalmoun University has apparently been shut down as a result.

Students at private universities are not necessarily smart; although the state universities are rubbish, getting onto a medicine degree involves getting 98% in the Baccalaureate. Everyone I know at Dam U say only idiots go to private universities, and I can’t help thinking that if you are going private you might as well go to the American University in Beirut. None the less the private students are rich, very rich. It costs slightly more for a Brit to go to a private university in Syria than for tuition at a UK uni. In Syria teachers earn 136 quid a month. These protesters really are ‘the cubs of the lion’s Syria,’ as a sign in Jermaana puts it. A few months ago hardly anyone who’d benefited from the regime criticised it

The Free Syrian Army has blown up The Airforce Intelligence building in Harista, where Damascus’ main bus station is. Assad senior was an Airforce officer, these guys are the cream de la cream of the Mokhberat, but as a friend said anything is normal now. As of yet every time there’s been as escalation of tension the situations stabilised again, I’m beginning to think that maybe this is the time it doesn’t.

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The Eid of Dead Sheep (New, improved version)

Its Eid al Adha again, the feast of the sacrifice that forms the culmination of the hajj and commemorates Jacobs willingness to slit his sons throat. Christians say Jacob was asked to murder Isaac, the important one in the biblical tradition. The Quran is more interested in his brother Ishmael, and it’s his not quite being sacrificed that we’re celebrating. This year Syrians said “kul youm eid kul nas shaheed”-every day is Eid, every person a martyr, meaning that with The Situation it’s inappropriate to celebrate. Others said beforehand they couldn’t get into the spirit and it would just lead to more killing at the mosques.

None the less Damascus is at her best. Everyone is walking around in there new eid clothes, the young boys all strutting like gangsters in miniature shiny suits, or playing protesters and government with incredibly realistic BB guns. The girls have all been given winter clothes and are slightly too hot, but are flaunting their finery anyway. The Druze celebrate this eid (though they don’t go on the hajj) but Jermaana is pretty low key. In the mokhem, though, the Palestinians are making up for any lack of enthusiasm. The mini fairground rides are being swung energetically and the men who usually sell veg from horse drawn carts are giving the kids rides or hiring their horses to the shabab. Intellectually I know that galloping an Arab stallion down the Jermanna high street into incoming traffic, or taking it onto the ring road for a spin, is not a good idea. Physically I’ve got scars from the last time I rode a horse without a helmet. Emotionally the young men are clearly enjoying it more than their steeds, and I want a go anyway. I can’t decide if I’m being sensible or boring not going horse riding, but as this is theoretically the last day of Eid I probably won’t make up my mind before it ends. (One of the things I love about Sham is the way people have so much fun during eid that they just don’t stop at the religiously mandated end)  The next two paragraphs are pretty graphic, you’ve been warned.

This is the Eid of the sacrifice, traditionally people sacrifice sheep outside their houses and throw the blood around, but it seems to be acceptable to get ones butcher or sheep seller to slaughter it if one doesn’t have the know how. Sheep are penned up at the sides of roads, the blood stained fleeces of their dead brethren in the gutter next to them. The Sydia Zanab high street, which has a high concentration of butchers, is practically an open air killing line. Theoretically its haram, forbidden, to let sheep see their flock-mates last moments, and Syrian national pride is built on, among other things, adhering to this rule. None the less they do not always keep it. At the far left a pen of living sheep. Next, slumped in the gutter a meter away, a headless body. Besides that a sheep strung up on a hook, being skinned. To the right a butcher cheerfully de-gutting another sheep, waving around sheep guts (who knew that sheep had such thin intestines?) and wishing everyone a happy eid. Further to the right the meat on the hooks doesn’t resemble sheep, other than the stomach in the bloody gutter and some artistically arranged heads. Then another sheep pen. Honestly, I must admit the sheep, unlike the flies, seem unphased by the death that surrounds them. I once saw two outside a mosque both very distressed by the slaughter of the first, in progress as I passed, but it seems that they’re only upset by sheep writhing as their throats are slit. Once their companion is actually dead they don’t seem able to connect what they’ve seen or the smell of blood with more of the same.

It takes quite a lot of thrashing around and more time for a sheep to bleed to death. The knife wielders either string them up before going for the jugular or stand on their heads as their lifeblood joins that of their brothers in the road. Apparently killing camels is actually quite dangerous as they lash out so much, for so long, in their death throws. I am not squeamish; I left Slaughter Street and had a lamb kebab. I’m less into animal rights than I was before spending a year in a country without human rights. None the less I whole heartedly support the Dutch attempt to ban halal and kosher slaughter. While it may have been the most humane method of slaughter when the Quran was revealed, technology has, elhamduallah, improved since the 7th centaury. Ijthad, independent reasoning, allows (depending on who you talk to) for flexibility in interpreting the Quran, and some well respected religious men, including one of the 4 rightly guided caliphs, argue that some of it is only relevant in the perfect Islamic state. We now have a way of slaughtering sheep that doesn’t leave them conscious and bleeding for the last 4 minutes of their lives. I think the sidewalk sacrifice is a good thing, if people are gunna eat meat they should know where it comes from, and the eid al adha meat is going to the poor. People opposing the Dutch ban should shut up and watch halal slaughters in action. They should learn that that 3/4 of ‘Halal’ chicken in the EU is killed by machines, whereas various schools of sharia insist animals must be slaughtered by a person, and that some Sharia schools argue animals should be stunned. Then knowing where halal meat comes from, they can see if they feel like talking.

On a personal note my life has changed radically. The Hairy One went to the Lebanese Border to buy a new Visa, border runs being six monthly events for Sham based language students. It’s never officially been possible to by a visa at the border, and its becoming an increasingly unrealistic proposition. The Hairy One got unlucky, but his employers tried to help him get back into Syria. For a mere 2000us they thought they could arrange for an unmarked car full of mukhberat to swoop down on Beruit, grab him, and drive him over the border very fast, but then found a cheaper method of getting him home. However Beirut is an expensive city and the hairy one was not well paid. He had a choice of hunting cats and eating them, or getting a job. He went for option B and decided he preferred being a waiter to an English teacher. He’s not coming home.