Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Abiding for an Apartment

Finally, after a week attempting to register our lease of an apartment in Aleppo, which included visits to no less than 25 different offices, where generally a slightly overweight middle aged man would look frowningly at pieces of paper that supposedly had our information on them, nod, and indicate where we had to go next, we are almost completely registered in the Syrian system as residing here.  However, barring (hopefully) a few more formalities, I am now legally renting an apartment in the middle of the Old City in Aleppo, whose roof just happens to provide the best view of the city I have seen.  So, in lieu of verbosity, I give you PICTURES!

To the west, the New City, with the minarets of the largest mosque in Syria

The main minaret of the Umayyad Mosque

To the east, the rest of the Old City, with the Citadel on the right and the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque on the left
The New City during sunset
The citadel by day

And by night

The citadel with a mosque to the right

To those of you who have bothered to scroll down this far, I will mention that last night I went to a soccer game between Aleppo's Ittihad team and some team from Thailand.  Ittihad won, which means they're going to the finals of the AFC cup.  Basically Asia's soccer tournament for developing nations.  It was sweet and I think the U.S. should immediately realize how awesome soccer games are.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Day in Damascus

On Thursday, my friend from Egypt Chris and I decided to take a short trip to Damascus.  We arrived around 4 pm and explored the covered souq for a bit (which, I've come to realize, is actually not quite as big as the one in Aleppo) and then sought out an internet cafe.  After some help from two gorgeous Syrian girls, whom in hindsight we probably should have spent a bit more time chatting up, we found one with the less than friendly service and inflated prices consistent with tourist oriented venues.  Following this, we ate dinner and then met up with Chris' friend, Matt, who was staying at the Sheraton on business.  He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  He had studied extensively in the Middle East, written his thesis in Iraq, and now held a job which required almost monthly visits to Damascus.

While settling in his room and getting ready to go back out, he kept on talking about an "adventure" he was taking us on.  We left the hotel and managed to barely keep up with him as he flew through the souq looking for something seemingly important.  Finally he found what it was he wanted: olive oil soap, and after buying three pieces he lead us to the oldest hammam in Damascus.  This place was amazing.  We went in, put our valuables in a locker, and then took off our clothes and wrapped towels around our waists.  We then sat in the hottest sauna of my life until it became unbearable.  After that we went into an incredibly steamy room with faucets and sinks and washed with the soap we had just bought.  We were then lead into an adjacent room where a guy laid us down on the floor and rubbed our skin with what I am still convinced was steel wool.  The point, as far as I could tell, was to take off a layer of skin to expose a fresh one.  Following that rub down, we went to the massage chamber where the most jacked Syrian I have yet seen gave us all a four minute massage.  We did a final wash in the first steamy room and then rinsed down with frigid water to end the escapade.  After returning to the main room, one of the employees switched our towels quite discreetly, and then sat us down with some tea to bask in the glory that is a Damascene hammam.

Chris and I returned to Aleppo the next day on a "high speed" train, following a brief swim in the Sheraton pool.  On an unrelated note, I will finally be moving into an amazing apartment either later today or tomorrow, and will post pictures of the best view of the old city that I have ever seen, which just happens to be from our roof/terrace.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Weekend in the West

Amman is a pretty unique city in the Middle East.  It is in Jordan, one of the United States' biggest Arab allies, and thus has a prominent western influence.  However, there are also areas that are unmistakably Arab, lacking in the fast food joints, large malls, but where the delicious food and hospitality pervade.  Western Amman tends to be the more affluent, westernized area, whose inhabitants are often referred to as ajaanib, or foreigners (read: westerners), by those living in the more traditional eastern Amman.  This past weekend was an accidental exploration of some of the tagharrub, occidentalism, in Amman and the at times overbearing prevalence of specifically American culture.

Thursday night, my oldest cousin, Roba, invited me to go with her and her husband Musa to a "house party".  She called me while I was hanging out with some other cousins playing pool at an Irish pub, the likeness of which would easily be found in Boston.  The party turned out to be in someone's backyard, with a DJ who seemed to like drum and bass a bit too much.  There were a handful of European foreigners, but all the Arabs there were obviously among the richest in Jordan, and could easily have been European themselves.  I spent the majority of the time talking with Musa, who turns out to be one of the smarter guys I've ever met.  Roba was mostly socializing, so he and I spent the few hours talking about a number of different things, one of which was the economic divide in Amman.  He said that he had mentioned this to Roba, and that they, by mostly hanging out with the wealthy elite, were limiting themselves to maybe 100,000 people in a city of more than 2 million.

The following morning, cousins Ghassan, Omar, and Abed, their friend Sara, and I all went to a place called The Bake House for breakfast.  It was an American styled diner, and happened to be adjacent to a place called Waffle House, which I assume was essentially the same thing (for some reason shops and restaurants in Amman love having their competitors right next door, the most famous example of which is the two fresh juice stands across the street from each other downtown).  I was enthralled at the prospect of eating an American breakfast abroad, a luxury that is oft wanted while traveling.  A lavish breakfast is one of the few defining cultural characteristics of America, and is not missed until abroad, so this was pretty awesome.  One of my friends has had the idea of opening an American diner in Amsterdam for a little while, convinced that all the Brits will come flocking at 2 a.m. for some delicious pancakes, eggs and a never ending cup of coffee after toking up.

Friday was Ghassan's birthday, so we celebrated it by going to a place called ClimbAt Amman, which is a rock climbing facility.  Another destination for the rich, and apparently the latest fad in the Middle East, it was a bustling place with 60 foot climbing walls, over priced food and water, and a bunch of self-confident guys who seemed to be imbued with a desire to show off.  It was fun, but extremely exhausting.

My weekend, and stay in Amman, came to a close with a decidedly un-western activity: I met up with the Jordanian delegation from Seeds of Peace 2010 at a coffee shop where we drank tea and talked intellectually about the Middle East.  They were the first group of a hopefully large number of Seeds that I will be seeing throughout the coming months.

I will be traveling to Syria tomorrow.  If you're interested, you can check out a brief history of the Bashar al-Assad regime here, under which I will be living for the next nine months.