Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Flowers in the Desert, Syria

My other favourite country is Syria. I have raved about it from time to time and struggle with the bad press it seems to have through the western world. It is safe, friendly, easy to travel in, and comparatively cheap.

Bob also worked in Syria while we lived in Egypt and I went often, with friends, and just because I wanted to show it to people I know would love it.

On a drive from Aleppo to Palmyra we had a police escort - no, not because it is dangerous but because they chose to honour my husband.

At one point in a long stretch of gravelly and not-very-interesting desert we flashed past a patch of pure gold on the side of the road. I was up and twisting in my seat to try to see what it was.

"Jen, we can't just stop - we have a chase car on our tail!" He was right - any attempt to pull up in a hurry would probably have embedded the following police car well into the rear of ours.

By the time we got to this point what I had seen was miles away behind us and I was not even sure I would find it again.

"It was bright yellow and I think it was a flower."

Now all of us started to search. Bob was keen to try to find it for me and reassuring. "If there was one there will be more!"

Well, if there were more they were keeping out of sight.

We arrived in Palmyra and forgot all about it. No sign of flowers of the sort I had seen, but Palmyra is so beautiful that it really didn't matter. It was freezing. Syria gets frequent snow and while that was unlikely this far out it had been known to happen. There are hills around the city, but it is an oasis in a slight depression, and the hills simply seemed to serve as wind tunnels. The sky was silver grey, the gravel and earth pale copper, and the ruins a shade or two darker - all a mid-tone landscape.


Syria has a huge advantage for the tourist over Rome and other countries that have Roman Cities. They do not lock them up. You can walk the city at one in the morning if you choose. I took my last textile tour our for a drink in the ruins in the moonlight. There was something completely magical about sitting in the moonshadow of a temple, with a bottle of Baileys on a broken column and the moon rising over the Citadel above the city. I had tried for champagne, but duty free did not stock it!


I just cheated and used the top two photos from a different visit - sometimes I just looked and did not actually photograph - I have so many shots and somehow icy cold days with flat light are not inviting. I would have to remove my gloves to use my SLR and it was about 4 degrees with a huge wind-chill factor. The following shots were taken on the day I am talking about!



We left Palmyra around eleven am (we had stayed the night and prowled in the morning). At the halfway point on the road from Palmyra to Damascus there are a series of coffee shops. They are charming - stone built, with accompanying beehive houses for the owners. They were built by two cousins, and the best are Baghdad Cafe 66 and Baghdad Cafe 55. Did I mention the same Highway goes from Damascus to Baghdad?

This is Baghdad Cafe 66. Not the cafe itself, but the houses nearby.


Now the country of Syria is divided on which of these two cafes is better. We have always stopped at Baghdad Cafe 66 and I really like the men who run it. It probably does not hurt that both are very good looking, and that they frequently sit and play the Rebaba - a strangely tuneless drone instrument made of almost anything that can provide an echo box and a shaft to hold a couple of strings. It is definitely done to work the picturesque.

Imagine a stone building with rough plastered white walls. Inside it is gloomy and benches surround the small room. There is a counter with fossils they have picked up in the desert, flints, odd and interesting rocks and crystals, and a board of cheap bright jewellery. The air smells of coffee and the sugary smell of Arab tea - and Kerosene - especially in winter as a kerosene heater sits beside the bench. An arm sticks out of it and a drip forms there every second, then falls through the air to disappear into the innards of the heater to warm the room very effectively. It radiates shimmering heat and people tend to huddle near the heater to drink their tea.

The benches around the walls are covered with rough sheepskins, white patched with sand and chocolate colours in the way of local sheep. There are more skins on the walls as one way these men earn some extra money is by making maps of Syria on the leather side of home-tanned sheepskins. There are only two small windows and they are thickly glassed with somewhat dusty glass. It does not let in a lot of light, but enough of a beam that falls beautifully - to caress the side of the players dark face, shadowed in his red and white kaffieh, then slant across the slim dark hands that caress the rebaba.

We have, over the years, got to know the brothers who live and work here. I truly admire the fact that someone had the wisdom not just to make a small hut that can serve tea to tourists, but to make it charming, and to eak out a living with gleanings from the nearby fossil-loaded hills. I have rarely seen anyone one enter without buying - and their prices are low and enticing. They have personal charm too. We once arrived, all had tea, and chatted, and used their toilets - and left. We were almost forty kilometres away before we realised we had not paid for the tea. We phoned to apologise and they were delightful, and said we were very welcome as their guests any time. On a subsequent visit we paid - more than double, and arrived with a box of sweets as a 'sorry' present. Other drivers with tourist buses arrive with supplies for them - bread and sugar and tea - as they are two hours from the nearest shop. We have fallen into the same habit - making sure we pick up a gift of fruit or biscuits before we leave Damascus or Palmyra.


The other thing they have done is to set up three toilets behind their cafe. These are squat toilets, but they have a plentiful water supply and are always spotlessly clean. This is truly a formula to ensure success in the world of Syrian tourism.

I walked out the back to the use their facilities and saw something I have only seen once before in the Middle East.

They were milking the sheep.

They tie the sheep in a long double line, looping the same length of rope around one neck, then another, and alternating directions of head to tail! It makes interesting photography.




We left, and I was very tickled about the milking! I had once, In Ramallah in Palestine, made the mistake of confessing that while Australia does have countless millions of sheep, we rarely milk them. "Why not?" demanded the very authoritative lady in charge of my hostel. "I muttered a tame "they would not like it and they are wild". Australian sheep tend to see a farmer to lose their tails and sometimes testicles, to be drenched and dipped, and to be shorn once a year. All are unpleasant. The last time they see a farmer is the most unpleasant of all as we usually breed for meat.

"You must train them" she said. I pointed out that a farmer might have three thousand sheep and she was appalled at the waste of all that milk - in fact she immediately told me what the yield would be if half the flock could be assumed to be female. "You must take some bedouin from here - they will train them for you," she said.

In the midst of the sort of smugness that comes from seeing something you have been looking for for a long time, there was another fast flash of gold beside the road. Bob saw it first and was so pleased to have found it for me. We had left the chase car in Palmyra - and gleefully reversed to see what it was.

In the sparse and unfriendly gravel, pushing aside great chunks of concrete-like clay, were spears of pure gold. No leaves, just flowers, and incredibly beautiful. In an area of almost zero rainfall who knows how long their roots must lie dormant.

There were two small clusters - some just emerging, other well into full flower.




It was a stunning end to a day.

The Thinker Near the Blue Mosque

I loved Cairo. I loved living there and I miss it terribly. There are some things that bring it back in a second - I heard a snatch of a song by Amr Diab the other day was was instantly and suddenly homesick for a city that was only temporarily my home. For a second I was almost disoriented and could sense a rush of that dead summer heat, and the discomfort of an uncooled cab in a traffic jam.

The problem with living in other countries is that the whole idea of belonging somewhere becomes blurred. I know I am Australian and I always knew that the stay in Egypt was finite. At the same time I was seduced by the city - the enormous unweildy bulk of people, the struggles they have just to scrape a living and the usual dignity with which they do it. I feel torn sometimes, never again quite the person I was before I lived there, and yet Australian friends are sometimes a bit affronted when the work I make at the moment is hovering somewhere around the Middle East.

That is my whinge for the day.

I have been sorting photos. I have enough to ensure that I will never run out of topics to write about.

In our last few weeks we walked a lot in Old Islamic Cairo. If you go to Bab Zuweilah and keep walking instead of turning in to the Tentmakers' Street, you will eventually get to the Blue Mosque. It is a beautiful mosque and will be the subject of another blog. I was trialing a new camera with a really marvelous 10x optical zoom - a sneaky camera with a twisting and turning lens so you can seem to be looking in another direction, as you take photos. It is not perfect in other ways - but great for candid portraits.

I am still not sure how I feel about the ethics of taking people who are unaware that they are being photographed. I know in America it would be not permitted. In Australia as long as you are in a public place people do not own their own images and you do not have to ask them to sign releases to use their images. I know in Egypt there are few personal rights.

I was photographing some of the marvelous and deteriorating architecture of the Blue Mosque and over one arch I saw a movement. I focused the lens, and took this.


Then this. He sat above the street and opposite the Mosque, though it is hard to get an effect of how far away he was. His head turned as he smoked and watched the constant stream of people and taffic in the street below.


I moved closer, met his eyes and raised my eyeborws for permission to take the images. He nodded, watched me for a little while then lost interest. It was hardly a balcony - more the roof of the shop below with a rigged sunscreen. Behind him was a huge advertising poster.


I was fascinated by the juxtapoistion of the image on the screen and with him, and the more I look at it the more he looks like the man in the image. Is it just that they are both fair Egyptians? Is it my imagination?


It does not really matter. I just find that now and again his image comes back and floats around my head for a while.

I gave him his photographs before I left and he was obviously happy to have them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tassels and Braids

A great deal has happened since I last posted. I am in Canberra, Australia and settling back into my home. We arrived to find our children had looked after our house impeccably while we were away. We bought too much in Cairo and my house seems to have shrunk - so it has been a struggle to get it all in. In fact, getting it all in has taken about the last six weeks.

I had thought of closing this blog, and reopening somewhere else as a textile blog. I am not ready to do this yet. I have been going through some of the thousands of photographs in my files, and when I was busiest, I did not post. In fact, when I was busiest I was doing the most interesting things.

So - we will stroll a little through some Egyptian sites that were not effectively reported.

In the area of Cairo between Mohamed Ali Street and Port Said Street is an area of carved and gilded furniture. I had walked this area many times - it is fascinating to watch the stages in the making of these chairs. Many of the frames are brought in fully carved from Damietta, or Damyut as the locals often call it. They are stacked in the streets, in marvelous teetering piles and many degrees of intricacy. More about them in another blog.

It was on about my third visit there that I focused on a spinning wheel sitting outside a tiny shop - only about the size of a western toilet. I was puzzling over the thread stand near the wheel which looked full of silks - though was probably full of rayons and polyesters.

I photographed the wheel and tools, then a man walked out and sat down.


As I watched he started to spin a bi-coloured cord in maroon and cream.



His tools were laid out beside him and I love these iron scissors they all use. They are obviously sharp and I have collected a few pairs.


The spools for the wheel sat in a plastic bin.



I walked over, and looked through the door of the shop to see that it was packed tightly with tassels.


The walls were festooned. Great thick ropes of cords and tassels hung from every surface.





In the tiny room the sounds from the street were muffled by the thick insulation of foot-deep rayons. Then I realised I was hearing a rythmic clacketing from behind the wall. There was another tiny door in a side wall, and I had to turn sideways to squeeze through. Inside were about a dozen looms - some wide, some tiny, and there were long expanses of silky fringe hanging from hooks, obviously waiting to be trimmed.





All the men were weaving braids for use in upholstering chairs and couches. It was so logical to have them in this place where the streets were filled with people churning out chairs. We were fascinated by some of the loom weights - old bricks, bottles of water, old metal printing frames, rocks in a plastic bag - anything that was easy to find and which would add weight to the loom.


One man just knotted braided cords on to tassels to make huge majestic curtain loops. I know there is another name for thiese but it escapes me!


Trimming tassels

Outside in the street I suddenly started to see lots of other textile activity. Two young boys were spinning cords in a long stretch of a street, using a power drill with a hook instead of the usual drill bit. I did not photograph that - it was difficult as they moved to keep up with the cord as it spun and shortened.

Another pair had a more static set up. This is the boy on one end.

And this is on the other end.

And now a tantaliser! Next time I will show you some chairs, and this is just a taste.

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