Sunday, February 7, 2010


from the Dead Sea, we drove across the border and north through Syria to Aleppo. again, Riyad helped us out by hooking us up with a driver friend of his, Hussam, who expertly ushered us across the border. borders always make me nervous, but in his expert hands, and with Syrian visas already in our passports, we breezed through. we still didn't reach Aleppo until 1am, where the poor guy with the late night shift at the hotel took one look at the one American passport and said, "ah, so this is why you are late!" so not true, but have a joke at my expense, no worries...

next morning at the ATM, stocking up on Syrian pounds, we noticed we were the only women in line. in fact, we were practically the only women on the streets around our hotel. could have been due to the fact that we were staying in the tire district(!), but still, the lack of women out in public was a bit disconcerting...

we made our way to the Citadel, an enormous 13th century fortress (though the site it occupies is documented to have been used since the 3rd millennium BC. Abraham is said to have milked his sheep on Citadel hill) that rises impressively over the city, offering incredible 360 degree views. inside you'll find an amphitheater, hammam (sauna, jacuzzi... all the trappings of a Turkish bath), the Mamluk hall with its elaborately carved wooden ceiling, and a mosque or two. the guy handing out guides, upon finding out where we were from, said (i'm paraphrasing here), "welcome! we like Americans. screw the politicians!" amen.

nestled against one side of Citadel hill is Aleppo's famous souq. some say it's the largest covered market in the world (which is coupled with Aleppo's claim to being one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world). but what really distinguishes it is the fact that it's still used largely as a locals' market for a variety of household goods and foods. each section is devoted to a different type of goods for sale, and you'll find the scarf stalls targeting tourists not far from those selling Aleppan olive and laurel oil soap, just down the way from the butcher shops.

it's a bustling, sensory overload experience by day, filled with warm colors, the smell of soap, coffee and spices, the sound of men yelling that to look is free. and always crowded with people. but i had the opportunity to walk through at night, after the shops had closed their wooden doors. at that point, it transforms into a maze of quiet, arcaded streets, inhabited by just a few stragglers. a cool subterranean labyrinth, and an entirely different experience than souq by day.

but as fascinating as the city is, it was the people who made the experience in Aleppo. our first day wandering through the souk we happened into one store selling textiles, jewelry and such. the man there welcomed us in, and after we'd had a look around, invited us to his brother's cafe. there we found a family of sorts for the next several days, populated by a magnetic Buddhist artist and chef of delectable vegetarian dishes, a loopy British-accented (though 100% Syrian) oud player, a bespectacled intellectual with a head of curls to rival our Meg's, a few couch surfers, and a collection of Aleppo's wayward youth. they were warm and wonderful, and welcomed us in with open arms. THIS is what it's all about.

Friday, February 5, 2010

miscellaneously jordan

Riyad generously offered us a ride to Amman, where we spent the day wandering the streets of downtown. driving north from Petra, the first thing i noticed was the change in colors. as much as i love Cairo, i must admit that it's relentlessly brown. driving north through Jordan you begin to see more variation in color. Amman is a hilly city, all cream colored buildings couched in green hillsides. and the air - unlike the haze of Cairo - is clear and crisp. much to the amusement of its all male clientele, we wandered into a hole-in-the-wall Iraqi restaurant, where we indelicately devoured our food before taking to the streets to buy Meghan some pirated DVDs and search out some silver jewelry. that night Riyad took us to a bookstore/cafe/bar in the christian quarter. you enter through the bookstore, out a door into a back hallway and upstairs to the cafe. it's populated by foreigners and young Jordanians who don't mind a little liquor in their lives. i indulged in my first mojito in months, and i must admit it was well done. Meghan commented that it was pretty ingenious on the part of the bookstore owners to make it obligatory to pass through their shop after you've indulged in a little alcohol. she did end up making a purchase. we ended the evening at an overpopulated shawarma hole in the wall where the only meat option is goat. the kind of place that is completely nondescript from the outside but sports a line around the block.

next morning before leaving town, Riyad and his cousin took us to a famous breakfast place for beans, beans and more beans, accompanied by the hottest, freshest pita known to man. fuul, hummus, tahina, and any number of bean dishes i couldn't identify, slathered in the most flavorful olive oil and accompanied by fresh falafel and pickled veggies. can't argue with that.

the final destination for the day was the dead sea, but we stopped first for a look around mount nebo, which is held in christian and jewish tradition to be the final resting place of moses. from the top you can look out over the holy land and catch sight of the river jordan.

the site's 4th century church is famous in part for its mosaic floors. we stopped at a craft center on the way where they're still making mosaics in a workshop to one side of the gift shop. Erin commented that she found the colors too washed out for her taste, but what i noticed was that they perfectly reflected the colors in the surrounding landscape - subtle creams, browns, olive greens and dusty blues. i bought myself a blue and white Hand of Fatima (for protection against what, i'm uncertain, but everyone needs protection from something).

we ended the day at a Dead Sea resort, bobbing along the surface like many an astonished newcomer before us. it really is an extraordinary experience to be unable to stay anchored. the guys at the resort have the process well worked out. float a bit, slather yourself in salty, stinging Dead Sea mud kept in clay pots along the shore, bake in the sun till dry, back to the sea for a rinse, then off to the fresh water showers. and presto, you've got the softest skin known to man. rinse and repeat. an experience unlike any other, to be sure.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


on the advice of our new friend Riyad (whose family owns the hotel we stayed at), we rose at an ungodly hour the morning following the turkish bath debacle in order to experience Petra without the crowds. it may have been chilly and early, but it was undoubtedly worthwhile.

Petra was established around the 6th century B.C. as the capital city of the Nabateans - polytheistic, Aramaic-speaking Semites who controlled the caravan trade between Gaza, Syria, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. the city is a feat of engineering genius, carved from sheer rock walls and employing an ingenious water system of dams, cisterns and conduits. as a trading hub, its architecture reflects a mixture of local styles with greco-roman, egyptian and mesopotamian influences.

the main entry point is through the Siq, a split in the rock that forms a narrow, natural road lined with water conduits. the Siq opens on to the Treasury, which as it turns out is actually a tomb (of Indiana Jones fame, for you children of the 80s). exiting from the quiet, enclosed cool of the Siq, with its impossibly high, natural, rough walls to be confronted by the classical grandeur of the Treasury is pretty freaking awe-inspiring. it's easy to understand how this place knocked some of the old seven wonders off the list.

but honestly, even the humbler homes still have the power to impress. we spent the day wandering in and out of random caves and elaborately carved tombs. we trekked up an impossibly long staircase to catch views of the mountain ranges surrounding the city and the roman amphitheater carved into the rock.

everywhere we went we seemed to be accompanied by talkative cats. the jordanian variety is stouter and longer-haired than the lean egyptian version you find in pharonic tombs and on the streets of cairo. this little guy reminded me a bit too much of a louder, adolescent Rufus - so wanted to scoop him up and take him home...

in addition to cats, you've got your camels and your donkeys, which the Bedouins offer up for rides. didn't take any of them up on it, but did get a kick out of these two brothers (yes, i believe were called Mohamed and Ahmed, the two most common names in the Middle East) trying to climb aboard while their donkey was on the move...

we got a couple different perspectives on the role of Bedouins in the area. the impossibly beautiful girl selling jewelry at a coffee shop inside the park told us that in the 80s the Bedouins living in and around Petra petitioned the government for better living conditions and access to education. in response, the king granted them land not far from the site to build a village, allowing them free access to Petra, where they make a living offering camel rides and selling souvenirs. a non-Bedouin spun a different version of the tale, claiming that the king established the village in order to move them out of Petra, thereby preventing them from causing further damage to the site. these two versions seem to reflect the same sort of tension you find when talking to people in Sinai and other parts of egypt.

the turkish bath from hell

we headed straight from wadi rum to petra, where we stayed in the cheapest hotel offered up by lonely planet. that's not saying much, however, as nothing in jordan is cheap. it seems inflation has been off the charts for the past two years, and everything from food to gas to lodging fetches top dinar. we arrived on the late side and decided to indulge in the hotel's turkish bath. what could be better at the end of an adventurous day than a massage, sauna and jacuzzi, all without leaving the confines of your hotel? right? ha! seems the fates were not on our side that night. it turned into a debacle of nearly epic proportions, starting with the frenzied male guide who wasn't exactly clear about how much clothing we should leave on, and then joined us in his speedos. someone added a tad too much chlorine to the jacuzzi, and everyone but me ended up with chlorine poisoning. our guide apparently threw up out the window while i was in the other room listening to meghan and erin cough up a lung. i thought the woman giving me a massage was going to keel over. i kept telling her she could stop, but she proved to be more stubborn than i. it sounded like a horror movie infirmary, what with the bone rattling coughs and shouted instructions in arabic emanating from the fog. death by turkish bath. a surreal experience from beginning to end.

wadi rum

we spent the better part of a day bouncing around Wadi Rum in southern Jordan in the back of a 4x4, and i can only say i wish we'd stayed longer. the scenery is nothing less than stunning. Wadi Rum is a valley carved out of sandstone and granite, all sand and stark rock mountains, dunes and sparse vegetation. westerners might recognize it as the place where Lawrence of Arabia did his thing, but it's been inhabited since prehistoric times, and is still home to several Bedouin tribes.

many Bedouins now make their living off eco-tourism, leading climbers and trekkers on adventures through the desert. our driver, Mohamed, expertly maneuvered us through the sand, took us to a series of amazing spots, and even saved the day by restarting a jeep full of italians. and he makes tea! (using what one of his hysterical guide friends called "benzina bedouin", aka desert brush.)

after a day of scrambling across rock faces, climbing natural bridges and struggling up dunes, we wound up on a cliff watching the sunset paint the valley around us in a million shades of red, orange and brown. a person could easily get lost in contemplation there. my only wish was to stay a little longer. a lone Bedouin, watching the sunset not far from us, overheard Meghan and Erin exchange a few words in arabic. he said it was nice to hear. sometimes a little effort really does go far.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

what i did on my winter vacation...

well, it's week 1 of spring semester, but i'd be a complete loser if i didn't mention a word or two about what i've been up to for the past month. had myself a little gallavant around jordan and syria! spent three and a half weeks wandering from cairo to the sinai, across the gulf of aqaba to jordan, north through wadi rum, petra and amman, across the syrian border and way up north to aleppo, then back south to the mediterranean coast town of latakia, further south to damascus, and then back through jordan, sinai, and... home! i find myself overwhelmed by the prospect of describing the experience, so i think i'll leave it to some snapshots and random impressions. suffice it to say we encountered gorgeous scenery, ate delectable food, met extraordinarily generous people, spent countless hours wandering in marketplaces, laughed heartily, and froze our asses off in the damascus rain (three years living in the tropics and now cairo have officially turned me into a winter lightweight. embarrassing for this syracuse girl to admit, but...). so, here goes...

my traveling buddies, meghan and erin. we were 1 1/2 canadians and 1 1/2 americans, owing to meghan's status as a half breed. more often than not when people asked where we were from, i'd get a grin and an "Obama!", while the other half had to suffer through "Celine!" lucky ladies! ;) more to come...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

egypt v. algeria

egyptians are mad for soccer. a friend of mine claims the egyptian passion for the sport is rivaled only in england and brazil. i remember coming up out of the metro station near my house one night to be greeted by the sight of a crowd of men gathered outside the cell phone store, standing stock still, staring at the shop window. there are always a few stragglers there ogling the newest nokia or samsung model, but that night the crowd was particularly thick and intensely focused. it wasn't until i looked up that i realized their gazes were focused not on phones, but on two tv sets broadcasting the game of the day. you can tell it's a game day when the droves of men gathered at the sidewalk cafes are especially dense and the energy in the air particularly intense. a couple times last month i found my study sessions punctuated by random, spontaneous cheers rising from the streets outside my balcony window. it seems egyptian soccer fandom is a community thing.

this proved to be particularly the case last month, when egypt and algeria went head to head in the african world cup qualifying rounds. i, of course, had no idea what was going on until egyptian flags started springing up everywhere - flying from balconies, shop windows and car antennae. it seems there is a longstanding rivalry between the two countries that has at times turned a bit ugly. they played one match here, (which thankfully, egypt won), and the city went mad. spontaneous street parades erupted all over town and the honking and flag waving went on into the wee hours. it was a loud night even by cairo standards. one of my professors lives across the street from the algerian embassy in zamalek, and he reported the next day in class that he had to close his balcony doors to keep the fireworks out of his living room.

it's difficult not to get caught up in that kind of enthusiasm, especially in an newly adopted home (which also explains how this new yorker became a red sox fan...). so, meghan and i and our friend shams headed to a bar downtown to watch the next game. on my walk to meet them i passed impromptu theaters set up in a couple of electronics stores, their windows filled with rows of tv's tuned to the game. crowds of men decked out in red, white and black had arrived early with chairs and were filling the sidewalks as the game was set to begin. the bar had its own theater seating arrangement - all prime spots claimed by egyptian men who probably arrived hours early, with the periphery filled in by a mixed crowd of tourists and expats (the only place i saw any women). i'd come straight from class, which ended early, and with a warning to students to stay off the streets. i thought that was a tad alarmist, and indeed found the crowd in the streets and in the bar to be, on the whole, cheerfully enthusiastic.

alas, the egyptian world cup dream wasn't to be, as we lost that night, 1-0. as the crowd filed out of the bar the mood was more despondent than enraged, though in the days to come things did get a bit out of hand. riots broke out outside the algerian embassy, and reports of stones thrown at the algerian team bus and the mistreatment of egyptian fans in khartoum (where the final match was played) led to somewhat of a breakdown of diplomatic relations between egypt and algeria. i got a facebook invitation a few days later calling for algeria's suspension from fifa, and accusations were hurled back and forth regarding each country's inability to control its fans. seems this is a rivalry bound to continue. personally, i'm all for friendly rivalry - i love to hate the yankees as much as the next red sox fan. but when matters escalate to the point where diplomats and presidents start getting involved, it seems to me things might be getting a bit out of hand...