Archive for December, 2008

Israel’s War

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

For the last two days in Aleppo, and now in Amman, Jordan, we have been watching the news and talking to people about the Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip. In the Middle East, it seems that satellite broadcasts are free – no card purchase required, so it’s relatively easy to get BBC-World, CNN-International and al-Jazeera English in any hotel with a TV. Also, televisions in most shops are tuned to various Arabic news channels, so we see the footage being shown there as well.

Seeing the difference in coverage helps to demonstrate how public opinion is manipulated by selective coverage in the media.

Western channels (BBC and CNN) call the altercation “The Gaza conflict” while al-Jazeera calls it “The War on Gaza”. The title itself provides insight into the attitudes of the audience. Here are some other examples:

  • Al-Jazeera reported that Israel was first to actively violate the truce on Nov 4
  • BBC reported that Hamas was first to actively violate the truce with rocket attacks on Israel
  • Al-Jazeera and the Arab channels show dead bodies and images of suffering from inside Palestinian hospitals.
  • Western channels report that humanitarian aid is needed, but the pictures shown are not nearly as graphic

Al-Jazeera provides summaries and updates at least every 15 minutes, BBC reports updates hourly, and CNN you need to watch quite a while before you get any news of the conflict.

A few other things struck us as we watched the different coverage:

  1. BBC World listed over 300 dead including 62 civilians according to U.N. and later referred to 62 dead women and children – I guess men can’t be civilians?
  2. CNNi and BBC World continuing with prerecorded programming – retrospectives on 2008, financial crisis talking heads and other things. Al-Jazeera had thorough coverage, including discussions between people with various viewpoints, interviews with Israeli and Egyptian spokespeople and what seemed to us fairly well reasoned analysis
  3. According to one of the Israel spokesmen, Hamas has isolated itself as Jihadi, moderate Arab governments are on the side of Israel. An interesting statement if true, but we don’t see how they could continue to be as Israel’s attacks continue. The protests here in Amman are growing, and we expect that’s the same everywhere.
  4. One U.S. commentary from CNN is that Hamas is a bunch of murderous thugs who have seized power. My recollection was the election was free and fair, with Fatah losing mainly because of endemic corruption. A bit more research turned up the Fatah-Hamas civil war of 2007, after Hamas won the election, but conflict seems to have been instigated by Fatah, with extensive support from the U.S. and Israel according to Vanity Fair. . We hesitate to link to Wikipedia for a polarized topic like this, but it does have a bunch of links to other sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Palestinian_civil_skirmishes, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Gaza_(2007)
  5. A Palestinian spokesman (planning minister from Ramallah) called for immediate stop to Israeli aggression, but didn’t offer a response to BBC World question about Israel’s statement that a precondition for ceasefire is stop of Hamas rocket attacks.
  6. Al-Jazeera has at least two correspondents in Gaza who speak English fluently. Neither CNN nor BBC have any, and Israel has been preventing access
  7. So far, al-Jazeera has the best coverage, seemingly quite balanced. It would be interesting to know whether al-Jazeera Arabic would have different coverage. Despite my lack of Arabic, I’m certain that some of the other Arabic channels were much more inflammatory.

We continue to agonize over what the right answer is here. Now that we’ve arrived in Aqaba, we’re still 200 km away from Gaza City, but we can see Israel from the roof of our hotel, so the conflict feels much more real and local. We don’t think Israel’s mass destruction of the Gaza Strip is justified, but we don’t see how they could passively stand by and watch rocket attacks on their people, or re-open the borders either. Hamas has been successfully smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip despite the closed borders, and given continuing Hamas hostility to Israel, opening the borders would just allow more smuggling. That said, preventing anything except food and medical aid from going in seems like a recipe for further radicalizing the Palestinian citizens of Gaza. There are people on both sides who are talking and working towards peace, and it would be helpful to see what they’re saying right now, and support them in their work. The people of South Africa managed a peaceful transition from apartheid to a shared-state democracy after many years of oppression, so we can work, hope or pray towards a solution here as well.

Welcome to Jordan

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Yesterday, we spent most of the day on the bus from Aleppo to Amman. The trip took over 10 hours. Until we reached Damascus (about 8 hours) the bus stopped about every 45 minutes and the driver did something with a bottle of water. Becky guesses that there was an issue with coolant, since she saw him take a bottle of something to the back of the bus each time. The bus also had poor shocks, such that we bounced several times with every bump in the road. Scott thought the road was actually pretty good, but we certainly noticed every bump more, especially the speed humps which are quite common in Syria, even on highways.

Crossing the border itself proved to be rather trivial. Leaving Syria cost us 500 Syria Pounds each in exit taxes. Once the tax was paid, the customs official happily stamped our passports. We asked about extending our visas and if we could use the visa when we returned (we have multiple entry visas), and the person said yes. We’ll see if this turns out to be the case when we return in a couple of weeks.

Entering Jordan required that we purchase a 10 Jordanian Dinar (about $20 CAD) Visa. The border officials were very friendly and welcomed us to Jordan with smiles. This was much more relaxing than the ultra serious expressions of the Syrian officials. That said, we’re glad we didn’t try to exceed our duty-free allowance – one person was caught with two cartons of cigarettes, and was hauled off the bus, presumably to pay a fine of some sort.

At first glance Jordan seems much more “modern” than Syria. The buildings are of similar construction (cement and stone) but they look much newer.

Unfortunately, upon arrival in Amman, Scott was afflicted with a nasty gastro-intestinal malady, perhaps the stomach bug that was going around our crowd of cyclists in Aleppo. Not wanting to take the 4 hour bus ride to Aqaba until his stomach was a little more settled, we decided to spend 2 nights in Amman. Becky spent the day wandering about downtown in search of Internet and food while Scott rested.

Becky’s first journey was a trek out to the books@cafe Internet café, restaurant, and English bookstore. It required walking downtown and then up into one of the adjacent hills. Amman is built upon 19 hills. When they say hills, they are not kidding, the hills are all quite steep. Most of the hills are accessed by stair cases, so you do not need to follow the lengthy winding roads when you are afoot. Of course, when the city is projected onto a flat map, the roads do not necessary go the way they appear on the map. After over an hour of wandering, Becky was successful in finding the shop.

She was overjoyed to learn that the restaurant had ginger-ale on the menu. We have not been able to find ginger-ale since we left the US. With our various stomach ailments over the last 6-weeks, we were very much missing it. She enjoyed a ginger-ale and burger while updating emails. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get the web browser to work, so the blog was left for later – it turned out that the browsers had proxies set so they would work in Syria.

After this adventure, Becky returned to see how Scott was doing. He was still flat in bed, and not planning on moving any time soon. Throughout her wanderings she noticed a distinct lack of the little corner stores that sold staples throughout Syria. This was a definite sign that people bought their groceries at a larger store somewhere. She asked at the hotel and was directed to the local C-Town grocery store.

Getting to the grocery store required taking a taxi since it was not close enough to walk. When the taxi drove up one of the large hills, Becky was glad to not be on foot. Amman is not an easy town to walk in. The grocery store turned out to be reasonable and had a few staples that we have been missing (namely oatmeal and ginger-ale). The problems began when she tried to catch a taxi to get back to the hotel. The intersection was rather busy, but it seemed that no matter which side she was on, there were no taxis. There were lots of taxis on the other side, however, changing sides seemed to make no difference.

After about 10 minutes of trying, she finally got in a cab. She showed the taxi the card for the hotel indicating where to go Things did not feel right. Becky noticed that the taxi did not reset his meter. The taxi was going in what felt like the wrong direction. At one point, she was positioning herself to leap out at the next light, as this was not going well. Soon thereafter the taxi stopped someplace and said this was where she was going. Wanting to get out, like the foolish overly polite Canadian she is, she paid the taxi the full amount on the meter and left! She left cursing herself for paying the full fare rather what the fare should have been had the meter been reset. Glad to be away from the taxi, and noticing several 4-star hotels nearby, she sought out an attendant at one of the hotels. Eager to not be ripped off again, she explained to the attendant that she had been ripped off and delivered to the wrong part of town and solicited his assistance in hailing a taxi to take her back to her hotel. The attendant was very helpful and said that she could take a car from the hotel for a flat fee of 5 JD, or take another city taxi with a meter. Knowing that the fare would be less than 1 JD with a regular taxi, she asked that he hail a regular taxi. Soon thereafter she was safely deposited at her hotel for 750 fils (.75 JD or $1.50 CAD). Fortunately, taxis in Amman are very inexpensive, so even the taxi that ripped her off only got about $3 CAD – still it sucks to be taken for a ride!

Making Plans

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

10 km, delivering the bikes to Fadi’s workshop.

Fadi and son Fawad trying out Scott's bike

Fadi and son Fawad trying out Scott's bike

We have decided to leave the bikes and a bunch of our gear with Fadi in Aleppo. We will take a bus from Aleppo to Amman, Jordan, and from there take another bus to Aqaba. Aqaba is on the Red Sea and is experiencing daytime temperatures of around 22-25 degrees. We are hoping that some sun, warm temperatures, and salt air will allow Becky to fully recover from her cough. Once Becky has recovered, we will slowly make our way North back to Syria. We hope to have the time to see some of the key sights in southern Jordan (Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea), as well as some sites in Syria (Damascus, Palmyra, Crac de Chevalier).

We will return to Aleppo to pick up our bikes in mid to late January. Depending on how the weather is, how Becky is feeling, and how much time we have left, we will either cycle out to the Mediterranean and ride North back into Turkey, or we will bus back to Turkey. We need to be back in Izmir for January 27th . On January 29th we will take a boat from Cesme Turkey to Trieste Italy (thanks to Mustafa, a friend of Mehmet for arranging this).

Today, Scott rode the bikes over to Fadi’s workshop. Despite the aggressive drivers packing into every available space on the road, he always felt quite safe while riding. Our recumbents continue to draw attention wherever we ride. Becky spent the day doing some necessary shopping and repacking bags.

We are storing the bikes at Fadi’s workshop – since he’s a goldsmith, they should be very safe there. As a side benefit of dropping off the bikes, Scott got to see how gold rings are made. In Aleppo, almost all gold is 21k – quite rare these days, when most gold jewelry is 18k or 14k.

While Scott was dropping off the bikes, Fadi took Katja and Miroslav to visit his Uncle and family. His uncle’s wife is from Serbia, so their language is close to Katja’s Slovenian and Miroslav’s Czech. The quick visit for tea lengthened to an afternoon of conversation and lunch, which Scott joined part way through. It was fun to meet some more people, and especially to visit with Fadi’s cousins Nina and Danny. Nina is a pharmacist working for GlaxoSmithKline, and Danny is a gold and silver smith. Unfortunately, Nina had another appointment, but Danny took us under his wing for the rest of the day. We picked up Becky, then went to visit his friend William and check out some areas of Aleppo which we hadn’t seen before. We continue to find that it’s the people we meet who make this trip special for us.

The affluent Christian sections of Aleppo feel like a completely different city than the old quarter where we are staying. It is almost like stepping into a time warp when we returned to our hotel at the end of the evening. Prior to ending the day, we arranged to meet William the next morning to experience the best Fuul (a broad bean stew type thing) in Aleppo.

Church of Saint Simeon

Friday, December 26th, 2008

When we first arrived in Aleppo, Fadi had offered to take us out to see Saint Simeon, a church about 40 km to the north of Aleppo. Unfortunately, Becky was not feeling up for the trip, so we had to decline. Today, with Becky feeling much better, we took Fadi up on his offer. The rest of his family had other plans, so it was just Fadi and us in the car. Since there was room for two more people, Katja and Mirko jumped at the opportunity to join us.

On the way up to Saint Simeon, we stopped too look at an ancient Roman tomb. This was not an “official” tourist site, just a place that we drove up to and stopped on the side of the road. It is amazing how many ancient sites exist in the area that are not preserved. Until recently, people would use the stones of ancient buildings in construction of their homes. Now, the Syrian government has made such excavations and re-use illegal – so the ancient sites will remain unmolested by locals seeking building materials. That is the theory at least.

The Saint Simeon (Qal’at Sam’aan) grounds are located atop a large hill that is covered in pine trees. The site was built in the 5th century, and the churches have been partially restored, so you get a sense of their original splendor. Being atop a hill, you also get a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. We especially enjoyed the fresh air – something that is definitely not a regular attribute of Aleppo.

It was nice to see the forest as we drove up. Our first impression of the site was how clean it was. There were garbage cans everywhere and there must have been people employed to clean up anything that escaped. This was a nice change from the other litter filled sites in Syria.

Our guidebook warns that the site can be crowded, but we were lucky that there was only one small tour group there and a few individuals. We were able to take many pictures without people, which is an indication of the lack of crowding. That is definitely one advantage of visiting places during the off season, we have managed to avoid the crowds at all the major attractions.

Saint Simeon was famous for standing upon a pillar – originally 3 meters high, then extended to 6, 11, and finally 18 meters. He spent 36 years on top of the pillar. Today, only a small portion of his pillar still exists. The main church was built around the pillar. It took 14 years to build, and when it was completed it was both the largest and most important church in the world, surpassed later only by Aya Sofya. There are four basilicas surrounding the pillar, with the largest of the four to the east. According to Fadi, the four were constructed in the shape of Jesus as he lay on the cross, with his head tilted to the right. When looking west to east across the pillar, it is easy to see the how the Eastern basilica is tilted.

After our day of adventuring, we decided to go out for a nice dinner – since Becky has a stomach bug on Christmas, we missed out on the Sheraton’s Christmas buffet. We heard much about it from the tour group staying at our hotel, so Becky was left craving ham! One thing that people seem to forget to mention about Muslim countries is that you cannot buy any pork products. Becky finds it odd that alcohol is readily available but pork is almost totally absent. So, after an overdose of ham in Italy, we are left craving it after a few months without.

For our nice dinner out we headed to the Beit Wakil, reported to be one of the best restaurants in all of Syria. It was recommended by Fadi as well. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be a pleasant meal for Becky. The majority of their dishes involve lamb, and even the “all beef” dish that Becky ordered turned out to contain lamb. So Becky enjoyed a variety of Mezze (starters), while Scott had their famous lamb and cherry kabobs. Although Scott found the meal very yummy, Becky left feeling very disappointed and a little hungry. Eating out in Syria was definitely proving to be a challenge for Becky, so we were extra glad to be able to cook for ourselves at the Al Gawaher hotel.

Christmas in Syria

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

Christmas Eve service from the upper balcony

Christmas Eve service from the upper balcony

I attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve with Fadi, Ghina and family at the Greek Orthodox church. It was both very different and very familiar. This was my first Orthodox service, but I knew a little about the tradition, so I expected the ornately garbed priests, iconostasis (wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary) and chanting. Very different from the Anglican Christmas Eve services I grew up with and the Unitarian Universalist ones I now attend though! I found it interesting that a senior patriarch from Jerusalem was in Aleppo at the invitation of President Assad, and he gave the address to the congregation. Of course, it was in Arabic, so I didn’t catch much of it. From Fadi’s summary afterwards, the main content was a reminder that Jesus was born in poverty in Bethlehem, and to remember all those still living in poverty and oppression in Bethlehem and other parts of Palestine. Quite a different message than most North American Christians heard I’m sure.
A small part of the crowd awaiting Santa outside the church

A small part of the crowd awaiting Santa outside the church


The church was packed, with people standing in the aisles, and some listening to the service from speakers set up outside. It was a larger church than Saint Michaels, and probably seated close to a thousand people. Quite the crowd!

After everyone received communion, we all crowded outside to wait for the arrival of Pere Noel. Yes, in Syria, Santa Claus comes to church, complete with red suit, white beard, green-garbed elves, and marching band! We followed the Santa Claus, the marching band and the priests as they circled the block around the church, then entered the church gardens. As we arrived at the gardens, fireworks were set off from adjoining buildings.
In the gardens, a stage was set up and a long line of children waited to see Santa Claus and receive a Christmas blessing from the priests.

Santa's marching band and an Orthodox priest

Santa's marching band and an Orthodox priest

The marching band was made up of local boy and girl scouts, all dressed in Santa suits. The elves were also scouts, and even more scouts helped with crowd control. They performed Jingle Bells and a few other traditional Christmas songs.
We decided not to wait in the long line, but crowded into Fadi’s car with a friend and her son, then all went back to her house to drink some wine and talk. Perhaps this was to give Pere Noel a bit of extra time to get to the house and deliver the presents? According to Fawad and Hayim, Santa Claus doesn’t come when you’re asleep, in Syria he comes when you’re out of the house. I wonder how he keeps track of all these different traditions?
Hayim, Fadi and friends with Santa Claus

Hayim, Fadi and friends with Santa Claus

The Citadel and Christmas Eve celebrations

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008
The palace above the citadel

The palace above the citadel

We awoke bright and early (OK, Scott woke Becky up at 9 am), to sun shine – although the sky was threatening rain. Since this was the first sign of decent weather in a few days, we headed up to the citadel to see what all the fuss was about. The Aleppo Citadel is one of the few must see places in Aleppo. We were amazed to discover that there was more to the citadel than the stunning views of Aleppo – there were many restored rooms and nooks and crannies to investigate. We spent a full two hours exploring before Becky was feeling too tired and in need of some food.

Some of the buildings within the citadel

Some of the buildings within the citadel

A group of schoolchildren eager to have their photo taken

A group of schoolchildren eager to have their photo taken

After Scott refused to pay 100 SP for 2 cups of tea at one of the tourist oriented shops outside the Citadel, we walked through the souk in search of some fresh juice and food. The fresh squeezed Orange juice is 50 SP for 2 glasses. As we were drinking, we were approached by Ahmed, who asked many questions about us. He invited us to see his shop (he is a silversmith). We declined saying that we needed to get food, so he offered to show us the best falafel place in the Souk. He brought us to a falafel vendor that was very clean and we had to agree they were the best falafels we have had so far. Ahmed then invited us to come to his shop to sit and enjoy are lunch. We agreed, and to make a long story short, we saw his merchandise and Scott bought Becky a nice necklace, bracelet, and earring set. We clearly have not perfected how to say no to people (another one of those Canadian traits that gets us into trouble!). That being said, Becky is very happy with her new jewelry.

By the time we returned to the hotel, Becky was not doing well. Her stomach was upset and she spent the rest of the afternoon napping.

Ahmed and the Cyclists (Ahmed, Roger, Mirelle, Katja, Miroslav, Peter, Wendy and Becky)

Ahmed and the Cyclists (Ahmed, Roger, Mirelle, Katja, Miroslav, Peter, Wendy and Becky)

For dinner on the 24th, Ahmed (the hotel manager, not the jewelry salesman) organized a potluck. We each contributed a dish and we had a wonderful, not even remotely traditional Christmas dinner. Becky was happy to be feeling up for the meal, but shortly afterwards, she was feeling unwell again.

Just before dinner, Fadi stopped by and delivered a couple of Christmas gifts to us. He and his family have been so good to us. Unfortunately, we had a miscommunication about dinner, and they thought we would be joining them for dinner on the 24th.

At 9:30 pm, Fadi came by to pick up Scott for the midnight church service with the rest of his family. They belong to the Greek Orthodox faith, and this Christmas Eve was a very special service, because the Patriarch of Jerusalem was leading the service. The church was huge, and completely packed, seating around 1000 people, with other people crowding in the aisles and standing outside.

Culturally Christian

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Last spring, we took a course on world religions. In that course, we were introduced to the idea that as Canadians, we lived in a culturally Christian society. That is, even if you do not identify as a Christian, your life is still heavily influenced by Christian culture. This made me want to learn more about what it meant to be culturally Muslim. That quest has taken us to Turkey and Syria so far, and hopefully will also take us to Jordan and Malaysia before we return home. As someone who does not identify as a Christian, I did not expect that journeying to predominately Muslim countries would teach me just how much Christianity has influenced my life.

In a culturally Christian society Christmas is a special time. At home, it is marked by the streets and buildings being lit up by colourful lights and Christmas music playing in all the stores. In Antakya, Turkey, we saw no signs of Christmas. So far, in Aleppo, Syria, the only Christmas tree we have seen is in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel – and it feels completely out of place – maybe because it is a tacky commercial tree with only white lights that looks like it came in a box already decorated.

For me personally, Christmas has always been a difficult time, filled with unmet expectations, societal pressures, an meaningless rituals. We decided that since we will be in Syria for Christmas, that we would not celebrate it this year. Instead, we celebrated Eid Al-Adha (Bayram) in Turkey which is the closest thing to Christmas for Muslims – and nothing at all like Christmas. One of our goals in this time away is to figure out what is important to us, so that we can define our own Christmas celebrations when we return home.

I miss baking. Most of the places we have stayed since leaving North America have not had real ovens – mostly people have gas hotplates and sometimes they might have a toaster oven. Most of my traditional desserts are cooked on the stove. At home, shortbread cookies, gingersnaps, and various sweet breads are special Christmas treats.

I miss the coloured lights. It was odd to see Kayseri, Turkey with a light coating of snow and no coloured lights. The first falling of snow at home is often lit up by red, green, blue, and yellow Christmas lights. What a beautiful sight that is.

I miss real Christmas trees – that is, those of the Charlie Brown variety. Trees that are full of colour and life and mismatched decorations, some handmade by the children as they grew up, trees that have grown and changed with the family over the years.

At home, I dreaded the idea of being forced to attend a Christian church service, often plotting different ways to escape the experience. So, I am surprised that I am feeling a desire to attend a service at one of the various churches here in Aleppo. I am curious about what will be familiar and what will be foreign.

Most of all, I miss the music. Not the commercial Christmas music playing in the Sheraton like Jingle Bell Rock, rather the more traditional and definitely Christian songs like Joy to the World and Silent Night. Maybe that is what I am hoping to find in a Church service or Christmas concert in Aleppo Syria – Aleppo has a significant Christian population with a variety of different churches including Syrian Orthodox and Catholic.

Who would have thought that living in a Muslim society would help me learn what parts of Christmas I love?

Touring cyclists everywhere

Monday, December 22nd, 2008
Vendor in souk scooping out some honey for us

Vendor in souk scooping out some honey for us

We awoke to a rainy morning. For the first time in days, I finally had energy and wanted to see a little bit of Aleppo. With the rain, the best thing to see was the old Souk (bazaar) since it is covered in many places. We spent a few hours wandering around the various aisles. We bought some honey, spices, and nuts from various vendors, but held back from the many offers to buy scarves and other souvenirs.

In the evening, Roger and Mireille arrived after a wet and cold day of cycling. They have been cycling for three months and have come from Switzerland. With Roger and Mirelle, there are now 4-pairs of touring cyclists at the hotel (us, Wendy and Peter, Katja and Miroslav, and Roger and Mirelle). We make for quite an eclectic group.

As I write this, I am sitting in a lounge listening to Katya play her guitar and sing. She has a beautiful voice. Miroslav (Mirko) and Wendy are playing backgammon and Scott is doing yoga!

Katya is from Slovenia and Mirko is from the Czech Republic. They are cycling with much more gear than us! Mirko tows a trailer that contains their portable jewelry making business, Katja’s guitar and various other things. When their money gets low, they make jewelry and sell it.

Wendy and Mirko playing backgammon, Katya singing

Wendy and Mirko playing backgammon, Katya singing

It is all very odd to be sitting in a hotel in Aleppo Syria with a bunch of touring cyclists. We never expected that this was how we would spend our Christmas. We are all here resting up allowing various illnesses to pass, and awaiting a break in the weather.

In the next few days we will need to make a decision as to our next steps on this trip.

Option 1:
Leave the bikes in Aleppo and take buses or trains such that we can visit several sites in Jordan and Syria including: Petra, Palmyra, the Dead Sea, Damascus, and Amman.

Option 2:
Ride the bikes to Banias on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and leave the bikes there for a week or two while going site-seeing (see option 1).

Option 3:
Ride the bikes to Damascus and then Banias and then north up the Mediterranean coast to Turkey. This would mean not getting to Jordan or seeing Palmyra or Petra, but we would see Syria in a very different way.

Part of the decision will be made by Becky’s health. If it takes too long for Becky’s cold to pass, then option 1 will be the only feasible choice.

Dinner and a concert

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

On Sunday we were invited over to the home of Fadi and Ghina for lunch. We had a great meal and a good visit. Ghina speaks French and Arabic, and the kids (Fawad and Hayim) spoke a little bit of English and French as well as Arabic. So, the conversations were an interesting combination of French, English, and Arabic. We continually are surprised at how much French we are able to comprehend. We haven’t gotten very far with Arabic though.

Hayim showing off her prowess with chopsticks

Hayim showing off her prowess with chopsticks

We had a delicious lunch of tabbouleh, salad, balls of wheat and lamb, pita and chicken. All very yummy! At one point, we mentioned to the kids that one of the places we were going to visit was China. As a result, Hayim (their 10 year old daughter) brought out some chopsticks. Scott gave her a lesson on picking up peanuts.

We had asked if any of the churches in Aleppo were putting on a Christmas concert. Ghina found that church of Saint Michael had a concert that started at 9 pm that night. Unfortunately, the afternoon of visiting tired Becky out, so she had to skip the concert.

Scott walked briskly up to the church arriving 15 minutes early, and was glad he arrived when he did. All the seats were full, and people were milling about at the back. The back corner wasn’t packed full yet, so he found a spot against a prayer stall and next to a font. It turned out to be a good choice – a spot for the music recorder on top of the prayer stall, jacket back in the corner, and a place to stand.

There were a large number of young people (teenagers and twenty-somethings) present, many more than would be at a similar concert in Canada. There were many older people as well, but the median age was decades younger than a similar concert in Canada.

Christmas concert at Saint Michelle Church

Christmas concert at Saint Michael's Church

We didn’t have any idea what kind of music to expect, perhaps traditional Syrian Christian music? The performance turned out to be by the Chorale of Saint Francis of Assisi a ~25 voice choir, and mostly English and French music and carols. The conductor was Georges Baly, who seemed to have a strong French background. He was intrigued by some of their pronunciation choices, especially the “deh” for “the”, and was reminded that being precise in foreign language pronunciation while singing is important. A native speaker will notice, and it can be quite jarring at times. A good point to remember when performing again. They sang “The First Noel”, but “born is the king of Israel” was changed to “born is the king of Bethlehem” – perhaps some self-censorship by the choir, since Syria strongly rejects recognition of Israel as a country?  One very interesting Christmas piece we aren’t familiar with was Ire A Santiago.  Does anyone know this piece?

In any case, he really enjoyed the concert, and it was great fun to sing along with the Alleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah (even though no-one else was). When we get back, Scott will definitely join the sing-along Messiah at Christmas in Ottawa.

Health care in Syria

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

After a fitful night, Becky’s cough was not getting any better. We decided to ask for Fadi’s [1] assistance with visiting a doctor. He had mentioned last night that his cousin Bassam was a Pharmacist at a hospital, and spoke excellent English. Ten minutes after our request, Fadi was at our doorstep to whisk us away to see the doctor. He drove us to the local Christian hospital. Upon arrival, we met Bassam briefly and were again whisked into the empty emergency room to see the doctor. We continue to be amazed and heartened by the culture of openness and helpfulness from people we meet in Syria.

An hour and 1150 SYP ($30 CAD) later, Becky saw a doctor, had an x-ray, and inhaled a nebulizer (some asthma drugs infused in steam). Doctor Mahmoud validated that she does not have an infection and the nebulizer seems to have gotten the worst of the coughing under control. The doctor’s prognosis was allergic bronchitis. With the strong asthma medication, and some more rest, the cough should repair itself soon.

The doctor spoke good English – he explained that he spoke good medical English but not so good social English. The hospital itself was clean (the nebulizer mask was packaged in a sterile bag and it left with us, so Becky could use it with the second dose). What was odd was that people were smoking in the hallways – although not the treatment rooms. When we were waiting for the x-ray results, the doctor had us wait in the treatment room because the air was better – it was also warmer as the hallways are not heated.

With Becky feeling much better and able to take a deep breath without coughing, we took a taxi back to the area of our hotel. Rather than going directly to the hotel, we went to the Sheraton to check out the breakfast buffet. We had heard that it was good, so we decided to splurge on a good breakfast. We stuffed ourselves with a variety of western and local food. Becky was especially happy to have a good and large cup of brewed coffee while Scott enjoyed trying some of the local foods that he did not feel comfortable trying on the streets. (There are some cheeses which look yummy, but they are offered in unwrapped chunks and handled by the purchasers – probably fine but after our experience with stomach ills in Turkey we’re trying to be much more careful). Unfortunately, we arrived rather late (at 10:30) and the buffet ended at 11 am. We had hoped to laze around for a couple of hours enjoying the different foods and getting our money’s worth (it cost 1500 Syrian Pounds for the two of us, about $45 CAD). We were the last people to leave the restaurant after much of it had been cleaned up at 11:45.

After all the morning excitement we went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap and shower. We asked to have the hot water turned on, and not two minutes later the power went out – oh well, such is life in Aleppo this winter. Our showers had to wait until the power returned a couple hours later.

Before supper, Becky was feeling up for a short walk, so we decided to check out the Old Souk (bazaar). The old bazaar in Aleppo is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and immediately we could see why. It was clearly a working souk, with shops dedicated to thread, bolts of cloth and even raw wool and raw cotton. On one of the streets there was even a loaded donkey doing deliveries! Overall it felt much more authentic than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We saw only a fraction of the streets, so we’ll definitely go back. We were there late in the day, so we did not receive too much hassle from the touts, but there were two memorable ones.

Donkey making deliveries in souk (Aleppo Syria)

Donkey making deliveries in souk (Aleppo Syria)

Merchant says: “Do you want to spend your money in my store?”
Scott says: “No thank-you”
Merchant says sadly: “No one does.”

Another merchant with great English talked to us for a bit. He was selling the nice soft pashmira scarves – Becky had mentioned to Scott earlier that she wanted to pick up one or two and send them home. So, we looked at the scarves and foolishly asked how much they were. We had planned on walking away and not buying anything at this point in time, but well … his price started at 750 SYP but after several attempts to walk away and say later, the price was reduced to 400 SP (about $13 CAD) and we walked away with a beautiful new scarf for Becky. When we asked Fadi later, he said 400 SYP was about twice what a local would pay, so we think we did pretty well! We have heard from other travelers who feel they should pay local prices and get frustrated when they can’t bargain the price down as much. We figure if we can get the price down to where we’re paying a reasonable price, we’re doing OK. After all, we’re the ones who are fortunate enough to be able to travel around the world – if we pay a little more for things, that’s OK.

[1] Fadi is Scott’s friend Ghanam’s brother-in-law who lives in Aleppo. Ghanem put us in touch with various people when we told him we were heading to Syria, which has been wonderful so far!