Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rue Haute, Brussels

Today is the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo from Belgium. A big day, though I haven't heard much in terms of commemorative events. Last weekend we were at multicultural festival Matongé en Couleurs, Matongé being a locus of those originally from the Congo.

Here, dust floats in the living room. A mixture concocted by an African urban fairy, of 6-month degraded cardboard and minute particles of Bamako dust. I'm putting the finishing touches on a repacked box sent from Mali to Brussels. I work on the roll of packing tape, eyes wide open but blindly trying to find the edge. Like the universe, it does not seem to have a beginning or an end. So I give it to J here, among whose talents includes being a massage therapist. Sensitive fingers find the invisible.

I left Berlin last Saturday, after a flurry of heartwarming visits from friends near and far. One from Stockholm and another from Düsseldorf, both old friends from Vancouver. A German who I met in Almaty some years back. And K, who embodies my entire stay in Damascus. We happened upon a Lebanese-operated Mediterranean restaurant on Kastanieallé, our Lebanese waiter so happy for conversation and helping us with some Arabic language questions. K and I reminisced over all the drama and the soap operas that swirled around us back in Damascus, and despite the current sense of distance, somehow continue to swirl. Syrians say that everyone has two homelands - our own and Syria. Perhaps that mindset is behind the Syrian who, rather unbidden, calls K five times a day now in Berlin. We are close in our hearts, but at the same time, he must have a good mobile phone plan.

I meet K's Damascus roomate here in Brussels. Luxembourgian to Italian-Spanish parentage, with still room for 4 years of Arabic in her head, she is a polyglot. We go through her Facebook friends - do I know this guy, she asks? I confirm his identity. I met him and other Swedes at the HIV blood test clinic on my second day in Damascus. Like the packing tape roll, things come full circle.

Still, it is often a feeling of transition for me here in Brussels. This is aided by their sofa, which is the exact same model as my own. A material foreshadowing of something to come, or in the case of last September, something I just left. Those that know my relationship with my sofa know that it is an especially fond one. I can close my eyes and simply put, relax and be home again. There is something about the density ratio of foam solids and air bubbles that provides my body the right amount of softness and support.

S+J are the ones I travelled to Mali with in December, so now this is the 3rd time I've seen them this trip. However, each time has been in a different setting as now they have moved. It seems that they are in a different apartment every time I see them, but we find no evident correlation. They are in the process of opening up their Ethiopian coffee house on Rue Haute. It will also be here that they sell the goods that they purchased in Africa.

I crash in Brussels like an ocean wave meets the beach, each time erasing any traces of memories I had of the city. For a not terribly large city, the shops change often. I suggest to S+J to imprint their logo on their café coffee cups, as a sign of some stability.

There is a small seed in my box from Mali. A gift from the fairy. Pale yellow, about the size of a large oatmeal flake. In the middle, something that looks like a seed within, the same size as a sunflower seed kernel. J thinks I should plant it and see what happens.

Back on Canada Day, tomorrow. A good day to remember when I am supposed to be back.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


With my new after-10 am month pass I am now roving around Berlin and squeezing as much as I can out of it. Today will be an escapade out to Pfauerinsel - Peacock Island - a former love nest of the elite on the ritzy south-west area of the city. Two or three trains (depending on the S-bahn gods of timing and chance), a bus, a ferry, and what looks like an hour's walk will land me to a temporary pavilion of Olafur Eliasson.

Spent some time yesterday as a legitimate card-carrying reading-room member of the Stadtsbibliotek Berlin, a library designed by Hans Scharoun. It is truly an immense interior landscape, like the Grand Canyon turned inside out somehow. Currently some 2 million books are inaccessible due to asbestos - 1/6 of their collections - and this perhaps in tandem with the sudden onslaught of Summer relieves the library of many of its potential users. I pick up a book requested last week, a response to a footnote in a book I read in Muscat. And in response to another footnote, in a book on Eliasson, I head to the inside-the-library cafeteria (heaven!) for some light summer reading by Bruno Latour, Making Things Public - Atmospheres of Democracy.

The climate of the interior is really very foreign to me. Either I pack gloves or sunscreen, always one or the other. Today is the latter, the sun is fully shining down and tomorrow they say 31 degrees.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Sitting at the relatively new library in Köpenick, an otherwise old town east of Berlin. It is a nice, brick box, with somewhat randomly arranged openings, although they must be somewhat calculated, right, because it is a Library. The front door here seems like the back door, and gives you both the feeling that you are entering a sort of forbidden door, into a place of forbidden fruit. Or that you are completely welcome and a full part of it, that you enter the same door as all the deliveries, all the staff. It is beautiful volume mostly consisting of air and light. Up on the third floor I ask, in English, for where the English books are. The librarian in response brings me over to the large space in the middle, the "vertically interconnected space", and points down to some shelves on the second floor.

Most of the books here in fact are somewhat forbidding, if not forbidden. But I am cruising along with Arabic again, so the German-ness here fades away in the background. You could say that I roam around on the periphery of Berlin, a city whose centre is perhaps known best for the vibes that emanate from it; or divided, for its east and its west.

Current thoughts are back to Vancouver, in the form of Jeff Wall. I have probably heard of this guy more outside of Vancity than within, and he will have an exhibition in Dresden soon. I am looking forward to seeing Vancouver again. But before that, the other omnipotent artist that has something seemingly everywhere is Olafur Oliasson, who has a current show at the Martin Gropius Bau.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mors dag

A grey Mother's Day Sunday. In front of me is a window sill with lots of plants of unknown destiny. They all look the same when they start, like the offspring of mothers, but who knows what the future brings for them.

I've been flipping through a Danish slang dictionary. "Curlingbarn" or curling-child was an interesting one. Curling is a fascinating game of Scottish origin (as wikipedia says) that somehow really took root in the icy plains of Canada. It's probably a mythical, and I guess metaphorical, sport here. A curling-child is one whose parents have swept away all the obstacles in advance, to give the child the best possibilities to get to "the target". Such children may experience difficulties later in life, when they are not as well equipped to handle obstacles on their own.

It's damn cold here. Beware bare noses. If it weren't for the telltale signs of lettuce green leaves anticipating something in the air, and the hopeful flowerpots on balconies, it feels like Christmas is just around the corner and that the first snow just might fall. It's been a tough winter and now a hopeless spring. When I was in Damascus, many of the Danes coming and going during the months I was there were full of fabulous stories of a truly snowed-in country. Much like descriptions of what Canada must surely be like, in the hinterland east of Vancouver. I hear that the current weather in Vancouver is very pleasant.

I was at a Danish-Yugoslavian event the other event. My friend's father participated in a "youth corps" in 1947 to build a railroad and other works, and this was an event to commemorate it. It was interesting for me to hear that the Ottoman Empire stretched west of Vienna, and so included Hungary and Yugoslavia. Somehow it all comes down to Muslim-Christian relations too, and how it has evolved over time in different ways and in different gradients of peace and war.

Denmark is not "particularly" Christian, but state and religion are close bedfellows, and there are lots of religious holidays throughout the year here that people appreciate. I watched an edition of Joel Osteen yesterday. The idea of ultra-church where 40,000 attend service 5 times a week is close to inconceivable here.

Off to Nørrebro, an inner city suburb. I'll hear a lot of Arabic on the bus but I won't see too many signs in Arabic. Everything has to be Danish here in Denmark.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Den 5. maj

On May 5th, 1945, Denmark was liberated from 5 years of German occupation. Tonight, behind many a Danish window, will a bright candle or two be lit in commemoration.

Currently just north of Copenhagen, in a place called Brede. I'll be in and out of Copenhagen for the next little bit visiting friends, until I start occupying German land in two weeks. The weather is cold compared to even Melbourne, but I am surviving.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Round Dumplings

I've just checked the weather for the various upcoming cities. April is a good transition month between Australia and Europe. In theory in any case - I'm off to London with my fingers crossed...

Today is Anzac Day. It commemorates the sacrifices of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders in a failed attempt to quickly defeat the Ottoman Empire (which at the time also consisted of today's Syria) at Gallipoli. Generally though, it's just a long weekend here. It's either quiet (my experience at a restaurant last night), or, as rumoured by a family member, there's drunken debauchery in the City so I should definitely avoid Chinatown in particular. Or, as my architect-cousins experience, it's just another working weekend as they work to get a tender package out, on a project with very expensive angles.

Have just come back from some time on the east coast now. Coming from the Middle East, one thing that stands out is the amount of skin and cleavage here. It's not as much as in Moscow, but about one stitch more. On the beaches lie beautiful people in beautiful nothings. There's certainly not one hairy man or woman in sight, and rare are the overweight, the over-70s, and women who only have a modest one-piece black swimsuit (me) - they are wiped / wipe themselves from public view. Be beautiful or be gone.

London-based photographer Zed Nelson has an incredible exhibition entitled Love Me at the Sydney Centre for Photography. He shows with true clarity the price paid to fulfill the never-ending and highly demanding expectations of a beautiful body. There is a image of a nip/tuck from a surgeon's point of view that I find particularly memorable.

So right now I am going back to my aunt's place and am going to stuff myself with some soulfood brought by my aunts, maybe some of this sour soup that has been in our family's belly memories forever. I just learned how to make "tong yeun" yesterday from 5th Aunt and can't wait to do it again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I'm not sure that the world is ready for China. And equally so, I'm not sure that the Chinese is ready for the world.

Apparently a miniscule drop of Mainland Chinese -- very affluent of course due to our collective consumption of Made-in-China goods -- have come to Australia and very recently have upped the real estate market by a very considerable amount. It's made the sellers very happy but of course not first-time home buyers. It's yet another "reason" to keep Australia, well "Australian".

Many countries have residency- or citizenship-ownership laws. In Oman, only Omanis can purchase land. And to be an Omani you have to be resident fo 30 years.

It's nothing new of course. I doubt that the Aborigines / Kooris have economic access to land here. And I remember the combination of Expo 86 in Vancouver / the Hong Kong handover hiking prices up. But everythings been legal. Everything is by auction, allowed by property law and banking law here.

Not so in the Middle East, and of course I am talking about Isreal and the Isreali settlements in the Palestinian Authority. I'm currently engrossed in a book by Stephen Glain, "Merchants, Mullahs, and Militants". Easy to read, I'm glad I'm reading it now after Syria, and I highly recommend it.

And as said, the Chinese are not ready for the world. I always knew that I had a physically hard time existing out of my "bubble" that is Vancouver. Actually, it must be some part of China. I have skin and lung sensitivities. I'm getting to know more and more Chinese living outside of China to have serious and severe skin and lung sensitivities, and major allergies, right from the time of birth. One young relative is even allergic to rice. (!) Even my father, who never in China had hay fever, developed it in Canada.

So we'll see how long this all lasts...

Currently in Sydney. Off to Parramatta in a little bit.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Usually I leave my taxes to the very last day, in tact with the rest of Canada, but to the dismay of my father. But this year I am being a good girl, and have just finished them now. Besides bearing gifts of winter wear and packages of family photographs for the relative here, he also brought my T- slips and a couple of Christmas cards. He will return with a minor bundle of excess cargo from me...

It is quite a culture shock to be in Melbourne from the Middle East. Even my friend M., who I met in Damascus but is now back home here, is just getting over it after 4 months. As cities, the difference between Canberra (where she studies now) and Damascus is far and wide. Culturally, I am still not quite used to it. I'm converting prices into Syrian pounds and nothing makes sense. (I even convert to Canadian dollars and nothing makes sense) When I was at the bank, I asked for some small bills - there were never enough small notes in circulation in Syria. And generally, it's too easy here. My brain is numb from how easy it is to do easy things. I know, people spend their entire lives making daily life easier for the general public, but still...

Despite that it's the usual thing - they drive on the left side, the water's spins the "other" way, it's late summer here, and everyone walks upside down here down under - except me, of course, being from up and over. And there's no recession here, there never was. A highly coal-fired China has propped up the country like nothing else.

My father came in earlier this week, and that night the entire clan got together for dinner. My current research project is to find out who's who here, and have managed to collect data for a well-sized family tree. Inputting names should be interesting - formal Chinese name (blah blah blah), informal Chinese name (ah blah), transliterated Chinese name, English name, and "relation" name (what I call that relative, because of my relation to him/her).

The Chinese food intake has been constant and consistently very good. I think it's actually better than Vancouver. The dishes are a little different but very well done, and I have also had by now some good ol' jook and cheung fun.

Whereas last week I will getting over jetlag, this week is about visiting relatives. Next week may involve some local travelling, possibly a walk from Torquay to Anglesea.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Box Hill

No more 4-car garages, no more unlimited irrigation of Malaysian tropical plants with desalinated water in the heat of the afternoon. Maa salaame Muscat.

Now I'm in Oz, the land of fires, droughts, and floods. Where in Melbourne the water reservoir is at a fantastic 34% level. Where you are only supposed to have 4 minute showers, and signs on the suburban streets around my aunt's house proudly proclaim that they are watered with reclaimed or tank water.

I'm in Box Hill, a western suburb with its own "enlarged map" in the Melways map book - so it must have some significance. Box Hill is also a place in Surrey, England - where all of Emma's plans fell through in Jane Austen's book. I'm not sure if I have any plans just now except to wake up before 1pm and exercise a bit. My aunt's border looked at me in a certain way when I said that I wanted to walk in a park rather than see the city centre today.

Specifically, I'm at an internet "cafe". More like an internet hall. It's completely reminiscent of the one I used in Urumqi, China - just a small version. There's about 40 computers packed efficiently here, and everyone (except me) is an Asian male, most Mandarin-speaking. Everyone is chatting, it is pretty lively in here. My Windows is a Chinese version, and the language input is some version of Chinese. It's an instant pop quiz in terms of remembering the short cuts for "new window" or "new tab".

Box Hill is, in my eyes, a total success in terms of suburban town planning. It's changed quite a bit in the past 5 years. It seemed like it used to be Cantonese - now it's quite Mandarin. The centre is charged with a subway train station and a shopping centre, with a high-quality Asian version of Granville Island Market. It has a lot of people around, a lot of small restaurants and outdoor places to enjoy bubble tea, and a life up to 2am.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Just came back from the interior. G. and I went down to a place called Sinaw. First breakfast at what seemed to be the only place there. I had a most delicious fruit juice cocktail, we each had scrambled eggs, Indian chai, and Indian bread. Then we took off to the souq, which does not look like much as the building is 30 years old, but the souq is in fact old. Being on the edge of the desert, it is close to all the Bedu. In one month all the Bedu families and their camels will set up there for the summer in palm leaf shelters, and avoid the strong summer winds along the coast.

We spent about 2 hours at a knife shop, getting custom knives made for the whole of 1 OMR each. The steel is from old car parts, C4 he calls it. We spend some time later exploring Old Sinaw, which looks like an uninhabited Malian mud-brick village. And just now, having come back to Muscat, we see a friendly giant "Rusland" or Antonov 224 fly overhead, on its way to Afghanistan. Dinner tonight will be take-away from the Royal Flight canteen on the roof.

We've done all sorts of things after he's come back from work, and able to take me out of the compound. All from taking me to the City Centre Mall and Beit Jubayr, to a fish dinner in Al Maida (a Yemani restaurant) surrounded by cats, to fancy drinks at Chedi Muscat, where we saw the Belgium top ranked tennis player walk by (look, that's Kim!). I have to admit I don't know her, but anyways, now I am illuminated.

Tomorrow on the plane to Melbourne, to visit family mostly but also a friend I met in Damascus. Via Qatar Airways which is a treat. On the way here it was only 10% full - I've never seen an airplane so devoid of people and the food and drinks service so quick. Will see how it is to Melbourne. The films are good - they have current foreign films so I am happily catching up with the offerings of contemporary Danish cinematography.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Day 2 here. Just back from an evening drive.

G. has been introducing me to the wonders of Muscat. A place designed for the car, it's where petrol's free (just have to pay a service charge), cars go at top speed, new roads are being built all the time, and all things go towards making Oman to having the largest ecological footprint in the world.

We pass by 8 storey concrete prefabs started 2 months ago - the Indian slavery here is efficient. We pass by a house built for "His Excellency" or for "His Highness" - there are many of these compounds. In front of us - and we are almost always on the road - are cars with special licence plates indicating that the driver is part of the Royal Palace. Untouchable.

We go by the former Royal Palace, now the Guest Palace. 2000 acres.

G. tells me about the facades of this city and culture. Sultan Qaboos didn't like how the shops looked on the street leading up to the Guest Palace, so he had a facade wall built to cover them up.

He tells me about the enormous convoys of 3000 people - 1,200 cars - that go into the desert, accompanying the Sultan when he wants to set up camp.

Huge planes, the largest in the world, fly every two hours above us, carrying some kind of something from Sudan or Afghanistan or Iraq. Oman is neutral, but the British and the Americans have some presence here.

Lots of road stories...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lazy in Lattakia

I meet Sam, a Syrian-Canadian - the first I've met - at the Hotel lobby in Lattakia. Here for a few months doing research, as part of his medical studies in Toronto. I had just come back from an unfruitful search for a hair salon for women. Islam has a thing with women's hair, making it difficult to see women's hair being cut, and thereby hair salons for women as they are never on the first floor but on the second. Sam tells me there is a great hair salon on the way to where he lives in the centre of town, so we go off, and he drops me off at the ground floor.

I go up the stairs. Natural light shows me the way. On the second floor, there is less natural light, or any light for that matter. It's quite dark in fact. I barely make out "Salon" lettering on a wall down the corridor. I try to be hopeful, as Sam tells me this place is always open. I peer in an open doorway. Six people sit in a circle in darkness, in what seems to be the salon entry.

Marhaba? I say with a definite question mark at the end. Can I get a haircut, is this place open? They sort of barely make out that it is a very Asian-looking ajnabeeya in the doorway, and, given the power outage, the one who becomes my stylist couldn't help but laugh given the circumstances. Yes I say, this ajnabeeya would like a haircut if possible. And eventually I get a very good one, and feel that some weight has been lifted, just in time for the heat of Muscat next week.

Lattakia has been a good place to not do an awful lot, and bask in the enormous pleasure of speaking simple Arabic to very friendly people. The city to its advantage lacks the "drama" that can sometimes discolour the tourist-local relationship in Damascus. It's very down-to-earth here. An authentic welcomeness in their disinterest, and thereby lack of outright distinction between the qualities between a local and tourist.

The hotel I am at has a Tintin-theme to it, and I've perused through about 4 Tintin books in French, English, and Danish. I've met more Canadians here than in Damascus. Tomorrow we are off to Tartus, insha'allah, about an hour south by bus. Grey and overcast today, much a la Vancouver - but yesterday we had a glorious sunny day, and felt the salt-sea breezes of the Mediterranean waft by our cheeks.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


For your reading pleasure, my summary of research initiated while at the Institute, also online on .

Geometrical Ornamentation at the Omayyad Mosque

Through the support of and residency at the Danish Institute I have been able to conduct a study on a small but important part of Islamic architecture. With a professional background in architecture, and using simple tools of drawing and research, I have been able to make some preliminary observations that are intriguing and worthy of further exploration. This written summary is based on an illustrated presentation at the Danish Institute on 2 Feb 2010. The study has shed new light both on the design of the grilles themselves and on their relationship to their spatial and historical context. This was also an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between structure and ornament in architecture. I suggest that geometry, in particular the golden ratio, was not ornamental in the sense of being non-essential and applied, but in fact integral and fundamental in the structure and design of many elements of the Mosque. As Euclidean mathematical ideas were revealed in the objects of study, I think that modern architectural expressions could build from experimentations in more current, non-Euclidean mathematics as a way of, perhaps, revealing Paradise on earth.

There are 6 marble window grilles located on the west side of the courtyard in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. They each have a unique geometrical pattern, two of which were studied as drawings to incorporate the golden ratio, and not based on more typical four- or six-sided forms. Claimed to be original elements in what is one of the oldest extant Islamic monuments, they may well represent one of the earliest usage of geometrical ornamentation in Islamic architecture.

The context, design, material, dimension, symbolism and functionality (or lack of – in modern building envelope terms) of the grilles suggest a bridge between the sacred and the profane, and between Islam and the ruling Omayyad Caliphate at the time. They lack noteworthiness (being under the spectacular Barada mosaic), functionality (providing neither light or view), and visual integration on the façade when viewed from the courtyard. The lack of functionality is underscored by the relocation of 4 of these grilles above their original sill location, such that the original header is behind and within the space of the grilles. I would suggest that these are exquisite pieces of artwork rather than architectural ornamentation, framed and positioned as if they were functional building elements, but noteworthy because they appear not to be so at all. The relationship between these grilles to the Mosque is less in terms of typical building connections but more in terms of the golden ratio. Drawings of two of the grilles suggest the use of the golden ratio, both in the overall dimension as well as in the interior geometric pattern. Moreover, using rough measurements on photographs and available drawings, the ratio is suggested to be found in the exterior dimensions of the Mosque, the two wings beside the domed nave, the exterior façade of the central nave and the original section through this domed nave. Just at the Mosque is a unique religious and – at the time, political – precinct, these grilles perhaps also have equal spiritual and political tones. They appear to be a “window” to Paradise but also windows into the Uthman Room, a reception room which, by the right-hand rule when facing the Mosque entry, would have been a politically important room.

It has been satisfying to look closely into a small part of Islamic architecture, and to look at the underlying lines beneath geometric patterns rather than simply copy-and-paste, a more common method of looking at “exotic” ornamentation. While it is anticipated that further drawings are made of the 6 grilles for exhibition, it is hoped that future study can look at the notion of ornament as fundamental, and how architecture can reveal and relate to more contemporary mathematics. Such would bring value and relevance of this historical study to modern practice, and continue the search for what makes architecture, architecture.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Year of the Tiger

You are a certain animal in Chinese astrology. However, unless you are a tiger, of course you would like to be like one of us. Tigers are most wonderful creatures, no question about it.

One option is to dress up in a tiger suit, but another, much more meaningful one is to take a rigourous programme of courses and obtain certification. There's probably an international school for this in a city near you.

Courses include:
- Basic Tiger Survival Skills - in Zoos, Forests, and on urban outskirts
- Advanced Tiger Grammar and Phonetics - Rar! in Practice and Theory
- How to Love another Tiger - Safe and Non-destructive Nibbling Techniques
- Practical Tiger Grooming - Common Hammam Practices for the Very Hairy
- Tiger Cuisine - New Explorations in Raw Meat

Upon completion you get a nice flea collar with a gold name tag. You then have the privilege of learning the secret tiger purr as well as a song which describes how fabulous and amazing tigers are - and this you need to sing 5 times a day in order to maintain your certification of practice.


It is my last week in Damascus. I am keeping to a similar schedule as usual - a blend of Arabic, cooking, reading, exploring - but there's more gift-giving just now as I lighten up my load, and a bit more personal admin as I organize my next few weeks as I go on the road again.

My Arabic is just getting good. I have been verbing so much that I long to be an adjective again. I have learnt to phonetically approximate the secret code for "Can you give me a discount" - a sentence complex enough that I don't quiet know what the structure is yet, but it apparently impresses shopowners enough to reduce whatever I am buying by a dollar or so. Arabic is slowly paying off.

It has been a very Christian week for me the past week. Last Friday was a short day trip to Seidnayya, a town just 1/2 hour away. An important pilgrimage town in the Middle Ages, second only to Jerusalem. The main monastery was spatially amazing - stairs, courtyards, balconies, terraces in a full 3D labyrinth. Tough to say how old it was - like most buildings here there is a lot of ongoing rebuilding. On Sunday I went to the Armenian Orthodox Church for service, which lasted 2 hours. They also have a curtain, like the Armenian Catholic Church. But here it was always drawn. Full Mystery. Like coming to a theatre to see a play, but the curtains remained closed.

Also finally went to a hammam here. "Only" 12th century - the oldest here is 9th century but that is only for men. The one I went to was really nice, a good honest scrub in very nice surroundings with a couple of friends. There is one in Aleppo that I hope to try too.

Looking forward to Aleppo. One book says there are 10km of souq, another says 30km. Probably a truly delightful commercial experience, however long it is. Due to its location, one book says that they really had to work to get people to come to Aleppo, as it is not a natural crossroads. And because it has been so ignored for the past hundred years it has not been modernized - so pretty ideal for the modern tourist now. A very old city, and it will probably look it, much more than Damascus. Even the Jdeide Quarter or "New Quarter" refers to an area that began in the 15th century.

Also gearing up for the route afterwards. I am languishing for rice rolls and jook, so have already made arrangements to go to Crispy Duck Restaurant with some friends in London. I'm just there for a night, after which I am off to Muscat for the last 2 weeks in March, and then Melbourne for April to visit family.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Breakfast with Pigeons

It's 9am. It's beautiful and warm on the roof terrace, where I have my breakfast. Slow enough to enjoy the sunrays, just barely fast enough so that the pancakes and coffee can be enjoyed warm. Such is the timing of living.

The sound of the pigeons here will forever bind me to the sound of the Institute. And then again, it's not so much that - it is the quiet. Resonating beyond their feathery fluff, the muted sound of their inner organs fills the morning stillness of the courtyard with wholeness and grace. It is a fine way to begin the day.

Two pigeons on the other side of the courtyard, above the director's residence, inspect the roof and scuffle around back and forth. A little bit beyond is a minaret, one of the many pieces that create the roof landscape here. If maps and streets don't have much to say with one another here, it is even more so with the random assortment of roof bits. Like heaven, the roofscape bears little with what is on the ground. In the summer, it is a cat's playground as they ransack one kitchen to another via roof access. In the winter, it is a wonderland of buildings that have the appearance, strength and protection of a wheaties biscuit. Their defiant existance during the rains is an act of faith on borrowed time.

Far off towards the east, church bells ring. They sound old, I imagine they are older.

I went to the Armenian Catholic Church for service once. (I can't remember if I wrote about this - in any case I can't read my blog in Syria). I think I remember reading somewhere that Armenia was the first state to be Christian. I went there at 8am, and sat until 10am when service started. A wonderful old man welcomed me, gave me water and sweets his wife had baked. It is a renovated church, white and bright, with modern frescos, electricity, and heating. Drapes cover the front part, and were drawn in and out throughout the service. Mystery is a beautiful thing. The music, as I remember it now, seemed to have a common refrain, and hauntingly, achingly gorgeous. Slow and minor.

And recently I went to the Armenian Orthodox Church one evening to see a film called Phoenix and Ashes, on the work of German Johannes Lepsius during the Armenian genocide of 1915. 1.5 million died, many in Syria where they tried to escape to from Turkey. The evening was frigid. Cold wind blew through the front doors of the church and bit through thick coats, as if to give sensual effect to the subject matter. At one point the film showed a regular gas/petrol station. Cars going in and out as usual. And then a map, which showed that it lay on top of a mass grave. Where the bones of 300 Armenians lay, those that went to find refuge from persecution in their church, but found themselves locked in and gassed.

Yesterday there was a "workshop" at the Danish Institute, on the secular state and religion in the Levant. It was to be a full weekend conference with free public admission at the Damascus University, but because we are in Syria, it was cancelled the day before. I only went to one session, as it was partly in Arabic and I am not that good yet. It was interesting to hear about Turkey as a possible model as an "Islamic-but-secular-state", where Islam is good for business and good for EU. But Turkey still does not recognize that the genocide occurred.

I have 2 weeks left in Damascus, after which I abandon it for Aleppo. People don't believe me when I say that it will be so incredibly difficult to leave Damascus, but it's mostly because I haven't had to deal with the bureaucracy that much here. But I am so looking forward to Aleppo. I have saved it to last, for the good weather of March (though we are already in the low/mid-20s), and a friend from Berlin is coming especially to join me in my last 2 weeks in Syria. I love the idea of staying at the Baron Hotel - how often is a hotel listed in wikipedia?

Like my breakfast, it will all be about timing these next 2 weeks - wanting it to be savoured but at the same time impatient to explore Aleppo's 10km of souqs.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bits of Bliss

Apologies for the cryptic posting last time! But words hardly do justice to describing Beirut. They say that it is / was the "Paris of the East" but honestly, I think it would be better if Paris was more like Beirut. And let us say that it is everything that Vancouver is not, but there are the snow-capped mountains and the ocean that make it otherwise seem so much like home.

I have to admit that in Beirut I surrendered to bliss. There is also a Rue Bliss there but I was only close to it. I spoke English the entire time. I don't think we saw more than 2 tourists as we blissfully wandered around the beautiful streets (Syria on the other hand gets 6 million tourists a year). No one asked, "Yabani?". I had a burger and fries, and noted that if this was Lebanese food, they should export it around the world, it would be a hit.

We treated ourselves to a chic place called Eatalian, a place where the waiter asked how our food was a few minutes after serving us. I don't think I recall the last time this occurred. I had risotto fruitti di mare, which was very good. It came with a little surprise in the bottom of it - a small but entire octopus, which is apparently a Beirut "thing". Unfortunately I did not try a single traditional Lebanese-food restaurant, but next time I will order a M'louchie at Le Chef on rue Gourand. Another place I would like to visit is B018, a bomb-shelter-now-bar designed by Bernard Khoury. He spoke at one of the Vancouver architecture lectures a few years ago.

The bliss has continued here, as recently I went to Cham City Centre, a new mall which is about 2-3 years old. This is where the expensive supermarket is with foreign foods. I am not unfamiliar with this sort of institution, having stocked up with 6 jars of pesto when I went to Amman. I go all out and buy meusli, flour (for pancakes!), pesto, and digestives coated one side with chocolate. The latter has not been to satisfaction. At some point in the shipment and/or storage, the chocolate melted and has resulted in a kind of a crumbly digestive cylinder that is a complete mess to eat and transforms me into a 2 year-old.

If you recall, I attended a conference in October here. One of the speakers was Robert Irwin, who I knew nothing about. Indeed, I knew nothing about the Middle East, and he rightly asked me, "What are you doing here?" as we spoke during one dinner. As I was apparently a complete question mark. I am reading now his most recent "For Lust of Knowing", which by force of his knowledge of the Middle East he comes head-on against Said's Orientalism. I hope he answered his question; I hope that a Danish-speaking Chinese-Canadian can also learn about the Middle East.

I'm on page 48. How it was difficult for Christians to learn Arabic and translate the Qur'an, and not so much to learn about Islam per se but in order to refute it. There were no Arabic university courses; it was dicey to hire an Arab teacher because he might kill you (see Ramon Lull, p. 44), and so they go at it on their own, probably with some difficulty. But still, when John of Segovia (c. 1400-1458) wrote a refutation, he was "promptly attacked ... for having given publicity to the doctrines of an abominable heresy. "

This continues to the present day. The presence of Arabic language learning in a public place in Europe or North America hits the nerves like the thought of an unwanted accupuncture appointment. I can't open my Arabic textbook on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nor on the train that went from Brussels to London on Sept. 11th. So the one great thing here in Syria is that learning Arabic is supported. The director keeps asking me, how's the Arabic going?

I've been, of course, working on my talk so the Arabic has actually been set on the back burner. Sort of -though every time I go out and buy things I have to remember certain words. "Walnut" or "cardamom". I keep forgetting "green" although it's a very simple word. I also have to figure out how my visa is to be extended. The process is as transparent as homous and I have all but avoided thinking about it. Who knows, I may need to go to Lebanon to get a visa, which would not be a bad thing. Mali / Burkina is coming back in rounds - I am urged to show my pictures, and Christmas cards sent from Burkina on Dec. 14th and finally arriving now to their respective recipients.

More unrelated bits: Just discovered the existance of Yarmouk via two couchsurfers living there. Yarmouk is a 50-year-old "camp" where 350,000 Palestinian refugees live in Damascus. On the same topic, I recently met Peter Reidlinger, passing through the Danish Institute. He has an exhibition of photographs documenting the ongoing Israeli settlement activity. On at the Goethe Institute which ends soon but is going onwards to other places (he doesn't know yet).

Current residents here at the Institute are all women just now, and include the former Minister for Culture in Denmark, a retired schoolteacher, and a PhD student who is studying Syrian soap operas. If you have heard about the Danish cartoon incidents (which led to the burning of the Embassy here and in Beirut and the shutting down of the Institute), there is a popular Syrian soap opera based on it, where I believe Syrians help Danes learn about the Islamic world. And if you recall my travels to Holkham up in Norfolk "in search of" Jane Digby, there's also a Ramadan soap (a soap that is viewed during Ramadan) based on her story too.

As you can read, things are coming round in full circle. Next week: off to find Jane's grave maybe!

Friday, January 22, 2010


Why didn't anyone tell me about this city?! My inner soul has been torn.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Further Chronicles

I feel like I am having an Anne of Green Gables day.

First was the feeling of almost having an original thought. I thought that I had made a small breakthrough / discovery this morning, and the caffeine level of my coffee tripled. Essentially I thought that the person who translated Euclid's Elements into Arabic, Al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf, was the same person that was an influential governor during the period when the Omayyad Mosque (in which, I think, the first geometric patterns were used in then-to-be-conceived Islamic architecture) was being built.

I suppose the second 'event' of the day was continuing the research and seeing that my source (wikipedia) was partly correct in names but entirely wrong in the actual individuals.

The handy dandy, reasonably reliable Encyclopedia of Islam clarifies:

Al-Hadjdjadj bin Yusuf bin Al-Hakam bin Akil al-Thakafi, Abu Muhammad is the governor.
Al-Hadjdjadj bin Yusuf bin Matar Al-Hasib is the translator.

I am making headway everyday nonetheless. I present work in progress on February 2nd at the "Tuesday Seminar" at the Danish Institute and I may well post a synopsis here.

And just now I have discovered that I have been given full financial support from the Institute for my residency here.

A big day!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I have just returned from a couple days in Hama (pronounced H'maah), about 3 hours north of Damascus. It's not exactly a backwater town - it has the full flow of the Orontes River running through it, a river which transforms this almost foreign portion of Syria to a moist and verdant valley. My nose was twitching with memories of humidity past. It had rained in the days previous to our arrival, and the roads there were wet and gray. I have succumbed to thinking that rain doesn't exist anymore; this is a false thought.

We were, however, the most exciting event to roll into town. Children all around were crying out HELLO!! to us, probably in exactly the same way they learnt the word in their classroom, in orchestra with 30 other smurfs on a sugar high. For this is also what Hama has a lot of: sweets. It is known for a particular kind of sweet, halawat al-jibne - something that didn't quite fall from heaven; more like an attempt the other way around. But it is the sheer quantity of shops selling sweets - candies, pastries, halawat al-jibne - that staggers the mind. Ten percent of all shops would sound about right (even if I'm wrong). And anywhere we went we would be offered a sample of some sweet something with no name. We brushed our teeth thoroughly in the evenings.

Perhaps it had something to do with the Hama Massacre of 1982. Perhaps the government said, "pour sugar into this city."


The fields were shrouded in mist as we made our way to Afamea / Apamea. We are the only ones there apart from another couple of tourists, and we wander through the area, the mist revealing or enclosing each section in silence. However, quite unexpectedly, a bus soon comes along and unloads an energetic Syrian boy scout marching band. They duly practice between the ancient fluted columns.

We actually intended see the remains of this ancient Roman city, but in the end, having tea with 3 separate inhabitants of the neighbouring town Qala'at Mudiq was by far the highlight. And buying towels. I have known about Syrian towels for years, and here in Damascus discovered that it is in the Hama area where they make them. We visit an artisinal workshop of Al-Madani where 4 generations of weavers haved created beautiful, hand-made towels since 1853. After an extended review of their textiles I come out more poor and more wealthy at the same time.

Now back in Damascus. I actually have a talk scheduled rather soon, but despite that plans are underway for a flippant weekend trip to Beirut - rue Bliss and Corniche and all that.

Completely unrelated and this perhaps not being the best way to exit a blog entry, last Thursday we went to see the Sufi-inspired / classical Arabic music group Bab Assalam at the Dar Al-Assad / Opera House. Stunningly beautiful music. It does not sound very polite but my highest appreciation for such sweet music was to want to fall asleep.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Return to Damascus

It is a balmy 15 degrees here. I'm not sure if it is normal, but I am far from complaining. The director here at the Danish Institute said that it has been cold in previous years - down to minus 11, with the fountain here completely frozen.

I am here at the Institute for the next 2 months, studying Arabic and also the mosaics at the Omayyad Mosque. The Institute is about as close to heaven as one can get - or at least a separation bubble - in this bustling city. Whereas before I was neighbour to two, 4-lane highways that were running 24 hours a day, here it is the eye of the hurricane, so quiet you could hear the echo of a pin drop. And whereas before I got up an hour before taking my morning shower to heat up the water, I now have the daily luxury of pre-warmed water. However, the illusion of normality only cushions the reality of my surrounding conditions. There are water restrictions here in this refuge of the desert, and government turns off the taps between noon and 5 am every day. All houses have water tanks, but I wonder how the hospitals and the hospitality industry survive, unless they have very large tanks.

New Year's Eve was good here. I had dinner with two other residents here in our kitchen, as we were naive enougth to make reservations at a restaurant on and for that evening (Thursday, and New Year's Eve). We had a delightful meal on a brand new tablecloth, one which was sold with a soulful recitation of the Koran. The meal included camel meat, lahme jamal, prepared with onions, cumin, and unseeded raisins. Camels are somewhat common in these parts as well as in Mali, although you don't see them everywhere. I have now camel bone jewellery from here and there, and also bags made of camel leather. But for the meat, like fish, we had it with lemon juice, which made it surprisingly very good if you ever get the opportunity. After dinner we joined the rest of the house - the director's family and their guests - for drinks in the winter qa'a (a kind of room). And we saw the partial lunar eclipse of the blue moon as it rose over the courtyard.

Generally it has been very easy to live in Damascus again, particularly shopping-wise. Although I momentarily forgot the word for "green olives", my pantry and fridge shelves reflect my food vocabularly as well as the bounty of Syria. It is amazing that Syria produces almost all of its fruits and vegetables. One day however, I may have to take a taxi out to Cham City Centre Mall to get some pesto. It's one of those things that Syria has all the ingredients for, but doesn't think or want to blend together. I have though still a few jars from my trip to Amman.

I have access to computers here at the Institute, which is great as now I am sifting through 9GB of photos. I also have a landline, which is a new development in my life here. I don't have a mobile phone here, which is fine. However it has been inconvenient a couple of times, as I had no access to a landline; landlines cannot call mobile phones (which all have); and there are no pay phones. I know someone that bought their very first mobile in Syria due to this hassle. But no, not me. Essentially I had to start up a Skype account to call friends in minor emergencies.

Now if Skype was not banned in Syria life would be easier, but anyways ...