Christian

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Moving on

20 August 2010

Fresh figs in crisp fresh flat bread make the perfect breakfast as I relax on my balcony overlooking the gorgeous valley in Safita. Afterwards I head out and sit with Adnan enjoying the thick Arabic coffee watching the small town life pass by, speaking very few words strangers sitting comfortably together, “You’re welcome anytime Mr. Sean” he says.

But today is my last time here and I cannot bring myself to tell him. Adnan was the first person to befriend me in Safita and looks after me as if was the Arabic son he never had. I had so hoped to be here for the opening of his hummus cafe but it wasn’t ready on Saturday and now he says it will be open later in the week. I tell him I have to leave for a dental appointment in Damascus. “You will be back for the opening Mr. Sean?”

In the back of my mind I hope I will but in my heart I know I must move on. I cannot see the film I want to make in sleepy Safita no matter how amazing the place and incredibly accepting the people.

Last night as I walked home I met a shop owner in a cafe “Sean come join us” he shouted. Soon I was surrounded by bottles of Arak and a wonderful array of mezza salads, 5 or 6 of his friends arrived and they all struggled with broken English discussing the usual topics of English football and Syrian girls, “Really you are an Arab man” the shop owner said as we joked. Around us a very modern Arab setting, Christian and Alawite, religious and social cohesion, it is impossible for me to tell who is what from how they look or from what they are drinking.

Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey bottles sit proudly on tables as families arrive into the early hours, I enjoy the ambiance and the sweet smell of apple tobacco in the air from the shisa pipes, it is very easy to feel at home with such wonderful unforced hospitality.

It was Michael whom I’d returned to see in Safita and who had been my English speaking guide for the last few days. He is a wonderful eccentric character; an Anglophile and a poet, his poem ‘I’m Fed Up’ laments of life in this Syrian town. He and his brother were the best students in the English department, “We are Europeans in our minds, our family is descended from Richard the Lion Heart”, he tells me proudly, “We were here fighting with the crusaders”.

Michael and his brother both dream of a life in the west and own much property and land in Safita, but Syrian law does not allow them to take money out of the country. So they stay here looking after their elderly mother, and dreaming of European brides.

As we talk in the street some taxi drivers stop to say something to Michael and his brother, “They are telling us to leave you alone, they think we are trying to get money from you.” We can talk in my hotel I tell them, “No” they say, “Here it is dangerous for us to go inside your place, people get suspicious and make reports to the secret police”. They both decide to leave.

Adnan is painting his new counter when I arrive for the last time, “Go inside Mr. Sean, it is too hot today”. He looks at me and asks if I had a rough night’s sleep, I feel paranoid, maybe he can smell the Arak on me, I feel distracted, torn, a mix of sadness and the usual apprehension I get when striding forward.

Moving on is never easy and one can never be sure it is the right thing to do. Looking for a story always involves learning about a place, a people, and making good friends, but saying goodbye never gets easier and I’m never sure if I will be back. Adnan makes the coffee, a man pops his head through the door asking for a job, Adnan tells him to come back in a couple of days, Adnan turns to me and says “Soon the shop will be finished Mr. Sean and we can eat hummus together”, I nod in agreement and smile sadly to myself.

Here we are free

14 August 2010

I awoke this morning feeling fat and bloated with much too much Hummus in my belly. I’d rounded yesterday off with a big plate of Tabbouleh, Baba Ghanouj, and Hummus (again) oh dear… the burnt aubergine dish (Baba Ghanouj) was really great as was the bottle of Syrian rose wine I had with it. A meal for just over 3 quid, wine included!

Michael was supposed to call this morning at 5am along with a worker and a tractor to take us to his land but he never came.

So instead I made my way again into the pretty town of Safita and spent the day sitting with Adnan an English-speaking Syrian who had spent most of his working life as a construction worker in Kuwait. He has now retired back to Safita and is setting up his own little restaurant selling Hummus Falafel and a wonderful Zatar bread (a delicate mix of Sesame seeds and Thyme that they add virgin Olive oil to and spear on thin pieces of dough that is baked in seconds in front of your eyes, dangerously tasty). He has invited to the official opening on Saturday

Today is the first day of Ramadan I say in passing, no worries here Adnan smiles, “This is a Christian village and the only Muslims here are Alawite” (a less strict branch of the Shi’a, only found in Syria and Lebanon, here they are the dominant sect, ruling the government and military).

A couple of girls pass in low-cut tops, bright make-up, and tight jeans, these girls are Alawite Muslims Adnan explains, “Here you cannot tell the difference between us, here we really do live as one” Adnan says proudly.

– If I am honest I have to say that seeing some of the fully veiled women last week on the beach at Tartous did depress me a bit, but maybe that is purely a result of my western ignorance, my inability to simply ‘get it’, and maybe it is the woman’s free choice as I hear, maybe they do feel ‘free’ behind the veil, but, as I said, I just don’t get it.

Najat an artist who moved from Tartous to Damascus recently says his city was never like this, “Before women wore what they liked, years ago we had bars in Tartous but not today”.

As Adnan pours another coffee he reflects on the ‘good old days’ when women were freer in the Arab world, “Saddam was good for women he says now Iraq takes a step back into the dark ages for them”.

Sadly in my own life I feel I’m seeing history turn its ugly head, one always imagines that with time you always got progression not regression, but one thing that saddened me about the changes in Iraq was its move towards being a more religious state; one where (possibly because of continued male dominance in the Arab world) women invariably seemed to lose out.

Saddam was no doubt a murderous psychopath running a tyrannical state but I did see many progressive women groups on my visits to the country in 1995, no veils just powerful positive female voices. Sadly when I left Iraq for the last time in 2004 there was chaos all around and women feared being seen outside without a veil, Christians included. Ironically most of Iraq’s Christians have fled to Syria from the new democracy for safety in Syria’s dictatorship.

Last week whilst watching imprisoned lions, tigers, and bears, in one of Syria’s illegal and cruel travelling zoo’s I met a Syrian of Greek decent whose family had settled here at the end of the last century, he too was angry about veiled women, “It’s a fashion from Saudi” he says. We watch a ‘blacked-out’ lady follow a man wearing a baseball cap and t-shirt on the beach in temperatures of 45c, “It was never like this, it is a macho thing for some of the young ones, but if you look in the Koran Mohammed treated women as equals and valued their efforts not as subordinates like these young ones today”.

At night in Safita the young fill the streets with scantily clad girls looking for boys roaming like high season, no veils here far from it, beer, whiskey, arak, is everywhere. “It’s nice to feel at home in Syria” I tell the waiter as he pours my rose wine. “Here we are a mix of Christian and Alawite, you cannot tell the difference here by how people dress” he replied.

What makes Syria so interesting to an outsider is its apparent tolerance to the many religions here – areas of the country are very religious yet others more modern, western, and ‘open’. As Adnan pours yet another coffee he looks out in the quiet early morning street, “Here we are free, this isn’t like Kuwait or Saudi, here you can do as you like and be left alone”.

Unveiled

05 July 2010

In her early 30’s she stands as a one woman crusade against the dominant Arab male culture and all its stupidity, “I want to make the man I love happy, I want to make his food and even clean his clothes, but when my brother beat me so bad, because I refused to make him food, that I ended up in hospital it was too much, my father never even supported me then”. Her father has always beaten his daughters, but never his son, her last beating was just 5 months ago (she hasn’t spoken to him since), “This is the Arab world” she says, “I hate Arabic men!”

Sitting opposite me is a beautiful women wearing make-up, and a brightly coloured low-cut top designed to cause a stir here, when we walk the streets I see looks of horror from veiled women and hear lewd comments from men.

To them she says she is seen as a ‘bitch’. A bitch here is a woman who has slept with a man before marriage – or in some cases just kissed one. She recounts the moment she kissed her first and only Arabic boyfriend, “The moment I let him kiss me he left me, calling me a bitch, because I’d let him kiss me I was a bitch, this is the mentality here”.

Today it is her life commitment to promote the rights of women, though she feels almost alone in her struggle, “Women should not be killed if they are not virgins when they marry but it happens here, and is accepted. Until laws are passed to protect women this region will always be in the dark ages”

A week ago I met a man whose ex-girlfriend had written asking him for financial help. She had fallen in love and was to marry but needed an operation to make it appear she was a virgin again, as this man had taken her virginity he felt obliged to help her with money for the operation.

On a day-to-day level Syria looks deceptively “modern”, bars, night clubs… in the street scantily clad women mingle with half-veiled and fully-veiled women. It is the mix of Christian, and Alawite Muslim (a Shi’ite offshoot that wears no veil and is allowed to drink alcohol – President Assad is Alawite) that makes Syria appear more open and modern than other Arabic societies.

But scratch the surface here and lurking beneath this modern facade is a very traditional Arabic society riddled with social mores and customs that always seem to favour men against women. There have been some small changes, a law passed recently makes ‘honour killing’ a crime, though it only offers a 2 year prison sentence – as with many Arabic countries the issue of women’s rights is one that will continue to plague it for a long while yet.

We walk through the streets unable to avoid the stares and whistles aimed towards her, finally I wave goodbye, and she walks defiantly into the night.