Allah Has Gone Digital

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Flag of Syria  ,
Saturday, October 3, 2009

I've wandered into the belly of the beast so to speak when it comes to countries that are a thorn up the US's butt but politics aside this is turning out to be a fascinating adventure.  First off, the people are about as nice as any I have come across in my travels.  I'd have to say Bosnians and Syrians take top place for friendliness and helpfulness.  I am not so naive to believe that there aren't fanatics who hate me just for being the infidel but I am around average people who couldn't care less I am America.

The vast, vast majority of people here are like you and me.  They go about their lives making a living, raising families, hanging out with friends, etc.  This is the side of Syria that I have been exposed to while walking mile after mile after mile through Damascus.  This is one place that is "scary" to the average American and I am glad I have come to see it first hand.   It's not scary at all.  Damascus is a city of 4.5 million and that makes it about as big as Atlanta.  But it is much more compact since virtually all housing is in densely packed neighborhoods of midrise apartments. 

Some random person will come up to me and welcome me to Syria and thank me for visiting while I am just trying to mind my own business.  It's like last when night hunger called and I noticed a place called "Sub Way" packed with people in their 20s and 30s.  That's always a good sign that the food won't explode your stomach a few hours later.  While I was waiting for my sandwich someone asked me where I was from.  Hesitating a second I finally said the US, and all of a sudden I had a crowd of curious onlookers.  Some of them shook my hand and actually thanked me for choosing their country to visit.  This warm reception was unexpected...even better than the discounts for being Canadian in Lebanon. 

By the way, I have learned why Canadians are so beloved in Lebanon...Huge Lebanese communities in Montreal and Toronto have developed and many people back in the homeland have immediate family in Canada.  Plus, they think that Americans are giant ATMs with freeflowing cash.  You've read about my travels...I am not an ATM packed with a ton of greenbacks so they had the wrong stereotype about me.  It's not that they don't like Americans...quite the contrary...they just want our $$$.

French people seem to be the biggest group of visitors here in Syria followed by Germans.  Their perfect Syrian holiday would be a stay on the coast, a visit to the ruins, etc in Aleppo and Palmyra and then a finale in Damasacus.  Aleppo crossed my mind but it's a four hour bus ride each way and I don't want to spend my precious time here in transit.  Some Germans I am hanging out with showed me pictures of the city and Aleppo is tempting enough for me to come again to Syria.

Wandering around on Friday (day of rest in this part of the world) meant maybe only a third of stores and restaurants are open.  That is fine by me because the energy here toned down a few notches and this morning I had the entire city to myself.  I wandered into the National Museum to kill time and saw coins, pottery and other artifacts from the beginning of time.  Is it bad that I didn't get excited over all that like everyone else?  I'd rather be outside seeing modern day life.

On my way out of one wing a guard jumped in front of me and I am thinking what in the world did I do wrong.  Nothing but missing a room behind a closed set of heavy wooden French doors it turned out.  He directed me back in that direction and behind the doors was a room painted top to bottom in geometrical patterns.  I couldn't make out anything the docent was saying except that the rows of chairs in there had gold in the fabric. 

I think this building used to be the prime minister's residence once upon a time and this room was where he held meetings.  I guess normal chairs for the rest of us aren't good enough and they need their butts kissed with some gold.  A Japanese couple would say, "oooooooooooh.  ooooooooooooh.  ohhhhhhhhhhh" with vigorous head shaking as if they fully understood whatever the docent was saying.  Now if I can't understand him how can they?

On the way out I noticed there was a reconstructed synagogue from centuries ago and thought it interesting that this display was in a muslim country.  Right next door were ancient koranic verses handpainted on tablets and tapestries.  I didn't think much of these korans until an hour later when I passed a store called Q'uran House devoted solely to selling this book.  It was like a Barnes and Noble but for the pious.  Naturally I peeked in to see what it was all about. 

Of course if it catches my eye there has to be a catch, right?  Well, here goes...inside this store Allah has entered the digital age and all sorts of computerized Korans were on display.  Some of these digital masterpieces will even read the verses outloud at the press of a button.  I wonder if I turn on my tv tonight if there will be some lame infomercial shouting at me to call 1-800-DIGITALLAH for my own digitial copy.  But wait, call now within the next ten minutes and we will throw in two more for free.  You just pay the additional shipping and handling.  That's right, three for the price of one.  Call now..operators are standing by.  Oh man, I can see it now.  I wonder if there is a market for digital scriptures back home in the bible belt? 

All the excitement of digital Allah left me needing a quick break so I stood against a wall to people watch. A group of middle age camera wielding Japanese tourists amused me as the paraded by single file like ducks. They were dutifully following behind their leader's raised stick complete with green scarf tied to the top.  But when the stick came down for one of their stops, these tourists would run high speed about 20 feet, snap a picture, run high speed in another direction and snap a new pic.  Excited shouting filled the air and and I mean they went berzerk.  I even watched one lady shove her camera in some fully covered woman's face and snap off one complete with flash.  It was like watching 15 Japanese jumping beans on speed racing around like little bumper cars.  Yet as soon as that stick went up in the air, they would all fall quietly in line and scurry on with tiny,tiny little footsteps. 

Speaking of people watching, Damascus has been a fascinating place for that.  This city of 4.5 million is so diverse and different neighborhoods brought me into different ways of life.  My neighborhood was more "upscale" than others and as a result more woman walked around without scarves on their heads.  I commonly saw them cruising around alone in cars or shopping along.  That goes against the stereotypes we have for this part of the world.  If anyone is expecting Saudi Arabia style oppression, on the surface at least I didn't see it.

In the poorer areas such as the Old City the women were much more traditional and I wish I knew what the various degrees of covering up mean.  Some women wore these cloak like jackets that went all the way to their feet.  Others just wore a simple scarf with western clothing.  A few even had their heads so covered up that only their eyes were visible.  But no matter how covered up the women were, their husbands dressed normally for the most part in jeans and tee shirts.  The scorching sun brought a toasty 93 degree day to these parts when I was wandering around...why in the world do women in this part of the world cover up in black head to toe?  Last year I was in Bahrain, Kuwait, etc. and it was 126+ degrees with high humidity.  I would strip that thing off in  a second!!  But in the end it's not my place to say what other cultures should or shouldn't do.  I live my life the way I want and they live theirs how they see fit.  Simple as that.

As for the men a few wore traditional clothes that have me curious about as well.  Some had those red tablecloth like wraps on their heads and others wore long white robes that went to their sandals.  But I'd say 99% of the men wore clothes that would be right at home anywhere else in the world. 

While I was walking around I was thinking about how Beirut repelled me within minutes but Damascus has drawn me in.  Something about Syria has just captured my imagination and I love wandering around with no agenda or list of things to see.  My visa is good for 15 days and I am sorry I don't have 12 more here to explore every inch of this country.  This is one place I will visit again. 
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