The day before we left Damascus, Sara and I visited an antique shop by owned by one of Damascus' very few remaining Jews. His name is Salim and he's a sweet guy. We first spoke in September when he invited Sara and I to Rosh Hashanah services at Damascus's only remaining synagogue.
Anyway, at the store, Salim and I got to chatting about how, despite the fact that most of his family lives in Brooklyn, he's recently had trouble getting a visa to the U.S.
Why, I asked.
"I found out it's my name," said Salim. "It is close to some terrorist's."
So, I asked Saleem what his last name is.
Salim Hamdani. That is indeed darn close to Salim Ahmed Hamdan, an alleged member of al-Qaeda and former bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden.
Now one would hope that the government has the tools to differentiate between an alleged member of AQ and a nice Jewish boy who sells antiques.
But even if it can't tell the difference, that shouldn't much of mattered. After all, Salim Ahmed Hamdan probably isn't going to be heading through JFK anytime soon. He's been detained at Guantanamo Bay for the past five years.
P.S. Salim is a world traveler and a wealthy guy. His store has at least a few hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise and his English is flawless. He's just the kind of person the U.S. would benefit from. And given that most of his family lives in Brooklyn, you think he'd want U.S. citizenship. But Salim told me he just spent the last year--and plenty of money on lawyers--securing citizenship to the U.K.
Why not the U.S., I asked.
"Echhh," Salim said. "It's too much trouble there. Too much hassle."
Sara and I just got back to the land the Sushi and Soy Lattes. We also had a final, surreal, road-trip. I wrote a blog post about it right before we left--the dateline, man, the dateline!--but then the Internet broke at the cafe I was at and the post disappeared. So here I go again.
With our friend Rasha, we headed to a monastery near Homs.
It's called "El Ard" --The Land--and felt a whole lot less a the monastery than a kibbitu commune. There were no prayers. Just a lot of hanging out. People calling each other "Mami" and "Papi." And in the morning: yoga. (The fiancee points out that th
e yoga wasn't exactly up-to-code. It involved a lot of waving our hands around--"shaking it out" if you will. But, you know, points for location.)
We then made our way to Krak des Chevaliers, a massive Crusader castle in the hills near Homs
We wanted to stay the night at the supposedly cute nearby town of Safita. (Warning: The photos from that link are cute--the sound isn't.)
Judging by the map, Safita looked to be close to the castle. It wasn't. After driving for about 1/2 an hour, we came across a big 200-room hotel. Though the lobby wasn't heated, and the toilets in the restaurant there didn't flush, the rooms were toasty and the sheets fluffy. So we dropped off our stuff and headed back out in search of Safita.
Sara, Rasha, and I drove another hour on some of Syria's finest twisty scary roads, and we never found the town. Instead, we ate at a roadside place and then got really lost. As in "I think we're going to have to sleep in the car" lost. Nobody we asked had even heard of the hotel.
Finally, we came across a friendly shopowner who had some advice.
"Go to the town of Bereem," he suggested. "You'll see a mukhabarat[secret police] outpost. Ask them."
Err.... so, we drove on. And we got that advice twice more. "You need to talk to the mukhabarat. They'll help you."
We eventualy entered the town of Bereem, and noticed two guys standing in the street with AK-47s and kaffiyahs wrapped around their faces. Finally, the Bereem Tourist Information Center!
"Where are going," asked Mr. Red Kaffiyah.
"To the El-Kheir Hotel. But we can't find it!" explained Rasha (who is Syrian-American and speaks fluent Arabic).
"OK. And who is with you in the car?" asked Mr. RK.
"Ah, two foreigners?"
"Can I see their passports?"
"Actually, we left them in the hotel, which we can't find!"
"You know, usually when we meet foreigners we like to invite them in to get to know them."
"Of course, you must!" replied Red Coat Rasha.
"And you, can I see your ID?"
"Actually, I left that at the hotel too!"
"OK," replied the mukhabarat man. Then he turned to me. "What's your name?" he asked.
"I'm Eric. And this is my wife Sara. We're lost!"
I can only imagine him considering the situation. "So I have two Americans, without their passports, in a car with a Syrian without her ID card, all supposedly staying at hotel who's phone number they don't even remember. But on the other hand, the man did tell me his first name."
"OK," he decided. "Allha u Sahla. Welcome! I think you go down this road."
Twenty minutes later, straight down that road, we arrived.
When Kobe Bryant had his summer hissy-fit and demanded he be traded, I said I hoped the Lakers simply ignored him. Thankfully, that's what the Lakers have done. They didn't cave gave. They didn't send Kobe walking. And they didn't trade away any of their up-and-coming talent.
So now that youngsters like Andrew Bynum are delivering, and the Lakers are beating expectations, what does Kobe do? He apologizes. Um, make that: He takes credit for others stepping up, and suggests the petulant, disloyal outburst pointed encouragement was all part of the plan:
"Sometimes you have to kind of put a fire to them a little bit so that they understand that we're playing for higher stakes," Bryant said of his teammates. "Once they understood that and saw me come into training camp saying 'Look, I'm tired of playing for the playoffs. I'm not playing for that. I don't know what you guys are playing for, but I'm not playing for that.' Once they understood that 'Hey, this guy's head is on a championship level, this is where we need to get,' then it kind of ignited another side of them and they started looking at this thing a little differently.
Having lived in Manhattan, land of the $800 dollar stroller , for over a decade, one very notable difference between there and here is child safety. Even infants are rarely in car seats, and it's not uncommon to see adults driving with children on their laps, everyone sans belts.
Among poorer populations, of course, safety takes a back seat (sorry) to other more pressing concerns. Here, however, even families in late-model fully-loaded luxury cars allow young 'uns to move about freely while driving down the highway. The other day I saw a 4 or 5-year old standing up on the front seat, half out of the sun roof as the car was driving down the street.
Auto safety isn't the only thing that would horrify most American parents. Last month we went to a 9:30pm screening of the German film "The Lives of Others" during the Damascus Film Festival. Seated just in front of us in a full house was a mother with her three-year-old, who presumably couldn't read the subtitles or understand German and talked loudly during the entire film. While Eric attributed it to a lack of movie-going culture here (apart from the film festival, there aren't many cinemas or first-runs), I much less generously and culturally-sensitive thought the mother was just incredibly selfish and insensitive both to her child and the other movie patrons.
We also recently saw a new mother trying to spoon-feed an infant not more than a week-old hummus at a restaurant. And the smoking around kids would be (perhaps rightly) grounds for negligence in some circles in the U.S.
While all of these behaviors starkly contrast the Mommy and Me, sleep-schedule, sugar- and TV- free, neuroto-moms in the U.S., does it necessarily mean Syrian moms care any less about their children? Of course not. Parents here are very family-oriented and dote over their babies just as much as their counterparts around the globe; the difference lies in the information to which one is exposed.
But maybe both Syrian and American mothers could take a page from each others' play books. It would be nice to see Syrians perhaps at the very least using seat belts on their kids. And the Manhattan crowd could stand to relax just a little bit about whether or not an hour of TV will cause autism or a cookie results in ADD.
A few days ago, I was walking in our neighborhood* and saw a woman strutting down the street with lycra white tights, knee-high boots, a low-cut shirt and.... a hijab.
That night, I mentioned the look to some friends at dinner. "Oh yeah," replied L., herself Muslim, observant, and style-y. "She's a ho-jabi." As in, L. then explained, "Women who wear the hijab and dress all ho-ey."
And just to be clear, we're not talking about actual prostitutes. Just women who dress a little racy--and keep their heads covered.
* Our neighborhood is kinda sorta like the Chelsea of Damascus. Lots of hip people, and lots of tight clothing, often worn by men (though they tend to be a slightly different demographic than in Chelsea). I've been meaning to get some photos of and video and create a virtual tour for the blog. But slightly hard to do since...our camera was swiped.
As I mentioned before, our apartment was broken into last month and our computers stolen. Then, we got our computers back. (It's a long story that involves some very dumb thieves and very menschy Syrians.) Anyway, we told the U.S. embassy about it. And after hearing about another American's house robbed here in Damascus, the embassy put out an email warning about the mini-crime wave Nothing really special about the warning; it was a kind of McGruff "take a bite out of crime" message:
"If criminals see that your residential security infrastructure is solid and well-maintained, and that your family consistently engages in good security practices, they may move on to a 'softer' target."
Let me begin this post by saying I'm not one of those people who sees an anti-Semitic plot around every corner. In fact, I can't help but feel a sense of smug superiority when I receive those mass e-mails from certain family members detailing plots to destroy the Homeland or a quote from such and such government official that somehow proves everyone is out to get us.
I am not naive about the fact that the chosen people are not exactly favored in this part of the world. So when I started to notice that the Emirates-based English language satellite stations seem to delete any reference to Judaism in American films and series, I thought I was just being paranoid, that somehow those e-mails had clouded my judgment.
For instance, in an early episode of Friends, Chandler briefly dates a former IDF soldier. But in the Dubai One airing, her military past goes unmentioned. (Yes I'm embarrassed that I had probably seen the episode more than once in the States.) OK, so perhaps they needed to edit down the show for time purposes. Then my suspicions peaked during a recent showing of Annie Hall .
It's typical of these stations to delete overtly sexual scenes or references, much like we see on network showings of movies in the States, so I'm used to seeing awkward editing. But because Alvy Singer's ethnic background is such an essential component of his persona, the number of edits made the movie incongruous. The entire scene at Annie's parents' house with her anti-Semitic grandmother shown juxtaposed with a scene of Alvy's family dinner table seems to have disappeared.
I leave open the possibility that I really am paranoid and perhaps I mis-remembered and was in the bathroom or not paying full attention during those scenes (I was trying to do my Arabic homework at the same time). The Americans I told the story to at a Hannukah dinner last night certainly seemed to think that was the case, judging by their facial expressions. And perhaps I should be more sure before I go making accusations of bigotry (I don't need two sources- it's the Internet, dammit.) But maybe the conspiracy theory folks are right- maybe everyone is out to get us.
More than [Iraqi] 7,000 detainees are enrolled in basic education courses. Roughly 1,000 others are participating in mixed Sunni and Shiite religious discussions led by imams hired by coalition forces, a course that will become mandatory for detainees who have been deemed ready for release.
"They are genuinely engaged in a conversation -- a Socratic conversation -- without our presence in there, about the Quran," [Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone] said of the religious course. "They come out understanding the difference between what the extremists have said, or what the extremists have made them memorize, vs. what's actually in the Quran."
Further thoughts, and more posting, when I have more time...