Thursday, July 31, 2008

modern ruins

From the BBC,

The Golan Heights, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria, has a political and strategic significance which belies its size.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the 1967 Six-Day War. Most of the Syrian Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict.

An armistice line was established and the region came under Israeli military control. Almost immediately Israel began to settle the Golan.

Syria tried to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Middle East war. Despite inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces, the surprise assault was thwarted. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and a UN observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since 1974.

Golan Heights facts

  • Name: Golan Heights
  • Status: Israeli-occupied. Captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, and annexed in 1981, a moved condemned internationally. Lebanon claims Shab'a Farms area.
  • Population estimate: 20,000 Israeli settlers, 20,000 Syrians

Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. The move was not recognised internationally.

There are more than 30 Jewish settlements on the heights, with an estimated 20,000 settlers. There are some 20,000 Syrians in the area, most of them members of the Druze sect.

I visited the Golan Heights today. Specifically, I visited Quneitra, a city that traded hands between Israel and Syria during the 1967 and 1973 wars. Israel gained control of it during 1973 and completely destroyed it before their withdrawal in 1974. It lies in the demilitarized United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) Zone between Syria and Israel, right next to the Israeli border. It's the area around the faint reddish dot below:

Syria has chosen to 'preserve' the city in its devastated state, as a sort of testament (testament for what? you can figure that out). Getting there is complicated, or at least it was for Jennifer and me this morning. Securing the necessary permissions involved a great deal of walking around and misdirection and sweating. After 3 hours, 5 service rides (services are the minivans that run around the city wildly, crammed full of people, but very cheap), 1 bus ride, 2 hours of walking, several conversations in Frenchabic, and a final long service ride to Quneitra itself, we managed to present our permissions, secure a government escort (freely provided, but required lest you stray into areas you shouldn't go, or photograph forbidden things), and see what remained of the city.

This is what war looks like:
the hospital ("destroyed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!")

Israel in the distance
the Greek Orthodox Church

buildings in town
the border

more ruins

the mosque


I'm enjoying this country, syriasly

A week in pictures:

En route to Aleppo, the second biggest city in Syria and pretty far north in the country, we stopped to see this giant mosaic church floor that had been unearthed. The church was built around 442AD...and apparently Syria is awash with old mosaics:
We visited the ruins of St. Simeon's church. St. Simeon lived in the 400s as well and became well known as an ascetic who spent more than 30 years of his life living on a pillar, away from humanity in order to get closer to God. I'm not sure how that worked with feeding himself and such, but apparently it impressed (and converted) many back in the day. The church was built around the pillar he lives on (now rather crumbled):
This is me at St. Simeon, looking at Turkey in the distance.
and this is Statue Wendy.
Later in the day, we went to Aleppo's Citadel. Pretty spectacular and imposing, turns out - and apparently it was to would-be invaders as well; the Mongols were the only ones who ever succeeded in taking it:
Aleppo from the Citadel (cool city, eh?):
Aleppo also boasts the Middle East's biggest souq, one that is 12km long. I didn't search through all of it, though I did manage a bit of shopping adventure.
Popular items to buy in Syria include olive oil soap...
...and scarves. Always scarves.
A country awash with mosaics simply must have a mosaic museum. I'm not big on museums generally, but I did like the mosque in which the displays were housed:
The ruins of Afamea were pretty spectacular. This was a city built around 300BC; most of the architecture was Byzantine and Roman, and fairly notable people like Cleopatra took the time to visit in its heyday. Really peaceful - and windy - now.

I attended a graduation for Iraqi students who participated in some of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate's vocational programs. One of the sweetest moments was watching a fashion show at the beginning. These little girls modeled dresses that had been made by students in the sewing classes, and they were adorable:
But it was really wonderful to see how excited everyone was - lots of proud parents and proud friends around, and it was quite touching.
Obligatory food note for the blog is my love of the mulberry squash you can get here (I'm using the British term 'squash' to refer to a really strong fresh concentrate that you can dilute with water) - but more importantly, the best ice cream place in Damascus is just up the road from the monastery where I'm staying, and they have ROSE ice cream there. My favorite. I'm eating it every day from now until I return.
Oh, this is what birthday cake candles look like here - more like a birthday firecracker than anything.
We had dinner with one of the bishops here last night, at the church of St. Paul (conveniently located at the very spot where Saul was stopped by God on the road to Damascus and then blinded). Upon hearing that the bishop goes jogging every morning (and after much frustration with the reality that solo female jogging here is simply unacceptable), I was quite tempted to see if he'd be interested in picking up a jogging partner...but he's off to Sweden tomorrow for the rest of my stay here. Alas!
2 more weeks. More anecdotes and analysis to come before I head out to Lebanon/Egypt/Yemen/London/LA.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

medicine, teeth cleaning, maybe a little hope...

I've been to Jaramana twice now. Located in Southern Damascus, this neighborhood is home to a large number of Christian Iraqi refugees. Most Iraqis exist here in a frustrating state of limbo between the homeland they fled and the fragile hope of either return or resettlement in yet another country. The Iraqis I've spoken with there live in sparsely furnished apartments, woven pictures of the Last Supper and token family photos displayed proudly on otherwise bare walls. Their hospitality is unfailing, despite their altogether too evident hardships.

My visit to Jaramana this morning comprised a tour of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's Poly Clinic, a joint effort of the SARC and the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, the organization which has registered over 150,000 refugees in Syria to date. The actual number of refugees is much, much higher - somewhere around 1.2 million). At the Poly Clinic, registered refugees can come and receive different kinds of medical care, from dental work to pediatric, gynecology to psychiatric help. All this is housed in one building, and refugees pay only 20% of the cost of the services. At this clinic in Jaramana, in operation for just a little over a year, more than 30,000 Iraqis are registered; 300-400 patients receive treatment daily.

Iraqis wait outside the Jaramana clinic.
A dental technician at the clinic shows off her equipment.

There's a similar Poly Clinic just fifteen minutes away, right down the street from the Shi'ia pilgrimage site of Saida Zeinab. As busloads of Iranian pilgrims head for the shrine, small groups of Iraqis line up for services inside the SARC clinic. This building seems bigger, brighter, newer than the Jaramana clinic, and I wonder at the disparity between the two; I then learn that the Saida Zeinab clinic has been in operation for 10 years, serving Iraqis who fled Saddam's reign after the first Gulf War. This building is one year old, and the 25 doctors and 65 nurses who work there see a thousand patients on average every day.

The staff who showed us around the clinic were quick to let us know that they had the technology, the medicine, and the personnel resources they needed to help these Iraqis. The queues in the waiting room demonstrated the high demand for the clinic's services - and also the distressing situation in which many of the families find themselves. I am told there are 180 cancer cases that the clinic has seen and referred to a nearby hospital; a disproportionate number of these are skin cancer cases due to chemical bomb explosions. These Iraqis are still eligible to pay only 20% of their care, though the expense is often so great that the UNHCR will waive the fees completely.

The personnel manager of the Saida Zeinab clinic has been there 5 years and seen too much misery in the lives of the Iraqi patients. He is proud of the assistance that his clinic is able to provide - but he yearns for a day when the need for the clinic will not be so great. When asked to speak about the situation of the Iraqis, he refuses - go see it with your own eyes, he says. See how hard we work and what we accomplish; see for yourselves the ways in which these Iraqis suffer.

It's hard not to see it.

outside the Saida Zeinab Poly Clinic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

and Wendy journeyed to Damascus

I'm going to grossly generalize and say that the Middle East is beautiful.

My last days in Amman were relaxed and enjoyable. I climbed tall hills in the strong sun...
...and bought DVDs for 1 dinar each in the vicinity of this mosque (that's not actually the mosque - just a sign pointing to it. I like these mosque signs):
And I visited Iraq.
Iraq el-Amir, that is. The word 'Iraq' essentially means 'beautiful place', and that's what this was. I'm sure it was even more lovely a few thousand years ago before it fell into ruin, but it's still gorgeous, tucked away just outside the city and surrounded by farmland and handicraft centers.
After visiting Iraq el-Amir with my friend Rajai, I said goodbye to Jordan and hopped onto a bus heading toward Damascus. Crossing the border became a trial of patience and good humor; the concept of lining up single-file hasn't really taken root in this part of the world, and it may very well be the one thing I miss about America. Seething masses of people smashed together and sweating in the humid room with little air circulation, yelling yelling yelling - but somehow I did emerge with my Syrian visa stamped (the two hapless Argentines who spoke no English nor Arabic and had bold Israel stamps in their own passports were not so fortunate).

I will be in Damascus for the next month, staying in the monastery of St. Elias Church, working with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate here to assist in some of their Iraqi refugee aid programs as well as to study more Arabic. I am with a group of approx. 15 other like-minded volunteers from the US, Switzerland, New Zealand, and the UK, and we are participating through a Middle East Fellowship program. I will have further stories about the work here in the next few days, but for now, just pictures and a travelogue, eh?

The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and All The East (if you think that's a long title, you should see it in Arabic) has a long history in the region (obviously); it claims to be the sole successor church to the original Christian church established by Peter and Paul. Pull out your Bibles, kids, and open up to Acts Chapter 9: ...and as [Saul] journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? The conversation continued, and then Saul, now blind, went to Damascus, where he met Ananias; the Lord had said to Ananias, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus.

Why am I quoting scripture? The Patriarchate is located on said "Street Called Straight", which runs through the Old City, and it's the street by which I travel to the Patriarchate every day.

Every day that I'm in town, that is. We took off for a weekend away up north in Latakia, a city on the Mediterranean. En route, we visited an old Muslim-turned-Crusader-turned-Mamluk castle originally built in 1062. Pretty sweet:

That's the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. The view, once completely green, is now a view of greenhouses. Rather unsightly, but useful if you're in Syria and want to grow vegetables year-round, as these folks apparently do:
Also stopped at Ugarit. You can pull out your Bibles again, read about the Temple of Baal, and rest easy knowing that it was located here. You should also know that Ugarit is the home of the world's first alphabet (or the earliest alphabet yet discovered, at any rate).
Ugarit is also the name of the second-best imitation Coke around (Pepsi and Coke products weren't allowed in the country until a couple years ago, apparently). When in Ugarit, drink Ugarit cola, I always say.
This was my first venture into the Mediterranean, and it was absolutely lovely. Megan and Ruth are 2 great girls in the program as well. Together, we attempted (and I succeeded!) to climb a giant (blow-up) iceberg adrift at the end of the swimmable sea.

Damascus is a remarkable city, possibly the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (though Sana'a vies for that title as well). I have enjoyed exploring it a bit in my free time. Yesterday, I visited a couple souqs - one huge and beautiful and new-looking...

and another one nearby that seemed a little older and more earthy. Abundant supply of goatheads, if you're into that kind of thing, and plenty of brightly-colored pickled products as well.
We went to a concert at the nearby citadel last night. It's quite something to attend a concert in an ancient fortification with a statue of Salah al-Din right outside the gate. It wound up being free, which was even more excellent. Faudel, a super-famous Algerian, was the performer; I knew some of his music, but I wasn't prepared when midway through the concert he began singing a cover of....'My Way'. You know, Frank Sinatra. Delightful.

And tonight we had a feast. Nearly every meal is a feast here - it's the Syrian way, and it's making me large - but tonight was particularly grand. The selection of appetizers is mesmerizing, and the green drink you see in the corner is bola, a mint lemonade concoction that will "change your life", as Kelly frequently notes.

I have a hard time deciding whether I'm more pleased with the quantities of lamb they serve here...or the quantities of sweets (yes, that is a giant platter of Syrian sweet delights that I'm holding).
I am also delighted with signage that I see around. One favorite was the "Miami Saloon" in Sana'a - a hairstyling saLON that was inadvertently posing as a place o' liquor in a city where liquor is absolutely forbidden - haram, haram! These are a couple random English language delights that I've seen around Syria:

"Keep City Clean: he (the bird?) is enjoying the world". On that lighthearted note, I shall close for now - my watch died last night, so I'm unsure of the time, but I suspect it's quite late. Tomorrow I'll write more about the Iraqi families I visited today and the work of the patriarchate here - Syria is a fascinating, fascinating place.