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A View of 2012 From Syria

In At home, Middle East, Syria on January 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I was thinking about 2012 in retrospect as that’s what you do in the last days of the year.  I have so many things I’m grateful for:  family, friends, an awesome apartment, my first car!!, a good job, enough food that I need to keep my fat jeans in the closet, great travels, and a re-found appreciation for my every day surroundings.  Then I received an email from a friend of mine who lives in Damascus; it outlined 2012 from her perspective, living in constant fear and strife, how she and her family cope day to day.  After reading her take on the year in review, I asked her permission to publish it here for the benefit of any who choose to read it, because one more thing I’m grateful for is the wisdom and insight of people who are brave enough to put their views, hopes, dreams, struggles, and thankfulness to paper and share it with the rest of us.  She knows it’s being posted and for obvious reasons I’m not printing her name.  But if you do read it and are affected by it, please leave a comment and a word of encouragement so she knows that she, her family, and her country are not alone going into 2013.  Prayers for Peace on Earth and a Happy New Year to all!

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Prayers Matter

In Middle East, Syria on July 18, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Minaret of the Umyyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria (2007)

When you watch the news and think you can’t do anything about the world around you, know that people in the midst of the crisis are grateful to know others are thinking about them and praying for them.  My friends in Damascus are living in hell right now, this is the post from one of them after today’s fighting in the capital:

Thank you all [for your prayers and messages].  It’s davistating and scary.  My dad doesn’t want to leave the house and we can’t leave him alone.  Now we can’t leave the house at all.  Out side is a mess .  So the best thing either to stay home or go down to the basement.  I don’t know what to do.  My heart is in my mouth.  I am trying to pray and sometimes I walk around the house can’t even sit.  BUT SOOO GRATEFUL TO YOUR PRAYERS

Is It Safe Yet?

In At home, Middle East, Syria on June 17, 2007 at 9:19 am

The biggest problem with living in Syria was that I was muzzled from commenting on anything political, muzzled because I wanted to stay and check it out without getting kicked out.  But now that I’m out of the country I’ve finally got my tongue back.

Last month the country had an election, or rather, a referendum.  About 4 weeks earlier there was a first election where civic officials, ministers, and the current president were voted in for another 7 year term.  So the referendum was something like this:  Do you want the president to stay president for the next 7 years?  Answer: Yes or No

The week before the referendum all these tents appeared around the city and every night there was a party.  Free t-shirts, coffee, marches, banners, dancing, lots of music pumped out of crappy speakers, road jams everywhere.  One song went something to the effect of, ‘Save our president and Nasrallah, too.’  Then the election/referendum.  The vote was almost unanimous, 97.4% said yes. N ow I heard that seven years ago the vote was 99%, so where did those 1.6% yessers go?  Everyone who voted got a free candy.  You also had the option of voting in blood.

To celebrate the “victory” there was another week of partying following the referendum.  The same crazy gigs going on around the city, songs, dancing, etc.  I got stopped by the police at one of the marches because I was writing ‘something’.  They tried to read my writing – English speakers can’t even read it so how could these guys?  I was allowed to go and so I did because the march was boring.  But it is fun seeing fireworks every night, fired off by two-year olds unattended by their parents.

There are lots of billboards with pictures of different people and English slogans, things like, “I believe in equality”, “I believe in freedom”, “I believe in children”.  Then a picture of the president beside all of them, “I believe in Syria.”  I think his phrase should be prefaced with, “Yeah? Well fuck you! I believe in Syria!”  Having said that, I do think he is a decent guy and even though his hands are severely tied by his cabinet, the country could do much, much worse.

I think our Prime Minister could use this P.R. engine, it’s simply amazing at how much support you can get for the only contender.

A Day in the South

In Middle East, Syria on June 9, 2007 at 9:17 am

Front of amphitheatre, beautifully restored. Bosra

Yesterday we went to Bosra in the south of Syria, an ancient Roman town and theatre.  It was lovely, the air was fresh and clean, and the temperature was a delightful 28 degrees.

The seats of the amphitheatre. At one point they were completely buried under the sand. Bosra

Under the ruins, Bosra

We then hopped into a microbus to go to the town of Daraa where a friend’s friend picked us up for a tour of the region.  We went to the Yarmuke River, site of an ancient battle, and looked across to Jordan and Israel, just a few miles away.

Yarmuke River flowing into Jordan, Daraa

A young shepherd, Daraa

Next we headed to a man-made lake where young boys jumped in and went for a swim while a younger boy took his pet cow on a leash for a drink.

Pet cow, Daraa

Then it was off to another lake where families were rowing about in small boats.  Other families were playing drums, clapping, and singing. Smells from the barbecue wafted in the breeze.  A Bedouin girl cruised the crowds asking for money.  She liked my nose-ring, she was wearing one just like it.

An afternoon on the water, Daraa

Two motorcycles bumped into each other head on and the men driving them got off to have a go at one another.  They had just gotten each other into headlocks when police sirens were going off.  And then, a white horse ran by.  I turned around to see a man sitting on a white horse in the lake.  I was confused.

We got back in the truck and stopped for cotton candy.  The ice cream truck man was sitting there in his truck, not waiting to sell ice cream but sitting there to watch us eat cotton candy.  The ice cream truck music was creepy, it helped to explain all the horses.

She’s so pretty. She loves the camera. Bosra

Change in My Pocket

In Middle East, Syria on June 6, 2007 at 5:41 pm

I’m buying gifts for family and friends right now and have been hit with raging PMS. This is useful when going into the souqs and having to bargain for good prices. For those of you who know what I’m like during this time of the month, it should come as no surprise that I got everything I wanted for the price I wanted. They didn’t stand a chance.

My Students

In Middle East, Syria on May 18, 2007 at 6:37 pm

Me with some of my students.

Now that I’m an English teacher I suppose I need to share a few of the gems my students hit me with.  (Note: they are all older than 18)

Two days ago we’re practicing some reading and they have a hard time pronouncing ‘suggested’.  So I suggest to them before they fall asleep that night they should say ‘suggested suggested suggested’ and make the word their own.

I’ve also told them to stop calling me ‘Teacher’ and to call me Alison instead.  This is difficult for them since they have always been taught to respect authority (notice I do not say elders).  So one of the guys who believes himself to be the hottest thing on the planet is calling me over to ask a question.  He says ‘Teacher’ so I ignore him but he keeps trying anyway.  Finally I turn around and ask what my name is.  He gets this smile on his face and says, “Tonight before I fall asleep, I’ll say ‘Alison Alison Alison’, and then I’ll never forget it.”  Gag.

To all you teachers out there, does this ever happen to you???

Canadian Girl Missing in Syria

In Middle East, Syria on May 8, 2007 at 7:05 pm

Nicole Vienneau, missing in Syria since March 31, 2007.

For everyone who knows that Nicole Vienneau, a Canadian woman, is missing in Syria, this email is to inform you that I am still alive and very, very safe in Damascus.  I want to assure everyone who has sent me ‘worried’ emails that fears are unfounded, and I’m going to be very direct for the rest of this message.  It may offend some people but I’m here and the rest of you are not, I’m speaking from experience.

I was speaking with mom last night and she was reading me the stories from the newspapers with comments from people responding to it and this is where a lot of my anger is being driven from.

First of all, Syria is not a shady country.  While the policing system may be more noticeable here than in Canada, that does not make the rest of its citizens “shady.”  I’m using this word in response to a reader who said, “Those who go to shady countries are taking risks.” H e also said that if you go to countries like this, you are just asking for trouble. I ‘m tired of people making judgmental comments about a place they have probably never visited and have never researched.  If you want to believe everything western media tells you, then you area a good candidate for believing in Santa Claus.  And if the only thing you know about Syria is that it is ‘dangerous’, then you need to know the only thing Syrians know about Canada is that it is ‘cold.’

Second, Nicole is a seasoned traveler and anyone who has traveled solo knows there are risks involved.  From what I understand she is a smart traveler, one who lets people know where she’s going.  Anyone who’s been on the road in these regions before knows that there is a community of travelers and locals alike with whom they share stories and experiences.  It is almost impossible to be here and not have others know what you’re up to.  For one, the Arab culture is all about talking with each other, we call this gossip in Canada.  There’s not a lot you can do here without someone commenting or passing it along.  For example, Sonya and I went to Beirut a few weeks ago and pretty much everyone in the tourist quarter knew about it even though we only told one or two people what we were up to.  If Nicole was going somewhere in desert, I guarantee you at least one person knows where she was headed.

Third, anyone who comes to this area knows there are risks but they are not usually the risks Westerners are thinking about.  There is no war in Syria – that is happening next door in Iraq.  There is no imminent threat of war or attack from neighbouring countries such as what is happening in Lebanon.  The risks come from eating dodgey foods or drinking contaminated drinks, from doing drugs, or more simply, crossing the street.

Fourth, what happened to Nicole, whatever that may be, is very very unusual here.  All the Syrians I know are shocked about it, this doesn’t happen here.  Think about Canada and the U.S. where kidnappings or killings happen all the time.  In B.C. a number of women have gone missing on the Similkameen highway in recent years while hitchhiking.  Nothing has been solved.  Think of the recent shootings in Virginia.  For everyone who’s asking us to come home, you’re asking us to come back to an area infinitely more dangerous than the one we’re currently in.  For the record, I have NEVER lived in a safer country, including Canada.  I can walk here, anywhere, anytime, by myself and not feel threatened.  Of course you use your common sense wherever you are in the world and try to avoid potentially difficult situations.  But you can never know for sure what’s going to happen, no matter how much you plan in advance.

The biggest problem I have living here is that most people at home don’t believe it is a safe and good country to live in.  I can’t convince anyone this is true unless they choose to believe it.  No matter how many times I’ve tried telling people I’m OK, some still choose to ignore this.  Again, I am here, you are not.  Believe me when I tell you I value my life and that I would rather live than die.  Because of this I choose places I am comfortable being in.  Maybe they are not the same places others would choose, but some go to Florida and that is one place I have absolutely no desire to visit, precisely because of safety issues.  Believe me when I say the Syrians are going to suffer for this incident because very few people will stand up in their defense.  Tourism is already low here and might go down.  One or two ‘bad’ people affect everyone else and it is a shame for those who take pride in their country and want to show it to foreigners.

In no way am I trying to undermine what has happened to Nicole.  I can’t imagine what her family must be going through and can only hope they have a good support system in Canada that is helping them get through this incredibly difficult time.  I just want to give you peace of mind that if you know someone over here, they are almost 100% safe if they’re being careful.

Good luck to Matt Vienneau and his family as they hope for a happy ending to this sad story.  Updates to the family’s search are on the official website.

Mmmmmm, Real Hotdogs

In Middle East, Syria on May 7, 2007 at 9:00 am

Yes, oh yes!  Yesterday I found a hole in the wall that serves real Canadian style hotdogs.  The only difference between there and here is they serve the french fries in the hotdog itself.  I think they should add that to the menu at the Vesta Diner in T.O. “Fench frie Hotdog”

Text Messages

In Middle East, Syria on May 6, 2007 at 5:08 pm

Everybody texts messages here, it’s a cheap and easy way to communicate with (or to harass) people.  This is a random, inane message I got from one of my admirers awhile ago (the spelling mistakes are all his):

“Hey. Am in my way home. home whr the dearest person in a lifetime lives that is u Aleson. pls make no plans friday night. We r going out 4 Dinner. Looking forward to seeu. warmest greetings to a beautiful blue eyes.”

My eyes are green.

My friend Sally got this one:

“A star has 5 ends, a square has 4 end, a traiangel has 3 ends, a life has 1 end, a circale has no end, so I hope our friendship will be like a circale. Welcom my friend.”

She met him at a cafe one night and spoke with him for two minutes before receiving this message.  Very romantic, no?

Let’s Play "It’s Mumkin!!"

In Middle East, Syria on May 4, 2007 at 11:51 am

“Mumkin” is arabic for “possible”.  I’ve noticed an unusual number of people with their hands bandaged, splinted, or cast here, and thought it might be nice to see what other people notice.  So I’ve started a points-system game based on honesty and integrity, a strange concept in the Middle East.

Points are awarded as follows:

  • man/woman with bandaged/splinted/cast arm – 1 point
  • man/woman with cast on leg – 1 point
  • cast on both legs – 2 points (really, it’s mumkin!!)
  • man/woman with one leg – 2 points
  • orange pants – 1 point
  • orange shirt – 1 point
  • orange pants and shirt – 2 points (got points today for that)
  • woman with two black eyes, attributed to nose job – 2 points
  • cast on one leg and wearing orange pants – 3 points (i’ve already scored on this)

Automatic game winner:

  • woman wearing hejab and her bellybutton is exposed – 20 points