Thoughts on Syria and the semi-nomadic life

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20070128 Damaskus Sayyida Ruqayya Mausoleum3

“Are you from Iran?” a young woman enquires curiously. “No, from Germany.” But why are we wearing these enormous black cloaks? Being improperly dressed in our colourful rain jackets and trousers with too many pockets, we had to borrow the chadors when we entered the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Hussein. While we explain that we got them at the gate, the woman’s friend starts tugging at Isa’s chador, indicating that she wants to pose in it for a photo in front of the shrine. It turns out that they are Shiites from northern Syria and have never worn such a “strange garment”.

Women in Syria often start conversations with us and are never shy to answer when we try to communicate. Although most of them dress rather conservatively, their long coats are very fashionable (this winter hoods are a must) and the headscarves are intricately arranged. But “don’t work in Syria. It’s difficult here,” was the advice of a female bus passenger whom we asked for directions and who struck up a conversation. At that point, alas, she had to get off and we never found out what exactly she found difficult.

Women in Syria

We still have mixed feelings about the position of women in the Syrian society: even if they seem rather self-confident, the public space for women (= us) is restricted. For example, the public swimming pool is reserved for women three days a week between 6 and 8 in the morning. Who can get up that early? Groups of women may sit and have a drink or smoke a waterpipe in certain Western-style cafes or fast-food restaurants, but most of the cafés are men-only affairs.

Conversation topics

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Our guidebook suggested that travelling in the Middle East is easy and fun, as long as you avoid talking about sex, religion and politics. We on the contrary found that people were often quite eager to talk about, well, not sex, but religion and politics, and as Westerners and non-Muslims we have ample opportunity to think about our views of Islam and the political situation in the Middle East. It’s the first time that we are confronted with millions of refugees (from Iraq and from Palestine) and quite blatant anti-Semitism.

The flat we had rented for one month in Damascus was situated in Midan, a conservative middle-class neighbourhood. “Even asking for the next liquor store would be an affront to most people,” we were told. Well, we tremendously enjoyed our non-alcoholic self-cooked vegetarian dinners.

Syrian food

And we tried some of the delicious sweets every day, either for dessert or as a snack. “No, we don’t want to buy a kilo of sesame cookies, because then we can’t try the coconut puddings and baklava tomorrow.” we often explained to the vendors. Everybody’s (including Isa’s) favourite is fresh Kunafa, a crispy vermicelli-like pastry with melting cheese and a honey syrup, sometimes rolled and filled with lots of pistacchios. It is eaten warm at one of the numerous street stalls.

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Apart from cooking and eating, we also enjoyed learning an entirely new language just for fun, and yet so intensively: We had 3 hours of private lessons every day and spent at least another 3 hours reviewing and preparing. Arabic has a number of sounds that are difficult to distinguish for us (too many “a”, “h”, and “s” sounds). The length of vowels is often important for the meaning of a word. Thus, the “post office” easily turns into the “Office of Cold” if one “i” is pronounced too short. Well, at least it uses an alphabetic script.

By now we have arrived in Amman. It is chilly here, and we have both caught another cold. In comparison to Damascus, Amman has a more metropolitan feeling. As the visa for Libya seems to be quite difficult to obtain, we may end up flying from either Amman or Cairo to Tunis (If anybody knows someone in Libya who could help with an invitation letter, let us know!). More news to come.

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