Sunday, February 26, 2006

3al-Sham, 3al-Sham, 3al-Sham

I've heard taxi drivers shout out this invitation a few thousand times over the years so I decided finally to accept it. I had to get a "before" picture of Damascus just in case someone decides to liberate the people of Syria.

First of all, a piece of advice to my fellow countrymen. Carry your military service card when attempting to cross the border. You will not be allowed out, well at least not legally.

I made it to Damascus. The first thing I noticed was the Lebanese cruel revenge for 30 years of occupation.

That should teach them not to fuck with us ever again. Seriously though, the Damascenes were extra nice to us. Too nice. Almost guilty nice. They are very hospitable people, no one hit us for our funny accents or burned down our hotel room.

My initial impulse when getting into a cab anywhere in the world is to incite the driver into political venting. In Miami all you had to say was "Aristides." In Beirut it's too easy. In Damascus, no one would take the bait. One guy started sweating and almost had a heart attack when I mentioned the "A" word. Also I'm pretty sure all cab drivers lose money in their profession; I can't see how a 20 minute ride for one dollar can possibly be profitable.

A surprising rain shower forced us to seek shelter in a tourist trap restaurant. I have a disturbing picture of Yassine Bakkoush with a stuffed zucchini stuffed in his mouth etched in my memory since as far as I can remember. So naturally I ordered Koussa Mehshi (stuffed zucchini). What I found odd was that the zucchini was stuffed with zucchini.Why unstuff it if you're gonna restuff the same stuff in there? Good luck finding a Coke or a Pepsi. These luxury products are only available in 5 star hotels and fancy restaurants.

Speaking of unavailable products, Syrians take their Danish ban seriously(again Hotels are above the law). Then again I doubt they had any Danish products there to begin with. Something admirable about Syria is their consumption of Syrian-made products (and they produce almost everything). While it is unequivocally a poor country, it is a very self-sufficient economy at this point which provides a solid foundation for a more prosperous future with the right reform moves. But where will this reform come from?

Souk El Hamidiyeh

Wow! One of the most impressive sights in the world. This historic mall and its tributaries are by far the liveliest shopping establishment I've ever seen, and I've been to Macy's on Christmas week. The aggressive sales force can be a bit unbearable on toursits until you learn how to stop hearing. Best part is: No GAP, No Victoria's Secret, No Starbucks. (Plenty of Lingerie though.)It's a place where buying and selling is an artform. Bargaining is a must. Bartering still lives. Tea street. Spice street. Perfume street. It's futile to try to describe it in words as it is a place you need to experience with all your senses.

Every 10 meters or so they have a propaganda banner addressed to the Lebanese brethren condemning the assassinations in Lebanon. So even if Syrians are behind the assassinations, at least they feel bad about it.

Night time in Damascus is as busy as day time. Tons of people on the streets. The best part of the Damascene night life is the fancy steak dinner for about $12 a person. After dinner just follow the crowd, they'll guide you to sweets shops and Damascene ice cream. A lot of choices and while probably none of them will kill you, alot of them can and will cause you digestive malfunction. I did find an ISO-certified sweets shop with an actual health certificate which I recommend, Abu Arab Haydar in Midan. Also there seems to be a consensus that the best Barazek are at Samiramis in Abu Rummaneh, they are quite pricy (well for Syria, I found them like everything else very cheap.) For those of you that don't know what Barazek are, you're missing out.

Another piece of advice, plan your ride back. Avoid the Beirut Taxi Station unless you enjoy visiting a Zoo of uncaged animals. That was just ugly. But it's ok, as soon as you cross the Lebanese border you can take it out on your driver. Punch him in the face and burn his cab, you are allowed to do that under Lebanese law.

Ahhh, Home!


Anonymous said...

You are so funny! I loved your entry about going to Syria. I was laughing outloud. Excellent post.

A.Kais.W. said...

Jamal, excellent post. You are a breath of fresh air to Lebanese blogging. Keep it up!

Eve said...

So you did go to Damascus after all :) ! that was an interesting report, I'm sure you enjoyed your time there. So, how was Ziad's Hotel?
couldn't help noticing the translation sign in the picture, btw :p

MS.D said...

Great post!!! Are you going to Homs next week-end???

Fouad said...

That was excellent, jamal. You are a delightful storyteller, and I just love the sarcasm :)

Oh and it sure looks like our brethren are losing sleep over the loss of Gebran, aren't they :)

Delirious said...

Wonderfully narrated.
I just love your sarcasm!

bashir said...


Your question smells “racism”!

Jamal said...

fouad- the gebran banner was the first one, but there is one for everyone, and bilingual too.

deli- thanks :o)

bashir- i'd give ms.d the benefit of the doubt. I hope what was meant was just light hearted humor.

bashir said...

Yes Jamal, I really hope so too.

Golaniya said...

This is my Syria that is turning to a Europran market for Pepsi, KFC and Mango!
Thank you Jamal for having such an eye, an honest eye.
Its weird when you feel home…online.