Tag: hummus

A day of rain

It was raining when we landed, I sailed straight through an eerily empty passport-control, but then a burly man caught my eye and asked me to put my bag through the x-ray machine for a second time, I could see him wondering why I was here, I obviously stood-out like a sore thumb; but with no big camera inside my bag just a small touristy looking one I was soon on my way and eating hummus and drinking Arak in my old seat with my oldest friend in Syria.

“It’s a different place” he said as we walked home casually greeting groups of plain-clothed cops, “These secret police guys stopped me last week at 3am and asked why I was wandering the streets at such a time” (3am street activity used to be normal here), we pass more plain clothed police, police cars are positioned on street corners, this certainly isn’t the same Syria I left just 4 months ago.

My friend at the hotel greets me, “Are you here for the trouble?” he asks, I smile “Why do you ask?”, I joke that I’m here to get away from the royal wedding, he tells me that the secret police have been making more visits than normal and asking too many questions.

“How long will you stay, where will you go?” “I don’t know” I say… OK OK, it is clear that he is uncomfortable with me staying here, later he confesses that as a friend he doesn’t want to speak against me to the secret police, and he doesn’t want trouble, he never talks about what is happening with Syrians, he wants to keep his nose clean. The hotel always used to be full, now I am one of only 5 guests, he gives me a double-room for the price of a single.

I awake late in the morning to the sound of thunder and hail, it sounds like gunfire, I remember that it is Friday, a proposed ‘day of rage’ in Syria, downstairs everyone watches the demonstrations on the hotel television – it is difficult to imagine that this is the same safe, stable, Syria I left just a few months back, now it seems 10 cities are taking part in the protests.

I join my friend again for morning coffee “Damascus is quiet due to the rain, but outside this sleepy city Syria is shaking” he says, “It is sitting delicately on the edge of an abyss, no-one knows the future, some don’t want to take the risk of change, but most do now” he says, as the rain thunders around us like gunfire.

This is my paradise

As I walk the busy Damascus streets I watch workmen move steel girders onto awaiting lorries, all around me impatient drivers blast their car horns, this is the chorus to my daily Arabic life.

In front of me a man hammers a giant mortar and pestle making real hand-made ice-cream; no electric churners here, it’s all so physical. Brightly coloured bags filled with a variety of fresh juices for Ramadan adorn stalls all along the street – an irresistible selection of mango pomegranate tamarind liquorice, and much more.

A cockerel croaks it’s last breath before it’s head is removed swiftly ready for today’s kebab, there is no frozen meat here. A hen looks nervously at me as if it knows it’s inevitable fate, it stands there, un-caged and docile steadfastly refusing to fly away.

The wonderful smell of za’atar turns my mind back to food; its the Damascus smell – a mix of sesame and thyme spices, eaten with fresh olive oil on bread. I find it hard to walk past the 24-hour hummus cafe in the Christian-end of the street; packed with people eating the wonderful creamy chickpea tahini dish with bright coloured pickles and fresh Arabic flat bread.

I indulge in a bowl hoping it may somehow protect me from the poisonous Arak I had the night before. The white cloudy drink had stolen another night from my life, this time I found myself drinking with one of Syria’s most famous and revered writers, this 60 cigarettes a day man talked of his achievement at always writing political dramas for TV and cinema without ever being threatened or questioned by the authorities; for whatever reason he is just left alone. “This is my paradise” he tells me proudly “Here I do what I want and say what I want”.

I try to ask him about ‘The red line’, referring to the invisible line that most “sensible” Syrians know not to cross in order to maintain their ‘freedom’, “There is no red line” the writer tells me laughing, “The red line only exists in the mind, it is there to guide us!” Others have told me that it exists to allow the authorities to pick up who they want when they want, as a means of exerting a little bit of pressure now and again.

I lose myself in the history of these streets, it is like stepping back in time with it’s wonderfully terrible anarchic noise and disordered chaos, this is the life I love and miss so much when I am back home in the West. Time passes quickly when I walk these streets, each journey bringing me something new and often never repeated, the randomness, the shocks, and the surprises I crave in life are here without fail everyday on this dirty noisy Damascan street.

The noise of the street can be crippling and then, suddenly, as the Ramadan breakfast breaks, it becomes quiet with not a soul in sight, and an eerie empty silence envelopes the once bustling street.

Soon, hidden, out of sight, the people will break their fast and eat for the first time in the day, as I slowly wander the empty street alone, arrested by its silent dirty peaceful glory.

Moving on

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

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”.

My Arabic wedding

I couldn’t face going out tonight. I was dying for a shit but couldn’t go. I needed time to contemplate on a proper sitting-up toilet not a hole in ground. You can’t read the newspaper squatting… and it is easy (or it is for me) to miss, making things real messy. Plus, as my hummus belly grows I am finding it more and more painful to squat for long periods. So I haven’t “been” today and would rather stay in but Nizam’s uncle has invited us to a rather special wedding party kicking off at midnight!

We enter the flamboyant affair to see a dance floor filled with grown men dancing together. Holding hands kissing hugging, it was a real camp event in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

We’d left Damascus behind. Nizam’s uncle had invited us to a rich man’s wedding. Set around a swimming pool filmed by a multi-camera crew it was a bizarre scene. A child aged 12 was operating the crane over a dance floor where men, and I mean only men, were dancing. “Where are the women?” I asked Nizam’s uncle, “Next door, they party separate to men”. “Why?” I ask, “Isn’t it boring without women?” “No. Men enjoy their own company”. I’ve only just got used to socialising without drink and now I’m not allowed to see women either! This is the ultimate male dominant society.

I looked around the vast room. Men were holding hands hugging kissing, dancing, eating fruit, drinking coke, smoking water-pipes – they seem to be having fun. I was having fun but couldn’t help thinking a few women and a bottle of scotch would spice things up a bit. Nizam confides later that many of the men enjoy each other company in a more intimate way but it must be kept under wraps here. He also mentions that others are probably nipping round the back to drink alcohol. “Let’s join them!” I plead. Nizam adds that his dad used to keep a glass of whiskey or arak under the table at parties until his uncle caught him. He told him he would never sit with him if he ever drank in his presence again. As we are with his uncle tonight we decide that we had better behave.

I watch Nizam’s uncle dance with his son, I think of his wife and daughters doing the same next door. It’s a funny family event when the family is separated based on their sex. It’s strange that homosexuality isn’t tolerated here yet it feels like such a gay society. I watch a butch man take to the centre of the dance floor shaking his worry beads above his head and wriggling his ass as those around him cheer in excitement.

Later, a man walks on to the stage interrupting the band, he greets the guests by name and they in turn push handfuls of cash into his hands. I ask Nizam what is going on,“The money is for him, he keeps it as he is hosting the party”, Nizam says. A water-pipe boy comes running past, “Hey there’s a fight on the dance floor”, I look over and see the groom fighting someone. Nizam’s uncle quickly gets his son out of the way and I see the 12 year old crane operator making a run for it. Nizam is also in the thick of the action trying to pull the groom away, then I see a silver gun swing in the air, I follow Nizam’s gaze and see another gun pushed into the side of someone, is the groom going to kill someone on his wedding night I wonder to myself?

But I’m not hanging round to find out. I make a run for it grabbing Nizam as I go. “Surely having a few women here would prevent this aggression” I say. “No it would make it worse” Nizam jokes as we run for cover.

Not long after I find myself squatting in the toilet, sweating but selfishly relieved, someone could have died tonight but at least the excitement has cured my constipation.