Times in Syria...

Syria has been on the news quite a lot recently, sadly for the wrong reasons. I thought I would update you all, if you didn’t know by now, on the situation and also on my situation. You will all be relieved to know that I have left Damascus and come to Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon. Though this was a hard decision, to leave my friends, Arabic course and internship, I felt it was the correct one, considering the FCO advise and my family worrying. However I want to tell you all a bit about the situation in Syria, that the news in not reporting. Even coming to Beirut I can begin to see how it can look extremely bad in Syria at the moment in the international media.
I left from Damascus on Wednesday to come to Beirut. Even then everything was fine in Damascus. Shops were open as usual and there were people walking around the streets as normal. It was maybe a bit quieter than usual in the old city but on the whole it was business as usual. The previous Friday though was a bit strange. There was a tense mood in the air, no traffic on the road and neighbourhood groups protecting their neighbourhood with sticks, batons and guns in the old city. All were extremely friendly towards me and other foreigners it had to be said. However, from the news and friends in Syria I do realise that in Douma (the outskirts of Damascus) is having a tough time, with the army patrolling the streets, shootings occurring, and shops being closed. The same seems to be occurring in Dera’a (a village an hour south of Damascus), Homs (a city 2 hours north of Damascus), Banias (a costal city 5 hours from Damascus) and Latakia (A coastal city also around 5 hours from Damascus). In Damascus itself there was little evidence to the foreign eye of the unrest seen in the country.
At the moment the situation is not improving, events now have been going on for so long, and so many people have been killed that the situation cannot return to normal.
During my last days in Syria, I shopped, sat in courtyard restaurants (getting my last fixes of Damascuscine life and saying goodbye to friends. I hope to be back soon if the FCO advice lowers. In the meantime I will be applying for jobs everywhere and anywhere. I should be coming home back to the UK in a week or so. Enjoy the royal wedding and I hope to see you all soon!

When in Palmyra...

So two weekends ago I decided to leave Damascus again and explore more Syria. This weekend it was again the turn of Palmyra, the ruinous Roman City next to an Oasis in the heart of Syria. I have been there twice before on two separate trips but only had time, or been well enough, to see a small part of the ruins. However this time I was determined to spend as much time as I could there and have a proper explore of the site. I travelled up by bus to Palmyra with three friends and checked into a great little hotel with super friendly staff when I arrived on Thursday night. After unpacking, it was out to sample the nightlife of Palmyra in the pancake house, a great restaurant on the main street that doesn’t just do Pancakes. In it we had a traditional dinner of rice, chicken, lentil soup, humous and bread and after dinner met a friend who is from Palmyra in the café. We chatted for some time, as he has just come out of military service, about what he was going to do now. After the café became empty we all moved to a nearby hotel bar (the only place you can drink really at night in Palmyra) and chatted some more there. It seems that at night there is little to do for locals, apart from stare at the foreigners in the town. They did in two ways, the first cowardly way was by motorbike, riding past staring and maybe shouting something, and the second way by more heroically standing and hanging around on the street corners staring and maybe saying something. However, once inside the restaurants and cafes you receive a very friendly welcome, like you are a long lost relative!

On a side note, it is funny how the phrase “Luvly Jubly” managed to travel around the world as I have heard it a number of times as a response when people find out I am from England. I like to think there was in the past, a cockney somewhere who was having a bit of joke, saying it was official for something and because of that it got transported around the world. After waking up at 7 we took breakfast on the rooftop with early morning views of the ruins just temping us to go in and explore. Following this, we set off and began walking into the huge area that the ruins of Palmyra occupied. We started at the bottom of the colonnaded street and walked up it exploring, stopping to take pictures and climbing on the extensive remains. It was magical, especially in the early morning light, our only company seemed to be the occasional camel herder asking us if we wanted a ride.
When we reached the end of the street we climbed up to a tomb/temple of Zenobia to look round. At the back of this temple was a small tower, which we climbed up and were treated with great views of Palmyra. It was a bit scary with the top only being about 3 by 3 meters with no railings! We then walked out of the city through the still impressive city walls and we found ourselves in the Valley of the Dead, an area where a large number of mausoleums have been built for previous Roman dignitaries and other notables. As we got closer to the hill they have been built around, it became apparent how monumental they were. They were probably a good 20metres high if not more and after walking round the back of one, my friend and I climbed up to a doorway 2 metres off the ground just to have a look. A grill covered the doorway presumably to stop people getting inside, but a friend and myself were thin enough to squeeze through the gap in between the metal bars and get inside. So we spent 15 minutes looking in several different floors of the tower feeling a bit like we were the first to set foot inside the tomb. It was quite spooky inside with the darkness and silence but eventually after climbing up and up the stairs we came out on top of the tower. From there we had panoramic views of the valley of the dead and the city of Palmyra around. It was incredible. After we came down we scaled up the small hill behind the towers to be treated with the same kind of view as on the top of the tower but we could see more mountains and hills in the distance as well as more of the oasis that surrounds Palmyra,
Then it was back to the ruins to meet our Palmyrian friend for lunch. While we were waiting a few scarf and necklace sellers came up to us to ask for our custom. We replyed to them one after another “La Shukran (No Thankyou)”. This was until one replied angrily “I don’t speak Arabic!!” in English. We thought that was a bit strange considering he was living in Syria, and the Arabic speaking Middle East but we moved on. However half an hour later he spotted us again, obviously did not recognise us and said “Scarf, you want to buy a scarf”? “La Shukran” was our response and again he responding with “I don’t speak Arabic” slightly more angrily! So we responded to him “Well we don’t speak English, no thankyou” in Arabic to which he looked surprised, but seemingly understood us and walked away! After visiting the ruins we went and had a late lunch and early dinner in an oil camp. The company was Polish and was moving out of Palmyra in 3 weeks so the camp was very empty but it was interesting non the less. We had been invited by them when we met them the previous night in the hotel bar, we arrived in a taxi in the middle of nowhere to a camp made of porta cabins surrounded by a wire fence. After driving through the gate without any check on whom we were we came upon a table full of food surrounded by plastic chairs in the middle of the camp. The two polish guys who had invited us were smoking atop one of the cabins and invited us to join them to look at the view. It was quite amazing with the mountains around. Then after eating, chatting for sometime and watching the sunset, it was a quick taxi ride back to the hotel to get our bags and the last bus to Damascus. At least this rushing around was giving us a taste of the busyness of Damascus that we were heading back too.

Du Ski in Lebanon??

Well I have been here nearly 2 months since arriving in January. I am still working away at the UN but am making use of the numerous cafes and courtyard restaurants found in Damascus. Despite this and exploring the city and its sights some more, I felt I needed to get out of Damascus for a weekend. So with this in mind my housemate, another friend and I decided to travel to Lebanon as it is close by and easy to get to. Recent events have calmed down in the country and also more importantly there had been a fresh dumping of snow in the mountains.

I therefore decided to travel to the mountains to visit the mystical Faraya Mzaar Ski resort, reputedly the best ski resort in Lebanon. We left during a cold crisp evening from Damascus and headed across the border into the night. We had made sure that the private car (a normal thing in Syria) knew exactly where Faraya mzaar was. He was sure and there would be no problem he said. However once across the border near the town of Baalbek in the Beka Valley our taxi driver stopped telling us another taxi will take us all the way.

However he still wanted paid for his journey, and he wanted to be paid a lot, far more than the journey’s worth. Its always a great moment in learning a language when you can argue coherently with a taxi driver. So this is what we did with him and his 7 friends, for an hour! The main thrust of the argument was that he wanted paid in full to where he had taken us (not even half way). However we argued he had lied to us and not taken us where we wanted to go so therefore we would only pay him for the journey he had done. He did not like this and used many excuses to try and persuade us to pay him.

They ranged from “how was I meant to know where Faraya is?” to “Faraya, I do not know this place, what did you say? Faraaya, oh I know where that is!” and then the classic “they told me they wanted to go to Baalbeck”! After rebuffing his arguments, he timidly asked for money because he “had a family to think about”. That would be plausible if we had not just crossed the border in his private car that was a brand new Mercedes Benz. After paying him the right amount for the journey, we left and arrived in Faraya at 11. Our hotel was like something out of The Shining film, completely empty, décor from the 1970s and 1980s and run by two ghostly but extremely friendly and helpful old men. They had been running the place for 40years and despite being a little confused by life they were friendly and even made us pizza to eat. We got our rented gear and headed to bed.

In the morning we all thought there had been a mistake, we had been given 1970s and 1980s ski gear! I was sporting a fluorescent green all in one while my housemate had a grass green one and the final friend I traveled with had a black and white patterned number! All of us had fluorescent orange and green skis. Oh well, least it is warm to wear! Arriving on the slopes we were greeted with a lovely view of white rolling hills and a pleasant 11 degrees centigrade. After teaching my friends to ski in the morning, I began to explore the mountain properly. I took a lift up to the top and from there I could see the Mediterranean sea stretching out in front of me, blue and in the sun, and Beirut on the coast looking peaceful and calm. Behind me was a moonscape of rolling white hills as far as the eye could see. The skiing was not bad, with a lots of enjoyable red runs and a bit of challenging yet fun off piste runs.

After a tiring day we explored the nightlife of Faraya, or as it turned out lack of it! We wandered up to the only restaurant in town and had mezzeh (lots of small Dishes) in effectively a conservatory in someones garden (the food was cooked inside the house). Then we wandered along the main road to one of two bars, we chose the second one because it was the busy one with four people inside! Sat next to a lovely warm fire and made it feel a bit like Europe and chatted the night away.

The next day it was skiing in the morning then a service taxi down into Beirut. We shared a taxi with a curious American who amongst other things asked us “is Syria full of Terrorists, Do you need to carry guns with you in Syria and do the border guards open your passport at the border?”! Arrived in Beirut and had a whistle stop tour around the centre of the city, the parliament building, Rafik Harari’s grave (the assassinated prime minister of Lebanon in 2006) and the blue mosque. We then met my friend who is working in Beirut for a late lunch in a lovely French restaurant on a street called Gemeyzie, where all the good restaurants are in Beirut. Then it was a taxi ride back to Damascus with a man who set Diamonds in jewelry as a job and was sharing the taxi with us. A normal weekend in the Middle East!

Recent Developments

As you may know by now there has been 'interesting' developments in the Middle East, concerning a 'Wave of Change'. I thought i would update everyone how this is affecting me in Syria or should I say not. After the Tunisian and Eygption Protests there were calls by some to have a "day of rage" in Syria last weekend. However this turned out to be nothing more than a "day of rain" with no-one turning up on the streets. The difference in Syria's case was that the demonstrations were organised by people outside of Syria, Syrians living abroad and even non Syrians living abroad. So due to this lack of on the ground leadership it is quite understandable why the protests did not get off the ground. On the day itself there was an increased presence of secret and not no secret police but sadly for them they stood about in the rain all day getting cold. One positive change that has occured in the recent week is the end of blocking Facebook and YouTube by Syrian Authorities signalling an interesting move by the government, which has blocked these sites since 2007, possibly in reaction to the events in Eygpt, that called for greater freedom of the internet. Despite this opening of the internet, Syrian media agencies were slow to acknowledge the events happening in Eygpt as for at least 3 days. For example on SANA (Syrian Arab News Agency) the top news for those days were that "Rain Falls on Most Syrian Cities" where other arabic media's (Al Jazeera, Al Arabyia, Ya Libnan etc) had Eygptian News on their front pages. Outside of these events I have had a suit and jacket taylored made here for about $200, its getting very cold, and I have started to be known as a local, with a Taxi driver asking me for directions, which I could give in arabic, and getting to be known by name in my local cafe. All in all very nice.

Oh those Middle Eastern Nights..

Well I’m Back in Syria interning at the UN, mainly writing reports and working on presentations. In the evenings I am managing to learn a little Arabic as well as become an English teacher to break even with rent. After spending 10 days home at Christmas, I returned to Beirut and the Middle East life. I managed to remember where my friend lived in Beirut and got myself there late at night. It was great travelling through the empty streets occasionally lined with army checkpoints, reminding me that Lebanon is at a tense situation at the moment. Beirut is an interesting place; it has the people of the Middle East yet the feel and perception of a western place such as Singapore, Kula Lumpa, or a mixture of both. High rise glass buildings, with clean roads and new shop fronts make it feel like Europe, but every now and then you see bombed out buildings, or catch a glimpse of the heavily shelled Holiday Inn, reminding you of the terrible events that occurred here. After arriving at my friend’s house, I went out of Gemeyzie, an area of lovely bars and restaurants for a drink in a bar that felt as though I was in a trendy part of Paris. Interestingly in Lebanon, Arabic in some areas in the third language spoken after French and English so it was strange to be listening to lots of French voices around me.

The next day I hired a taxi to take me over to Damascus, once the driver realised I had been before he drastically brought the price down to the correct price. So for about £12 I had a 3 hour taxi ride into another country! My driver Ahmad was chatty and with my broken Arabic chatted about his family, what I was doing and where he was from. After climbing the steep mountain road over the anit Lebanon Mountains we dropped into the Bekka Valley. It was as stunning as before Christmas, snow covering the tops of the mountains with the wide fertile valley below basked in sunlight. Here they grow wine, and before Christmas, a few friends and I visited the Kasara vineyard. In the lovely surroundings, we toured the small visitors centre and the caves behind which stored the wine. It was apparently begun by the Romans but may have had prehistoric origins. After passing the turn off for this I was stamped out of Lebanon and we drove up another mountain road to the Syrian Border. Here I acquired a visa easily with two New Zealand guys and heading into Damascus by lunchtime. Two hours later I had a house to stay in, and friends to go out and eat with. Nice!

This is the end?

I have arrived back home now for Christmas after an amazing three months in Syria and for 5 days in Lebanon. I thought I should update you all on what I am now doing. Before I left I did some work experience with the UN and have managed to get some kind of unpaid internship there after Christmas. So I am only in the UK for 2 weeks before I head back to Syria to begin this on the 2nd of January. I will keep this blog updated when I can and when I do something exciting, because most of the time I will be working in an office and that is hardly anything to write home about! I will also continue to learn Arabic and I have started to teach English to break even for rent and food, just incase I was slacking! So really this is just the beginning! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

A Spiritual Retreat

After the excitement of Palmyra I decided to take my brother and his girlfriend to Marmusa, an isolated fortress that had in about the 6th century been converted into a small church and monastery. Its turbulent history meant that it had fallen into disrepair and fluctuated in being a working monastery from time to time. However in the 1980s an Italian monk came to Marmusa and though his own will alone helped renovate and repair the dilapidated building. Now it is a working monastery promoting cross religious dialogue and welcomes visitors from all faiths and backgrounds. You can stay for a day or stay for as long as you want for free as long as you help out in some way.

So it was under this introduction that my brother, his girlfriend and I started at the bottom of the path that lead (after 20 minutes) to the monastery after being dropped off at the side of the road by a local service van. Nestled in-between two hillsides the sand coloured building blended into the hillside as we started the walk up the meandering stone path. After getting to the top we entered the very very very small doorway (About 1 metre by 1 metre) and entered into to the small courtyard atop the fortress. Here we were greeted by one of the monks (in jeans and a t-shirt!) and took a seat before tea was brought to reward us for our effort.

From our viewpoint we could see the desert plains stretching off in the distance and more mountains helping to give a canvas for the sunlight to paint. After exploring the small peaceful church complete with original frescos my brother and I went to the extensive yet maze like library to explore. Split on three levels its a great space to explore though narrow corridors and doorways then into large book filled rooms. After having lunch there of lentils, onions and peppers we sadly had to leave, so a service taxi was called by radio for us from the nearest town. We descended the long path with the imposing fortress looking down at us us leaving and boarded the bus as it was becoming dark. A great day away from it all.