I walk all over Damascus and try to figure out what makes the place so different, so strange.
Last night I went for a walk around Damascus. I asked the guy at the hotel desk where I should go and he took out a map and pointed me to a particular street. He said, ‘dIt’s class. This street is class.’d I asked if that meant that’s where the rich people live and he said yes. It was a long walk to get there, so I got to see a lot of Damascus. It’s such a strange city. It is these endless big gray concrete buildings. There are some neon lights, very few, and overall it feels like it could easily be Moscow 1955. There are no American chains here, no fast food, no stores. It’s actually striking, since everywhere else I’dve ever been is loaded with them. It’s completely safe, everyone says over and over again. I had about $600 in my wallet (there isn’t a single ATM in all of Syria, so I came prepared) and I never felt the least fear. There are paintings of Bashir Assad and his father Hafez Assad everywhere. Jordan has those photos of Kings Abdullah and Hussein everywhere, too, but these are creepier somehow. They are mostly paintings and they’re crude, badly done. And I don’t know what it is exactly, but they seem more dictatorial. The Abdullah photos are often with his family in some casual pose or he’s standing and smiling. Hey, I’dm a regular guy. These are all severe and serious and just the face. There are also a lot of busts around of Hafez. I can’t say what it is exactly, but it does feel like you’re on the other side of some barrier. It doesn’t feel like that in Jordan or Lebanon. They feel like a continuum with the world I live in. This doesn’t. Maybe it’s nothing real. Maybe it’s just all the thoughts I’dve had and things I’dve heard about Syria. But somehow it does feel like I’dm in this island, this cut off place. It’s a very dirty city. Surprisingly so. Litter everywhere. Just crap and dirt in the streets. It’s kind of disgusting. The streets are very wide and to cross the big ones, you have to climb up these concrete stairs to a big, ugly bridge. They’re all way higher than they need to be and it’s annoying, because it’s a long climb up and down and the staircases are built badly and are hard to walk up, the risers are too high or something, and the steps are too narrow. I also was struck by how nobody paid me any attention. In Jordan, where there are a lot more Western tourists, pretty much everyone would look at me quizzickly. Here nobody does. Nobody looks at all.
The rich part of town is not at all impressive. It’s also all concrete apartment buildings. But these are a bit nicer. They have details and somewhat fancy grillwork and often the porches are curved. So they are more pleasing than the massive blocks of buildings everywhere else. But they’re dirty and small. I saw a few Mercedes and BMWs, but most of the cars everywhere are old and beat up. There are a few shops in the rich part. They are absurdly tacky’dbig white marble and gold gilding and absurdly showy jewelry and furniture. Not nice at all. I came across the US embassy. It’s shocking. it’s behind the most massive wall you can imagine. There is a very high concrete wall around it and then (maybe recently) they added this metal wall on top, so it’s like three or four stories high and just foreboding. I passed the Italian and the British and Greek embassies. They’re all in regular apartment buildings and aren’t that big and don’t have much security, just a guard out front. But the American embassy is all but screaming: stay out, we don’t want you here. There are armed Syrian guards every ten feet around it, with big guns. The US embassy in Amman is nicer and newer, quite fancy, but it looks truly like a medieval fortress. (did I write this before) when I was there, one employee said, we should build a moat, that’s all that’s missing. I know they need security, but the message these embassies send is’dwe’re cut off from you, we don’t want contact with you, we’re scared of you. Go away now. I turned one corner and there was the Cuban embassy. Actually, it’s the nicest one, in an old mansion. Small but very pretty. I was actually stunned to see it. I don’t know why. I felt like Fidel might be in there right now. It made me think, wow, I’dm in that part of the world, the rogue nation part.
There is one Benetton in the rich part. I found out today that it is the only foreign chain store in all of Syria. Odd. I wonder how that happened. I found a nicer pirate movie shop. Most of the pirated movies are sold by guys just sitting on the street or in little, tiny kiosks. But this place was big and had lots of foreign newspapers. In fact, that is strange. All over the place in Syria, I see the International Herald Tribune and the Guardian and the Independent and the Times of London and lots of French and Spanish papers. Not just in the rich part, all over. They also have Time and Newsweek. I haven’t seen that many foreign papers in any of these other countries, certainly not the British ones. I wonder what that’s about. Anyway, in the pirated CD shop, the guy said the movies are $10. I was surprised, usually they’re a buck. He said, no, these are the good ones. They’re from Malaysia. That’s what someone told me in Beirut, trying to sell me movies for $7. He said these are good, they’re from Malaysia. I bought a couple’dAbandon and 13 Days’dand they are better. They’re still just a guy in a movie theatre with a video camera, but they’re actual DVDs with menus and scene selection and a choice of subtitles and the video and sound is pretty good quality, considering. You don’t see someone standing up in front of the screen.
Today, I hired a translator who is normally a tourist guide and since we had extra time, he took me around. We went to the Old City, which is not a nostalgic place, like other old cities, for tourists. It’s a real thriving commercial center. He told me that people fly from all over the Arab world to come here and buy clothes and other things. It’s been continuously occupied for several thousand years, like six thousand years. There are Roman walls and a Crusader fortress and Ottoman mosques and 19th century apartment blocks all in the same view, on the same block. The main shopping strip has been the main shopping strip at least since Jesus’s time. It’s mentioned in the New Testament as where Paul came after he saw the light (literally). We actually went in to the house where Paul lived for a while after having seen the light. As a good Christian, I expressed great interest. It’s a small place with arched stone walls. Kind of cold and claustrophobic. The pope was in that church recently, he told me, and so was Clinton. He said the only US presidents to visit Syria are Nixon and Clinton and right after Nixon’s trip he had to resign and right after Clinton’s trip the Lewinsky thing came out. So, the guide said that Syrians think they’re responsible for destroying presidents. He said this laughing. We went in to a few homes. It’s strange, they’re actually people’s homes, we had to buzz up and get let in. But certain homes are open for tourists. The first was a wealthy person’s house and it’s standard Damascene design: you walk into an open air courtyard. There’s a fountain in the center and on one side is a raised platform with couches. This is the summer living room. It’s outside, right in this courtyard. The rich house was unbelievably elaborately detailed. Every square inch had intricate mosaics and wood designs and Arabic writing. Too much, really. Around the courtyard is the home itself, it’s like a square donut. The doors are bolted and you don’t go in there. It’s just for family. Company stays in the courtyard. Typically, he told me, an entire family, several generations, will live in a house like this. The middle class home was the same layout’dcourtyard, fountain, outdoor salon. (By the way, hairstylists in Jordan and Syria call their places Saloons. I think that’s funny.) But the middle class house is not at all ornate, just white walls. And it’s a bit dirtier and smaller. Being in these houses, I really felt like Syria is just much more different from American than any of the other countries I’dve been to. Jordanian homes are not American, but they’re not totally un-American. The living rooms are inside and have couches and a TV and a coffee table. The couches tend to be much more ornate and there’s often several couches in a room, all sitting around the walls. But it doesn’t feel that different. Lebanese homes are more European than American, they’re very ornate with lots of tchotchkes. But they don’t feel particularly Arabic. Syria it just feels like a totally different way of seeing a house, living in a house, thinking about visitors and family. That, combined with the disturbing lack of American chains, and the overall Soviet look of the modern buildings, makes the whole place seem like truly another world.
The guide told me that almost everyone in Syria is middle class and they do well. It’s a rich country, he kept on saying. Not like Jordan. Now, to my eyes, Jordan is clearly much wealthier. Well, it’s hardly wealthy, but it’s clearly better developed and the people just don’t look as poor. I asked him how much a middle class person makes. He said between $200 and $500 a month. But, he said, a lot of the shopkeepers in the Old City are very rich. He said that very rich is 5 grand a month. He said the nicest houses in the Old City, like the first one we went in to, costs a few million dollars. So, obviously, some people are rich.
The Old City is a tiny disappointment, because most of it is just not that old. Most of it is about 100 or 200 years old, mud two-story buildings’store on the bottom, apartment on top. But then you turn a corner and there’s a steam bath that’s been continuously operating for 800 years or there’s the Umayyad Mosque, considered one of the greatest mosques in the world. My guide books says it doesn’t blow you away like a Cathedral, because mosques are designed for quiet prayer and not to show off. But it is impressive. To get in, we went through the Muslims-only entrance, because the guide didn’t want to walk all the way around to the non-Muslim entrance. The guard didn’t believe me and started asking me questions in Arabic. I actually can say the central Muslim prayer (there is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet) in Arabic and I did and it seemed to work. The inner prayer part is not overwhelming at all. It’s big and the ceiling is high up and there are these massive chandeliers. The ground is covered in gorgeous rugs. But there’s not much ornamentation. Except at the center. There’s one big altar with green windows that you have to peer through. This is, oddly, the altar of St. Paul. His skull is, apparently, in a box in that altar. Muslims consider him a prophet. This used to be a Byzantine Church. Before that it was a Roman temple. And it was something before that, too. The altar is in the middle of the room and on the wall near it is the grand entrance and it’s incredible. A massive door with gorgeous details and beautiful stained glass. I’dve never seen Muslim stained glass. There are no pictures of saints or people, it’s just ornate and there is Arabic writing in glass. It’s cool. The courtyard of the mosque is truly amazing. It’s hard to even describe. It’s a big open-air space with these like stone huts in the middle. Huts isn’t right, but I don’t know what to call them. They’re detailed in beautiful mosaic or paintings. Anyway, I took lots of pictures.
My guide, at one point, said that I can ask him anything. He said that people think Syrians can’t talk freely but he will talk as freely as I want. So, I went for it and asked what he thinks of Bashir Assad and the regime. He got real nervous looking and said I am satisfied with them and then changed the subject. He kept saying they just want peace. All Syrians want peace with Israel. They know that their economy will be horrible until there is peace. Then we sat down for Shwarma and he told me how much he hates Sharon and that Israel is causing all of the problems. He also said that he hates the American government, but has no problem with Americans. I tried to really understand what exactly he hates about the American government. it’s the usual: they support Israel, they want to bomb Iraq, they hate Muslims. But I asked him how America affects his life, his non-Palestinian, non-Iraqi life. He said that America supports Israel and the war with Iraq which keeps the region unstable, so there are no tourists and he can’t get work. And, he said, he feels afraid. He feels like something bad could happen sometime soon because of what America is doing in the region and that makes him scared for his kids.
We were walking by one store, actually a pretty modern store selling bathroom fixtures. And the guy had a poster with an American flag that had half American stars and half Jewish stars in the blue part. Imposed on the red and white was a big swastika. It said in English and Arabic something like Stop the Nazists from killing the Palestinian people. I asked the guy in the store, through the translator/guide, what it was all about. He took the poster down, showed me the reverse side where there was a picture of a dead baby with a bullet wound in his stomach and he said that the Israelis are about to have very bad things happen to him. I asked what and he said he doesn’t know but the Koran predicts very bad things.
There’s this long street in the Old City that I absolutely love. It’s where you get all sorts of tools and other things and they’re all handmade right in front of you. There are a bunch of blacksmiths. We spent time in one. He makes everything from little regular hammers to big plowing equipment (the guide told me most of the people in the Old City are farmers who come there to buy everything. That’s why there are so many women in hijabs. Damascene women don’t wear hijabs usually). He has this small, what do you call it, kiln? Hearth? Whatever, thing with fire to heat metal. And he shoves the metal in there and then shapes it on an anvil. Then he keeps heating up the metal and cooling it in water to harden it. We talked to his son, also, who dropped out of school to start working here when he was 10. He’s now 20 and says he’s good at it but his father won’t let him start a hammer, he just finishes them. It takes a long time to be a good blacksmith, the father said. Farther down the street is a long alley where they make water boilers. It’s actually several different shops. There’s one shop that just takes sheets of metal and bends them into the round water heater shape and then solders it together. Another shop bangs the sheet metal into shape some more, putting ridges in and stuff. Someone else puts the innards in the water heater. Someone else applies, what is it, I’dm forgetting all my words, the white ceramic kind of surface. It’s cool to see water heaters made right in front of you. It takes about three hours to get one done and they seem to be very busy. We walked down the street some more and there’s another alley with the exact same thing, a lot of people making water heaters. My guide said Syrians prefer handmade things. Some German company got a factory to machine make hammers and made a million of them and none of them sold and they had to close the place. There are also woodshops, some of which just makes handles for hammers or sticks for brooms, others make tables.
I asked my guide why they don’t have American or European products. He answered me that McDonald’s is owned by Jews and that’s why they don’t have it there. But he thinks they should have McDonald’s and the people can decide if they want to buy it. He said they do have Pepsi and 7-Up and Marlboro and used to have Kentucky Fried Chicken (everyone in the Arab world just calls it ‘dKentucky’d), but they closed down for some reason.
We went to the big museum of Syrian antiquities. It has cool stuff, everything from prehistoric to Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman to Islamic. But it’s so run down and dirty. Most of the relics are just openly on display and people have carved their initials in a lot of them. It’s horrible. The signs are real bad and don’t explain anything, don’t even say when or where the piece is from. There’s one display of metal balls from early Ottoman times. The guide told me these were early hand grenades, they filled them with gunpowder and threw them. I was amazed. There’s one room that’s cool, an old tomb from Ebla, which was contemporary with Rome but a different culture. It looks Roman. It’s like a crypt, it’s a wall with the bodies of a family each in their own small square crypt. And on the surface is a full bust off the person in there. The busts are great, they’re well done and really show the personality. There was one woman and you could just tell she was this stuck-up, rich bitch. She was holding her necklace in a very showy way and was the picture of snootiness. Another was a young guy who seemed like a dreamy airhead. The patriarch of the family is shown in full repose, his full body stretched out on a couch, just so self-satisfied and self-important. All of these busts were carved with peoples initials. Mostly in English, for some reason.
I’dm kind of happy to be leaving Damascus tomorrow. I think I’dm just tired. I’dve been working so hard and traveling so much, it’s kind of hard to take it all in and I want a break. It’s nice to go back to boring, old Amman. I’dll only be there a short while then Dixie then Kuwait and maybe Dubai and Yemen. It’s so fabulous and I feel so lucky and excited. But I am damn tired. I feel guilty complaining, but traveling is exhausting. And working is exhausting. And traveling all the time and working all the time is hard. People ask me where my home is and I honestly tell them I don’t know. I don’t really have a home right now. I feel guilty that I didn’t go out tonight. For once, I’dm just staying in the hotel and watching bad movies. But I don’t want to see anything new right now. I want to be bored. I actually bought the DVD of the first season of the show 24. I don’t know if I’dll like it, but 24 hours of TV feels exactly like what I want. On the Syrian cable system there’s CNN, which gets dull after a while, and then there’s a channel that plays Polish movies with English subtitles. None of them were very good that I’dve seen. They don’t even have the channel with the horrible American sitcoms. Alright, that’s enough bitching about TV.