Libya with love

As we walked across Martyr’s Square the first time, as we looked for a hotel, I said something about how Libya had better be the epitome of kickass to justify the hassle we’d had to get here. Gerard said I was just making it easy for me to be disappointed. He was wrong. Libya is worth everything we put into getting here: the money, the week queuing outside the Libyan consulate in Alex, the flights up and down the Med, the lot.

 

Tripoli is an easy city to like, with its sea front and proper commercial ships overlooked by the coastal that forms the corner of the tumble down old city. It cleverly manages to combine feeling safer than Tunis with a bit of revolutionary excitement. Everything that could possibly have been painted with the red, black and green of the new flag has been, and there was a small protest in the square when we arrived. By the time we’d dumped our bags it had shrunk, but had some information signs that we checked out. The demonstrators explained they objected to a clause in the current draft of what will one day be a constitution allowing anyone who’d defected by the 20th of March, the day after Gaddafi attacked Benghazi, to hold office. They were all really friendly, interesting and pleased to see us. Unlike the people we talked to in Egypt and Tunisia they, like everyone else in Tripoli, all said the revolution had changed everything and were confident that things would improve dramatically in the coming years. Which is not to say; people aren’t concerned about the future. Everyone says Gaddafi neglected education, and worry about what that will do to the country. People say the Youth have no respect, and a Sufi mystic said the Salafis are bigots with too much power and confidence and not enough knowledge of Islam. But everyone is confident that whatever happens, it’ll be better than Gaddafi. The city feels like its celebrating, and has got out its biros to cross his (gormless) face of the one dinar note, and scratched Jamhariya, his name for Libya’s government, off the car licence plates. The odd burst of celebratory gun fire, fireworks and, worst of all, the sticks that go bang which kids throw all over the place has almost given me post traumatic stress, and I wasn’t there during the war, but Tripoli seems happy. No one, not even the people with touristy shops in the old city, tries to sell us anything. If the national museum wasn’t still dismantling the galleries about Gaddafi and cataloguing what went missing during the war the city would be practically perfect.

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.

 

Egypt


Its the 12th and I’m getting cold feet. Egypt seems fine, the demo that greeted me as I got off the bus in Tahir square was pretty small (and since then its looked a lot more dramatic on TV than in the flesh). But I’m one day, 2 hrs and 24 minutes late for my roundevouz with Gerard. We said that we’d return to our chosen cafe every hour on the hour, or at lest I said that in a message I hope he received, so inshallah he’ll turn up soon. meanwhile Llwyelyn is still in the UK, possibly dieing of viles disease. nether of these little things can be categorized as good omans.

On the plus side I’m doing better with the local Arabic than I expected. I understand, except when I don’t, in which case i completely, comprehensibly, unconditionally fail to understand. admittedly the Egyptians laugh, and if they can switch into English, when I lisp the Arabic exultant of ‘forsouth, i beg of you enlighten me as to the location of…’ Syrian dialect has, so far, done the trick.

Even better, while in 2007Ciro overwhelmed me as much as she beguiled me this time I’m complicatedly in love. The city would remind me of an old woman who’d been beautiful 60 years before, were it not that she is so alive. No matter how beautiful her streets are they are filthy and even the goats in the Ally made of the wreck of glorious Mameluke buildings seemed to eat plastic bags with vitality. The places outside the maelstroms of hooting cars seem some how intense, like a lot of enagy is going into chilling out.

It is impossible to tell how much the revolution has changed Egypt since I was hear before. The almost complete absence of low denomination notes that complicated everything has been circumvented by minting a load of coins and the citys fleet of aging pergots seems diminished, the fallen war horses replaced with Dewos. I doubt the Arab Spring is responsible though.
People are willing, although not particularly pushy, to talk politics. Everyone says they’re disappointed by the revolution, but other than jobs and freedom cannot say what they expected from it. Someone said that drinking in the street was allowed now, but he neither approved nor though that it was enough for the price Egypt had paid for the revolution.

In the same way its hard to imagine Ciroas ornate architecture getting the scrub it needs and the pipes rerouted underground its hard to imagine how her uncountable children can create the jobs and improved living standards they revolted for. But then overthrowing
Mubarak took quite some imagining, and yet it happened.

In Cairo the weather isnt as hot as I’d expected. My personal conditions and forecast is ‘slightly over clouded, set to clear.’ I hope that Gerard shares my sunny outlook. As he hasn’t emailed I assume either his cool hasn’t melted, or some disaster that makes my endless hours in Gatwick pale into insignificance has befallen him. maybe the is a place in the sun for Egypt as well.

***

One of the reasons I thought Gerard would make a great travelling companion was his self reliance. we’ve crossed Tahir square a few times en rout to the Egyptian Museum and the Nile a few times, and seem to have hit it when its been calm. Certainly it hasn’t been stormy enough to dislodge the touts. After staggering out of the Egyptian museum thinking 3000 wasn’t that old after looking at things from the dawn of history, it was refreshing to stand at the center of contemporary events. The are some fantastic murals commemorating the martyrs of the revolution. I couldn’t help wondering how meany miles of wall will be needed to remember Syrias dead as I looked at them.

While we’ve been sight seeing Llwyelen has decided to delay his demise. Barring disasters, and I’m not sure my luck has recovered enough for it to be safe to bar disasters, he’ll join us tomorrow evening.

Explosions and Elections

I wrote this on Thursday, but the internets not been working

 

My day started with a bang. The violence in Damascus has been increasing recently, although English language media hasn’t been reporting it. We’ve heard a few explosions, stood on our balcony late at night, watching dust rising from the suburbs and the lights of the Four Seasons failing. Damascus’ one way system has been funnelling more funerals under our balcony and it’s getting less unusual to hear gun fire. But this is different. The other bombs have been designed to minimise civilian casualties, but it was about 8 I heard the bang. Both explosions were on the opposite side of the city, but the second one shook the house.

Like most of Syria we are watching Ad Dunia, an independent but pro-government Syrian channel, that’s reporting live from the wreckage of the airport road. crumpled taxis and unrecognisable hulks of metal litter it. Corpses, looking like b movie zombies, still sit in the cars, legs and torsos have been blown across the road. People wave the remains at the camera, denouncing the Free Army, The US, Al Jazeera (whose Arabic language channel has interviewed an activist accusing Ad Dunia of faking the footage), Israel, anyone.  A friend who’s own suburb is dangerous after dark and crashed at ours last night has managed to phone his sister. While the bombs were close to some Mukhaberat buildings they were also close to her college. She’s really tall for a Syrian, as soon as she saw me she promised me to take me to a clothes shop she knows that sells long legged jeans.  The windows of the college have been blown in. Some of her classmates smoking at the gates are among the 100 Ad Dunia’s reporting injured. She was scared and shouted on the phone, unaware of how loud she was talking, but otherwise unhurt. None of us are excited about today.

                                                                          …

On Tuesday Syria elected the mejlis shab, the ‘parliament’.  I don’t really know what to think about it.

Apparently 10 million of the 24 million potential voters went to the polls. No one really knows how many Syrians the are, but 20 million is often the figure quoted. Some people were very keen for me to vote. While I assured them I wasn’t a Syrian the guys outside the polling booth didn’t seem to think that was a problem, particularly if my first choice was the one they recommended. I think they were joking, but I did go home with a pocketful of ballot papers. None of my friends really know what anyone was standing for, the candidates were pretty vague about how they were gunna ‘achieve the dreams of the youth.’ None the less, rigging elections that most of the opposition is boycotting to a powerless body seems a bit pointless. Theoretically everyone hopes the Annan Plan will work, but it’s the kind of hope that people have when they know it’s statistically unlikely.

Moving

All those war stories, holocaust stories, stories about humans ability to adapt, to survive. The ones that say ‘a remarkable tale of the indomitable human spirit in terrible circumstances,’ on the back, A Child Called It, the ‘my life as a junky genre’. They don’t really question whether people should manage to live through horrendous times. I’m impressed by Damascus’ ability to man up, keep calm and carry on, but I’m horrified by it as well.

If you can think of a way of coping with the disintegration of your country I can guarantee their is a Shammie practising it. Homs has pushed what’s happening in Damascus out of the headlines, but something definitely is. The question of course is what. Concrete barriers entirely bar the exits from the ring road to the rebellious eastern suburbs, stationary trucks fill Jermaanas high street. Rumours and videos are coming out of Zabadani, Duma, Harista, everywhere and helicopters are becoming commoner.

Still, people get on with life. People who weren’t put off having a good time by Derra haven’t been put off by Homs. The bombings have shaken everybody, they’ve added an unwelcome element of random death. But while you don’t see people on the streets before 2PM on Fridays, afterwards the good times roll. Like us everyone spends the morning channel surfing, with a satellite dish you can have back to back Syria coverage, flicking from news to propaganda and from Arabic to English and back. We discus theories and rumours over the news we’ve carefully lined up. My Iraqi friends swear they know about bombs, and Syrias aren’t big enough for the reported death toll. Someone’s cousin in the mukhaberat said that Aleppo would have 8 bombings. So and so describes the unusual lack of street life outside the first building to be bombed in Damascus the night before it was attacked. In Syria buildings dedicated to maintaining the police state are prominent, and defended by a few conscripts with AKs. They’re designed to intimidate but if they wanted to the opposition could easily get close enough to blow them up. We argue until their is more Homs footage, and then their is nothing to say.

By 3 its life as usual. Anything that’ll be blown up that day has been and cafés house women saying the first person to mention politics pays. families go out to eat. Bars fill up. I’m impressed by the way Damascus carries on, but I’m appalled by the city’s myopia and seeming indifference as well. While half my friends now say ‘gunna do a Russia,’ for ‘no,’ or ‘I’m not joining in,’ and complain they ‘feel like Homs,’ in the morning the other half have long-standing ideological objections to enjoying themselves. The dark humour is more fun than going out for a few bears with people who glare at other customers and complain that they’re having fun. Asceticism wont improve anything. None the less it feels better, going out does seem immoral. It is hard not to despise the people who seem unaware theirs a war on.

On the other hand the life as normal crew are spending cash and keeping people employed. The people who think this is a time of suffering are bulk buying, inevitably pushing prices up and creating shortages. The petrol shortage is the most disheartening. Petrol is subsidised by the government and theoretically the price is fixed at 220L a litre. People are paying a thousand up front. A week or two later when the depot has supplies they deliver whats been paid for, and the customers stockpile it. The lines outside petrol stations are unbelievable, the cost of everything is rising. The corruption is so depressing, it takes more than a change of government to change that kind of mentality. The revolution started with ‘the people calling for the overthrow of corruption,’ but how can you stop it?

                                                               …

Their is a Syrian version of the Pythons Yorkshiremen sketch doing the rounds. Apparently its a true story from the campus of one of the private universities. A bunch of stoners in their final year are hanging out, complaining about the situation and the power cuts. One winges he has to do all his studying in cafes powered by generators. His companions are not impressed, and his friend moans about studying by candle light. ‘Candle light,’ the third student exclaims. ‘Cant afford candles, do my studying in middle of t’ road I do. Use the light from t’ restaurants.’

”Dudes. Whats wrong with sunlight?’ A passing class mate asks. ‘You guys need to get up earlier.’

This is no longer my life. As much as I enjoyed living in Jermaana my low income friendship groups disintegrating along with Syria. The focus of my life has shifted west and consequently I’ve moved in with some friends in prosperous, laid back Afif (or ‘unsullied’). Its just down the road from the Burtons’ and Lady Jane Digby’s old hangout in Sahlahya (‘righteous’). Despite crawling in mukhaberat (leather coats and pistols), security (overcoats and AKs) and traffic police (motorbikes and jack boots) its far more attractive than Jermaana. The rich My new flats biggest draw is location, and I’m not talking views, architectural charm and a tourist departments dream of a vegetable souk. Its just up the mountain from Bashar and shares a power cable with him. Electricity 24 hrs a day!

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.

Dimashq ya habibiti

When I left Damascus on the 23rd of November I didn’t really expect to come back; going home and getting a new visa was like clapping during Peter Pan. If enough people do believe in fairies and in Syria, despite all the evidence, Tinkerbell will recover and Syria will not implode.

Me leaving coincided with a decline in the situation that many thought was terminal. The Arab League decisions and the grenade attack on the Ba’th party HQ seemed to bring the scale of the problem home to people. Suddenly my well educated, successful, pro-regime friends and acquaintances were researching ways to get out. As of yet most haven’t gone, more because they to believe in fairies than because they cant, but when they do go I doubt they’ll be coming back. At the time I was missioning around and sorting myself out to leave it was impossible to cross Damascus without running into pro governmental rallies. In September they were intoxicating, who can resist being part of a happy crowd with a slogan and a belief in something? By the time I left they were thoroughly miserable affairs that no one was enjoying. The crowds seemed to be there to mourn the passing of the Syria they knew, rather than because they believed the rallies had any purpose. My anti friends all thought this was Bashar’s end, but were not optimistic about what would happen next. As I said my goodbyes my friends inshalla’s, possibly the most pessimistic word in Syrian Arabic, were even more dismal than usual.

Damascus’ collective faith and fear has kept the city habitable and I’m home, but its not the city I left. Back in the beginning, before the shooting of the ‘Deraa 22’ everyone was saying that Damascus was a city without fear for the first time in living memory. My friends were newly youthful and optimistic. They projected their excitement and belief on the city and no one imagined that the empowered could be re-interred in their own minds, that anyone could ever be permanently scared again. They were wrong, and a month and a half more worrying has taken its toll on the city. Its become meaner spirited, more aggressive. No one ever gets change from serviece drivers any more, the is more sexual harassment, we’re not ‘all in it together,’ we’re all out for ourselves. Syrias proud of its religious tolerance, but a passer-by said ‘Christian,’ rather than ‘foreigner,’ as I walked through the old city the other day.

One of my neighbours works for the red cross and I spent the Friday of the second bombing sat in his flat, watching Al Jazera between blackouts, waiting to find out what was happening. He left to help as soon as the bombing, in a passionately anti Assad neighbourhood, was announced and reckons the government transported dead bodies to the site. It doesn’t really matter whos behind it, everyone believes what they want to, but its kicked the stuffing out of a city thats already as depressed as its weather.

My anti friends reckon that the pros are too angry, have some how had too much of their dignity taken away from them for any sane person to be able to predict what they’ll do. Its certainly clear that when Syria does implode, when the revolution really arrives in Damascus it will not be pretty. Like the lost looking Assad supporters in November I to am mourning the passing of the Damascus I knew.

An even manic-er monday

I have a new work, as my students would undoubtedly say. I now teach, or referee the flirting sessions of sexually frustrated, upper middle class Syrian 20 somethings, at the American Language Centre. Working there is kinda a cross between being a sixth former, a demi-god and everybody’s bitch. Until now, as my students would also say, I haven’t decided whether I want the job.

We have a great kitchen and sitting room to hang out in and ‘plan lessons’ while actually making ‘English teacher jokes’ and bitching about our students. At the moment the teachers divide roughly equally into three categories, those that are half Arab/ half English speaker (all combinations accepted), those that are married to, divorcing or the parents of Syrians, and random Brits. The chilling and drinking tea is the sixth former part of the equation and the highlight so far.

The ‘teacher’s room’ is also home to some fantastic resources and the ‘part timers,’ who are employed to do the teachers photocopying, know where all the books are and generally run everything. The female part timers in particular seem to think the divorces and randomers need lots of looking after and are always bringing in puddings and sweets for us. This is the demi-god part and is also great.

But the students, oh the students. Lots of them are pretty annoyed the moment a British teacher walks in to the room as they want to learn ‘the American accent,’ and are not shy about saying so. They don’t seem to think a quick explanation of dialectical diversity in the US and the use of the definite article in English is an appropriate response to this statement, but I don’t know what they think is. I mean me putting on an American accent wouldn’t be very convincing, and I’m not exactly gunna say ‘Ok, I’ll just pop out and find an American who’s free now.’

Then there’s the breakdown of the class. One of Syria’s most popular soap operas features bad girls tricking good girls into prostitution, hymen reconstructive surgery and poor boys sucking rich ones off in toilets, passionately platonic extra marital affairs and lots of heart-break. The characters all know each other from English class (the teacher is a real ESL teacher at Berlitz). Half my students seem intent on making their own version which is very annoying for the poor kids (I say kids, the majority are roughly my age, a chunk younger than my nice, respectful Merkz students) for who the cost of the course represents quite a sacrifice and who are learning English in an attempt to improve more than their social lives. Then there are the two types of men who are not used to being told what to do by young women and don’t like it now, the spoilt rich 20 something ones and the middle-aged business ones. The former, who live with their parents and can’t cook salad, are particularly annoying. I mean, they might be men, but I’m an adult. This is not to mention the ones with annoying ‘American’ mannerisms, who wander in with a cheery ‘yo mother from another brother,’ for their mates (I’m teaching a low-level this term) and the nervy girls who talk very very quietly or people with irrelevant (or at least incomprehensible to me) grammar questions. Did I mention we spend alot of time slagging off our students?

My experience isn’t enhanced by the fact that the only person on the staff that I don’t like is my trainer. She’s kind of distant, both literally and emotionally. Its kinda my fault that we’re not working well together, I assumed that she would take the lead in arranging the daily meetings, lesson planning sessions and class observations that form week ones training schedule, but I was wrong, I’ve hardly seen her and I’m out of my depth. The other teachers say she’s on my side, as she only ever says things like ‘you want to improve because you need the money’ I’d hate to see her with someone she’s got it in for.

The director spoke to me, my students have mentioned I’ve skipped loads of the curriculum, and he asked me why I wasn’t using the communicative activities or the DVD. I was like ‘What communicative activities? There’s a DVD? Who knew?’ but in rather better English. My trainer, my boss and I have now had words, so I’m pretty confident week two will be an improvement, but suffice to say I haven’t made a good first impression.

As the centre is right next door to the American Embassy, in the Jordanian Ambassadors basement, I was worried that I’d end up redundant if anyone set fire to the embassy, but it turns out that I get is free evacuation to the country of my choice should the US pull out its citizens, so now I’m kinda ‘bring it on Ya Soreya, I wanna holiday on Obama’s dollar.’

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.

 

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.