..: Seat of My Pants :..

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Maaloula, Syria - 1994

It was an easy crossing. The border guards barely looked at our hard-won visas and waved us through into Syria.

It wasn’t that much different from North Jordan on the other side of the border. Scrub, sand, cinderblock buildings, the odd brown tent pitched at angel against the wind (did I mention sand?). There was a small bus waiting and we climbed on after learning it was Damascus-bound. We waited for a few more passengers to collect from the border crossing and then the bus rattled off spewing black out of the tailpipe. It must have been an uneventful ride into the capital, as I think I feel asleep.

The arrival at the Damascus drop-off point downtown was on an elevated concrete area overlooking a large plaza in the middle of town. Opposite us were large buildings perhaps 30 storeys in height, several with enormous multi-storey drapes with Bachir Al Assad’s image on them. His father had recently died and the son had come to power. He looked like a weakling, surprised by the events that overtook him. His weedy moustache did nothing to improve his visage and his gaunt stance made him slope forward slightly like Lurch from The Addams Family. Hardly the despotic Syrian hard-ass his father was, he seemed unlikely to grow into the position. But grow into it he would over the coming years, and take up the reins of state terrorism-as-policy. But that’s another rant.

We located a philatelist to look for some stamps for my father back home – the first thing you should do in Damascus, really. It happened to be quite close to our drop-off spot and we spent a happy hour or so looking through stamp books. Next was a money-changer, followed by late lunch/early supper. The place we were to stay the first night in-country was nice enough. Barely a small room really with a sink and bathroom down the hall. However, they did have an in-house restaurant that overlooked a small conflation of three streets, which provided lots to look at while we ordered. The dishes were more geared toward larger groups and so we settled on just two dishes and pops. I ordered a simple baaba ganouj, and when it came saw that it had a thin black swirl of bean curd wound through its centre. I swabbed a hunk of bread through it and took it in. I was flooded with the most sensuous, smoky flavour I had ever experienced. It was instantly remindful of campfires as a boy, spices from the far east, and a wholesomeness good food always brings to the pallete. I remember that taste still.

We were bound, on that trip, for the Aramaic town of Maaloula. It lay nestled in some sharp rises coming up out of the desert near the Syrian ridge overlooking the Bekaa valley in The Lebanon. Aramaic is a language, a long disused language actually, surviving only peripherally in one or two towns such as Maaloula anywhere in the world. Old enough linguistically, to be believed the language Christ spoke. I looked forward very much to hearing it. It would be like hearing the dead speak, I thought.

But first, the covered souk (or Market) of Damascus. Long fabled, the souk had been in-place beside the Grand Mosque since antiquity. Lawrence had written about having lunch there in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Waugh had sampled its Turkish delight in the ‘20s. There had been some diplomatic squabble long ago (1960s?) and Syria had opted to deny tourist passports to British citizens. We were the envy of the archeologists at the British Institute in ‘Amman later when we said where we’d been. The borders opened once again to Brits shortly after our trip. My companion had mentioned an ice cream place in the souk where several generations of Damascenes had made the stuff by hand and pulled portions for customers from great barrels. I became fixated and felt driven to find this place and sample the flavours. So we set off and eventually found the winding alleys that made the market. It was, indeed, covered (as many in the Levant are not) by cotton sheeting far above our heads – perhaps 4 storeys or so with the bordering buildings opening their windows out onto the throngs on the streets below. Very medieval it was, with light streaming through edges in the fabric above, boring down through the musty air, creating long shafts of bright light. People flashed brilliantly for a second and then vanished into darkness when passing through these beams: flash, dark, flash, dark. I was mesmerized. There were the usual textile stalls and cheap clothing places, but not far in we came upon what we were sure was the place.

I ordered a vanilla pistachio, the first barrel I saw. The fellow across the counter pulled out an odd instrument. It had a worn wooden handle with a flat blade branching out from two sides. The blade flattened out and the branches met in the middle making a sort of rectangle with the handle on one end. He sprinkled some very green pistachio nuts across the surface of the vanilla and then struck into the ice cream and pulled it towards him. The ice cream curled up and around in a circular fashion and he took this curl and placed on a plate. I had ordered two scoops and he repeated this procedure with the second. Now, as many will know, eating ice cream in the developing world is never a good idea due to possible contagion lingering in the cooled substance. Eating handmade ice cream is foolhardy. But oh that pistachio looked good and I threw caution to the wind. It was, of course, delicious and the pistachio nuts stuck in my teeth for hours – something I have never minded in the least.

The next day we caught another small bus to Maaloula and arrived midday. There were Christian symbols throughout the town; an enclave really, because the high ridges of rock very closely guarded the town, even from the sun when at any angle but directly above. There was a large crucifix painted onto a flat wall of rock above the main street leading sharply up into town. It was perhaps sixty feet up the rock and maybe 20 feet long on the nave. Huge. We inspected a very old church dating from the turn of the first millennium and then, prize of prizes, stoked ourselves with a very cold beer from a canopied terrace above the church. It was somewhat thick, almost mead-like and had a slight sweetness to it. Perfect for a hot day’s walking and hiking.

We needed to return to Damascus for the evening and strode down out of town back to the main road leading south and east. We hadn’t a ride organized and hoped to find a station or staging area for transport. Slightly alarmed to find none, and it approaching 4pm, we felt our only option was to attempt then to hitchhike. And within a few minutes of the familiar hitchhiker stance known the world over, a minivan pulled over ahead of us and crunched to a stop on the gravel. Approaching the vehicle we saw that it already had a number of people in it. Perhaps there was a bus staging area after all and we had missed it? We squeezed into the minivan, my companion over to the far side next to some women and I next to the sliding door and a jovial fellow beaming at everyone.

The driver was singing and clearly enjoying himself as he sashayed between the lines on the road, softly but clearly singing a little ditty. A woman joined in, and then the smiley guy next to me, and soon all were bouncing off each others’ shoulders as voices were raised in song. A national tune, a folk song? No, the driver called back over his shoulder in broken English, We have come from a wedding! They’d picked us up simply because they’d been in a good mood. How refreshing to have that happen. I could not imagine my own culture allowing for happy people to happily pick up strangers and happily carry on with them in their midst. How repressive Canadian society seemed at that point. Suddenly, I noticed the driver was fiddling around in his seat as he drove, the van careening around in the lane. He feet came up and planted themselves on the steering wheel and his hands fished out a short recorder from his pockets. He began to play a melody and drive with his feet. He even stuck his left arm out the window as he drove to show off further. My companion and I were aghast, but soon laughing with the rest of the company. Not to be outdone, I slid open the window next to me and pulled out my yo-yo and stuck my arm out as well. It was difficult, and my yo-yo wonked off the side of the van a few times, but I did manage a couple of inside loops and even one around-the-world. There were shouts of hurrah for both of us and we were soon back in Damascus and clapping one another on the back.

As a denouement, we were detained at the Jordanian border for what were declared insufficient multiple entry visas. We were clear that we had obtained them in Canada and were very stubborn about it. We sat in the office of the commandant for two hours, as he grew increasingly bored of us, asking the same questions over and again not really interested in the replies anymore. We were eventually released and passed through back into Jordan. I remember it felt good to be back, like our home for some silly reason. I had only spent a couple of months there that year and the previous one; hardly enough to even warrant the idea of living there. But home it felt and to ‘Amman we returned.

Picture below taken with B&W infrared film:


  • This one was for the tongue's delight. You even made beer sound delicious and I don't like the stuff. Wonderful story. Wish I'd been there. I'd even have drunk the beer.

    By Blogger gardengirl63, at 7:55 PM  

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