"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.