Jordan and Syria
I have now been in Moscow for 21 months. While I am surprised that the time has flown at rocket speed, I am downright shocked that I am not bored. Being here is like a chess game, once you are into it, the possibilities are endless. Moscow is 871 years old. It’s history has touched many people and has been intricately connected with other countries in the region. Hence the culture, the economies, the religions, the architectures, the politics, are all connected in a wonderful web of webs. And I don’t mean the internet!
I love it! This past summer has opened my eyes to a different world, it is mesmerizing. Like a newborn, I feel I am seeing many things for the first time.
In March I went to Jordan and Syria. Stepping onto the Royal Jordanian Airlines plane here in Moscow, I knew I was in a different place. The cabin was comfortable, the crew was friendly – modernity with a sprinkling of that mid-east flavour. The flight attendant in her traditional embroidered long dress serving sparkling wine. East and west meet in bubbly bliss. And that sentiment stayed with me throughout my stay in Jordan. A small country of 6 million people, with everything from wonderful beaches to amazing history to therapeutic treatments from salts of the dead sea. Driving from the airport into the city of Amman, I observed just how western the city was. A set of suburbs filled with lovely white limestone houses for the rich, and a healthy dose of Starbucks, Pizza outlets, Kentucky and other international chains. Accommodating many Iraqi and Palestinian settlers, it is set in a mountainous region with the old town in a valley. A nice city, but also somewhat forgettable. Oh yes, also a somewhat expensive city. More reason to forget.
The first thing I did after checking into the hotel was go to the Hertz car rental office. Now most people fuss about the car they want. I don’t . I fuss about the driver. Since the car does not speak, it is the driver from whom I will now learn about the country. I lucked out. Moen was born in Kuwait and lived in Mississauga Ontario. He was living in Jordan checking out his roots. Dig that? Wink, no pun. He spoke English fluently and talked a mile a minute. Together, we went to see Jerash, and enroute, I saw the DVD made by King Abdullah, a very upbeat and lively rendition of sights to see in Jordan. He starts his tour on a motor bike – all very “corporate” and very “athletic”. Highly informative and entertaining. A “must see”. The ruins of Jerash lie in a remote valley among the mountains of Gilead. It is said to be one of the most complete examples of a provincial Roman city. Reminded me of Ephesus in Turkey and Caesarea in Israel. He and I had dinner together in a small alley in the old town. Just like the locals, on patio plastic chairs and at a restaurant which had no toilets. Cool. He was surprised I liked the food and I was surprised he would think I might not. He insisted on paying. Wonder why.
The next day we went to Petra. Now one of the wonders of the world and a declared world heritage site, it defies description. The best one I can steal is “a rose red city half as old as time”. It is simply breathtaking. It was established around the 6th century by the Nabataean tribes and it is set in sandstone which allowed them to carve their temples and tombs. The word “awe” some takes a whole other meaning here. I was reminded of how I felt when I first saw the Livingston Falls. Just struck with the beauty and the grandeur of it all. So after walking for 6 kilometers and feeding myself silly at the Crowne Plaza buffet, I stopped to greet an old man Ali. He had lived there for all his life until they were asked to move. Speaking to him for 45 minutes, I understood that the life had changed. Example: the door we were looking at used to be the local variety store but now they could not shop. As he watched this beautiful woman walk by, he said she was Russian and yes, he had to learn Russian to do business in Petra these days. Somewhat irritated that she did not return his glance, he told me that I had to walk much further to the monastery to see the “real” Petra. Implied I was chickening out. In parting, he gave me a warm wonderful toothless smile. Charming.
Talking of charm, Damascus transformed me completely. After checking into my hotel (hotels are more modest here and cheaper than Jordan), I went to the Hertz office again. After talking and bargaining and getting to know 5 of the office staff intimately (relationships rule here), I found a great driver, Bassam. He was native from Bosnia and now living in Syria. We went into the old city and went right to the Umayyad mosque to catch the afternoon prayer. You see it was Prophet Mohamed’s birthday and the place was filled with men and women in robes, children and people of all ages. Walking into the courtyard, I cried. Not from the sheer beauty of the space but because I was reminded once again what the word “congregation” meant. Togetherness. This was originally the church of John the Baptist and then later got converted to a Muslim place of prayer and then most recently rebuilt by the Ottomans. The whole experience touched me profoundly.
The souk in Damascus is like a trance. Like the rest of the city, full of wonderful scents everywhere. The shops are filled with more variety of sweets than I had ever seen, more spices that I had thought existed, more sizes and shapes of rosaries than I had imagined existed, and there was a hustle-bustle-tussle-pull-push-shout-laugh energy that spoke to the festive spirit. I couldn’t help contrasting this with Christmas day in Toronto when the streets are quiet and people are home with their families and friends, enjoying crackling fires, turkeys, gifts and jingle bells. We wandered through the souk and took in the sounds, the wonderful people, and I went into a Hamam. This old tradition of sweating, soaking, cleansing and cleaning takes different forms through Turkey, Hungary, Finland and across the continent. In Russia, we have the Banya, a ritual on which books have been written. Hence the word “sauna” or “bath” for me will now always conjure up a variety of cultures and practices. J I ended the day going to mosque for prayer since it was Navroz, our New Year. It was a unique and moving experience. I then went to the Damascus mountain for dinner and as I looked down I knew why it was so precious. It looked like a jewel. I called my sister Zarin and wished her and my siblings on this auspicious day .
The next day, we travelled to Palmyra, which is also compared to Petra in its beauty and heritage. They compare Cleopatra and Queen Zenobia and talk of who bathed in camel milk. I don’t much care because I don’t like milk. I like DANONE’s no-fat yoghurt, but that is a whole other story. Travelling in Syria and into the hinterland, gives you a very mixed feeling. On the one hand, I saw a sign called “Baghdad Café” in the middle of nowhere. My friend Mohamed will recall this art film from the eighties. Then you see a Gazprom site showing the might of the oil industry and its reach everywhere. And then highway signage pointing to Beirut and Baghdad, reachable within hours. Mind boggling. We travelled to Krak des Chevaliers – Castle of the Knights described by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. Then on to Salamiya, an older city where I met some associates and they showed us the work of the Aga Khan Development Network. Impressive. My whole trip to Syria left me with a deep desire to go back and explore some more. Damascus is a walker’s paradise. Like Kathmandu, Prague and Jerusalem, it has a magic all its own.
Photo credit: Alessandra Kocman