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Published: January 28th 2005
Welcome to Assad's Syria
The place is covered with pictures of the al-Assad Family: from left to right, Basil, who was heir apparent until he died in a car accident (always depicted with sunglasses), Hafez, papa, the old president, and Bashar, the new president. Although not very democratic, most people seem pretty happy with the way the goverment is running things, especially Bashar. Picture taken in the souq in Damascus.
I really wanted to use the string "Back in the SAR" as a subject, but it didn't work out.
Syria is a very
cheap and friendly country. Don't let people (or your government) tell you otherwise. It's also one of the safest countries I've been to so far, way safer than Turkey and about the same as Iran. I haven't seen or heard of any crimes (petty or otherwise) during my 1-month stay here. Surprisingly, there isn't much of a police presence either.
DO check out Tartus, it's pretty cool. Also the people in Deir Ez-Zur are pretty hospitable and friendly (more so than some of the major cities). Always ask the price of something (especially food) before you buy/eat it, otherwise you run the risk of being screwed over (yes, even in Syria). Damascus is pretty cool, and now I understand why everyone goes to Syria to study Arabic. Do try to learn a few words in arabic.
DON'T spend much time in Palmyra; the people are greedy and used to tourists to the point of seriously pissing one off.
Palmyra was pretty gay. My day out there began with me being invited over
Fuul, boiled fava beans served with some spices is pretty common street food around here -- this kid is selling the raw variety. The meat you can see in the background is pretty standard fare -- they slaughter the sheep/goat, and then cut and sell bits and pieces of it until it's time to slaughter the next one. And no, they don't have the same perspective on child labor as "we" do in the west.
to a guy's table at a coffee shop. The conversation ran something like:
Me: So what are you doing here?
Him: I'm here on business; my wife works in the hotel business.
Him: You know girlhotelgoodverygood?
Me: No, I don't know of that hotel. Is that where your wife works?
Him: Yes. You want f*ckgirlhotelgoodverygood?
Me: Uh, no thank you. (I think I'll leave now).
I ended up barely making the 1:30am bus to Palmyra, getting there at 5am, and showing up at the hotel door at 6am after insistently refusing to take a cab. On the way some guys ran up to me (at 5:30am, mind you) screaming "hello!! hello!!" in a rather rude manner, then offering to take me to a hotel, and then asking for bakhsheesh
, for what I don't know. My first taste of Palmyra, a tourist-saturated nasty little town which one would do well to spend as little time as possible in. The next day I finally got my fake student card: it doesn't stand up to close inspection, especially since the guy wrote my name with 'rub-off' letters so they're kind of staggered and tend to not be very well aligned. The
Kids around a fire
This isn't a very good picture and probably doesn't deserve to be here except for the associated story: when I pointed my camera at the kids a bystander basically stopped me from taking the picture, explaining (in sign language) that I should take pictures of the "modern" stuff, and he was afraid that I would be giving the wrong impression to my viewers back home. I eventually managed to convince him that I thought it was pretty and nothing to hide, and he then let me. To bad the picture doesn't look like much.
upshot is I haven't had any problems with it so far, and paying 10SL rather than 150SL feels pretty good.
Did most of the standard things there, visiting the various temples and walking amidst the old stones (and there are a ton of them). The apartment-like tower tombs - where the bodies were stacked - was the most impressive bit of the lot, as I think I've seen enough roman columns to last me a lifetime by now. It was interesting to note that pre-christian pagan paintings also depicted divine beings which look eerily similar to the classic "angel" picture, except these have black wings. I also tried to walk out to the oasis (never seen a real oasis), but after walking for a few kilometers was dissuaded from continuing further from the locals who (although I couldn't understand what exactly they were saying) indicated it wasn't a place I'd want to be, especially since it was getting dark. Maybe I'll have the opportunity somewhere else.
Was invited in to drink tea with the (house-dwelling) bedouin uncle of a young kid who was trying to sell me postcards. I decided to be nice rather than rudely brush them
It really is something, with its frescoes on the walls, beautiful courtyard, wailing Iranians mourning the death of Hussein (whose head the victorious Sunnis apparently paraded and then buried within the mosque), and alleged resting place of John the Baptist's head within.
off and it paid off. They were really friendly, the whole family gathering around with big smiles, even though we really couldn't communicate. Apparently there's increasingly less pasture (possibly due to desertification), so many bedouin are selling off their flocks and settling down to a life of idleness. Even the poorest bedouin is said to have 100 sheep, and at the going rate of 6000SL/sheep ($120) that seems like a tidy sum, although after buying a house and a couple of years of spending it's mostly gone, and it generally sounds like a bad idea. Most bedouin also have tattoos, on their face and/or body. Apparently it's a primitive "branding" mechanism whereby family members can identify each other after being seperated for long periods of time. Must be a leftover from a different time and place.
As an example of the Palmyrean mentality, a kid was telling me how he was approached by a Spanish group who said they wanted to have tea with some bedouin, and asked if 1000SL would be enough (it's an outrageous sum for tea, especially since the bedouin would never accept payment for simple hospitality like tea). Our smart kid immediately replied that it
Courtesy of the "Only Functioning Democracy in the ME"
Here you see a small fragment of the destruction in Quneitra.
wasn't enough as he himself would need 1000SL as a commission for "finding" the bedouin. The stupid tourists agreed, and the kid promptly pocketed the 2000SL, chuckling to himself about how clever he was. I tried to explain that it was immoral and gave arabs in general and Palmyreans in particular a bad name, but he didn't seem to care.
Tomorrow I head to Jordan via Bosra. Excitement!
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