In Ali's Hands, Tripoli's Heritage Shines

Saturday, December 31, 2005 | Tripoli, Lebanon

A young baker's assistant hustles his precarious load through Tripoli's narrow market streets.
The next day, Julian and Emma were both out of commission with a strong cold, but Julian told me to go ahead with our planned visit to Tripoli on my own. Having already spent a few days exploring Beirut, I obliged, and picked up a bus bound for the northern port near the Syrian border.

In Tripoli, I picked my way across the Old City, which reminded me strongly of Aleppo, its Syrian cousin a few hundred kilometers to the northeast. It was still early in the morning when I reached the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles (قلعة سان جيل), a towering castle named for the leader of the First Crusade who oversaw its construction around 1100 AD. Much of the castle was largely intact, and unlike the castles in Syria, this one was well restored and the grass lawns of its inner courtyards well tended. The citadel offered a view over the Old City and the sea in one direction and a river valley in the other, with snow-topped mountains in the distance.

Baalbek, Home to History and Hezbollah

Friday, December 30, 2005 | Baalbek, Lebanon

Many of the fine details in the ruins are preserved today, along with inscriptions marking eons of construction and conquest.
After Beirut, Baalbek is perhaps Lebanon's second most famous tourist destination. On the day after Christmas, Julian, Emma, and I woke early to make the trip to the Beqaa Valley (سهل البقاع) to see the ruins of Baalbek (بعلبك), a once mighty Roman metropolis and current World Heritage Site.

On a street by our hotel, we flagged down a friendly, near-toothless taxi driver named Abu Ahmed. Rather than wrangle with buses all day, we decided to pay him the US$80 he asked to chauffeur us.

The drive to Baalbek took some two hours, and first led us over the mountains which lie inland from Beirut. The range was covered in snow and buried deeply in the clouds, so the going was definitely a little hair-raising, as we had been warned. Abu Ahmed slid his way over the mountains, however, and through many army checkpoints, none of which ever asked us to stop.

Down in the valley the weather was brisk but the ground free of snow. At the gate to the ruins, we

Tyre & Sidon: Seafood and Sightseeing in Southern Lebanon

Thursday, December 29, 2005 | Saida, Lebanon

Sidon's Sea Castle (قلعة البحر) is in remarkably good condition considering how precarious is its location.
We spent Christmas morning winding southward along the Lebanese coast in a half-filled minibus, with a crisp rain blowing off the Mediterranean. With the beach in sight, plentiful palm trees, aquamarine water, and the mild air, it hardly seemed like Christmas day, I mused. But then again, we are practically in the Holy Land; this is probably more like the original day than any "White Christmas" back in the States.

Julian, Emma, and I disembarked at the southern port of Tyre (صور), some 30km north of the Israeli border, and ate a seafood lunch in a cozy restaurant by the harbor. Outside the window, fishermen mended their nets along the docks.

Hopped up on cold medicine, Julian was borderline delirious and not much use in navigating the town's markets after lunch. Luckily, Lebanon is probably the one country in the world where the

On Christmas Eve, Exploring Beirut by Day and by Night

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon

Some streets in the Lebanese capital were decked with Christmas lights, a welcome sight for me and other homesick travelers.
Last night I snapped up in bed at the sound of a huge explosion, sure that our hotel was being bombed. A moment later, another. Then the raindrops started. I breathed a sigh of relief and sunk back into my bed—it was just thunder. With all the bombings that still go on here in Beirut, I guess I'm just nervous.

This morning Julian and I ignored the rain and decided to explore some different parts of Beirut. We visited the American University, and found the campus quite beautiful even in this weather. We also toured the National Museum, which was full of Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Crusader era statues, coins, pottery, tombs, and other artifacts. The older Phoenician objects often had heiroglyphics, evidence of ancient Egypt's extensive influence on life and trade here in Lebanon in the first several millennia BC.

Hooked on Phoenicia: A Week in Lebanon

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon

In Beirut, some buildings are no more than empty husks, pitted with the signs of war, while other have been wholly rebuilt.
Since I last saw him in Damascus, my friend Julian and I had been trying to find a chance to get together before I returned to the States. We settled on a week in Lebanon around Christmas, when his fiancée Emma would be visiting.

A few days before the holiday, the three of us met at Talal's New Hotel, a small backpacker joint in Beirut's Gemmayzeh neighborhood, and promptly headed out for some mezzeh (often described as "Lebanese tapas"). We caught up on each other's news, and I tried to digest what little of Beirut I had seen in my route from the airport to the hotel to the restaurant.

* * *

Back during my freshman year, my friend Mahmud invited me to his Arabic class for a screening of West Beyrouth (بيروت الغربية). One of my all-time favorites, the beautiful film tells the story of three

Dispatches from Daily Life in Amman

Sunday, December 18, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

Myself, our teacher Najah, and two classmates, Anders the Dane and Umit the Turk.
In my last days here in Amman, I just want to share with everyone back home what some of my daily experiences are like here in Jordan's capital.

As I've written before, on the surface Amman looks a lot like an American suburb, but daily life in this culture is different (even if it's not as different as I might like). I've learned to adapt in part, but not yet to feel at home—or even as happy as I did in Damascus.

Learning Arabic is the main reason I'm here, and thus the main focus of my days, which I spend at the University of Jordan's Arabic Language Center, home to the foreign students, local Arabic teachers, and a few curious Jordanian students who come to make foreign friends and practice their English. A rotating bunch of classmates and I eat lunch each day at the university cafeteria, or sometimes at an

"What's Greater Than God?": Notes on Religion in Jordan

Friday, December 16, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

A modernist mosque in downtown Amman.
Here in Jordan, just beside the Holy Land, religion is everywhere. Islam and spirituality pervade daily life. Discussing and reflecting on this theme has been particularly interesting while living with a Christian family in an almost entirely Muslim country. Living under the roof of a prominent Melkite Catholic priest who runs a center dedicated to promoting interfaith coexistence makes it even more interesting.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, provoked lots of conversations on faith. Despite not being Muslim or living with a Muslim family, I decided to fast for the full month, as I had done on my own last year at Georgetown.

The fasting was made more difficult by the Haddads' bewilderment at my decision. "But, wait... you're not Muslim. Why would you do that to yourself?" was my host siblings' reaction. I explained that, no, I was indeed not Muslim, but that I enjoyed the challenge of the experience, and the feeling of solidarity with everyone around me. (Well, everyone except of course for the small

Following the Amman Bombings and their Aftermath

Monday, November 14, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

A mosque near our house outside Amman. This act perverting their religion has angered many Jordanians.
Last Wednesday, suicide bombers executed a series of coordinated attacks on three prominent hotels here in Amman, Jordan's capital. I live in a distant suburb, so I was nowhere near the attacks; several friends who live within walking distance were all fine. The images of the bombing sites being shown on Jordanian TV these past few days have been quite unsettling, however. Based on the latest reports, as many as 60 people died in the attacks. Many were attending a wedding in one of the hotels.

Thankfully, nobody I know was at the bombing sites. But for Jordan, the impact of this tragedy seems hard to overstate.

Despite having Iraq, Syria, and Israel/Palestine as its neighbors, Jordan has been able to avoid events like this thanks to a little luck and a lot of security forces. Until last week, it was just about the only country left in these parts that hadn't suffered a major terrorist incident. Now, many

A Return to Damascus

Sunday, November 6, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Streets of Damascus in autumn
With my Syrian visa about to expire and a long weekend approaching (due to 'Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of Ramadan), I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to Damascus and see some faces from this summer.

The weekend turned out to be quite surreal—with nearly all of my old friends gone and the city dampened by a dreary winter drizzle, Damascus looked less familiar than I had expected. When I visited her home in Bab Tuma, Ra'ife was her old cheerful self, asking questions about life in Amman and cajoling me for speaking like a Jordanian. Her mother, too, seemed the same—the silent presence in the room, weathered and stone-faced.

Ra'ife's house lacked the warmth of the sunshine beaming through the grapevines, and I felt the absence of my friends from the summer. Julian had moved out shortly after I left Damascus, and

Middle Eastern Halloween

Monday, October 31, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

Taylor and I did not coordinate outfits—we just look badass like this all the time. (On a side note, depending on whether you're reading this from "over here" or "over there," one of these Halloween costumes must look very original and the other not at all.)
My friends David, Taylor, and Mike hosted a Halloween party at their apartment tonight. I convinced my host brothers Deeb and Laith to bundle a costume into their backpacks and sneak out with me to grab a cab. Highly skeptical of my story, until we arrived they didn't quite believe that everyone else at the party would be wearing costumes.

Soon we were sipping beers in a crowd of assorted Jordanians, Americans, and Europeans dressed as ancient Greeks, modern sheikhs (my pick), cowboys, comic book heroes, and animals. Good times.

Living it up at the Dead Sea

Saturday, October 8, 2005 | Dead Sea, Jordan

Dead Sea: buoyancy like nowhere else. Sadly, my camera did not like its encounter with the mud.
A few American friends and I paid our favorite local taxi driver, Fawwaz, to drive us the 45 minutes or so from Amman to the Dead Sea (البحر الميّت) this afternoon for a dip.

The Dead Sea is famous for two things, the first being that it is the lowest point on earth. Because it's actually been a few hundred meters below sea level for millennia, the Dead Sea has no outflow to the nearby Red Sea. The water that trickles in from the Jordan River and from the region's scant rainfall hardly replenish what evaporates every day in the hot sun, so the so-called "sea" is really more of a dwindling lake.

The second reason it's famous is the salt—because the Dead Sea has no outflow, sediment from the river and salt that washed in eons ago from the Red Sea just continue to concentrate. Today the water is about eight times more salty than the ocean. It's actually only about 2/3 water and 1/3 salt, which makes it uninhabitable for most life forms—hence the name—though apparently there

Grand Tour of Jordan: Jerash, Umm Qais, Pella

Sunday, October 2, 2005 | Jarash, Jordan

Fellow members of our study abroad group explore the Roman ruins at Jerash.
Just a few short weeks after our trip to see the main sites in southern Jordan, our group of American students loaded back onto the bus for another road trip. Here's what we saw, this time in northern Jordan:

How to Live and Study Arabic Abroad in Damascus: the Scoop on Syria, plus Practical Info for Students

Sunday, September 25, 2005 | Dimashq, Syria

Arabic is even more beautiful when you know what it means.
Interest in Syria as a destination for tourists and Arabic students continues to grow—for good reason. Having just finished a summer in Syria, I thought it might be useful to share some of what I have learned, to help others visit the country too.

Despite the bad press it gets in the US, Syria is an amazing place—both as a travel destination, a place to really delve into the full diversity of Middle Eastern culture, and of course as a site for Arabic study. If you have the chance, do not hesitate to go.

I have just recently finished the two-month Summer Arabic Program at Damascus University, and learned a tremendous amount of Arabic in the process. The University stresses teaching Arabic without recourse to English—everything in the classroom is explained in Arabic, from the earliest levels onward. While this was certainly a difficult adjustment at first (and doubtless could appear

Grand Tour of Jordan: Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and More

Sunday, September 18, 2005 | Petra, Jordan

My friend Molly and I, along with two cuddly camels, in Petra.
At midnight last night, the whole group of 27 Americans and one very tired Jordanian chaperone improbably made our triumphant return to Amman after a three-day whirlwind tour of southern Jordan that tested many a nerve, mine included. Despite my fears—and the best efforts of some knuckleheads in the group—the trip turned out to be quite fun. Having my iPod with me sure helped; al-hamdulillah ("thank god") for that.

In three days we managed to see most of what Jordan has to offer, apart from a few northern sites that we'll see later this month. This trip included:

Hiking Wadi Karak

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 | Wadi Karak, Jordan

Green is an exceptionally rare color here in Jordan. Besides Wadi Karak, everywhere else I've seen has been a shade of brown.
Amman continues to disappoint, but things have certainly picked up since this time last week.

Last Friday—the first day of the weekend here—Molly (a friend from my group) and I joined a local hiking club based in Amman for a day hike along one of the local wadis, called Wadi Karak. (In English, wadi translates to something like "canyon", "riverbed", or "valley".)

Very early in the morning, just after sunrise, we met the group in a grocery store parking lot in Amman and drove together past the Dead Sea, which actually looked quite beautiful. For some reason (umm, maybe the name?) I wasn't expecting the Dead Sea to be picturesque, but I'm definitely going to have to go explore it sometime.

Watching a Hurricane Unfold in the Desert

Friday, September 9, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

I don't have any photos yet that capture just how dry Jordan is, so here's me at a dam back in Syria, in a dried up reservoir.
As it turns out, Al Jazeera and other satellite news channels here in the Arab world are actually as disinterested and clueless as the American media at covering events outside their own little pocket of the world.

For the first few days, Hurricane Katrina has pounded the southern United States, particularly New Orleans, Louisiana, and here at the Haddads' house in Amman I've had to follow on BBC—the only station that was covering the hurricane. But the situation back on the Gulf Coast has grown bad enough that now even Al Jazeera and company have caught wind of it, and are broadcasting clips of the flooding and destruction. It's sad to see old and infirm residents suffering—and somewhat less sad to see those who just didn't heed the government warnings as the storm approached.

Ironically, just a few weeks ago I was back in Damascus talking to my Australian friend Julian about the US, and we mentioned New Orleans. I recounted what I remembered from high school Environmental Science class—that much of the city is situated below sea level and protected by a shaky system of levies that won't hold once a big storm eventually hits. And here we are.

Full House, Amman: Settling in at the Haddads'

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

At left, host brother Laith (Arabic for "Little Lion"); at right, host brother Deeb (Arabic for "Wolf").
Amman is... well, as I wrote in my previous update I'm still trying to withhold judgment for a little while, but there’s no denying that this city is no Damascus. All the total craziness that made Syria interesting is lacking here in Amman—a city that basically just reminds me of a large American suburban area.

Jordanians seem to speak about as much English as in an American suburb, too, which is frustrating. That's certainly going to make learning Arabic more difficult. In Syria, you couldn't help but learn Arabic—it was absolutely necessary for daily life, but I'm not so optimistic about the prospects here.

Earlier this week I moved in with the family I will be living with all semester. Their name is Haddad, and they’re Christian, and live in a huge house with a maid. (A few days back, I called my friend Julian back in Damascus to tell him I missed him and everyone else there already, and made sure to ask him to reassure my Syrian Christian "host mom" Ra’ife that I am safe and sound and in good hands, living with a Christian family. These things matter here in the Middle East!)

Amman: McArabia the Beautiful

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 | Amman, Jordan

After Damascus, Amman looks disappointingly American, but I'm hoping there's more to discover under the surface.
Well, I'm here. The big Mercedes taxi got me to Amman and I've found my way to the Rama Hotel near Amman's 7th Circle to meet up with my group of 27 fellow American college students, with whom I'll be spending the next four months or so studying Arabic and more here.

No problems so far, other than the wonderful stomach/digestive tract issues that have been dogging me for the past week. Nothing I can't handle though, and if that's all I have to deal with I figure I'm doing ok.

On the positive side, the grumblings in my abdomen give me something to think about as my orientation drags on. It's basically a cut-and-dry, black-and-white version of everything I've learned about Arab culture over the past two months in Damascus. The discussions are not exactly interesting—or entirely accurate, in my opinion. I'm glad I got the chance to learn it all the hard

Leaving Syria

Sunday, August 21, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Residents, shoppers, and storekeepers mingle one evening on a leafy commercial alley in Damascus's old city.
Over the past two months I have gradually begun to grow accustomed to the rhythms of life in Damascus. Almost subconsciously, I pepper my speech with inshallah's (literally "If God wills it", a somewhat strange phrase they say constantly here, both Christians and Muslims alike, and Jews too, that's sort of like "knock on wood").

I can string together a path through the Old City's alleyways by foot, and know where in the markets to find the best fresh blackberry juice, dates, and qamr-ed-din (قمر الدين)—the all-natural Syrian precursor to the fruit roll-up, a neon orange leathery slab made from apricots. It hasn't rained once in two months so, like the locals, I quench my parched throat from the small metal cup chained to the public fountains outside every mosque. Every day for lunch I buy menayeesh (مناييش), miniature pizzas, from the local carts, and sip juice cocktails (alcohol free, of course) at the juice bar near my

Joyful Welcomes and Tearful Worship: A Day of Prayer with Damascus's Muslims

Friday, August 19, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

This photo of the emotional morning prayer ceremony was one of the most careful and discrete that I have ever snapped.
We saw Mohamed's handiwork long before we met him.

At the university one day last month, several fellow students showed up wearing brightly colored t-shirts with gimmicky Arabic signs screen-printed on their fronts: "Fady Roumana's pizza", "Syria forever", or the ubiquitous "No Parking, under penalty of towing" sign that we easily recognized from the city streets. In a country whose young people are obsessed with imitating our styles—and wouldn't be caught dead in a t-shirt with anything other than an English-language slogan on it—someone had finally discovered the perfect souvenir.

After a little asking around, Julian and I tracked the t-shirts back to a small screen-printing booth at the very end of the Souq Medhat Pasha. A trio of enterprising local brothers own and operate the shop, which mostly sells cheap sweatsuits and soccer outfits for kids. But last month they happened

An Evening with the Hakawati

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

The last of the hakawatis, Abu Shadi, spins his tales at al-Nawfara coffeehouse as locals listen closely.
As my remaining days in Damascus wane, I'm trying to make sure I see as much as possible of what the city has to offer. So yesterday evening Julian and I walked through the Old City's alleyways to al-Nawfara coffeehouse, a famous cafe behind the Ummayad Mosque. Al-Nawfara is known as the last site in Syria where a hakawati (الحكواتي) holds court. The hakawati, or traditional storyteller, carries in his mind centuries of folk tales and fables dating from well before the establishment of Islam in Syria over a millennium ago.

Abu Shadi (أبو شادي) is the current hakawati, and the last of his kind. Each evening, he sits in a throne-like chair at the center of al-Nawfara's halogen-lit inner room, recounting tales about the Rashidun Caliphs, the Thousand and One Nights, or the glorious victories of the Sultan Baybars, and more. The pre-Islamic saga of Antar and Abla is also a favorite, and one he recounted on this

Al-Ma'arra and the Dead Cities

Monday, August 15, 2005 | Ma'arrat al-Numan, Syria

Self portrait in Serjilla, under a sun so hot that you can't even feel the sweat escaping your pores.
Always delightful Hama was my base again this weekend for an exploration of The Dead Cities. My guidebook describes these ancient settlements, which are scattered among the hills west of the Hama-Aleppo highway, as "a series of ancient ghost towns."

The jumping off point for the Dead Cities is the small town of al-Ma'arra (معرة النعمان), best known as the home of the blind poet, philosopher, and scholar Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (أبو العلاء المعري). Born in the 10th century, in his day Al-Ma'arri earned a reputation as an infamous heretic thanks to his critiques of Islam and religion in general. (He once wrote, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.") Surprisingly, even if al-Ma'arri is maligned by modern religious scholars throughout the Muslim world, he is revered in his hometown as a local hero. A bronze bust of him stands in the center of town.

Walk Like A Syrian

Thursday, August 11, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Nice kicks.
This week I picked up some great new sandals in Damascus's new town. They're just one of many awesome souvenirs I have splurged on here in the souqs, where everything is relatively cheap and the styles are all very different from back home. I also have a small new camel-hair carpet from Turkmenistan that I hope to lug back home next year, inshallah.

More Castles, en Route to the Syrian Riviera

Monday, August 8, 2005 | Latakia, Syria

Self portrait while exploring Salah ad-Din castle (قلعة صلاح الدين)
I'm back from another somewhat fun weekend out and about. It wasn't quite as exciting as last weekend in Hama, where the people were much warmer and friendlier, but it was good nonetheless.

Traveling with a friend from Arabic class, Cristin, I saw Salah ad-Din and Marqab castles, supposedly Syria's second and third best behind the Crac des Chevaliers. From Marqab, an imposing fortress built entirely of black basalt rock, you can see the Mediterranean. Salah ad-Din was even more spectacular, perched on a ridge in the middle of a long valley, covered in trees and vegetation. (My first thought? Wow, the color green! We haven't seen that in a while in brown, dusty Damascus.) In the morning light, the sight was even more beautiful. Salah ad-Din also sports one of the most impressive castle entrances I've seen—the Crusaders carved a chasm from solid rock to separate their fortress from the nearby cliffside, leaving just a single pillar of rock upon

Progress in Arabic, Despite Occasional "Stolen Camels"

Saturday, August 6, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Minefield separating the Israeli and Syrian Golan Heights: some vocabulary words are more important to memorize than others.
Since my last update on the subject of Arabic, things have really picked up here.

My class is going well now, and I really feel like I'm learning quickly. When I arrived two months ago, I could barely stutter out a sentence, but a week ago I wrote a small essay on possible solutions for global terrorism, and give a forty-five minute presentation on the Crusades in Syria. Compared to the other students in my class, I seem to have a much more solid foundation in Arabic grammar and word construction. (Thanks yet again to Professor Nydell; Georgetown's Arabic department was definitely right to spend so much time drilling the basics of the tri-consonant roots into our heads.)

The local dialect, 'ammiya (اللغة العامية) continues to be frustrating, but I'm slowly picking up snippets. (Last weekend in Hama nobody spoke any classical Arabic!) At this early stage, I think it makes more sense to put the majority of my efforts toward Modern Standard Arabic (اللغة الفصحى) anyway.

Hama Weekend, Part 4: The Former-Yugoslavians

Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

New friends, exploring Qasr ibn Wardan in the desert east of Hama
After a late afternoon nap on the hotel rooftop, I tried to chat with a Jordanian man who was staying there. His Arabic had a different sound, that much was noticeable. He didn't have much information to offer me, though, so I still don't know quite what to expect for the next phase of my adventures.

Next, I met a few fellow guests on the roof—Staša, her brother Jure, and their friend Matjaz—three Slovenian 20-somethings backpacking through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They were friendly, and spoke excellent English, so I joined them for dinner at a nearby kebab stand, then we picked up some beers and headed to the town's central park, straddling the Orontes.

There, we met a few old Syrian men out for their evening stroll, and chatted with them about life, politics, religion. The most talkative one kept drilling home his message: "We are all sons of

Hama Weekend, Part 3: Assassins and Waterwheels

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

The waterwheels of Hama are the local kids' favorite means of summertime entertainment.
The mosque's call at dawn failed to wake me Saturday morning, but the sun finally did the job a few hours later. To take advantage of the night's cool air, I had slept on the hotel roof, where bare mattresses were offered under a canvas awning.

My destination this morning was Musyaf (مصيف), the famed castle of the Assassins, an obscure branch of Nizari Isma'ili Shi'ites who developed special techniques of killing during their heyday in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that their leaders employed not only extreme training techniques, but also hashish (الحشي), hence their name "al-Hashashiyyin", adapted in English to "assassins". It was said the drug kept the killers loyal, if not completely dependent on their leader's supply.

Whatever their secrets, the Assassins were highly effective, taking down a number of prominent

Hama Weekend, Part 2: Hospitable Friends

Monday, August 1, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

'Arif poses in my sunglasses, beside his gang at Hama's fruit market.
I hopped off the bus late that afternoon in Hama and set out to find some food, but didn't get far. Across the street from the bus station, as I made my way past a large produce market, I was intercepted by an excited middle-aged fruit seller, who introduced himself as 'Arif. He sported a well-trimmed mustache, and wore a grey dishdasha robe like many of his friends, to whom he introduced me. Soon, I was being fed free samples of every fruit they could find in the market, from peaches to tangerines to avocados to melons to apricots.

At first I was a bit confused—would I have to pay for all this fruit? But 'Arif and his gang reassured me that they were just happy to have a new friend. At their urging, I did my best to tell them about myself, and to follow their replies, though my knowledge of the Syrian 'ammiyya dialect is limited. Soon they knew all about me, had stuffed me full of fruit, and were urging me to join them in songs

Hama Weekend, Part 1: The Ruins of Apamea

Sunday, July 31, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

Apamea's collonade seems to stretch forever. Note the throngs of tourists.
This weekend was nothing short of amazing.

I took the bus to Hama (حماة), several hours north of Damascus, on Friday morning, and immediately switched to a service (minibus) to continue northward to my first destination—the ancient Roman city of Apamea (أفاميا), in the al-Ghab plain. After switching to a farmer's pickup truck at Suqeilibiyya, I was dropped off in the town below the hilltop castle of Qala'at al Mudiq (now just a ruin inhabited by a few families). However, I made the rounds of the town's mosaic museum, which houses many tile mosaics recovered from the ruins.

But I only lingered in the museum long enough to cool down—the real sight was waiting. Early afternoon, with the sun solidly overhead, I started trudging up the road from the town. After passing a few structures that clearly dated from an ancient era, I reached the top of a rise. Before

Golan Heights: Visit to a Disputed Land

Monday, July 25, 2005 | Al Qunaytirah, Syria

With the exception of the Golan Hospital, "destructed by Zionists", the Syrians mostly let Quneitra speak for itself.
Yesterday morning the Language Center organized a trip for a dozen of us in the Summer Program to visit the Golan Heights (مرتفعات الجولان), the much-disputed region at the crossroads of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

The Golan had long been recognized as part of Syria in 1967, when Israel attacked and captured most of the region in the Six-Day War of that year. The narrow strip that Israel failed to capture, as well as a smaller segment that they later gave back to Syria, have today mostly been repopulated by those who fled during the fighting.

However, the Syrian government has maintained the town of Quneitra (القنيطرة), once the region's most prominent city, in its state of semi-destruction as a testament and a reminder of Israel's attacks. Outside Quneitra, the Syrians have established a visitor's center, where they are more than

Battling the Sun to Explore Bosra ash-Sham

Friday, July 22, 2005 | Bosra, Syria

Bosra's impressive amphitheater
The streets of Bosra ash-Sham (بصرى الشام, that's the Syrian Bosra, not the Iraqi one) were empty, seemingly abandoned, today at midday. A few men dozed in the shade of produce shop awnings, concentrating studiously on moving as little as possible. The ground shimmered all around Julian and me, as it had among the tumbled columns and stone walls behind us. We trudged, panting, from the ruins toward town, in search of bottled water. Our checkered kuffiyehs kept our heads enveloped in a feverish swelter, but we preferred them to the direct sun.

For the past several days, the TV news reports have listed the high in Damascus around 39 degrees Celsius—that's 102 Fahrenheit. In the desert an hour's bus ride south of the capital, deprived of shade, Julian and I could have been walking through a furnace.

When Julian and I arrived in Bosra, earlier in the morning, the sun had not yet prevented all

A Castle, a Column, a Kurd: A Visit to Aleppo

Monday, July 18, 2005 | Aleppo, Syria

Sweltering in the mid-day sun beside what remains of St. Simeon's column, in the center of what remains of his basilica
Friday morning, prior to the noon prayer, is a poor time to visit anywhere in Syria. I learned this lesson on Friday in Aleppo (a city known in Arabic as Halab, حلب) after catching a bus north from Damascus the previous evening.

After hearing tales of Aleppo's lavish souqs—the only markets in Syria that could rival those of Damascus—I found the passages deserted, the shopfronts shuttered, and the awnings flapping silently in the warm, pungent breeze. All of Aleppo was resting at home, preparing to go to Friday prayers.

I meandered through the covered alleyways, zigzagging through the markets until the passage opened into a wide boulevard surrounding my prime destination Aleppo—its massive citadel, which towers imposingly over the Old City. Aleppo and its citadel featured prominently in the story of the

To Ma'aloula and Deir Mar Musa, in Search of Spiritual Roots

Monday, July 11, 2005 | Ma'loula, Syria

Deir Mar Musa, perhaps the most tranquil place in Syria, overlooks a broad and rugged plain.
Life hasn't slowed down much lately. This weekend I went with my Australian housemate Julian and two German friends, Marion and Christina, to two fascinating sites just a short drive north of Damascus.

The tiny village of Ma'aloula (معلولا) is famously known as one of the last places in the Middle East where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus and most everyone else in his day. We didn't notice anyone speaking Aramaic, but we were there!

Ma'aloula's colorful mix of pastel houses are built into a hillside, and dominated by rocky cliffs above. Among the cliffs are two ancient churches, which we visited. One is so old that it predates Christianity; it used to be a Roman temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. Its cryptic sanctuary holds several original pre-Christian altars, notable for the small lip running around their edge, which we're

Relearning Patriotism the Syrian Way

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

The Presidents al-Asad: the fearless leader at right, along with his predecessor and father
A belated "Happy 4th of July" to everyone back home. A few friends and I celebrated last night with some beers and wine, just sitting on one American girl's rooftop looking out over the neighborhood. Here in Damascus, the weather is beautiful at night; it always cools down to about 70°F/21°C, with a great breeze, so it's very pleasant. No fireworks though.

On this occasion of great national pride back in the US, it's worth mentioning the strange ways in which Syrians express their own peculiar—and largely artificial, I suspect—patriotic zeal. Patriotism in Syria is required—not everyone really wants to have a picture of President Bashar al Asad in their living room, in their shop, in their classroom. But such is the cult of personality that the regime has built up—fail to worship the dear leader enthusiastically enough, and your life will be made very difficult.

The Ummayad Mosque: "Matchless and Unequalled"

Sunday, July 3, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Children play in the Ummayad Mosque's massive central courtyard. Behind the large doors lies the main prayer hall.
The Ummayad Mosque is the hub around which Damascus revolves. During my time here thus far, I've spent several afternoons and evenings propped against a column in the vast open courtyard, reading, people-watching, and enjoying what seems to be the one place in the city where I am permitted a measure of relative tranquility. The cool stones also offer a welcome break from Damascus' stifling midday heat.

Situated near the shores of the Barada River at the heart of the Old City, the mosque occupies grounds long revered. An Aramean temple once stood on the site, but was replaced by a grandiose Roman temple to Jupiter—the outer columns of which still stand in several spots around the mosque. Centuries ago, that temple was replaced by a Byzantine church, which Damascus's first Muslim conquerors shared with the Christians for several decades. Early in the eighth century,

Crac des Chevaliers: In the Footsteps of Crusaders

Saturday, July 2, 2005 | Safita, Syria

Crac des Chevaliers and the surrounding valley, from atop the ramparts
Yesterday I spent the afternoon climbing around the majestic Crac des Chevaliers (قلعة الحصن, also spelled Krak des Chevaliers). The iconic hilltop citadel, located several hours northwest of Damascus, towers over the coastal plains north of Lebanon.

A fortress of some sort existed on the site for centuries, but the existing castle is the work of an order of Christian knights. During the Crusades, it was the Knights Hospitaller who conquered the hilltop and refortified it as a base of operations, and for obvious reasons. Looking around from the castle's walls today, the place appears completely impenetrable from all sides. Even the strongest of armies would have been hard-pressed to overtake it, and indeed, both Nur ed-Din's and Salah ed-Din's attempted sieges failed to breach the defenses.

Today the Crac still looks the perfect model of a medieval castle—it's every young Lego builder's

Getting to Know Old Damascus

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

The Souq al-Hamidiyeh, one of the most iconic of Damascus's many sites
In every way, Damascus could not be less like home, but despite my anxiety during the trip here and first several hours in the city, I have come to really enjoy it, and am adapting to the new climate, schedule, political atmosphere, and people here.

Damascus's Old City certainly does not want for sights to explore. In fact, I am quickly learning why Ibn Battuta raved for page after page about the city after his travels first brought him here in 1362:
"Damascus surpasses all other cities in beauty, and no description, however full, can do justice to its charms.... All strangers among them are handsomely treated, and care is taken that they are not forced to any action that might injure their self-respect."
Giddy with the joy of wandering the city, he could hardly spit out fast enough his descriptions of the many marvels he encountered: the markets, public fountains, religious sites, the gushing hospitality

Open-Air Evenings Under the Grapevine

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Our spot in Ra'ife's courtyard, beside my bedroom
Since moving in to Ra'ife's home ten days ago, I have already begun to develop a routine.

Each evening, after a long day of Arabic classes and sweltering heat, a small group of us walk down the lane to a local falafel shop to pick up sandwiches, then grab several beers on the way back. We sit at the table in Ra'ife's courtyard, eating, bantering, working on our Arabic homework, comparing our lives back home, or, more commonly, just digesting our days here in Damascus.

There are a few regulars each evening. I get along quite well with Julian, a cheeky 20-something from Australia who's also studying at Damascus University. Marion, the ever mellow German, is living here for a few months while working at the Goethe Institute—Germany's cultural center here in Damascus. Christina, also German, came to Damascus to work on her Arabic, but is in fact mostly just learning filthy English curses and idioms from Julian and me.

Nothing in Life is Free, but Life in Damascus Comes Close

Monday, June 27, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Commercial Bank of Syria and a classic car (As with Cuba, Syria's isolation from the rest of the world has at least one benefit.)
A few days ago, I walked to an ATM in the morning before class to withdraw some cash. I had to pay Ra'ife my rent, which covers my small room with a bed, desk, and dresser, as well as the use of the kitchen, shower, and laundry machine.

For my small room, the monthly rate is 6,000 Syrian lira (US$120), though Ra'ife charges up to 7,000 lira (US$140) for the larger rooms. Once I had also paid her for providing me with lunch each day, my total came to about US$125.

Last night for dinner, I walked with Julian, one of the other students who lives with Ra'ife, to a nearby foul (فول, pronounced like "fool") stand. Foul is a Syrian staple dish of spiced, stewed fava beans, served with bread and vegetables. Julian confirmed that my bill of US$0.80 for the dinner was on the cheap side, even for Damascus, but also said that a fancy dinner out in the nicest

Aboard the "Ship of the Desert" in Palmyra

Sunday, June 26, 2005 | Palmyra, Syria

Taking a test drive with a friend.
On Friday the University faculty organized a day trip for the students in my program to visit Palmyra, in the heart of Syria's barren eastern desert, halfway between Damascus and the Euphrates River.

Known locally as Tadmur (تدمر), the city is over 4,000 years old, and at one time served as the Roman empire's greatest eastern stronghold. In addition to acting as the first line of defense against Persia's armies, Palmyra flourished as a trading post, situated as it is on the intersection of several major caravan routes.

What remains of the once lavish city is still impressive. In all directions rise columns, temples, and other stone structures, while many more lay tumbled across the sun-baked earth. I bought a traditional red and white checkered kuffiyeh (كفيّة) to shield myself from the heat, but the sun still

Words Cannot Express the Frustrations of Arabic

Thursday, June 23, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Boshra in our classroom at Damascus University.
Here in Damascus, I am struggling quite a lot with my Arabic, much of which I forgot since classes ended at Georgetown back in early May. My professor there, Dr. Margaret Nydell, offered me a very brief list of basic Syrian colloquial Arabic phrases that has proven invaluable in communicating here.

My third day of Arabic classes at Damascus University has just ended. I'm in Level II of the university's system (in a program organized by Ohio State University) and think it's a decent fit, though challenging. Our teacher, Boshra, hasn't said more than four or five English words in the past three hours. Back at the house, I also spend nearly all my time listening to Arabic. I and the other students who rent rooms mostly hang out and try to chat with Ra'ife, who speaks only Arabic. She is very patient and helpful in correcting our grammar and pronunciation, as well as developing our vocabulary (by far my biggest weakness at the moment, it seems). Around town, English

Finding a New Home in Bab Tuma

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Ra'ife, at right, enjoying some delicious local watermelon with her mother on the shaded balcony that is their living room.
From the start, Nicholas has been my savior in Damascus. A friend of a teacher of mine, Nicholas was studying in Syria on a Fulbright grant, and I had contacted him before I left. He agreed to meet me at my hotel and show me around during my first evening in the country.

He led a dizzying tour of the Old City, including what seemed like a mad, swerving dash through the main market—Souq al-Hamidiyyeh (سوق الحمدية). I ran to keep up with Nicholas, and several times pressed myself against crumbling walls as cars sped through the narrow passages, inches from my toes. The shock of the colors and smells was too much to digest; I couldn't even think of trying to process the Arabic words flying around me.

In the bustling souq, we ducked into a doorway and climbed a staircase to a small tailor's shop overlooking the market—one of several stops for errands along our tour. While the tailor measured

Destination: Damascus

Monday, June 20, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

First views of Damascus's new city.
On Friday, I left America behind via a one-way ticket to Damascus, Syria. For the next year, I'll be living, traveling, and studying Arabic in the Middle East.

When my flight arrived in Damascus Saturday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was the heat. With almost no humidity, the dusty air parched my nostrils and mouth before I had even left the airport. The Syrian customs officials stared blankly at my passport for long intervals, and performed several half-assed searches of my bags before releasing me to the cacophony of the airport's public hall. Outside, the dust hung like fine powder, tinting the arid landscape like an omnipresent golden filter.

I clambered into an ancient Mercedes taxi, and sped off toward the city center. The driver was eager to make conversation over the clamoring Arabic pop music. Within minutes of my arrival in

Spring Break in London

Saturday, March 12, 2005 | London, England, UK

Where could it be? A "tube stop", double-decker bus, clock tower, and other signs of London.
For spring break this year, I crossed the pond to stay at my friend Ryan's place in London.

Ryan, a few other friends, and I visited the must-see sites: Trafalgar Square, St. Paul's Cathedral and its famous crypts, the Tate Modern's grand turbine hall and many provocative exhibits, the British Museum's treasure trove of plundered wonders from Greece and Egypt and elsewhere, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, and many a traditional English pub. We also explored the Imperial War Museum and my favorite—the museum of the British Library, home to the Magna Carta and hundreds of other epic historical documents. Watching the members of House of Lords bluster and fume at each other wasn't bad either.

Plus we hit an MC Solaar concert, and had plenty of chances to eat what I was told was the best Indian food outside of India. (I can believe it.)