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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Damascus - Axis of Evil Tour!

I travel a lot as a working musician, and if there’s one thing that travelling teaches you it’s that nothing is black and white. This was once again brought home to me on my recent visit to Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, and the capital city of Syria, part of George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ (the other members of George’s trio are Iran and North Korea). Long known as an implacable enemy of Israel (who annexed the Golan Heights from them in 1967), and therefore by extension an enemy of America and by further extension, the ‘free world’, Syria has been demonised in the West. So when I told people I would be going there with my family for a holiday over the Christmas/New Year period they reacted with horrified amazement. I might as well have said I was going to Baghdad or Afghanistan - as far as they were concerned Syria represented the same level of danger and madness, and therefore visiting Syria for a ‘holiday’ provided proof, if proof were needed, that when it comes to choosing holiday destinations I was barking mad.

But as I said, things are never black and white, and in fact Syria is a very safe destination for a tourist to go to, with almost no street crime of any kind (if only we could say the same in Europe or America.....), and is a country with an incredible mixture of races and religions living in it. One of the misapprehensions we in the west have about Syria is that it's a fundamentalist Muslim country, but it's actually one of the most secular and possibly the most, (officially at least), religiously tolerant in the Middle East. This is mainly due to the fact that the ruling regime are all Alawites - a minority Islamic sect that's looked on as being heretic by many fundamentalist Muslims. As part of protecting their own situation they are very heavy on religious tolerance.

About 15% of the population are Christians, and there are Shias, Sunnis, Druze, Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, and many others there, as well, as believe it or not - Jews! There are two synagogues in Damascus, though there's not a big Syrian Jewish population any more (most left in 1994 as part of an agreement with the US – one of the conditions worked out at the Madrid Peace Conference) . So though the Syrian regime hates the Israelis, they don't (officially at least), hate Jewish people per se. Having said that, it’s probably not an easy place to be Jewish in, but the fact that Jewish people live in the capital city of Israel’s most implacable enemy, and that Syria is a police state that enforces religious tolerance, shows again how many shades of grey there can be, and how little is black and white.

Marian Shrine, Christian Quarter, Damascus

On arrival in Damascus it was immediately interesting to compare this place to other places I’ve been in the Middle East. One thing that’s particularly noticeable is the lack of tourists around – Syria’s reputation, (undeserved), as a hot bed of radical Muslim fundamentalism keeps westerners away. As a result, you get almost no hassle at all to buy things, or to go into shops, or to take taxis – people leave you alone to do your own thing. Which is COMPLETELY different to Morocco or Cairo, or even Turkey (at least in the tourist areas) – because they depend so much on tourism, they see tourists as being like ATMs, so everywhere you go they try and talk you into buying this or doing that, or going into this restaurant, or that carpet shop etc. - which can get very wearing after a while. But in Syria this is not the case, and on our first day we went into the huge covered market and were amazed not to get the usual calls of ‘please sir’, or ‘this way sir!’, or ‘you want carpet/jacket/shoes/etc. sir?’ - we were allowed to wander around without being importuned even once, which was great – it allowed you to stop and look at things for as long as you want without keeping watch from the corner of your eye for yet another salesman trying to drag you into his shop. Very cool.

The second thing that was striking was the variety of races, cultures and religions represented out on the street. Within the first ten minutes of being in the Souq, we saw women covered from head to toe in the black Chador of Shia Islam, women in designer jeans and jewellery, men in traditional Bedouin costume, Mullahs, a Christian priest, men in business suits, women wearing head scarves - but the colours of which were carefully matched with their earrings and makeup. Again the shades of grey concept was fully in evidence - we saw one man bargaining in a spice shop in the souq, he had a Muslim skullcap on, a full beard, and a jacket, the back of which bore the legend ‘Colorado Boy’s Ranch’.

It said in the guidebook that Syria was one of the friendliest places to visit in the Middle East – we found the guidebook to be unreliable on several fronts, (maps and restaurant recommendations in particular), but they were right about this. The Middle East is in general a very welcoming region, with an incredible tradition of hospitality, and after much travel in the region I’ve come to expect this kind of thing. But the Syrians take friendliness and hospitality into another realm – this welcome we got everywhere we went was truly remarkable. Within one minute of being in the Souq, we had asked and been given permission to take photographs of two sieve makers, who then asked us where we were from, welcomed us and offered us sweets from a bag they produced from under the counter. Later we went for a coffee and were approached by two young guys who again asked us where we were from, told us all about themselves (students – one about to go off to Germany to study for seven years), asked about our impressions of Syria and made suggestions as to things we could do and restaurants to check out. Before leaving they gave us their mobile numbers and asked us to call them if we needed any help or assistance while in Damascus. Again and again we were met with kindness, friendliness and hospitality – people would shout ‘welcome’ to us as we went past and wave. The very scarcity of western visitors to Damascus seems to make the Damascenes all the more appreciative of those who do venture in, and the combination of friendliness and yet at the same time not being hassled into buying things makes this city unique in my experience of travels in the Middle East.

Not that I want to give the impression that Syria is some paradise on earth either. The people of Syria may be wonderful, but the same can’t be said for the regime that rules it. Make no mistake about it, this is a police state, where any political dissent is ruthlessly crushed, and no opposition of any kind is permitted. President Assad – whose slightly geeky features are plastered everywhere – got 97% of the vote in the last election, which wasn’t as good a result as it sounds when you consider that he was the sole candidate! Syria has been under ‘Emergency Law’ which suspends the basic rights of its citizens, since 1962. Censorship is widespread – in fact I had to wait to get back from there to do this post since Blogger is blocked in Syria – a fate that’s shared there by other well known websites such as Youtube and Facebook. When the current president Bashar Al-Assad took over from his father Hafez, there was hope that things would change, but they haven’t – they’ve tried to open up the economy more and you see progressive kinds of things like the introduction of a partial smoking ban (in the Middle East!) coming next year. But still, say anything publicly against Bashar and you’d better get yourself ready for a visit from the secret police and a vacation that will definitely differ from the one we just had............

A Shi'ite restaurant with a painting of Iran's President Ahmedinijad, Syria's President Assad and the Iraqi Shia radical cleric Mokhtada Al-Sadr displayed over the door. 'The Rogues Gallery Restaurant' perhaps?

Old City, Ummayad Mosque and the incompatibility of Chadors and Escalators......

Damascus is divided into two parts, the Old City, and everywhere else. The new part of the city is fairly nondescript - apartment blocks, shops, seething traffic which seems to operate on the chaos principle, (no road markings on roads wide enough to take cars four abreast resulting in a weaving mass of horn-tooting vehicles), fairly poor air quality and little of architectural merit to attract the eye or delay the casual traveller.

The old city on the other hand is an extraordinary place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is essentially a mediaeval Arab city, complete with a maze of narrow lanes, tiny shops, bustling street life, and a massive souq right in the middle of it. When you enter this part of the city you really feel like you’re in the Middle East.

And this feeling of being, for a Westerner at least, somewhere very different, is never stronger than when you approach the massive Ummayad Mosque which takes up a sizeable chunk of the old city. This is one of the most famous and venerated mosques in the Islamic world, attracting pilgrims and visitors for hundreds of years. In my own travels I’ve visited quite a few famous mosques in Cairo, and especially in Istanbul. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere in these places — there’s something different about the feeling that one gets in a big mosque as opposed to the atmosphere of one of Christianity’s massive cathedrals. With the latter I always get a feeling of heaviness in the architecture — you can almost feel the weight of the building as it towers over you. The mosques on the other hand — particularly the domed mosques of the Ottomans — have a lightness about them, almost a feeling as if being in a huge tent. The carpets which cover the floors of these buildings accentuate that feeling, especially since you are required to take off your shoes before entering a mosque - the feeling of walking around on a carpet in your stocking feet helps foster an intimacy with the interior of the building that one just doesn’t get when walking around a large Christian cathedral. The fact too that it is quite acceptable to sit on the floor of these buildings, rest your back against the wall, and contemplate the architecture adds to this feeling of intimacy.

The Ummayad Mosque has an extraordinarily beautiful courtyard — appropriately massive, and covered in the kind of gilded calligraphy that you often encounter in places like this. As you enter it through the main gate, a huge square opens up in front of you, you get a sense of the importance of this building to the faithful, who constantly pour in and remind you of the myriad nationalities and races that are encompassed by the Islamic world — Malaysians, Arabs, Africans, people from the Subcontinent, Turks etc.

On entering the mosque itself, I was actually a little disappointed. Yes it’s a huge building, with some beautiful calligraphy and tiling, and it has a beautiful section which houses the Mihrab , but architecturally I found to be quite disappointing — a kind of giant rectangular box, with little of the grace and airiness of the domed mosques of Istanbul. I first went to the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul in 1986, and in a way it kind of spoiled me for all others! I knew the reputation of the Ummayad, so I was expecting something architecturally spectacular, but found instead something that was almost ordinary — relatively speaking at least.

The mosque attracts many Shia pilgrims, especially from Iran. You can see them arriving in groups, the women clearly identifiable by their head-to-toe black Chadors, which, enhanced by the fact that often all you can see of them is their nose, gives them the appearance of a flock of crows shuffling along towards the mosque entrance. But before they can reach the haven of the mosque, if approaching from the souq, they have to negotiate an urban hazard — an escalator!

We couldn’t figure out what the problem with escalators was for these women, whether it was because they were not used to them, (a lot of these pilgrims are quite probably people from rural areas of Iran), or because they were worried that their Chadors would catch in the mechanism, or whether it was something else. But whatever it was, they definitely had issues with escalators! Time and again we would see them teetering on the brink of jumping onto the escalator, like people standing on the edge of a cliff — irresolute, unable to decide whether to jump or not, before finally making the great leap into the unknown and tottering unsteadily on the first step before grabbing the rail and hanging on for dear life. On one occasion a woman actually lost her footing and began toppling backwards down the escalator as it went up, only a despairing grasp by her husband of her sleeve-end prevented her from falling backwards and hitting the back of her head off the iron steps. It would seem that modern technology in the form of escalators, and Chador-clad Shia women don’t mix.

“Avatar”, Hollywood, and the War On Terror

It’s always interesting to go to the movies in a different country, and especially in a different culture to your own. We once had a great time at a Tamil movie in Madras, despite not understanding a word of what was going on. But the vibe in the cinema was great, with the audience getting involved in the on-screen action in a way that you never see in the West. Walking through the new part of Damascus one day, we came across a new cinema — a real western style, multiscreen place, that was showing “Avatar”, and we decided to go and and get a Syrian cinematic experience. The movie was in English with Arabic subtitles, and though the audience was made up of obviously middle-class, westernised people, mostly in their early 20s, their behaviour in the cinema was quite different to an equivalent audience in a western cinema. As soon as the lights went down chatter broke out amongst the entire audience, and the film was punctuated throughout by giggling and chatting in a way that would draw much irritated shushing in an Irish cinema at least.

So far so good, but then something happened on the screen that gives a very real perspective on how things can be seen in different parts of the world. Those familiar with the story of “Avatar” will know that its premise is that invaders from Earth come to a far away planet in order to exploit its mineral resources for their own use. The fact that the people from ‘Earth’ were to a man, and a woman, Americans made the obvious parallel of the Western exploitation of the oil wealth of the Middle East, and the wars and political shenanigans used by the West to control energy sources emanating from there, all the more obvious. And it began to dawn on me as I sat there in the dark, that some of this made uncomfortable viewing for a Westerner sitting in an audience of Arabs.

But this feeling of slight discomfort with the storyline was ratcheted up several notches when the bad guy in the film — a stereotype GI Joe kind of guy dressed in American military fatigues — announces to a military briefing, “We will defeat the Hostiles - we will meet terror with terror!”, his description of what he was about to unleash on the native people included the phrase “shock and awe” -- the phrase coined by Rumsfeld to describe what America was going to do to the Iraqis — a people who lived only a couple of hundred kilometres from where we were sitting in the cinema. The phrase ‘we will meet terror with terror’ was greeted by an audible intake of breath by the audience in the cinema, and I was suddenly conscious and that we were three Westerners sitting in an audience of about 1000 Syrians, whose country has been demonised by the leading military power in the West, and were watching a film in which a stereotypically macho American Marine is about to launch his helicopter gunships on the native population. It’s not that I felt that we were in any danger of any kind, but when you watch something like that in Damascus, it definitely gives you a different perspective than if you watched it in Dun Laoghaire! When GI Joe bad guy was eventually killed in the film, the audience erupted into wild cheering and clapping — which given the context in which most of the people were watching that film, was hardly surprising.

All in all we spent five days in Damascus, which is probably about enough — the city doesn’t have much more in it that would keep the tourist occupied for much longer than that. It was an interesting and fascinating experience to be in a country that is often seen as a pariah in the West, and yet to be met with only friendliness and kindness, to see a very deep culture, to see a myriad of people, races, and religions living together harmoniously, and, oh yes, did I mention the great food!?


  1. Ronan-

    This is a fascinating post, I was wondering how you were getting on over there. I must admit that as an American I would be very slow to visit Syria or many other Middle Eastern countries any time soon even though I'm sure the people are as friendly as you say they are. If I ever do go, I want to go with you - and your Irish passport, cool?

    Did you hear any music there and if so, would you tell us about it?

  2. Ronan, green with envy, its been on my list for ages. Check out a BBC4 series called Holidays in the Axis of Evil, made by my pal Elizabeth, who made the Cub doc.....its a brilliant premise, a tourist couple visit the 6 axis countris, ( iraq, libya and Cuba are the other 3 ), and report on their findings. Really good.....most of them are up on You Tube....
    ( Hi Lindsey!! happy new year )

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