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 ....

No comments:

Post a Comment