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.

Oh no! There is two of them!

Its been busy in the last month of my time in Syria. Graduating from University, hiring private tutors, getting work experience at the UN and my twin brother and his girlfriend heading out to visit! They came at the helpful time of 3 o'clock in the morning so 2 syrian friends and I picked them up from the airport by car. When they came through the arrivals gates my friends and I managed to convince my brothers girlfriend that she needed to cover her head on leaving the airport as "Syria is a Muslim country you know". So she duly covered her head and walked out under the chortles of the security personnel. After about 10 metres or so we couldn't keep it up so we told her it was a joke and in fact Syria is on paper a secular country! Welcome to Syria!

The next day we spent time wandering the streets around my house and showing them the market and general sights of the old city including Azam palace, a lovely ottoman relic surrounded by the busy markets that Damascus is famous for. Inside is a lovely courtyard surrounded rooms of various functions each filled with different manikins, including two in a very dodgy position, one hitler lookalike and one remarkable manikin that looks like John Lennon in Middle Eastern clothing. We also wandered around the Ummayid mosque, the Shi'a mosque (decorated impressively with tiny mirrors) and the jewish quarter. In the evening we prepared for the next 2 days in the desert.

We left in the afternoon on a 1960s Scania bus, the kind of busses you think of in India or Pakistan, to the desert. Inside was cramped, hot and uncomfortable but it was great! We were traveling with about 20 other people. Soon as we got out of the city the music came blaring on and all my Syrian friends got up and danced all the way to Palmyra, getting us involved too and stopping off at one Baghdad cafe for refreshments, on the crossroads with of the same name. Traveling through the desert again was great the landscape of the desert is awe-inspiring, rocky outcrops, Bedouin tents and sandy plains make it easy to see why T.E Lawrence fell in love with the Middle East.

After arriving at Palmyra we turned left and then stopped at the side of the road in the dark. We then sat for 10 minutes before lights came out of the darkness to meet us. A pickup truck then took us slowly into the desert, this was proper Bedouin life! After about 20 minutes we arrived at our destination and headed up a small slope to our tents that were under the gaze of a huge rocky outcrop! Beautiful. After eating a traditional meal of rice, nuts, chicken and peppers we spent the night dancing Dapkai, the traditional Syrian dance, a bit like circular line-dancing!

Palmyra and camels dominated the next day followed by a long journey back to civilisation and the welcome rest of Damascus.

"Coffee should be...

... black as hell, strong as an ox, and sweet as love"

One of my recent day trips has been to Malula, a village north of Damascus where it is said St Paul first converted on his way to Antioch. Malula is now a Christian pilgrimage site. However several places make this claim in the mountains around Syria! Taking a small mini van (called a service) from Damascus it took an hour to reach the hills north of the city. A very striking landscape, with rolling hills interspersed with large rocky outcrops - it made for a dramatic journey. I was traveling with my housemates, a Norwegian, and a Syrian friend whose family come from Malula.

After jumping off the bus in the main roundabout of the town we found ourselves in the middle of a bowl of rocky outcrops, each decorated with crosses and Christian motifs. Very different from Damascus. After wandering through the narrow streets and through tunnels where houses were above, below and to the sides of us, we arrived at our friend's grandparents' house and had the first of many coffees. Interestingly Malula is one of the few places in Syria where people still speak Aramaic and my friend's grandma spoke only Aramaic. It was great to hear as it had a rhythm a bit like Irish! After having coffee and trying to remember our university Arabic we went on through the narrow streets and up to see a cousin of our guide. It seemed everyone knew him. Then after tasting Malula wine (sweet like communion wine) we wandered up to one of several religious buildings in Malula, a convent. The story goes that the saint of the convent, after converting to Christianity escaped her father to Malula. Her father sent soldiers after her and she managed to evade capture when God opened a rock so that she could hide. The place where this is said to have happened is now a shrine where people come for healing and prayer. It was a lovely little shrine with a tree and a cave - lovely to get out of the heat of the day. The sign outside in English read, "Please enjoy your visit but your smoking harms us."

We then wandered up a gorge and round the back of one of the outcrops of Malula which gave great views of the plateau around the town. It was here that some of The Lord of the Rings was filmed apparently. After looking at the view from a hotel that was being renovated we went to one of the oldest churches in Syria, dating from the 5th century. Inside it was small square space with four arches holding up the roof. Everything was very simple and plain, but sadly tour group after tour group ruined the atmosphere, a pattern in Syria! After taking this in we had more coffee with our friend's other grandparents, this time conversation in arabic and then headed back to Damascus in another mini van for yet more coffee.

Deserts and Camels

I should mention by now that I have also been a bit of a tourist while in Syria. Before the University course started I have been getting off the beaten track. My first taste of being a tourist was being invited by our newly found Syrian friends to Palmyra, a Roman city north east of Damascus in the desert. It's in ruins but in an excellent state of preservation, so much so that you can still see the main streets with columns and the Temple of Baal. Great, I thought, a good chance to see some history. It eventually came to light that we were travelling first not to Palmyra but to a patch of desert just south of Palmyra and staying the night there before heading to the ruins the next day. Fine, we thought. Then the final surprise was that we were going to be staying in a Bedouin tent there!

So we boarded a mini van (one that was normally used round Damascus - it still had its bus service destinations board on the roof) and headed out at sunset. After going through the suburbs we were suddenly out into the countryside. We managed to see the last glimpses of the terrain around the city before the sun set. Mountainous and dusty, similar to the mountains in Turkey that were a canvas for the clouds to paint. As we sped into the night we overtook lorries from Iraq, Iran and Turkey (Syria is a meeting point for the Middle East). We arrived at a famous cross roads after an hour and a half. Straight ahead led to our destination, Palmyra, left to Aleppo and right to northern Iraq. We turned right! But only to get some gas. Then it was back on the straight road to Palmyra and after more hours we suddenly turned off the road to a desert track and bumped our way into a small village. There were several compounds, surrounded by 12 foot high walls and it was into one of these anonymous compounds we turned. Inside several glistening eyes reflected the light back from the headlights, we were to be staying with about 15 camels!

Inside the compound there were two tents and one outside toilet. Back to nature, back to basics I thought. But inside the tents the modern world had arrived. A TV, fridge and air conditioning at one end of the tent and in the other tent a generator! Bedouin life has caught up with the modern world. The rest of the evening was spent chatting, having a barbecue and not getting too close to the camels. We were spending the night with an honoured guest, a racing camel named The Leader. It was to race in Syria's equivalent of the Camel Grand National in a few week ends time. It looked just like a normal camel to me.

Sleeping in a Bedouin tent conjours up romantic images. However it was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever had due to the hard ground (I have no idea how they can just sleep on the ground) and the barking of wild dogs which roamed the desert in packs after dark. We woke at first light and coffee was our only breakfast before we carried on our journey to Palmyra, a desert oasis. We caught glimpses of the ruined city through walls and trees on our way for an American style breakfast with pancakes and more coffee. At the ruins the collonaded main street could be seen along with ground plans of shops and restored theatres and temples. Feeling like proper archaeologists we set about exploring the ruins only for the atmosphere to be shattered by large numbers of tour groups from Italy, France, America and Japan trampling through! However the ruins were very impressive and you could find quiet areas. On one of the surrounding mountains a medieval castle had been built by the Muslim armies (not the Crusaders) and from this we could see the extent of Palmyra as well as the desert beyond stretching as far as the eye could see. Incredible!

On my way back we stopped for tea at another Bedouin tent beside the road complete with a hunting hawk! It was quite sad to return from the emptyness to the business of Damascus and I can see why Bedouins who live in Damascus try to get out whenever they can. There was something peaceful about the desert. You can remove yourself from the modern world and its troubles and in Syria this is important.

LIfe of Straight Street

The last few weeks have been busy sorting out immigration papers, letters from embassies and signing up for my third university (why?). Now I have settled down into a routine and can get back to civilization and tell you what I have been doing. After coming to Damascus and establishing myself, I have begun to feel like a local. I have made friends and have been socialising in the bars and cafes of Damascus over ahwey (coffee - very strong and bitter. It takes some getting used to, but I have learned now to drink it without sugar). The food here is good too, flavoursome and lots of variety. Shwarma is a chicken wrap that is great for a quick lunch. Mini pizzas have made it to Damascus in the many bakeries alongside more traditional breads such as zatay - a bread with herbs and olive oil. Other foods include fual (a bean dish) that is hit and miss - sometimes it is good , sometimes it is not even when it is served from the same pot in the same restaurant. The best named dish out here is freaki - bolger wheat with vegetables and herbs (very heavy and it looks a bit weird but great to eat!).

My daily routine consists of getting up at 7, having breakfast of flat bread and an egg followed by a strong coffee, which I have learned to make Syrian style, then it is off into the rush hour (which Syrians do properly - forget London!). I get the bus from the old city to the University of Damascus which takes about 30 minutes. I have been making that journey every day but each day is different. Some days the bus can be relatively empty and other days it is rammed. People stand in front of people sitting down in the seats or cling to the open door trying to avoid being side-wiped by cars, lorries or buildings. Arriving at the University I have 4 hours of Arabic until 1 oclock, which is quite intense but I am managing to stay ontop of it. Then it is back on the bus to lunch in the old city at around 2pm, them more Arabic at home in the afternoon and evening. Then I switch off by going out to a park or a cafe to relax!

The week here is Sunday to Thursday which has taken a bit of getting used to aswell! The weekend here is backwards with Friday having no shops open (or if they are, they are only open for a short period of time) and on Saturday everything comes to life. The house is still doing well - no more cockroaches! - and the roof is getting lots of use having dinner or just having tea. It's hard to sum up Damascus as each area of the city feels so different, like several cities in one, but each part has its own charm and character. The life here is manic and relaxed at the same time, vibrant and quiet, uncomfortable and comfortable. The Syrians have a phrase for this indescribable, confusing and undefinable action: TIS - This Is Syria.

Hello Damascus!

After arriving and crashing out at a hostel somewhere in the lights of Damascus I awoke to find myself in a peaceful Arabic style house that was now a hostel. The Al Rabie hostel is one of the oldest remaining Arabic style houses in Damascus with a pleasant courtyard and fountain off which rooms are to be found. After a traditional breakfast of flat bread and olives it was out into the city in my first day in Al Sham (the nickname for Damascus meaning The Sun). I was in the Souq Sarouja area, just outside the old city, in an area that was once a graveyard of the city but out of necessity it became the sadlers' district before now it is a residential district. I wandered through the cool streets until I hit a large intersection where a lone policeman was directing the torrent of traffic streaming in all directions. With expert waves of his orange baton and a few whistles he was able to tame the traffic to his will, with any car disobeying being given a ticket, fine and a shout (presumably as some stress relief for the police officer). After wandering around trying to find the British Council and the French Institute for potential Arabic lessons (but to no avail) I found myself in the leafy University of Damascus Science Campus.

After asking some students where the University Language Centre was, I was whisked away in their car up the motorway to the Humanities Campus. Here my new friends took me to the administrative office to sort out my Arabic course and made sure I had everything, even buying me soft drinks before they left. The kindness and openness was only just one of many such events that I have experienced while being here. After eating falafal on Martyrs' Square (named after those killed by the French in 1925) we met up with the 2 Spanish backpackers (first met in Adana). They brought 2 friends who lived in the old city. After tea we all ventured out into the night and the lights and narrow passages of the old city. After walking down the main covered souq we arrived by the Ummayid Mosque - so vast I didn't realize it was it. I just assumed it was a city wall! Ate in a great restaurent with a huge courtyard, having a traditional meal and good conversation. One of the Syrian guys said he could fix us a house to rent and would meet with me tomorrow. After much food and talk I headed to the hostel through the still busy souq. What a first day!

The next few days were a whirlwind of seeing houses, signing contracts in dark alleyway offices, meeting with smiling lawyers, trying to remember where my house was, getting lost and attempting to get money out of the Syrian banking system. But I did get a house, it is in the Christian quarter of the old city between two gates, Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) and Bab Sharki (East Gate) in a simple comfortable house. It is a two and a half floor house with roof access giving amazing views of Jebel (mountain) Quassiuon and the other mountains around Damascus. At night the side of Jebel Quassiuon becomes lit up like Christmas lights with large numbers of slightly different coloured lights that create a twinkling effect. The house has a sitting room, hallway, utility room and toilet on the ground floor (complete with Christian Orthodox iconography - well it is a Christian house after all). Upstairs my room has a low ceiling and the longest bed in the house and no windows. It's a bit like a cave but I figured I am not spending all my time there so it is OK. Every morning I emerge and head up the stairs to the "dining room cum sun room cum kitchen". From here the rest of the kitchen, toilet and other bedrooms, randomly with bunk beds rather than beds, can be accessed.

The house was so dirty that my housemates and I had a go at cleaning it. It was going well until we tried to clean the upstairs toilet. I lifted up the grill on the floor to clean it and noticed it was moving so I dropped it naturally (being a bit of a wuss) and made a manly noise. From the grill and the hole below, 20 to 30 cockroaches poured out onto the floor. I and my housemate systematically carried out a shock and awe tactic of "taking care" of them. Only after we had carried out our mass genocide we realised in Syria it was Martyrs' Day that day (remembering those who died in the October war with Israel). We had created martyrs on Martyrs Day! After the cleaning was almost done and the house felt almost like home. Damascus was now a home rather than a destination.

The Cheap Man's Orient Express

The last few weeks have been a mixture of excitement, worrying and lots of coffee. I arrived in Istanbul late in the evening, raining hard and with a grumpy taxi man. We sped through the empty wet streets from the airport with the Bosphorus to our right, and the Blue Mosque coming in and out of view. After arriving at the Orient Hostel in the street behind the Blue Mosque, I crashed loudly and ungracefully into an 8 bed dorm with 2 large snoring Greeks for company, and the room feeling not too dissimilar to the inside of an oven!

My first day in Istanbul was spent wandering around the meandering streets near the Blue Mosque. Outside this impressive building I attempted to get past the throng of snake charmers (without snakes!), street sellers and a man dressed as Mehmet II to get into the courtyard infront of the Blue Mosque. It felt a very long way from home looking up at the domed roof, minarets and blue sky. Inside, the red carpet contrasted greatly with the white and blue geometric patterns of the roof, but sadly the atmosphere was lost to the masses of tourists on their own sightseeing pilgrimage to Istanbul. Across from a lovely park is the grandiose Hagia Sofia (a church, then a mosque, now a museum). Inside the cavernous interior of Hagia Sofia low strung lights and large placards with Arabic script stood out against the dull background. It was so big it was almost hard to take it all in. Exploring the narrow passages and the upper levels, I was distracted every now and then by the large interior, the Byzantine mosaics and the gold decorated paintings that had been discovered when the building was restored.

The Grand Bazaar was my next stop in my wandering. Walking through this market was an experience with sellers of Turkish delight, spices and tea in the more touristy end, and more exotic items such as mannequins, sequin-studded phones and surplus army gear in the more local end! After getting tickets to Adana by sleeper train (being told it would take 16 to 18 hours) by the station on the banks of the Bospherous I headed back the Blue Mosque to spend the evening around there. The next day I spent 4 hours walking around incredible Topkei Palace, home of the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years. Here I saw amazing views of Istanbul along with the lavish decoration and some relics of the Prophet and his companions. The relics included several locks of the Prophet's hair, a wooden bow and staff (all in excellent preservation especially after at least 1300 years!). At sunset I headed across the Bosphorus on a ferry to the Hydrapassa Station and boarded the sleeper train that would be my home for the next day.

The cabin was simple - two beds, a sink and a table, but for 30 pounds you cannot complain. The Turkish countryside was mountainous in some parts, flat as a pancake in others, but everywhere had a distinct lack of trees. However, the sky painted the landscape with clouds creating patterns and textures on the hills adding some interest in the featureless landscapes. Slowly moving away from Europe, the villages we passed and places we stopped (sometimes no more than an orchard with a shack) felt a long way from the Turkey I met in Istanbul. 16 hours came and went. 18 hours came and went. 20 hours came and went. I began to believe the Lonely Planet's description of Turkish Railways "that you will grow old and die before reaching your destination". After 21 and a half hours we pulled into Adana, a city in the far east of Turkey and disembarked to me greeted with 29 degree heat at 10 o'clock at night. After chatting with two Spanish backpackers in the station we had a better idea of how to get into Syria. They were sleeping in the bus station to save money, however I wanted a proper rest and to get out of the heat so after catching a taxi I crashed into a cheap run-down, still-getting -built hotel!

7 hours sleep later I caught a taxi to Adana bus station, though after reversing up a motorway and with my misguided taxi driver exclaiming in surprise when I reached the bus station in Adana. After being herded onto a waiting bus where the conductor spoke Arabic (handy if we could speak more than a few words) and after paying 6 pounds I was on my way to Antakyia close to the Syrian border. It seems in Turkey to make money in transport you have to go to the needs of the people rather than make the people come to you (as in the UK). So for the next 4 hours the bus stopped in petrol stations, lay-bys and the sides of the motorways to pick up and drop off people. Just as I was getting used to the rhythm of it all I began to arrive into the ancient city of Antakyia or Antioch as it was known in Roman times. Sadly no evidence of the city's ancient heritage could be seen amongst the commercial area of Antakyia - only woodyards, scrap merchants and car dealers were evidence of continuing human habitation.

Arriving at the ugly bus station - a car park more than a station - I was bundled into a waiting taxi with curtains and driven to the part of town that issued visas to drivers. It felt uncomfortable but I have begun to see that in the Middle East you just have to go with the flow! At first I thought I was being driven to the border to get a bus, but I soon realized it was my own personal taxi to get to Aleppo for about 30 pounds! Khalib our driver chatted to me in broken English and Arabic (he was Syrian) while he drove towards the imposing border area, under the gaze of watch towers and past miles of barbed wire fences. It's what you think a border should look like. After jostling with the taxi drivers to show my passport I got through the Turkish side. The traffic was terrible and I waited in line for about an hour before reaching the Syrian side. Luckily I was not traveling in lorries. They had to wait for 5 km before the border and sometimes take a day or two to get through the border. After filling in a visa card and waiting in more lines, we weaved in and out of the lines of trucks and dodging cars coming the other way on our side of the road to get to the Syrian side!

At duty free in no man's land I saw the two Spanish backpackers in a similar taxi waiting around. They were waiting for their taxi driver to buy as much fags and booze as he could hide under the seats and in the spare tyre area of his taxi, much like ours. We arranged to meet on the other side of the border after getting through. Before this after telling the border guard I smoked 20 a day (the cigarettes were the taxi drivers) he wished us luck after 4 hours of waiting. Not too bad! The 2 Spaniards were waiting and we then shared one taxi to Aleppo. We sped along the high featureless plateau before turning off to be suddenly dumped at the bus station at Aleppo. After trying out my Arabic and getting some response I managed to buy us all tickets to Damascus for about 3 dollars. I experienced my first ripping off in the station cafe before being crowded onto the bus at night fall. The bus station felt very Middle Eastern - the Arabic signs, the burkhas and the smells. It felt good to be nearly there. The bus took 4 hours mostly in the the darkness but when the bus rounded a corner I was greeted with a view of the lights of Damascus spread out before me. I was finally there, after 4 days from leaving the UK and 2 days traveling across Turkey. The road to Damascus had finished but the journey had just begun.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans..."

I've done it, I’m going to the Middle East. I have booked a flight to Istanbul leaving in late September, from which I will travel across Turkey to Damascus to Beirut with a friend. The initial idea of this trip began in a place where all good ideas in the history of man have been discussed, a Scottish pub. When discussing life after university, the idea came into my head that I should spend some time in the Middle East for two reasons:

a) I have not been to the Middle East at all, and
b) I do not speak Arabic very well.

Both these issues I felt could haunt me in future years as a student of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies with difficult questions such as "oh I suppose you must speak lots of Arabic" and "what's the Middle East like, I'm guessing you have been?" So it rectify this potential social awkwardness I have decided I should 'get my feet sandy' and take the plunge into the Arabic world. So on the 29th of September I am starting at the edge of Europe, before spending just under three months on the 'other side'. I have been passing the time of recent weeks by investigating the countries that I hope to be traveling through. Instead of writing lots and lots about each country, I have given five key facts about each country.*

Five things you need to know about Turkey:
1. It is technically a secular country.
2. Istanbul is built on two continents.
3. Tradition in Turkey says that a stranger at one’s doorstep is considered "God’s guest" for at least three days.
4. What happens after three days?
5. The oldest tin mine was found in Göltepe, 60 miles south of Tarsus.

Five things you need to know about Syria:
1. Its official name is The Syrian Arab Republic.
2. Syria gained independence from French control, on 17th April 1946.
3. Damascus has been inhabited for over four thousand years, making it the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world.
4. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until the end of World War I.
5. In 1930, the zoologist Israel Aharoni captured a mother golden hamster and her litter of pups in Aleppo, Syria. Recent mitochondrial DNA studies have established that all domestic golden hamsters are descended from one female, probably the one captured in 1930 in Syria.

Five things you need to know about Lebanon:
1. 40% of the Lebanese people are Christian.
2. There are 3.5 Million Lebanese in Lebanon.
3. There are around 10 Million Lebanese outside Lebanon!
4. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that does not have a desert.
5. In springtime, on the same day, you can ski in the mountains and/or swim in the sea.

*These facts may not be 100% accurate!