The Magic of Damascus

November 6,, 2010          Damascus, Syria

Leaving Beirut was bitter sweet for me as leaving always is however, after about 10 days in the country, I had a strong feeling it was time to move on. So with my bag strapped to the roof of a Mercedes Benz minivan and a car full of Syrian men watching belly dancing on the built-in TV on the dashboard, I crossed the border from Lebanon into Syria. (naturally, not without a bit of drama that extended the travel time 3 hours later than I anticipated). I finally arrived in Damascus at around 8:00 pm and from the first moment I stepped out of the taxi I fell in love with this city.  As I maneuvered my way through the narrow, old cobblestone streets to find my hostel, I saw small cafes on the sidewalks full of people, vendors on the street corners selling traditional Syrian delicacies, the smell of sweet cinnamon bread, apple tobacco and floral jasmine filled the air and the sound of the evening azan (prayer) echoed from the mosque while Arabic-pop music blasted from the opposite side.  Suddenly I felt alive, I could feel the energy and excitement in the air…this was the Middle East I had been waiting for.

In the mist of my excitement, I had totally lost my way and had no idea where my hostel was. Before I even had a chance to ask, a local came up to me and asked, “Are you lost?” (in Arabic which I decoded from the tone of his voice) and then proceeded to walk me to the door of my hostel and said warmly, “Ahlan, Wa Sahlan…Welcome to Syria.”

After I dropped my bags off and got settled in, I met up with some other travelers who I had met in Beirut. We walked around the corner and sat at a café outside on the sidewalk and had a delicious traditional Syrian dinner. I watched as teenagers sat together and told jokes while laughing loudly, children played in the streets and teased the local street cats, a group of men competed in an intense game of bat gammon and everyone else just sat around drinking shai (tea) and smoking A LOT of shisha (Arabic for hookah. By the way, why do we call it hookah if that’s not what it’s called anywhere in the Middle East?). Seeing all of this, I just knew Damascus is where I needed to be.

The next day I got up and walked to the old city. Weaving through the small alleyways and souqs (bazaars/markets) with ancient buildings and architecture felt as if I had been transported back in time. Cars are not permitted in the streets of the old city and there are 7 gates (babs) in which to enter the walled city through; you can feel that this is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and also why it has been named the city of jasmine and cats. I walked through the vegetable market and saw the hustle and bustle of all the vendors selling their fresh fruits and vegetables to women in traditional hijabs, then past the old citadel into to the spice market where the smell of spices such as cardamom, fennel, thyme, sage and saffron filled the air, onto the food stands selling fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, warm baked bread, boiled kidney beans with cumin and spices ice cream with pistachios on top, and finally passed by the small stores with old silver jewelry, evil eyes and colorful scarves (well I guess it would be a lie to say I passed them) as people would invite me into their shops for tea or simply just say “Ahlan wa sahlan.”  There was something magical in the air with a hint of mystery; every corner I turned, I had no idea what I would run into or encounter. As I wondered through the maze of alleys, I thought about the number of events, civilizations and groups of people that have come through here; this really is a city of the past that has uniquely transported itself into the present. On this day, for the first time since I had left home, I felt that high of traveling…the excitement of being in a place that is so very different yet oddly has a feeling of familiarity and warmth that is so comforting.

As the sun was setting, I made my way to the Umayyad mosque in the center of the old city. I covered myself in a cloak and headscarf, put my sandals in my bag then walked into the courtyard and just stood there breathless. Beautiful gold and green mosaics covered the walls of the open-air courtyard with roman style arches surrounding it. Children ran around playing tag while teaching their younger siblings how to crawl and families sat on the courtyard floor for a picnic dinner while others prayed inside the mosque. I loved the casual nature of this place of worship and people appeared to be light and content. I really could have sat their all night watching people go in and out of the mosque and bond with their families just to soak up what life is like in Damascus beyond the souks and cafes.

That evening I met up with some of my friends for dinner at a traditional Syrian restaurant. We ducked through a small low doorway, into what looked like an abandoned alley and then suddenly entered this beautiful, bright, large courtyard restaurant.  The restaurant was full with tables of big Syrian families coming together for a Saturday night dinner. During our meal there was a live oud (a Middle Eastern classical instrument similar to a guitar) performer playing lively, popular Arabic music. Although no one danced, all the Syrians sang along and clapped loudly, embracing the music and night. I could see that even though peoples’ lives were difficult here they have a love for life and really take joy in things such as being together. After dinner, we walked through the old town into the Christian neighborhood and entered into another low doorway which happened to be a salsa club (yes salsa music in the middle of Damascus…totally random, you never know what this city has in store for you). When we left the club at 2 am, there were still people on the streets shopping,  smoking shisha or just chatting.

The following day, I continued my exploration of the city and visited a Shiite mosque on the other end of the old city built by the Iranians. This mosque is an important pilgrimage site for many Iranians and holds the casket of a young martyr who was a descendent of Mohammed. Even from the outside, this mosque had a very different vibe and energy then the Umayyad mosque I visited the day before. All the women were dressed in black from head to toe and pushed and shoved to make their way to the entrance. As I followed the crowd, I saw the inside of the mosque adorned with thousands of mirrors, beautiful chandeliers, and Persian carpets spread all across the mosque floor. I sat in a corner among the sea of woman praying and observed, hoping no one would notice my presence and I could just blend in with the others. I watched as the women wept loudly in front of the casket of the little girl with tears streaming down their face occasionally letting out gut-wrenching wails indicating their grief for the loss of this martyr.  As I took this all in, I felt so heavy, completely opposite of my experience in the mosque the previous day. I was also a bit confused and although I knew a bit about the Iranian dramatic grieving process, these customs and formalities all felt so foreign to me which was hard to reconcile given I so strongly identify with my Iranian heritage. Though I speak the same language as the people in the mosque and have a similar cultural background, I felt like a complete outsider. I realized how many differences and nuances exist even within my own culture that I am not even aware of until I step outside of my environment.

I left the mosque feeling heavy and a little drained and stopped on my way out to buy an evil eye charm from an old woman selling them outside of the mosque. I walked further and was stopped by some street kids asking for money and I glanced over and saw their mother holding a child with a disturbing head deformity. As my day progressed, I thought of the array of experiences I had and all the contrasts from the charm of this city to the intensity of the mosque and the poverty in the streets. As I was starting to get all wrapped up in my head, I heard someone say, “Where are you from?” I responded America and the man said, “But you look like a Syrian. Where are your parents from?” I explained that they are Iranian. The man then smiled and said “American and Iranian, all are welcome in Syria! Would you like a cup of tea?”

This is the thing about Syria, the moment you start to get sad or homesick, there is someone there inviting you in or wanting to talk with you. As much as I describe the sites, sounds and smells, the real essence of Damascus lies in the genuine kindness, warmth, hospitality and generosity of the people. I have had so many touching experiences with people watching out for me, telling me how to get somewhere or insisting on buying me something. People are truly interested in learning about your life and where you are from. An enormous smile appears on their faces when you tell them how much you love Syria which they often respond to by saying “Tell people in America that Syria is not what they think it is.” So despite the state department travel warnings, this is my attempt to keep my promise to the Syrian people and present a different side to this beautifully rich country which I hope everyone has the opportunity to visit at some point in their life.

More photos from Syria

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Byblos: A Jewel of the Mediterranean

 November 4, 2010            Byblos, Lebanon

Since my last post was a bit politically heavy I want to share briefly about some of the sites I have visited around Lebanon. The beauty of Lebanon as a country is it is small and has really accessible transportation so it is possible to visit every region within a week’s time span. Also, its landscape is so beautiful and diverse and within the country can virtually have every type of experience including the beach, mountains, valleys, castles, ruins, small villages and busy cities.

 A few days ago I visited the small fishing-town of Byblos, situation on the Mediterranean Sea  and one of the most charming places I have visited. At first glance, Byblos feels like a combination between a Greek island and an old medieval town with beautiful roman architecture, fishing boats idle on the shore, a castle built in the Mediterranean ocean and the fresh scent of jasmine and roses in the air. The town is over 7000 years old and is also home to an amazing archeological site that was inhabited by 17 civilizations. Myself and a few friends I ran into while n the town visited the ruins and due to my limited knowledge of history and archeology, hired a guide to explain the site and historical background.

 Being in the Middle East, I wish I had a better understanding of ancient history and archeology because I think if I knew more, these sites would be so much more fascinating. Although I enjoy them, it doesn’t have the same impact as for those who have a context in which to place them in.  However, I have also realized I am not the typical tourist and don’t get as much satisfaction out of tourist sites as I do out of other things such as observing and really going into depth in a culture.  The great thing about traveling on your own is you are not obligated to do anything you don’t want to do and you don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone. There is a sense of freedom and openness to life that is so unique. If I would rather sit at a coffee shop all day long, write in my journal and people watch, then I can. It’s just a matter of recognizing what really makes me happy and fits the type of experience I want to have.

In the end, although I did visit the ruins, I also went down to the seaside and just sat along the Mediterranean for a few hours which was totally empty other than a few fishermen in the distance. I have grown to really love and cherish my time alone. Although I love people and interactions, being alone gives me time to think, process and realize what I am experiencing… Also, it is empowering to feel that I can be happy on my own and have a good day without anyone else. The hard part about traveling as a woman though is that although I am fine being on my own, sometimes things are not as accessible or safe when you are by yourself and you definitely open yourself up to more looks and questions (I often wear a fake wedding ring just to avoid the questions around why I’m not married). Even in the safest of places (and the Middle East feels EXTREMELY Safe in this sense) I still feel vulnerable in a way that a man is not when they are traveling on their own. It is interesting because during the time I have been here I have met plenty of male solo travelers but very few women and I often am the only woman in the entire hostel.

After leaving Byblos, I joined two Australian travelers, one who is of Lebanese descent, to his hometown in Tripoli which is a predominantly Sunni Muslim port city north of Beirut. Again, this presented a totally different side to Lebanon for me and was even a huge contrast compared to the Hezbollah controlled areas. The city had the hustle and bustle of a typical Middle Eastern city and even the new area of the city looked pretty old compared to Beirut. Apparently this is also an area with its own set of tensions with bombings and civil war between the Sunni Muslims and the Alawites, a particular sect of the Shiite Muslims. We stopped by my friend’s house in Tripoli which was interesting to be in an actual place of residence and then walked around the streets, had dinner and sat in a traditional hookah bar. The unfortunate part of this evening is I got a horrible case of food poisoning and was really sick for two days. There is nothing like a good bout of food poisoning to make you feel really home sick and like you want to give up on this whole traveling thing but I guess these are also the times when you have to just hang in there and keep things in perspective.

I Heart Beirut

November 1, 2010            Beirut, Lebanon

*** Please note: the posting below is based on information I have gathered through my personal experiences and interactions with people therefore is not necessarily fact-driven nor does it reflect any political agenda. Politics in the Middle East are complicated and many have strong convictions about where they stand however this is simply a little about what I have learned that I would like to share to give people a deeper understanding of the current context of Lebanon and the Middle East.

Over the past week I have really grown to love Beirut. I admit that initially, I didn’t feel the warmth or energy in Beirut that I expected from a Middle Eastern city and though it is so beautifully constructed place, I struggled with getting underneath the superficial layer of the city. In a quest to have a more ‘genuine’ experience in this country, a few days ago I put out some calls to all the acquaintances I had here in Lebanon and was fortunate enough to meet some wonderful people who revealed a different side of Lebanon and expanded my understanding of this city.  It took understanding the political context and the impact the history has had on the people to really see Beirut for what it is: a dynamic, complex, and contradictory place.

A friend of mine from Seattle who grew up in Syria put me in touch with her Syrian friend who is enrolled in pharmacy school in Lebanon and she was gracious enough to spend an afternoon with me. We went to a beautiful restaurant on the waterfront and she ordered us some typical Lebanese food. We talked about things like our families, careers, religion, pressure to get married, growing up in Syria and life in the US. Even though we live worlds apart from each other, we had a very natural understanding of each other’s experiences and through our conversations realized our lives are actually not that different. We feel the same pressures and struggle with similar life questions. As we continued our exchange, she also explained a bit about the political context of Lebanon she had come to understand only after living in the country for the past several years.  I learned that right now, there are over 100 different legitimate political parties in Lebanon (and 18 official religions) all of which have their own set of supporters. The various political parties even have a great influence and are organized on college campuses. For example, even for student body elections, candidates must state what political party they represent. Much of this has stemmed from the fact that when independence from the French was declared in the 40’s, the constitution was written to mandate that the president of the country must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the house a Shiite Muslim, and the chief of staff a Druze in an attempt to accurately represent the population of the country. Unfortunately, this structure and attempt to distribute power evenly among groups inadvertently set the stage for 15 years of civil warfare between these various groups. Since Lebanon has one of the highest populations of Christians in the Middle East and is also the most religiously diverse country in the region (and the only country in the Middle East to have a Christian President), strong divisions among groups and a tug of war over a national identity and religion have haunted the country. The country use to be about 6:5 ratio Christian/Muslim but now it is speculated to have a higher population of Muslims due to many Christians leaving the country during the civil war. However, no one really knows the make up because the country has not conducted a census since the civil war due to fear that if population fractions are released, this will disrupt the power dynamic and another civil war will break out. I have found the civil war in Lebanon so hard to understand and contextualize and the only way I actually grasp the magnitude of the tragedy is to imagine the LA race riots lasting for 15 years with over 20,000 causalities.

After lunch we went on a walk along the beautiful oceanside boardwalk of Beirut (which felt more like Miami or San Diego than the Middle East) taking in the air from the Mediterranean.  She showed me the site where the former prime-minister, Rafiq Hariri, (a Lebanese multi-millionaire who owns most of the reconstructed downtown area and whose pictures are strewn all around the city) was assassinated. His death was unexpected and there are many conspiracy theories around his it: some think it was the doing of  governments of neighboring countries, others say it was Hezbollah, while some point the finger at Israel or believe it was an inside operation. Bottom line, no one really knows who was responsible and although the trial is in process now, the truth may never be revealed (similar to the JFK assassination). However, Hariri’s death resulted in public demonstrations that ultimately allowed Lebanon to declare freedom from Syria and Syrian troops (who had a strong presence in the country since the civil war).

That same night, I had dinner with a wealthy Muslim Lebanese hotel owner and gained insight into a different perspective of life in Beirut. This is someone who economically represents the top of the Lebanese community and had the luxury of leaving the country during the civil war. Being from an older generation, he has for the most part lived through Lebanon’s entire history as a country and recounted some of this for me.  In the 40’s, just as Lebanon gained independence from the French, the war and struggle for land with Israel and the Israeli invasion of Beirut and occupation of south Lebanon again destabilized the country.  Absorbing a large number of Palestinian refugees has also been difficult because it has resulted in a clash between the Lebanese army and Palestinian militant groups. This in turn also instigated internal conflict between Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze which was the bases of the civil wars in the country which really tore Beirut as a city down. Almost everyone you meet in Lebanon has lost someone to the war and years of civil unrest. Not only has Beirut had internal conflict between the different religious groups but just as the civil war was ending and the city was getting back on its feet, the 2006 Israeli attacks again caused Beirut to crumble to the ground.  All of this conflict has caused Beirut to rapidly experience periods of extreme prosperity and destruction with very little stability in between. Hearing this man recount the history of the city solidified the troubled and complicated place Beirut is which is so hard to reconcile as a tourist eating in the fancy restaurants, shopping in the designer stores and seeing the multimillion dollar hotels.

The following day, I spent the afternoon with a lovely Christian family living in a suburb of Beirut.  Meeting a family that is trying to raise children and actually build a life of stability in a country with such an unstable past (and potential unstable future) definitely brought a different angle to the picture. They kindly picked me up from my hostel and we drove up the hillside of Beirut to a predominately Christian area with an unbelievable view of the city. We ate dinner at a restaurant on the hilltop and while watching the sunset, we talked about the reality of life in Beirut. While I was expecting to hear their perspective on the

tensions between the Christians and Muslim and insecurity over Israeli attacks they talked about things such as the financial ability to buy a house, low wages, lack of professional and educational opportunities and the city’s crumbling infrastructure. They explained that the average middle class family in Beirut can’t afford to buy a house without either inheriting it or the help of their parents due to the inflated housing market. The thing Beirut has in common with most other societies is that life is really only what it appears to be on the outside for the top 5% who are very wealthy (who mostly live abroad and send their money back home).  The remaining population struggles to make due and can rarely access the luxuries that have the illusion of being available but clearly not accessible for most people. Then new developments are built for the needs of the upper class and though the downtown really is amazing, beautiful and more posh than anything I have seen in the US, you can’t help but think all of this money is being invested into commercial consumerism while the infrastructure of the country is a disaster.  Also, this rift between rich and poor also brings about another layer to the society pertaining to immigration patterns. Although clearly there is a lot of poverty in Lebanon, similar to the US, there is an influx of immigrants from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Palestine and neighboring Syria to provide cheap labor. Walking through the downtown it is common to see many South East Asian woman dressed in nurse uniforms pushing the strollers of rich Lebanese families.

After dinner, the family and their two daughters took me on a drive around the city and I had the opportunity to see places that I could only see with local people. We first drove through an Armenian neighborhood which to my complete surprise was actually only 1 mile from my hostel. The Armenian district was quaint and had the chaos and character of a typical Middle Eastern area with old buildings and houses and many small street restaurants and shops. Within a 5 minute timespan we were in the rodeo drive of Beirut with high end hotels and designer boutique shops; seeing these two places in such close proximity to one another further brought the contrast of life in Beirut to the surface. The family explained to me that the downtown, though during early independence was a beautiful, historic area, was totally destroyed during the civil war and for many years was a jungle that was completely deserted and no one even dared cross into this area because it was on the green line, the area that separated the east Christian areas of Beirut from the west Muslim enclaves. As we drove out of the Christian neighborhoods, within a few minutes we drove by one of the major Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Although we could not go inside, even from the exterior, the conditions and destitute of this area was striking. No electricity, no running water and homes that look like the shanties in the townships of South Africa. I learned that this group is even more disenfranchised because although many Palestinians have been in Lebanon for generations now, they are still not viewed or integrated as part of society and many live without rights and opportunities.  Passing the Palestinian camps then led us to the Muslim Shiite neighborhoods that are controlled and governed by the Hezbollah party (the armed wing of the Iran backed militia group) which was one of the most surreal experiences. Only 5 minutes away and it actually felt like another country, with a strong police presence, conservatively dressed women and streets lined with flags of Iran and Iranian leaders. This Shiite area is also where Israel focused its attacks in 2006 and there are still some remnants of the destruction but similar to the downtown area, it has been rebuilt so fast that the damage is hardly noticeable.  Generally, this area is more impoverished then the rest of the city and Hezbollah has invested a lot of money into rebuilding this neighborhood ( as well as a school and a children’s playground on the Israeli border in the south) which made it more clear as to why the people support this party. It really parallels politics anywhere: disenfranchised poor people are desperate for a leader and a way out of poverty therefore it is easy to appeal to these populations to win support and votes which are often then exploited to gain power (I find it similar to how the conservative-wing of the republican party has won support among the Christian religious populations in the American south by appealing to morality, nationalism and independence). Finally we drove out of the Hezbollah area back though the different districts of Beirut and as our hours of conversation came to an end, the family dropped me off at my hostel in the Gemmayze district of Beirut and I was back in the land of cafes, backpackers and nightclubs but with a renewed and much more expanded sense of the city.

I am so grateful to the people who have been kind and open enough to help me peel back the layers and understand this complex city in a deeper way. It would be so easy to come to Beirut and only see the beauty, glamour and exciting nightlife it has to offer but for me, seeing the city for what it really is, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, in the end is what won my heart.

More photos from Lebanon

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Quick Update

Just wanted to write a quick update and let everyone know that I am doing well and have TONS of stories and interesting experiences to share but am actually waiting until I am somewhere more neutral before posting.  So expect several posts all at once VERY SOON!  Thank you all for your love and support and for staying interesting in my travels. I promise to share ASAP!

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