A few weeks ago, when the finacee and I were still living in Damascus, we walked out of our door one night and came across a wedding party. And I mean party. There were guys swings knives, others blowing fire and one singer doing a very catchy call-and-response thing. So catchy in fact that much to Sara's chagrin, I've spent the past month whistling the guy's tune.
As I later learned, the call-and-response song is an old Damascene tradition called Arrada. And it's on YouTube. Enjoy!
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.
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."
Syria`s participation in the world gathering is to test the seriousness of the US Administration towards peace-making in the region and to ascertain that Israel has never worked for a just and comprehensive peace and is not apt to achieve this pressing end.
The Arab people in Syria and other countries in the Arab homeland are not so optimistic about the conference and they don`t pin much hope on the gathering.
The Syrian attitude has always been clear and fair. Syria has repeatedly asked for the resumption of peace talks on this track starting from the point the two sides reached at the Wyeplantation talks where the Israelis deposited the aforementioned pledge with the Clinton administration. It is illogical and unfair to begin from scratch.
Annapolis meeting is suspicious as it apparently intends among other things to separate the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian peace tracks, validate Israel`s occupation of the Arab territories, force some Arabs to normalize ties with Israel before peace is attained, by-pass core issues of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict and torpedo basic peace obligations as termed in UN resolutions and the internationally-approved "land for peace" principle.
The meeting also intends to further divide the Arabs, bring more chaos, foment sedition and subsequently impose US-Israeli hegemony on the entire Arab region.
That last--particularly full-throated, editorial appeared before Syria decided to attend the meeting. Anyway, I have no larger point in running these snippets. Just giving a view of what's being printed around these parts.