whisky

Tag: whisky

Bin Laden was killed on my birthday

02 May 2011

I awoke in sleepy old Damascus with nothing much on my mind, so I went downstairs and was greeted by the receptionist who told me that the American’s had killed Osama Bin Laden. I sat at a table, opened my laptop to learn from my Facebook friends that it was also my birthday… I celebrated silently alone, just me and a boiled egg at breakfast in Damascus, thinking to myself that maybe I’ll have a birthday drink later with (now that I have finally managed to track him down) the guy I’ve come all the way to Syria see.

After breakfast I made a visit to my religious dentist but I couldn’t give her the chocolates I had brought for her because I suddenly noticed that they contained whisky. What a shame I thought, and decided to keep them for myself seeing as I’d just learnt that it was my birthday.

She was surprised to see me, I told her I would travel a long way for my dentist… Then I had to admit that my flight here was cheaper than the quote I was given in London for root canal treatment and a new front tooth – A tooth I lost a couple of months ago in Yemen. My dentist smiled and said quietly “I hope you never mentioned my name to security at the airport when you entered”, I suddenly get the disturbing feeling that my sheer presence here means trouble for locals; only those active in the protests seem willing to see me.

My dentist talks about ‘the situation’ with mixed views saying it is difficult to know what is going on, on one-hand the Syrian news tells its side of the story, and on the other there are, she believed, ‘exaggerated’ reports from BBC / CNN etc. But whilst she needles away at the abscesses in my head releasing globs of horrible poisonous puss she says she believes that only the president can sort this mess out. I ask her if it is too late for reforms, that the protests are like snowballs rolling down a hill, that the momentum is building for a complete change. “But change to what?” she asks, “Why break everything, you should make change through slow reforms… these protesters have no plan or idea of what they want after this”.

Later that night I ventured deep into a Palestinian refugee camp past fading posters of Yasser Arafat on the walls to meet the guy I’d come to Syria to see, “Are we safe meeting here?” I ask as we embrace – it’s been 5 months since I last saw him, “Yes it is safe they cannot come in here” he replies. Once in his home on the 4th floor of an anonymous building I hug and kiss his kids and hand out sweets and chocolates to everyone but hold back the special gift I had brought for my friend, I figured that as a good old-school communist he would be bound to appreciate the lovely royal wedding mug that I suddenly waved in-front of his bemused face, “And….. we can drink whisky from it” I excitedly proclaim as I pull out a couple of sneaky bottles of scotch from deep inside my bag.

During the evening I noticed his attention switching between from our conversation about the demonstrations and the unfolding situation in Syria to his computer and the several Facebook group-chats he has simultaneously open, he tells me his local group decide at 4am whether or not a protest is planned for that day and where and what time they will meet. Facebook has revolutionised the revolution, as well as reminding me that it was my birthday.

We drink whisky together from the royal mug and my friend tells me that the protests are taking a step forward soon, to daily activity rather then just on Friday’s. The clear motive now for all on the streets is the removal of the president and the Ba’athist regime, such thoughts were unimaginable last year when I was sitting here with the same man, yet now, everything seems almost inevitable “Though it may take a year” he says, “They have great force and we have nothing”. This time last year there was no organised opposition in Syria to speak of, just small factions from across the political spectrum, now there is a united opposition with one united goal.

My friend tells me a very sad, but all too familiar, story of a close friend of his just 22 years old, shot in the head and killed just a few days ago. The ‘secret police’ have even called him recently to say that they know he is helping to organise the protests and that when they find him they will kill him. But, unshaken, he continues – after the first protest in Syria on the 6th march he and his 14 year old son were imprisoned for 2 days, now he doesn’t take his kids.

Can we meet tomorrow I ask, “Depends if we are protesting, I will know at 4am” he replies. “What about work?” I ask. “Work?”, he laughs, “There isn’t any work, that is why we’re protesting, and even if there was there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do the work, our whole time is taken up with the revolution and the removal of the president”. I kiss the kids as I leave, the youngest chants the slogan heard on every protest, “We need a new government, down with Bashar Assad!” It has been a good birthday.

In the dark night I pass through the former tourist hotspot of ‘Old Damascus’ where the once full bars and hotels are now completely emptied of foreigners, I notice new touched-up portraits of the president, though I’m not sure if the new ‘photo-shopped’ revamped image can save him or his regime now.

The old billboards selling washing powder have gone, the new ones show the Syrian flag on one half and a chaotic image on the other with words written in Arabic script pronouncing that ‘It is your destiny choose between reform or ruin’.

Dying for a drink in Yemen

25 January 2011

I haven’t had chance to sit down and write about anything (London, Hull, Syria) since arriving in Yemen just over a week ago. In this dry arid land with the shadow of Al Qaeda supposedly lurking round every street corner I needed a drink, something to relax me, but there is only Khat, the hallucinogenic plant which (what seems like 60% of) the locals start chewing around 2pm.

As night falls a haze comes over the chewer and no matter what problems may exist, and currently I have many, everything seems just fine… But no, this is not enough for me, I need something stronger, something with a kick, I need a beer or two at the end of a lazy day, of any day really, and I’ve just finished the last of my duty-free.

So my friend and guide took me on a tour of some illegal beer houses to search for booze, but they were all closed and we ended up at a Chinese restaurant known for selling the odd bottle but at ridiculously inflated prices – I bought a half bottle of scotch for $25, annoyed, but pleased to have a drink, we drove back to my hotel.

I had the odd nip or two in back of the car, it was okay stuff, we stopped at the traffic lights and suddenly the doors either side of me are pulled open and two soldiers shove their way inside, Kalashnikovs digging into each side of me. Fortunately for us, my guide stayed very cool and he immediately got on to the phone and rang his brother, but, whilst talking in English, let the soldiers believe it was actually the British embassy. Meanwhile the soldier on my left has my half bottle of whisky open and is smelling it, saying, “Haraam, haraam” – Forbidden, forbidden.

But I was dying for a fucking drink and this man had my booze. Inside my head I was bravely cursing him, wildly telling him what I would do if only I got the chance… Luckily, in the real world, the call to the ‘British embassy’ had worked and both soldiers were now shitting themselves and asking that we ‘pals’ don’t mention their names, we agree.

The soldier hands back my whisky, and then his boss clambers in, first waving nicely then asking if I have any money I could give them, finally, the true reason for our meeting, I tell them I have money in the hotel if they wish to come, “No” they reply, and, as quick as they came, they disappeared into the night.

We drive away, my guide screaming with laughter, “Welcome to Yemen Mr Sean, you are very welcome, can’t you see, they couldn’t and wouldn’t dare ever touch a foreigner, and now even we are safe when we travel with you”. I had another slug and stared sweatily into the night.

The heavy price of freedom… and whisky

29 August 2010

So just what is it that makes us feel “free” I think to myself as we race through the desert – I am leaving Damascus to renew my visa in Beirut, “It is the Paris of the Middle East, famous for all kinds of things” Roula says with a naughty smile.

As soon as we cross the border Roula removes her long-sleeved top to reveal her shoulders, a small freedom not allowed in Syria (secular but still a predominantly Muslim country), and now it is also Ramadan which makes some aspects of life even more restrictive, “It’s great to be free” Roula jokes as we cross the border.

Before long I am in Lebanon bathing in its beautiful blue sea and ogling the scantily clad women as they play on the beach. Is it the unrestricted conversations or the lack of veils that make me feel more free here? I love the cafe and restaurant filled streets – it feels so modern and alive after a month in Damascus.

I miss the sea a lot when I am in hot dusty Damascus, and I wonder if a part of me also misses the familiarity of the big American chains such as Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, names that I am so used to seeing as part of the landscape of the West. In a way I hate them as much as I miss them, but love them or loathe them Beirut has them all.

In Beirut people are not always on-guard about what to say to each other about politics or the war, you can be and say as you like. But ‘freedom’ often comes with a price as Roula points out, “Watch your bag on the beach” she reminds me – In Syria I’ve got used to leaving my bag wide open, my phone and wallet there for all to see.

Suddenly I feel the need to be security conscious and it feels like a pressure I don’t want, but a pressure which we are forced into and which we get used to in the West – I cannot explain how liberating it is not to have to worry about such things when I am in Syria; quite possibly one of the safest places I have visited.

But of course is this ‘freedom’ is simply a result of dictatorship, or if there is more to it than that… and which is more important, the freedom not to be robbed or the freedom to say what you think?

As night falls we hit the glitzy Beirut streets to enjoy Western ‘freedoms’ such as cocktails in the endless noisy bars that are open until the early hours – though it is only when we get the bill that I realise all this freedom comes with such a heavy price, 12 dollars a drink, wow, I don’t even pay that for one nights’ hotel accommodation in Damascus!

Next morning I wake with a whiskey hangover in the humid heat dripping with sweat having spent more money than I care to think about.

“Quick” I say to Roula “Let’s get the hell out of this westernised Arabic democracy – freedom is too expensive! Let’s get back to that safe cheap dictatorship where we can drink and eat for a month in Damascus for what we spent last night”.

As we cross the border back into Syria Roula once again pulls on her long-sleeve shirt once more to conceal her shoulders, but at least we know we won’t be robbed or mugged while we are here, and that I can enjoy a meal at a top restaurant with a bottle of the best Lebanese wine for the price of one whisky in Beirut!