Food in Damascus

I feel that having the title that this blog does, I should speak some about the food here.  In short, it’s not very good, and the most stable dish you can order is Hummus.  At least in Damascus, there is very little seafood since the closest major port city is Latakia which is several hours away.  Most things here are chicken, similar to Cairo, with some lamb as well.  I have taken the mostly vegetarian route eating a lot of Fattouche- a sort of Sumac/Balsamic Vinaigrette summer salad.  While there is some worthwhile street food, it pales in comparison to what is on offer in Beirut.  It’s about the same thing, but it seems as though the Syrians don’t care as much about how their foods taste.  There are less sweets here too.  There are desserts on nearly every menu but usually fruit is eaten after a meal, most often Batikh- watermelon.

We drink a lot of water as it is always hot- as in Lebanon and Egypt, there are a few different bottled water brands all competing for people’s hearts.  None of them are particularly spectacular, they all kind of taste like water.

Usually for lunch or dinner, we just order a bunch of “appetizers” and dip our bread in them.  None individually would make a meal, but when you have a little bit of 10 things, it begins to add up.  And it’s much cheaper.  A bowl of hummus is about $1 whereas a chicken dish would be about $5- so you can get 5 bowls of stuff and it would be about the same price.

Here, as in Lebanon they have a drink called the “Polo” (I think they only use that name here) which is fresh lemon juice, sugar, and mint blended together.  It really hits the spot.

I think I’ll be in Lebanon next week, so I’ll have time to put some pictures up, hopefully.

5-Day Weather Report

First Post

Depending on how things go, this could be the first in a bunch of entries, or one of the few.  Internet access here is a bit shifty, so I check my e-mail at an internet cafe (computer provided), or I go to one of the cafes with, as they say “internet free wireless”. 

My neighborhood is ancient.  When my friend Bulos came to visit this weekend from Beirut, he told us a quote that he heard (I’m not sure where) that said, “there was no bit of news in human history that Damascus was not there to receive.”  Stuff’s really that old.  I would guess the structure of the house I live in is at least 400 years old, but there’s no real way to be sure. 

We have a lion skin hanging on our wall- it looks to be at least 100 years old or so.  Things are different here. 

Sleeping upstairs is no fun- it gets really hot during the day, and that hot air doesn’t really filter out at night.  My room’s on the Eastern wall of the building, too, which makes things worse in the morning when the sun rises.  [interesting side note: the arabic word for sunrise, Mashraq, means "place in the east"- its opposite, maghreb, "place in the west" is also the name of the country Morocco]. 

The construction of the house is quite interesting.  It is built in a square shape with the middle of the square being open to the sky.  I don’t think it’s going to rain this summer- it never did last summer in Beirut, and Beirut is closer to the sea.  The walls are sort of an eastern painted stucco, and the roof is bordered with clay shingles.  There are random bird cages strewn around the place, but I’m not sure why.  We also have a fountain- like a fountain fountain.  The kitchen is modest- gas grill, refrig., microwave, and washing machine (for laundry).  We have two western toilets and one turkish toilet [nothing more will be written about this].  Downstairs there are two bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, and a very nice sitting area with foam seats.  This functions as meeting place, study place, and kitchen table.  It’s where I’m composing this right now.  Upstairs we have three bedrooms, a bathroom, a second (unused) kitchen, and another courtyard.  We have plants growing everywhere, although they aren’t very impressive looking.  Our house cleaner insists on watering even the dead ones.  “seeds”, he says.  No one believes him, but he does it every time.  On the wall downstairs here we have an inscription in Arabic, dating from the 1200s.  Its gist is that people of all creeds should live together in harmony without fear of their belongings being taken  or any other harm befalling them. 

Life is pretty lazy during the day here, and for good reason.  It’s in the mid-30’s celsius almost every day (high 80s-90s farenheit).  At night though, there’s lots of stuff to do- cafes, restaurants, bars and concerts.  Since Damascus is the cultural capital of the Arab world this year, they’ve had a few of these concerts.  I went and saw Faudel- an Algerian singer- put on a concert inside the Crusaders Citadel. 

I visited the Ummayyad mosque maybe five days ago.  It’s amazing in there.  I’ll try and put pictures up soon.  Since it’s 50 syrian pounds to get in (about $1.02)- i’m thinking of using it as a study spot sometimes- it’s cheaper than going to a cafe and buying coffee and stuff. 

Right now I’m living in the Bab Tuma (Thomas’ gate) neighborhood.  All the neighborhoods in the old city are named after the entrance gate they’re nearest too (Old Damascus is a walled city, after all).  I’m thinking of moving closer to bab sharqy (Eastern gate), though, because there’s a cheaper, air conditioned place there where my friend Tom lives. 

We had 6 people living here yesterday, but since Ross’ girlfriend Keeley left to go back to the states, we’re now 5.  I know 3 of the 4 others: Ryan from North Carolina, Ross from Texas, and Yusra from Minnesota.  Our fourth roommate is Ahmed from Saudi.  He seems to be a very nice guy who came to Damascus, it seems, for inspiration.  He’s an industrial and furniture designer cum artist extrordinare from what I can tell.  We’ve had some very interesting conversations about a lot of different things- he wears dread locks and lived in Brooklyn for a few years. 

Well that’s about what I have for now, so post comments and questions if you want.  Oh- and if you have any questions regarding our southern neighbors, don’t ask them.

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My Life in The Ahwa

I do two types of studying; one type is on the internet, and the other is in a book.

I imagine that if I lived in a time before the internet, I would get a lot more done in a lot shorter time.

Lately, I have taken to studying in places called “ahwa”s. The word “ahwa” in Egyptian Arabic means coffee, although most people there don’t drink coffee. As far as studying goes, there is not much in the way of distractions. The clientele is exclusively middle aged-older Egyptian men who go there for what may be approximated as “male-bonding”. They play dominos, cards, and yell at each other a lot, making generous use of wild arm gestures unheard of outside of Italy. Lots of them are wearing the Galabeya- traditional Egyptian garb, and many are moustached, or at least scruffy.

Because I haven’t fallen in love with one ahwa or another, I have visited quite a few of them, and besides some having delicious teas, bad shiishas, unique smells, or eccentric staff, they’re all pretty similar.

They usually consist of 20 or 30 tables for one- portable little ones with indented aluminum tops, uncomfortable wooden chairs, fluorescent lighting, and linoleum tile.

Here is the best picture I could find, of a typical one.

You can order tea- sometimes chopped leaves as sort of a silt at the bottom of the glass, and sometimes lipton. The former is much tastier, until you get to the end when you inadvertently swallow some of the bitter sediment.

You can order coffee- mazbout (Arabic coffee with just a tad of sugar), tourkiyya- potent Turkish coffee, or Nescafe- A blend of coffee flavored crystals, sugar, and chocolate or something. I don’t know, but to me it tastes like dropping some Super America coffee into a glass of warm water and then adding some swiss miss.

My favorite is called einaab. Although einaab is related to the Arabic word for grape- einab- it is a sweet Hibiscus tea, chilled, and purple in color.

When the weather is cold, and you don’t feel like tea, you can have a hot, white drink called SaHlab. It’s made from the starch of ground orchid bulb, boiled with milk, and mixed in with cinnamon, chopped pistachios, and grated coconut. Quite a combination. My favorite part about saHlab is the milk skin that forms on the meniscus of the liquid after every sip.

And of course, there’s shiisha, the staple of the ahwa. Because I’m not Egyptian, and I don’t particularly like the “real” shiisha, which is over Mollassesized plain tobacco with hot coals put directly on top of it- with no tinfoil barrier. I instead smoke apple flavor- I think I get odd looks from the old Egyptian guys, because I’m smoking what the women do.

Speaking of that, there are never any women in these, ever. Although it’s mostly unconscious, to me, this provides a much more relaxed environment- no one is trying to impress anyone, and no one is worried about embarrassing themselves in front of a girl. The majority of play-fights between elderly men I have ever seen in my life have occurred in these ahwas.

Depending on if your waiter recognizes you from before, if he is a nice guy, or you impress him with your Arabic, the pricing is quite varied. It’s all subjective, really. Typically, if my waiter likes me (that is to say, approves of my presence there- usually has to do with my understanding and efficacy in Egyptian Arabic), I will spend 3 hours there, smoke two bowls of tobacco, drink a tea and a einaab or sahleb, and spend between 4 and 6 gineeh (pounds). At the current exchange rate of 5.65 gineeh/dollar, this doesn’t exactly leave me poor.

Especially if I have Arabic homework to do, just being around the white noise of hacking old men intermittently cursing at each other in their native tongue is theraputic, and possibly they’re making me smarter by osmosis. At the very least, I am forced to use my Arabic in ordering things, and talking with the inevitable regular who asks “anta minayn?”; “Where are you from?”, as if I’m out of place or something.

Some notes on clothing

People here dress differently than I expected they would. They certainly dress different than people in Lebanon, and undoubtedly I stand out as an American if only by my attire.

The men here, if they are not dressed in dapper suits, can be divided into two categories.

The first, mostly younger (but not necessarily) wear long sleeved (usually some shade of blue) collared and striped button-up shirts, tucked in and paired with dress pants or overly faded or acid-washed jeans. The shirts are either dirty or cleaned, (this is due to the high cost of washing clothes here) but the general sentiment is one intended to impress. Whereas in Lebanon most of the young guys wore tight jeans and even tighter shirts that spell out messages that don’t make much sense, such as “Heroes vs. Zeroes”, “Welcome Mr. Sexy” and “Thunder and Lightning” (I personally bought one that said “My friends, right or wrong.” as a half-joke), things are much humbler and simpler in Egypt. There is still that young population (particularly those who go to AUC) who dress decidedly “Lebanese”, but this trend dies out when people reach about 25 years old.

The second category is mostly older men who wear the full garb (I seem to have forgotten its name). Basically it is a long robe in either white, brown or blue that covers the entire body. These are reserved for those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca (The Hajj). They are usually older either because they are no longer (or never were) working in an office-type job, or they’ve spent their entire life savings (multiple decades) on the pilgrimage, and could only afford it in old age. The people who wear them are called Haajiis, or, in Egypt where j is pronounced like g, Haaggiies. You’ll frequently hear on the street someone yelling out “Ya Hag!”, which isn’t an insult, but a way to address someone dressed in this manner. They are generally nice and will most likely speak only in Arabic to you.

The women can similarly be put into two groups: Those who dress “western” and those who are veiled.

Especially within the “veiled” category, there is a lot of room for variation. For example, many of the girls at AUC who are veiled wear much tighter clothing than those who are uncovered. They seem just as fashion-conscious as those dressing in Gucci and Prada, they just express it by matching their scarf with their entire outfit and carrying an expensive (usually Louis Vuitton or Gucci) handbag. For all intents and purposes they act exactly the same, speak exactly the same, and look exactly the same. It really is a personal choice whether or not to wear the hijab that usually has more to do with tradition than it does orthodox religious belief.

The girl who is dressed in a “western” manner looks pretty much exactly like any rich young lady from the US or Europe who is extremely concerned about her looks. These girls mostly congregate on the Greek Campus stairs, and from what it looks like, they never go to class. Many have described these stairs as a “fashion show”, an assertion with which I agree. Remember, all of these students, guys and girls alike, covered or uncovered, religious or secular are the sons and daughters of the elites of the country- and they act as such, buying $2,000 handbags and valet parking their Mercedes’ and BMWs at school.

I really need to buy some long sleeved collared shirts. Not only because it’s turning into fall, but also because I feel perpetually underdressed.


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