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


Explosions and Elections

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


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

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


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

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

The romantic entanglements of my Iraqi roommate

Springs pretty much over here, the gap between too cold and too hot lasts about two weeks here. None the less love is in the air and my flatmate is suffering. When I went to Lebanon to see some family he was chasing a completely unsuitable Syrian girl. not only was she crazily jealous (not wanting him to live with women, or go out without her) she was also uninterested in him and uninteresting in of herself.

While I was gone he got us two kittens. They’re incredibly cute but hardly a good thing to have in a country which we’d all leave within the lifespan of an average cat even if it wasn’t for the war. His Iraqi friends all say he’s done it to get girls, needless to say the girls he’s already got do all the work associated with pet ownership. His whole attitude towards them is different to ours – he wants to remove their claws, we say its bad for them, he thinks they need washing, we assure him, with partial success, that they don’t. Our different perception of the kittens, their role in our lives and place in society has come to a head.

The is this girl. She’s the one. They got talking at a western coffee chain, and he showed her pictures of our kittens. Now, we think luring girls back to the house with the power of furry creatures is ok. He thinks that’s rushing things a bit. Clearly she does to, as she asked him to take the kittens to the coffee shop.

My other flatmate got a phone call. She was pretty pissed off about the way her help was demanded, and she said no, on the grounds that a girl silly enough to want a small kitten transported on a rattily old servicee to a packed coffee shop is too silly to be worth it. While he implied he wouldn’t do it, he did. The girl hasn’t called.


Politically we have all the fun of elections. I wouldn’t buy a used car from any of em, nor would I buy a single – most of them look like Arab pop stars, slightly greasy and entirely untrustworthy. One of my friends said he’s planning on monitoring them. I was so proud of his commitment to civic society, although admittedly worried about his naivety, until he told me he was getting paid 2000L for doing it.

Smashed heads and Blackouts.

Musy, an Iraqi friend, is homesick. We don’t really know what to do to cheer him up, we tried wearing fake moustaches, but it only worked temporarily. We think it’s all the killing that’s making him miss Bagdad, but it might have been footage from the Arab league. He’s spending an unhealthy amount of time curled up on the sofa in front of Ash Shaksia, an Iraqi TV station, listening to his native dialect.

‘What are you watching, Musy?’

‘Umm, in Iraq you only get electricity for a maximum of 12 hours a day. All the neighbourhoods have massive generators, that can supply you with electricity when the government electricity’s off, but its expensive, maybe 40$ a month. They are poor people, and the channel is asking them stupid questions. The winner gets 24hr a day electricity for 3 months.’

‘Kinda like who wants to be a millionaire, but for electricity?’

‘Yeah. The private electricity used to be really, crazily expensive, but now the government won’t let them charge more than a certain price and sells them cheap petrol.’

We watch together in silence.

‘You know, Baghdadi is incomprehensible.’

‘Yep. Oh, that is a hard question. Who started wearing wristwatches first, the British, Italians or the French?’

Ash Shaksia broadcasts other programs that are grotesquely distorted by Iraq’s social reality. They take home makeovers a bit more seriously, instead of varnishing the floorboards they knock down small, illegally and dangerously built houses belonging to poor people and replace them with safer, more structurally sound buildings. They don’t do a weight loss show, but they do go round poor neighbourhoods asking how much people weigh. If the contestant knows their weight, within five kilograms either way, they get the same amount of dollars. Instead of ‘I slept with my wife’s brother,’ shows they use DNA testing to try and find people lost in the invasion or under Saddam. Musy says the soaps are really good, but he has shitty taste in movies. We often watch their news broadcasts.

Musy is also a bit of a hero at the moment. Tuesday was the 5 month anniversary of the protest at the private universities. The guy who organised the one at Musies’ has been missing ever since, and on Tuesday the anti students stood in silence to honour him. The 10 percent of students that support the regime apparently started screaming ‘Allah, Syria and Bashar.’ The protesters started chanting ‘freedom’ and the pros shut the doors, phoned the Shabiha and attacked. As 40 percent of the students want change violence wasn’t going to get Assad’s supporters very far and the university security could handle things. Until the Shabiha arrived. According to Musy administration and security both assured the Shabiha they had everything under control, but the Shabiha don’t negotiate. Some pro students let them in, and they indiscriminately lashed out at people with clubs and rifle-butts.

Musy ended up at our house with blood all over his shirt; if it was from a nosebleed then he’s an elephant. His eyes had the glazed look I associate with too much exercise. We fed him tea and beer and he told us what happened. After the Shabiha started ‘smashing’ people as many anti students as possible rushed to the busses that take the students to the university, miles out of town on the Dera highway. Inside the building their was blood everywhere, Musy carried people who’d fainted from the gore and watching people being smashed out to the clinic as well as injured students. Happily the universities impressive facilities include a good clinic, only the most seriously injured protesters needed ambulances. Pro students started directing the violence, telling the Shabiha which of their class mates were anti, and the Shabiha really beat them. ‘How did it end?’ I asked.’

‘The beasts arrested all the antis they could get. They weren’t soldiers, they were animals. They were enjoying it, the smashing. They really hated the anti students. I’m an Iraqi, I’ve seen violence, I’ve seen al-Qaeda, I’ve had to shoot someone, but I’ve never seen anything like that, that much hatred. They weren’t people. They were beasts.’

The short life and strange death of the homeless cat.

Cat guy’s unfortunate adventure put him off pet ownership a bit. But at
the same time he was chasing cats all over Sham another friend of mine
was walking home when he saw an injured kitten. He tried to ignore
her, but she limped after him in such an arresting way he couldn’t
resist her and took her home.

This friend of mine is just inexplicable. Apparently he was in town to
collect some stuff he left here as a student ten years before, but as
it took him three months to collect it all and he then immediately
disposed; we all thought this was a cover story. Which leaves the question why didn’t he have a better one? He’s also way too rich for
someone undercover. Despite his flawless Arabic and connections with
Armajinadad, Nasrala and Assad he hates Syria and the Syrians. He
tried to live off the heath-food he’d imported with him, as there’s been too
much depleted uranium released around here for him to eat anything
produced in Syria. The nuts, iodine rich seaweed and Himalayan mountain
water having run out he’s not around anymore, and has taken most of
the mystery of the orient away with him with him. Needless to say we
hope he’ll return.

Instead of taking the cat to the vet he washed her tail stump and
suppurating wounded leg with homoeopathic silver water, which might
be, as he claims, an unrivalled disinfectant but apparently doesn’t
fix broken legs. He repeatedly forgot to buy her cat litter, so
removed the litter tray and put her on the balcony to live in her own
filth which is not one of the seven habits of the highly successful.
After he’d had her for a couple of months he ran out of food and we
went round to collect her. We were rather surprised to find our self
described green activist and animal lover friend had let the cat get
into such a state. After getting her home and washing the shit out of
her fur we could see just how bad her leg was and took her to a vet.
She threw up en route, needed a second wash and never ate again. The
vet said she’d be ok and we gave her lots of love, made her a nest and
brought her cat litter, but I think her trips round sham were just too
much, and after 3 days she died.

She chose a really inconvenient time for it. We woke up the morning
the mukhaberat were coming round to interview my flatmate (it’s
necessary for some kinds of iqamas, it’s a kind of employment benefit
for whichever goon gets sent) and found her dead. We didn’t have that
much time before the other girl and I were going, we didn’t feel like
unnecessarily bribing people nor did we want to cause problems with our
unorthodox living arrangements, but what to do with Mushys’ corpse?

We ended up on the mean streets of Mohajareen with a dead cat in a
plastic bag. We thought about burying her in a park, but didn’t want
to act too suspiciously or buy a spade. Cremating her was right out,
and the Barada is too low for us to bury her at sea in. Inevitably we
ended up putting her in a bin.

The Assad emails include Bashar’s I-tunes downloads. We can’t understand
why he’s bothered to break sanctions in order to pay for music
downloads. Why you’d respect copyright law but not human rights is
beyond me and I maintain he’s paying for that music with stolen money.
More important are the songs he’s downloaded, which include ‘Sexy and I
know it,
‘ my flatmates ring tone. In the same way that Assad doesn’t
seem like a blood thirsty killer, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy
who’d leap around yelling ‘girl look at that body, I work out.’ While
appearances are clearly deceptive according to the song he sent his
wife ‘The person that I’ve been lately, Ain’t who I wanna be’. We
don’t know whether he’s aware of the irony, but we spend a lot of time
making him a more suitable mix CD.


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.