Friday, June 13, 2008
Syria is beautiful.
The kindness of the average Syrian never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps I am exaggerating, maybe it is the effect of the new Syrian dominance over pan-Arab entertainment that made the mannerisms and dialect of Syria so familiar, I often fear that I might be too self-critical of Iraqis at the expense of not seeing the shortcomings of others (for example, you won't get the self-flagellating speech about how all Jordanians hate us from me) but having lived in two countries other than my own, I found something instantly amiable about Syrians in particular, they are not overtly soft and chic like the Lebanese, nor helplessly derisive and sneering like the Iraqis, and not frowning for no particular reason like the Jordanians. That doesn't mean they are actually better human beings than their peers, but they sure know how to put on a great show of it, the comparison between Iraq and Syria's dictators by US Ambassador April Glaspie comes to mind as a concise comparison, both are pan-Arab Baathist dictators, but the Levantine one was softer, smarter and more charming than the brute-force Mesopotamian. I found their dialect, with its odd rhythm in which every sentence ends on a rising, elongated note, very entertaining, and while certainly soft-spoken like other Levantine accents (with the exception of the Bedouin Jordanian, which has more commonalities with regular combative Iraqi) there is some sort of elegant pride in that rising tone that makes Syrian Arabic looks sexy on women and masculine on men, which is what made Bab al-Harra the hit TV show that it is.
Damascus is loads more fascinating than Amman, for all its dirtiness and uncompromising traffic that has no understanding of the concept of lanes, there is a sense of urgency, history and soul that penetrates you the moment you enter it, Amman, with its sprawling, ultra-modern West side, spikey-hairdos and American fast food chains feels depressingly fake and sleepy in comparison.
This was my second visit to Syria, I've been there for a week back in September, and spent that time between Damascus, where I was fascinated by the Ummayad Mosque and enjoyed eating the famed (and overhyped) Bakdash ice cream in Soq al-Hamidiya, and between visting my relatives in the Damascene Countryside, the area they lived in, Sahnaya, is Druze territory, but I only found Iraqi shops and people there, in fact, the entire area reminded me of the more quaint parts of Baghdad such as al-Ghazaliya, back in Damascus, Hezbollah flags and Nasrallah pictures were all over the place, Shi'i literature was all over the 80% Sunni country, Iranian pilgrims flooded the Ummayad Mosque [which contains one of several sites that claim to have the head of Imam Hussein] Iraqis were ubiquitous, most of them were poor and had no place else to go, in fact, the Sayda Zainab district looked exactly like Sadr City. They were visibly less this time, after Syrians imposed new restrictions and regulations. Overall, I found Syria pleasant, if only for the ridiculous amount of pictures of Bashar al-Assad, found on practically every building and shop, something even Saddam didn't do. All in all, Syria felt shockingly like what I felt Iraq resembled in the 1980s, with a much friendlier weather.
My first trip was somewhat sketchy and family-centric, but this second trip marked me doing several things for the first time in my life. I decided to see more of the seedy underside of Damascus, which is a popular destination for Gulf Arabs looking for some poontang (the more affluent ones frequent Southeast Asia and Europe), I was hoping I'd run into of these poor Iraqi prostitutes, to see them face to face after reading so much about them, so I took a taxi with my friends and headed to the Ma'raba Nightclub area outside of Damascus...