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I have a parallel blog in French at http://anniebannie.net

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June 4, 2021

My diary from Damascus 2002-2007

I reproduce here my diary from that time as was. The text accompanies my podcast “Pourquoi l’oralité” . Below, my first message sent from Damascus as well as those that will continue throughout the month of September 2002. My publishing partner was Pascal Hyde in Belgium who put my texts and photos online, at least in the beginning. Translated from the French with Deepl.

Damascus, Saturday night fever, September 14, 2002

Dear friends,

I have seen you!

Let me tell you, (the trip is later) :

At the 3rd address, I find a functioning cybercafe: the machines turn on, I land on cc21, I see with relief that db messages me and she mentions ifead, (BTW, IFEAD is too difficult for me; I took a look at their admission test and realized it would take me a year to reach that level) (. And just as I’m about to reply from an Arabic keyboard coupled with a qwerty keyboard, everything freezes and the manager tells me no more internet today.

So,I’ll try to post tomorrow after sending this prose .

Db, if there was a quest, then I found it. I love Damascus, Syria and the Syrians, the Arabic spoken there and the beauty of which, even from my beginner’s level, I can appreciate. I thank you for your research. Nevertheless, I insist, there is no quest because there is nothing to find outside oneself. And you know, my quest also ended in Edinburgh and even in America (the one in the sixties that expired in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam war).

Let’s get back to the journey.

A Syrian friend of mine told me: for the weight, no problem, I travel with 50 kg, plus a big package in accompanied luggage; they never say anything.

On Friday, a friend, a luggage consultant, comes to help me for the dress rehearsal and I, who had weighed everything to the gram, under her impulse I get carried away and I say to myself: damn, I’m going; with a bit of luck, they’ll let me through.

And she says to me: this big winter coat, you are not going to carry it on your arm! Be classy and travel at ease; look, you have room in this kitbag.

Total: JBV drives me to the airport with four heavy bags that I could only lift with difficulty.

Well, I had to pay up for every extra gram.

Why didn’t you send it by air freight? Have you ever cleared something in another language?

I did it in Dutch with my car on my way back from the US and had the humiliation of having to admit later in writing that the inadequacy of my Flemish had made me fail to answer a question correctly.

I didn’t spare you the boarding, but I’ll skip the description of the meal on board (well, but the weaning begins: no wine. Fortunately, I filled up before leaving), to move on to my row mate. At first glance, I thought: this is a cousin of a well-known leader, currently in the crosshairs of the Yanks; he had a manly moustache and manners that were just as manly, if by manliness one means bad education.

You’ll see: “we don’t study Arabic anymore at your age, Madam; it’s good for the little children, but for you, it’s too late” and he mentions my 60s. I’m thinking shit, he must be a cop, NO ONE ever tells me my age.

As if mentioning my age wasn’t enough, he tells me to convert to Islam, put the hijab on my head (that’s the headscarf and not the bourqa for those of you who don’t know the difference) and tells me everything will be fine.

I’m not joking anymore, how can I explain in a country of believers (Muslims, 65%) that my only religion is the respect of others and the love of freedom?

I think I’ll have to hypocritically fall back on the religion of my childhood.

The debate is not even to be considered.

I also meet a Syrian journalist who is really moved when she learns that she is meeting a future great Arab writer, since this is my avowed ambition; we talk a bit about women and she feels very well as single woman.

I go through customs with my four bags and my laptop without any problem. Before, they used to put everything of value in your passport so that you wouldn’t be tempted to sell your belongings.

September 16, 2002

So, Damascus? Google will give you some very good sites about the city.

There is ugliness, pollution and magic. Yesterday, I stopped at the Bekdash ice cream shop whose owner’s wife is the daughter of the man I met on the plane (the one who thinks I’m too old to study) in the Souk al- Hamidiyya where they pound the ice cream by hand and for 25 FEB you get a big cup topped with pistachios. This place is always packed .

Then I went to my fountain next to the An-Nafourah café, but it was dry and I was sad not to take my hookah, because what’s the point of smoking in front of an empty cage (the fountain is in a cage).

In my confusion, I awkwardly kicked the pedestal table on which my glass of tea was placed, sending the whole thing waltzing on the jeans of a tourist sitting next to it. Without a word (and without having me pay extra), the boy came over and put a new glass on my pedestal table. The tourist was a bit more annoyed.

Water is THE problem of the region; why don’t we finance an aqueduct from Europe to here? We can live without oil, but without water? When you fly over Syria from Aleppo, all you see is a huge desert. The reason why the Israelis would refuse to give back the Golan Heights is because of its water resources.

Let’s get back to the magic. It is in the street, the people, their kindness, their easy contact.

In a store, I ask for an adapter for my computer plug; they don’t have one, but they send a little boy to get one for me. Another store has no floppy disks: same thing; they bring me some. In front of the barber shops, on the sidewalk, towels are drying on small plastic racks.

I’m sure I have to tell you about the women; in the neighborhood where I’m going to live, they are in jeans. The girl who is going to teach me wears the hijab; so what? What business is it of ours? On the plane, I met a journalist , who lives alone, not married, and who when she travels to Saudi Arabia, wears the veil. I am occasionally asked if I am Muslim; I answer that I am Catholic and the answer is enough.

Let’s talk about my hotel: a jewel. Exotic and comfortable, efficient and clean. It is for all new arrivals a first family.

Nevertheless, at my first shower, I still looked suspiciously at the neon sign that is not far from the (shower) head. [A travelogue had already taught me that Syrians are not afraid of electricity (a bare wire could at any moment turn the iron bed that the author shares with his lover into an electric chair)].

I found the apartment the day after I arrived; I knew right away that it was what I wanted: close to the institute where I’m going to study, and pleasant. I naively thought that all I had to do was pay and I could move in the next day. Wrong, but with the help of a gentleman, who serves as my interpreter and guide, I happily cleared the hurdles (embassy, foreign affairs, police station) and I expect to move in tomorrow, Tuesday, or at the latest, Wednesday.

As for the institute where I am going to study, it has students from all over the world, and we will be forced to communicate in Arabic; I can’t wait to start the classes.

Would you like to hear about my – dear – luggage? By the way, I forgot to tell you that the Dutch were in charge of the luggage at Zaventem; they even charged an extra fee at the foot of the bridge to some Syrians who had probably listened to Samir’s advice too.

Ciao, masalama 

Damascus, Thursday, September 19, 2002

First mail from my apartment

… and a second night spent on a mattress on the floor, my landlady’s bed being the surest way to a new passage on my orthopedist’s table. Since I must have cost my government a million dollars, I think buying a mattress is a small favor to both of us, especially me.

My cornak (for non-French speakers: person who introduces, guides sb), whom I will call the Friend from now on, finds me a workshop in the old city where they will make me a suitable mattress in three days.

Jonathan from Fez (American language institute, sorry… Arabic language institute, nothing to do with the first one, I was assured) studied here and warned me that without a solid knowledge of Arabic I would never manage to get past the administrative hurdles to get into an apartment. He was entirely right, but that was without counting on the Friend and his providential interventions.

Why didn’t I ask my bazine (landlady in Flemish) for a new mattress? There were plenty of candidates and it was take it or leave it. Besides, Syrian prices are not comparable to ours and having a mattress made is not a ruin.

Nevertheless, with the small expenses and the payment of the rent for six months, my capital is melting quickly; no, there is no way to go to a small box to withdraw cash, nor to go to a Bank to get funds on a Visa card. In case of emergency, you run to Beirut or Amman.

However, since a few months, you can open an account in Euros or dollars and have funds transferred to it. And the funds stay in Euros or dollars.

My sister says: ah, you have an apartment? Give me your address so I can write to you! I do have an address, but you forget to send mail there. I think there are no letter carriers and I have not seen any mailboxes. People have a post office box, or they phone each other. My host hotel will call me when I have mail.

So much for the practicalities for those who are tempted by the Damascene adventure.

Let’s talk about the intoxicating magic of the place; the nights are cool and you store this coolness in your walls, then you close all the exits as people in hot countries do.

From two o’clock to four o’clock, you take a nap; then I go to the old town and enjoy the slide from the still torrid heat to the lull, until the absolutely delicious temperature of six o’clock.

There, I sip my glass of tea at An-Nafura or at the café across the street, after a detour to the ice-cream parlour.

The fountain has water, but it does not flow; as for the hookah, I believe that I will give up because it becomes very quickly an addiction and the Friend tells me that only one hookah is equivalent to 20 cigarettes.

Wine, beer? It is extremely easy to do without.

I won’t take out an Internet subscription since I have a cyber in front of me and the connection is too slow to surf; besides, I will need all my time to study. I realize that I don’t know anything, but still…

Yesterday, in the old city, a lost and distraught couple hears me speaking English and asks me for a specific restaurant, near there, in an old house. With my rudimentary Arabic, I ask a boy: do you know where is a restaurant in an old house near here? And my interlocutor indicates it to us. My admiring anglos: oh, how nice it is to find someone who speaks Arabic and English. If they only knew!

L’Ami accompanies me on my first shopping trip so that I don’t get cheated; this man, who is the age that a son could have been, treats me paternally, but without any condescension. He thinks of everything, changes my lock and tells me that once I am settled, I won’t need him so much.

Good evening friends,

This mail is very important to me, especially since I don’t have access to mine yet. Hotmail is off limits for the moment. If you want to write me a note live try amg@amg1.net, or annemariegoossens@compuserve.com.

Let’s talk about Damascus

The traffic

One foot on the gas, the other on the brake, the finger on the horn. They are virtuosos. I haven’t seen an accident yet. We travel by minibus when we become more courageous; until now, it was the cab, but I want to travel like the locals. The minibuses have no other stops than those of their clients. When you are at the back, you pass your five pounds (four FEB) through the other passengers to the driver who, while driving, sends the change back the same way.

Evaluation of my Arabic knowledge

The teacher must have been much less impressed than the lost tourists of the other day.

Anyway, I don’t think I have to start from scratch

My accommodation

It is marvelous in its taste and comfort; the mattress would be suitable for anyone else who does not have my back history. The first day, I can’t light the butane and, to add insult to injury, I have to make myself not only a nescafe, but also a cold one. Having learned to turn on the gas, I think of you, Dominique, every morning, while making my Arabic coffee with cardamom in the little pot ad hoc, which must cost 150 FEB, and of the monster (my 600 Euros espresso machine) that I sold to you with relief.

I have a washing machine, fridge etc. I buy a plastic armchair for the mini balcony which has the only advantage of being outside; next door, there is a school.

The neighborhood is like mine in Brussels : many Arabs.

My next-door neighbors

There are three other apartments, one of which is occupied by a traditional family. When I ring the doorbell there is always a commotion, and when the lady of the house comes to open the door, it is with her veil on her head. At home, the women keep their hijab on if there is a man from outside. In the other two apartments, there are respectively Lebanese and a family whose wife does not wear a veil.

I’ll be much less talkative in two weeks when my classes start; I’m not taking pictures for now because I’m waiting to know how to speak before asking permission etc. A “mumkin? ” would suffice, but I’m in no hurry. What I love are people’s expressions, their poses, their whole way of being.

L’Ami continues to provide me with invaluable services such as paying the electricity bill (this is done in a small shack along an avenue) and telephone calls (local calls are cheap, but international calls with a card are 80 FEB per minute at peak hours; in the other direction, my sister tells me that from Paris it costs four Euros per minute. Is this possible?

The phone

I get a phone call at midnight, and unlike in Brussels, here it’s completely normal.

Arabs in Germany

My landlady was finishing her phone call when I came to pick up the keys and told me, almost in tears, that her daughter, who lives in Germany, had been summoned by the police and that the same applies to anyone with an Arab name .

Saturday, September 21

Friday indeed looks like our Sundays; I walk through the souks where all the stores are closed, or almost, but where there are people. Bekdash, the famous ice cream shop, is open.

That’s all for now. The Friend brings me today my mattress, a small table and the plastic chair and with that I will be equipped for my eight month stay. He also found me a cleaning lady.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate. Please contact me through Pascal or Dominique or through my private.

Tot ziens (Illa lika)

Sunday September 22, 2002

First coffee on the balcony

After an orthopedically correct night on my new mattress, six o’clock finds me, with my little Arabic coffee, on the terrace; the school next door must be a boarding school because there are three pairs of socks, one per window, drying stuck between the slats of the outside blind.

Aside from his rampant smoking, the Friend is very health conscious. For example, the foam on the coffee would be harmful.

And isn’t it dangerous to give up all my vices at once? My body has already been brutally weaned from its bacchanalian intake, am I going to deny it the pleasure of hookah? To look at my beloved fountain through the perfumed cloud of a smoke, which was after all washed, is it not worth a few days less on this earth?

On the radio, the fresh voice of Fairouz.

What do you miss?

Not much; you do. The jokes I used to exchange with Pascal, the days at the Turkish Bath in Saint-Gilles, my exchanges with my tabbagh and my baker. My dear Ayse. The daily conversations on the phone with my sister.

My music; because of my weight, I only took a CD of Oum Kalthoum . This shortage will be easily made up for because the CDs are very cheap here and I bought a small radio.

My home (continued)

I am very close to a mosque and last night I could hear some beautiful chanting on the speakers.

My building is set back from the street at the end of a passage planted with honeysuckle; imagine the perfume.

While taking inventory of the place, I find large plastic bottles, filled with water, under the sink. There must be twenty liters there.

Each apartment has its own water quota and as I live alone I don’t have much to fear, but it is better to take precautions. I will also have to get a small emergency butane; my tank is nearing the end and I have to hook up with the dealer who regularly passes by in the street. I also need an emergency lamp in case of power cuts.

Starting with a fresh mind

When I went to the United States in 1969, a colleague told me: go without prejudice. Anti-Americanism was the order of the day in left-wing circles at the time. This attitude allowed me to create my own America and I loved it a lot. It surely still exists under the clutter of current propaganda.

I do the same here. I am not a political specialist or even an intellectual; I am describing my life from a very personal – and of course, privileged – point of view.

It is with some trepidation that people ask me what I think of their country. All I can tell them is that I feel good there and that I like the people and the city. I haven’t had time to leave Damascus yet. I have to say that when I ask a foreigner in Brussels about his opinion of Belgium, I am also a little worried.

Monday, Sept. 23, 2002

On the balcony at six o’clock, with a quintuple ration of “Turkish” coffee since that’s what we call it; I can already hear the Friend saying that it’s very bad for the health, but I woke up with a terrible headache.

At boarding school, I count six pairs of socks. The kids get up at the same time as me because there is light in their house.

The barber

The task became urgent because I had the shaggy head of an old Belgian.

My teacher gave me the address of his hairdresser’s and I arrived at 7:30 p.m. without an appointment – that’s how it’s done – thinking that at that hour I would have no chance of getting a perm. Not at all. I tell the boy: not like a sheep please, and I leave (I didn’t want them to be dried) curled up like an astrakhan. In fact, when I get home, I’ll notice that the perm is very successful once I’ve given it a brush.

The Hammam

Ah, the steam room! Magnificent, and with the towels drying high on a wire.

From the street, where a man is posted on guard to prevent any unwanted irruption, you arrive immediately in the large reception and rest room; there are couches along the walls, a basin in the middle. This is also where you undress in a corner barely sheltered from view; there are few people at 10 o’clock in the morning. The women only have one day a week, probably because so few of them come.

The lady points out my bruises, which are always numerous, and I tell myself that given the strength of her pushes, they will soon join together to make one.

This being done, I enter the heart of the establishment: a rectangular room in the center of which there is a long marble on which one sits, then lies down according to the operations; another woman makes me enter a room which is the steam bath itself. There was no steam for fifteen minutes, but I was sweating! When the steam arrived, I thought I was in a pressure cooker. I didn’t stay long.

Finally, all clean, you’ll be sprawled out on the couches sipping sweet tea.

Note for those who would come in a Syrian hammam: we don’t walk around, as at home, with our buttocks in the air; we come with a little panties, but the breasts can be uncovered.

Alone in Damascus?

Yes, I am quite alone, even – apart from the Friend – quite alone, but meeting people is easy.

This morning, on the road where she was waiting for the micro bus (and not the mini bus as I wrote; the micro must have ten seats, the mini is bigger), an eighteen year old Circassian woman invites me to her village and I think I will go. This village would have received a distinction for its cleanliness and I believe also because they practice birth control there.

This young girl, who speaks English better than I speak Arabic, but with whom the conversation is exhausting, takes it into her head to lead me to the souk Hammadié where my ablutions must take place, taking paths as new for her as for me. At one point, we have to cross a cemetery. She hesitates and wants to go around it. I propose to cross it. We get lost among the graves and finally find the exit. She explains to me the meaning or the purpose of the plants on the graves. They would have something to do with the rest of the deceased. I will have to find out more.

In short, the walk is interminable and my headache returns. Nevertheless, I smile because she is so nice. She takes my hand as we do here, even between men. She asks me why I smile: I tell her I am happy. She is not happy. I ask her: broken heart? She seems quite determined to escape this trap. I will not know more. She makes this detour for me on her way to her grandmother’s house. She leaves me at the hammam and gives me her phone number.

Another woman who gives it to me (her phone number) – I meet her in the hammam – is a Moroccan woman married to a Syrian.

It is also there that I meet two Spanish women, one of whom lives in Beirut. When her sister told me she was going to Syria, people’s eyes widened: TO SYRIA ????

Before closing, there are demonstrations for the Palestinians; today it was in Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp/village (I was too tired after the bath to go) and on Friday here in Damascus.

It’s 10:45 am; I’ve been waiting for my landlady for 4 hours; at 6 am I asked for a break to get my mail and something to eat; she said, I’ll come at 10 am. I told you, there is no time here, but this is the first person who has done this to me. Finally , she didnot show up.

On the other hand, the Friend is always scrupulously punctual. Tomorrow, at two o’clock, he will introduce me to my cleaning lady.

Leyla sayda (good night)

The next morning (Tuesday, September 24, 2002) on my balcony

The mailboxes

You can find them here and there; they are red, as always, and bear the words “Boîte aux lettres” and the equivalent in Arabic. The country became independent in 1946 after being under French mandate since 1920.

My baptism

Today for the first time I realized that I had changed my name. It had actually happened when I went to our embassy, which had issued me a certificate in Arabic and French for the police.

In Assimil, Jacques Verneuil becomes Firnouille, and I am now Aani Rousenz because there is no G(ue) in Arabic, except in Egypt where they transformed Dje into Gue (Gamal Abdel Nasser, whereas it should be pronounced Djamal.). I’m going to drop Marie for eight months to simplify my life and that of others. The name of a great Arab poetess is apt.

It was the morning of registration and I was there half an hour before the opening. I respectfully stood in the waiting room where a totally exhausted Moroccan man was sleeping and came to accompany his Algerian friend. We were quickly joined by the African-American Muslim who admired my outfit (I’ll call him Abu Kamel, but if he has an Arabic name, it’s not that one), and by a bearded man in a cassock whom I thought for a moment was a priest, but I was wrong. We waited quietly and saw people passing by and disappearing towards the corridor on the right; the man in the cassock was the last to arrive, and we continued to wait until Abu Kamel decided to take matters into his own hands and went to the information office.

He finds the right office and comes to free us from our dead end. In the meantime, I won’t be able to finish the formalities today.

So, I met Aani Rousenz while filling out the forms; I also started to get familiar with my address since I had to decline it several times.

This is just the beginning and it is the easiest. Four stations in different offices and we are given our mission order.

First, go to the Bank (which is not near) to pay. Then, to cross the whole city to go to the AIDS office in order to get tested.

To help us, we are given little pieces of paper with instructions for the microbus or cab driver.

The photos

If you come for classes, take 16 and I’m not sure that’s enough (I’ve given out 12 so far, but I’m not done). You leave them everywhere (embassy, police, bank); at the Institute, I see that they ask for 7 and I blush, I only have 5 left. Relief, they take five; it’s when I get to the Aids office that I understand where the other two should be housed. There is a long line, but here women come before everyone else (ah machismo has its good sides!). So they ask me for the two photos I don’t have and photocopies of my passport that I don’t have either (you make six of them to be safe if you come); photocopies of all the pages.

Fortunately, there is a photocopy and photo store nearby.

There, thinking they were doing the right thing, they also sold me 500 pounds worth of tax stamps, which the Aids people saw and sent me back to the store RIGHT AWAY (and not after the injection as I would have done) to get my money back because students don’t pay.

The doctor is done with his shots and sits down at the desk . He vigorously stamps forms; signs papers and receives a pile of passports that come to rest on mine.

He handles the passports like a croupier or a magician; I am anxious. He calls out names at full speed and they all come to collect their property. There is one left: it is mine and the doctor finally takes care of me.

You will come back tomorrow at 10 am to get your certificate. I would have gotten there earlier, I would have finished it all in one sitting. And the AIDS office is FAR away! You don’t want to get tangled up in the little pieces of paper with the addresses and give the driver the one that goes to the bank when you want to go to Aids.

And my cleaning lady?

She didn’t materialize any more than Mohammed did, but that’s not my fault. There is a nasty virus in Damascus that is resistant to antibiotics. The horrible shingles I bought myself before coming will protect me from it, I hope. The lady may come tomorrow; if she is still ill, the Friend suggests a man who works at the hotel and who is perfect.

You must be getting tired of me praising Damascus, but I am under the spell; hypnotized.

Come on, masa al hayir (we say that in the afternoon) and you answer, masa al nour.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Phew!

I passed my AIDS exam; I arrive at 9 o’clock, but they told me ten o’clock and in the meantime I invite myself to a coffee at the place of the guy who made my photos and sold me the tax stamps yesterday. I chat with a woman I saw at the institute and who also invites herself to my hosts’ café. She will serve as my interpreter.

In short, I spend an exciting hour. At ten o’clock sharp, I go back to AIDS and they make me go up to the director’s office; I think to myself: it must be serious for me to have to go and see the Numero Uno, but frankly, only the Holy Spirit could have contaminated me.

Back to the Institute

Another small photocopy of the AIDS diploma and I am almost at the end of my journey. Nevertheless, you have to fill in a long questionnaire where they ask you the name of your maternal grandfather (I know him).

In the corridors, I meet beautiful, beautiful Russians and people of all colors. Abu Kemal also returned from his mission.

Finally, it is the consecration and the delivery of the student card.

Not so fast, Aani Rousenz, if you don’t want to end up in Alif, Bâ (abc for the roumis) class, there is still a language exam to do.

The sheet of paper I’m presented with is entirely in Arabic and I’m standing there deciphering it like functional illiterates do: by moving my lips.

I pass the first exam, I wouldn’t say with flying colors, but the result is good enough since the bar is set higher. This second level leads straight to the rapid weight loss that Greta told me about; she struggled so much that she became as thin as a nail. I could have used it, because as a lady in the souks told me: in Damascus, you don’t lose weight! Abstinence or not, sugar quickly fills the void left by the wine and it’s nothing but divine loukoums , pistachio sweets, little honey cakes and …. candied fruits!

I make a big detour when I pass by the Palestinian pastry shops because you can’t not go in to eat these white rolls, stuffed with cream, these grilled vermicelli that top a well of cheese and the trays of “madloka”. I’ll name names later.

Classes begin on Tuesday, October 1.

Although I’m working on my Arabic, I’m still on vacation, but Tuesday, things are getting serious.

My gaze plunges into the gardens of the first floor; the first one contains a dog kennel, a very rare animal in Damascus, thank God, and sorry to those who love them, but what a pleasure to be able to walk without looking where one puts one’s feet and to not hear barking! The second is a real garden with trees; further to the right, the gardens are under construction.

As I look at the cat on the wall, I think to myself, there it is, the charm of the people here. They are cats; they have the elegance, the voluptuousness, the flexibility, the attitudes, the softness, the seduction.

I guess that’s what it means to fall in love with a city.

I think of that peaceful shopkeeper in Hamadié’s large renovated alley, leaning against his window, watching people go by.

How could an American friend see Damascus as a “dusty, poor, third world town”?

Presto, to my cyber cave and I wish you a good one.

Friday 27 Sept. 02

Sipping tea at the fountain.

Tomorrow, Saturday, the Friend comes with the cleaning person, a man.

Here we do the big cleaning twice a year, says Suzanne (one of the French-speaking women I met last week, with whom I sympathized and whose maid, affected by the mysterious virus, is now cured). In autumn and spring we clean the walls and of course the curtains and drapes.

She tells me about Ramadan, which promises to be quite special.

Friday is for her a day of meditation spent reading the Koran and meditating; her husband goes to the mosque. I think of our Sundays in the past when we would put on our best clothes to go to mass and go to salvation in the afternoon.

When I tell her that I washed the grapes that a neighbor gave me – she had a whole tray of them; politeness would have wanted me to refuse them, but I couldn’t resist – so that I washed them with chlorine, she gives me a more civilized way, namely soaking them in water with lemon salt.

She explains to me again the extra red tap in the kitchen: it runs until one in the afternoon and the water comes from a spring. The rest of your water is stored in your personal tank and would not be drinkable.

Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002

The cleaning man

Yesterday the Friend came to introduce me to him.

Have you ever seen those ads for the White Tornado? I’m still lucky: it’s him. In no time at all everything was clean: curtains washed and put back in place, windows washed, etc. Also, this man is adorable. I continue to marvel at the gentleness of the Syrians I meet, a gentleness that does not fit well with the image that is projected of them abroad.

The Bank

The other day, having exhausted my cash, I went with my heart pounding to the bank where I had opened an account in Euros. What did all those papers on which I had put my signature (in the absence of the Friend) say?

I had been assured that I could withdraw Euros, but I only half believed it. But that’s what happened. I left with bills in our currency. Actually, Syrian pounds would have been fine, but I wanted to test the system.

At the bank, many of the staff are women. These women wear the hijab and are dressed in a coat that must be warm in the summer. I think there is air conditioning.

In two days, it’s back to school! Tomorrow, the hammam, purr.

Monday, 30 Sept. 02

My Sunday of study was cut short by a telephone call from the hotel: two letters for you.

Newfound joys

In the morning my sister from Paris had called me: pleasure to wait all week for a phone call, however brief. We only tell each other the essential.

The pleasure of receiving a letter, of reading it quickly, of sitting down on the usual terrace and reading it again and again. This has not happened to me for a very long time.

On the internet, I used to receive 200 messages a day that I would skim through, and if by chance there was one that deserved my attention, I would copy and paste it and answer it point by point, but that’s not the same as a letter.

At the terrace, I met a monosexual couple whose appearance I didn’t like at first sight, but who turned out to be quite charming. They are French and in love with Damascus, too.

I stop at Zak’s, my spice merchant, and he has a big surprise in store for me. His store is a narrow corridor, very well arranged, at the end of which there is the cash register, a chair and the air conditioning. He invites me to a coffee, sits down on a stool and makes me listen – it’s not possible – to my absolutely favorite tune “when I am laid in earth” by Purcell (Dido and Aeneas). Not only that, but he lends me the tape.

My music is one of the only things I miss.

I think I’m going to move here. I feel so perfectly at home.

 !

Criticizing the State of Israel NOT antisemitic.

“For the last time: Criticizing the State of Israel and its cruel and violent system of legally-enshrined racism is NOT antisemitic.Those making the claim that it is have done so much damage they literally have blood on their hands.

First, Palestinians who have been ethnically cleansed, oppressed and murdered by the self-proclaimed “Jewish State” have to bend over backwards to prove that they’re not “antisemitic” and resisting or even public talking about their own dispossession and erasure is attacked as aimed at destroying the Jewish people. Oppressed groups have enough to worry about without having to cater to the hurt feelings of their oppressors.

Second, politicians and other public figures who dare to speak out for Palestinians as they do for other oppressed groups have been subjected to systematic campaigns to destroy them. Lifelong anti-racists and champions of such as Jeremy Corbyn, Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis and so many others have been viciously smeared in this way and, in the case of Corbyn, helping to smash a powerful social justice movement that could have transformed Britain. It is no accident that pro-Israel forces tend to be more tolerant of racism in general and even of anti-Jewish racism, while true anti-racists are being smeared as “antisemites” by those same intolerant and Right-wing forces. The “antisemitism” is this ironically targeting true anti-racists and empower empowering actual racists.

Third, Jews who speak in support of their Palestinian brothers and sisters are also being silenced and smeared. I’m constantly told by pro-Israel Jews that I’m not “really” Jewish and even that I’m an “antisemite,” among many other things. This attempt to control what it means to be Jewish and what Jews can and cannot think, is itself a form of oppression against Jews and the very idea that to be Jewish is to automatically support the State of Israel is a fundamentally racist. To propagate this falsehood is furthermore to inextricably associate all Jews with this Israel and its crimes. In this sense, Israel is literally using the Jews of the world as human shields in its racist colonialist project.

Finally, the weaponization of “antisemitism” to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel ironically hurts all Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, as it makes a mockery of the charge of “antisemitism” and thus discredits and undermines the fight against real anti-Jewish bigotry, prejudice and racism.

When anti-racism to becomes synonymous with “antisemitism,” what does that say about Jews?We need to stop having this conversation. It’s time to put to rest once and for all this cheap and destructive tactic designed to silence critics of one of the most brutal systems of organized racism on the planet.

So, if “antisemite” means a person who opposes the institutionalization of Jewish Supremacy in Palestine (which is ironically directed against actual Semites), it’s a badge I’ll wear proudly. What I oppose is racism, bigotry and prejudice, including against Jews. And that is exactly why I oppose Israel: not because it’s Jewish, but because it’s racist.”

From Peter Cohen on FB

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