Sunday, June 29, 2008

Portrait #29: We thought she was a model

Yesterday, our group went down to Bosra A-Sham, a town that is home to an ancient Roman Ampitheatre from the 2nd century which had a Crusader castle built around it in the 11th century. It is an impressive place to visit, the theatre and stage are still largely intact, and throughout it one will discover big pillars and columns and dark passageways and broken statues and mosaics and the works.

As we were entering the ampitheatre-citadel, passing over a dried out moat, we had to wait a second for a woman to take a photo of a girl. The woman taking the photo looked not-young-not-old, was somewhat short, and was covered from head to toe in beige: beige headscarf met by a beige overcoat which covered her to the ground. The young lady being photographed wore a long black skirt, a tight black blouse and had a huge deep fluorescent pink scarf draped over her shoulders. They were accompanied by a third girl, wearing a slightly more demure pink headscarf and a pink tunic over jeans. We apologised for getting in their way and continued on into the citadel.

When one catches a first glimpse of the ampitheatre, one's mind is usually yanked away from all other things. The aura of this hidden treasure in a big stone structure captures the imagination of its visitors. So when our group walked through the passageway into the theatre, any semblance of group unity was lost. Some wandered around the top row of seats taking photos, others ran down onto the stage to practice making their voices echo throughout the open space. Others just stood still, taking it all in.

As I sat on a bench near the top of the theatre, watching the crazies shouting up from the stage, those same three women walked onto the stage. They wandered around for perhaps a second or two, then the woman in black started posing. She sat on the edge of the stage and had the beige woman take her photo from above, from below. Then she climbed onto a pillar and held the bright pink scarf high over her head and bent her hips to the right. Then she leaned provocatively on the shoulders of one of the guys in our group! Up to that point, I had thought the girl in black was the daughter of the woman in beige, but I couldn't imagine that a conservatively dressed mother would be happily watching her daughter pose in such alluring ways, especially with a man. So who were they?

Everywhere we went in the castle and theatre, we ran into these girls. Always the girl in black posing, giving strict instructions to the girl in beige as to how to take the photo. Always the third girl, the one in pink, quietly watching from the sidelines.

Amongst our group, we started murmuring amongst ourselves. Who are these girls? How can one so traditional-looking be so content photographing one so liberal? Is she a model? Are these glamour shots for her portfolio? Perhaps she's an actress? We all agreed that, with her contoured body and wavy dark-blonde hair, with her simple yet distinctly featured face, she was gorgeous. Her absolute willingness to throw herself in front of the camera, tossing the bright pink scarf in one direction and the ruffles of her skirt in the other, just added to the mystery that surrounded her.

Someone suggested that perhaps the pink scarf belongs on her head, but the two covered girls are her friends and her family is nowhere to be seen. So maybe she pulled the scarf off when she left the house this morning and will slip it back on when she's on her way home tonight.

Then someone convinced me to just go up to them and ask. The model didn't seem to appreciate being bothered. She said she is just taking the photos to have them, because she likes that. She has studied a little bit of photography so she knows what looks good. That was all I could get out of her before she pulled her two friends off in another direction, claiming they needed to follow "that man" - a man none of us had seen.

Bosra is also exceptional in that it is an ancient ruined village where people still live. Many of the houses were originally built with the typical black volcanic rock of the region, but over the years have been repaired and renovated, such that now the bottom half is still black rock, but the top half is concrete. The houses are intermingled with ancient mosques, churches and hammams.

When we were visiting one of the mosques (to be specific, it is a mosque built in commemoration of where a camel sat down!), we ran into the girls again. This time, I tried the quietest one of the group, the one with the sweetest looking face, the one in soft pink. She was very friendly and willing to chat. And so I resolved the mystery. Or most of it - time ran out before I could answer all the questions. But, for the most part, it was an answer that had been staring me in the face, I couldn't believe I hadn't worked it out on my own well before! (After all, such girls are the theme of my book.)

The three girls all study together at the University of Damascus. They are all neighbours in the housing for university students, and that's how they got to know each other. The two with scarves on their heads were from Bosra, actually, so for them this was just a weekend at home. The model was from Latakia, in the northeast of the country, where the social rules are a bit different. There, it may actually be ok to wear a tight black blouse and to take photos waving a pink scarf around a man. She had come down to spend the weekend with her new friends. So they showed her around their hometown, and showed her a good time by making her a model for a day.

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