Tuesday, October 20, 2009


It is hot hot hot. According to weather websites it is 34 degrees C today. Just as I acclimatized to 29 degrees. This is very abnormal as it should be much cooler, but voila le global warming. However, when this breaks, it will really snap. Entirely contrary to Vancouver with its long spring and fall, Damascus has a long summer and a distinct winter, with no much in between.

About to meet with a friend for coffee. This is a guy who I met at the Damascus airport, who I swear was just one person behind me at Heathrow security, and now lives across the street from me. And who I've met twice in Bab Touma. This area has an extremely tight Arabic-learning community and it is unbelievable how many connections - for better or for worse - are made in the 2-week period prior to each university session. I know people in 2 houses within a block radius; I think my coffee friend knows people in 4. And then indirect connections branch out.

Last weekend consisted of "adventurous days". This included some travel admin (i.e. visa extension, a 10-step process involving 6-8 people, the end result was someone telling me I didn't need to do it) and a trip out to Palmyra and Bosra - sightseeing days which are great but also have their fair share of "adventure" that is undesirable, like taxi-haggling and the non-existance of return busses to Damascus. My taxi-related vocabularly is improving immensely, like "Please turn on the meter" and "It is prohibited to not use the meter". At one point, after refusing 10 taxi drivers who wanted to charge 4 times the known amount, I gave up and decided I would just pay whatever to the next one. And the heavens sent down an honest one who turned the meter on.

Started Arabic yesterday and have done my verbs: past, present, future and present participle.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Thanks to all who have sent me Facebook messages the past day or so. I can read them via e-mail but I haven't been able to access Facebook in Syria. If I twittered, I would.

Today has been a checklist day: National Museum (check), Azem Palace (check). The Museum is about as comprehensible as [blank]. There are many objects in it but as I refine a glazed look at all of them, so do they to me. With few interpretive texts they seem to be just a clue to something further, like the shake of a hand when I ask for directions. However some things are just beautiful. Case 13 in a room full of script shows an absolutely gorgeous piece of text. It's as if Beethoven wrote a symphony using Arabic script. BOOM dah dah dah daaaa...

A few cultural places close at 2pm, as that is when lunch is. People don't come back after lunch apparently, and as I am meeting someone in half an hour I was thinking how to fill that gap in the day. I walk up to Souq Sarouja, the place where I started out in Damascus, and head for a falafel stall. My Arabic is much better, particularly with ordering falafel. I have branched out and can order a fresh squeezed juice of banana (mooz), orange (boort'nan), and pineapple (ananas). And with each encounter I learn another word, like pomegranate (romaan) which I will dish out next time.

I continue walking up to the commercial district. Bank-wise, it is a bit of a circus and to have a reasonable pleasant banking experience I go to my favoured bank which offers an ATM that is compatible with my VISA. I believe it is a new private bank that popped up like a mushroom in recent years.

And I go onto a new section of the city - for the city and for me. Much here and there reminds me of parts of China - the hope and the grit of it all. And much in the shops comes from China here too. I go for bit on a walking street - about 40 feet wide, with shops on either end, culminating in a small park. Continuing further up north I come to Souq Al-Jooma, a much more laid-back souq that the ones in the Old City. Much easier to walk through due to fewer cars and fewer people, and the products are everyday - vegetables, clothes, toiletries. And there are no tourists. Syria, I hear, gets 4 million tourists every year. So in all, a very much different experience than I had in Iran a few years back, when for example I would be the only one in a museum.

Tomorrow I head to the Immigration Office to do passport admin, and then off to Palmyra for a couple of days with a friend. It's quite warm here - somewhat chilly in the mornings but a good solid 28C over the day. Despite that, people are talking about imminent snow and the need for sweaters.

Friday, October 9, 2009


...and now I've fallen for Damascus.

I have settled in, much like a piece of dust blown in from the desert. With the help of an angel - who tells me that I will be looked after, whether I like it or not - I move into a room in a house tomorrow, in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter. Things are more or less fine. I have just had lunch at a very good restaurant near this internet cafe, and though I am in dire need of a siesta I thought I would update you.

The money situation is not entirely solved but also not entirely a problem. The Commercial Bank here is yes, where I go. They have many branches, each branch dealing with one thing - i.e. one branch for depositing, one branch for withdrawing, another for loans, etc.. I went to the one for foreign exchange and they said "no travellers cheques". However, I have been tipped to go up to the second floor so I will try that. The process to study Arabic has been formally initiated, although I have to say that some Arabic is needed to "begin" in the first place. My placement test is on Tuesday, and classes begin on the 18th.

The old city here (of which Bab Touma is an integral part, especially on Fridays when the remainder shuts down) is enchanting, enticing, enduring. It is a city where a grid system and a labyrinth come together, and where upper storey extrusions and ground floor eye-candy make for a truly sculptured city. As the angel led me to my future home, it was as if I was drowning both vertically and horizontally.

I have had a very sophisticated introduction to my stay here by way of a conference at the Danish Institute in Damascus (a place I will be returning to many times), entitled Cultural Encounters during the Crusades. Listening to hard-core crusader historians and experts on canonical law is like seeing the surficial intricacies of mosaic tile without a knowledge of the structure behind. I have yet much reading to do to prepare for the past. We have seen some major sites here in Damascus and beyond, and as we have gone through some sun-drenched courtyards and rooftops, dimly-lit spaces and just plain pitch-black tunnels, it has been both an eye-dialating and eye-constricting experience. Yesterday we went to a castle called Krak de Chevaliers, with the person who wrote the book on Crusader castles, Hugh Kennedy.

And today I was initiated into Syria. Someone asked me how many children I had.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Day 1 in Damascus

I'm here, I'm safe, and I'm healthy.

However it has been a frustrating first day. The last guidebook said to bring traveller's cheques; there are very few ATMS. However actually no bank takes them and there are in fact ATMs everywhere. So unfortunately a fair chunk of my budget is locked up in this pieces of paper. So that was this morning.

Afternoon: in search of a place to stay for a couple of months. I had hoped to stay at a monastery. This is a place that has 3 phone numbers and 2 fax numbers that don't work, and does not respond to e-mails. With a picture only of the front facade as my guide (no map) I ask person after person where this place is, supposedly where female students can stay. I get there in absolute disbelief. But no, no room for me.

This is a plain busy, dusty city. Imagine walking around inside a car engine. In Bab Touma now, much quieter, more sane. It is getting dark now, it's about 5:48pm, so heading back to the funduq. Day 2 will have me walking out to the Arabic Language Center, and the Danish Institute in Damascus.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


Currently at the National Archives in Kew. They have public internet stations where one can simply walk up to a computer and start using them. No red tape whatsoever.

Today I was in Kew Gardens, where among the diversity of things there I learned about red tape. The colour of this binding was dyed using a particular plant, and used to bind documents of an official nature. I found this in a interesting gallery called People and Plants, where the connections between nature and commodity can be made. It is part of their Economic Botany department.

I also discovered a book called "Fruit" published by Kew that, if it weren't for its weight, would be in my bag right now. It talks about the fruitiness of fruit, and that it is nature's amazing way of species survival. Some fruit is edible, some is not edible (by us), and some is, well, incredible.

For example, take the fruit of the 'Suicide Palm', a tree listed as one of the top 10 newly discovered species of 2008. A spectacular palm of over 18 metres high, its fruition depletes its nutrient reserves and the result is that the entire tree dies and collapses. There are only about 100 of these on Madagascar. Survival of the hopeful.

Kew is all about studying and classifying plants, now using DNA rather than plant forms and shapes; their stated aim being that if we do not know what we have, we cannot protect it. Protection often is in collaboration with the local community to which a particular plant is native. Another thing that Kew does is the Millenium Bank. For example, all native species of a plant in Victoria, Australia were burnt in the February 2009 fires, but seeds remain at the Botanic Gardens in Australia and in Kew for renewal.

Acceptance of the globalization of commodities and a movement towards species protection through molecular biology. You would be hard-pressed to find the word "colonization" in this botanic haven.

On the road to Damascus - Dimashq as it is pronounced there. Should be there Saturday around midnight.