Friday, June 27, 2003

one month before our second anniversary

Well, this has been one interesting ride. Barely four months ago we moved from Mexico City to Beirut. We've already visited Byblos, Tripoli and Sidon, in Lebanon, and Damascus, in Syria. And we found an apartment! That apartment search was tough, but our real estate agent did an amazing job and, in the end, found us what they here call a "roof" (the last floor of a building). It's in the Christian area of Achrafiyeh (الأشرفية‎‎), one of the oldest of the city. It's a very curious area, with lots of tiny, winding streets; many Christian churches of diverse denominations, and Christian symbols visible and plentiful; and many small commerces like cafés, flower shops and bakeries where the preferred language, besides Lebanese Arabic, is French, not English! Oh, and we're within shooting distance from Monot, the party street! And from Centre Ville (the now gorgeously – mostly – restored historic centre) and numerous historic sites! We really lucked out!

As for the "roof"? It's got a pretty old lift, like really old and tiny. But it seems to work, LOL. Also, the door to our apartment is one of those old, big, wooden doors with smoked glass panels. And we have a balcony that goes all around! You can see the Mediterranean from one side! I mean, it's partially hidden by buildings, but you can still see a sliver of azure blue in the distance! No AC, though, so for the first time since I lived in Beijing in 1997-1999, I find myself sweating just by sitting down in the living room. Oh well...

Then again, the place is huge. Huge! And since we have basically zero belongings, well, it looks even bigger! Fortunately we found a nice and very peculiar furniture shop nearby, called Maus Haus, and owned by a very friendly and unique woman from Spain. Lots of metal, simple stuff, the sort we like. So right now we have a small table, a couple of chairs, a duvet (sleeping on the floor until we find a bed we like – we want to buy stuff to last us for a long, long time), some candles, a vase for flowers, a couple of tree trunks that serve as candle holders, some books, our computers, and trinkets. Enough to begin a new life together. 

BTW, we've got a car too! We had been renting, but with work in a different town (Naccache) and us insisting on living in the centre of it all (Beirut), we can't rent indefinitely without going bankrupt terrifyingly soon. So, now we're the proud owners of a 1980 (or eighty something) Peugeot! It's such an old car, but it was a bargain. And it's led me to develop amazing driving skills – our parking space at the building is such a tight spot, surrounded by other cars, walls, and whatnot. I would have never thought myself capable of driving a car into and out of that sort of space!  

So, here we are, a month before our second anniversary, living together for the first time in a fascinating land surrounded by equally fascinating places, with a couple of new friends already, and looking forward to what adventures life in the Paris of the Middle East will bring!

Cheers! Our should I say, keskon! (Lebanese for "cheers to you-plural")    

Thursday, June 19, 2003

a day trip to Tripoli (the Lebanese one!)

Lying just some 80km north of Beirut,  we decided to go for a quick day trip to Tripoli (طرابلس), Lebanon's second most important city. As so many places here, Tripoli is ridiculously old, with people settling here some 3500 years ago and the city being a Phoenician outpost around the 9th century BCE. The city has been under countless rules: Persians, Hellenes, Romans, Umayyads, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, French...

But in our quick day trip, we got to see just a couple of things. First, the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles (also called Qala'at Sanjil and Qala'at Tarablus in Arabic). Though it's an early 14th century crusader citadel, apparently it was extensively modified during Ottoman rule and little of the crusader building remains. Anyways, a castle is a castle is a castle. right? It sits atop a hill in the middle of the city, and offered a fantastic opportunity for exploration – we had the place almost exclusively to ourselves! not a soul in sight! – and views of the city and the mountains in the distance. Fun!

Like I mentioned, the citadel is in the middle of the city, and coming down from it to where we had parked our car meant traversing a number of winding streets and alleys...

Finally, following directions from a friend in Beirut, we found the one and only hammam still working in the city: Al Abed, a 500 year old Ottoman bath  (which is what hammam means in Arabic). We arrived via the narrow alley you see below. Interesting place, though not particularly beautiful or special beyond its condition as the only one working. How come we're in the Middle East, a place that was under Ottoman rule, and Turkish style hammams are such a rarity? Hmmm...

Anyhow, this corner of the world is proving a very curious and interesting one. Must keep exploring!

Sunday, June 01, 2003

the road to Damascus - part II

So, what else was there to do in Damascus in our quick week-end trip? (and like, really, I still can't believe how close to Damascus we live, being in Beirut!)

Souks, souks, souks

Sure, Byblos had a souk. But the Al-Hamidiyah Souq (سوق الحميدية‎‎) in Damascus? Whoa! Now that's the mother of all souks! The biggest in Syria, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were one of the bigger in the world. Avenue upon avenue and alley upon alley of shops and shops and more shops, from everyday items like cleaning supplies to the usual middle-eastern spices. What a fantastic place just to walk aimlessly and do item- and people-watching! Plus eating some interesting desserts, sort of like cool rice-puddings - refreshing in the heat of May!

Of course, if you happen to get yourself anywhere near any of the shops that sell "antiques", get ready to be sized as the foreigner you are and be asked outrageous prices. But, anyhow, just to get my hands on that seemingly original but most probably fake astrolabe? I was more than happy to endure a sales pitch I knew I couldn't afford to accept! LOL

Oh, and it was a nice chance to see people react to my habib. Since not that many Latin-Americans seem to come to this place (hell, not many tourists from anywhere, actually, there were so few of us foreigners!), people were not quite used to my habib's features and had the wildest guesses about his nationality! My favourite? Someone guessing he was Japanese! Whaaaaat? 

And mosques...

Sure, the Umayyad Mosque is obviously the most majestic you could see. But then there are countless other ones, less famous, but peaceful places nevertheless. There is something about entering spaces where the rules are different. You enter barefoot. There is no idle chatter. And Islam's position against idols means these are visually quiet worlds, as patterns and mosaics on the walls and ceilings lead more to contemplation than to disruption. If you have never been to a mosque, at least an old one, I'd absolutely recommend doing it.

Lunch in a train car!

Please, please, forgive the photo. But did you know there is a car from the Hejaz Railway, which was supposed to take you on your Hajj pilgrimage from Damascus To Mecca? In the end, though, it only reached Medina. Currently, the elegant yet run-down Ottoman times car that belonged to Sultan al-Hameed serves as a restaurant, with passable food. But still, nothing beats sitting there, sipping coffee, and picturing yourself travelling in Ottoman times to distant lands... such a feast for your imagination!  

Those Christians sure make a lot of noise

It just so happens that Damascus has a Christian quarter. It also happens that many Christians in Syria are Armenian. Armenians, and Christians, don't mind drinking alcohol, too. Which means that, if you fancy a lively evening atmosphere, you head to where the Christians live! And even if you're not after alcohol, it is very interesting to experience the change in atmosphere. 

Awesome palaces and museum

We didn't go inside the Azm Palace (Palais Azem, قصر العظم), photo below, but its gorgeous Ottoman architecture was one fine sight from outside. 

What we did visit - though photography was not allowed inside, regrettably - was the National Museum of Damascus. And that, that was one amazing visit, especially since so many of the things I saw there - for real! - had been part of my imagination since I was a kid in school! Cuneiform tablets from Babylonia? Check. Seated skirted 4000-50000 thousand year-old statuettes from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria? Check. Reproduction of Umayyad-era gate as entrance to the museum? Check. Murals from the world's oldest preserved synagogue - Dura Europos, 244CE - which influenced Jewish art for the next centuries? Check. And so on and so forth. Basically, how could life be complete without a visit to this museum!?  

Damascus at night

Sure, this is no party capital. But then again, you don't travel to Syria to party, right? But the Roman ruins lit up at night, perfect for a nice stroll near the old city, or going for a dervish dance show at a restaurant? Unforgettable.

'Ahwé and narguilé anyone?

And then Jabri House, a pleasant café-restaurant in an old late 18th century Damascene house. We enjoyed Turkish coffee (it feels so weird calling it Turkish, when it's the default kind of coffee in this area!), smoked narguilé (hookah, shisha, water pipe), and relaxed in the peaceful courtyard. This was on our last day, and it was a perfect moment to just lay back, and realize what a privilege it was that we could see this ancient city and its treasures.

Damascus, we'll be back!