Tag: Safita

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.

Bus to Safita

The tightly packed mini-bus swerved more erratically than normal through the dusty dry Damascus streets, the driver seemed irate or ‘nervous’ as they say here, maybe it was his Ramadan thirst I thought.

I’d stopped at a Christian place for breakfast fearing a complete closure of food and drink stalls, my last Ramadan was 2 long years ago when ‘McAllister of Arabia’ set out on his mission to find a film in the hell hole that is Dubai. My arrival there was during Ramadan and the place was dry and foodless during the daylight hours, I’d expected the same here but as we pulled into the central bus garage I could see an array of food stalls with plenty of locals eating and drinking tea out in the open, business as usual in secular Syria it seems, what a relief.

I join a boy selling a wonderful berry drink that he fills with fresh shavings of ice, around him are a bunch of guys drinking, I quench my thirst before surveying the food stalls where I find kebabs pizzas and falafel. A man smiles, sipping on his tea, “From Holland?” “No, England”, I reply, “What happened to Ramadan” I ask? He starts to laugh and says “No Ramadan here!”

I was still in the garage toilets having a piss when my bus set off. I’d heard it sound its horn as the sign that it was about to leave… but one advantage of being the only westerner on the bus is that they never forget you, a man came running to the toilets to get me with such great timing that I was able to catch the bus and avoid paying the annoying toilet keeper the 10 cent fee for a pee.

Back on the dingy bus, we stop from time-to-time to pick up army recruits, the isle down the middle of the bus is slowly disappearing as fold-down seats are used to seat the new passengers.

I recall my first bus journey in Syria; a wonderful VIP bus with flat bed seats plenty of space and air conditioning. Then I would look out of the window at the ‘locals’ buses and wondered what it must be like to be packed into a creaky metal box on wheels in the soaring sun. Now I am here, the journey starts out ok but the more passengers we pick-up the more squeezed it becomes, it is like travelling for hours in a tightly packed Japanese metro train – except they’re mostly standing all the way! Come to think of it maybe this bus is not too bad after all, yes I may be squeezed-in but at least I have a seat. A fan blows warm air on me and an awful Arabic singer wails in the background.

I am on my way to visit Michael in Safita, he told me to always take a seat at the back of the bus. “Why?” I asked him, slightly puzzled. “What difference does it make?” “It is always safer in the back when it crashes” he says casually.

Pistachio heaven

The Pistachio season has arrived, fresh pink Pistachios decorate the streets and markets of Syria. Their look however is far more attractive than their taste, ‘fresh’ means raw un-roasted and unsalted. No matter however healthy you want to get (I guess you shouldn’t be even considering these little gems if you are watching your weight) a Pistachio has to be salted and roasted.

Today is not just any-other-day, it is an extra special one because I am in the Christian village of Safita – a sublime spot near the coast. I am waiting to meet up with Michael a character I’d met recently who had kept me entertained with anecdotes of Syrian life through the poems he had written – especially one called ‘I’m fed up’, and then others directed to the Queen and Diana – but today it seems this English-speaking Anglo-file is too busy to meet me. He said he may have to attend to his crop of olive trees; it was time to divide the takings on the oil between his family who own the land, and the workers who pick and crush the Olives to make the oil.

So instead I pass the day eating and sleeping. Hummus Fool for breakfast followed by a walk and a nap before waking for Falafel lunch or did I sleep then too? I can’t remember… However when I woke I decided to treat myself to some roasted Pistachios, it was either that or doing some exercise to work off my hummus belly. But with the temperature around 35c and this being a Christian village where booze is widely available there isn’t much chance of that.

So I approached the young boy selling the nuts. He didn’t speak any English and my Arabic is as good as my Japanese, so we danced around for a bit then I took hold of the smallest weight from the scales and said give me this much, the boy measured out a sizeable bag and I held out some coins and a Syrian 50 pound note (80p). At first the boy grabbed the coins then the note, the lot, then he looked up at me pitifully and handed one of the coins back, I couldn’t work out what the price was or should be and withdrew from deal immediately fearing the boy was ripping me off. He looked dejected pouring the freshly roasted nuts back into the jar.

It was only later when buying the same nuts from his father that I discovered that the true cost of the nuts was more than all the money I had offered the boy, but instead of asking for more money the boy gave me money back – pitying my situation. My superior-westerner-recently-ripped-off-on-the-coast persona had left me sad, sorry, and embarrassed because it is so rare to be ripped off in Syria.

The other day on route to the dentist in Damascus (great cheap dental treatment) my cab driver didn’t have enough change so we stopped at a shop where I got out to buy a can of diet 7up, the shop owner had no change and gave me the drink for free, so the driver and I strolled down the street looking for another shop to change the money, I can’t remember being in a place so safe and so honest and so friendly.