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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Bombs

The revolution turned one on Thursday. We spent it like we spend our Fridays, sitting around flicking through the news and eating a never ending breakfast, but I remember where I was on the 15th of March last year.

 

It must have been about 4 am that the Fixer and a friend of his phoned me from the alley underneath my old city house. While you could argue that the Fixer had drunk enough you wouldn’t have convinced him, he knew I had a bottle of wine in my room and he wanted to help me drink it. I dropped my keys out the window and he let himself, his crisps and his friend in. His friend, a poet, an artist and an academic with an unfortunate haircut I’d met a few times and got on well with, was pretty embarrassed when he realised he’d got a women out of bed. But as the Fixer said, the was no point him going home now I’d been woken up, I assured Haircut that I knew the Fixer was responsible and we settled down for a surprisingly civilized night. We talked about Haircut’s relationship with a British woman and being Western or Westernised in Syria, about drinking beer in pavement cafés and electricity in Jermaana. We rubbished Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ but Libya was in an inspiring phase, and we agreed to go to the poetry night at Al Fardous every week. I remember being happy.

 

When he woke up Haircut phoned the Fixer. He said the government had shot his cousin and four other men in Durra. Some kids had been arrested for writing slogans on a wall and no one knew what was happening to them. Haircut, who hated corruption and loved Syria, was going home.

 

A year on and I don’t know where Haircut is. He returned to Damascus in the summer, but when the Fixer tried to restart their friendship where they’d left it Haircut said he didn’t know the Fixer, or anyone of his name or nationality. I haven’t seen him at any poetry nights recently.

 

The 15th was also teacher’s day, but apparently it was easier for teachers and students alike to attend demos if the public holiday was shifted to the following week. The rallies dominated Arabic language news across the spectrum. Al Jazeera’s ‘happenings of the revolution’ the BBC’s Greek potato revolution and the Assad emails didn’t cheer us up. Helicopters took to the sky, but the streets were pretty empty. A year on and the government could still control the country.

 

The next day Sabina were out in force on the streets of Mohajareen, but Syria was on fire. It was just as depressing, but in a different way. We all agreed the revolution seemed more intense in its second year.

None of changed our minds this morning, when we were woken by a loud noise. We watch a lot of news and all reacted, alone, in the same way. We first thought it was an explosion, then remembered it was snowing when we went to bed and wondered if it could be thunder, before thinking maybe we’d dreamed it. Then there was a second explosion that blew our doubts up along with Bramkea. Thunder doesn’t rattle houses.

 

We eventually kicked our guests for the night off the sofa and assembled in front of the TV. Our Iraqi flatmate, who didn’t wake up, was unimpressed by Syria’s reaction – what’s the point of cancelling class after a bomb? We were rather taken aback by his explanation of bullet trajectories, the mathematical impossibility of being shot in my room or the kitchen and how we can get between them. Apparently if you grow up in Baghdad working out this stuff is instinctive. We’re all sad that Syrians are developing these skills.

 

My friends and family need to know that the bombs were both a long way from my house, we’re on the slopes of the mountain above the school so it’s not surprising that we could hear the explosions. Neither were anywhere I go and like most Shammies I’m still at home at 7.30. Today was a day of heightened awareness, this bombing wasn’t random. It coincided with the arrival of another UN delegation. I am always evaluating whether its time to leave. It remains to be seen weather the second year of rebellion marks a new phase of the revolution.

Graffiti and other Signs of the End Times

One doesn’t expect a county that’s part of ‘the axis of evil’ to own a sleek and shiny PR machine, but Syrias actually rather good at branding herself. For some reason though she only ever does it to the people that have never had much of a choice about her. The professionalism of the campaign convincing Syrians to put their rubbish in the bins that adorn every single one of Shams lamp posts is as impressive as it is surprising. None the less the bins have languished, ignored until now.

The bins are green,a perfect background for people to spray the yellow-on-green Al Jazeera logo on. Underneath the omnipresent posters of the president a graffiti war is being fought for Damascus’ public spaces. Artistically we are talking seriously sub Banksy, but I don’t care. A lot of the anti stuff is too offensively ammeya for me to understand properly and it goes pretty quickly, but that’s not the point. Reactionaries can turn their houses into giant Syrian flags, but activists are out draping islamic green flags from ‘the presidents bridge.’ According to Al Jazeera more creative people dyed the water in the main fountains red. The pro stuff is depressing, praising Syrian TV for ‘taking the truth to the world,’ but its also hilarious. Someone’s written ‘Thank you Russia’ in Arabic and Cyrillic, but thanked China in Arabic and English.

I sympathise with whoever was defeated by Mandarin, but he has official back up. Syrias billboards now do Bashars bidding. If at a job interview I’m asked who I’d invite to my dream dinner party I’d have to say Syrian sloganers and G. W. Bushs speech writers. I don’t know what the man who came up with ‘My Future or Your Future, I am With Syria,’ and ‘Optimist or Pessimist, I am With the Law,’ could do in collaboration with the brains behind ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists,’ but I want him doing it at my table. Americas political tag lines are popular in Syria, a big sign in Mezza proclaims ‘Obama! Change we do not believe in,’ so I think the idea could work.

                                                  …

As if Graffiti artists weren’t bad enough Bashars also got to worry about the world ending. Eschatologically the Qoran is as vague as Revelations. The prophecies, including a massive earthquake, fit, they always do. I’m told, though, that other ‘old books’ are specific enough that in 1995 an Iranian ayatollah named a low ranking Syrian Ba’th party official as the man who, after a string of bloody events, will seize power and precipitate the end of the world. Low ranking no longer, he’s keeping very quite.

Apparently the ‘bloody events’ cannot be misconstrued. ‘Harista, one of the villages of Sham, will fall to the ground.’ Harista was one of the first Damascus suburbs to embrace the revolution, and homed the first building to be blown up, the Air Force intelligence HQ. A western friends just got back from visiting another friends family their. Her host says ‘its a different place after dark,’ which is supposed to be reassuring. Having seen it in daylight the Westerner describes it as ‘fucking scary.’ We can all look forwards to a yellow banner from the west, a green banner from the Hijaz, and a spotted banner battling it out for Bilad Ash Sham. While I’m not sure ‘spotted’ is the first adjective one thinks of in conjunction with the Star of David, Hizbollahs HQ is definitely on the western edge of Bilad Ash Sham, the Levant, and their ‘banner’ is yellow. As part of modern Saudi Arabia the Hijaz’s flag is undeniably green. Various other of Damascus’ suburbs, all of which have staged protests, are divinely scheduled for demolition, one suspects Assad has also lined them up for invasion.

While I don’t believe in the end of the world full stop, and I’m not sure I believe the ‘old books’ aren’t just mass hysteria, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of a spin people who believe the end is nigh will put on a conflict between a president fighting for his throne and an opposition fighting for their lives.

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.

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.

 

More wobbles.

I’m writing this wired on excitement with intermittent chants of ‘God, Syria, Bashar, and only,’ and car horns as a soundtrack. I’m in my second internet cafe after the first one stopped working as I attempted to look at the news. The man running it clearly thought it was a result of the content I’d been viewing.

Today is Friday. I met my new Syrian friend at the Umayyad mosque. We agreed that while there was about double the amount of Mukhberat present the atmosphere was less threatening than it had been the week before. While prayers were taking place inside the mosque the men started their chanting, which isn’t the kind of behaviour to endear them to devout. My friend and I leant against a car in the sun and descended the concessions the regime has announced, she doesn’t take them seriously, and watched tourists strolling past without much more than a glance for the protesters. The atmosphere changed a bit though when a second group as far away from the shwyia (kinda the Arabic for pikies) as possible started chanting as well.

‘They are real people,’ my friend cried, ‘but they support the regime as well!’

A young lad from Swadia approached us. He was friendly enough, but found it hard to believe we were tourists. He told us how he hated the French because they were fighting Libya. I was noncommittal.

‘Go away!’ my friend screamed at him.

We moved to the doors of the mosque and stood on the ledge that runs round the building providing a convenient seat, or for us a viewing platform to see what was going on. Then we heard a noise inside the mosque, the crowed surged forwards and we managed to cover our hair and join them. It was chaos inside. A member of security wanted us out.

‘It is prayer time, no tourists allowed.’

‘You’ve got your shoes on’ I replied. A scared looking woman with a pushchair intervened.

‘They will be safer in here.’

It was chaos inside. People were literally fighting to get in to the prayer hall. There were women trapped inside the mosques courtyard, a few children that had been separated from there parents crying and some people ignoring the whole thing and praying. About a third of the people were carrying their shoes, adding to the surreal overtones. My friend and I ran across the courtyard of the mosque to see if we could get in to the prayer hall from the other side when I heard my name. We joined my friend and swapped what we knew. Not much. It looked like everyone had left the prayer hall, or been driven back or something, so my Syrian friend and I ran back to see what was happening with the man that had greeted me checking out the prayer hall.

‘I want to talk Arabic,’ my companion told me ‘but I’m too scared of these people.’ Between the prayer hall and the gate of the mosque that opens into the square, the gate we were running towards is a small room. We only really noticed it because of the line of men, arms folded, that were cordoning it off. As we watched they opened the door and pushed another, limping, man into the room.

‘They are crying in there.’ My friend said. ‘We were not supposed to see that. We should leave.’

I hadn’t been able to see into the room, but I wasn’t arguing.

Outside the mosque we saw another of my friends. He’d been into the mosque to pray. Apparently they’d got in a special prayer leader who looked pretty scared as he told the faithful that they didn’t know who was behind the stuff on facebook and Al Jazeera. It is the Americans or the Israelis, or maybe both he told them. Someone stood up.

‘You are a liar.’ he yelled out, and the chaos irrupted.

Mukhaberat, about a third of the total people inside according to my friend, emerged from among the faithful ‘like serpents appearing from beneath the leaves of the rose.’ Some people yelled freedom; some ignored everything and continued praying, others shouted that god wouldn’t hear prayers after lies. This mans verdict was that there are too many undecided people for anything to happen. Mine is that there is too much fear. People are too afraid of who they are talking to make friends, let alone strategise, or even decide on chants. My Syrian friend was too busy trying to hide her tears to have a verdict. We watched another limping, but defiant looking man being pushed into the mosque, and consoled my friend. People we knew gathered and someone suggested that we go to a restaurant with a TV. Once there we fielded calls from family and friends, and phoned round finding out what had been happening in other areas of the city and trying to confirm what Al Arabya told us – people chanting Allah Akbar in Douma, a super conservative outlying suburb of Cham. We decided that we’d be far too obvious to be safe there. We glimpsed a bit of state TV, which had lots of photos of pro-government demos. The most convincing of these was in Swadia. I wanted to ask R about it, but his phone was off. I guess he was at work.

I did however get a call from a Syrian I know slightly who’d seen me. We met up and walked around the half-dead Friday streets, talking quietly when there was no one there.

He had somehow ended up just outside the Old City on a road leading to the central square of the New chanting ‘ freedom’ with about 50 others when the mukhaberat attacked. My acquaintance saw people curled up on the ground being kicked, but had personally been rescued by a shop keeper who’d reached out and pulled him into his shop. We went to join some friends of his, passing tourists and dodging the convoys of chanting youth, which annoyed my friend. He said he wasn’t scared for the moment, but I think he’d phoned me because he’d look less Syrian next to my white skin, and his English was a lot worse than usual. As we walked round the city we marvelled at how normal chunks of it were. ‘The problem is the people,’ my friend grimly pronounced. ‘Look at them. They have had no education. And those that have are afraid.’