The Levant Rising — شروق الشرق
(Part) One: (Non)essential — غير) الاساسي)
The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. But first, I had to go in.
I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. In the Gulf summer, the only natural sounds are traffic and elevators dinging. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to be the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.
So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.
It was morning when I landed in Beirut, the town many have named the “Paris of the Middle East” — a comparison I find fitting not because of the friendly mercis or the presence of crêpes and Hermès bags, but because it is a city that survived war and hardly faded as an image of romance and posh class. In Beirut, of course, the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel is far fresher. Slate streets are the city’s bones and sandy colored buildings its Parisian skin, marked only with the scars of bullet holes and half-collapsed edifices. And twenty-million dollar condos looking out on the Mediterranean. And the army.
Covered trucks blanket the country in and outside the cities with young soldiers in fatigues riding staring out from benches in the bed. As I framed a shot of the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in the heart of Beirut, three Humvees strolled by, machine guns and bullet belts hanging off the back. I knew photography would be an extra challenge this time of century, what with abundant suspicions of foreign spying and a distinctive lack of tourists — throughout my whole time in the city, I was the only one I ever saw take a picture of anything that wasn’t the sea. I pressed the shutter and heard the click. The first rule of photography: shoot first, ask for permission later.
My first “No photo!” came hours later in the afternoon, not after I snapped workers pouring cement (which I thought might be suspect) but when I took a picture of a house in the exact opposite direction. Maybe I was on to something.
About three minutes later, the law bore down more heavily: I had found the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, the most prominent of Lebanon’s abandonned synagogues, one that was deserted in the seventies at the start of Lebanon’s civil war (after sustaining damage from Israeli shelling). It was now in the middle of a silent pedestrian street walled in with construction barriers. A security guard waved frenetically and indicated behind me, where a soldier with a rifle was also making a hand motion. It was the Middle Eastern come here but looked exactly like the American wrist flick, get out of my face. I stayed stuck in the middle, about a hundred feet from each of them, not sure where they wanted me. I took a step towards the Synagogue and Security, but no such luck. “Jaysh,” the guard called. Army.
It was explained to me that the President’s house was nearby and that I would need to delete the photos. I deleted one (of three). He asked about my business in the country and in the neighborhood. “It’s a church, right?” I said.
A little raise of the eyebrow and a smile. “It’s a Jewish synagogue.”
The Arabic words for Synagogue and Church being nearly identical, he made sure I knew what the difference was with a little extra adjective. I shrugged.
The solider seemed content to be bemused, likely packing me into the category with the best defense, “Idiots Who Don’t Know Any Better”. He asked again if I had deleted the photos and I affirmed that I had, showing him on my old camera’s small screen the beginning of the memory card and scrolling in the wrong direction. It may have helped that with an Arabic sensibility, the direction right means backwards. It’s not always great to lie to the face of a man with an automatic weapon, but he let me go. And I’ve still got this:
The security guard anxiously let me walk into the Synagogue, his eyes glued to my hands. Light blue walls and ornamentation and real Hebrew words likely painted by those that can’t read them are strangely wonderful. The dust and rubble on the floor, I think, are no longer souvenirs from the war but scraps from a new process of renovation that is almost complete — workers drilled and buffed as I followed the guard out the door. I couldn’t take one picture. “It’s not finished,” he said. “You can take pictures when it’s finished.”
This man told me that the repairs are paid for by ten families of Jews that live down the street from the Synagogue in the small Jewish Quarter of Beirut, Ouadi Abu Jmli, that was once home to thousands and thousands. The Jewish population in Lebanon is now unknown; the community fled during the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 and lasted for 15 years to a number of countries the guard listed (including Israel).
It was hard to understand his explanations in Arabic through thick layers of accent and mustache, but he was clear in his message of Beiruti tolerance. “Christians have a book too — the bible — true or no?” A very Lebanese refrain. “True,” I said.
“And Jews have — it’s the same thing. We all answer to Allah rab al-’aalimiin,” a perfect parallel with the Hebrew, Elohainu melech ha-olam.
Beirut has a reputation to uphold, and it does so in part by restricting access to information. I take pictures in large part to remember — to ban photos is to begin to alter the way memories are formed (and shared). Don’t take pictures of what’s broken, says the word on the street: it isn’t broken. Developer signs along the corniche proclaim in English and French that the world is “Beiruting” and that the city is “Reliving its Golden Age” — if the internet makes Beirut look damaged, they fear, all may be lost.
As for the photos and the eyebrows raised and whistles blown, I can’t seem to pay heed; documents of damage can just as well be powerful motivators of good as they can be disheartening. Sure, I may be finding ways into non-essential trouble, but abstention on those grounds is no way to live. If those were the rules I’d have long since hooked myself up to a feeding tube with nothing but tube socks and a DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Unfinished construction and synagogues are part of Beirut, just as much as that famous rock formation and expensive cab rides. It’s much better that way.
Two: لعينيّ فقط — For My Eyes Only
Old and new and old and ruined and new and destroyed and old and refurbished and new and under construction. Beirut’s one face is like a cubist painting, recognizable patterns (outdoor cafes, the waterfront boulevard, shelled and charred hotels) elicit memories of separate cities (Paris, Orange County, Kabul.)
Down the street from the new souks (Dolce & Gabana, Massimo Dutti, Quiksilver) that lead onto Ajami Square is one of the city’s many old churches, one that won’t attract tourists despite its age and simple beauty as much as it does a very few of the midday pious. An outlet was embedded in the stone wall, put there, I assume by Crusaders hoping to charge their Palm Sunday Pilots. (That joke was a stretch and I apologize.)
I continued walking the streets, leapfrogging in and out of eons. Roman columns grew inconspicuously in an overgrown plot as they tend to do in Lebanon, a cool two thousand years old and attracting no attention. I felt very small as I passed them, the symbol of how titanically vast the Empire stretched, how far some travelers must have traveled in a time when traveling actually meant something to more than the individual. But, I consoled myself, Romans probably never got to my town in suburban Pennsylvania (there’d probably be better Italian food if they had) — I bet that would’ve blown their minds. So I’ve still got them beat on one front.
My traveling was more me-centric than it ever had been, a stream of consciousness road trip in a rented Ibiza hatchback. I didn’t know what I was trying to see (north first), I wasn’t sure exactly how long I would stay, and my two phones combined to tell nothing but the time — and even that twelve minutes apart. With my companion stuck in Syria, I alone was slipped of my moorings, with no one to report to and no loyalties to any of Lebanon’s personalities.
A waiter commented at a Beirut cafe, affirming the beauty of the north. Then:
“You are alone?”
“But if you go alone… you’re not happy.”
That seemed to take all the pressure off. In new surroundings when thousands of years must be packed into three days, or four, overworked braincells demand the traveler does the country right. The Lebanese I asked for directions seemed ready and eager to lower my expectations, declaring my happiness on the road to be as unattainable as peace with Israel or life without hair gel or a visit to the Shia east. At a restaurant, these were certainly the kind of friends who would tell you how disgusting your food was mid-first bite, but these expressions of no confidence inspired exactly the opposite.
I sped up the coastal highway to Jeita, famous for its capacious grottos and itself one of twenty-eight finalists for the “New Seven Wonders of the World”. I drove up through the ruins of Byblos (Jbeil in Lebanese) where school tour groups traveled to the unfaltering beat of their own doumbek and a castle occupied by Ottomans and Greeks and the Crusaders and the French looks out onto Roman ruins and the bluest cove of the Mediterranean. I spun around in circles at a roundabout in Tripoli (Tarabulus, safer than its Libyan sister but for the traffic) and escaped without seeing anything but the backs of other cars. And then the road turned east and upwards and didn’t come down until the end of the road six-thousand feet higher, where snow and ice blocked any further passage.
It is impossible to drive through history and mingled customs and absorb much of anything. But minutes from the Tripoli coast, in the cold air high above the valley, engagement with the topical is boiled down to immersion in the topographical. This was the land of Lebanon, and I needed nothing but my own eyes.
Three: Monky Business
A young man on a Vespa drove towards me with the slumped and bloody carcass of a dolphin slung over the floorboard, its nose and tail nearly dragging on the rough pavement. It was probably just a big fish, but the children playing outside the few shops on the seaside street stopped to tag along excitedly behind the motorbike. I followed in my rearview mirror as the group turned off the street to make their next move.
* * *
This was the rural road that ran parallel to the North-South highway; not far behind were the ruins of Byblos, in the near distance was the broad, flat profile of urban Tripoli. Many Lebanese would give the impression with their tone that it was all still a ways away: “Yes, far: twenty kilometers maybe.” In a small country where lifestyles and landscapes change at every few mile-markers, far is never so far. Russians and Australians, I imagine, would give very different answers to those sorts of questions — “It’s easy, just six timezones west. After the bridge.”
But minutes after leaving Tripoli, I was driving through the dark clouds above the Wadi Qadisha seeking shelter in the only places I knew to look. Aramaic for “Holy Valley,” the area and its many caves have for millennia been a site of Christian hermitage; painted signs for deir dot the side of the road, sometimes appearing not to point to anything in particular. These are the modern markers of ancient monasteries, still inhabited and many still offering friendly lodging to retreaters. But to find even the largest complex, you may need to believe (in the side-roads); the signs on the main route are about all you can get for advertisement. As loud as Tripoli is with blasting car horns and old engines grumbling, the crest of the valley is silent.
I pulled off the windy highway at a sign for the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya, tucked away in the hillside one-thousand, two-hundred and twenty-three feet below (my watch told me). Legend has it the Monastery has been around for seventeen hundred years, since its founding by Saint Hilarion. Others suggest this may be (as someone named Hilarion would have loved) a joke, and documentation dates only to the turn of the second millenium. Restored in the sixteenth century, the monastery is named for its most prestigious visitor, Saint Anthony the Great, father of monasticism and patron saint of hermits, monks, butchers, pigs, basket weaving and defense against pestilence (among other qualifications). But I didn’t know that.
I parked outside an church just a minute from the road and knocked dubiously on the door to find it dark and empty. Even though I had warned myself not to assume anything about their look, “monastery” doesn’t just mean “church” and I began to think the brown road signs were more for sightseers than for western wayfarers in Spanish hatchbacks. Except that there was one more sign, rusty, in Arabic (like mine) that pointed to a deir further down the driveway — it wasn’t a driveway. I followed, and immediately the trees parted to reveal the entire valley, huge and wide, with a thin road winding way down toward the floor. One man sauntered down the road and pointed me in the only direction, correcting my pronunciation (it’s “dare” not “deer”).
On the way down I was hailed by a group of hikers that didn’t look like they had been without food or shelter for months. Promising. Two women in the group had walked their fill and were grateful to have a ride back down and to guess where I was from — for the first few hours, we spoke together in French. And that’s when I saw it: the storybook picture of a monastery, immaculately carved into the rocky cliff face. “Let’s go see if they have rooms,” said Layla.
Their group was an international one, some Germans and French, and mostly Syrian and Lebanese. Out here in the forest, no one was local. I was the youngest by many years, but their hospitality had no lower limit: though they were travelers themselves, they exuded goodwill and forced me into a state of total comfort, having found everything. Layla, the stout and cheerful owner of a health club in Damascus, gave me a tour of the immense building — five stories of single rooms and dormitories.
At dinner, though, on this Christian holy ground in a country where major religious sects all claim they are the majority, I hid my Judaism. The conversation had turned to Middle Eastern politics, albeit civilly (a feat), and I thought I’d err towards preserving the tranquility that had existed in the valley for thousands of years (except for the Crusades and a few massacres). Still, I did my best as an American sounding board for Layla’s questions: Why was it necessary to oust Saddam? Why does Israel bomb thousands of innocents? Why do they make you take your shoes off in airports?!
I slept in one of a dozen empty beds in a comfy dorm with one window to let in the freezing night air. In the morning when the sun lit the entire valley all at once, I snuck into the glowing red cave of Qozhaya where candles burn by a shrine and a table displays a pair of heavy metal shackles — in addition to providing quiet for monks in solitude, the valley was also an asylum for the insane, where people thought the silence (and padlocked bracelets) would do good for the soul. Saint Anthony, says the monastery’s website, “also has a history of curing those having mental problems.”
Who knows. I sure felt great after breakfast.
Four: The Spice of Strife — نكهة النزاع
They told me not to go to Baalbek, so I obviously wanted to go. I hadn’t heard of the town before, except for seeing it on a part of the map I hadn’t addressed, and it was off-putting how they spoke of this city in the east (the eighth largest in Lebanon) as a place of endless danger and lawlessness. But I was comforted by one thing, a glimmer of the logic that projected such fear: the word “Shia”. Poorly hidden at the heart of their reasoning was this sectarian prejudice — if I didn’t share it, I had no reason to be afraid at all.
The one road east from Tripoli reached the patch of thousand year-old cedars in the aptly named town of Ariz, “Cedars.” The national tree has survived only here and on Lebanon’s flag, but for an entrance fee of whatever-you’d-like-to-pay you can stand under them forever. The gatekeeper gently refused to offer suggestions for donations, so I slid him three green thousand-lira bills ($2). He handed me two official looking tickets and grinned, “That’s enough for two.” It’s an amazing kind of green.
And that’s where the road stops. Snow and ice block the way eight to ten months out of the year, and I’d have had to wait until July if I didn’t want to backtrack. So with a half-full tank of gas and an empty schedule, I turned back toward Tripoli, toward Beirut, heading counterclockwise from Lebanon’s Twelve to Two.
In Beirut again they balked at the mention of Baalbek. “They’ll put your car on blocks,” a young soldier in the air force offered instead of directions, joking with the manager at a gas station. “They’ll leave him with nothing but the steering wheel!” For me though, Baalbek’s Most Wanted would be the ATM that swallowed my debit card.
In short, what I heard from many Lebanese was: Don’t go to Baalbek. You’ll get robbed at gunpoint by Shias. They should have said, “There are Roman ruins. They are cool.” But wrapped up in these biases was a well-folded parental instinct directed toward a rather strange traveler with no real reason to go anywhere more than anywhere else. Like Layla and her motherly friends at the monastery, the air force mechanic and the pump attendant just wanted to offer what they felt they knew to someone they gathered knew almost nothing at all. And on the road I wore their concern like a sweater, taking it off when it grew too itchy.
I pushed the soldier once more for directions (and promised I’d only go as far as Zahle). “Right. And then straight all the way.”
And so I drove straight, yelling names of upcoming towns out the window for the endorsements of lolling shopkeepers. I sped past signs for things that might have been interesting listening to my favorite station (whichever fleeting frequency could be heard best through the static) ignoring the police siren horns of regular cars — somehow I never believed the red vegetable truck was part of The Force. Soon, billboards on the road sprang up with the faces of Shia clerics and I drove until I knew I was in Baalbek, and I turned off the radio and smelled horses.
Baalbek is ancient ruins and nice people and the self-appraised “Largest Rock in the World,” which is, in fact, a fantastically huge 800-ton slab of something-stone — known as “Hajr al-Hubla,” the Pregnant Stone — that found its way to a lot in Lebanon by some means still unfathomable to the modern engineer. Two little French children scampered up the incline chased by their mother. On the other side of town, a newlywed couple posed for pictures on the staircase in the center of Baalbek’s famous complex of Roman temples.
I bought a six-dollar keffiyeh from a grizzled trader delighted to make the sale. He lit a cigarette and brought me into his shop for coffee. “I drink 40 cups a day,” he said. “And five packs of these.” He tapped the pack. “It’s good for the stomach.”
A woman turned away from the dubbed Turkish drama on the television to wrap the scarf around my head. The man downed his coffee. Distracted by the cool composure of the place, I forgot to ask them what they thought of the many allegations about their town, or if they had the same stereotypes about the rest of the country. “Typical,” he might have laughed. “I bet they said all that in French.” Or: “No, we stopped stealing cars when we took up kidnapping. By the way, what’s your shackle size?” But more probably, just like everyone about their hometown (including fellow foreigners here in Abu Dhabi from Peshawar, or Khandahar, or from the heart of Waziristan): “It’s the safest place in the world.”
Later in the south of the country, comparably Shia and equally supportive of Hizbullah, I aired the notions to the man running a sandwich shop as I placed an order. He lit up. “Marwan, did you hear what people in Beirut say about Baalbek?” he shouted out the door. “‘Oooh, it’s Shia — it’s dangerous!’”
He turned back to me and the grilling sandwiches. “You want spicy?”
Five: الطيار من طاير
It is hard to make plans when there’s nothing you really want to do. When I drove into the gas station in Furn al-Shebbak before heading off to Baalbek, I was sick of the traffic and of looking at maps, and I was leaning further and further towards driving to a beach in the south, sticking my head in the sand, and hiring the first shared taxi out of the country in the morning. But more happened at that gas station than I let on about in my last post —it wasn’t so important then — and in the hour and a half I spent parked not buying any petrol, I filled up on ideas and got back into the traveling spirit.
The air force cadet, around my age and dressed in camouflage, did tell me not to go to east towards Baalbek, but he told me not to go south towards Sur (also called Tyre) either. Go tomorrow morning, he told me, and I’ll go with you: fish for lunch, jet skis, the beach. The cadet, his name was Marwan, was from there. “And nargila?” he asked. “Of course.” Huge smiles. This dude was speaking my language.
But if I didn’t go to Baalbek, I really had fuckall to do. I tried to explain that, but I couldn’t quite get it across in Arabic. “Do you know people in Lebanon?” Marwan and the pump manager asked. No. “What are you trying to see?” Nothing. Anything, something different. “Where are you staying?” Nowhere.
Their faces grew more and more incredulous with my every hopeless shrug. I truly had no good reasons to do anything at all — no sights to see, no people to meet, and an unfaltering confidence that my rental insurance would cover robberies.
“Meet me outside Melek al-Tawwous at 8:30,” Marwan repeated, unknowingly accepting as his all of my stresses about filling time. I had few wants but I wanted to, I felt I needed to want — but with the air force in charge, I could take the passenger seat and throw my baggage in the back.
And so I asked for directions to Zahle and went to Baalbek, and I came back and crashed in the one pension I knew, and I picked up Marwan outside the breakfast place just as he said. “Let me drive.”
The day started so right. We shortcut through side streets and raced onto the highway, stopping to pick up two pirated CDs of Lebanese Pop from a shack on the road; by the end of the day we’d listen to the good one about 40 times — and the bad one 65. We learned little about each other: he fixed planes for the air force, I wandered around countries. “You have a good heart,” Marwan would say to me. I tried to live up to his assessments, based on my willingness to travel alone or with a very new friend, by trusting in his plans for fun à la libanaise.
We had unbelievable foul (he paid) and pepsi in his town, Ghaziyeh (he wasn’t from Sur), and he ran in to his house (which he never let me see) to change out of his army uniform. “When I come back I will be a real person.” He came back in a sleeveless muscle shirt with his hair gelled. We were going to the beach. “Do you have any cologne?” Tolerance, I told myself.
We stopped for shisha and tea by the water in Saaida and he paid again — it was cheap, but it sent a message nonetheless. I was a guest. “Money comes and goes,” he said. “Friends are the most important.”
Before driving down to Sur, we picked up his girlfriend that was not his girlfriend outside Lebanese International University. (“She loves me but I do not love her.”) In the baffling traffic on the small streets around the university, we circled for ages before finding her, Marwan getting quieter and quieter, me brainstorming an idea for a screenplay based entirely around Lebanese traffic patterns. I began to feel claustrophobic. A girl in a tight white headscarf got into the car. She would never talk to me.
Finally we were there, in the town with three sides to the sea. Broad beaches swept along the Mediterranean — warm sand, cold water, and nearly deserted in the summer preseason. Still Marwan circled. We drove and he spoke quietly to his habiba as we went up and down the same hill, around the same roundabout, past the same ocean. I didn’t understand what she was doing — whether she wanted something that couldn’t be found, whether she had requirements that would contaminate the freeness of my last day in her country. “What are you looking for?” I asked Marwan when my trust faltered. No answer.
For forty minutes we drove the many lengths of Sur’s peninsula, my head burning, my fists clenching and unclenching, grasping at time lost forever. He knew I was furious, and I knew he knew, and she — I still didn’t know what the hell she wanted. I was trapped by their presence: where could I tell anyone to go?
Marwan had accepted his role as entertainer, and he fell silent when he had no plan and no answers. Even though I couldn’t have been happier with the sun and sea as we found it, hair gelled, he wouldn’t believe me. There was no nargila, no umbrellas by the water, no crowds. “This is awesome.” I would say. But it didn’t get through. I was torn by two needs: the first to preserve the new friendship — I still believed believed in my marrow that this innocent mechanic was a good dude as honest as people are made, but lacking some appreciation for simplicity; the second to open the pressure valve in my brain and scream at him, to scream until the car stopped moving, to roar until he understood I needed nothing but nothing and wanted only to relax, relax, RELAX!
We stopped by the first beach, years older in spirit, and only I moved. I unbuckled my seatbelt and lifted my book — “Perfect.”
“We’ll wait in the car,” Marwan said.
He was so convinced that I would be disappointed with this actionless beach (in part, surely, because he was) that he could not grasp how much it was all I needed, how I was hardly kidding when I said Americans spent years looking for beaches with no one on them, how I didn’t need hair gel or cologne or a beach chair or the jet ski I thought he owned or little mint lemonades with the umbrellas in them to feel like we’d accomplished our mission for the day. He certainly was unaware that to sit waiting, baking in a hot car, while I somehow enjoyed myself — as he had promised I would — violently undermined what little tranquility we had found.
“We have some things to talk about,” he said, trying to tell me it was okay. But I wasn’t going to have them sit like chauffeurs while I baked on the sand — I knew they didn’t understand that a person could sit on an empty beach for hours. Now that they were with me, I needed their happiness to find my own, and it was not (I tried to chide myself) because I cared directly; I knew that the awareness of their stress and impatience would claw at me until they were sated. “Really, we’re fine,” Marwan said.
“No.” You’re going to enjoy this fucking beach.
I raced ahead of them to a spot on the sand where I opened my book and promptly fell asleep. They stood holding each other far, far away, in a blur of headscarf and hear gel. And when I woke up some number of minutes or hours later, they were gone.
Sunstruck, I tromped back to the street. The car, with my everything in it, was gone. I had jumped from the car so quickly that I had left everything but my book and sunglasses — my phone and passport and shoes and contacts were all lost inside, the keys I’d left with Marwan. He was my friend that I was furious at for our mutual lack of cultural understanding and our total inability to deal with it, but he was not a thief. I needed to trust him to be this angry, and even barefoot on the road I was convinced he felt the same. I had time to play out in my mind every possible scenario and my options (nothing) before I saw the car parked, slightly farther away than I had remembered it, with Marwan and the girl sitting in the front seat. He waved through the windshield.
We said almost nothing and began to drive north, back the way we came, for no reasons of mine. The not-girlfriend needed to get back by the afternoon, as Marwan had never told me, and in the car I’d rented and with the time I’d borrowed, I was stuck once again. Marwan hated to tell me things he knew I wouldn’t want to hear, and would never answer when I asked if she had anything she needed to do. And with the way she had chosen to coldly coexist with me, I balked at the thought of asking her directly.
As soon as she had left the car, I felt one weight had been lifted. “You’ve gotta just tell me,” I scolded him. “I don’t care what it is we do, just tell me why we’re doing it.” It was true. I had given up on following Marwan on the perfect beach adventure; today was about survival. He spent parts of the next several hours saying he didn’t want me to be angry and asking me if I was happy, asking me where I wanted to go. “I’ve never been here ever.” (And in my head: I thought you were from here. He was such a good person, I knew it. But he was driving me crazy.
We doublebacked south again and stopped at a beach covered with trash. Plastic bottles and cartons stuck out of the sand, and receding waves uncovered buried car tires by the waterfront. But it was beautiful, and we ran into the water together to repair Lebanese-American relations and to rekindle our bromance. I opened a book. “What do you want to do?” he said.
Just sitting wasn’t going to be possible. We played Palettes, a game no different than Israel’s beloved Matkot, but still I felt his guilt and compounded it with my own for making him feel it. But I had to be direct — his nurtured assumptions of what would be fun, and what couldn’t be, were not mine. If I wanted to like where our time was going, I could not let him fill it anymore.
“Let’s go to the border.”
“Let’s go to the end of Lebanon.”
That would be cool, I thought — the contested border with Israel — and it wouldn’t require a peaceful state of mind. He was afraid and confused — it’s just a border. He was also convinced that it was at least four hours away, when in fact it was no more than 20 km from our first frustrating stopping point, half an hour south. But I felt alive, looking for physical symbols of geopolitics instead of grasping with clenched fists at peace. “I’ll drive.”
We passed white United Nations tanks. A gunman leaned out of the manhole, yawning. A soldier waved us through a checkpoint. Before Naqoura, the asphalt stopped and became white rocks as big as grapefruits, packed into a smooth, wavy surface. A convoy of dozens of threatening covered trucks pushed past, and I fought our way through openings. But before we got much closer, another checkpoint, this one more serious. A guard ordered me out of the car and asked for our papers. Only Lebanese were allowed further, all foreigners needed a permit from the authorities in Saaida. If it weren’t for Marwan and his army ID, I would have found myself in serious trouble: a lone male, foreign with the Jewishest of last names, headed for war-torn territory. Still, I pressed: “So with just that permit, you can keep driving?” The burly commanding officer handed me back my passport. “With a permit you can drive to China.”
Marwan slid into the driver’s seat, relieved to be heading in the other direction. And as soon as I came to terms with our botched attempt, we started to find fun again. We drove up to a church on a mountaintop overlooking the whole of the south and ran up the hundreds of steps of a nearby tower. But when I climbed up the final ladder to the roof, I saw again his reluctance: “They’ll see us!” And when I moved towards the entrance of church he said he thought we shouldn’t, that it wasn’t open. It was quite open.
Just as confusingly, this same soldier bought beers and chips from a shop on the hill to have in the car. He popped off the caps with his seatbelt and took swigs as he cruised down to the town below, shouting out at his friends that apparently lived all over the place. I took pictures out the window at the sunset through wires and old buildings.
And then he wanted to find a hotel. I was run down by all of the day’s arguments, and agreed, though it was only minutes after dark. We turned down a $120 per night boutique hotel in the center of town — I was traveling on the cheap, and this was the Middle East, and I wanted to leave at dawn anyway to catch a bus to Syria. So we kept moving, towards a place another friend on the street had mentioned, away from the city, away from the lights, away from anything.
When we found it we had left everything behind. The Mina Beach Hotel was rundown, collosal, and pink. Every window was dark, and the facade scowled at would-be guests like every creepy motel in your nightmares. Marwan ran in and back out: it was eighty dollars. No way.
Dirty is no problem, and scary can be fun, but both for five times what I could pay for a bed in the city I wanted nothing more than to get back to and get out of — that was too much. I saw Marwan had picked up my 100,000 lira ($70) in the console, and stopped him before he went back into the hotel. “Don’t pay him.”
He came out of the dingy entrance a second time: “Come on, get your stuff.” My insides collapsed on each other. I was too confused and dispirited to yell yet. He had taken money from me and spent it, which was bad, but worst of all he had chosen to spend it on a soulless hellhole that, I found out later, was home to the world’s most viciously thirsty mosquitoes. He lived mere kilometers away. We had long since grown painfully tired of each other’s company — why do you want to do this?
I took nothing to the room — I couldn’t accept it — and when we jiggled the door undone, it made even less sense. The beds were bare but for one thin sheet; a strange and unnecessary “kitchen” flaunted its one metal countertop and a fridge fringed by mildew and rust; the ceiling dripped gently onto the floor.
It was as if my blood had been drained from my heart. Had my body not made enough strength to yell, demanding answers for my confusion, I might have died in surrender. I said everything I’ve written here (plus questions about why he had pocketed 20 of 30 dollars I’d given to pay for gas), louder and even less well-worded, seeking a panacea for the day’s ills in the form of some enlightening explanation. I let forth a deluge of English when my Arabic burst under the pressure, firing sentences I knew he couldn’t understand fully. “I know.” Marwan said to everything — to why he spent all the money I had left, to why he was content to sleep in the Lebanese Bates Motel. He was sitting slumped on the blanketless bed. “I thought you needed the rest.”
I drifted outside to the balcony, staring at nothing, lending my flesh to the night’s first mosquitos. The sea was too dark to make out now, still too dark when I left in the morning, so I looked down at the enormous empty pit of a pool below (Marwan said they filled and emptied it every day.) But if I could stop asking why, I’d only be down $70.
I turned back inside. “I’m sorry, man.” For a moment, I was at peace. “You know, if any Lebanese yelled like that… I’d kick you.” He paused. “But you’re my friend, and I hate to see my friends unhappy.”
I was the asshole. For whatever reason, he had used my money because he thought deep down that was what I wanted. He told me nothing about his lady friend because he wanted to create the perfect environment. He drove in circles until he found answers that worked for everyone. This was a man pure of heart and magnanimous in his intentions — I just didn’t understand. He didn’t understand how to relax doing nothing on a beach, and I couldn’t convince myself that time spent getting to know someone good and different is more dear than anything else.
I couldn’t convince myself because if I knew I didn’t understand so much about why he made the choices he did, then I didn’t really know anything. Maybe I was just the subject of his strange manipulations — a guy with a car, an American to hang out with (how exotic!), an open wallet. Maybe I wasn’t the asshole after all. Then again, maybe I was.
But for a moment, we both seemed at ease with each other’s foreign existence. I wandered into the open room next door to take a shower, bags of chips and tobacco strewn on the floor and countertops by those who had escaped in the morning. When I came back, Marwan was dressed and gelled.
“We need to go,” he said. “Right now.”
The police chief had called him personally. Some police had seen him in the car with me, and they wanted to see me in the station for taking pictures (of the sunset) in town.
I felt like I was being arrested. If it were just me, I’d never be subject to the whims of police officers miles and miles away, or to the obedience of a once-friendly soldier. Marwan told me to take all of my things.
He stared straight ahead at the road; I hid memory cards in pockets. “I’m not going to erase everything just because some police called you,” I told him, realizing that I had no need to even follow him into the station. When we got closer, I learned that was never his intention either. “Go to Beirut, go to Syria,” he said, pulling up short of what might have been a police station. And with that, he hopped out of the car forever.
I sat in the passenger seat for a few minutes, blocking one lane onto a bridge if there was anyone else out driving. And then I slid over to the steering wheel and headed back slowly to face my fears at the Mina Beach Hotel, because it was there, and to unwittingly donate most of my blood to the hotel’s insect population. I tried everything to stop them, mummifying every inch of my head and body in a keffiyeh and the one fleece blanket I swore I wouldn’t touch. By 4 a.m. the mosquitos had me beaten and broken in the room haunted by Marwan’s disappointment, and I left for Beirut to sleep in the car by the bus station.
I still don’t believe the police even called. Marwan had found himself trapped with nothing left to give, and with a clever but decidedly diplomatic move he took his leave. He had seen our star-crossed friendship through to its only end: we both held to the belief that the other was fundamentally decent, even goodhearted, but admitted that we simply were never going to understand one another. He saw this, I think, and said goodbye to me for good.
It was the first thing he did I ever understood.
Slideshow from Lebanon here.
Six: Pop a Cap
The closest I came to gunfire was just after we crossed the border into Syria. They told me it was dangerous, but I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus, Ash-Sham.
Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we would first reach Haloua, the town whose name means “sweet”. I had passed through each country’s checkpoint without an issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but my visa and tempered American smiles.
I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They had gained interest in me with the altitude, but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all ethnically Lebanese. We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point. Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side. Pressure.
I didn’t even have that much left — I had accounted for my final spendings in Lebanese currency before the taxi left Beirut, and I wouldn’t give him more than five thousand lira, I said, groping for a liter-and-a-half bottle of water down on the floor. My mouth was dry. Someone grumbled. Outside there was no one, nothing but empty green and brown hillside one thousand meters above the Mediterranean. And then: a low thunk — something shot fast through the air — and I tensed as it struck me square in the forehead. A moment of shock… broken by the fat friend’s laughter. I was laughing with him: the blue plastic bottle cap rolled on the seat.
There was no pressure here (as there certainly was below in Beirut) — that was all. Welcome to Syria, said the hills and their faces; we were nearly in Damascus. And the driver kept driving, smiling, on the threshold of the town whose name means “sweet”.
Seven: Sin, Agog.
“You’re not afraid?” Everyone would ask. The cab driver lifted my bags into the car.
“Should I be?”
* * *
In Syria, during the week of May 8th, 2011, there were murders. There were protests against the police state and those who suckled upon it, and there were bullets sent to keep criticism at bay. And there was Damascus and Aleppo, whose ancient city centers and modern downtowns were as quiet as they’d ever been, empty of their tourists, but carrying on with life at its most usual.
Damascus is gorgeous. Wide roads lead into the city, where posh residential neighborhoods fill with restaurants and cafes and fresh-squeezed fruit smoothies for only one dollar. But the first sight is of Jabal Qasioun, one thousand meters high and many miles wide, looming as the city’s inescapable backdrop; most striking is the way towns climb up the sides, stopping abruptly when the face becomes too steep. It is said this is where Cain killed Abel.
In town, the streets are tight and welcoming — people pass with little glances and questions in their faces.
Danny had been living in Damascus for nine months, and we walked towards the old city with five smoothies between us. I entered the Umayyad Mosque by the door meant for locals and believers; in its 1300 years it had been first synagogue and church, and I copied the exact movements of the veiled women who took off their shoes and stepped over the threshold. Inside, the mosque stretches a city block underneath wooden arches; the four arcaded walls around the immense white marble courtyard are themselves in and of the city — visible through the archways past the qibla wall are the dim stone alleys of souks around the mosque, colorful neon advertising things.
It was much, much quieter than it had ever been, everyone said. All of the foreigners had left, many evacuated without wanting to leave, and tourists had stopped coming. But Damascus couldn’t have seemed farther away from everything. A few older guys threw dice onto a backgammon board; shop owners didn’t shout out to the cobblestones; tables of Syrians hung out by the mosque at an outdoor cafe pulling on nargile. “You’re not scared?” A woman asked smiling, sitting with her husband and her two sons.
They say Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and there is indeed proof it makes the very shortlist (competitors are all nearby: Byblos in Lebanon, Aleppo to the north, Jericho in the West Bank). For perhaps as many as ten millennia, through the Aramaean and Assyrian and Babylonian and Roman rules, Damascus has hosted tourists. Part of me felt very strange to now be nearly alone in this tradition, warned before I left of the dangers around every corner, of the chaos spilling onto the streets. The American Embassy had given the impression that protests could explode out of nothing, on any street, at any time. The police would appear and shoot you and everyone, a Travel Warning implied by email. Right on the spot.
* * *
The taxi dropped me by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, at the bottom of the street by the fried chicken shop. I waited for Danny with the affable taxi driver who had charged me seven times the going fare. Good thing it was all so cheap. “Alhamdulillah,” the driver said, wiping his face with a soiled sleeve, Praise to God, answering the questions I didn’t have to ask about the state of things. “Mafi shi,” there is nothing.
He believed it, and he may have been right to. But it was certainly wrong: there was something. Just not there. Not today.
Eight: Wine and Spirits — النبيذ والارواح
We sat in the shared taxi station and waited for the service (sir-VEES) to fill up. There were five of us: we needed fourteen. I offered the driver to buy a few extra seats (they were about 80 cents each), but he didn’t budge — these guys were perfectly happy to sit forever.
So we took the only other service in the lot, this one up into the hills of Saidnaya, where miles of Syria’s calm countryside stretch out below, everywhere quiet at lunchtime on a weekday. The famous sixth century Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya towers from atop a zigzagging staircase like a conqueror’s fortress. Its chapel has narrow walls lined with paintings labeled in Greek and something newer that open into a small dark shrine filled with more paintings and golden icons and hanging jewelry. It’s called the Shaghoura, “the Famous,” and at the front of the tiny room is an elaborate silver-doored box said to contain an icon painted by St. Luke. Through the shrine is a very regular kitchen, where a nun was pulling a pitcher of juice from the fridge.
Inside the shrine, a man stood solemnly at the back and a woman knelt with her head pressed against the gleaming box, transfixed. Syrian Christians and Muslims alike pray at this altar for miracles of fertility, granted, one hopes, by the Virgin Mary. The man examined me as I ducked under the doorsill — it was like I had walked in on their ultrasound.
(The road through town was empty, and I stuck my head in an electronics shop to ask if there were buses or taxis. Lucky for us, the one customer’s friend drove a taxi —i.e. had a car.)
Further to Maaloula, children still learn Aramaic as their first language. Maaloula also has a convent carved from nature — a tree grows inside a cave, where doors shaped in stone walls covering rock walls lead to separate shrines. The entire town is like this in the shadow of high cliffs: the convent deep and tucked up high, the outskirts spilling out toward the plains.
This biblically old town is also famous for its wine. For four dollars at the convenience store at the foot of the convent, you can take your pick from the local juice, bottled in whatever it was they had on hand. The ground is so holy the wine comes out sacramental — sweet and brand new, with enough sediment at the bottom to know whose house it came from. And brown bag or no, open container laws are far less strict than they would be even in San Francisco.
We took the bottle and sat outside the Blue Cafe in the very center of town. Empty. The owner described everything on her menu (she would have to run to the restaurant next door to borrow ingredients) looking relieved, but a little weary. “It’s been one month since there were tourists at the Blue Cafe,” she said.
So we kept ordering — every time she offered something else, we wanted to make her happy. Antonia had moved back from Miami to open the restaurant less than half a year earlier, just to watch the tourist industry collapse. “One month ago, you couldn’t find parking.” Except for one van and a car or two, the whole town square was empty. It was so kind and good, and she taught us words in Aramaic that I couldn’t remember. The sandwiches were awesome, and the lentil soup — it just felt good.
I suggested that maybe things would get better now — it seemed calm and there was no reason to be afraid here in Maaloula. “Yes,” she said. “Now that they know it was terrorists killing people — spies from Lebanon and from Jordan and from Israel and from Egypt.”
“Um,” I nodded. Part of me thought it was at least heartening to know Israel had moved up to the status of “other scheming Arab country” in the eyes of some Syrians. One step toward equality in Mideast relations. But she believed beyond doubt, as the news had begun to announce, that the deaths of protesters (killed by army soldiers) and of army soldiers (killed by other army soldiers) were casualties of terrorist attacks. This Christian pocket in the cargo shorts of the Syrian population was nervous about any advances made by the Sunni Muslim majority, and put their collective faith in the Alawite government, fellow minorities, defenders of the status quo. Antonia had swallowed every morsel the news fed to her — it just felt good — and there was no reason to question what she never had.
We pour the last drops of wine from the lees of the vodka bottle. And then we had to leave, the first and last tourists in Maaloula for a long while. We couldn’t stay there forever.
Nine: Upgrade — الترقية
The windows of the train cars were fractured with ripples of broken glass, but the ten-of-seven a.m. was still busy with travelers heading north out of Damascus. The man next to me took turns thumbing through prayer beads on a wooden misbaha and napping; the older woman across the aisle looked out the window for all six hours. Skies were gray, ominous, and I heard a Syrian Eeyore pulling on a shisha pipe and kvetching in my head: “Looks like violence.” The next afternoon there would surely be clashes, as there had been in Syria for the past two months of bloody Fridays. That’s why we left for Aleppo on a Thursday, the last ticket out of town.
As the train neared the station at Homs (or Hims), the city stared back with the empty eyes of black and deserted windows, overgrown gray-green grass, and neglect — a military operation known as “the Seige of Homs” began one week earlier on May 6th. The tracks passed through a tunnel in a tiny hill, on top of which sat a big Syrian tank camouflaged in brown and green. Another was slouched on a patch of grass under a bridge, and the entire crew was sprawled out on the turf, leaning against the treads, sitting watching the train go by.
A small cluster of men milled about on the street opposite the platform. In the distance, I saw a soldier patrolling near them with a long rifle slung from his shoulder, gesturing to passersby. Two men boarded our car. No one got off.
And that’s where the train turned around, pulling backwards out of the station towards everything we had come from. I had heard that two days earlier a train had been sent all the way back to Damascus from Homs (three hours), but no one else looked surprised. The conductor issued a message over the loudspeaker that sounded like he kept his microphone inside a paper bag underwater. Still, the other riders gave away nothing in their faces. Maybe they did this every day: hopped on the train and hoped it would make it to Aleppo. Maybe the train itself was the destination, an upgrade to the daily grind — four American dollars for a first-class ticket to wherever-you-got-on.
But still their quiet was a comfort, and I waited for the train to switch tracks, or to make a wide looping double-back. Between my watch and my phone, I had two compasses and could have charted our course more exactly, but I knew what to feel for. Or I thought I did — hours later when nothing still looked familiar and the train had never changed course, we cruised into the outskirts of Aleppo. I was very, very confused and it was raining. But we were there.
We needed somewhere to sleep, and as the only non-Syrians with suitcases in the entire city, we were looking for a deal. Sadly, fifty-dollar per night boutique joints are less likely to bargain than seven-dollar per night inns with rooms on the roof (down to four dollars), but those four dollars will still go less far towards sleepable furniture in Syria than they would in say, Sri Lanka, or an airport Starbucks.
For ten dollars, there was the Jawahir Hotel, cozy and fine — tea and internet and black humor about the demonstrations — but no desire to play the game. There were better deals out there: for our negotiations at the new, utterly empty four-star hotel in the heart of the old city, we earned an offer so sweet we felt guilty to accept. Though Aleppo itself had been and has continued to be quiet throughout the uprising in Syria, media had pressed tourism from almost everywhere. We approached the desk and the receptionist flicked her eyes at the door, with a nearly inaudible “Mahmoud! fired at the bellhop. Mahmoud struggled to compromise jogging and elegance to be as fast as possible where we were and not where he was.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, we spoke with two receptionists, the General Manager (both on the phone and in person), and took three separate tours around the hotel. But it didn’t beat the simple ten-dollar comfort of the Jawahir until they agreed to give their third best room for the price of the very cheapest (it would have broken their heart to part with the whirlpool bathtub of the Ambassador Suite). And the cost of one night, we suggested, should be enough for two. The receptionist whispered to her colleague, flush and totally incredulous. She was on our side, always smiling and friendly but bounded by the limits of her authority. Still, she would never say “impossible.”
If history ever itemizes the successes of the Syrian protestors who seek an end to corruption and tyranny, it may include their indirect effect on discounts of nearly eighty percent on at least one hotel that was really quite lovely. We promised the manager we would not divulge the details of our negotiations, of which establishment had bent its rules in these unusual times, but that we would advertise the hotel by other means. I’ll say only that the Carlton Citadel Hotel in Aleppo is housed in what was once the National Hospital, a stone mansion built by the Ottomans centuries ago. And the room service is unbelievable.
And once again, we had burrowed deep into the incongruous insulation of the untouched city, only miles from the roaring crowds that would be heard worldwide on the next day’s news. The old city swept out around the Citadel, which perches on a hill that long ago held all of Aleppo inside its stone walls; now, the thick souqs below market comfort: the famous olive and bay leaf soap, hamaam where skin is scrubbed soft, cafes for endless tea and shisha. Mixed with grit and tradition, this is what the city has always been. I swallowed this (and a forkful of spaghetti bolognese) and admonished myself for calling coziness counterfeit and for trusting only danger as real. I wasn’t fully convinced, but it was late. I consulted an iPhone Arabic dictionary and called down to the front desk: two pillows, please: room 111.
10: NX844b1G — ن خ٨٤٤ب١ج
I came back down to the patio outside the hotel, where I’d finished breakfast and I’d forgotten a jacket and where a man in a dark suit and purple tie sat at the table under an umbrella, very quietly smoking a cigarette. He had thick silver hair, smoothed back to the nape. He worked at the hotel (as did everyone within eyeshot) and I replied appreciatively to his concerns about my stay; the newly promoted Director of Food and Beverages, as he later made himself known, looked very tired. “Sleep well?” he asked.
Turkish coffee came and we chatted in the shade until it seemed the right time to leave — I wasn’t sure if I had been his guest.
“Shall I…?” I started.
“Room one-one-one, yes?”
I nodded — I knew there weren’t many guests to keep track of. “I’m Adam,” I said.
His eyes might have twinkled, the corners of his mouth tapering into little peaks: “I know.”
There is a person for every fact to be known in Syria, or there is someone who tries to know it. They are gathered under the umbrella of the Mukhabarat, the Intellegencia, who offer monthly compensation and little rewards for constant reporting on the neighborhood: especially al-ajaanib. Us foreigners — or at least those that look the part.
It’s hard to look like you’re staying out of trouble when there are so many good ways to look suspicious. Wandering up and over the windy walls that surround the old city, I found myself inexplicably inside a police compound. I slunk out through the main entrance, past an officer in a plastic chair caressing the magazine of his old wooden Kalashnikov.
In the park named Public Park in the west of downtown Aleppo, a man was watching us. Starers feel no shame — the law is on their side — and they make no efforts to avert their eyes when you stare back in them. Heads swivel as you walk by. A camera unsheathed is like a bright open window for gnats. We labeled suspect spies with clock face directions: police: five o’clock, twelve o’clock, check your six-thirty.
There’s almost nothing to ever be afraid of: if they flick their hand and wave you over, you go; if they ask to see documents, you show a copy of a passport. At the end of the day most of these Secret Police are just regular guys, perched conspicuously on cars, watching the world sneak by.
In a wrinkled blue shirt, a gangly man with dark eyes and tightly buzzed hair lurked on the bridge over the inches-deep Quweiq river. We crossed and he followed behind. We turned right and he turned his head, deadly serious, one hand shoved deep in his pocket. We sat down on a park bench (nine o’clock, one-thirty) and he picked one at a distance, staring at the backs of our heads. Every time I looked he was staring, unblinking. Say something! Do something! or Stop!
So I made up a little game: my friend and I would stand and walk in opposite directions, then turn around, and hand off a scrap of paper with nonsense codes scribbled on it. The standstill was infuriating. A different man made two passes back and forth in front of us. A third sat on a bench at two o’clock, flicking through prayer beads, slowly taking drags. He might not have been police. Or he might have been the only one.
So we handed off the torn scrap of city map with the message NX844b1G in blue pen, and wheeled toward the exit. At our six o’clock, Blue Shirt followed far behind. We stood on the street looking for a taxi to make a quick escape and Blue Shirt came closer, sneaking into the leafy shadows by the bus stand. Ten meters. Finally, he motioned: Come. His eyes shifted for the first time, no longer blank but still not commanding… imploring, maybe.
He was almost completely hidden from sight, in the darkest corner of the street, leaning out from behind the posters of the bus stand. He motioned again as if maybe I hadn’t seen. But here police had no need to hide, plainclothes or otherwise, and Blue Shirt was acting far too bashful. He flicked his hand again, come here! and touched his hand to his chest. A button unbuttoned.
Of course. He watched as we scurried into a cab: this wasn’t one of the million secret police — this was just a man in a park trying to have sex with another man in a park. As for the others —five o’clock, twelve o’clock, six-thirty— perhaps time would tell.
Eleven: Natural Color — لون طبيعي
The narrow streets of the old city smell like soap or raw meat or wet stone — every hundred meters shops shift in their inventory: spice markets, then tailors, then piles and piles of green and brown soaps. Shop owners dispatch their young kids to relay or fetch or give directions, but only when approached. For that composure, Aleppo is different from Fez, where display racks breathe and squeeze in from the walls, but the look is the same: always dim in the channels between old buildings, just wide enough for a pickup to honk its way past, just the same every day of the week. In these oldest of Old Cities, a dozen odd shops sell the same selection of keffiyahs — how does anyone get by?
Early morning at the Hammam Al-Nahassin, downhill from the Citadel towards (Aleppo’s) Umayyad Mosque, a few guys sit around not really waiting for customers. It was expensive by Syrian standards, but this was the place — it even had an arrow at the end of the street. Stairs lead down under an archway, revealing a vaulted wooden chamber half-underground and hidden from the world but for the one door. For $12 (or $7 at a good spot in Damascus), you can spend the day washing and lounging, commanding tea and shisha or coffee or kebabs, reclining on pillows set up in separate boxes along the wall. Another door leads from the hall to the hammam — all intricate stone and tile, infinitely steamy, letting daylight in and steam out through patterns of circular holes in domes along the ceiling. One room has metal and marble basins to fill with warm or freezing water; another blasts the hottest vapor from a pipe on the floor, mildly musky, but like armor for the lungs. In the center of the hammam on knee-high cement walls is a long tile surface that burns to touch for more than a second. My hammam mentor tapped the tile: “Lie down”.
“What’s under there?
But after a few pails of icy water, the hard tiles are for a moment cool enough to lie on, sometimes strangely both warm and cold, cooking through your muscles with intense hotness. The one other man in the hammam motioned from a afar. In an American gym, I’d leave that guy alone — farther afar — but this loofa-toting chum was there and on duty to very happily scrub away layers of skin I didn’t need. (Though just three days after an equally brutal and revitalizing scouring in Damascus, I parted with some skin I would’ve liked to have kept.) Then wet robes were replaced with drying robes, which were soon traded for lounging robes and a cloth tied around the head. And with that, they serve tea.
Or, if you lived 25 miles west or 40 miles south, it was the Friday of Silks, and demonstrations were about to begin. Demonstrations are christened anew every week — “Homeland Protector” for the national army, “Friday of Freedom” to honor Syrian Kurds, “Great Friday” when Good Friday wasn’t good enough. This week, the government had for the first time promised not to shoot protestors — something they’d never done before anyway and who told you that, they said.
Thursday night from the ramparts of the Citadel, we watched lightning strike at the fringes of this city, shooting between clouds, lunging at steeples and minarets and smokestacks. The Citadel hill in the center of the old city has seen rulers rise and fall for millennia: Ottomans ousted Mongols and Mamluks who expelled Crusaders who deposed Muslim invaders who booted Byzantines who sacked Romans who bagged the Greeks who, at the sword of Alexander the Great, wrested Aleppo from whoever was there before and who likely did the same to those that came before them, all the way back to Abraham, who, Wikipedia also says, is said to have milked sheep on that very hill.
But as with cows, sometimes it is easier to go up than to come back down. The next afternoon, cries came from within the empire — shouting for new and better leadership from among their own. Now that Aleppo was more than just one hill, and the country much more than one city, these were not cries an army could answer. There was no flag to capture, no territory to claim, only rules in need of emendation.
In Syria, protests begin late by Middle Eastern standards: typically near one-thirty, after the congregational friday prayer, Salat al-Jumu’ah. Until the emergency law was rescinded on April 21, it was the only time more than five Syrians were legally allowed to congregate without a government supervisor. We bought fresh juice from Yahiya and Ghazu at a stand outside near the Armenian quarter at one o’clock. Like alarm bells, the skies opened up — zero to wrath-of-God-hailstones and torrential rains in an instant. The overflow of men praying outside a full nearby mosque ran for cover, or ran into the rain, or ran just anywhere. For twenty minutes chaos was in Aleppo. Afterwards, there was only news.
By late afternoon, Al Jazeera began to report the day’s first casualties. Cellphone videos showed chanting and organized protest in the streets of Hama, Homs, Qamishli far in the east, and in suburbs Damascus. Anchors narrated the information they had, barely polishing eyewitness accounts and Tweets and YouTube clips.
Syrian state coverage is intriguing, provocative, artful. Two channels down on Syria News, videos cycled through looping clips of major cities proving life was the same as it ever was, denying the protests and their dead and injured until the next day’s paper could blame terrorist activity. The art, of course, is deception: In Idleb, where protests were getting started, a few men made bread and threw pitas from an oven. In Damascus, cars drove in traffic. In Homs, people looked like they might be gathering, but very, very far away, down an empty street. In Aleppo it was pouring rain, as it had been hours earlier.
Every city had passersby eager to crowd around the camera to tell it what it wanted to hear. Every Friday the interviews were the same, the faces hardly different: “Praise God, everything is fine. Nothing is happening.” Cut to a flock of tiny children spearheaded by the largest six year-old girl among them, who gave a vigorous speech and declared, “No better country!”
The success is undeniable: cab drivers, young men in the street or on TV, Antonia in the cafe in Maaloula — they all said the same thing: “Mafi shi.” There is nothing. They are by no means the overwhelming majority in this country where citizens take to the streets every day, lives on the line to prove a point and to sustain conviction. But still some sit and soak up Syria News, perhaps because their TVs don’t get other channels, or they don’t trust other channels, or the news on other channels is less appealing.
A woman recites aphorisms and allegory with the poise of a trained actor. She is a guest on a news roundup and there is artistry in her delivery, but she gleans empty lessons from her own stories: don’t change anything, don’t protest anything, don’t do anything.
Later, I looked for newspapers in little shops, in the souq, anywhere: nothing. I asked and people stared blankly or thought for a moment and shook their heads. I asked a policeman in a booth who snapped without looking me in the eye — of course there are no newspapers here, he could have said.
As would be the case in every Saturday paper, the government would report how many were killed by militant groups, which terrorists confessed to attacking civilians, how the weather was still hot in Damascus. Even in the airport there was no news, and no place past the taxi stand to spend Syrian money.
Syria is like a delicious processed cheese, if there is such a thing: perfectly geometric, controlled, and the product of years of careful adjustments. Syria is beautiful to experience, to see and taste, to understand and to be a part of. But if you have ever tried to grill processed cheese, you’ll know it takes a long time — the innards of processed cheese are such that it melts very slowly, breaking into clean chunks, softening like a military general after years on the field.
Syria keeps what is in in, and what is out mostly out, but the product is two things: once the cheese has softened, you bite into a grilled cheese that tastes somehow perfect, exactly how it should be, what centuries of tradition have told you is right. This is the Syria I visited, the Damascus I saw, and the Aleppo in which I had a chubby man exfoliate me. There is also the knowledge of the processed cheese’s process, and the ingredients you’d rather not know. Syria, too, has the Added Water of a nearly 20% youth unemployment rate, the Milk Solids of stubborn politicians, the Stabilizers of military rule, and the Natural Color E160b of its daily news. Both sides of the cheese exist in Syria — whether you can appreciate the former with passive knowledge of the latter is a matter of the most personal preference.
The plane taxied onto the runway in Aleppo. My iPod shuffled to Trav’lin Light at random. The man next to me was so incredibly tall and wide that I was stunned he’d surrendered himself to airplane legroom. We crossed our arms tightly and took turns uncrossing them because there wasn’t space for both. In accordance with an unspoken charter, silently keeping time and heeding the other’s discomfort, we crossed, uncrossed; crossed, uncrossed.
Pictures from Lebanon here.
Pictures from Syria here.