Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Postcard from Damascus

Contemplation, Umayaad Mosque, Damascus.

Well, despite all the hysteria in the West about the 'forces of evil' in the Arab world, civil war in Libya, unrest in Syria, a dictatorial regime and riots and shootings in the southern part of the country, we still got on a plane and headed to Damascus. A lot of our friends expressed concern that we were even considering this trip, let alone going there...

On the day we left Sydney there were three reported home invasions in the west, and the police reported that human remains had been found scattered along the F3 freeway. On the day we returned to Sydney two men were shot in a supposed drug deal gone bad, in our suburb. Funny, while we were travelling we never got any emails saying it was too dangerous to come back to Oz.

Umayaad Mosque, Damascus
The point I'm making is that things are usually never as bad as they are imagined overseas. Because these troubles are 'overseas', and more importantly, overseas in a third world country, they are perceived as being worse than troubles in a first world country. After the tour finished in Dubai, one of the group headed for the UK where, the news reported, 250,000 protesters were rampaging through the streets of London smashing up the city centre!

So, we got picked up (by prior arrangement) at the airport and were whisked into the Old City, a place that's been continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years. We had  to be met by the hotel porter because it's impossible to drive into the tiny streets of the medina. He grabs the bags and heads off into the maze of alleys and the mass of pilgrims making their way to the Iranian shrine close to the hotel. It's mayhem, it's as if you've been tipped into a Cecil B. De Mille movie set. The porter turns off the broader lane way down a side alley and knocked at an innocuous-looking door. It opened onto a gorgeous Syrian courtyard with a fountain trickling in the centre and porters scurrying about with our gear. It's a perfect little oasis in a noisy, bustling and atmospheric part of the city. That's what the rest of the Old City is like: busy, colourful, energetic and friendly. Very friendly.

You sort of expect the hotel staff to be friendly because its business, but in Syria people approached us all the time, ask where you are from and then say "Welcome, you are very welcome in Syria...".
This was the fourth time my wife and I have visited Syria and every time we have been impressed at the politeness of the Syrians. And so gracious. In comparison they make Astralians appear a touch clumsy and inconsiderate.

We hired a vehicle and, after being assured by the hotel staff it was 'safe', drove south to Bosra in De'raa province, where the recent 'troubles' began. True, there have been shootings there, and a lot of unrest, usually after Friday prayers. And true, it seems to be the fault of some particularly nasty secret police that caught and tortured some (incredibly dumb) kids who were defacing or grafitting images of the President (a really stupid thing to do in Syria). When the parents discovered what these ratbags had done, they went ape, and then the riots kicked off. But we trusted the advice we got and they were quite right. We then headed to Iz'raa to see an amazing Orthodox church that had been in existence for around 1500 years. To get into the church the driver had to stop outside the gatekeeper's house, knock on his door and get him to open up! We had to pass through a good few road blocks in De'raa province, kids in uniform mostly, carrying AK47s with bayonets fitted, and then we drove the 150kms back to Damascus.

On another trip, this time on a Friday, we were coming back from a visit to Krak de Chevaliers, a massive Crusader castle 3.5 hours drive north of Damascus, when the hotel rang the driver to check we were OK. Someone there had heard on the radio there were demonstrations in the northern parts of Damascus and were concerned that we were safe. As it happened we saw nothing. The demonstrations (usually called 'riots' in the West) were well and truly over.
We actually got more information about the troubles in Syria from the Syrian news service, and the locals we spoke to, than anything heard or read in the West. Seems that anything reported about this region in the Australian press is cursory in the first instance and negative in the second.

In some Syrian restaurants the end of the meal is signified by the arrival pf a plate of Arabic sweets like this. At the Narenje restaurant in Old Damascus this was free, you could eat all you could pack in. Oh Boy!
I can't talk about Syria without mentioning the food. It's absolutely fabulous. Sure, you can always find the usual Arabic fare of yogurt, humous, tabouleh, baba ganoush and fatoush but it's so much more than that. Actually, though we ate in posh restaurants in Damascus, we never got past the mezze stage. This is a series of small dishes designed mostly as appetizers. They are varied and absolutely delicious. We ate everything! Beetroot dip, smoked capsicum, walnut and pomegranite puree, Lebanese sausage in tomato sauce, kebbe done four different ways, meatballs in tomato and yogurt sauce. I could go on. I reckon the food was better than anything we'd had in Morocco and in Oman. In fact, I'd go back to Syria just for the food.... 

We have been back in Australia for 10 days and it seems the situation is now  a lot worse than when we were there. I hope the Syrians get their shit sorted out before too many people get hurt!

1 comment:

  1. Those are some HOT HDR shots. The Wide angle really stretches out the scene. Really gave the first two shots a lot of depth.

    The combination is stunning.