Saturday, 26 September 2009

My voice rings out, this time, from Damascus

Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote many poems about his beloved Damascus. I just spent 4 days there. And this poem, Damascus, what are you doint to me?, describes almost exactly what I experienced. Still, I will share my own words about it. This is going to be a long post.

We arrived the morning of Day 3 of Eid Al Fitr to extremley quiet, almost deserted streets. Syria has the entire week off and most shops will be closed, we're told. Inhabitants of Damascus travel to Latakia and other holiday destinations to get away from the city. Nice of them to clear out for us. Almost all 3 million of them. I wondered then about Cairo. What would Cairo look like if all of its 20 million inhabitants left for a week. I wondered about Cairo a lot on this trip.

So we checked into the Cham Palace and proceeded to the first tour. An interesting group of people traveling from Dubai on this Emirates packaged tour: Egyptians, Iraqis, Emiratis, one Australian, 2 Brits, one South African and a Morroccan. That's Dubai for you. Anyway, driving through the quiet streets in the direction of the Lebanese border, heading to Zabadani & Bloudan, we meet Nabil - our tour guide for the next 3 days. Nabil is quite a character. He's been a tour guide in Syria for 15 years, speaks fluent English, German and French. Neglected to get a photo of him, but I found that other people did, so here he is. It's not easy to communicate with and please every tourist in such a diverse group. He addressed everyone by name, was always pleasant and is an information mine.

First stop - Zabadani. The shrine of Abel. It is said that Cain slew Abel on Mt. Kassioun in Damascus. There is no explanation as to why, in that case, Abel's body was buried all the way in the Zabadani valley (at least 50 km away).

In the evening we walked through Old Damascus. The people appeared. It was jam packed and really difficult to walk without losing everyone. Got to see the Ummayyad Mosque by night, which was nice. But this wasn't the best impression I got of the old town. But... we were fortunate enough to spend another entire evening there on our last night. I'll save that part till the end.

Anyway, so we had dinner in Beit El Jabri restaurant in the old town. I had the greasiest shawerma in the world, and needless to say, the next morning my stomach was very unhappy with me. I always thought having eaten street food in Cairo for years (and more recently in Jakarta), my stomach could take anything. But not this, apparently. And so I had to skip the next morning's trip the National Museum.

Eventually felt strong enough to move and joined the group at the Umayyad Mosque. A Roman temple, turned Christian church, turned mosque -- all clearly visible in the architecture of the place. Nabil emphasised a great deal that Syria is a secular society, free of any religious conflict or discrimination. "Religion is for God, Syria is for all", he repeated. I have to say, this came as a surprise to me, because, well, frankly all Arab societies have some level of religious intolerance. But then, throughout the 4 days I spent here, I didn't see any signs of extremity, intolerance, or anything. Not around this old part of town or even later in Sednaya and Maalula (location of the oldest Christian convent). Comparing with Egypt again: if you get into a Cairo taxi, you're bound to see an obvious sign of the driver's religion: either Quranic verses or a cross hanging from the mirror, or a Quran or a photo of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. Didn't see any of this in Damascus...

Next it was time for some unavoidable must-do tacky tourism! The studios of Bab El Hara. I never watched any Syrian TV drama before this one, but I watched all 4 seasons religously :) Anyway, I won't dwell too much here, but needless to say one forgets how disillusioning seeing the real thing can be. It was the location where they filmed the street scenes and the exteriors. So it's a bunch of little roads that look like an old village, with some big wooden doors and a couple of shops. Hehe, sorry, but that's really all there is to it!

Then we went to 1001 Nights restaurant for lunch... Random. A gigantic genie's lamp stuck on a super high pole for lost drivers to find this place, which is on the airport road. Looks like something out of the tale of 1001 nights - and there's a replica of the leaning tower of Pisa there. Like I said, random.

Then up to Mt Kassioun for a view of Damascus from 1200m above sea level. All the green lights are the minarets from the mosques. There are 4,000 mosques in Syria, Nabil said. And 800 churches.

And of these 800 churches, are Mar Sarkis and Bakhos in Maaloula and the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya .

A handful of us opted to go on this tour. Nabil couldn't join us, so that morning we met not one, but two new guides. Omar and (I can't remember the other one's name, but let's call him Amjad because it sounded like that). So Omar and Amjad have just graduated from high school and are about to start their freshman year at college, to get a degree in tourism. They are both 18 years old and have been training with tour guides in Syria for 2 months. I wasn't cynical at all, you know. I thought, ok, cool, young, enthusiastic boys with a passion for history. We arrive at Mar Sakis, and Omar starts to mumble something about it being built in 325 A.D. and that there's s souvenir shop downstairs. Oh dear.

We walk down towards Mar Taqla, the shrine of St. Taqla, the daughter of a pagan ruler. She converted to Christianity and fled to escape her father's wrath. She prayed for help and God split the mountains for her to hide, and so we walked through that split.

At this point, we decided Omar and Amjad need to study harder. So we called Nabil. Although he had the morning off, and he works with a different company, within 40 minutes he drover up and came to the rescue! What a gent! We went back to Maaloula and started from the top, to learn that Mar Sarkis was a temple dedicated to Apollo, converted to a shrine for Saints Sarkis and Bachos, the last martyrs of Christianity. The cedar wood in the walls is said to date back 2000 years. Maaloula and Saidnaya are the only places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken and taught.

Thank you, Nabil.

We checked out of the Cham Palace and relocated to the old town for our last night, which we spent in Beit Zaman. As of this moment, the experience changed completely. Away from the schedules, the guided tours and the big bus, we spent the next 8 hours, not exaggerating, 8 hours, walking through old Damascus. Guided only by Salah, a friend and a real Damascene, this was simply beautiful. Starting from the Via Recta, through the spice souk and every alley in the area. It was a Friday evening, so although quite a few shops were closed, it was still relatively busy, but clear enough for a pleasant walk.

Again I wondered about Cairo. Could I possibly walk through Khan el Khalili for example without getting a single nasty comment or even grabbed. In Damascus, none of that. Nothing.

Salah took us around the area of the Ummayyad Mosque again, and to Al Nofra coffee shop. This place is 80 years old. And just our luck, the hakawati was there! We sat down for some tea and listened to the story - from which I barely understood a word, but loved it, and laughed all the way through it anyway.

We stood for a minute taking photos, and along came the nuts seller from across the street offering us a taste. Salah then decided to buy some pistachios. So he crossed to other side. The next sequence of events was phenomenal. Along came another seller, so mum went with this other guy just to have a look and get an idea of prices. Oh. My God. Seller #1 lost it. "You thief! You stole my customer. You stole her from in front of MY SHOP" Seller #2 "No, I DID NOT. She wasn't even in your shop you @@#$^%^^^". And lots of "3#@%%@&^&*&&!!@$" , intense shouting, smashing and throwing of things. It was out of control. We barely escaped after seller #1 offered to sell us for half of whatever seller #2 offered! Turned out after that these two are actually cousins, who do this on a daily basis. I wanted to film this, but I was scared. You cannot imagine how aggressive they got, you'd think one of them set the other's shop on fire.

Through the alleys once again, and a few steps from here, I met Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Shahin. I walked in to browse through a couple of drawings that caught my attention, then saw a couple of books in German. So I asked him - "do you write in German"? He replied, in what was a very strong Palestinian accent, "no, these are translations of my work." "You're not from here...", I asked. No, Mahmoud is from Jeruslam. He's been in Syria since 1971 and in this shop for 6 months. Before that, he had another shop a few streets away, but he was evicted and his work thrown in the street, because he refused to pay double the rent. After a long chat, and a couple of purchases, Mahmoud smiled and humbly showed me his menion in the Lonely Planet guide to Syria.

Will I go back to Damascus? Maybe. But this is how I want to remember it. From that last 8-hour walk. So maybe not...

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Game

You may have already heard about ‘The Game’. You may have already played it or perhaps had it played on you.

A growing subculture of men have made it their life’s mission to formulate surefire strategies for picking up women. These include the use of ‘peacocking’ or wearing attention grabbing attire as a conversation starter, the art of ‘negging’ – using backhanded compliments to deflate a woman's self esteem or gaining the acceptance of her companions as a way to bypass any potential resistance on her part. There is also an abundance of theories on how a woman should be approached (never directly, always at an angle), how to calculate her level of interest and how to keep her desperately hanging on through a series of push/pull tactics.

Theories draw on established sociological concepts like neuro-linguistic programming or techniques such as hypnosis to gain an edge.

Neil Strauss, a freelance journalist, first came into contact with the Pick Up Artists (PUAs) in an attempt to overcome his lack of self confidence and inability to connect with women in social situations. According to his book, within two years he became a community guru and claims to have slept with thousands of women.

His book is interesting reading until about halfway through. Apart from featuring fairly one dimensional women, Neil's fellow PUAs seem to be suffering from an assortment of underlying issues and the book ends up being a chronicle of their various disillusionments and emotional breakdowns.

There is enough evidence in Neil’s story however to suggest that this type of social manipulation can be very successful in male/female dynamics. Using behavioral techniques to influence other people is nothing new; we see this all the time in negotiation, sales, therapy and magic.

Having said that, there is also lots of anecdotal evidence about guys taking these theories on as gospel and bulldozing through memorized passages or ‘openers’ on dates regardless of their appropriateness or the nature of the person they are with. Often unsuccessfully.

A friend of mine recently went on a date with a man who claimed to be an international jewel thief (PUAs recommend giving unlikely job descriptions as a way of being aloof yet charmingly sarcastic - a word of advice, not everyone can pull this off). He then interrupted her story about kittens to loudly state that he, by the way, did not kiss on the first date so she should not keep her hopes up - another PUA endorsed scheme.

She was unimpressed.

Another friend was told the following shortly before deciding she had better things to do with her precious free time than to be underhandedly insulted by someone she had just met.

“I love your sarcasm – do you have a problem making friends?”

I can’t say I have an issue with this in general. Approaching a stranger and trying to initiate conversation is difficult, let alone trying to make a connection. This is especially difficult when it comes to men approaching women.

Eventually however, the lines will run out and one's true self shines through. It would be a shame to realize that you have wasted not only your own, but someone else's time - a commodity that often feels like it is in short supply.

Unless if you really do just want to drift aimlessly from one purely physical, short term relationship to another. In which case, you would probably feel right at home.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Tony - he's terrrrific!

In June 2007, Tony Blair’s excruciatingly long journey to resignation ended only to be shortly followed by the announcement that he would take on the role of Middle East Envoy on behalf of the Quartet (US, Russia, the UN and the EU).

The role, previously occupied by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, is mainly concerned with matters to do with Palestinian governance, economics and security. Wolfensohn resigned from the position in under a year citing frustration with a lack of progress.

During his final Prime Minister’s Questions, Blair told MPs: "The absolute priority is to try to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community – that the only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is a two-state solution."

Blair also claimed to have an “ambitious but achievable plan” to get the Middle East peace process back on track. Not to be a cynic, but in the ten years that Tony Blair was PM his foreign policy “plans” were somewhat less than inspiring and certainly nowhere close to achievable.

So what has Tony done in the past two years since being appointed Middle East Envoy? Well I’ll tell you what he certainly hasn’t done – he hasn’t made any official contact with Hamas who, despite the wishes of many, is still the democratically elected government of the Palestinians. He has yet to make any real progress in mediating between Palestinians and Israelis and he has, pathetically, only been to Gaza once during the past two years. He was also heavily criticized for being generally not there during Israel’s devastating attacks on Gaza in January 2009.

Actually, I'm being unfair. Tony does spend about one week per month in the Middle East. Living it up nicely in East Jerusalem he hobnobs with generals and journalists while eating olives and drinking Arabic coffee. And, the reason he has only made one very recent visit to Gaza was because of security concerns. It's not his fault, how could he have known Gaza was a dangerous place when he first took on the role?

One wonders why he would even take the job in the first place. It can't be the money because firstly he's doing it for free (despite claims by the Daily Mail that his role is actually costing the British taxpayer £400,000) and secondly Tony is actually doing very well post PM. His speaking engagements come with a price tag of £100,000, his real estate portfolio is prolific and his consultancy roles with JP Morgan and Zurich reportedly bag him six figure salaries each.

Could it be Tony just can’t let go of the limelight?

It's a mystery to me. What I do know is that Tony's done not such a terrific job over the past two years and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a gaping, bleeding wound with little hope for the future.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sally questions Santa's sex

So my friend Sally, whose wedding I went to New York for in June, is a brilliant writer and has an incredibly active imagination. She's great material for what could be a very popular blog on any subject you can think of. Except that Sally is resistant to blogging, and prefers writing her thoughts in private emails and Facebook messages. So I decided to steal one of those notes, and blog it myself on her behalf. Depending on feedback (if any) , she'll either decide to start her own blog, or stop sending me this stuff because I will continue to steal it :) So here goes the first one:

Sally writes, from Brooklyn, New York:

"So for some reason they've been showing a lot of festive movies, particularity in the spirit of xmas, although why in august, i have no idea? i mean it's still warm outside for pete's sake?! but in any case it's got me thinking....why is santa a man? there's no way he could be a man..seriously....I hate to be the one to defy sacred myth, but I believe he's a she. Think about it. Christmas is a big, organized, warm, fuzzy, nurturing social deal, and I have a tough time believing a guy could possibly pull it all off!

For starters, the vast majority of men don't even think about selecting gifts until Christmas Eve. On this count alone, I'm convinced Santa is a woman. Surely, if Santa were a man, everyone in the universe would wake on Christmas morning to find a socket wrench or some equally male-related gift under the tree….or worse yet…STILL IN THE BAG!

Another problem for a he-Santa would be getting there. First, there would be no reindeer because they would all be dead, I’m sure he’s forgotten to feed them. Or they’d be gutted and strapped onto the rear bumper of the sleigh amid wide-eyed, desperate claims ‘they just ran out in front of the sleigh!’

Even if the male Santa DID have reindeer, he'd still have transportation problems because he would inevitably get lost up there in the snow and clouds -- and then refuse to stop and ask for directions.

Other reasons why Santa can't possibly be a man:
• A man can't pack a bag.
• Men would rather be dead than caught wearing red velvet.
• Men would feel their masculinity is threatened...having to be seen with
all those elves.
• Men don't answer their mail.
• Men aren't interested in stockings unless somebody's wearing them.
• Having to do the "Ho Ho Ho" thing would seriously inhibit their ability to
pick up women.
• Finally, being responsible for Christmas would require a commitment.

I can buy the fact that other mythical holiday characters are men ...
•Father Time shows up once a year, unshaven and looking ominous. Definite guy.
• Cupid flies around carrying weapons.
• Uncle Sam is a politician who likes to point fingers.

Any one of these individuals could pass the testosterone screening test. But Santa Claus? Not a chance.

Just thought I'd share ;-)) "