Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winter warmth

It is getting distinctly colder here. Whereas just a month ago the street cats were crouched underneath cars, they now come up from underneath, preferring the warmth of car hoods, albeit temporary. I myself find myself googling "date and time bamako", and reassure myself that pretty soon, I am back to highs of 36 degrees. I'm off to BKO next week, via Tunisair which, coincidentally, has oriented its schedule to fly there and back on the light of the full moons next month.

What, you may ask, am I doing in Damascus. As one might respond to any such question (i.e., why are you learning Arabic, etc.), I ask that of myself every day.

I divide half of my time to learning Arabic, and half of my time to preparing for a project in January and February, when I return. The most understandable way to explain the latter is that I am studying Islamic tile, in particular the geometric stone mosaics of the Omayyad Mosque.

The vehicle has been well warmed up now. Aside from the "must-sees" of the Hillenbrand and Ettinghausen literature of Islamic architecture, it has taken me on a quick tour of ideas of beauty and aesthetic experience in Classical Arabic thought, introducing me to philosophers such as ibn Hazm, ibn Sina (Avicenna), ibn Rushd, and al-Misri. There's been a prolonged stop, of course, at the Mosque itself, which I've come to understand much, much less as a mosque. There are frequent visits to the Danish Institute and a growing appreciation of it from various angles. The most recent of which is a side street diversion into the concept of waqf, from which (I think) derived the initial partitioning of the Roman theatre into an endowment, and which (I think) is related to why there is a lease agreement rather than a wholesale transfer of property.

I remember that learning in architecture school that once we were to become architects, and if we had any personal assets we wished to protect, we should establish a trust (in the name of a spouse, ideally a non-architect).

If you wiki "trust law", you will see it stemming from the Crusades, and thereby how the Crusaders needed this concept when they came back from the road and how perhaps they knew about this concept, as the waqf, when they were mucking around in the Levant.

The reality and concept of a religious city is ajnabee for this Vancouverite. Years of geographic and architectural studies do not prepare one for the Islamic city - except readings about Orientalism. Would it not have been better to acquaint myself with the Andalusian geographer Idrisi (which I knew more as the name of a GIS program) rather than Said? In the introduction in my current reading, Waqfs and Urban Structures, "Cities were meant to reflect the sacred, or, more specifically, cities as spatial structures imitated a celestial archetype and were incorporated into the heavenly order, which shaped the hierarchies of earthly space." Really?

So it is not so much what I am doing in Damascus, but what it is doing to me ...

Monday, November 23, 2009


It's a beautiful day here. It has been for the past week - a warm winter sun, 19 degrees, but cool in the shade otherwise. It's very unusual, and should be about 10 degrees and raining.

I walk one of my routes to the Danish Institute. As the sun sets, it gets chilly in my unheated room, and with my incandescent lamp now broken and replaced with a weak flourescent one, the warm, bright library at the Institute in the evenings makes enlightenment a temptation.

At one point a truck tries to move through an alley I am on. Vehicles in the Old City have, I think, whiskers. They somehow can tell if they have 15 cm / 6 inches of clearance on either side. From other cars, from walls, from people, from the flick of my coat. Last night, after a dinner at Beit Jabri (one of the 3 "original" Old City restaurants), a truck was probably within a cm of the walls on each side.

So I am hemmed in for a little bit, and find myself with a young man with a cart, which has a big pot of chickpeas in broth. Despite 2 months here now, I still can't have a normal conversation. But I can smile a lot and we can exchange names. I ask him what he is selling. Melina, he says. A beautiful name. And he makes me a cup as we wait for the truck to back out.

And at the Institute I am reading about the building itself - Beit Al Aqqad. The history of Damascus runs through the veins of this building. Whereas in Vancouver the oldest house dates to 1888, this house begins in 1st c. BC. A Roman theatre funded by Herod the Great was built here, and the Institute is sited over what used to be the stage. An arch over the east entrance to the orchestra was revealed during the restoration process. Surprise. Whereas I have only really associated buildings with history, here - Syria in general - I am confronted over and over again to face archaeology as well. They even had potsherds under the cellar here, where they found ceramics from China.

It is an amazing project. It is the first with a Lease and Restoration Agreement, where in return for paying for the restoration of the building, the Institute can use it for 50 years. There were however inter-cultural hiccups. One, not least, being that workers here are typically paid by volume of material worked, not by the number of hours worked. This does not favour restoration projects and resulted in "intense discussions" with artisans who would rather use new material rather than re-use the original material. It is also a dream project for someone who wants to exercise skills in logistics: all material (including 200kg, 6m long timbers) in or out of the site has to get through a busy souq and through a 2m alleyway. Or be lifted across roofs. Manually.

I walk home, the same way in which I came. Suddenly, a blackout occurs. And it gets to be very, very dark. In a small pocket in my bag I have 2 items related to emergencies - my inhaler (not used once, surprisingly) and a turtle bike light (used more than once). The latter is good to have handy at such times.

Or when, as in the Crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, my guide with night vision says, "Come, give me your hand", and leads me into the pitch black passageway behind the stone oven ....

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dead Sea, check

Current coordinates are in Amman, Jordan. A group of us four ajnabee girls drove down to the 30% saline Dead Sea. We were stopped for what we thought was speeding but really more of an opportunity for a policeman to propose to our friend who was driving. "Marriage, me?" he laughs. We went down to the Sea, paid 1JD to the man with a bucket of mud and globbed it all over. We now smell like mud and are currently trying to clean up before heading out to a Yemani restaurant.

Amman is quite different from Damascus. Whereas in Damascus the traffic is like a circus on a skating rink, people here drive in lanes, more or less. Here there are no sanctions, and there is Coca Cola (took a picture), McDonald's, various American imports etc. This city also ballooned in the past 60 years. A city of white orthogonal barnacles attached to the hillsides. Everything looks the same, and after some driving around one feels a need for some landmarking more stable than billboards. And after Damascus you wonder if any city can happen in less than 7000 years.

Tomorrow, Petra.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I type in the words "sauvaget", "mosquee omeyyade" into the computer. The system is, I swear, DOS or something just after, perhaps programmed in the early 90s. Beside the computer is a binder with a listing of the different subjects and sections of the bibliothèque. Typed. On a typewriter that didn't use electricity but imprints by brute mechanical force.

I am at the Ifpo, L'Institut français du Proche-Orient. The security man at the front walks by the door behind me. I quickly turn on the French button in my brain.

- You have registered with the library now?
- No, I haven't. I was just searching for a couple of books here.
- By yourself? You know how to do this?
- It isn't very difficult.
- Well still you have to register. You must see the librarian.

I have just come from visiting the library at the Finnish Institute in Damascus. Where, although their collection is small and the idea of an electronic catalogue dawned on them just last week, it doesn't take much more than curiosity and a knowledge of how to turn on a light switch to be able to look at their books. They even photocopied a few sheets for me for free.

I humbly walk over to the Ifpo librarian's desk and ask to be a registered member.

- Very well. Are you a student here?
- No, unfortunately I am not.
- A researcher then? Are you working on a thesis at your university?
- No, I have finished my studies. I am an architect undertaking independent studies on the Omayyad Mosque.

This goes on. Focussed curiosity is not enough, and a loose association with the Danish Institute in Damascus just barely gets me over the line of legitimate existance. Exceptionellement, I am allowed to consult these books once. You see, it is a very small library and it is intended for students and researchers working on their projects. There is no room for additional people.

I look behind me. Two seats out of 20 are occupied.

Profusely thanking her, I let her know my gratitude, as otherwise I would probably need to undergo a worse fate in Paris to find these books. I let her know that, as it is late in the day, and that I am going to Jordan tomorrow, I will return one of these mornings in order to consult the material.

I hope to be a quiet and dusty book in my next life, in order to grow my appreciation for this system of information management.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Aramaic and argileh

- "Your Lonely Planet is outdated"
- "It came out last summer. Syria's changing too fast; you can't blame the publisher"

We enter Haretna, one of the 106 restaurants which have mushroomed in the Old City, from an original three 7 years ago. It is early, about 8pm, and we come in from the cold rainy 10 degree weather which has fallen upon Ash-Sham, the local name for Dimasq / Damascus. People are puffing it up here, and the argileh warms the place up. They say that a restaurant without argileh is like a bath without water. But the president has declared a smoking ban in public places, and this will come into effect in about 2 weeks.

About half of the courtyard is full - it isn't until about 9 or 10 that the places gets going. A fountain gurgles in the middle, trees dot the space, and a cat peers from under the temporary winter roof cover. A number of waiters flock around, not seemingly doing much but all patrons are somehow served quickly nonetheless. Aside from ordering mezze, we 3 girls order beer and arak, as we specifically came in order to be able to, and not all restaurants serve alcohol. Still we imagine that we are probably the only table that does order booze. The first time I had come I had arak straight / no ice or water. This is apparently very, very unconventional. My friend said that my ice-less arak would be the big news that night in the kitchen.

There are a number of parties happening this evening, perhaps that is why there is live music and a Sufi dancer, a "whirling dervish", on the stage. A mesmorizing sight, calm and twirling around and around. The night was meant to go on forever, but we get overheated by the excess argileh and leave around midnight.


Yesterday I tag along with a couple of friends to find "a woman" - this is how I understood it, and not much more. She is known to have had recurrent stigmata. She is otherwise a completely normal housewife. We get our first directions as "about 100m from Bab Touma", and are not exactly aware of what we are looking for. A neon sign? A picture? A big cross? After my friend bravely asks along the route, we come along to a modest house at the end of a street. We enter and find a shrine in what otherwise would be a small courtyard. A man tells us that there are prayers every day at 5pm (in Arabic), and gives us pamphlets which has the website address: . We plan to return for prayers later in the week.

And just now I have returned from Maalula, a small town about a hour by servees or mini-bus. It is most known for its continued use of Aramaic, the language of Christ. A community nestled in the mountains, the music of the bells or of the prayers of the muezzin resound against the rocks. It was a beautiful and sunny day, literally a breath of fresh air from the constant car horns of Damascus.