Tunisia – not smelling of Jasmin

There is nothing like being proved right about something to make you like it. In Tunis, Sousse, Kairoun and Sfax the cities provided a backdrop to our disscussions about how they felt like like they were waiting for something. Consequently when on Friday our louage, as Tunisia calls the serveece, was stopped by a neat line of rocks across the road outside Metlouie we were not surprised at all. Protesters milling around, stopping traffic into the mining town in Gafsa governorate seemed to explain the atmosphere, rather than confusing us.

Tunisians are pretty keen to chat, and none of the people we talked to thought the revolution had changed anything. In Egypt we met people who were inspired by the revolution and others who were disillusioned with it, people who were determined to create a country worthy of its martyrs and people who thought the revolutionaries had already lost. In Tunisia only a group of students Gerard met thought anything had even started to change. The students from Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution started, who invited us to stay with them, were completely uninterested in politics.

We talked about all this as we waited on the road for a couple of hours, watching the police watch the townsfolk watch us before our driver decided to take us over a desert track. My boyfriend checked the news for us and read it to us over the phone. Like much of the south Gasfa province had been on strike the day before.

Tunisians have told us a lot (blue repels mosquitoes, the yellow doors in Tunis are on houses that belonged to money loving Jews) and we might now be able to explain the weird atmosphere in Tunisia, but we will never understand Tunisians obsession with complicated change manoeuvres. They have way more small denomination coins than Egypt, but instead of handing them over they will go to any lengths (while reckoning in thousands of milliems, in French) to work out a way of giving one a note. If you buy something for, say, eight dinar they’d definitely prefer to take 22 and give you a ten dinar note than accept a ten and give you two as change. Nor will we ever understand why they go to bed so early – we arrived in Tripoli, Libya on Wednesday and, since leaving the airport, have loved everything.



Damascus and Me

As passionate as mine and Damascus’ love affair is, if she was a man I’d leave her. She’s just not very nice to me.

My landlord took advantage of my brief trip home to steal my furniture and change my locks. I’m reconciled to camping in my new flat, but I want Decembers rent, which I paid in advance, back. Owning white goods is the only ‘proper adult’ thing I’ve ever managed, I felt if put ‘own a fridge,’ on my CV it would prove that I’m not just a bum. Alas, I no longer have this tenuous claim to maturity.

My now ex landlord sits smoking, laughs at me, ‘teaches’ me new swearwords and then tells me lies. He maintains that a friend told him I’d left Syria, so of course he could rent my, now furnished, flat out to someone else. When I rocked up from Jordan too tiered to be angry, with hardly any Syrian money, he let me crash in a flat that has a family living in it, although they weren’t around. He thinks that after such munificent behaviour I cant make any claim on him, I think it confirmed he’s got a borderline criminal take on contract theory.

After an uneasy night waiting for Little Bear to come home and do his ‘someone’s been sleeping in my bed, and she still is’ act, I went off to the ALC to collect my pay checks. My colleagues were as cheerful as I was; the Americans had shut the place down and we’d all been made redundant.

This was the prelude to a series of sofa surfing adventures, the highlight of which was staying with a friends family. The husband is rich enough to set up a second home, complete with an additional wife. The first wife doesn’t like the idea and is attempting to up the family expenditure by breaking the furniture so it has to be replaced. Her sister in law, my friend, thinks this is typical Syrian jealousy, but I think her objections are fair enough and we spent an enjoyable morning chipping the varnish of a wardrobe that’s so hideous it has to be expensive.

My landlord has erected an ingenious paper fence between him and any sort of responsibility. The flat was built even more illegally than usual, so my contract was for a legal, but non-existent, house (troublesome foreigners such as myself are always running round waving our bits of paper at immigration officials, inconsiderately causing problems for slum landlords). The last person with a contract for my flat is the very Syrian who ‘stole my stuff and said I’d left.’ We’re at a bit of an impasse which the landlord failed to break by offering my friend money to say it was all his fault.

The friend saved most of my stuff, having had a call from the landlord demanding money, so I’ve still got my clothes and books; it could have been worse. None the less Damascus, what have I done to deserve your displeasure?

Damascus doesn’t treat me as well as I expect men to, but she gives me just enough to keep me interested. How can I dump the alleyways of the Old City when she’s lit by candles and I half expect to walk into one of The Thousand and One Nights? Yes, during the six hours a day she withholds electricity its too cold to manipulate a pen, but the air is clear enough to see the necklace of mountains that form a crescent moon around her. Covered in snow, they look like clouds that have become too solid to float and have sunk to earth as hills.

We seek refuge from the cold in cafés and discuss my friends unusual exam season problem. Men have two years in the army after education, and if an added disincentive for doing it now were needed conscripts stopped being released after serving their time in about April. My friends are trying to fail enough exams to fail the year, but not so many that their kicked out of uni. They reckon that the countries got several years of civil war ahead of it and I don’t see how they can spend the next 15 years as undergraduates, but then I don’t see what else they can do either.

Damascus, you are cruel to your lovers.

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.

The sexual politics of public transport.

While hurtling around Damascus in badly driven sardine cans over flowing with humanity I have made some interesting observations about the etiquette of public transport. On the Jermannana – Bab Tuma service that connects perhaps the two most liberal parts of town its fight and fight alike. Women can sit in the front; they can also sit on the floor. On the considerably more conservative Muhajreen-Sana line however chauvinism and chivalry rule. The fight to get on the service is vicious. It usually departs with 15 to 17 people on it, not bad considering they seat, depending on the model, 10-13. A man will always give his seat up to a woman, but it is rude for a woman to force herself on once its rammed, making some man crouch. This is a distinct disadvantage on lines, like Muhajreen-Sana, that fill at the point of departure. Concessions to female fragility don’t come into play until everyone’s on the service; no quarter is given in the fight to board. This puts the elderly, particularly women who are often so fat and inflexible that they need to haul themselves up with one hand on each side of the sliding door, or even roll like an inelegant seal to get onto the raised service, at a distinct disadvantage. I think young to middle aged men give up their seats, not because women can’t sit on the floor, but because the elderly or women wearing proper Hijab are very unlikely to get on it in the first place.


While femininity is respected age isn’t. I am the only young woman I have ever seen give her seat to an old one, and any man who feels he can sit on his seat when I climb on feels that way when a grandmother does.


In many ways I share Syria’s distaste of fat old women in black; I think the Monty Python team must have visited the Arab world before inventing Hells Grannies. I don’t know whether a youth spent worrying about other peoples opinions drove them to it, but they behave appallingly. My Ameyas good enough for me to be constantly shocked by how rude old ladies are to shop keepers. Its generally accepted that a family can lift its children up on the sevicee before the adults get on, and that any one throwing kids on board has a right to a seat. I’ve seen an old woman pick up a kid, put it down off the service and plonk herself in the seat the child was reserving for its now irate mother who was busy putting on its brothers and sisters. Another time an old Bedouin woman hit me until I moved from the seat I had the temerity to occupy before she boarded. I was the only passenger. The Bedouin women are the worst; I genuinely think a lifetime out in the desert sun does something to their brains.


Syrians are pretty scornful of serviecee and taxi drivers. In a lesson about ‘social norms,’ my new students say that to be respectable in Syria one must dress modestly, not drink in public and not drive a serviecee or taxi. Useful advice I’m sure. As a guilty middle class liberal I find their attitude shocking, as an inhabitant of Syria I find it incomprehensible. Drivers are usually employed by the owner, and pay for half the petrol and get half the takings. It’s not their fault the vehicles belch smoke and while they do drive ’em like they stole ’em, so does everyone else.


I feel duty bound in an entry about public transport to relate how the government commandeers public transport on Fridays. The more radical, poorer neighbourhoods are inaccessible on public transport and the government uses the busses and serviecees to transport their supporters around to mount counter demonstrations and beet up protesters, as well as solders. Some say this is to make people think the counterdemonstrators are full on civilians, Fisk relates that the UNFIL forces in Lebanon’s were even more contemptous of the Syrian Army than of the IDF. Isreals might have improved, but I don’t see post cold war Syria boasting more and better equipment than in the 80s.


The point though of this entry is the Bab Tuma – Mohajreen line. It is apparently notorious as the line for Damascus gays that take cruising literally. I’ve heard this from several sources, but as the Damascus definition of homosexual involves men with long hair, men with tattoos, men with piercings and all other men who look a bit different I’ve been sceptical. Besides, everyone knows the French Ambassador was sent home after one scandal to many in the Souk al Bozra hammam (I’ve never bothered to substantiate this rumour), how many cruising spots can Sham have? The fixer though has been convinced Muhajareen-Bab Tuma is the line of vice ever since he was propositioned on it. It’s possible the man was just being friendly, but the fixer definitely doesn’t think so. His liberal concerns and respect for people who defy Syria’s strict idea of what’s socially permissible was almost completely overwhelmed by his annoyance that any one would assume that as a foreigner he was happy to engage in any kind of random sex. He was quite surprised not to find me at my most sympathetic.

Beaver Commander

Life continues. My flatmate, The Hairy One, is editing a book of tswer, quranic interpretation, by a mandate era sheikh who’s notions of scientific research, logic and good writing have either dated or been lost in translation. Too much Mullaho is having a slightly serial effect on our lives.

‘Hay, listen to this’ my flat mate puts on his Mullaho voice and reads. ‘Wise and sagacious, noble, honorable and pure, gentle and kind. Who can hear the qualities of the beaver commander without feeling admiration?’ Do you think Beaver Commander is one of the appellations of Mohammad,’ he asks, in his normal voice ‘cus like beavers are hardworking, or is it a mistake?’

‘The only appellation of Mohamed I know is mostafah.

Humm. ‘the chosen one, the commander of the beaver’

We decided that as the Arabian Peninsula is not a land famed for its mighty rivers or many trees it was probably beaver free in the 14th century and its therefore unlikely that ‘beaver commander’ is one of Mohamed titles.

The Hairy One is also suffering after a hard drive accident that’s left him with 18 Bob Dylan albums and not much else. With a Mullaho and Dylan combination it was probably inevitable that we’d end up putting Mullaho to music, something that fills our spare time with joy. Our masterpiece starts ‘He spent his life in research, his name we’re gonna besmirch.’ I am responsible for providing harmonica effects, I don’t let having no instrument stop me.

The other night the hairy one insisted that we take advantage of living in a country with a middle eastern climate but a distinctly un-middle eastern approach to everyone’s favorite Arab invention: alcohol and go to Mushroom Park, just of Straight Street to drink beer and eat sujuk.

In former times Mushroom Park was the hang out of choice for language students with nothing better to do and Chammi youth who couldn’t afford to see and be seen anywhere else. Hardly had The Hairy One and I arrived and started wishing we hadn’t when we were swooped on by someone ‘The Fixer tries to avoid,’ and his friends who catapulted us into the world of ‘rich young Syrians who wish they were black American gangsters.’

They were very excited to see us, and were immediately telling us about there favorite month (April) and airport (Heathrow!), their uncles firm (boring) and asking us to help them get English teaching jobs (they spoke it flawlessly). What would daddy diplomat and uncle entrepreneur say if they could see their delicately reared offspring?

Our ones were lucky enough to be friends with someone who claims to be a genuine black man from Ohio. He was strangely elusive about why his family and he are living in Dwela, a suburb that makes Jermanna look structurally sound; we think hes a Somali refugee. All the Somalis I’ve met could tell at a glance that I don’t know about the differences between East and West coast rap, and then lectured me on it in American accents, though I’m told the women are very devout. We couldn’t tell if our friends barely incomprehensible English is Somali plus The Wire (His accent sounds spot on, but do they speak like that in Ohio?) or fluent gangster rapesse. He advised The Hairy One to avoid ‘the dog game,’ not to ‘masterfate,’ with an f, and to find himself a girlfriend.

Meanwhile the Syrians, one of which introduced himself as MC Wolf Rapper, were encouraging me to smell their genuinely Syrian cigarettes and their ‘Hennesseys.’ The Somali/American had taught them to refer to all strong liquor as Henessys and this was in fact XXL, 10% vodka-redbull in a tin and I did not appreciate em ramming it in my face. Despite being roughly my age, well traveled and well educated they were charmingly naive. They asked us if we’d ever heard of Hashiesh (has anyone in the UK over the age of 8 not?) and were amazed that people like us, who willingly drank 4% beer knew about drugs. We felt a bit bad about laughing at MC Wolf Wrapper and his Merry Men as they had no idea that we were, but they did provide us a name for our ‘bluesy rock songs with a story’ outfit, we’re Malice and Wonderland

Ramadan and Eid

On the whole I enjoyed Ramadan, probably partly because after hitting new highs right at the beginning the weather started cooling. Needless to say what had been unbelievably hot before the heats zenith felt like a relief after it had peaked. One day we went up the mountain to watch the sun setting and the city light up. As evening approached the streets started emptying and an unbelievable silence embraced the city. Gradually the taxis stopped honking, the street sellers stopped hawking their wares and instead of Damascus’ constant racket an expectant, total silence kept us company as we sat with a bottle of wine identifying landmarks. Gradually the green lights of the minarets became more prominent against the pinkening sky. Then the azen started from one of them, the cannon rang out twice, and as the call to prayer spread from minaret to minaret and the sound of knives and forks against china drifted across from a nearby restaurant. We watched the city as the mosques faded out again leaving only the sound of cutlery to disturb the silence.

Last week though it was eid and fireworks all round. During Ramadan if you strolled across the piazza In front of the Umayyad mosque as dusk fell you’d see the mulberry juice seller congratulating the men leaving the mosque and families picnicking rather than waiting to go home to eat. It was transformed for Eid. Men rented out go-carts, the youth competed to see who could send a flying pig the most times round a set of sharply inclined vertical rails (I was congratulated on Habibies fine performance, he almost managed 3 revolutions). Guys with two AA batteries and a tennis ball challenged passers by to a game of skittles (It turns out the is a reason bowling lanes are traditionally not cobbled) and women browsed for second hand clothes. Practically every spare bit of space in the city had a swing boat erected on it for the children, but the refugee camp by my flats surpassed the lot and transformed the wasteland by the road into a man powered fair ground. It was really cool. Young Palestinian men swung Ferris Wheels and Merry-go-Rounds, pushed Swing Boats and drove kids around on the horses and carts that usually sell vegetables. Embarrassingly they all wanted to give Habib and me free goes, because we are not Syrian or refugees. Not being refugees of course the cost of a go on the rides would have been negligible for us.


Half way through eid Habibi returned to the UK and I moved into The Fixer and U’s incredibly cheap flat. Its been quite good fun, The Fixer is pretty much nocturnal giving him an edge in the cockroach killing competition. We’ve all overlapped at twice daily breakfast/dinner parties, but now he’s leaving Syria, so U and I can get a drink in the middle of the night secure in the knowledge that no one’ll be lurking, trying to send us out to buy beer. I’ll miss it.


رمضان كريم

Imagine a culture that runs on sweet tea and nicotine. Imagine a society where nothing actually works, where people being nice to each other is what keeps the buses on the roads, the bureaucracy workable, which, when peoples employers routinely pay them months, sometimes a couple of years in arrears, keeps the vegetables being sold. Place this society in a country where 40 degrees is pretty standard, no one can afford air con, and the electricity doesn’t work anyway. Then remove the sweet tea and the cigarettes. Apparently Summer Ramadan’s are kind of easier than winter ones because every ones to exhausted by the heat to be bad tempered


In Jermaanaa Ramadan is pretty much optional. There are Muslims here, but its identity is as a Druzey suburb, and the Druze don’t do Ramadan. While the Druze say their faith is a sub sect of Shia Islam, they don’t fast. They don’t go to Mecca on the hajj either; the 10 % or so who are initiated into the faith went to the tomb of Moses’ father in law in the Galilee, before Israel inconveniently started existing. They don’t pray 5 times a day, and I’m not sure what their relationship to the other 2 pillars of Islam is. If you’re thinking they don’t sound very Islamic, your not alone, the Sunna and Shia have traditionally been pretty anti Druze, forcing the latter into the mountains to avoid being persecuted.


Syria has this reputation for tolerance, but I’m increasingly thinking it’s a matter of mathematics. The Christians are absolutely convinced that if they were given the chance the Sunna would all like to live in Saudi Arabia. In my experience the Sunna (other than the Kurds, who have other concerns) are quite proud of their tolerance of the Christians, who Sunna kind of feel are so off the true path that there’s no hope for them, but that they’re sweet and fluffy doing their own thing. However in my experience they on the whole find the Shia both infuriating and frustrating. You know when you watch someone cooking, and you look and think ‘they are making that so much harder than it needs to be’? But you know they won’t appreciate being told how they could do it better. I think this is how the Sunna feel about the Shia. That they’re so close, yet when it comes down to it just wrong. And unlike me watching people cooking for me, the Sunna don’t recognise that giving advice is A) pointless B) annoying. The Druze and Alawi are even worse, having been Muslims, been right, stopped and gave up the true path for hippy blends of neo-Platonism, reincarnation and Islam! For their part the Druze, like the Christians, know that they’re culturally superior. Actually, they know they’re superior, full stop.


Anyway the minorities are quite up for annoying the Sunna, if they think they can get away with it. In Jermanna a lot of the takeaways and restaurants are open throughout the day. As the iftitah approaches and I go to work others start opening to brake the fast, their staff (aka the owners family) casting annoyed, ‘fuck you’ looks at the staff of restaurants who’ve been open all day, who where self satisfied, fuck you expressions. It’s actually quite nice, Jermannas usually gridlocked in the evenings, but enough people are sat at home waiting to eat to allow traffic to move. The rest of the city’s deserted in the evening, apart from a few people rushing home and some stoical, desperate, or non fasting Taxi driver’s sharking for fares. I can lean out my window and watch the Palestinians gathered around their ‘ftora,’ which usually means breakfast, waiting for the cannon that signals at last its time to eat.


But while in Jermanna Ramadan’s biggest impact on my life that through a haze between asleep and awake I wonder if the minaret seams to be saying different things, and possibly more of them, is it louder and is someone drumming, sometimes I have to venture into Sham proper. Today (I say ‘today,’ I mean literally a month ago today. This should all be in the past) I left my house to extend my visa at 10AM. It was gone 4 by the time I retuned. (A vital bit of paper had expired but I couldn’t get a new one before my iqama expired. the eventual solution: photocopy the old one and submit that.) The office is in Roknadeen, or ‘the corner of religion.’ The first time I went there a friend gave me directions. ‘Get of the servicee when monaqbat (meaning women who veil, from niqb) out number mohajibat (from hijab), and follow the Iraqis.’ Surprisingly good advice.


My Christian friends fast from midnight to midday for 15 days before Christmas and Easter, and don’t eat any meat for the whole 15 days. They argue that this is a lot harder than the Muslim version, where everyone gets together and stuffs their faces, and are not at all impressed by the western, no chocolate approach. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Skipping breakfast is nothing, nothing compared to hours in the Syrian summer without water. Everyone in the (air con free) passport office replied ‘hot, thirsty, and dying for a fag’ when asked ‘how are you.’ It also turns out that without overflowing ashtrays acting as air fresheners the whole passport office stinks of piss. The streets were pretty dead (doing nothing is a pretty popular Ramadan survival method. My friends teaching hours have pretty much halved.) But not so dead that I felt I could actually drink. I have never been so thirsty in my life, though actually that wasn’t the worst of it. I really do not know how people like the guys from the jowazat survive Ramadan. My vision went funny and the backs of my eyeballs hurt, my body felt incredibly light and my mouth ‘kinda glued itself together. I also threw up that night’s dinner. Coincidence, I think not.


Any way, it was miserable, but I’m beginning to think that Ramadan is proof of the Qurans divine origin. To paraphrase Hunter S Thompson you’d have to be crazy on acid to think inventing it was a good idea.