Thursday, June 30, 2005

Tabbi Goes to Cairo - and Damascus

I am in Australia at the moment, demonstrating a little, teaching a little, freezing – frequently – and seeing family again.

My timing, as always, is atrocious. I had a commitment for the Sydney Quilt Show, and one for July. I didn’t even realise initially that this was the only time that Tabbi could use her reunion fare. She is an Arts/Law student at ANU.

Only a few days after I arrived in Australia Tabs left for Egypt.

The only slight advantage to that, as far as my blog is concerned, is that her emails home are much more interesting than my life here. Same places, different voice.

I have her permission to quote some excerpts so here they are. Square brackets are my bits of explanation.

[A PS to Bob’s announcement that she had arrived……]

Just a little PS from your sister/daughter - this is the most beautiful incredible house and I am besotted with it!! Particularly the garden - its just incredible!!!!!!! Awesome!!! You'll love it bro. I keep on telling Dad how beautiful it all is - like a gushing schoolgirl. But its fabulous! Love the sour cherry juice mum - delicious!

We're off! So exciting. Mum, i couldn't figure out how to text you
from the Egypt mobile - if possible can you send me a text so I have
your mobile number with the proper configuration in front? Thanks!

and it's hot!

[On arrival – with an almost imminent departure for Damascus, Syria……]

Hello everyone, really quick update just to let you know I've landed, that the house is INCREDIBLE and gigantic and straight out of Agatha Christie.

We're off to Syria this afternoon - exciting but I'll be wrecked. So good to see my darling father again!!!

Airports are funny things. Dubai was fabulous for its contrasts - Woman in the full all black not even eyes showing Islamic dress standing next to a bleached blonde euro-trash fake tanned cuffed shorts and midriff top. Odd. and a younger girl wearing an all hot pink hijab (traditional Arabic dress and headress) was like Britney Spears doing Islam

Love to all, sorry so brief but I NEED to have a shower!!!

[This one is as it arrived – and as I have struggled with other keyboards I am letting it go without the spellcheck and edit!]

…… apologies for any typos - foriegn keyboard. Arabic letters not English so I'm going bu feel.

Writing from the lobby of the Sultan hotel. The internet offered is behind the front desk, located next to a television playing the Arab version of video hits. It’s quite mesmerising. Songs sound the same, and the film clips feature bare arms as the height of sexiness. And the men are wearing Turkish Aladdin-esque pants.

Very entertaining.

The man at the front desk stumbled out as though I woke him up, and went through his morning routine in my presence - deodorant applied and morning 2 cigarettes consumed. Now he's mesmerised by the music videos - who can blame him?

The Sultan is a rather basic and uber cheap hotel - in a great location - 5 minute walk from the Souq (the main shopping market of Damascus, and one of the most incredible places I know) and resides above 2 Shwerma places (the original and the best form of what Australians call 'kebabs' in the Ali Baba sense), a baklava shop, and a sfiha place.

Sfiha cannot be described - its far too good for my feeble words. Come to Syria and try it.

Today we will go to the Souq, wander The Street called Straight, and just enjoy our visit to the worlds oldest consistenly occupied city. I'm waiting for Dad. The jetlag is in minor swing, and I woke at 5am bored and with nothing to do. Woke dad at 7am and he should be down to join me shortly. In'Sha'la.

Photos will be taken, but due to my lack of a digi-cam I will upload them on my return.

I should run, internt is not cheap. But before i do, may I advocate diplomacy as a career option to everone. It has been so nice to be swung through airports - no queing, to have a driver navigate the crisis that is Cairo driving, and having a father who has (and I quote) "A pass that gets me anywhere"

The house in Cairo is incredible too. You are most welcome to come and visit.

Love to all, sorry for dull email, but nothing has really had a chance to happen yet ;)

[The first Syria email]

When I left Canberra it was 5 degrees, raining and icy. When I arrived in Egypt it was almost 7 times that. Ouch. * The English voice-over on the Egypt Air flight to Damascus ended with a memorable "We hope you will endure your flight" - I found this highly entertaining.

*Upon arrival in Syria, I noticed some considerable changes had taken place in the 8 years or so since I last visited. The taxis, for example, are now newer cars, and they all have doors!! My fears based on adolescent memories of clinging to the car seat as a smoking driver screeched around corners through obscene levels of traffic were appeased! There was still plenty of smoking and screeching, but it wouldn't be Damascus without it.

* Mobile phones have become as prevalent in Syria as smoking. People are addicted. Cannot resist turning them on as we fly, despite warnings, for fear someone might call them. 90% have the same Nokia ring tone. It’s very disconcerting.

Damascus is the world's oldest continously occupied city (a title it vies for with Aleppo) and highlights how young a country Australia is. Houses are built onto the remains of Roman ruins everywhere, and among the 1970s apartment blocks are buildings that have been there for over 500 years. Everytime my father and I walked anywhere I'd keep stopping to admire. Made for some slow walking, but how could anyone just rush past such stunning buildings of marble and inlaid Islamic patterning?

Travelling with my Dad - Middle East expert and all round legend - gives depth to everything. It's fantastic.

OK, I apologise in advanced for the longwinded ambling nature of this e-mail. We have done so much over the last 3 days that I will break them into 2 e-mails. If you only have a moment to check your e-mails, save these until later in the evening when you can have a nice cup of tea and a leisurely read. Or you can just skim it ;)

Dad and I had breakfast, then started with a saunter to Souq Hamidaya - the main souq (marketplace) of Damascus. As we headed toward it I noticed a structure down one of the connecting roads. After a typical "What's that Dad?" we detoured down to the roundabout containing a tall memorial in a park with picturesque bridges and fountains. We sat on a bench and I was treated to my own private lesson on Martyr's Square (which is actually a circle) - a tribute to the site where the Ottoman's executed Arab nationalists prior to the first world war. The brief history/politics lecture provided a foundation for much of the rest of the trip, including an appreciation of the differences between the Shiites and the Sunni branches of Islam.

We left Matyrs square and made our way to the souq, passing windows and windows of baklava, plump with green pistachios and gleaming with sweet syrup.

There were a large number of Iranian Shiites heading towards the souq. Wrapped in their all black synthetic fabric chadors; the site of them is sympathetically painful - it was over 36 degrees that day, and I was sweating in a skirt and short sleeved shirt.

Souq Hamadiya is a large cobble stoned pedestrian area, a frenzy of life and marketing, thriving with locals and foreigners. It is covered by a corrugated iron roof, punctured with bullet holes which produce shafts of light like little stars on the cobblestones. Its all wonderful and overwhelming. Store owners treat guests and special shoppers to little glasses of highly sweetened black tea, known as 'shai'.

At the souq we head first to Stephan’s - the shop containing the most exquisite Damascus silk, made by hand in the traditional way. After shai, I was treated to a tour of the backroom, where the silk is made. Creating a basic design using 2 colours of thread will produce 1 metre a day. A more complex design, using 6 colours takes a day to produce less than half a metre. Its a slow and tedious process, and the threads are so fine no modern day machinery can wield them.

It is truly glorious fabric.

As we continued down the cobblestones of Hamdiya we treated ourselves to a Syrian ice-cream at Bakdash - delicious waffle cones of welcome cold vanilla dipped into a crust of green sweet fresh pistachios and almonds. 50 cents apiece.

Next stop was Faisal's - a shop owned by a man named Faisal who has an incredible collection of antique embroidered Palestinian/Arab bedouin dresses and gorgeous old jewellery. We had some shai, then toured his shop and admired his wares. I purchased a Turkoman silver cuff with agate stones, over 60 years old.

At the end of the cobblestones the corrugated iron roof gives way to a row of ancient Roman columns under blistering sunshine. Dead ahead is the Omayed Mosque which, together with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, is one of Islam's holiest sites. Built over 1200 years ago, it is unbelievable; but we visit the mosque later in our trip, and I do not want to get ahead of myself.

In front of the mosque I saw what quickly became an obsession – my first Toot Shami stand.

In Syria (and throughout the Middle East) there is a high risk of ameoba. Bottled water is safe, and to protect yourself from the risks of a painful bout of dysentry all travellers are advised to avoid salad vegetables that retain a high water content (like lettuce and cucumber) and to avoid glassware (as it is potentially just rinsed in local water) and to order all drinks 'bidoon thelj' – ‘without ice’.

The piles of fresh lush dark mulberries at the stall were too tempting so I took a chance. Dad, ever the sceptic clicked his tongue at me and muttered warnings along the lines of 'You have no-one to blame but yourself if anything happens'. I offered him a sip. He gave in and tried it and ordered his own cup. We'd go down together! the juice was like drinking a liquid mulberry pie - tart, mouth-watering and sweetly berried. The ying-yang of sweet and tang. Just awesome.
Its my new all time favourite drink.

After indulging ourselves, we headed across the square to the left of the mosque to Hassan’s. Hassan is an old family friend, with a thriving store in a great location. More shai was consumed, then purchases were made.

The next stop was Obeid's - known for its fantastic hand crafted gold jewellery. The gold in the middle east is purer and thus has a fantastic rich buttery colour. Obeids makes by far the BEST shai in the souq - the water is boiled with cinnamon and it’s truly delicious.

While at Obeids my father's mobile rang. The phone call we had been dreading - the embassy in Cairo had been advised he was required to return to present his ambassador's credentials to the president. However, the Egyptians would not say when, only that it was to happen next week. This meant no Aleppo visit, and that our stay would be cut to 3 days. It was unfortunate, but unavoidable. We decided to spend the time we had enjoying Damascus, as there is plenty to see and do in 3 days in the city.

Next stop was the perfume souq. It costs $3US for the Syrian perfume vendors to replicate any fragrance you desire in oils – I stocked up. I now own almost perfect replicas of Chanel Chance, Dior Addict, YSL Cinema, Nina Ricci 'Love in Paris', Burberry Brit, and Givenchy Hot Couture. Dad said if I buy any more Customs will catch me. We went and had Sfiha for lunch. Delicious.

So we did our bit to keep the Syrian economy afloat. The final destination of our trip was a walk along the 'Street called straight' of biblical fame, ending at Antiquo.

When I was a little girl and we'd visit Damascus, Antiquo was always my favorite shop. Not really because of the stock, but the wonderful pair who ran it – Ahmed and his son Mohammad. Ahmed died a couple of months ago, but Mohammad now runs the store as his own.

He has a fantastic sense of humour. My favorite story is of a time a lady came in wanting "something to put money in." at which point he promptly turned to her and opened out his pocket.

He hasn't changed at all. When he asked what we would like to drink I responded Shai. To which he answered, "I'm sorry, we only have tea today."

We sat under the fans and reminisced, finding a photo of Ahmed and Dad when he was first posted to Damascus back in 1979. I tried to pay for a lovely little turquoise brooch, but Mohammad insisted I take it as a gift.

By now it was 3pm and stinking hot. As we'd been active since 8am, we decided to head back to the hotel for a siesta.

At 8pm we went to the most exquisite restaurant. An old arab house (over 100 years) had been renovated to create incredible ambience. Coupled with delicious Syrian food, finished with a giant mug (think Oktoberfest) of Toot Shami – it was truly a perfect evening.

And that is just day one!

Don't worry – I'll keep the following days somewhat more brief for you.

I am, unfortunately, sick at the moment – must have picked up a bug in Syria, so there might be a considerable delay between e-mails.


Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,
I really don't know whether I should have addressed this to you or your daughter but whatever it is really great to have you back on "air" again. I found your daughter's comments so interesting and read them through 2 or 3 times to be sure I didn't miss anything. She has her mother's talent for writing. It was lovely to see you at the Sydney quilt exhibition.

Regards Helen

PS No need for a weather report

10:07 am  
Blogger teri springer said...

Wonderful post. Hope the illness isn't due to the indulgence in the mulberry juice. WOuld love to know how it is made as we have an overwhelming number of mulberry trees (which makes for messy cars but, oh well).

Reading these posts is making me SO hungry. My best friend is 1/2 Lebonese and her mother (who was Polish) used to cook us the most wonderful Syrian treats. I even have my own copy of "The Art of Syrian Cooking." What I wouldn't give to visit Damascus one day.

Hope Tabs is soon feeling better.


1:11 am  
Anonymous Alisha said...


Hope you are having a fabulous time and am loving the fact that i can still keep up with what you are doing even though you are miles away! Hope you had a great birthday and cant wait to see you when you get back! Say hi to your dad for me and keep me updated!


1:47 pm  

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