Friday, September 28, 2012

 Report from Syria

Absolutely recommended web links of the week:

And Now - something /different - Part I

Photo credit: Google Images:  At the time I made this trip I had only a poor camera, made still worse by a light leak - so my own pictures are not usable

When I was 21 years old, just graduated from college, I felt a growing restlessness to see the world.  Perhaps it can about as a result of growing up hearing my Mother tell stories of her travels in China before she was married; perhaps it was hearing of far away places and wanting to see them first hand.  I saved my money from a summer of hard work, planned my travels carefully, and flew to Scotland by the cheapest airline possible – Icelandic Airlines. (an old slow 4 propeller DC-6)  From Glasgow I started my trek, sleeping at night in youth hostels when possible. At times I travelled with friends and sometimes alone, but always there would be a friendly group of fellow travellers in the next hostel.  My travels eventually took me to Syria and Jordan... and with these countries so prominent in the news lately – I thought you might find my perceptions of Syria, through the eyes of a 21 year old, of interest.  Following is an excerpt from the journal that I wrote at that time... ( circa 1961)

4  propeller DC-6 like the one I flew
Entrance into Syria from Turkey travelled with my German friend Jürgen:
“The main street on Leharm Turkey was on the side of a steep mountain slope.  The houses were simple and in the barren setting looked rather pathetic.  We inquired for the price of transport to the border some 11 kilometers away.  Since we were quotes high prices, we decided to walk –On the way we stopped a communal taxi (a dolmish) that seemed to be going to Aleppo.  After travelling about 2 km. we discovered that this dolmish was only going to the border and would charge us each 10 Lira ... so we demanded to be let off.  Next we got a lift on a pony cart for about 3 km. A young Turkish man was taking a load of green saplings, and welcomed our company. He was friendly and we exchanged words for common items in three languages Turkish, English, and German- a strange sort of communication when all else fails.

After the lift we walked the rest of the way; walking between hills we passed occasional ruins and barbed wire entanglements beside the road.  Now and then we stopped to “talk” to people and ask the distance to the border.   We passed through the long no-mans land between Turkey and Syria with endless double spirals of barbed wire.  Finally we came to a village identical to the model villages we used to make in summer vacation school in church.  Yellow grey square houses with wooden beams and mud roofs.  We were greeted by village children who seemed to know 2 English words – “Please” and “English?” We passed through them and had our last look at the crescent and star of the Turkish flag.  They hated the English, so the small American flag on my pack identified me as OK.
Saladin's Castle - Allepo
First impressions of Syria The Syrian border guards were friendly and helped up get a lift with a fish truck going into Aleppo.  Here we heard Arabic spoken for the first time.  The men wore baggy black trousers with tight ankles or loose white robes.  Both wore the white head covers, flowing down the back and held in place with a thick black cord.  We reached Aleppo by 6 PM  - It was very 'plush' to ride in the back of the truck and watch the evening come over  the Syrian desert, (even with the smell of fish).   We had some difficulty locating a hotel (we found no hostels here).  What we found was “OK”. Four customers per room. The beds have a sheet and double blankets held in place with a large safety pin – probably changed once a month.
Souk el Zarb

There were many surprises here – the signs were all in Arabic script– there are no women on the crowded streets, the prominent white robes, headgear, and fezzes... Some things are difficult to see – terrible cripples, filthy sore ridden beggers lying in the dust of the building corners, everyone constantly spitting, young boys doing work too hard for a grown man, other young boys, clanging a brass cymbal, carrying large brass containers of some kind of sweet beverage on their back – with one cup for all customers.  If discovered that if we stayed in any Syrian city form more than 3 days we would have to file forms and 3 photos with the local police.  That would limit our stay. 
First we went to see the great Saladin’s castle - a great citadel with history going back to the time of the Hittites, but important to both the Greeks and Romans.  Its present state was built up during the Byzantine time.  The people use the dry cistern  today for storage of grain and other produce... after exploring the rooms and caverns of the castle, we went to the greatest of the Bedouin markets - Souk el Zarb ... it is a vast labyrinth of stone passage ways with occasional windows in the ceiling to let in light – there are sections for the sale of all the trades and produce of the middle east – it is a noisy fragrant/smelly place of wonders.
Souk el Zarb
Entering the market was like going into the Arabian nights – it was a wonderland of figs – dates – rugs – knives – gold and jewelry, butchers cutting up meat - brass and tin –like chickens and goats,  rope – saddles – iron mongers - spices – fresh vegetables and fruit - camels...  The central hall ran for several kilometers and there were also branching corridors... The effect was a noisy bedlam of people – grabbing – urging – haggling – laughing.  I learned that bargaining is not an angry exchange – but a friendly often easy going ( but serious)  exchange – I bought a pair of desert boots made of tough camel and horse hides...  Jürgen and I tried a hubbly-bubbly water pipe where we ate lunch- the flavor was mild – but the pipe was not very clean. Later in the day as we left the souk we stopped at a bakery.  Bread is bought by the kilogram.  The local bread in about 1/2 inch  thick and about  7 inches in diameter – when it’s in the oven it puffs up like a balloon.  The following morning I said goodbye to Jürgen who was going direct to Damascus.
Souk el Zarb

Palmira (Tadmore )  I found a bus out of Aleppo to Palmira in the middle  part of Syria.  The first day out I made it to Hamah - where I spent a strange night.  It is a  small place and there were no hotel or hostel rooms to be found - If everything else failed I went to the tea houses or cafes and found someone who spoke English and asked their help. A man told me that he was the chairman of the youth club and he could let me sleep in the youth club building - but they would have to lock me inside for security reasons - he said they would come and let me out in the morning.  So first he bought me a nice supper of Hummous and bread and then I got locked up.  True to his word ealy the next morning he came and saw me on my way.
(next entry) The next day I went on into Homs, another amall place, and found an old dilapidated bus ( no windows ) to take me on the long trip to Palmira.  The bus stopped at times so that the Muslims could set out their prayer rugs and offer  prayers.  We also had to stop to adjust the radio and to allow passengers to buy food and find a bathroom.  This was my first encounter with the Bedouin people who lived in large black tents with their camels, fat tail sheep, and a few horses.  I was surprised to see that the separate tents of a group were so widely spaced from each other.  The bus arrived well after dark.
Bedouin tent

There is nothing in the world like a small oasis village in the middle of the vast desert –
Once in Palmira  I checked into a local "hotel" –which seemed to be full of local policemen – then I found a local restaurant to buy hot food – all I could get was some cold rice and cold greasy mutton meat and grain patties.  I spoke to a Syrian student about the hatred of the Jews and the English – over the issue of Israel.  It is an experience to be the center of attention – people curious about me and my writing At times I felt like an impromptu entertainer. Everything I said or did  seemed of interest to the group of people that collected around me.  My room is about 15 x 15 ft. square with a high ceiling of rough planks, the wall is of white plaster, cracked and covered with Arabic writing done by past inhabitants – same double blanket (not very fresh).  There are 4 beds, but I am the only guest tonight.
The desert of Palmira
 (Next entry)
The room was musty and cold when I woke – The landlord of the hotel had knocked to wake me – he spoke French and Arabic.  After a breakfast of old bread and honey,  I went out into the street to buy my morning tea.  Even in the cold sunlight there was arill dust hanging in the air  - soon local kids came running up top me shouting “Baksheesh”! One tugged at my sleeve and when I turned to him – he cringed and held up his arm to protect himself from the memory of past blows... Suddenly I heard someone call “John, John” and there was a strange man who had heard about the American in town – he invited me to the family home for tea, We entered through a doorway in a plain looking mud brick wall – inside was a large courtyard with date palms and a fountain... up a flight of stairs was the living room – this was apparently one of the wealthier homes in town...
Small tower of the dead

On the wall was a large picture of Nasser - The men of the family noticed my interest and said in Syria there were 3 people of importance - Allah, Mohammed, and Abdul Nasser.  Red tea was served in small glasses – very sweet... I was invited to eat dates – small and sweet like honey. I thanked them for their hospitality and went out into the narrow street. There were not many shops in town – but I found a all purpose store with some hand made items - here I found a hand made Bedouin knife - a bit crude in construction – but a real specimen of local craftsmanship – I bought it for 4 Lira.  I encountered a group of young travelling Germans and we set out together to see the ruins of Palmira – once an important oasis on the Silk route to Asia.  There on the distant mountains stood the golden brown ruins of the ancient city.  Here was a great temple to Baal, pillar lined streets leading into the valley of the dead, and other to the main street of the city.
Palmira - arch
The valley of the dead had rows of 5 story towers – each was a sort of mausoleum for storing the dead. The area was a major historical treasure and the Syrian government was making great efforts to restore years of neglect. The city also featured a series of smaller temples, a market area, large theater, and the center of power – a castle built more recently... Once we climbed the hill to approach the castle, we passed over fields of pottery shards, up loose rocks, across a moat, and we found a small hole knocked through the SE corner of the wall through which we could enter – inside we found numerous defense rooms with slit windows, also rooms for storage, sleeping, and a throne room...

The ruins of Palmira
After seeing the antiquities we returned to the town of Palmira into a date orchard area – lined with 7 ft. walls and canals for water – it became clear that this was a carefully managed oasis with a limited water source carefully allocated.   They also grew figs, pomegranates, grapes and apricots.  I was invited to climb a date palm and pick some dates fresh from the tree.  This proved to be harder than I thought – but I got the dates!
The walk back to the village was about 2 km and we were tired and thirsty from our busy day – We went to the only cafe in town and the food available was a plate of pilaf and meat (sheep or goat) for 1.40 Lira... it turned out to be practically uneatable – Ity was much like last night...the pilaf was old and dry, each grain covered in cold mutton grease.  When I got back to the hotel I found that I now had 2 roommates – 2 Arabs – they ate and smoked until late  - they snored mightily!
(Next entry)
Walls of Damascus
Another cold clear morning greeted my senses as I checked out of the ‘hotel’.  I shook hands with the proprietor and taking my pack on my back, I set out to buy dates to eat during the day... but without success.  I bought my bus ticket to return to Homs , fought my pack back onto the bus, and settled down for the long ride. I found it quite thrilling to see a great herd of camels – They reach down to pluck a bit of grass then stand erect to chew it while looking curiously around them.  Several Bedouin men joined our bus from time to time – they got on very gravely and majestically.  One Bedouin woman with black vein over her face got on and sat next to me – through the vein I could see that she was young and quite beautiful and clearly curious about this young American.

Syrians and a bedouin tent
(next entry)
The bus arrived in Damascus about 6 PM..What a grand experience to arrive in a strange middle eastern city at such an hour. In the twilight, people on foot  were everywhere!  The streets appeared somewhat more western, but not quite European.  The women were all veiled.  Men standing in groups would stop their talk as I passed and turn to look at me. Loud Arabic popular music came from open cafe doors.   How wonderful it felt to have all my possessions on my back - to walk free and unattached into the unknown of a strange city at this magic hour.  And hurrah! There was a youth hostel - with  good company -good food right next door- a hot shower –and soft beds -  I slept well.

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Return Next Week for part two!

Map of Syria