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.

 

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Drunk and Disturbing Me

We’re still in Tunisia, and I don’t really know what I think about it. Tunisians and I need to work really hard to understand each other’s Arabic, and they can’t believe it wouldn’t just be easier to talk French. The Tunisian old cities are similar enough to Damascus to remind me how much I miss Sham. It’s worse than being homesick because the Damascus I miss has been shot to shit, the people I shared it with scattered and scarred by the war. My relationship with Sham is in its Sinead O’Connor phase; obviously it’s over but Nothing Compares To You, Damascus. Our break up is still too recent for me to want to be impartial; I just wanna be in pre-war Syria.

So clearly I’m not fair to Tunisia. It’s probably amazing really. I’m swinging from loving the rolling hills of Cap Bon, backed the improbably blue Med and the medina’s narrow alleys, with doors and windows picked out in blues as unlikely as the sea, and thinking about Syria. But I don’t think it’s only that my second country has dumped me. Too many Tunisians just seem unloved, uncared for. So far only one person to come up to us after dark hasn’t reeked of beer. My Syrian friends drank, some of them allot, often cheep vodka outside, but it seems Tunisia’s public drunkenness is of a different breed. My friends enjoyed getting pissed. Simple as that. Both Syria and Egypt had an underclass for whom survival was a struggle, but somehow they didn’t seem as desolate as their Tunisian counterparts. I can’t think of a Syrian equivalent of the man who showed me and Gerard round a mosque today and smelt of alcohol, madness and neglect. Despite living on the edge of a refugee camp in an Iraqi suburb I saw one person in Syria combine hopelessness and booze. After two years it is literally shocking to see the pairing again. I discussed it with Gerard a, who made thinking noises. The boys not being as surprised as me (although they were pretty surprised by the toothless beggar who tried to kiss me at 10am) makes me wonder about Britain.

We’re in Kairoun at the moment which claims to be the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. They’re wrong, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque is, but it’s still a relaxed, residential old city. I like it, particularly the well that’s linked to one in Mecca. A bunch of guys with a banging sound system have taken over the piazza between our hotel and the walls of the old city. They’re playing a catchy song about Jihad, draped everything with posters about spreading the revolution and are busy fund raising for Gaza. They’re having a great time. Tunisia is as changeable as my feelings.

 

Tunisia Map

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.

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.

 

Maaoula – Mark 2

Today Ullin, whose been in Syria for not quite two years but can already perform great feats of Arabic speaking, like reading books (even if it takes 3 or 4 months to get through one) and has not only mastered newspaper reading but got bored of doing it, told me that keeping an Arabic language diary is a major key to Arabic success. So I’ve started one and its practically impossible to explain how goddam excited I am about it. clearly it’ll help me master the intricacies of the past tense and, by definition, will grow my vocabulary in a way thats relevant to my life. Oh yeah! Should be good for my grammar too, and will theoretically help me think in Arabic, once I’ve got past the ‘I did X. then I did Y. Then I did Z. It was good’ stage.
Diary entry number 1 had some interesting stuff to go in it as Ullin and I went to Maoula, which was looking more like Switzerland than ever, to enjoy the remnants of the snow. I’d had quiet drinks with some people the night before and Martin showed us the photos of snowy Maoula that he’d taken that day. Martin’s Dutch, not a Muslim and has Arabic so good hes stopped studying the language and is studying Sharia law in it instead. He spent the summer in Maoula, which is cooler than Damascus, learning Aramaic. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, hes an interesting guy.

Ullin and I climbed about on the pink hued rocks and scrunched through the blue tinged snow, making our way up the side of one of Maoulas mountains. It was crisply cold and windswept up top as we looked down the precipice towards the village, me happily chattering about caving. the are two different denominations of Christians living in Maoula, and apparently the is an annual festival during which the rival churches fling burning tires down towards the village from opposite sides of the valley. The group that throw down the most tires wins. According to Ullin tires are less likely to hit the houses than you might think. Although the was less snow than in Martins photos we both enjoyed being out the city and getting some proper exercise. coming back down again was pretty physical as we got a bit lost.
Back in Damascus I met up with Rami so he could mark all my Arabic. Rami walked into my room, shivered and pulled his jacket tight, then touched my heater, bringing it down in a cacophony of falling metal. He asked to speak to my landlord and they shouted at each other in Arabic over the phone, Rami looking at me with a mixture of compassion, bewilderment and early onset hypothermia. The landlord agreed to make it better, and Rami agreed Ninar, a wanky cafe-resturant-bar thing round the corner from mine, might be a better place to work. He liked my diary, mainly because I’d managed to say ‘I’m a fridge.’ My aim for this week is to engage with my fusha ‘vocabulary.’ I’ve collated all the verbs and adjectives I’ve been ‘taught,’ Rami and Paul between them have translated/confirmed the English and now I’m going to learn them.

Mauola – Friday.

In some ways Damascus is Hotel California. the is this core of people who just can never leave. On the other hand people are going all the time and I’ve been to more leaving parties than I can shake a stick at.

Some of the language students hear baffle me. they come with no Arabic, stay 5, maybe 6, weeks and spend a month at the university, then leave with better no Arabic. The Fixer tells me to stop trying to figure them out and just accept the ‘Language Tourists,’ don’t actually want to learn Arabic, just feel good about themselves in Syria.

They are extremely well organised sight sears. The Hotel California lot, including me*, are crap. Bukra my friend, bukra. However the Language Tourists are always keen to organize some Hotel Califiorniks onto there trips. The longer you stay the more desirable you become, as the better your Arabic is, though you also become harder to recruit, having seen more of the sights. As the language tourists are keen hammamers and eaters out I intend to know a couple at all times.

Which is kinda how I found myself going to Mauola, rather than learning some new words. My flat mate Frency, who I really like, is in Syria to get spatial distance between her and her broken heart until time kicks in, asked me if I wanted to join her.

Maoulas claim to fame is being one of three places where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken. clinging to the rocky hills, it’s predominantly Christian. The sights are a monastery and a convent. Maybe its the imminent birthday of our lord, but Mauola was pretty happening, with lots people, Christians and Muslims, at the sanctuarys. Somehow it kinda felt like Switzerland, though the skylines dominated by a huge, precariously positioned statue of the virgin Mary and what looks like a copy of the statue of Christ at Rio.

As far as I’m concerned the point of Mauola is the landscape. All limestone, with lots of little, formerly inhabited caves, some with long decrepit ladders up to them. it had a rather cool canyon leading down to the convent. the guidebook describes it as a mini version of Petras siq, but I thought it was more like St Catherines, (a cave we did in Clare) except with less water and no roof, obviously. The whole countryside was pink rock and the houses clung to the sides of the cliffs in an appealing way. Frency and I got excited about the various textures and enjoyed the cool, crisp air. you don’t notice smog until it goes away. It actually felt like autumn, for pretty much the first time.

The monastery is dedicated to Sts Serge and Baccus, and didn’t have a single doorway sized for normal people. it did have a really beautiful domed thing with lovely icons in perfect coulors over an alter adorned with a pair of eco friendly light bulbs. one assumes the monks find them lower maintenance than candles.

I particularly enjoyed the gift shop, not only was it staffed by someone desperate to get us to try the wine (very sweet) but it sold some of the kitschest Santa Clauses and snowmen I’ve seen this side of a coke advert.

The convents gift shop limits itself to reproductions of its icons, but it does have a cave, the home of st Thalika (who abandoned her fiance for St Paul. she was sentenced to death but the lions wouldn’t eat her, so they tried to burn her but it pissed it down. she ran off, moved into a cave in Maloula, was nearly raped but was saved when the rock behind her opened up to create the canyon). its much later than the monastery, and generally not as good.

We made it back to town in time for a beer at Abu Georges before I went off to meet R. basically Maula rocks the socks of Sedanya.

*My excuse is R is closer to free at weekends.

The worlds worst ‘caving’ weekend?

Caving with ACC is easy. And because I used to organize so much of it, it generally fitted with my schedule. I never organized it to include elderly services driven by smugglers intent on exploring the retail opportunities in duty-free. As much as we laugh at Chris’ driving hes never actually hit another car (just a fender bender, though the car then started making worrying noises). He almost always drives on the correct side of the road, unlike our servicee driver, who went through the Lebanese border the wrong way, leaving bemused men waving sub automatic machine guns at us. And I tended to know whether I organized a trip for the morning or the evening.
I had confirmed the rendezvous with Tony of ALES, but I was pretty certain that it was for the evening. after all to make it to Chatoura for 7.30AM I’d have to leave Cham at 4.30, and Sundays a weekday over hear, a spot of evening caving makes sense goddamnit. My assumptions aside using the phrase ‘PM’ instead of ‘the evening,’ over a dodgy Skype connection to a third language English speaker clearly wasn’t bright.

On arriving at Chatoura I quickly discovered my mistake. Oh well, I thought. I was adopted my a man, who took me on the serviecee to Beirut, driving over the breathtakingly beautiful Mount Lebanon range in the sunset. My Arabic was good enough to sustain a conversation that we both enjoyed, which made me want to dance. Ali was a Palestinian, and seemed quite keen to tell me about the war, although unfortunately my Arabic doesn’t extend that far yet.

After some faff at the hostel, which remembered me from my visit with Hellie, I went in search of a phone call to Pierre, who I was supposed to cave with on the Monday.

Lebanon is an odd little place. Poor Muslims seem as surprised as they are pleased to meet a European learning Arabic, and love to talk to me in it. At the other end of the scale are the people I’d never dream of talking Arabic to, who make me feel that my french is totally inadequate. What they have in common is a welcoming friendliness of a totally different flavour to that displayed by the Syrians. As I was walking to an internet cafe some guys belonging to Lebanese type B asked me if I was Ok, and ended up driving me and 4 Poles across town (and Beruit isn’t small) to an internet cafe. apparently the drivers uncle’s the chief of police, so he doesn’t need to obey the laws about seat belts.At the internet cafe the microphone didn’t work, but with some lateral thinking and a little help from my friends (cheers guys) it was arranged that Piere would pick me up from the Hostal in Geramazy, just north of the center. At this point I should probably explain that the middle east has yet to invent roaming charges, and once at the border Syrian phones just stop working.

Monday morning I woke, bright and early, and looked out of the window at a sniper on the roof of the opposite building. Pier never showed. I phoned, the owner of the hostel having gone and her place on duty been taken by a poor Syrian guy. Turned out he wasn’t allowed to take his car anywhere near central beruit, and that although he’d phoned the hostel no one had picked up. he agreed to wait for me in a Beruite suburb, so I left to get on a serviecee.

except i was told in no uncertain terms i wasn’t to leave the hotel for another two hours. It was Lebanese independence day, and the situation there at the moment is a bit unpredictable with a high-profile trial raising tensions (your clue as to what I’m talking about is 2007). with a parade in Beirut and the PM and co in attendance no one was taking any chances and Beruit was locked down. I did not see this as a nitty-gritty cultural experience.

After about an hour I tried again, walking away from the main road to the bus station. My Arabic somehow got me through the first check point, and after that they became easier. every road junction was blocked off with tanks. helicopters were over head, the were snipers on every building and I had a knife in my bag. eventually I made it to the bus station, which was closed. I walked the 3 Km Dowra and the edge of the locked down area and got a servieece to the rendezvous. unsurprisingly Piere had left.

I was adopted by a film crew, who took me along to their set and taught me some useful Arabic. they were chatting away to each other in a mix of Arabic and French. eventually though we had to be quite, which was pretty boring so I went to Babylos, which is kind of like a middle easter Abereron, with added ruins. I really liked it, and its hard to overstate how stunning Lebanon is, and it really shouldn’t be, seeing how developed the coastal strip is.

eventually it was time for me to head back to Damascus. Suffice to say that the is a reason that I’ve never organised ACC transport to include Saudi men armed with Arak and cheep perfume. I’ve told some of my friends hear about this, I get to the ‘au’ of Saudi before the start commiserating me.

To say Gulf Arabs aren’t exactly popular here is an understatement, they get a bit too excited to be out of the peninsula, often coming to Syria solely to sleep with Iraqi refugees forced to prostitute themselves. The word for ‘homosexual,’ a much worse insult here than in Wales, is also apparently the colloquial term for ‘Saudi’. I can’t remember it.

Tourism 7/10 caving 0/10