Archive for November, 2008

Damascus and Southern Syria

Monday, November 24th, 2008

What can you say about Damascus? It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People settled there as early as 6,000 to 5,000 BC. Alexander the Great, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, and the Romans all  occupied the area over the years. Damascus was an important silk road caravan city as well. After the Romans, the Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and Timur all had control over Damascus. Then in 1516 the Ottoman Turks arrived and stayed for 400 years. Quite a colorful history.

What I will remember is the choking traffic jams, the wonderful souqs, or markets, a great hammam, or steam bath, and teenage prostitutes.

I’ll start with the hammam. This is a great way to unwind and I have gone to several of these since central asia. You sit in a sauna for bit then go to a steam room and wash yourself. Then some guy scrubs you with an abrasive mitten that feels like he will scrape your skin off. After another bath you get a massage. Then you bathe again before being draped in towels where you relax on some cushions with a cup of tea. When you are done you feel squeaky clean and totally relaxed. Here I am after my hammam.

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Proof that this is the real deal? This place was approved by the Finnish Sauna Society:

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The markets, or souqs, are fascinating. Hundreds of shops line a covered walkway where you can buy just about anything. I was a little turned off, though, by some over-eager shopkeepers to get me to look at their wares. “No buy, only look. Have some tea.”

A man browsing in the souq.

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A view of one of the souqs.

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Want a head scarf? There are millions of them. The shopkeeper said most woman own about 50 scarves. 90% of the women in Damascus wear them.

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Steps leading to the souq.

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A mosque at night in the old part of Damascus.

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Casualties of War

I feel compelled to write about this next story. I had read that to escape the war in Iraq, many families have sent their women and children to Syria, especially Damascus. But with few jobs available many women have resorted to prostitution to earn money. Some even pimp out their teenage daughters to earn more. I could not believe this but decided to investigate and see for myself.

So I found a bilingual taxi driver and we visited one of the “night clubs” on the outskirts of Damascus. It was a very bizarre experience. You are greeted at the entrance by a couple slimy well dressed mafia type fat guys. The deal is you pay $20-$30 for a table and get free food and drinks. The place is brightly lit with about 30 small tables surrounding  a stage. Very loud arabic music is blaring from speakers. On the stage are about 20 girls dressed in long gowns parading around the stage. They just walk, usually in pairs, in a circle, sometimes cheerful and chatty, sometimes bored and listless.

In one corner of the room sit a number of old women dressed in black chadors. These are the mothers of the girls. They do not look too happy.

If you want, you can pay $60 and one the girls will sit by you. I guess this where you negotiate any further involvement with her. My driver said most of the clients seemed to be men from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Oman, based on their dress.

One very young girl kept flirting with us as she walked by, sometimes winking or blowing kisses, sometimes dancing suggestively. Finally she came to our table and talked with my driver. She said her name is Alia. She is from Baghdad and is 13 years old. Can you believe it? Then she took a pen and paper, wrote the word LOVE on it, gave it to me, and climbed back on the stage. It was a bit shocking.

I thought of the mothers sitting there or negotiating with the male clients on how much her daughter was worth. I just can’t imagine how painful that must be for a parent. Any mothers out there with 13 year old daughters? How would you feel if you were forced into that position? How bad does your life have to be that you would pimp your daughter out? It is inconceivable.

My paternal instincts rarely emerge but part of me wanted to adopt this poor kid and get her out of there. What about school? The place is open until 4:00 am. Don’t tell me the kids get up in the morning to attend class. Will she ever have a normal life now?

I left the place a little shaken. As always in war, it’s not just the soldiers who suffer. The real tragedy of war is the innocent civilians who’s lives are destroyed by it.

Surprisingly, the club owner let me take some photos. Here, then, is Alia from Baghdad, 13 years old, and for sale.

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You can read more about this tragic situation here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/world/middleeast/29syria.html?_r=1

Let’s turn to something less serious.

Free Your Mind

I happened to watch The Matrix on TV one night. So when I saw this sign I had to chuckle.

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What does “being free” really mean? Are any of us truly free? How do you know?

I guess it is a question of degree. We have freedoms but we also have restrictions. The government regulates our lives with laws and police. Society, family and friends impose norms and expectations on us. We are even slaves to our own insecurities and doubts. As Rousseau said, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”.

On the other hand, Sartre famously claimed that humans are “condemned to be free” — because they always have a choice. Even an external authority can only threaten punishment after an action, not physically prevent a person from carrying out an action.

E. F. Schumacher held that freedom is an inner condition, and that a human being cannot “have” freedom, but “can make it his aim to become free”. In this sense, freedom may also encompass the peaceful acceptance of reality. This was possibly the state reached by Ivan in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Or as the artist Jenny Holzer has written, “absolute submission can be a form of freedom.”

In Buddhism, freedom, or nirvana, is described as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states.

The Libertarian author Harry Browne defines freedom as living your life as you want to live it. He claims that you can enjoy a high degree of freedom right now. It depends entirely upon what you choose to do. You can live your life as you want to live it — no matter what others decide to do with their lives.

What are your thoughts? Are you free? Why or why not?

Wow, some heavy stuff on this blog. I better quit with all the philosophy.

Back to the road. I enjoyed my short time in Syria. The people are very warm and hospitable, there are some great ancient sites to see and the cities are bustling and chaotic. People were very curious about me. When I rode through a town I would get dozens of shouts, whistles and waves. People would even step out into the street in front of me requesting that I stop and have tea. Sometimes I did.

I stopped for a shwarma one day and the shop owner was so tickled he did not charge me for the meal. Here is the guy.

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So all in all Syria gets a thumbs up from me.