Filed under: Blog – annie at 2:38 pm on Saturday, November 30, 2002

The hammam is still Capua. The room is reminiscent of an orientalist painting.

My neighbor says that he goes there with friends around 10 o’clock in the evening and that they spend the night eating, drinking tea and telling jokes. They leave at about 4 o’clock in the morning.

To switch to smoking, I have a real crusade with my friends and acquaintances who smoke like chimneys. We don’t see many old people, but I don’t know the figures on life expectancy.

And to immediately prove the saying « do as I say, do not do as I do » I acquired a beautiful hookah which I send you the picture.

The hookah


There is first the pot in which there is water that we change at each pipe. On the pot, we put the column; we plug the stove containing the tobacco. A long pipe lined with pompoms starts from the column and ends with a spout (mine is shaped like a cobra’s head). A sheet of aluminum foil is placed on the stove and holes are drilled in it. Charcoal is heated until we get embers that we put on the aluminum sheet.

Let’s talk about Ramadan

On Tuesday, we watched for the hilal (new moon) all evening, but it remained hidden by clouds. So Ramadan will start one day later.

On Wednesday, around 3 am, a man walks through the streets of the neighborhood banging twice on a box to wake everyone up.

I’m going to try to fast for the whole of Ramadan and it’s not hard after two days. Just eat breakfast at 4am and dinner at 4:45pm. I want to know what this fasting is like physically; Muslims also go to the mosque.

My hopes of seeing the Friend stop smoking, thanks to Ramadan, have come true. It is during the day that he will stop smoking, but he can start again in the evening. I quit hookah.

A friend of mine tells me that fasting is also an opportunity to know what it is like to be hungry, to be aware of what the poor are going through.

I think of the American senator who lived for a few weeks on the budget of a family on public assistance (welfare).

Frankly, from here, Islam is not scary. Christians live their religion in peace; they have their churches. The Jews had their synagogues.

The Taliban and other fundamentalists are to Islam what Torquemada was to Christianity.


Anywhere it takes time to make your mark, but in Brussels everything had to be redone, or almost, and I hardly feel more alone here than there.

I met a Catholic family and I plan to go to mass with them one Sunday.

I also met my Lebanese neighbors. They invite me to have tea; there is a young man and a young girl. I naively ask them if they live together. That no! They are engaged, but he shares his apartment with a boyfriend and she lives with a girlfriend.

My ophthalmologist

According to my Lebanese neighbor, who is a doctor, his consultation is not typical of those here. This is probably why he is not on the list of doctors recommended by the embassies. But he did make me feel better. With my new eyes, I can study a lot longer; fortunately, because at school it’s hard.


Being able to go out with a nice bag, which I used to carry in Brussels only in my room for visits, is a new luxury. Hiding my money in my panties is no longer necessary here.

I had become accustomed to insecurity (I had « done » Washington D.C. for 17 years); back home in Brussels, I took the metro at night without undue fear. However, I was thrown to the ground when my bag was snatched and two weeks later I was doing it again, but standing up (my bag was snatched as I clutched it under my armpit).

Belgica qwayès

What a pleasure to say that we are Belgian! Everyone knows Belgium and our position in favor of the Palestinians. Qwayès means « well ». The noise of boots coming from Washington and the Sharonesque impasse in the South plunge me into a certain sadness despite my happiness to live here. It is the entire Arab and Muslim world that is threatened.

Ramadan (continued)

When one undertakes a feat like siam (the fasting of Ramadan), one waits at least until one is halfway through to trumpet it. By the way, if I had achieved this feat, I would have shared it with the 935 million Muslims in the world, which takes some of the shine off this achievement. You can tell by my tone that I have no reason to be very proud of myself.

The first and second day, no problem; the third day, ouch, it hurts. There is not only hunger, headache; there is also tiredness because when you get up at four o’clock in the morning to swallow a sandwich, you can’t always fall asleep again. And no question of making a nap; there is an energetic worker, recruited by the new owners of the floor above to renovate their dwelling, which undertook to pull down almost all the walls. I can hear the debris from upstairs falling into my bathroom’s false ceiling; I wait until it’s finished before asking to have it cleared away.

So I make a compromise with my wounded ambition and I don’t eat all day, but I drink a kawha at 7am and a tea at 12:30pm. This allows me to attack with a good appetite, in the company of real fasters, the foutour (meal of the break of fasting called iftar). We wait for the muezzin to arrive at « Allah hou Akbar » to start, who the cigarette, who the soup with which we open the meal.

The first day, I share in my new small restaurant – my local restaurant is in renovation – a table with a couple and a young man; the gentleman of the couple tells me what I must order: lemon for the soup (and do not eat your bread at the same time, it is not good for the stomach). What do you mean, you order all this? You have quite an appetite! I had ordered meat, rice and vegetables, but he was right. It would have been too much.

It’s also on « Allah hou Akbar » that you swallow your last bite in the morning around 4 o’clock when you wake up in time. No need for an alarm clock, a rustling sound, made of all these people getting up, flies over the city; one must add the prayer that filters through the walls of the nearby mosque.

I still hope to manage to do without the midday tea, but it’s really hard.

And it is certainly not to know what hunger is that I am fasting, because in this area I have given amply and long in my youth. Nor is it to lose weight, because without a scale and with loose clothes, I have no problem with my weight. (update 2021: I was fat see photo below).

Ramadan is the time when we give more to the poor and to good works. There must be some poor people, but not in my relatively rich neighborhood. However, on Friday, I came across two very poorly dressed kids, one of whom had a black eye, and whose presence was quite incongruous. I could have given them something spontaneously, but how can you give to someone who doesn’t ask for anything?


If after the iftar the city is deserted, taking a cab around 2pm is a real challenge. All means of transport are taken by storm by people who are released earlier. We get packed and I am ready to pay the scalpel price in order to get back in time for my teacher with whom I work almost every day.

Today I’m going home with a driver who’s all happy because tonight he’s leaving for the pilgrimage to Mecca. By plane? No, by Pulman. The bus will take 24 hours and he will stay two weeks.

At school, they let us go 20 minutes earlier.

The weather

Delicious. My laundry dries slower; now it takes two hours.


Whatever Sadam does, it will be war. The only solution I see is for him to resign to save his people. One can dream. And would he save them from an American occupation?


Come on, I know The Jeck; he needs some, otherwise he doesn’t even click. I have to wait for my release day, Friday. You’ll soon have mountains of sweets. The most spectacular stores are in Merdjé. On the street these days, they sell a kind of cotton candy, spun sugar and flavored snail-shaped and huge chips with caramel on them and other sweets of the occasion.

Merdjé Square


Upstairs, the worker is working overtime. I’m going to review tomorrow’s lesson with hopeless words to memorize (like aïadatoun for doctor’s office); I surprised myself today by asking for needles with a word I had learned last year at the very beginning of my apprenticeship and what’s more, I was understood.

I put poetry on the back burner because when you don’t know the words for more, less, up, down, etc., you have to be modest.

In class, thanks to Arabic, we are beginning to overcome the language barrier with the Turks.

Tuesday 26 November 2002

I don’t know when I last posted, but Ramadan is long gone for me. I sincerely admire all those around me who endure it stoically, even joyfully, without the grandstanding of the undersigned. I haven’t heard a single complaint; when asked, people say, no, it’s not hard.

In fact, one friend eats something before going to sleep and gets up at the usual time. That still gives him a 17-hour fast every day, but with a normal night.

The other day, I find a man on my doorstep kneeling and calling out to heaven. I give him a generous alms, but he wants more. I pretend to take it back and he is satisfied.

On the way down, I meet a neighbor who asks me if I have seen a beggar and I tell him that it was a meskîne, a faquir (an unfortunate, a poor). He answered indignantly that he had rung his son’s doorbell and asked him for a glass of water, and this in the middle of his fast! The glass of water seems to shock him more than the begging. He wants to call the police.

And here is another one who paterfamilias me by telling me never to open my door to anyone, that as I live alone, I must be particularly careful. All these paternal men are younger than me!

I’m back from a weekend in Palmyra. What a wonder! I talked a student from the institute into coming with me because we had to play hooky since our weekend is interspersed with a school day. I really needed this, because my life, very austere, between home and the institute, is only enhanced by an occasional visit to the Friend with whom I can talk about everything. There is also the family that I visit from time to time, but with whom exchanges are limited by the language problem.

In short, I needed a change of scenery. I was close to returning to Belgium.

Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) surrounded by the desert, an oasis three hours from Damascus, is a wonder. I didn’t know my girlfriend at all. She too was a discovery. We got along right away. On the first day, we visited the site; on the second, after a climb to the citadel to watch the sunrise, we lazed on the terrace of the Zenobia Hotel, in front of the columns, flowers that have emerged from the sand and have the same color as the sand. It was the first time I spoke since my arrival. It was about time. It is true that you my readers keep me company and that, thanks to you, I do not feel too lonely.

It’s the height of the date season. We were offered dates everywhere. Invitations to drink tea followed one another all day long. We tasted the mensaf, a Bedouin dish made of rice with vegetables, meat and almonds, which is not at all like paella.


A date merchant invites us to his place for tea; we say yes, but we don’t intend to go. He comes to pick us up in the restaurant where we are finishing our meal and tells us that he has a car. Imprudently, we get in the car and we leave for the palm groves. Soon, the car drops us in front of a huge door, but what worries me very quickly is that the driver follows us to the hut which looked like a bachelor pad: soft carpets on the ground, low couches, candles and a wood fire.

Our two companions tell us that they are single. Another bad omen is that our host has locked not only the heavy garden door, but also the cabin door, putting the key high on a ledge.

I tell my girlfriend in Dutch that we are in trouble. I’m ready for battle battle but she makes a flawless maneuver and asks our host to go out to the non-existent toilet. She comes back after five minutes and leaning on the doorframe she says in a dying voice that she feels very bad, that it’s probably something we ate and could our host drive us back to the hotel?

Annie in Tadmor (Palmyra)

The two accomplices’ plan failed. They mumbled in Arabic, too bad it didn’t work out, but they drove us home without a fuss.

It must be said that some foreign women are seeking that kind of adventure

Queen Zenobia, inseparable from Palmyra

« After the assassination of her husband, in which she is believed to have been involved, Zenobia exercised power as regent on behalf of her young son. Within three years, she had extended her sovereignty over the whole of Syria, Egypt and most of Asia Minor, thanks to a declared alliance with Rome. In 271, however, Zenobia’s ambitions in the east forced the emperor Aurelian to take up arms against her. After seizing almost all her possessions, Aurelian laid siege to Palmyra. It fell, and Zenobia was taken captive to Rome. She was later given an estate in Tibur (today Tivoli, in Italy) where she retired for the rest of her life. A woman of great beauty and brilliance, Zenobia is remembered for her relentless ambition. « (Piqué at Encarta)

Next week is the end of Ramadan and we have four days of freedom, followed immediately by shibi exams. I’ll go to discover Hama, north of Homs, with its huge norias and in the surroundings, houses shaped like beehives.

Some more pictures of Palmyra