An outsider’s guide to the annulment of the 2019 Malawi Elections and all the politics since

The president of Malawi really likes power. It is not at all clear he actually won the 2019 election, but it is very clear he isn’t becoming an ex-president without a fight. The latest elections were annulled by the Constitutional Court in February, but that is just one battle in a prolonged war. It’s a pretty damming indictment of our press that, even before Corona, no one knew this was happening, so here is the story of that war.

In 2019 Malawi held elections that were widely seen as unfair. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a local NGO and perhaps the only organisation in this story with an accurate name, started organising mass protests that sometimes turned violent.

Resetting politics back to 2014

In February the Constitutional Court ruled that voting irregularities were sufficiently widespread the “the integrity of the result was severely compromised”. The annulled it and called for fresh elections within 150 days (The eminently quotable head of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Jane Ansah, said the ruling was a mistake because “Tipex was used to correct votes, not to change them”).  The court also suggested firing the Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and clarified that the winner needs “50 per cent plus one” of the vote. Even with the help of tipex the president, Peter Mutharika, head of Democratic Progressive Party, only managed 38.6% of the vote, with the rest split between the other candidates.

Although Mutharika had been re-elected in 2019, the vice-presidency had changed hands. In the previous 2014 election the Democratic Progressive’s Party and the smaller United Transformation Party, which had split from it, fought the elections as a coalition. That has since broken down. The freedom of assembly laws the Human Rights Defenders have benefited from are UTM legislation and UTM have entered an uneasy coalition with the other political parties to become the DPP’s biggest rival. It is fair to say Peter is a bit hacked off to be back working with deputy president and UTM leader Saulos Chilima.

Shop in Mzuzu, Malawi with "Viscocity smiles for miles" painted on it

Fighting in Malawi’s Courts

The Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and the president have been annoying the court with appeals ever since the original decision. MEC claim they can’t register voters in time. The courts told them to make it happen. MEC argue they don’t have capacity to implement the 50% plus one rule and any new elections need to be fought under the old rules. The Constitutional Court repeated it had clarified the existing rules as set out in the constitution, and it hadn’t changed anything. (The opposition have done MEC a solid and formed a coalition, so someone should win with at least 51% of the vote). MEC argue new elections will be expensive. As that is not a legal argument the court are unswayed so MEC have engaged very expensive South African lawyers. This went down really badly. The Nation, the paper we get delivered to the office, had an op-ed asking why they couldn’t engage local lawyers and quoted a politics professor accused the finance minister of lying when he denied all knowledge of the payments to the firm. It turns out no local lawyer was prepared to represent the president and MEC, but people still think the finance minister lies.

The Nation reports that various people have said MEC is incompetent. Ansah says “are people mad? Do they know what incompetent means?”

Fighting in Malawi’s National Assembly

Peter doesn’t want to go anywhere but unfortunately for him the National Assembly has the ability to write legislation. Even worse, the DPP only hold 50 seats of 193. As a result the National Assembly have drawn up and passed a bill calling for new elections. It just needs presidential approval.

Fighting in public

The Human Rights Defenders have been keeping the pressure on. Then three of them were arrested. There is some controversy over the timing of this, did the police act just before or just after the president threatened the leaders by name? Journalists, commentators and interviewees filled the papers the next day pointing out that none of the police officers accused of gang rape have been arrested yet HRDC leaders are immediately behind bars on trumped up charges. When I lived in Syria no national news outlet would print something like that, and after three days the Malawi courts freed the HRDC on bail. I try not to annoy people by saying I think things could be a lot worse (I think Malawi is doing much better than the US did with the impeachment).

View from the front of a small boat on Lake Malawi

Then Mutharika announced he wasn’t signing the bill mandating new elections and fired his entire cabinet. He’s since reformed it without the deputy president. He clearly likes sacking people, because he fired the head of the army a few days later. However in the same way the House of Commons can force the Lords to acquiesce to legislation the Malawi National Assembly can push bills through and they certainly seem determined to do so, so there’s a new bill on Mutharika’s desk.

The HRDC have declared tomorrow a day of rage, but due to Corona that is manifesting as a strike not a mass protest. In fact Corona may be just what Mutharika was hoping would turn up when he stalled for time; gatherings of more than 100 people are banned. The MEC seem to have acquiesced to new elections on July 2nd, if it is safe to hold them, and there is at least one more appeal due to be heard before then.

It seems like there is going to be lots more politics still to happen.

Who are the parties?

  • United Transformation Party – The kingmakers. Apparently they stand for maintaining cultural norms, but with freedom of speech.  
  • Democratic Progressive Party – A colleague said the DPP stand for the family. I assumed she meant family values, but she meant the Mutharika family. Before Peter was president Malawi had his brother Bingu, who died in office. Apparently there is a third brother waiting his turn. Peter has said he doesn’t like the North, the North doesn’t like him
  • Malawi Congress Party – The party of the 30 year Hastings Banda dictatorship, they’re for the good old days (possibly minus beatings administered by the youth wing), subsidised chemical fertilizer, and infrastructure
  • PP – The party that won the first, 1994 multi-party elections, a misallocation of funds scandal has tarnished their rep.   
  • Umodzi party – my colleague says they’re a nonentity and as I’m not a real journalist I’m leaving it at that.

(If you like reading my thoughts about the government’s of my temporary homes collapsing Iceland and Canada both lost their governments shortly after I arrived too)

More dead sheep-part 1

Egypt has been a bit too amazing really. Sight-seeing takes up most of our day, then in the evenings the Egyptians that adopt us in which ever place we happen to be take us on all sorts of adventures. If local hospitality doesn’t end up with us eating sheep’s guts or climbing mountains under the light of the full moon we collapse into bed, too tiered to turn adjectives into sentences.

During Eid al Adhar things really got a bit out of hand. We spent most of the holiday in Luxor, where we woke up with the Mezzuien on the Friday, the 26th and the first day of Eid. Prayers were broadcast over the loud speaker, but both the size and enthusiasm of the congregation made this unnecessary. Like anyone right at the beginning of a major holiday people were too excited to sleep and, instead of going back to bed, after prayers they cranked up a sound system. When the boys gave up on bed and joined me on the balcony they were amazed by how small the crowd outside was, but what was lacking in numbers was compensated for by feeling.

Except for the solitary sheep, hobbled up outside. It didn’t look at all keen on the water and grass the local boys, all wearing new galabayas, were trying to interest it in. When we went down for breakfast the lovely man who owns the Fontana Hotel told us it was his sheep, and he’d sacrifice it just as soon as we’d eaten breakfast. I thought maybe he waited so as not to put us off our food, but it turned out to be so we could watch. Gerard doesn’t like dead things.

I was impressed that they put the sheep over a floor drain in the hotel before doing the deed. Even so the was more than enough blood for everyone to dip theire hands into and print them on the walls, something I didn’t see in Syria.

We headed out in search of coffee, but instead found a sheep being skinned. We stopped to marvel at the high standard of butchery on display, but also to listen to the music that soundtracked the sheep’s dismemberment.

We love Egyptian music. Despite it being everywhere we cannot get enough of it. Not even deep pro Syrian prejudice can make me say Levantiane pop is better. Egyptian music is just so dammed dancy. And we ended up dancing. A lot.

We were about 15 years older than anyone else dancing, until three lads got bored of lounging against a car looking cool and jumped into the circle. They had a routine that they must have really practiced; they were extremely good.

The sun continued its journey across the sky. The patch of shade we danced in shrank and the mud and blood started drying up. Women gave me water that tasted of Nile and I’m too polite to refuse in an attempt to stop me dieing of heat exhaustion. Someone had the sense to pull the plug, and we were sat down and fed tea. The dancing turned out to just be a prelude to our Eid adventures, but as the moon is now well across the sky and the internet cafe is shutting the rest will have to wait.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

What the eye doctor sees

Yesterday was a hastily arranged national holiday. It allowed the people to take part in the planned demonstrations of support for the Government. According to Syria TV (which, according to one of my students ‘is reporting from paradise’) there were 2million out on the streets of Sham, and 1 million in Aleppo. Both cities have populations of roughly 6 million (and I am not getting involved in the never ending argument about what does, and does not constitute part of Damascus). It certainly looked massive on TV, although a (Syrian) friend of a friend lives in the official university accommodation, known as the ‘medina,’ or city, which has a curfew and all sorts of other things designed to stop the party. She says that all of the students were told that they absolutely had to go to the rally, and couldn’t stay in the accommodation. She missioned back to her village and is hoping the authorities didn’t notice her absence.

Today I met my friend from the mosque to have lunch and watch the president give a speech to the Parliament. It turns out that punctuality isn’t one of ‘Abu Hafez,’ as his supporters are now calling him, many virtues. We watched in a restaurant and everyone was transfixed. My friend says she cannot remember him ever giving a speech to the people; he always does it out of sight somewhere. He does look very shy. I, and I think a lot of Syrians, find him strangely endearing, a tendency I’m fighting against. As someone pointed out, just because he looks like a Disney mouse doesn’t mean he’s got any legitimacy, He should be head of his local Specsavers*, not Syria.

Anyway, we were pretty disappointed by his speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by deputies telling him how great he was, much to his embarrassment. My favourite was the politician that told him that the Arab countries were too small for such a man to lead, he should lead the whole world, I’m sure no one (apart, perhaps, for his mum) has ever told Cameron that. Assad blamed outsiders for fermenting a plot, using what’s been happening elsewhere where as cover, announced it was defeated, said no blame can be attached to the people in Dera, announced some economic benefits, assured us he’d have made them anyway, shook the hand of every single MP and left, driving his own car.

*he’s a British trained eye doctor.