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is a world apart makes me realise afresh the raw courage Matthew had to come here as he did. It was two years ago to the day when his train from Istanbul arrived in Aleppo.
Hotel al Rabie is our initial base - 3 nights booked to start with before going to Matts but we might stay here longer and maybe let Tim stay on his own with Matt.
Day 2 - Sun 29th March 09 Matt came here for breakfast then we walked up to the Citadel; passing a pitiful pet shop stall en-route. It was distressing seeing the conditions the animals were kept in. 12 hours later Tim would be speculating what he would do if he won a million pounds - "Buy all the animals and set them free". The souk was better than I remembered the souks of Tunisia - there was little being pestered by vendors and the sense of smell has dulled over the years -but I had the same feeling I get walking round the Swan centre at Eastleigh..."why would I ever want to buy THAT?". The mosque of Umayaad was an unexpected experience in many ways. I was captivated by the beautiful serenity of the giant, white courtyard where the reflections seemed to root the sky down in the depths of the earth. But I was left cold and unmoved by the giant emptiness of the sanctuary area where the complete absence of a focal point made it feel like an aircraft hanger.
After the mosque we walked on through the Souk until intercepted by Farood who brought us into his shop and spoke to us in excellent English (acquired "in the university of Hamidaya Souk"). He was a great storyteller and ended up taking us round to his "Aladdin's Cave" down the Street where he had a room completely kitted in Islamic fashion from the ceiling panels to the wall hangings - part of the family business.
The afternoon was spent wandering round to find a restaurant and then exploring the delightful alleys of the old town. We were struck by the easy friendliness of the people. In Mexico I felt continually bombarded by street sellers and beggars; I felt I was an object of commercial opportunity rather than a human being. Here it is different . We are still approached by the street sellers but fewer approach and still fewer pester. We have had a number of greetings by complete strangers, merely for the sake of communication. We have also had shopkeepers ignore us while we browsed; something that made shopping a more pleasurable activity.
Day 3 Monday Matt joined us for breakfast then we walked up to his house, stopping at the juice shop en-route and drinking wonderful smoothies in the park. Matt's roof garden was wonderful and we are looking at getting a load of plants from the nursery to green it up. We got a taxi back to the Old City to visit the museum of Arabic Science and Medicine. Matthew went back to teach while Tim,Terry and I visited the botanic garden for lunch. The cheese and mint wrap was delicious and Tim got a giant ice cream but unfortunately I had to leave before I could offer to help him eat it. I walked up to Matt's house to give the students a lesson on earthquake prediction. It was great teaching natural hazards again! Matt and I then walked back to the hotel to pick up Tim and Terry for the final trip of the day - a pancake evening at Richard's house, half way up the steep northern rim of the city. The views from his balcony were breath taking but the conversation with Hannan was tinged with poignancy as she recalled stories from her father's childhood when the city had green orchards and fields around it and a wide lush river flowing through the middle. Now it is huge with concrete; all the Islamic architecture and aesthetic swallowed in an ugly cancer of unplanned sprawl. I also enjoyed some fine conversation with Madeline and Kate the latter ranging from koranic literature and culture through to her exile and final return to Afghanistan. I returned to our hotel feeling a glow of pride, that our son had surrounded himself with such a great group of people whose hearts and souls matched their intellects. Meanwhile, our youngest son (who had made us equally proud at the way he handled all the expectations) stayed over with his big brother, giving Terry and I the luxury of a little time together..
Day 3 - Tuesday We rose, breakfasted and walked up to join Matt & Tim. It was already very warm but the windless morning air was thick with pollution and we could scarcely see the hill beyond. I found it a labour to breathe; every breath felt constricted and tainted, like a slow suffocation. After some time at Matt's we went to an Internet cafe and thence to Gabe and Teresas for a student's tea party in honour of Sally, a volunteer returning to England. We saw Gabe, Theresa and Matthew in their element with the students.
Matthew had set them the task of writing poems about food memories. His own was a memory of eating scones with Great Granny and Uncle David at Sidmouth. The poetry was funny, poignant and moving; several recalling rainy childhood days in their childhood (memorable for their rarity) with faces pressed against the window as the smell of cooking and the chatter of family life mingled in the background. I spoke for a long time with Gabe. They are a rare couple. At a stage of life when most are drawing pensions and joining golf clubs they are learning Arabic, running the Iraqi Student Project and actively joining convictions to actions. After the tea party we went shopping for a spare pair of trousers for me (having forgotten to pack any!), had a juice in the park then walked up to the Friday Market with Gabe, Theresa and the newly arrived Monica. Tim stayed with Matt and the students but we met together for a pizza before Terry and I returned. As we waited outside the pizza shop I played around with long exposures of night time street scenes. A group of young men were standing nearby watching. One came up to me offering me a share of his
crisps and asking if I would like him to take the photo of me. His English was good and he explained he was a scout so England was important to him as the birth place of Baden Powell. I wonder how many English people could say Syria was important to them as the birth place of medicine, dentistry, literacy and mathematics?
Terry and I walked back a different way down narrow streets awash with cars and pavements used as parking lots. Drivers and pedestrians had a mutual disrespect with jaywalking as abundant as pavement parking. The bit neither of us enjoyed was crossing the main roads- three lines of traffic chaos where the accepted technique is a suicidal saunter into the traffic streams. The slower you cross the safer it is said to be since they see you with enough time to take evasive action. It takes courage to put yourself entirely at the mercy of the vested self interests that would avoid a dented bonnet and thereby aim to miss. It took less courage, however, than the cyclist we saw riding in the dark with no lights the wrong way down a three lane oneway street packed full of evening traffic.
Terry and I were fairly tired when we got back so quickly fell asleep. I tossed and turned and dreamed of being stopped by the police for riding without lights. Waking, the room was airless and my lungs still felt violated. Breathing was a conscious act and you had to be careful not to forget to do it. I lay writing until the 4.30 am call for prayer rose and fell like a tide in the darkness and consciousness drifted at last on the outgoing ebb.
Day 4 - Wednesday 1st April Woken late with a text from Matthew, we were clumsy and scratchy getting going but slightly revived by the obligatory olive, cheese, egg and bread breakfast and a brief conversation with Anita, a Norwegian of Arabic extraction reading at the table outside our room. When we got to Matt's Tim was tired and easily irritated but we got out to find a taxi and went to the botanic gardens for an ice cream together. Tim has been fascinated by the ants there and he wasn't long looking at ants when he relaxed and came back to us with all sorts of tales about things he had observed.
Matt left to take a lesson so we had a few hours to spend before meeting together to go to the mosque over looking Damascus. We decided to pick our way to the Azam palace without using a map. Whilst I love maps the end purpose is always to get a map inside my head so it was a nice feeling to walk around the narrow lanes of the souk following only instinct - informed by sunlight and shadow - and end up at the right place.
Azam palace was an inspiration to me in a modest way. I loved the aesthetics of space, water, geometry and vegetation and I set myself a challenge to make any future home I lived in a place where the integration of beauty and nature was considered to be a worthy investment. I didn't see all the palace, choosing to spend a long time simply sitting and looking.
We walked up to Matt's in time to meet the students for the ride up the hill. The minibuses in Damascus are mainly small and thin. There is a reason for this which you soon discover on the ride up through the steep narrow streets of the Kurdish settlements clinging to the sheer limestone slopes of the hillside. The drivers know their vehicles to the nearest millimetre but it still seemed impossible that no-one collided or got run over.
Finally, we stopped when the road gave way to steps and we climbed a concrete stairway that zig zagged a hundred metres across bare yellow limestone to the squat square form of the mosque. We removed our shoes, the girls covered their heads and we walked through the sanctuary area to the cave behind. In the cool of the cave the Iman told us the story of Cain, Abel, jealousy and murder. We heard how the mountain itself gasped at the deed, and we saw the tongue of the mountain frozen in open mouthed shock. Nearby we saw the hand print of Gabriel on the cave roof, holding the mountain to keep it from crushing Cain and thereby wiping out the fore bear of the human race. We were shown the arabic name of God picked out by the random deposition and erosion of calcium on the cave roof. We heard the tale of the forty refugees who hid in the cave hundreds of years ago and are still there; whenever one dies another replaces them so they continue to live - a shadowy invisible presence - behind the bricked wall and three round openings where the faithful throw money and photographs of their loved ones.
All this we heard twice; once in the guttural arabic of the Iman and then a second time in the beautifully accented English of Maha (the "big eyes of the little deer") who translated for us. Many of the students prayed. Faoud explained to us that when you visit a house you give two greetings; one when you arrive and one when you depart. "So it should be when you visit God's house and that is why we pray twice when visiting a mosque".
We left the mosque just as the evening call to prayer rose across the city. In the gathering gloom of the early evening, constellations of green light could be seen across the city; each a focal point of sound as the call to prayer rang out. Up on the hill we heard the rumble of traffic drowned by wave on wave of incantation; sounds reaching back to the ancient times before green neon lights or electric amplification. As the wave of prayer faded back to the drone of cars Matthew gathered the students in a story-telling circle and we passed around tea and biscuits in the dark as the stories flowed from Alla'adin to Leprechauns. Just before the stories began we had a phone call from Vivienne at the Halifax to say our offer on Mike's house had
been accepted and the Lyell's had made a slightly improved offer on ours. Our own story seemed -at last- to be moving forward.
It was an unbelievable thing; a house way beyond our expectation now within our grasp and a place big enough to allow space for new dreams and new adventures for us all.
Day 5- Thursday 2nd April This was the day we left the hotel. We made the most of the final shower, ate the last of tne olive, yoghurt and bread breakfasts then arranged to store the luggage while we went to meet Matt and Tim at the handcraft market. We bought a couple of presents including a clock with Arabic numerals. There was a music shop selling Ouds, drums, whistles etc. The whistles were the cheapest and had a wonderful bagpipe drone So I bought a double set for 500sp. Terry and Tim were mortified and persuaded me to take them back and swap them for a drum. After a tasty lunch we collected the bags from the hotel. On the way we passed a bike converted for cooking crepes. Matthew told us he used to hear the vendor pedalling round advertising his wares in English by shouting loudly "Crap on a biiiike!".
We went by taxi to Matthew's where we met Laurence and Nour who accompanied us to the garden centre with the grand plan of greening Matthew's balcony. It was wonderful to walk round somewhere brimming with greenery. There were also a range of birds for sale including some big chickens cramped into tiny cages where they could scarcely turn around, far less stretch their wings. One cage had a dying bird lying on its side in the heat and flies. Tim and I took the cage to an assistant but we could not understand their reply so really didn't feel we had helped either the bird or our own conscience. We discussed whether we should secretly set the birds free or at least help their chance of escape by removing the stone from the top of the cage. But in true English fashion we ended up not making a fuss or causing embarrassment to us or anyone else.
We got a lift back with Laurence,Nour and Omar (who joined us at the garden centre). Carrying the plants up to the fourth floor was hard work but not as hard as carrying the soil- thankfully we didn't need to do that particular job! We had tea with Laurence's family and I found out what a skilled and knowledgeable photographer Omar is. He is doing an MA in Vienna on a part time basis. It seemed strange that a couple so cultured and well educated had decided to settle in a noisy polluted city and bring up a child here. My surprise reflected deep seated prejudices; but not against Damascus, just about cities in general - I still find it inconceivable to choose to live in one.
I was very tired after tea and just wanted to sit down but Terry had realised she still had the key for the hotel room and I knew it was better to take it back sooner than later so I forced myself to walk back to the hotel to deliver it. As an incentive I took my camera with my new lens attached and gave myself the luxury of abundant time. I walked slowly, choosing unfamiliar routes to broaden my knowledge of the city. On the way back I picked my way through the streets of souk Sarouja using the moon for navigation. It was a much longer route but being more interesting was less tiring. I spent a long time photographing a stray cat and an equally long time composing the moon behind the top of a mosque.
Walking through the city at night, with its bustle of activity I felt an invisible spectator, almost a ghost from another time or place, unable to communicate. I looked in on restaurants, recognising few of the foods and overhearing incomprehensible conversations. There was an ambiguity in my sense of invisibility. Part of it was appealing but part of it was alienating.. I felt like a beggar feels as people walk past avoiding eye contact; but then I realised that this was nothing to do with language barriers - I feel equally distant when walking through any English towns.
When I got back I was ready for bed and we were greatly blessed to find Kate had tidied her room and changed her bedding so that we could sleep in her bed until she got back from Beirut.
Day 6- Friday 3rd April We got up fairly promptly in preparation for a long coach ride with Madeline, Nour and Sarah down to the amphitheatre at Bosra. We picked up Nour en-route with her little sister Dana. On the coach I sat next to a Syrian doctor. We spoke about many things including the Syrian education system. He told me that education was free but the required pass rate for exams was very high. On his course he needed 99.5% to pass! After speaking to me in very good English he started speaking in German to a girl in the seat in front. Sometimes it seems only the English are incapable of mastering another language!
It was 2 hours on the coach, largely through flat fertile plains studded with olive groves and sprinkled with bedouin tents. We saw many shepherds leading their flocks along the edge of the dual carriage way and I saw one flock being grazed in the central reservation..
When we arrived at Bosra we needed to check the return times and book a ticket. This got more complex than expected, not least because the guy who managed the
bus bookings was desperate to get us to visit other places that afternoon in order to boost his business. The move we discussed it the move we became convinced we should visit one place well rather than two places badly. However there was an inordinate amount of discussion between the bus manager, Madeline, Matthew and Nour. After it was all settled and we booked our places Nour told us how he had taken her aside at one point and told her "you Arabs should have persuaded them"! I have to admit to having been impressed with Madeline; she has a lovely way with people, both in her voice and her body language. She should work in sales and negotiation!
The amphitheatre was breathtaking; it was almost disturbing to consider how such a monument could be conceived, planned, drawn, administered, procured and built in a pre- industrial society. It was a testament to the power of organisation, the achievement of willpower and the brutality of enslavement.
We got back at a reasonable time and Matthew got us a bean dish for supper followed by a very large and cream-laden fruit salad from the juice shop near the square. As I ate it I wondered if I would regret the indulgence. It wasn't very long before I knew the answer. Whether it was the fruit salad or something else I don't know but it was a very broken night.
Day 7 - Saturday 4rd April I've spent the morning in bed trying to encourage the stomach to discharge down wards instead of upward. Terry, Tim and Matthew have worked on the roof garden. I've listened to music, podcasts etc while waiting for the clock to crawl round to a time when my stomach would normalise.
Day 8 - Sunday 5th April We hoped to go to the Chaldean church this morning but although my stomach felt more stable I didn't feel confident to be sat for an hour without easy access to a toilet. Matthew was visiting his friend Ruham (who lives in his old house) so we decided a wander round old Damascus would be best since cafes would be available for emergency comfort breaks. Tim was tired and fed up that he couldn't stay at Matt's house to play with his Go-gos on the mud hut he made using spare soil from yesterday's roof planting. He decided to stay with Matthew and Ruham, leaving Terry and I some time to wander round together. We decided to start by sneaking in the back of the Armenian church's Palm Sunday celebration. It seemed an informal (if not chaotic) affair.
The courtyard outside the church was packed with families. Most had a small cross made from leaves pinned together onto a jacket lapel but the leafy cross appeared to be the only thing of any religions significance. The overall feel was more like a fashion show. Men were in smart jackets with gelled hair, children dressed up like page boys or bridesmaids and women looking like they'd fallen out the pages of a style magazine. This had nothing of Islamic modesty or propriety nor much of the Christian virtues of simplicity and moderation. Instead it seemed like a festival of cultural capitalism and individualism. We had a sense that something interesting might eventually happen but in the end the fumes from the ubiquitous cigarettes and the overwhelming ostentatiousness drove us outside, back to the main street from which we decided to explore the chapel of Ananias. It was extraordinary to climb down so many steps to the original street level and to realise that the present street level is a good 3 metres above the biblical level. No wonder it is so rare to see a ghost from Roman times - they are walking around deep underground. still following the paths they once remembered...
Day 9 - Monday 6th April Lying in bed, writing by moonlight and trying to make sense of some contradictory emotions. We were up early to catch the bus with Gabe & Theresa's trip to the monastery at Mar Musa. An hour's journey through a quite different kind of landscape with denuded hillsides. Some giant (and ugly) quarrying and occasional glimpses of hope in the form of modest conservation work now and again. We arrived at the monastery entrance to find it is a long way from the actual monastery. A long winding path snaked up to the impressively impregnable monastery. I chatted to Gabe for much of the walk until he mentioned his guest Tom struggling to keep up. I had a walking pole which I hadn't unpacked so walked back down to see if Tom would like it.
Tom was right on the edge of his limits but step by hundreds of step he eventually made it to the top. We were, naturally, very late arriving so the others had all been already oriented. I didn't know where Terry, Matt or Tim were so went for a half hour walk up the wadi. It was deeply refreshing to hear silence and to see no sign of human activity but I was also aware that the others might be wondering where I was so felt I ought to get back quickly. That feeling of never quite relaxing because I didn't know people's plans or expectations became a depressingly familiar theme. It was worsened by Terry and I being separated (it is the custom there for separate men and women's quarters) so there was not even the benefit of a joint base where we might discuss plans.
I had been looking toward to the monastery visit for so long and spoken to my friends about my desire to have time on my own out in the desert, under the stars, yet my overriding memory was the tantalising frustration of being close to the possibility of peace but too busy worrying about the logistics to enjoy it. Terry, Tim and I had a good walk up the wadi which I really enjoyed and the accomodation was a wonderful room for us three men, especially with the moonlight spilling in whilst I read to Tim
by torchlight. Tim enjoyed the dogs and working out the pack order. Matthew was sleeping when I took Tim up for bed and he disappeared out early next morning without saying anything so I don't know what he enjoyed but I think it was peaceful for him.
I missed Terry last night. It seemed strange to be apart in the same place but not to share the same room. She knew I wasn't relaxed but I didn't want it to spoil her time. If anything this could be a bit of special freedom for her since Tim was up in the men's quarters with me. I tried to send her a text to say ''don't worry, I'm enjoying the moonlight through the windows!" but there was no signal at all. Although the day gave me but little of what I had hoped for the little I had was still important.
Father Paulo rebuilt the monastery as part of a calling to bridge the Christian and Islamic cultures. We had the privilege of sitting in on an interview he gave Brian from the U.S. Catholic Today magazine. There were many things he spoke about and I would have liked to probe him further on some but one of the top 3 priorities he described was hospitality; a theme we often return to in our hopes and prayers about the house move. It seems strange, after the excitement of the chain linking together, to be still over here with life still ticking on. It feels unreal that there is a substantial amount of work to do and an unrecognisable life change coming up fast. It will affect work, family. friends, recreation and - we pray - opportunities for hospitality to develop.
At some point between Father Paolo's talk and putting Tim to bed something changed for me. I still don't know what it was but the ingredients were diverse ranging from a sense of alienation (due to my poor language skills) through to a sense of exploitation (suspecting some guests playing the monastery's generosity for a free ride) and a sense of compromise- that the professed goal of the place (Muslim and Christian unity) would be achieved only through compromising the authenticity of each. Father Pauolo was clear that the distinctiveness of each was the gift to the other but it didn't stop the shadow of doubt and the sense that the humility that comes from a whole hearted giving of oneself to God might do more for both unity and humanity than the quest for unity and humanity itself.
Day 10 - Tuesday 7th April Long sleep but broken by being on the chilly side of comfort. I can't complain though because a sleep with many breaks is a sleep with many dreams and (I am very partial to my dreams). Went to monastery chapel for a time of quiet meditative prayer and to take some photos then joined Terry & Tim for the communal breakfast - flat bread, goats cheese, goats yoghurt and apricot jam. The perennial flies were competing for the food as always and occasionally an over-adventurous one formed part of the nutrition. After breakfast I washed the dishes as a contribution to the community. Little things like practically helping or talking with Jan and Alain over
breakfast or Steph in the kitchen dripped away at the isolation I'd felt so acutely yesterday. Maybe the answer to our fractured communities and broken society is as simple as washing up and a communal breakfast.
Tim has been out of his comfort zone and generally handling it well but this morning he didn't and I bore the brunt of it so the long walk to the monastery gate was less than relaxing. At least I had Terry to walk by me and be her usual gentle and wise influence. Tim walked a long way behind but he had Matthew to do the same for him. The taxi picked us up and took us to Homs where we would bus across town to the place to catch the "Service" to Krac de Chevalier.
The journey from the monastery to Homs was deeply depressing. The parched landscape could have had an austere beauty but everywhere I looked the land was littered with plastic bags and bottles. There are -apparently - two land fill sites nearby and the combination of strong seasonal winds and poor landfill management results in a plastic pox infecting every surface. Even up in the mountains where we had walked the day before we completely filled a plastic bag with assorted rubbish after an hour's gentle stroll. I cannot understand this mentality. I have a very strong sense of myself as a child of the earth, borrowing from a generous but fragile parent who needs my care as much as I need theirs. When I look or the quarry-scarred hillsides, the ugly concrete sprawls, the emasculated rivers chained to their concrete courses and the rubbish strewn landscapes something close to physical pain grips me. This is not a child suckling at the breasts of mother earth, this is a monster tearing the flesh and sucking the blood from a sick mother. But it is not just a Syrian monster - so many multi nationals have operations in developing countries precisely so they can benefit from lax labour and environmental laws. Until the price of a commodity reflectsits cost to the environment the future looks very bleak.
The bus across town was like any English bus but the passengers were far from English - we were standing initially but wherever a seat became free one of us was ushered to it by the other passengers. Terry had several young men practising their English greetings with her and one guy gave her a handful of sweets for us all as he got off.
Travelling in the Service is an experience - any British concept of health and safety has to be left at home as a 12 seater Suzuki minibus is adapted to carry 21 people and driven by a man who can make phone calls and give fare change simutaneously at 70 mph whilst overtaking trucks.
We arrived at the Krac in one piece but our concepts of health and safety were about to get their second challenge of the day. We have belonged to English Heritage for years but never visited anything as complex, vast or labyrinthine as Krac de Chevaliers. The excitement was compounded by the fact that nothing was out of bounds, no matter how dark the stairwell, how deep the drop, how strong the wind or how absent the safety barriers. Tim and I followed a dark stairwell about 30 metres down beneath the hammam (baths) by torchlight until we came to a rubble filled doorway. It was like caving indoors. Terry hated the high bits (where Tim was keenest to go) and I spent a lot of time in dimly lit, high vaulted rooms blessing my wife's decision to buy me a good digital SLR for my 50th and blessing my decision to buy a cheap infra red remote release to go with it.
While we were sight seeing Matthew went off to find a hotel for the night - St Georges hotel in the nearby village. It was undergoing major restoration work so there were very few guests and very good rates.
Day 10 - Wednesday 8th April (To be expanded) Balcony breakfast. Walk to krac -spring - lift offers X 2 -rubbish in river. Personal Service. Palmyra Museum t accidental guide, monuments; Camel ride; pestering; Tim's ant project, geckos. Lizards. Sunset photos. Hanni.
Day 11 - Thursday 9th April Rose at 530 to catch morning light over The Valley of Tombs. Lovely time out together. Tim & Matt had lots of fun doing things that would be banned any where else like climbing Multi- Storey tombs with broken and incomplete stone staircases and looking into graves where hundreds of human remains still lay - mostly of children. We built a mini.- cairn on a rock and tried to take turns to knock it over. Matthew perfected a"Neanderthal lob" complete with obligatory grunt. It was Not Very Accurate and helped us understand why the Neanderthals might have died out. The hotel breakfast was on the meagre side so we asked for some more bread. A single flatbread was cut up and brought over by hand (no plate or serviette). I hoped his hands were clean. When I saw him a few minutes later with his finger deep inside his nostril I decided it was probably a faint hope.
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