Friday, January 25, 2008

Damascus, Syria

It's tempting to start the post on Damascus with what everyone does and make some pun on taking the road there. My chosen allegory comes from a more powerful source than religion; the silver screen. Specifically David Lean's wonderful Lawrence of Arabia.

There is a specific scene that put Damascus in my head as one of the great destinations of my trip. At some point in the flick Lawrence and his boys come across a straggling Turkish column and TE is tempted to give in to the bloodthirst and attack. Sherif Ali tries to convince Lawrence to go round the Turks and ignore the dark mutterings of "no prisoners". His final plea is the name of this mystical city. " Damascus, Lawrence, Damascus!".
With Omar Sharif's words in my head I finally made it to this town and find myself in a bit of a pickle when writing about it. It's getting more and more tricky to describe legendary places when there are countless books, TV shows and films that can do it better. The imaginary readers I write for can be put in 2 camps. Either they have the same wanderlust as I and will doubtless have their own knowledge and idea about wherever I am or they couldn't care less and I would need to seriously work on my writing skills to give them a desire to come here. The best I can really do is give instructions of sorts to the former group if and when they come here. See below:

The best of Damascus is of course in the old city. Avoid the temptation to go straight to the biggies. Circle it then enter at dome random point away from the souvenir stalls. The city is lived and worked in so you can just get lost in the narrow alleyways and dodge the microtrucks that somehow get around the streets to deliver stuff. Areas tend to have specialties from the predictable coppersmiths to the slightly more practical ones like boilers, nappies and stationery. Enjoy the noise and chaos then head to the Citadel.

Next to the Citadel enter the huge covered market and keep going. Look up at the iron roof. It's peppered with bullet holes (the source of these is uncertain. By asking around I was told it was either the work of the French when they suppressed a rebellion, of the locals celebrating when the French fucked off or of the trigger happy Bedouins marking their entry into Damascus during the Arab Revolt) and the effect is that of a constellation of stars. Continue until you reach one of the most beautiful houses of worship in the world. The Omayad mosque. Remove shoes and enter the courtyard. Gaze at the murals and at the minarets. Take a few pics then start hopping. It's snowy here and the combination of marble floor, melting snow and no shoes policy will give you very wet and cold feet hence the hopping. Walk out and ask to go to the mausoleum of the ultimate infidel basher; Saladin. Find out that it's been renovated/beautified/upgraded and that it's closed for visitors. Whinge a bit

After that just wander again and take in as many churches, mosques, madrassas as you wish. Pop in to a museum or 2. If you speak French nip in to the one consecrated to Arab medicine. Give Syrians due cred for not pointing out that when they were developing medicine and pharmacology as sciences us ferengis were still drowning or burning old ladies foolish enough to reveal their glancing knowledge of herbs.

It's evident from the above that even a good effort on my behalf will sell Damascus short. There are better accounts out there and some of them are from bloggers who aren't too lazy to put pictures up. To distinguish myself I will have to write about some of the more funky day trips that can be done around Damascus. Here follows a wee set of instructions for going to Quneitra, a deliberately untouched set of modern ruins in the UN zone next to the Golan heights. The Israelis nabbed it after 67 and when the UN told them to give it back in the 70's they decide to hand back a pile of rubble and trashed the place. However, first things first.

Disclaimer: The Arab-Israeli conflict has the strange effect of polarizing people to ridiculous levels. Even a brief mention of it can transform a dinner party into a rabid shoutfest. I know full well that any info given locally in the Middle East will be partisan. When relaying that info I should go websurfing for other versions but I can't be arsed to trawl through endless amount of demented websites for a counterpoint to what I have been told. It's too time-consuming and depressing so I will simply write what I have been told and anyone wanting to see what the other side can google at their leisure. Good fucking luck.

This disclaimer holds until I leave the Middle East and applies to all countries. Feeble attempts to give balanced opinions will be clearly marked as such.

Now that's out of the way please see below for how to enjoy a fun day out at one of the Middle East's potential flashpoints.

First go and obtain a permit to the area. Make your way to the HQ of what is locally translated as the Secret Service (this is in the British sense of shadowy and sinister enforcer of the government and not in the American sense of highly visible, ineptly named praetorians with squiggly earpieces). Unsurprisingly it's in an unmarked building but you will know your are close by the large amount of chaps in civvies toting weapons. Drop off your passport and wait for half an hour. Get bored and decide to build a small snowman with your fellow trippers. Nickname it Spooky the Snowman and take piccies. Get a bollocking for taking photos in front of a highly sensitive building. Get given permits and passports.

Find out which of Damascus' many fecking bus stations serves Quneitra. Get there and realise that, strangely enough, ghostowns don't have many residents so you have to go to the closest inhabited village and take it from there. Hop in and out of a few minibuses until you arrive to the entrance. Hand over passport and have one of the guards take you for a tour. Think this is way cool of the Syrians until you realise they are making a point plus unsupervised tourists wandering off into the minefields won't exactly enhance their international image.

Get taken to the old hospital and see the wonderful sign on it: "First destructed by the Zionists then made into target practice". Go inside where every last square foot of the place has been pockmarked with ordnance of varying sizes. Continue to the ruined town and make you way to the border. Walk past UN barracks full of Austrian soldiers and barracks with Syrian squaddies. Have a little snowball fight with the latter group. Be careful not to make iceballs or aim too well for, however friendly they might be, it is a bad idea to hit armed men in the face with cold projectiles.

Keep walking up to the border post. Gaze across the razor wire and the minefield at the Beersheba apple orchards. Get told they are worked on by, of all things, Irish Jews. Spot bitch and little puppy trying to suckle. Point this out to the females of the group. Wait 15 minutes as they get distracted from conflict politics and coo over canine cuteness.

Walk right up to the last barrier. Wander what the point of having a movable barrier when no one has been able to cross for a long time. Squint and try to read the "Welcome to Israel" sign on the other side. See a UN SUV go through and feel sorry for the poor sods whose lodgings are in No Man's Land between 2 belligerents who are known for not giving a toss about the sanctity of the blue helmet. Get invited to take pictures of the opposition and have a niggling doubt in the back of your head that if you keep doing this kind of tourism this might be the closest you'll ever get to Israel.

Walk back the few miles to the entrance to in the hope that some microbus will pass by. Kindly get invited into the guardhut for warmth and have a wee chat. Look at your surroundings and spot the AK on the wall next to a shelf with baby formula on it. Have a fellow traveller take a photo of you and this oh-so incongruous and symbolic display. Get another camera related bollocking.

Hitch a ride back to inhabited places with the missus of the curator of the local museum that was closed for the winter. Learn that there is shedloads of ancient and apolitical history to the place. Admire the balls of the people doing archaeological digs in an area full of mines and UXOs.

Get back to Damascus in time for dindins and a night out in a Damascene cafe where the hip youth go for shisa, music and good atmos. Thanks the stars that the place is one that has an alcohol licence so that ferengis can get bladdered. Walk back very late to the hostel. Get lost for a while and reflect that labyrinthine streets make for great daytime ambling but not for getting back home when pissed. Use compass a lot.

Well there you have my Damascus entry. My next stop will be in Lebanon. Politics compel me to make haste and get in and out of the Land of Cedars sooner rather than later. In a couple of weeks the Lebanese parliament has to elect a new president and I reckon that if things go to shit it will be after rather than before that date. I know that there was another bomb in Beirut yesterday but I still reckon I am safe. The recent bombings there have all been targeted assassinations and since I don't get to schmooze with the Levant's political players (to my regret) I should be OK.

I say this to reassure my family and others who might care about my wellbeing. Going to Lebanon, like my foray into Northern Irak, is not a sign of recklessness on my behalf but of resignation. Middle Eastern politics being as they are, it is impossible to go anywhere in the region with zero risk. In my mind, there is no such thing as total safety as my odd rant about the destruction of civil liberties by cowardly politicians back home shows.

I don't decide to go somewhere on a whim and with a Devil-may-care attitude. I might laugh in the face of danger but I make bloody sure that Danger is in a good mood, has only had a few pints and understands that I am laughing with him and not at him. When I return to the West I will of course be very keen to impress to naive women that I was gambling with my life when I was in the 'Rak and the Leb'. What I won't say is that the odds were heavily stacked in my favour. A simple test will show this.

By this time tomorrow I should be in Beirut. Any reader who is based in a large Western country will be able to scan the national news and the chances are that someone was murdered there. The reader could then look the international pages and see what has gone on in the Middle East over the same period. What is very unlikely to be there is a report that a Western tourist was killed (and you can be damn sure that it would be in the news if it had). I don't know about Gott mit uns but the stats are on definitely on my side.

Next stop, Beirut

Take care,



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