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 ...