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The Middle East

December 27th, 2010
Hot drops of water dripped off the ceiling. Clouds of steam slowly ascended. The floor, ceiling, walls and all the benches were made of white marble. This place was ancient. I was in the 850 year old hammam of Damascus, the capital of Syria which is in itself eight millennia old. The Syrians sat around me, chatting, puffing or otherwise enjoying the moist heat. They were all male, because in the Middle East a hammam is not a mixed business. A totally different business, by the way, than Europe’s men-only saunas. I guess.

The visit to the hammam started with a thorough scrubbing with a rough sponge to remove dead skin cells, followed by a visit to the awfully hot steam bath. Then it was time for the massage. I was directed to a small room with a massage table and after a few moments of waiting an old shriveled Syrian man came in. He did not speak any English so I pointed to myself with a questioning nod to ask if it was my turn for the massage. He nodded back. And then, to my surprise, he put himself on the massage table. Apparently he was under the impression that, given my Northern European appearance, ‘Swedish Massage’ had recently been added to the hammam’s menu. The confusion was quickly and happily solved when the real massage guy came in, a giant Syrian with arms that made my muscles already scream out before they even got a rubbing.

The Treasury (Petra, Jordan)

I went to the hammam to wash off the intense experiences of that day. After first visiting the main mosque in Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque, I went to a smaller one that was primarily visited by Iranian Shiites. In this Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque resides the mausoleum of the daughter of al-Hussein ash-Shaheed bi-Karbala, who in his turn is the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. And although his daughter has been dead for more than a millennium she is still mourned by the pilgrims who visit the site, with an intensity that I have never seen anywhere else. After leaving my shoes at the entrance and walking up to the shrine itself, I suddenly found myself surrounded by several hundred Iranian Shiites who were crying their eyes out and loudly shouting towards Allah. I felt a bit uncomfortable, which was quickly acknowledged by several of the English-speaking pilgrims who toured me around the wailing people. Awkward, but interesting!

The pilgrims did not seem to be bothered at all that an Infidel like me was visiting their holy place. On the contrary, there were many that wanted to engage in a discussion with me about religion. One question that I was asked the most is whether I viewed Islam as something good or as something bad. I found that a silly question, a bit like asking whether a knife is something good or bad: it completely depends on who is holding it. Religion can be a great tool for self development but it is a curse when used as a tool to promote fear and hate. Given our shared history to me the balance seems to tip a bit to the latter.

Everywhere in this red rose city,
rocks have unusual patterns... (Petra, Jordan)

What surprised me was the low number of tourists in Syria. Apparently labelling a country part of the extended ‘Axis of Evil’ has a dampening effect on tourism. The people in the streets did not seem so evil, though. Everywhere I went, the Syrians went out of their way to help me get to places or to help me get things done. Even crossing the border was a delight. It helped that I did not have an Israeli stamp in my passport. Any sign of a previous visit to Israel and the sunglass coated eyes of Hafez and Bashar Assad will be staring at your back while you walk away from the poster-clad border post. It is one of these things in the Middle-East that is still waiting for a solution.

One of the most common methods of transportation in the Middle East is the Service Taxi. Most take up to four passengers and since travel distances between countries are small there is a good chance that you end up with five different nationalities in one car. The Service Taxi is a great way to have intimate conversations with others and it was in a taxi between Damascus and Amman that I met Mr Abdullah.

Apamea, Palmyra's underrated older sister (Syria)

Mr Abdullah introduced himself as a Civil Engineer from Iraq. To see Iraqis in Syria is not a strange thing as Baghdad is only a few hours drive from the Syrian border. A few minutes into the conversation I could not help asking him about the situation in Iraq. “Very bad,” he answered, “worse than ever. Due to the fighting among the different factions about a hundred thousand people have already been killed in the past years, and everyday new people fall victim. Because of this, there is a huge brain drain of talented people who move to countries with a stable situation. Although we did not like him, under Saddam Hussein the situation was so much better than it is now. Of course, under Saddam Hussein your head would come off if you said something bad about him, but there was stability and prosperity. There was dignity for the Iraqi people.” Then he became awkwardly silent for a moment.

“It was in 2005. My eldest daughter and her husband were having dinner in my house, which stands right next to the road from Baghdad to Basra. Fighting broke out between a terrorist group and the American army and a grenade exploded close to the house. Too close. The shrapnel hit my daughter straight in the heart. In the hospital it turned out to be shrapnel from an American grenade, but who's grenade it was does not really matter to me. ”

The desert of Wadi Rum,
where Lawrence of Arabia dwelled (Jordan)

I could not stop my mind wandering back to 2003 and the phrase ‘Coalition of the Willing’. The French, having an extensive intelligence network and centuries of experience in the Middle East, were right when they warned that an invasion of Iraq would remove the lid of Pandora’s box full of fractious tension. Their blasphemy was punished by having their fries renamed. War is something that happens on television. With Mr Abdullah sitting next to me it came much closer than that.

Iraq is not the only volatile place in the Middle-East. Although the thirty year long civil war in Lebanon has ended, it still remains a powder keg with about eighteen different factions competing for power. How that works out practically is not difficult to see. Beirut is as modern as any ‘Western’ city, with not a burqa in sight. It’s life in the fast lane in Beirut, with a party atmosphere every night and a horse racing circuit that attracts the happy betting few. Reminders of the civil war can still be seen all over Beirut. The most visible landmark is the Holiday Inn hotel in the city centre. Because of its height it was gladly used by snipers of different backgrounds to aid them in their work. The reciprocal gunfire left the building with thousands of bullet holes. On almost every street corner there is a military checkpoint with soldiers vigilantly gazing at everything suspicious. Very difficult to take some good shots, indeed.

Bedouin playing the traditional Oud
(Wadi Rum, Jordan)

Only a two hour drive away, over the Lebanese mountains and the ski-resorts on top of them, is the Bekaa Valley with the fiercely waving yellow banners of Hezbollah. This group is known in the Western World as a terrorist organization because of continuous kidnapping and violence. In the Bekaa Valley they are known for the schools that they build and their soup kitchens that feed the poor that are otherwise neglected. One person’s villain is another person’s hero.

Travelling back from Beirut to Amman in Jordan took me about a day. It was good to be back in this laid back Hashemite Kingdom which is inhabited by the most courteous people that I have ever met. Jordan is home to many interesting sites, although it is overrun by tourists even in low season. The best is without doubt Petra, the Rose-Red City in the desert-like south. Nowadays it is one of the seven New World Wonders. A good second in Jordan are the deserts of Wadi Rum. This is Bedouin Country at its best.

The Umayyad Mosque (Damascus, Syria)

There is something about the Bedouin that I really like, and which I have seen in many other tribal people in other areas of this planet, such as the Shuar in the Amazonian rainforest and the Katang in the forests of Laos. They are firmly grounded and seem to have a profound connection with nature, although there is not a tree in sight in the area where they live. When you see a Bedouin travel through the desert it is like you see the desert travelling in itself - the Bedouin simply are the desert. For millennia they have considered it their job to assist others in traversing the treacherous deserts in the south of Jordan and still they consider their hospitality to be their most treasured quality. I can only agree to that.

For enjoying visiting the Middle-East you need to like stones. Old stones. It does not matter whether you like them in nature, such as in the many desert-like parks, or whether you like them cemented into crumbling old cities. Especially in Syria and Lebanon you will find the most ancient cities on the planet. And the best part is that you can have these cities all to yourself if you plan it a bit. Especially in winter.

Snow covered the shoulders of the road. One month before I was smoking a nargileh on a balcony in the centre of Amman. Now I would freeze to death if I did that, as temperatures in Amman were approaching those in Europe at the time. The driver was cautiously steering around snow heaps on the road towards the airport, but at a speed that would enable me to catch my plane. “Yalla! Yalla!” he said, “Let’s go, let’s go!”. There really was not a better phrase to describe visiting four countries in the Middle-East in little over a month.

A Happy New Year!

Next time: The Holy Land

Last time: Natemamu

Candlelight (Petra, Jordan) You won't be the only one visiting (Petra, Jordan) Unusual colors (Petra, Jordan)

Necropolis (Petra, Jordan) The Monastery is equally impressive
(Petra, Jordan)

The Middle-East is adorned with castles,
many from the Crusader Era
(Shobat Castle, Jordan)
The Crusades mark one of the bloodiest episodes
in Middle-Eastern history
(Qala'at ar-Rabad, Ajloun, Jordan)
Cardamon flavored coffee can be bought
from stree-vendors (Ajloun, Jordan)

The Roman forum of Jerash (Jordan) The river Jordan, where Jesus was baptised (Jordan)

Pillars (Jerash, Jordan) The famous Mosaic of Mardaba,
the earliest map of Palestine (Jordan)
The quintessential Dead Sea picture (Jordan)

Dana National Park (Jordan) The desert is best crossed in a 4x4
(Wadi Rum, Jordan)
Natural Bridge (Wadi Rum, Jordan)

Red Dunes (Wadi Rum, Jordan) The Umayyad Mosque is one of the
most sacred mosques in the world
(Damascus, Syria)
Iranian Shi'ites praying in the
Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque
(Damascus, Syria)

Bakdash is the most famous
icecream parlor in Syria (Damascus)
Palmyra, de sandy desert ruins (Syria)

Muslim with his prayer beads
(Crac de Chevalier, Syria)
The Crusader Church at Crac de Chevaliers (Syria) Bagdad is never far away (Syria)

The Basilica of St Simeon,
who sat on a pillar for 40 years
The Arabs love their sweets (Aleppo, Syria) And their waterpipe (Aleppo, Syria)

Mellow Yellow (Aleppo, Syria) The mountains of Lebanon

The impressive Temple of Baccus in Baalbek
Adorned with ornaments (Baalbek, Lebanon)

Including an immense entrance (Baalbek, Lebanon) 19th Century graffiti vandalism (Baalbek, Lebanon) The bullet riddled Holiday Inn in Beirut
is a grim reminder of the civil war

The remains of slain prime minister Hariri
are buried in the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque
(Beirut, Lebanon)
The Beiruti's love their horse racing on Sundays (Lebanon) Prince won (Beirut, Lebanon)

Ever seen curtains on a balcony?
(Beirut, Lebanon)
Hezbollah souvenir? Anyone?
(Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)