5/22/2010

Şanlıurfa



The Kurds dropped me off just beneath the old city. With zero Turkish lira and a single digit Kurdish/Turkish vocabulary, I headed for the old Arab bazaar. It became clear immediately that I hadn't gone too far from Syria: chadors, shawarma, sheep skins and backgammon games were scattered through the bustling market and its shaded 
khans and courtyards. Within twenty minutes I found myself seated with Arabic-speaking friends, eating sweets and drinking shay. Most distinctive about the Şanlıurfa crowd were the bright purple keffiyehs and scarves, worn by both men and women. Excited to have crossed another border and content to wander the old stone labyrinth, spiked with its pencil minarets and arched byways, I almost forgot to call Weis' friend Yusef. Not to call would have been a big mistake.


I met Yusef at a fan shop where a couple young Turks had been nice enough to let me use their phone. In the 24 hours that followed I received nothing but the best of Kurdish hospitality and met the cream of the Kurdish crop: Yusef introduced me to Kerim, the congenial young director of DSI (the group that manages about half of Turkey's hydroelectric plants), who introduced me to Omer, a Jude Law look-alike and manager of Istikbal (Turkey's largest furniture company), who introduced me to his buddy whose name I couldn't remember (owner of the local Ford dealership). In short, Weis Dada had hooked me up. I dropped my bag in a complimentary four-star hotel room, courtesy of my new hosts.
That afternoon Yusef and I walked through the Golbasi, a well-kept picnicker's paradise of tea gardens and elegant mosques. We then circled the legendary Balikligöl, the Pool of Sacred Fish: according to the history books it was built on the spot where Abraham was tossed into a fire by the great king Nimrod. The fire was then engulfed in a sudden spring and the coals spontaneously turned to carp. As would be expected of fish that are actually 4,000-year old ex-coals, they're revered to this day. No fishing here. Plenty of pilgrims had come just to feed them, and visit the supposed birth site of Abraham himself at a cave just south of town. No big deal in Şanlıurfa, where historical depth is taken for granted. Some claim it's actually the biblical city of Ur. Meanwhile, nearby ruins mark the world's oldest stone temples, built almost 12,000 years ago (roughly 24 times older than Columbus' arrival in America).


That night after a home-cooked meal with Kerim, we headed to a private hangout spot overlooking one of his dams. In the company of both high rollers and switch operators, all Kurdish, we talked for hours into the night, mostly about the unmentionable in Turkish politics: Kurdistan. We drank cold yoghurt water, downed several pots of overly sweet, cinnamon-flavored Kurdish chai and stuffed ourselves with kebab and hefty portions of bakhlava. Only the guys in charge of the dam's heavy machinery, just arrived for their night posts, shared the whiskey.

In the morning, my three new friends escorted me to the bus station, bought my ticket before I could refuse and slipped some snack money into my bag despite my avid protests (although it's possible that I could have been a bit more avid). Kerim waited until the AC bus to Mardin pulled out of the sleek new station, chatting about travel plans and adventures of various kinds. I thankfully remembered the Kurdish farewell he'd taught me just as I stepped onto the bus. 

5/21/2010

Tel Abyad


I was lost in Raqqa's blazing streets by noon. A row of greasy sweet shops, a falafel stand and a few grimy storefronts dangling with freshly dead and dusty cows welcomed me just around the corner from the bus stop. It was cloudless, windy and blindingly bright. One of Syria's larger cities, downtown Raqqa still felt like the middle of the desert. I switched stations to catch my microbus north, which was when I met Weis Dada. 

He'd been turning his head awkwardly from the front passenger seat for a glimpse of my face or what I was reading. I didn't look up from the pages until he finally asked where I was heading. My eyes met his thick mustache and eyebrows as I told him: Şanlıurfa, just across the Turkish border. Why not stay in Tel Abyad with my family, he offered. "I'll show you my trees." 

I agreed. He looked a bit like Borat, but the resemblance ended there: he was smooth, genuine and intelligent. I hopped into his friend's taxi as soon as we landed at the Syrian border town. 

Weis delivered as an excellent host, although he had loads of help from his family. His mother amassed a giant home-cooked feast of chicken, rice and stuffed grape leaves. His much older brother lent me a white galabiya. He politely insisted I wear it in the house. I tried to remember the last time I'd done my laundry. 

Meanwhile, Weis himself gave me the city tour. It was a small concrete cluster spread out below an ancient-looking mound, scattered with old, decked-out motorbikes, colorful hajj murals and kids playing street soccer. At the edge of town was a small reservoir into which boys were launching themselves. Before we'd gone two minutes down the main drag's metal-shuttered stalls and workshops, Weis stopped and turned around: "that's Tel Abyad." Weis much preferred spending his spare time in Raqqa, the big dustbowl in which we'd met, assuring me that its seedy underground and wealth of ancient sites make it well worth another visit. On the way back, he nodded without enthusiasm at a mosque marking the spot Abraham settled on his journey south from Harran, almost apologetic over his town's lack of history. 

Weis also brought me to his promised trees. A few hilly acres of them, running south from the border road. As we walked through the orchards he talked a little about his business ventures in Turkey and a bit about my potential business ventures in Italy (finding him parts for the Syrian government), but mostly about his trees. Some were dead, others were dying, and he watered them all valiantly. 

As we strolled across the cracked mud floor a truck rolled up the dirt road and out came various members of Weis' family, including his father, a white bearded sheikh with the wise and gentle air of a biblical patriarch. The women milled about for a few minutes before a brother drove them away somewhere. The other men were left to sit quietly over the orchard with a pot of shay, chatting off and on about politics while staring down Kurdistan to the north. When the last brother returned with the truck, all the males of Weis' family (aside from those that had gone off to fight the Zionists) were present. It was a gathering that took place every other week among Weis' trees. We remained until sunset. Finally the old sheikh stirred and everyone cleared out into the back of the truck. 

The next morning Weis handed me a number for a certain Yusef, one of his contacts in Urfa, and dropped me off at the border post, trying to use his wusta to speed me through customs. Regardless, I waited an hour in the officers' smoky hall while they all watched a local "cultural program" consisting of young girls shaking their hips to a slow, dull Bedouin beat. They could barely pull their eyes away to give me the goodbye nod. 

I crossed the border on foot and within minutes was off to Urfa with a couple Kurds, speeding through the open plains of Harran. 

5/14/2010

The Wild East


I joined my friends Emilie and Zach at the Deir Az-Zur station around noon, far on the eastern edge of Syria. We found a cheap hotel room with a sweet balcony overlooking Deir's main drag and headed for the minibus stand. Emilie's directional skills got us there in a few minutes and Zach grabbed us some falafel sandwiches. I bought some delicious 5 pound snacks for the trip. 
We were heading to Dura Europos, known to locals as Salihiye, an old Roman-era fort perched on a cliff over the Euphrates, not far off from the Iraqi border. That's as much as I knew about the place. A couple hours along the dusty road we spotted what looked like an old wall on the eastern horizon and asked the minibus to drop us there in on the edge of the desert. As the three of us approached the old wall, no one else in sight, none of us having thought to bring water, we felt like quite the intrepid travelers on something of an adventure. 
But we weren't alone. A red-faced, 82-year old Swiss man in a pink tank top was there too. At the entrance shack he introduced himself with ardor as Henry. An avid traveler and outdoorsman, he spoke several languages, was divorced from a lawyer who took all his money, and was a plastic surgeon in California for around 40 years. If I were superstitious, Henry would have been a fairy gnome rather than a real person. He traipsed along as we all passed beneath the giant crumbling portal to Dura Europos. 
The ruins cascaded east towards the massive outer wall, towering far above the languid river and patchwork farms below. Just across the Euphrates was Mesopotamia. We climbed along the cliff edge heading north, taking in the site's sweeping views and solitude. Henry had soon disappeared somewhere in the collapsed archways behind us. 
On our way out of the ruins a French tour bus rolled in. Emilie said a few words and we were soon hitching a ride with them back to Deir. During a short stop in Mari, an extremely old ruined city (built about 7,000 years ago) at which the most captivating find was a little owl, Henry appeared again, still looking lost and out of place in his pink shirt in the desert. We said our second goodbyes to the old Swiss leprechaun before heading back to Deir. After trekking across town for some cheap shawerma, we made the most of our elegant balcony and caught a few hours of rest for the day ahead. 
Through a combination of minibuses, trucks and friendly cars we covered the distance from Deir to Aleppo in a full day of hitching and ruin hopping. We began at Halebiyya, another Roman fort along the Euphrates, climbing it's crumbled walls and spotting Zach from various vantage points in his red and white striped Waldo shirt. 
We ate in Ath-Thawra and made it to Ja'abar Castle by late afternoon, a largely rebuilt 11th century fort on a tiny island in Lake Assad. The castle grounds were bustling with picnickers and a few feluccas plied the clear water laden with dancing day trippers. Despite the cool, blue water surrounding the castle, there were no swimmers until we jumped in. We spent the last glorious hours of sunlight on the lakeside by Ja'abar and made it back to Ath-Thawra by sunset, catching a bus out of the hot and wild east. 
Thanks to Emilie's Syrian connections, that night we enjoyed free shawerma and not-so-free halawiyat in the Levant's largest city and the western tip of the Silk Road: Aleppo. Just a block off from our hotel, the Nejm al-Akhdar, we spotted the familiar ragged pink tank top in the crush of human traffic, sticking out like a flower in the desert on the busy Aleppo walkway. We caught up with Henry beneath the old clock tower. Emilie said something about third time's a charm. The old gnome from the desert was smiling like a little boy as he walked away and we watched him disappear for the last time.


5/11/2010

Damascus



I waited at the border for just three hours. It was completely unlike my last border experience with Syria. Instead of barking officials that never looked me in the eye, mine were as friendly as could be, offering smiles and small talk and shay. When the decisive moment finally arrived at the slit window, I thought of the last time it had come, when the officer had tossed my passport to a taxi driver and ordered me out of the building and back to Amman with evil pleasure. This time it was a very warm "welcome to Syria!" I walked the empty border stretch alone and passed under the giant photoshopped blue eyes of Bashar al-Assad, hopping into a minibus to Damascus.


Of all places, my friends Emilie and Scott happened to be chilling by the Umayyad Mosque when I landed in Souk Sarouja. Leaving my bag in a rooftop hostel with a dozen sleeping backpackers, I wound past the citadel and through the deserted Hamidieh Souk. In daytime, the old roof's thousands of bullet holes glow like little suns over the bustling market. At 11pm, the market was abandoned; a long, eerie tunnel. I kept my eyes ahead, anticipating my first view of the Umayad Mosque in the distance. 

Somewhere deep in the Old City, the three of us shared fetteh and caught up on the last four months of life since Cairo. It was their turn to show me around Damascus.

We spent the next few days meandering the city. From the Salah ad-Din Shrine to Paul's basket rapelling wall, from Hamidieh's famed ice cream shop to Bab Touma and from the glittering Sayyida Zeinab Mosque to the supposed home of Ananias at the end of Straight Street, we wandered for days. Even if she did happen to get lost a few times in the Old City's maze, Emilie was a perfect tour guide. Best of all, we kept a snail's pace throughout, stopping for iced lemonade or blackberry juice at every other turn. I took to gorging myself at sweet shops and street-side shawerma stands and sitting in near silence--minus the screaming of kids running through the courtyard--of the giant Umayyad Mosque.

While Emilie was at school I took up an epic search for the workshop of the mythical Abu Anas. Word on the street was that he could fix virtually anything with the magical powers of his long white beard. After circling much of the new city I finally found the man inside his grimy little workshop. Without words he took my broken tripod and fondled it in the jaws of strange instruments, working the metal like an old druid, his skills all passed on for centuries, then handed it back, whole. 

With every intention to return, I caught a bus into the desert after four peaceful days in Dimashq.

5/01/2010

Ain Khudara, Sinai

Deep in the southeastern Sinai, hidden between barren, craggy massifs cut with narrow canyons half buried in sand, is the tiny oasis of Ain Khudara. Along with my German friends, Nadja, Leonie and Magda, we reached its circle of date palms just before dark.  

Sitting across from us at a typical Bedouin-style Dahab cafe the day before was another German whose name I could never remember. Finding three girls from his motherland, he pulled out a pillow to join us on the floor, and in minutes he'd begun planning our trip together, up the coast, down the coast and into the desert to some magical oasis in the heart of Sinai. It all sounded fantastic enough, but sadly he wouldn't be joining us the next morning.  

After a couple idyllic days of exploring the familiar stretch of Red Sea Coast north of Dahab, all of it jagged, desolate mountains fringed with deep blue and turquoise lagoons, we jumped in the car with Abdoul. He promised to drop us at the trailhead for Ain Khudara, the mystery oasis that had been mentioned the night before. One of the girls drove half the way there, passing only a handful of other cars on the lonely desert road past the turnoff to Nuweiba. Abdoul finally dropped us off on the edge of the highway about an hour from Dahab and pointed north at some dunes. It was late in the afternoon. "That's it," he said. "Just walk that way." 

And with full faith we did, trekking into the nothingness without so much as a foot path to lead the way. Dunes turned to rocks which rose into mountains, narrowing our way ahead, until finally at the top of the ridge we admitted to being lost. 


A couple hours later and about 6km west of Abdoul's made-up trailhead along the highway (thanks to a kind Bedouin named Said and his pickup) we reached the actual trailhead. From the rim of a wide canyon filled with sand we spotted the oasis ahead. The sun had dropped behind the mountains, leaving the tiny palm grove dark, a mysterious, alluring dot on the barren, sweeping landscape. We made our descent in high spirits, crossing the dunes to wind quietly into the sleepy village. Nadja led us to our camp, a few palms and a patch of sand belonging to an old Bedouin woman named Radia. 

For the next couple days we lived off Radia's old well, always setting off under the sun before returning to the shade of the palms. We explored the valley on foot, climbing the empty mountains to the west and the chalky white canyons to the east. In true Bedouin fashion, Radia took us in as her children, cooking soup, stew, rice, flat bread and tahina at night and serving it on the sand under a full moon. 

Before climbing back up the canyon rim, reaching the empty highway and hitching back to the coast we thanked Radia and said our goodbyes. I thanked all four Germans involved in getting us to Ain Khudara.