Monday, June 21, 2010

Syria: no OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) here!

Unfinished buildings, abandoned projects, ruins and earthquakes. Those are nothing compared to the daily hazards workers and individuals face on the job and in the home. I won't even go into food handling issues. We saw many, many vehicle repair and illegal assembly "plants": mostly small scale outfits in towns and villages located in "store fronts".....think a small garage for your car at home. No ventilation. No one wearing any protective gear: exposed ears and eyes, often in sandals while wielding welding gear. We saw small construction sites creating new shops ,same thing, no gear, wires and cords everywhere. The wiring in buildings, between buildings, just hanging in and out of windows is enough to give any trained electrician heart failure. It gets cold in the winter and most houses do not have central heating. People use little pot-bellied kerosene heaters, called sobyas, that are hooked up to ducts and pipes as needed and vented to the outside.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Syria: clothing and other incidentals's complicated. And in Syria, street fashion is complicated and convoluted.
Twenty years ago, 70% of women did not "cover"; now it is just the opposite. Ten percent of the population is Christian, so they don't cover. Of the women who cover, there are different levels of covering: head scarf (hijab)and regular clothing or medium length/long trench coat, fully cloaked with head scarf, fully cloaked with face veiled (niqab). Women not fully robed wear a variety of current fashions (jeans, stilettos, crop tops over t-shirts (many with sayings in English and/or "engrish" that are very suggestive), skirts to knees. What they wear under the trench coats or cloaks is hard to know. But, on younger women, the trench coats are very tight fitting, leaving little to the imagination. The decisions made by women on what to wear, do not seem to be religious in nature, which is what makes it complicated. Some decisions are based on fashion, family pressure, the desire by women to find husbands: men tend to marry late because they have to buy a house before marriage; they marry younger women because they want children and then want their wives scarved to show unavailability to other males.

Men's attire is much like anywhere, except for those in robes and/or wearing head scarves. Young men are in jeans and t-shirts with slogans and sayings most in "engrish": there must be some factory in China that sends all its seconds and misspelled logos to Syria! Shoe fashions for hip males tends towards the looong toe, squared off at the tip.
Below are some crowd photos taken around shops in the souks, people milling, shopping, etc.

Trench coats in a shop in the Damascus souk:

What to wear under the trench coats.......

Diorama in the Azm Palace, Hama: fashion in the 1750's:

We had to rent cloaks to enter the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus:

Many fashion statements in the souk, Homs:

Locals outside the Umayyad Mosque:

Jewelry Row in the souk, Damascus:

Locals between the souk and mosque, Damascus:

Back courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque outside Saladin's tomb:

Tourists are advised to dress modestly and neatly: no knees (as in shorts or short skirts), no sleeveless tops (even if you look great in them). But, there are always those (especially if they travel in large groups and so are somewhat distant from the locals), who choose otherwise.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Syria: Illegal vehicles & plastic chairs

After leaving Damascus and heading north from Hama into the countryside, we began noticing very interesting looking trucks, usually with 'Hyundai' on the back, but nothing like any Hyundai we had ever seen. These were customized beyond recognition. In fact, we were to learn from one of the drivers we had hired, that they are custom built in Syria and totally illegal: not registered, not licensed: people just pay the fines if stopped by police. Some had hummer fronts; side panels that looked like, and every bit as beautiful as, Ndebele art motifs. The interiors were also customized with a highly developed sense of aesthetics. We learned that these cars are manufactured in Halfawiyah and have very powerful engines, usually Mercedes, and used mostly for trucking agricultural products or other raw materials. Here is a video of these

Other ubiquitous items included plastic chairs: every merchant in the souks sat on them, non-fancy restaurants, outdoor cafes. My favourite use of them was as carpet pegs: people hung their oriental rugs over balconies to air them out, holding them in place with several plastic chairs. Dark green seemed to be the most common colour, but we saw them in purple, white, brown.

Syria: comparative architecture

Traveling through Syria, I was continually reminded that not only is this a very ancient land, but it really has been witness to everything, in terms of human behaviour and invention, and that it has been the playground and battleground of people from virtually all over the planet.

Driving through a sandstorm from Resafa to Palmyra, we saw beehive houses. These houses are mud-built and whitewashed and cool in summer and insulated against freezing winter nights. Few of these houses are left, as they have been replaced by grey concrete blocks...far less attractive and effective. Beehive houses are also seen in Turkey, Italy (where they are called trullis), South Africa (called rondavels), Ireland, and Scotland. See the photos below. The first two photos are near Palmyra, the next in Transkei, South Africa, and the last in Alberobello, Italy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Syria: Food

We ate delicious, fresh, well prepared food. Fresh fruits, whether made into fabulous juice drinks or offered at the end of most meals in Damascus, were abundant.

Fruit and vegetable market in Homs
The owner of the Noria Hotel in Hama advised us to stay away from parsley and mint as they frequently carry ecoli. Since parsley is in tabouli (delicious) and mint in refreshing lemonade drinks, this proved difficult.

Dinner at Layali Salihiyya, Damascus.

On only two occasions, in Homs, did we eat non-Middle Eastern food, both Italian. The first,at the Safir Hotel (not our style), was not memorable and the hotel was filled with busloads of various Europeans. The restaurant itself was located around a pool with palms overhead, bougainvillea in abundance, and lots of local businessmen. The other Italian meal in Homs, at Matrix, was excellent: food, people watching (the bags! the shoes! Sex and the City Redux!), ambiance.

In Aleppo (see descriptions/list in the Lonely Planet), as in any city of three + million people, there are restaurants at every social and price point. Even the most expensive meals we had were very cheap. We ate at Cordoba (in upscale neighbourhood), Beit Sissi (beautiful old home in Jdaideh, aka the Christian Quarter) , Al Qommeh (upstairs on fifth floor, mostly locals, live oud). One of the delights of dining in Syria arrives in the English spellings on the menus given to tourists. Fortunately, our son could read the Arabic. Eggplant is usually referred to by its French name 'aubergine', and one of our favourite menu items was 'stuffed aborigines'...this kept us going for days. Also on the menu were 'lamp chips' (lamb chops).

According to the prophet, one's fast is always broken by eating seven dates to keep ones system operating properly. After that, breakfast usually consisted of olives (black and green), hummus, yogurt (dry and wet), flat bread and often croissants and/or rolls, several types of cheese, hard boiled eggs (sometimes also beautifully thin omlettes) fruit, juices, tea, and both Syrian coffee and Nescafe.
Here is breakfast at the Talisman Hotel:

Alcohol is served in very few restaurants and then all that is found is Syrian wine (terrible) and Lebanese wine (OK) and various beers from Egypt, Europe, Russia. Beer, wine, and spirits can be purchased in the Christian Quarters of cities, a few non-Christian neighbourhoods in the larger cities. Most restaurants serve fruit-based drinks, tea, and coffee. The juice bars in all cities make fabulous fresh squeezed fruit drinks and smoothies (banana and milk based).

And desserts! Ice cream!
Here is the packed ice cream parlour in the souk in Damascus:

Monday, June 7, 2010

Syria: Impressions upon arrival and buildings

Arriving in Damascus at midnight: an assault on the senses even in the dead of night. The traffic, the people, the buildings. The first two days were overwhelming: I wondered how we would survive crossing six lanes of traffic on foot with bicycles weaving in and out (often against the flow), services (micro buses, pronounced 'serveeces'), taxis, trucks, all honking to let each other know their intentions, needs, locations: no lane markers, traffic cops sitting and preening in their motorcycle mirrors, and everyone nudging their way around. After a few days, this seemed just so normal! and logical! All components of the traffic system were much more tolerant of each other's needs (want to turn left from the far right lane, four lanes over? no problem!).

People stay up very late at night, including children, to and fro a great deal during the day (high unemployment and underemployment assures lots of street life), smoke cigarettes continuously, stop at the juice bar, buy snacks (lots of junk food) at the corner store or in the souk, sweep continuously and still there is tons of garbage.

Seventy percent of the women cover their sin (head hair!), a direct opposite of the percentage twenty years ago. Ten percent of the population is Christian. Most women do not cover their faces. Head-scarved women can be found wearing a variety of fashions on the street: full-length trench coats (in 100 degree weather!), so thin in fabric, so tightly fitted, that not much is left to the imagination on body shape/size (photos to come in future entries). Or, they can be wearing the latest in tightest jeans with layered, fitted tops, stiletto gladiator sandals. And the underwear on display in the lingerie shops in the souk! Young men wear the latest in graphic t-shirts with amazing spelling errors: must be the seconds from factories in China...if they knew what their chests were saying!). But, more on people later.

The buildings. My husband described Syria as a multi-millennial construction site. There are ancient ruins upon even more ancient ruins. There are modern ruins. There are buildings left in a state of semi completion because if it not finished, you don't have to pay taxes. There are commercial buildings abandoned. And because most homes face their interiors (even if the owners are not wealthy enough to have an interior garden/courtyard), the streets look even gloomier. The goal of most people under the age of 60 is to leave Syria and the buildings give that sense of being on the verge of being abandoned if not already in that state. Here are some photos of various kinds of buildings:

St. George's Monastery nr Krak de Chevalier

Serjilla, one of the Dead Cities

New bldg nr Krak de Chevalier

Grand Mosque Aleppo

Courtyard Talisman Hotel Damascus

Bedouin tents below Marqab Castle

Azm Palace Damascus

Apamea, UNESCO World Heritage Site

40 yr old unfinished embarrassment in Damascus (this building is such a sore point for the dictatorship, that you have to be very careful taking it's picture!)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Back from Syria

Over the next few days I will be writing about our 2.5 week trip to Syria. This is one interesting, but schizophrenic, society!