Jun 25, 2007
I start learning about current events here in Syria while hanging out at my hotel. Some of the people staying in my hotel are American students studying Arabic. They are trying to move out of the hotel into apartments, but are unable to due to a huge housing crisis. Iraqi refugees currently take up 75% of the student-type housing.
The highlight of Damascus is the old city and the amazing Souk (market). The old town of Damascus is beautiful, relaxing, and largely shaded due to the narrow walkways. The souk is my favorite market anywhere in the world, except perhaps the market of Marakesh, which today I only have vague memories of from years ago. The Damascus market has everything that you'd expect to find in a Middle Eastern market - spices, sheesha, clothing, perfume, etc. But it is immense, and has a certain style and flair to it.
On a side street near the market, we meet a character named Papa Joseph. He convinces us to go and see his shop for the view from the 3rd floor, and tells us a bit about Damascus and its' history. He's a Christian, and starts complaining about how the Muslims stole their church 1300 years ago. He's still bitter about it. In Damascus, he tells us, the Muslims make the textiles, the Christians do the inlay work, and the Jews do the brass work. This is traditional, but apparently largely still true today. "Jews?" I ask him. The remnants of what was once a large and thriving Jewish community in Damascus is down to about 20 families today.
The stolen church Papa Joseph was complaining about has long since been rebuilt as the Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and most important mosques anywhere in the world. But the history actually goes way back before the church. The earliest ruins found show that the location was the site of an Aramaean temple to Hadad in the 12th century BC. Later it became a temple to Jupiter during the Roman rule, and then in the Byzantine Era the Christians built the Church here, dedicating it to John the Baptist. The Muslims and Christians shared the site for a brief time during the 600s, but then in 705, the Muslims pushed out the Christians, and demolished the church and built the current Mosque on the site.
John the Baptist is holy to both Christians and the Muslims and his head is supposedly still kept here in the mosque. Sunnis and the Shi'ites both pray here in their own styles. It's all a bit incongruous too see Sunni kids running around and playing in one half of it, with Shi'ites crying in the corner containing the shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet.
Only a block away from the Umayyad Mosque, is the modern Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque built by Iranians in the 1980s. It's a holy place of worship, but it's more kitsch than Vegas. The mosque interior is decorated in all green and gold, with chandeliers like disco balls hanging in the center. At first I felt a bit awkward taking photos in the midst of a place of worship, but in the crowd were Muslims taking photos of their kids, or smiling and posing for group shots.
Photos of Bashar al-Asaad are everywhere around Damascus as I said in the previous entry. But photos of Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, smiling as he blows stuff up, come in a distant second place. Hezbollah does indeed have a lot of support in this country.
I feel that I must comment on the red head connection - you might think that I, with red hair with freckles, would completely stand out in a place like Syria, but not so much.
A group of redheads originated in the Kazak in what is today Georgia (the one near Russia, not next to Florida). There was an active trading route for many centuries that connected the Mediterranean, moving goods and people between the areas around Turkey (including the Kazak state) and Egypt and beyond. Redheads spread all over the Middle East. Indeed, a whole class of warrior slaves called the Mamluks were brought from Turkey down to Egypt and this included some redheaded Kazaks. The Mamluks ended up overthrowing the ruling Sultans of Egypt. And then, in 1347 a red haired, freckled, Mamluk named Sultan Hasan ascended to the throne and ruled over Cairo. He built the largest mosque in Cairo standing today. Today, there remain only a few redheads in Cairo. But in Syria, closer to Georgia, there are a lot of redheads. Walking around Damascus, I'm amazed at the number of redheads I see.
In the middle of the old town, there exists an invisible line separating the Muslim and the Christian quarters. On one street, all of the women are covered head-to-toe in black, wearing veils. Then on the very next street the women are dressed in very tight jeans, with shirts showing off their cleavage. The difference can be rather shocking. But they seem to live side-by-side in relative harmony.
I ask directions to the Bab as-Salaama Gate from a Syrian guy who speaks great English. When I asked him where he learned English, he told me that he learned everything from listening to American music. In addition to giving me directions, he tells me that as it's Friday night I have to go out to Club Surai. Back at the hotel, I ask a Spanish girl who has lived Damascus for two years about the club. She's also going. So I guess that Club Surai is indeed the place to be in Damascus on a Friday night. I can't miss it!
I walk to the club with people from my hotel. At the door, the bouncer asks if we have reservations. What the hell? Reservations for a disco? We tell him we're just going to sit at the bar, and he lets us in. The cover charge is a slightly hefty 500 LE (US$10), but that includes two very strong drinks made from imported alcohol. I'm thrilled with the imported alcohol after all of the local crap in Egypt.
I look around the bar. One wall, part of the old city wall, is made from ancient stone. There are log-cabin type roof supports, with massive crystal chandeliers, and a disco ball behind the bar. This place is a bit classy and expensive, but what look are they going for?
The club is quiet when we arrive, but slowly fills full up with people dancing. It's a very western scene, though most of the people are Syrian. In the Christian quarter the clothes were a bit tight, but now at the disco, some of the girls are indeed looking downright slutty. There are also some very shifty looking Russian characters hanging out. But what the hell. I'm having fun, and I'm clubbing in Damascus.
Leave a comment! I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading.
Wow I'm surprised there are so many Gingers in Syria. Now were these full blooded Gingers, without souls? or just partial ones? (Daywalkers). You should also give some thought to hooking up these poor Gingers in Syria with the Ginger kid foundation, they help out as best as they can with the Ginger "Situation" around the world....