Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the long road home

Apologies for another photo blog. It's just the quickest way I can attempt a summary of what my last couple weeks in the Middle East were like.

Early one morning, some friends and I rented a van and hired a driver and set off before sunrise, heading east toward Syria's most famous ruins - Palmyra. These are not the ruins.
These are the ruins.

I walked by this man and saw that he was sweeping. At first I just thought, right, early morning janitor at the ruins. And then I realized, he's sweeping...the dirt. [insert quizzical expression]

Nearby, there are really old tower tombs still standing. Ruth and I climbed up and explored. Ruth was my roommate at the monastery, a delightful British pianist and really lovely girl.
Play dead.

Palmyra is halfway between Damascus and the...Euphrates, I believe. This way to Iraq...
In Damascus, this is my favorite statue - Salah al-Din, very triumphant.
My friend Jen and I thought it was imperative to eat some really excellent Iraqi food before leaving Syria. We went down to Jaramana (home to many many thousands of Iraqi refugees, primarily Christians) and, after buying Ninja Turtle hand sanitizer and cola-flavored toothpaste, decided to eat at the Zarzoor Grill Fallujah Restaurant. It was a feast of epic proportions, and incredibly delicious.
The next night, my last in Syria, was spent at another graduation for Iraqi students - this time, students from beauty school. Several of us performed during the presentation, which was really special and a lot of fun. Usually the pre-graduation presentations are accompanied by Mariah Carey "Hero" or some Celine Dion, so we were pleased this time to switch it up with a few Zimbabwe songs, a little "Lean On Me", and even some dancing. I played piano for a couple and did some (gulp) backup singing for the others. The graduation was great, and afterwards, because I was leaving a little early from the program, I had dinner with some good friends at another amazing Iraqi shawarma place. These are some of the Iraqis and Syrians I worked with
at the Patriarchate:The next morning, I took a shared cab to Beirut (shared with the driver, a sheikh, a soon-to-be-married mechanical engineer named Amar Amar, and a Palestinian-Lebanese-Danish lady who didn't have a Lebanese visa organized). We (minus the Dane) made it successfully, and I then took a bus immediately to Tripoli in the north of the country. There's been a fair amount of unrest there lately. I was surprised as well how much other war damage could be seen as I explored the city:
But I think Tripoli is beautiful.The next day, I took a bus to Bcharre with Swiss friend Michel, and from there we got a cab in order to see the Cedars Of Lebanon. I say "Cedars of Lebanon" in capitals because they've been symbolic of Lebanon and famous throughout the world since Biblical times (sample random verse from Psalms: The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.) And apparently whatever was prophesied about the pride of Lebanon being cut like their cedars was true, because the cedar preserve we saw was pretty dismal. The trees are gorgeous, of course, but there aren't many of them around, and a lot of them are kind of hacked up. Well, at least they're preserved in picture on the Lebanese flag.....sigh.
Lots of soldiers around.
I went to Beirut later. I LOVE Beirut. This is the Place of the Martyrs.
And very nearby, I stumbled upon a gigantic tent. Turns out that inside said tent is buried Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister who was assassinated in a huge explosion a couple years ago. Really really terrible.
I wandered around more and found some neighborhoods that were big Hezbollah strongholds. So many banners and pictures and paintings of leaders, of martyrs.
This is just one picture of many that displays one of Hezbollah's soldiers who died as a martyr.
Fast forward a day - I flew to Egypt. I will simply say that it was an incredibly frustrating and disappointing experience, as, when you fly Egypt Air, apparently you can't leave the care of the airline (which means if you want to go into Cairo, you go with an Egypt Air driver who takes 4 hours to arrive at the airport while you wait wait wait, and then gets you to the pyramids after they're already closed. Boo.)
Well, at least I saw them from the gate, anyways.
After Egypt, I returned to Yemen and saw a few friends in the wee hours of the morning, then flew to London and spent time with friends there as well, watching my first bit of the Olympics and eating some really excellent curry. On the plane home the next day, I wore my black balto and a hijab. I was curious how Americans would respond to it. Most people were perfectly normal, although one lady in line spoke to me really slowly and loudly as if I didn't speak English. I was most surprised, however, that when I went through immigration at LAX, the officer didn't even look through my passport - it was one of my quickest immigration experiences ever. Not that I had any desire to sit for a long interview, but I'm thinking someone should've asked a few more questions (especially considering some of the interesting things I had in my bags, like goat furs that technically should be reported to the Fish and Game dept, and Hezbollah posters). Hmm. Oh well.
From LA, I took a bus to Bakersfield to see family and pick up Mazdatron. I marveled the next morning at simple things like the availability of bacon. Other things I've realized since that were utterly lacking over the last 2.5 months: milk. microwaves. stop signs. I walk and drive like a reserved Yemeni, but I'm trying to readjust quickly.
I came back to my place in LA and found this in my shower (I love Kat):
As I unpacked my bags, I was able to share some of my delights with friends and roommates:
I love the Middle East. I really do. There remains so much more to understand and explore there, but the last 10ish weeks were phenomenal and full of adventure (such that I finally wore through the bottoms of my shoes).
I'm back in LA now, starting up the last year of my masters, but adventures will continue here, as well as better information to come on interesting issues in the Middle East. I am sure I will be going back soon.

Please note:

1. I did not get kidnapped. I did not get beheaded. I never had anyone curse me for being American.

2. After returning to LA and mentioning my work with Iraqis to someone, a remark was made about "sleeping with the enemy". Uh, yikes. No. Iraqis are not our enemy. The Iraqis I worked with were amazing. The situation for the refugees in Syria is heartbreaking.

3. If you look back, you'll note that I posted some pictures from a "friend's" trip somewhere near Jordan. The ambiguity was due to the possibility that Syria's secret police could have legitimately booted me from the country had they connected my name to a visit to Israel. Yes, I went to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Countries visited on this trip, if you're keeping tally: Yemen, Jordan, Israel/Palestine/West Bank/Golan Heights, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, England.

4. How does it feel to be back? Weird, in a word. I bought a lot of hummus today. We'll see how the transitioning goes.

Ma salaama, rafi'i.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

a Damascus assortment

I like this place a lot.

Unfortunately, this picture collection is a little too random for my 02:22am mind to piece together a story that connects all of it. So the theme is: Wendy is in Syria. These are some of the things she sees around town. Simple, eh?

This picture says it all. Can you identify these two men? In Syria, I propose that the one on the left may well be more identifiable than Jesus on the right. President Bashar al-Assad's picture, as well as countless photos, paintings, murals, and mosaics of his father, are plastered around the country, present in every home and every office, omnipresent. This cult of personality is a little unreal and amusing at times (see and read more on Bridget's blog here). I particularly love the car window treatments (don't worry, I'm bringing back a few of my own for MazdaTron):
Also revered is Muhadan, of the beloved Turkish soap opera 'Nour' that has taken the Middle East by storm and stolen the heart of many a Syrian lass and lad. This is Muhadan, who was strangely called upon to appear at a concert I attended last night (more on this shortly). Awkwardly, it turns out he is not terribly engaging live, but the Syrian girls were excited to see him nevertheless: and this is the 'I love Muhanad' (or something approaching that in mistranslated English) shirt that I couldn't help but buy. Please note that Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has condemned the viewing of the show. Said he, "Any TV station that airs them is against God and His Messenger (peace be upon him). These are serials of immorality. They are prepared by people who are specialists in crime and error, people who invite men and women to the devil.”
Speaking of the forbidden, these are some of the things you should and shouldn't do at Syria's one and only private university:

and if you noted that I was wearing a hijab with my 'Nour' shirt, it was in an attempt to try some of the different Syrian hijab fashions, as drawn well in this picture below. Click on it to see a pretty accurate description of the many styles you see here (I saw plenty of the 'Abu Ramani hijab with veiled Indonesian nanny' at this concert as well).
So, I live in a monastery right now (a monastery bereft of religious personnel, which confused me a bit until I learned that apparently monasteries don't have to have monks to be called such; apparently they can just be hospitable places attached to churches, which is what mine is). Damascus is a city that boasts some really pleasant religious diversity, and it's been most interesting to spend time seeing more of the Christian areas here, after everything in Yemen. Just outside the monastery door, I see this every day:
and last week, I visited a monastery (a real real one, with monks and nuns) an hour or two away, in the mountains.
It's called Mar Mousa, or Saint Moses. This is me (aka Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) on my way up:
a wonderful monk named Jihad showed us inside (the place is 1000+ years old) before everyone had a hour of silence for meditation and prayer:

Damascus is my paradise. I am eating practically all the lamb my young heart desires, and there are fruit stands on every corner:
and you get watermelon at the end of 98% of all meals:
Sometimes you get to eat dinner at the former prime minister's home. Maybe it's the first birthday of his nephew, and maybe they bake 6 or 7 different desserts and then make you try all of them:But if you're home alone and hungry, don't worry - combining Ninja Turtle cornflakes
with Maxtello chocolate-hazelut-honey spreadis really delightful:
Lots of perfume is sold here:
I'm still enjoying the Arabic studies (our class at a restaurant):
as well as graduations of Iraqi kids in programs run by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate:
I will say that the Amr Diab concert was a gigantic disappointment/ gigantic Pepsi ad. Amr Diab is the biggest male star in the Arab world. I like his music a lot, but the concert experience was fairly terrible for the price.

I prefer hanging out at the monastery and playing my own music instead: