Saturday, January 12, 2008

Retracing roots, young Syrian returns home - Part 1

A friend of mine has embarked on a journey to rediscover his roots. A young Australian of Syrian heritage, Sami, a Christian, offers an excellent insight into his personal experience trying to understand a world foreign to him, yet a world that has a lot of personal meaning and importance.

I tried to do a similar task in Lebanon 2006, but had it brusquely interrupted by war. Well perhaps war is a part of my heritage, so my "discovering the roots" voyage wasn't all in vain.

Sami was born in Syria, but left at the age of 4 as his family chose Australia as the point of migration. His journal is indeed of incredible interest to those of us in our Western corners who have been closed to Syria due to tension between our political capitals, but are yet amazed by its history and prestige. Syria still boasts a sizable Christian community that speaks Aramaic, is ruled by an Islamic minority over a Sunni Muslim majority, and remains untouched by neither McDonalds nor Starbucks.

This is a country we hear so often in the news, but what is it like to live inside the gates of the Baath regime? How does an Arab country, with little traces of American-style capitalism, no political freedom, and a diverse mixture of minorities, function? More importantly, how does its society function?

This is Sami's first return back to the country, and his first encounter with a culture and country that he has dreamed of ... but is the real Syria, the Syria of Sami's dreams?

Rediscovering roots in Syria

Sami Sara

Well, I have been in Syria for about two weeks and I am finally beginning to feel like a local, ie: sleep till midday, leave the house at 4 p.m. and stay up till the early hours. Well, that’s not quite my lifestyle, but it certainly is the way the majority of this city lives.

There is an overwhelming sense of lethargy; the people around me give the impression that they are always waiting for something to happen, always expecting something to be given them. As if the residents of this oldest of cities deserve something as of right, that ‘it’ will be arriving any minute, but they cannot be bothered to go out and get ‘it’ for themselves (whatever ‘it’ may be for them).

Ok, so maybe this is a strange way to begin a holiday email, but the way I see it a blow by blow of account of what I did, who I saw and where, will bore even my closest friends, hopefully you prefer my incoherent blabber about the inner workings of Syrian life as I understand it.

Of course, that immediately presents a problem: How accurately am I understanding this place? My being here is an internal conundrum for I am neither a complete tourist, because I have family, friendship, language and political ties to this country. However, I’m not a local either, as I don’t quite get the local way of seeing things. I think different, act different. My differences leave me on the edge of conversations which don’t interest me in the slightest, but in the eyes of the locals I am either being shy, mute or rude. It’s hard to explain that I don’t have an interest in discussing the miracles of Saint whatshisname, no matter what you think about the vision of the Virgin Mary appearing in a loaf of bread, and not sound patronising. Better to stay silent and fake shyness.

So what do I think of Damascus ? First and foremost, I love this city, but ours is a rocky love affair. I arrived expecting to be blown away by the history, the culture, the people, and the sights; expecting to instantly fall for Damascus’ reputation and charm. Instead, I noticed the poverty, the dirty streets, the chaos on the roads, the smell of petrol hanging in the air. It created a fear that the city I admired so much when in Australia was only a fiction (the grass is always greener....etc).

So I started thinking about living three months in a city that I loved as a dream, but might hate in reality, which in turn made me anxious that I might actually not like it here! So after three days on a plane, and three hours in Damascus, my mind was racing trying to reconcile all I had heard and read with what I had seen. It called for more exploration!

My cousin Malek happily obliged, and took me out to the ‘old city’, the original Damascus which was historically surrounded by a high wall with seven gates and consists of a maze of tiny streets resembling a labyrinth. That first night, after drifting through several kilometres worth of old streets, smoking an ‘Arghil’ (water pipe with flavoured tobacco), and getting drunk on Arak, I realised despite my doubts, I would surely fall for the place. Malek was (and continues to be) hell bent on passing on as much information on Damascus as I can handle.

Since being here we have continually drifted through the old city where he explains the ins-and-outs of Damascus past and present. He has revealed that he belongs to a group dedicated to ensuring the preservation of ‘old Damascus’, to protect it from profiteers and commercialisation. A successful campaign they ran was to ban neon signs in the old streets. Unfortunately, the group disbanded when its leader ended up on the wrong side of the inconsistent, counter intuitive Syrian justice system.

Malek explained that the reason the streets are so narrow dates back to the time of the Ottoman Turkish occupation of Syria (approx 1500 -1917), and the citizens' desire to limit Turkish troop interference in their lives. The narrow streets prevented the army from mobilising large numbers to suppress the people, as the narrow alleys are easily defended by outnumbered locals. Another interesting titbit of information explains why the older houses have a step at the doorway, that is the inside of the house is always a step lower than the outside. This was a way to prevent eye-contact between males and females in the event that a woman had to open the door should someone knock.

I have already seen many of the tourist hot-spots that captivate the outside world, but strangely they have failed to wow me. Maybe because I have read and heard so much about the places that seeing them seems like a formality? I have been to the city of Ma’lula, the site of an ancient church with an altar dating back to before 300 AD, and relics and religious iconography from countless artists over the last 1700 years. An interesting piece was a depiction of the last supper which has Jesus sitting at the end of the table (not the middle as in Da Vinci’s work), which fits into Eastern tradition that the host sits at the end of the table, so as to easily move around and serve his/her guests. It’s a powerful symbol of the origin of the Christian faith, long before its spread in Europe and subsequent adoption of Euro-centric practices and beliefs.

Also in Ma’alula was a display of one of the oldest locks in the world, with a working model. Pretty impressive system of sliding wood and nails. I also saw some of the famous markets in Damascus, but not being big on shopping, I failed to appreciate the charm of the hustle and bustle of the crowded souks. I did enjoy drinking a glass of pomegranate juice handed to me by a man in dress up, complete with ‘fez’ hat, and baggy trousers and a vest. I am thinking of adopting his business strategy: hand the customer the glass of juice whether they ask for it or not, then demand payment. Simple.

I also saw the historical museum, which I plan to visit again. Here I was impressed by the hundreds of ancient stone statues that date back to pre-roman times. It sure is humbling to stand face to face with a statue that is 3000 years old. The museum contained items from the stone age (pre-civilisation-10,000 years BC), such as early hunting tools and pre-human skulls. But the vast majority of the items were from the late bronze age, from the ancient civilisations in Syria.

I have to say that the most impressive site so far has been the Ummayed Mosque in the heart of Damascus. It is a relic of the Ummayed Dynasty in the rise of Islam, in the first years after the Prophet’s death and the spread of Islam out of the deserts of Saudi Arabia and into civilisation. The Ummayeds seized control of the new religion and set up their capital in Damascus, building this mosque which at the time would have been the biggest in the world. The mosque was built over the Church of John the Baptist, where it was said that saints’ head were buried. That church was itself built on top of the Temple of Jupiter, from the time of the Roman occupation of Syria. It being winter here, walking barefoot on the outdoor marble floor was painful, until we got inside onto the carpeted prayer hall.

Amazingly, until about 70 odd years ago Christians and Muslims still prayed together in this Mosque on a daily basis. It is only in recent times that prejudices have arisen to prevent such simple co-operation. Needless to say, the artwork was spectacular, possibly outdone only by the skilful calligraphy decorating the walls. Interestingly, Islam does not permit people or animals to be depicted in art, so the artwork consists of landscapes or complex tessellations. In all old Syrian buildings the opulence of a place is represented in the beauty of its ceilings, and the complexity of its artwork. The Mosque is spectacular.

What I have enjoyed most of all is travelling around on my own, meeting strangers and working out how this country ticks. The public transport system consists of a huge mobilisation of mini vans that fit about 12 people. You hail one of these when it passes you, and it travels along its route as per normal buses, except it doesn’t have tickets or bus stops.

When you want to get of, just yell out, and the van pulls over. To pay, you simply pass on 5 Syrian Pounds (about 10 cents) over to the driver. Considering one can’t stand up in the mini-van, if you sit down back, you simply pass along your money to the person in front of you, who in turn will pass it on and so on, until the driver gets it.

If you need change, it comes back via all other passengers! I felt most comfortable in this city when I managed on day three to travel via mini-bus to my uncles house on my own, navigate the old city labyrinth and find my way back later that night.

These trips give me the chance to chat to random people about their lives and the country. Interestingly, the lethargy comes from the city’s historical foundation as an agricultural centre: the people are still in the farming frame of mind. They’re history consisted of several months worth of hard work, followed by months of waiting for harvest.

This mindset has not translated very well into the modern world, where people still wish to sleep away the winter days. The hard work ethic ingrained in Western culture by the industrial revolution skipped Syria and the Middle East. The most interesting stranger I met was a taxi driver who ripped me off (as everyone tries to do, because in Syria you must bargain for everything, and I admit I suck at bargaining!).

The taxi driver informed me he is a German citizen, who came to Syria to visit family, but was not allowed to leave for 5 years (reason unknown). His 5 years were almost up, and he was gearing to return to Germany. He also informed me of his trip to Tokyo where he met up with a girl who he first met in Syria. He didn’t let me leave his taxi cab without kissing me on each cheek for chatting to him, and he beamed at having managed to rip me off by about 50 Syrian Pounds.

I don’t know whether people are happy to have me chatting to them, or whether they rub their hands in glee that they have another foreign sucker to rip off, but I am enjoying my random chats with strangers more than anything, and they are certainly being surprised by my (naive?) openness.

The mood of the people ranges from the ultra positive to the ultra negative. The positive minded people point to all the changes that have happened in the last ten years, and the sheer amount of growth that the country is experiencing. They are adamant that work is available to all who want it, but Syrian pride stops many from accepting valid work because they would rather starve than have to work hard at something!

The pessimists believe that the government is doing all it can to rip its people off for the personal gain of the few officials in control. Whilst the corruption in the country runs deep, I happen to agree with the positive minded people, the country is moving forward, albeit at a snails pace.

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