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.

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