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July 5, 2021

Yamdi el waqt bi soura

Filed under: Blog — annie at 3:22 pm on Thursday, January 30, 2003 Edit This

January 2003

Translation: Time moves quickly; I’m almost halfway through my stay. I don’t realize I’m in Syria because I feel so at home. Everything is going smoothly; I feel transparent..

The weather

Springtime weather. Cat are in heat and you can hear them courting

The exams

They ended today (January 18). I did pretty well. I’ll be reunited with most of my classmates next semester.
In the meantime, I’m going to treat myself to a real vacation because the pace has been steady for four months. However, stamina quickly increased use, and I was doing just fine studying six hours every day.

The Iraq War

In my class at the Institute, we decide to stay if the Americans invade Iraq. However, if the Belgian embassy told me to pack up, I would be forced to leave.

The Dutch received a pre-warning and the Germans have recensed their nationals in Jordan.

Saddam, and for that matter Osama, have few supporters here, but that doesn’t mean the Syrians support Bush.

The New Year’s Eve

I buried 2002 in a wonderful place, the Umayyad Palace, photos below.

What makes its charm is obviously the setting, but also Samir, the boss.

After restoring a real ruin, he wanted to turn it into a museum, but he finally decided to open a restaurant. Samir is Palestinian and his wife is Syrian. Palestinians are much better treated in Syria than in Lebanon, for example, where they are excluded from many professions. Here, although not having access to nationality, they have the same rights as Syrians.

This is the only place in Damascus where you will see a real whirling dervish. On the occasion of the new year, he is accompanied by his son who also spins.

Heart of gold, Samir is extremely generous, a quality much appreciated among Arabs. During Ramadan, he invites several groups of orphans to his restaurant. At his place, the atmosphere is simple, but the oriental buffet is excellent. For this New Year’s Eve, there were only Syrians accompanied by their families, including children.

Although frequented by tourists, the place was not deserted by locals.

One evening, I met a direct descendant of Charlemagne.

In search of Arabs

Who is an Arab here? You, my Syrian friend, you are Christian, but still Arab? No, I am Syrian.
And you, my friend, you are Syrian? Yes, but I am an Arab.
The others are Turks (500,000), Kurds (1 million), Armenians, Circassians, descendants of the Crusaders, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, a real melting pot in short. What unites them is the language, the nationality and for the 80% of Muslims, the religion. The great Saladin was a Muslim before he was a Kurd.


They are numerous in Damascus. Here is an Orthodox church, Holy Cross, near Bab Touma.

Working in the street

Mattrass “renewer

When I was growing up in Brussels, we used to take the woolen mattresses to him to wash and re-fluff them.

Carpet sellers

Besides the specialized stores, there are merchants who set up their business in the street before the first cold. In the houses, they clear the carpets when the heat returns.

A street office

We see small tables in the street where people fill out questionnaires. They are also public writers although the literacy rate is high.

The last hakawati0

He is a professional storyteller.
He reads an episodic story that can be heard every day at 5 p.m. at the Nawfara cafe. He has his followers who come to watch the show daily.

Here is the path to the Nawfura (it skirts the mosque of Ommeyades) and a view of its terrace.

The storyteller’s name is Rasheed El Hallak /Abou Shadee, which means father of Shadee.

After a long preamble in which he pays tribute to the great men of the past, he gets to the heart of the matter.

I can distinguish a few words, but there is little hope that I will soon learn the twists and turns of his stories about Sultan Beybars among others (one of the heroes of the fight against the crusaders; he took the Krak back from them . My brother-in-law, who knows Arabic very well, hardly understands it any better than I do because the hakawati speaks in popular Syrian Arabic with a strong accent. However, he sometimes reads texts in Fou-ha. After the show, he will let me look at his antique notebooks, all handwritten, which come down from generations of predecessors.

The show is worth it: watching Abu Shadee’s exchanges with the audience, seeing him interrupt to ask for a glass of tea or to look down on the chatterboxes, watching the regulars pull on their hookahs (did I tell you that we say “drink” a hookah in Arabic?) and ESPECIALLY waiting for the moment when he swings his sword and hits the innocent stool .
Everyone shouts HEY; there follows a delicious wait as there may be a second and third blow. Arabic coffee is served in small cups that are passed from one to the other.

Abu Shadee is unfortunately the last of his dynasty.
Wouldn’t there be someone to take over the torch?
My friend, a tour guide without work because of the state of affairs, asks him if she has a chance. He encourages her to go for it. And we are in Syria, and she is a woman!

December 2002

Filed under: Blog — annie at 2:58 pm on Friday, December 20, 2002

Since I am going to travel, here is a map of the country


In Hama, I arrive in the middle of Eid El Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan and will last three days. Everyone is in the street; they catch up with smoking the cigarettes they could not smoke during the fast. In the evening, only boys are seen in the streets; almost all of them brandish a revolver (toy); but in the afternoon, one goes out with the family.There are merry-go-rounds; a bit like at the fair back home, but on a smaller scale. They are often swings or small rustic wheels operated manually; the kids are delighted. There is a refreshing joy. Here I am transported fifty years back in time; this sort of fun has not yet been spoiled by the consumer society. People are not blasé.

I get side tracked by a young entrepreneur selling foul (beans) cooked in water and seasoned with salt and spices. Delicious.

Kids love to be photographed and ask me lots of questions.

Back from Hama

So I had four days of vacations and I took the opportunity to go to Hama.


The journey first: by bus, with a lady who had a cold and slept the whole way.

I am just recovering from a cold . At the pharmacy, they give you antibiotics without a prescription and just what you need to get you out of trouble. Not the huge box that will age in your bathroom until the expiration date; the solution here is economical and anti-waste.

For the return trip, I will have as a companion an independent woman living alone (and single); she is a doctor and studied in England. I learn that the life expectancy is 70 years; indeed I did not see many old people in the streets.

We stop in Homs where I chat with some locals and they ask me the usual questions: are you married (now I say yes, it’s better, otherwise you get proposed to), do you have children? yes; where is your husband? at work. Where does he work? Damn! I say the only word that comes to mind: safar (the embassy); they immediately take out their passport and ask me for a visa for Belgium. What is this mania of wanting to immigrate? I tell them about the rainy Belgium, the fact that there is no work, that they have a family here; nothing to do. Dreams are tenacious. You only know your happiness by comparison.

My chauffeur

At the hotel, I get a driver. When he comes to take delivery of his customer, he gives multiple kisses to the hotelier on the cheek and I deduce that they are relatives. Indeed.

He drives his purring Mercedes, which is 35 years old. He offers me small pizzas that women sell in front of their houses and in the afternoon, a delicious syrupy coffee also served at the side of the road, this time by a kid

The region is marvelous

Houses in the shape of beehives still inhabited..

Byzantine Qasr Ibn Wardan .

Apamea, where I had the ruins all to myself early in the morning,

Maara, a small town hosting a magnificent mosaic museum (and I who did not like mosaics, I am enthusiastic). Photos of the interior are forbidden. It’s market day. Cobblers are installed on the sidewalk. I guess they move from one market to another. In this little town, I am not very proud of our crusaders who, having conquered the town under the orders of Raymond of Toulouse in 1092, boiled people in pots to eat them and roasted children that they had impaled on a spit. It must be said that the besieged had no more food.

And finally, the highlight of my stay: the dead city of Serjilla where I walk alone in these immense ruins. One day, the inhabitants left, we don’t know why; a bit like the Anasazi in the American West. There is no trace of war. It is believed that trade routes had moved, depriving these villages of resources, or that the inhabitants fled after an earthquake. There are dozens of dead towns in the region, but Serjilla was the most impressive of the four I visited.

The others are smaller and close to villages, hence: garbage, nasty dogs, children who ask for pens (the day I hold the granny who from Morocco to Syria has distributed pens, I’ll send her back to the anthropophagous crusaders). In short, no splendid isolation. The pyramid is in Bara..

In several places, people have reclaimed a ruin to make their home and the laundry cooks on a wood fire next to the columns in front of which you see these three little girls.

Now some beautiful views of Hama, but first, my favorite sin: these white arms stuffed with cream. In Damascus I thought it was a Palestinian pastry, but I was wrong, it is the great specialty of Hama. Semolina is cooked with cheese and the dough is spread on tripods.

To the one who offers to come and make this wonder in Belgium, I get a visa right away; and so much for the Belgian rain and the family he will leave behind. ( Recipe at the bottom of this text)

Hama, views of the old city; norias only work in summer. So I didn’t hear their complaint that can be heard from far away.

Back to the workbench and language learning

As far as tenses are concerned, Arabic is less complicated than our languages because it has only three tenses: the accomplished, the inaccomplished (the present and the future) and the imperative. Its undeniable advantage is that it is pronounced exactly as it is written.

I’m starting to feel a little ridiculous around town when I speak my ‘fous-ha’ ; kind of like speaking Latin in Rome. Fortunately, most people understand me, but they laugh. This means that in four years time, when I am done with Fou-ha, I’ll have to start learning Amyia (the popular language). However, it is the fous-ha that is used on television and in the newspapers.

Our class is tight knitted; we love our teacher who is very devoted. We are the ones who have to remind him that the bell for recess has rung (Ya oustad, el djarass we whisper ). The atmosphere is very good. We laugh a lot. My results? Good. (I am in red at the back of the class).

Situation in the region

What is the matter with all of you that you are afraid to come here? This must be one of the quietest countries in the world.

We live in a bubble; we feel very safe. Syria is safe. Of course, what is happening in Palestine, and what is going to happen in Iraq, does not leave us, to say the least, indifferent, but we hardly talk about it.

December 25th

I just spent an unforgettable Christmas with a Christian family . I often have this feeling of living totally in the present. We had a great time and no one mentioned Iraq; why bother? We are totally powerless to prevent anything.

Daddy dressed up as Santa Claus and came in with a bag and rang a bell. We did a farandole while singing: berim berim, arendous arendous (nobody knows what that means).

The midnight mass is certainly the most fervent mass I have attended since my childhood. It was  in Arabic and the church was packed. “Although I am no longer a Catholic”, but at Christmas I wanted to get back to my roots and if I had problems with Rome, I have few issues with Jesus .

The two Damascus

For Christmas, I was in the Christian neighborhood. There are really two cities in Damascus, but they are not segregated. On Fridays, when almost everything closes in the Muslim neighborhoods, we go to Bab Touma where everything is open. And on Sundays, the reverse is true. At Christmas, the Christian quarter attracts Muslim visitors because of the illuminated houses. As for the relations between the two communities, they seem to be good; just like in our country, some people probably need to despise the other.

The Hama Cheese Pudding
(Halawih bil jibin, by Karim El-Boustani)
1 pound shredded, unsalted, and fresh Mozzarella cheese
2 cups of water
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of wheat semolina flour
1/2 cup unsalted Ricotta cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon orange blossom extract/water (ma zaher)

Start by boiling the water and adding the sugar.
Once it starts boiling add the semolina slowly and mix.
When finished, continue by adding the shredded Mozzarella cheese slowly and
keep stiring until all the cheese has been added and melted completely.
Then spread the entire mix on a dish and let it cool down for a few hours.
Best eaten cold with some Ricotta cheese spread on top flavored with
a touch of orange blossom water.



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