Sunday, 11 October 2009

Back from Damascus

What a wonderful trip it was. Anxious mother converted to reassured mother. Axis of evil unidentifiable. Very friendly place, very few beards.*

The first thing you notice about Syria, arriving in the dark, is that there are pictures of Mr Assad everywhere.

He was even gazing benevolently down upon us as we sat draped in a sheet, drinking sweet tea, in a Hammam.

This is not a picture of the Hammam we went to, and obviously it was women only when we went, but I don't have a pic for you :-)

Syria is a police state, but this has some advantages over our own. For example, the people are forbidden for blethering on about religion, except in context, i.e. in a church or a mosque. This was refreshing. Also, Muslims and Christians and all their different sub sects seemed to get along fine, not simply tolerating each other.

What with the £ being worth two thirds of what it was (there are 70ish SYP to the £)and two million Iraqi refugees, never mind the Palestinians, the cost of accommodation in Damascus is relatively high. Hotels cost what they do here. We stayed in a Hostel (twin room, private shower, breakfast, extraordinarily helpful and friendly staff) for 40 Euros a night so we were in the budget range, but it was very conveniently located, welcoming and fun. They also met us at the airport.

Food is very cheap. We had a blow out meal at the best restaurant in the Old City, three courses and way more than we could eat for £30 on the last night. Generally we were hard pressed to spend a tenner on a restaurant meal and could buy delicious falafel wraps for 30pence and a freshly squeezed juice for 50pence. I thought "Old Holborn would love this..all his family could eat at the best restaurant in town for £15 a head!"

There were not huge quantities of European tourists, and most of those were retired French folk. The souk was used by the locals and not just tourists. Prices varied wildly but Calfy and I were fairly ruthless barterers...I don't mind bartering at all, in fact I have trouble stopping when I get back to the UK.

There were off licences in the Christian Quarter but I only drank on the last night, and then only a single lovely beer...alcohol is not at all practical in that searing heat and I didn't miss it. I also heard that Syrian wine is not up to much. Give me fresh lemon and mint any day. And so they did.

Calfy bought a pirate dvd of was an immaculate rip off offering Arabic, Arabic with English subtitles, English with Arabic Subtitles, English, French, French with Arabic subtitles etc.. and all the extras were on there too. £0.50. A bargain way of learning the language :-) We didn't buy any music as the performers don't get any royalties, but didn't mind Disney.

People were very helpful. Random strangers would help us get onto the right bus, even if it meant getting off the bus themselves and crossing the (alarming) roads with us, and flagging down the appropriate bus. We saw a lot of women in hijabs but it just seemed a very practical option with all the dust about, and combined with skinny jeans, Victoria Beckham style heels and as much makeup as you might see on a transvestite, hardly "modest" or oppressive.

I will see if I can organise a few holiday snapshots to bore you with and write some more soon. In the meantime, do visit Calfy's Blog as she is still out there and has a much better camera.

Beards have their (limited) place. They are acceptable if

A) shaving brings the face up in a ghastly rash that takes days to subside e.g. My mate Mark

B) if the chin is indistinguishable from the neck e.g. Jerry Garcia

C) the shaven chin causes the poor chap to be mistaken for 16 in spite of being 30
e.g. My mate Greg

D) the beard wearer just looks weird without one e.g my mate Electro-Kevin

E)the wearer is ancient and female

I am not a beard fascist and I am prepared to allow that there may be some other perfectly good reasons for wearing a beard, but being a nonce or a sky pixie enthusiast, or a lazy hippie with an illegal ponytail and a bald patch are NOT examples of them.


Blue Eyes said...

Great stuff! I was supposed to be going this year but it all fell apart due to lack of organisation. You have re-inspired me to go!

Scrobs... said...

If you do go Blues, there's a great lady by the name of Calfy, who'll probably have started a business selling eiderdowns by the time you get there...

Welcome back Lils, I bet the Waitrose in Bath will get a battering this week with all that pent-up haggling!

electro-kevin said...

It's true. I do look weird without a beard.

I'm glad you enjoyed your trip and Calfy sounds like she's got her head screwed on. Even if she DOES get herself arrested every so often.

Nomad said...

Lilith: Welcome back. Damascus was one of my favourite haunts (after The Lebanon, pre-1975, and Jordan). Sounds like the old place has hardly changed in the past 20 years. I am sure Miss Calfy will have a whale of a time over the next few months. Hope you got to sample the local goat cheese for breakfast!

lilith said...

You must go Blue Eyes if you have a yen to. Flight £310, visa £50 (takes a week) Fantastic Roman ruins.

lilith said...

Sadly Scrobs, unless Bath Waitrose Branch accept my haggling I am no longer able to shop there...

Calfy has dived into learning the lingo and could do it in the local dialect by the time we left :-) I could say "thank you" and "how much" and "blimey, that's a bit pricey".

Thanks Kev. You look handsome with one. Calfy seemed as confident as anyone in a strange land without the lingo could be. She got an upset tum after I left but is recovering :-)

Nomad, I think it can't be all that different. Parts of it reminded me of Andalusia twenty five years ago, with the locals looking very similar. There is also a lot of building work going on, as there was in Spain back then, endless concrete apartments and some swanky hotels. And yes, goat's cheese balls for breakfast...Calfy photographed them, but hasn't posted. I liked all the tea and syrupy coffee too. Brought back some Flower Tea and lots of yummy soap.

Philipa said...

'cept you forgot those who shave and then 10 mins later have a 5-o-clock shadow. I knew a chap who wet-shaved twice a day because he didn't like beards and he always looked as if he needed a shave, poor bloke.

Anyway, WELCOME HOME LILS!! I did miss you, it's true. Did you get any frankincense?

Loved the write up and hope for more and more pics. I did look at Calfy's and it's on my blog roll. So glad you both had a great time xx

Philipa said...

PS: I started haggling as soon as I got my student union card. It was kindof permission.

idle said...

The problem with beards is when they are no longer a beard but either designer stubble (Chas Clarke, Sralan Sugar), a goatee (Branson et al) or one of those horrific Novelty Facial Hair things (you know, very thin strips like seams).

I don't mean to be beastly about people I know who have beards. E-K carries his off quite well.

But as a rule, they should be treated with caution if they are not the full issue (either a tailored House of Windsor or a bushy David Bellamy).

Old Holborn said...

Damascus is my favourite Arab city.

(Marrakesh is 2nd)

Welcome back

Elby the Beserk said...

We're thinking of a return - for L, anyway, and a first time for me - for our honeymoon.

Marrakech I spent a wonderful week in in 1971, part of two months in Morocco on next to nothing. Wonderful time. It it wasn't for governments and the 'effin Islamists, we'd get on just fine with the Arab world.

Blue Eyes said...

L - can one get away with knowing no Arabic?

lilith said...

Thanks Pip :-) I do feel sorry for the Desperate Dan type...

Iders, quite so. Strange little triangles under the bottom lip do my head in.

OH, well, well, well. I imagined you'd like it and you do :-)

BE...I didn't speak any Arabic before I went...maybe a few words crammed in the previous week, like Shukran (thank you) and Ureed cahwah minfudluk (I'd like a coffee please) and Afwan (excuse me)...English and French are widely spoken, but mostly English these days. Tasharafna (wonderful to meet you) was useful too :-)

Philipa said...

Desperate Dan! That's it! *collapses in giggles* (I used to have the Beano and Dandy delivered)

Kissing a bearded man is a lottery - you may get remnants of lunch.

Calfy said...

I compulsively proofed this- Shrek isn't Disney

Tuscan Tony said...

It sounds an amazing place. My pro-photographer friend and a friend of his toured North Africa in January on big bikes, he went to Syria and some other equally odd-sounding-to-the-outsider places and loved each and every one of them. Friendly people, good food and, surprisingly, safe.

fuchsia groan said...

Glad to hear you had a great time Lilith. I love visiting Arabic countries, love the vibe. We are going to Marrakech in December, can't wait.

woman on a raft said...

Lovely to have you back, Lilith. Did you find any rose oil or suitable suppliers?

call me ishmael said...

Death to beardies.

mutleythedog said...

That President fella looks oddly familiar... was he ever in Monty Python or The Young Ones ?

Philipa said...

No, Shrek is... oh they had a south bank prog on it the other night... animated lamp thing... Pixar studios?

lilith said...

You are right Calfy, Pip.

Mr Smith hows this for an entirely unprovoked beard.

lilith said...

Hmmm Fuchsia must try Marrakesh too :-)

Yes WOAR, lots of lovely oil and soap. I am going to ask Calfy to post some more of the Gardenia and Jasmine :-)

lilith said...

Yes TT, safe and cool. The taxi drivers will never give out change however, so if you don't want to pay huge amounts carry some small change :-) And the sides of the cabs are bashed to bits :-? So yes, safe, away from the roads! Don't take your best motor..

Mutley the link I left you for magnesium should work, but don't cause any fires, OK? I think you recognise Mr Assad from the laser eye treatment he gave you back in the '90s.

Calfy said...

Khalid got 35 change yesterday from a hundred!!!

Nomad said...

Oh dear, there goes the neighbourhood. Once all these British tourists discover the joys of Damasacus and the rest of Syria, the place will go to the dogs (a bit like Benidorm). Please try not to discover too much of rural Jordan.

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend over 3 years wandering about in Morocco in the early 1960s, covering the whole magnificent country from the Med and the Algerian border to the deep southern desert lands with its Berbers and camel trains going down to Timbuctoo. This (happily) was well before the hippies "discovered" Marrakesh and the druggie culture. Marrakesh changed somewhat after that invasion and now extensive development on the outer edges of the old town have rather spoiled what used to be a quiet beautiful desert walled-oasis town on the plains to the south of the Atlas mountains. Churchill used to spend his holidays there and in the 1960s the comedian Kenneth Williams was a regular visitor to Tangiers. It is a while since I was last in Morocco, but Mandypandy still goes to Marrakesh, so maybe the splendiferous Mamounia Hotel still has something to offer.

Old Holborn said...

I went out for a packet of fags in 1980, aged 18 and by a strange series of events, ended up in France picking grapes, then onto Morocco for three months of living with a tribe of Nomads moving to the Algerian desert in bastard tents.

My mum wasn't best pleased when I finally got back.

Old Holborn said...

Anyone going to Marakesh needs to eat at Yacout

Food is so so (8 courses) but free wine and utterly amazing.

lilith said...

Khaled is totally cool, Calfy!

Nomad said

"Oh dear, there goes the neighbourhood. Once all these British tourists discover the joys of Damasacus and the rest of Syria, the place will go to the dogs (a bit like Benidorm). Please try not to discover too much of rural Jordan."

Oh, the irony :-)

Did the hippies really extensively develop outside the Marrakesh city walls? How did they get that together? Your comment inspired a "when I returned from Marrakesh in the early 70's" anecdote from Elby...

Posh and singular young/old women have been travelling East since before you were a twinkle in your Grandpappy's eye, Nomad...blazing the trail for you :-)

lilith said...

Funny how life happens like that Old Holborn :-) I expect your "when I returned from Marrakesh in the early 80's" anecdote is equally amusing :-)

Nomad said...

Objection, M'Lud!

I did not say in any way shape or form that the hippies were responsible for the subsequent development of outer Marrakesh, but they certainly helped to put the place on the map!

For the record, it was actually the French Governor, General Lyautey, who was responsible for the very sensitive early development of much of Morocco. He always made a point of not touching the existing old towns and leaving things as they had been for centuries. This is why the old towns such as Fez, Meknes, Essouira and Marrakesh are still as crowded and interesting as they always were.

The irony in my opening paragraph earlier was intended - and I am pleased it was not missed! But I really do hope that the Levantine countries are not invaded by planeloads of lager swilling louts in Engerland football shirts. I am sure you will agree they would not go down well in the souk in Damascus.

I take your point about famous (male and) female travellers to that part of the world, and without wishing to make too much of it, during my ramblings around the middle east and north Africa in the 1960s and 70s, I was privileged enough to meet and indeed have tea and biscuits with some extremely old timers (all now long dead) who preceded me, including in Kuwait a venerable old English lady, the widow of some long-dead bigwig there, then in her late 80s or early 90s who had spent much of her life there and who had a small house by the sea, but whose name now regrettably escapes me. She was loved and adored by all the Kuwaitis who treated her as one of their own. Everybody knew her. In Abu Dhabi, then just a small fishing settlement on Abu Dhabi island rather than the monstrosity it has become today, I also encountered [Google him] Sir Hugh Boustead, another very long-time Arabian resident whose biography "Wind of the Morning" decorates my bookshelves, and who was at the time in charge of the ruler's stables housing a collection of magnificent horses.

Such people who travelled to that part of the world, fell in love with it and decided to stay could be found dotted around here and there. There were lots of French folks (pieds-noirs) too who decided to stay on there after Morocco got its Independence who had been in the country for years.

Nonetheless, I maintain that in those days it was extremely rare to meet Brits (or other Europeans) of either sex anywhere in that part of the world who were not working for either a western embassy, an oil company or a local branch of an international banks. Ease of travel these days has of course changed that. If you have six weeks to spare, hire a car at the airport and go touring in Morocco!

lilith said...

Thanks Nomad, I will check it out :-)