Monday, February 04, 2008

Damascus, Syria

Back in the big D after a quick return to Aleppo, a brief stay in Hama (big giant waterwheels and general small town peacefullness) and a fun day getting to, and away from, the Krak des Chevaliers.

This erratically spelled fortress is the top dog of all crusader castles by virtue of being fecking huge and the most famous hence its presence on the "things Arabin must see" list. Once again it's a hard sight to describe and you really have to be here to fully appreciate it. My inability to convey how cool a place is is doubly frustrating as I have a soft spot for fortresses.

It must be said that places of worship tend to be more easy on the eye than military ones in the same way designer dresses look nicer on a woman than uniforms (British WPCs excepted as they're well fit). It's the primacy of function over form that make defensive structures uglier than places of prayer but also, for me at least, more expressive.

By now I have seen a lot of buildings erected by godsquads of various persuasions. I found a lot of them quite beautiful and have even been awestruck on occasion. The problem is that I have a huge disconnect with them. Being proudly faithless I don't really understand why they went to all this effort. It's a bit like the self inflicted calvary women endure to conform to some notion of beauty. I appreciate the result but I don't really get why they bother.

Military installations are easier to figure out. Why and how the buildings are can easily be worked out. All you have to do is put yourself in the role of someone trying to conquer the place. The Krak quickly reveals why it was built and how well. The potential invader mutters a silent "fuck" at the vast array of moats, towers, murder holes, false leads and other assorted deathtraps. It might not be as pretty but it makes sense.

Of course, having been to the Krak I am now sorely tempted to make some analogy with the West's current foray into the Middle East. I will keep it brief as there are many ones floating around the interweb. I remember when Bush the Lesser slipped up and mention the War Of Terror as a crusade. The poor sods paid to justify his inability to speak in even one language had to work very hard that day. He backpedaled in the fear that this word would anger and unsettle many Muslims.

I have a different take on the matter. It's not the Muslims who should have been unsettled; it's the denizens of the West whose ears should have pricked up. The Crusades were by and large a collection of failures. The most successfull ones didn't even leave a truly lasting legacy and the fuck-ups outnumber the successes by far, whether it be idiotic peasants or children marching off to their deaths, horifying pogroms or grandstanding nobles bickering with each other. When you consider what the Muslim world at the time, the Crusades were hardly a blip.

The only ananopgy I am willing to make is one that the Krak helps illustrates. It was pretty much the height of defensive enginneering at the time and was reputed impregnable. In the tactical sense it was but it fell none the less as the knights realised they had lost the bigger battle for the Middle East and scarpered to Tartus. Being bloody good at fighting and having the best kit doesn't compensate for lack of local support and blithering ignorance.

My cheap shot at the Bushies over I guess I will get on with my overall Syria post as tommorow I will be in Jordan. I suppose I should explain what I was doing in Syria beyond tourism. I was looking for someone.

I was searching for a specific man. I know him well and so do you. We've seen him on TV a lot. He shouts a lot in a guttural language. He wears a beard. He burns flags and embassies. He speaks some words we can understand like shaheed, jihad and Allah Ackbar. He hates us and he wants to kill us. He even wants to die while doing so. He believes he will get 72 virgins if he dies slaughtering us on our way to work. He's nuts and he's our enemy. He gives us no choice but to kill him.

I figured this chap would be in Syria so I tried to see if I could locate him with the same regularity as our beloved members of the press. I confessed I failed miserably.

What I found in Syria was a bunch of truly sound people. Syria is the backpackers' darling for a good reason. Here you are never alone unless you want it. Here you are never truly lost as people will immediately spot you trying to read the street signs and guide you to wherever you wish to go. The is little of the hustle that make other places in the area tiresome. When people here invite you for a cuppa or offer to help you it is very rarely in expectaion of dosh.

A few anecdotes can illustrate this. My first taxi in Damascus was free as my co-passengers wanted to welcome me to Syria. I can't even count the amount of free coffees I got as the owners of a place or nearby patrons with whom I had exchanged pleasantries footed the bill. In the Krak I left my rucksack by the door as one Syrina had told me it was safe and that was good enough for me.

The man on the telly was also absent in the hundreds of politics chinwags I have had here. This is somewhat of a national sport here and newcomers are welcome. I'm not talking about cute "Boosh, he bad man" crap either. This is intense stuff with facts brought forth, counterpoints encouraged and perspectives discussed. Maybe he was the guy bringing the tea and was too busy.

The point I am overdramatically trying to make is that Syria is one of the most misrepresented places I have ever been to. The great quest for ever simplified and fast news distorts a lot of things but here the vilification takes the piss. My faith in journalism was a puny and illtreated creature to start off with. My travels have already caused it to be roughed up somewhat. In Syria, it has been taken outside to the pub car park by a large skinhead called Gary and has been kicked nearly to death.

For fairness sake I should point out that not everything is cute and cuddly here. Syrians may be great folk but their rulers are not and this is not a free society. I won't go into what Syria is up to in Lebanon or the truly piss poor human rights record. My personal experience has revealed a dark side of this place.

Syrian hospitality and honesty is enforced as well as customary. In the rare times I have had a wee bit of argie bargie with a local, the fear was somewhat palpable. My macho side would like to believe that a tall foreigner using variolus declinations of "fuck" caused the other sod to know the true meaning of fear but this is not the case. I learned that being on the wrong end of a complaint from a ferengi can get a local 6 months in jail, no questions asked. This knowledge has restrained me from going too mental at the few devious Syrians I encountered (taxi drivers) as I don't mind some punishment meted out for attempting to rip me off but not half a year in a Syrian nick.

I have also been doing a lot more editing of my draft posts. I usually make some modifications from the first scribbled-in-a-cafe version to the one on the web but here I have been much more active in my self-censorship. I have had to remove stuff for reasons other than style, length or not wanting my family to know all I get up to. My time in Syria and the willingness of locals to engage with foreigners have produced a slew of blogworthy anecdotes. This time I have had to be very carefull with the detaisl as some of it could land locals in serious shit. It's tempting to spin some tale of booze, weapons and/or crazyness to harp up the image of the dilletante drunk in weird climes but this could end up being read by one of Assadthe Second's many pitbulls. It's not me they'll nail for giving a bad image of Syria.

Other minus points to Syria are the dificulty of boozing and the strangely high numbers of gingers here. I should also specify that when I mention Syrians interacting with me I mean Syrian men. You can't talk to the lasses here let alone coax them into the sack. Nowhere's perfect.

My next stop should be Petra but when I post next is uncertain. My planned fun run across the Middle East has forced me to select the places I wish to see badly and prioritise harshly. Hence Jordan now gets narrowed down to Petra. I will be moving a lot and fast between Damascus and Tel Aviv so when I will have the time and energy to blog is up in the air.

I am also a bit gloomy today as I have bought a plane ticket back to Europe. I find it difficult to laugh at the irony that my favourite area so far is the place where I am the most constrained by funds. My consolation is that a part of me does not see this as the final point of a truly amazing period of my life. I will get back to this in my last post but, to paraphrase Churchill, I have the feeling this is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning.

Take care,



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