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.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Portrait #28: A changed woman

Today I met with a representative from a local NGO. When she came with her driver to pick me up and take me to her office, I was surprised to hear that she spoke excellent English. Somehow I'd expected English to be very hard for her, but it was almost flawless.

So after a very brief but productive businessy meeting, I asked her where she'd learned her English. She told me that she'd been an English Literature major at the University of Damascus (the same course of study as the main character in my book!). But a year and a half into her university studies, she'd been given a grant to finish her undergraduate studies in America. So she'd lived in Pittsburgh for 2 1/2 years where she studied something along the lines of business communications.

As we got to talking, it became clear that her life was all about before-and-after America. Before America she had been a quiet girl who never left her house. She had hardly known her way around Damascus, much less the rest of the country. Before America she hadn't known anything about the international community in Damascus and in fact had never heard of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) or nonprofits. The concept of volunteering to help others would not have occurred to her. Before America she'd had few friends outside of her family and close school friends, all from a similar background to her. Before America she'd not known about cultural activities, such as dancing lessons and museums.

The woman I met, though, was dressed very modernly and carried herself with the confidence of someone who can hold her own in a competitive setting. She not only spoke perfect English, but told me she makes a deliberate effort to befriend people from different countries around the world. She offered to take members of our international group around Damascus, and recommended the Arabic dance lessons at the Russian Cultural Centre. (But she still doesn't know how to give directions to her office.) She now works for an NGO, and besides being employed by a nonprofit, she also spends a good bit of time volunteering. She told me she is now discovering a whole side of Damascus she'd never known.

Two years in America changed her life. They opened her sense of reality to a world much bigger than her mother's kitchen and her cousins' weddings. They taught her to be independent and professional. But then again, I find myself wondering at the home she must come from. Because for a family here to let their university-aged daughter spend a couple of years thousands of miles away in America is almost unheard-of in this culture to start with. And yet she went, her family let her go, and she is a changed person because she went.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Portrait #27: Two happy refugees

In the past two days two people have crossed my path that I want to portrait. Both are Iraqi refugees, and both were very happy when I met them.

Yesterday, I was introduced to a man who has been living in Dam. for over 4 years. He came here with his wife and three teenage sons, and he pretty much knew he'd never be able to go back to Iraq: because of his ethnicity/religion, and because of where he is from. He is now likely to be relocated to the U.S. later this year.

During most of his four years here, he was unable to register officially as a refugee, which meant he was receiving no assistance (food, medical, nothing). Nor was he able to work. His three sons had dropped out of school when they fled Iraq, and the older two were unable to continue any studies here at all.

Then he was introduced by a friend to a representative of a relief organisation. That person didn't have a lot of connections or influence to help this man, but was able to give him an informal job, so at least he and his family wouldn't starve. Then through that connection, the man was finally able to get his official registration and start receiving assistance. Once he was formally registered, he was able to start petitioning for relocation, since he is one of those people who will most likely not be able to go home even if/when things are stabilised. Once again his new connections were able to help him get an interview with someone who could help him join his sisters in the U.S., one of whom has lived there several years and the other one of whom is moving there right now.

Finally, things are looking up for this man. His sons are studying English at a refugee services community centre in anticipation of being able to finish their schooling in the U.S. The man has a job and can provide for his family, and the extended family will soon be reunited. After almost 4 years of despair, he said that that one encounter was the beginning of all doors opening for him.

Then, today, I got onto a service (minibus) to go home, and a woman got on after me. She was simply dressed but looked nice, and there were two things that really jumped out at me about her. First, she was toting a huge cardboard box. Second, she was very happy-looking, almost schoolgirl giggly happy. She smiled at all the other passengers and energetically helped people get change for their fares from the driver.

Sitting behind her, I studied her box. It said in Arabic, "Rome Orthodox Patriarchate..." and there were some initials in English. I wondered if she worked for some organisation, but then wondered what organisation's office might be on the same bus route as the place I'm staying. So when she looked back and smiled at me partway through the ride, I asked her what the initials on the box stood for.

She said she didn't know what the initials were, but she had just been at the Cathedral and had been given this box. She isn't sure what exactly is in it, but she knows there is some household stuff like cleaning supplies, and there are some basic foodstuffs as well. She told me, with such perk in her voice, that she's Iraqi and this is the first time anyone has given her anything.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Portrait #26: The top dog in Majlis A-Sha'ab

Yesterday I attended the opening for an official event. It was one of those meetings in which all formal rules of Arab protocol were respected. The highest-ranking attendee was "Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab" - the president of the National Parliament, and he seemed like a nice enough guy - an amazing feat considering the aura that surrounded him. Here's how it went down.

I was told to arrive at 9:30 for a 10:00 start, but apparently some people - including members of Parliament - were told to arrive for a 9:30 start. However, the planners all knew that the event would be starting at 10:30. So around 10:00, the room was perhaps 1/3 full, with an assortment of influential women from NGOs, the General Women's Union, and Parliament (the theme of the event had to with gender).

Around 10:20, though, the room started to fill up with dozens and dozens of somewhat less important-looking people. Come 10:30, it was standing-room only, and the loud chatty roomful of people started to quiet down as if on cue.

Exactly at 10:35, the room was completely silent, and in walked a procession of five people who were wearing power suits and didn't seem to know the meaning of a smile. They marched up to a table with five chairs, five microphones, five folders and five cups of water, and sat down. Then a man with the most deep and resonant voice I have ever heard walked up to the podium next to the important-people-table. He gave a quick greeting which introduced the theme of this gathering, then proceeded to thank in extensive prose the Ra'iz Majlis Al-Shaab, who is apparently also both a doctor and an engineer, for his illustrious presence. The man sitting in the centre seat of the table nodded. Then the MC did the same in much briefer form with the four women also at the table.

The MC then called up the important people one-by-one to give opening speeches. He started with the head of the organisation sponsoring the event - in other words, the hostess. Then a woman whose title I have now forgotten. Then the head of the Women's Union. Then the head of a government ministry. Each of these individuals spoke for five minutes, one of which was spent thanking the Ra'iz Majlis Al-Sha'ab for his presence and greeting him respectfully. He nodded each time he was honoured and seemed to be paying attention to the entirety of the open remarks.

Then the MC called up the illustrious man himself. He gave a nice enough speech - I can't remember what it was about (must have been too in awe of his presence to really pay close attention), but he said something about the progress the National Parliament has been making toward greater women's engagement and empowerment. Everyone listened carefully, and the few photographers in the room clicked away on their cameras. Then he too sat down again.

The MC, who is some kind of radio talk show host - with that kind of voice, what else could he be? - then invited everyone to a short break before the actual meetings began.

Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab left pretty much immediately. The head of a government ministry also disappeared. The other three important women stayed around to socialise during the break and seemed prepared to stay for the meeting, too. During the break, I met a woman who works for Parliament, in communications or speechwriting, and she said that she and the rest of the staff would now be leaving, too. Sure enough, when the break was over, all those people who had entered the room at 10:20 were gone, leaving only the keynote speaker and her loyal first two rows of attentive audience - which did include several women members of parliament and other influential women. But apparently the majority of the audience had been the entourage for Ra'iz Majlis A-Sha'ab and they had to go back to work.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Portrait #25: I fell in love with a security guard tonight

OK, not really, but I've never seen a security guard quite like this one. He may have been more along the lines of a bouncer, come to think of it, but then again, I felt like his behaviour was a testimony to the safety of this country.

This weekend the French Cultural Centre is sponsoring a weekend of events at the Damascus Citadel. It is a surreal experience to watch a French film or dance to Euro hip-hop music in a 1000-year old Citadel courtyard, to the backdrop of the call to prayer at the city's biggest mosque. I highly recommend. Tonight was DJ Snook's party, and we went to listen and hop to his French musical vibes. When we arrived, several guys were taking turns breakdancing on the stage, and after a few minutes, we noticed among those on the side of the stage awaiting their turn to dance, there was a big man in a suit waving his arms at the crowd in a gesture meant to get us screaming and clapping. But his face was sombre and, well, he was wearing a suit at DJ Snook night, so I was more inclined to laugh than scream. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Half an hour later, some friends and I were taking photos of each other, but having a bit of trouble because people kept walking by. The big man in a suit popped up and stopped all foot traffic long enough for me to take a photo. Then he offered to take a photo himself, and we agreed. After all, he was wearing a suit and we'd seen him on stage, right? So he must be safe. Check out what happened next.

I handed him the camera and went to stand by my two friends. But right then a spotlight turned on behind us. The man in a suit waved at the lighting guy and made a clear TURN-OFF-THAT-LIGHT gesture. The light went off. He held the camera up to take the photo and we posed. But of course some people walked in the way right then, and he reached out to push them back. Then, with the three of us still posing, he tapped the shoulder of a girl who was inching in on him (remember, this is a dance party, a modest amount of inching-in is to be expected) and asked her to Step Away From The Camera. She didn't take him seriously the first time, but the suit and the sombre face eventually convinced her to get far away. So we finally got our photo taken and our camera returned. He smiled ever so slightly and walked away.

Yet another half an hour later, one of the breakdancers was in our part of the crowd, so the dancing was starting to take off. The group of guys in front of us were just a tad sketchy, but it was all in good fun, we thought, and I felt safe since there were nine people in our group of friends, including some guys to protect us if we needed it. After a bit, the dancing really took off, and one of the guys from the other group started dancing with one of the girls from our group. She wasn't thrilled, but it was short-lived and she got out of it, and we decided it was time for us to head on home. But as we were inching our way out of the crowd, we saw the man in a suit pop up and start talking with the men who had been dancing around us. He pulled two men out of the group and led them away. Then he came back and seemed to be pulling more men out of the group. We decided it was not beneficial for us to watch this to its end, but several minutes later, standing at the other end of the citadel courtyard, we could still see the tall man in a suit's head poking out of the crowd, still discussing and taking control of the men who had dared to dance with one of our young women.

Gotta love a guy who treats you like a VIP to get your photo, then bashes a dozen men for not doing the same.

Portrait #24: My new best friend is named Ibrahim and he sells phones

I'm here with a group of people, most of whom are having their first experience in this country. My role in the group is something along the lines of 'Cultural Transition Facilitator'. I get to give cultural tips, answer questions, translate, and just be there for people in processing their experience of this new place. It's a fun job! So one of the things I've done so far is help members of the group get set up with local mobile phones.

Early on, I figured I had to develop a relationship with the guys from the phone shop across the street, and they're young guys with a good sense of humour, so that hasn't been painful. Everytime I go I have a different 'ajnabi' (foreigner) with me, and a different random request to make. The second time I entered their shop, I greeted them and their reaction was something along the lines of, "Oh, yeah, it's you again..." But today, several visits - and several paying customers - later, when I left the shop after signing the last two guys up, their eyes were droopy and they asked me, "So... we're not going to be seeing you again?"

Ibrahim is the guy who runs the shop and he seems to care about three things: Making Money, Football, and Following Rules. Specifically, getting photocopies of passports, writing the customer's father's name between first and last name, and doing everything in Arabic. He dresses like he cares about it and gels his hair like he cares about that too. He likes to sit in his chair behind his desk and oversee everything that happens in his shop - which is roughly the size of an eight-person dining table. He loves to give orders, and his pal is happy to do the dirty work: put sim cards in phones, write down new phone numbers, and test chargers to make sure they work. He gave me orders, too. I became the official write-people's-and-their-fathers'-names-in-Arabic person. Ibrahim is not good at math, or at least that was what I inferred from the fact that he needed a calculator to add 1200+500. He and his assistant both have quite a bit of trouble keeping piles in order, and when they registered two phones at once, I needed to point out half a dozen times which phone held which sim card for which customer with which passport photocopy.

Ibrahim is a hard worker, though. He opens his store around mid-day each day, and closes around midnight. He speaks very little English, but his favourite word is "businessman." But his friend-assistant works even harder: I've not yet entered the shop when he wasn't there, even though Ibrahim has occasionally been out.

They have come through on all my requests, albeit with a good share of hemming and hawwing and excuses, and many, many laughs. But we have a great business relationship whereby I set my expectations very high and they deliver something a little bit less. For example, they promised me good phones for 1000 because I insisted I needed cheap phones (1000 is quite cheap), but when the phones arrived they charged 1300. I asked them for a 1-month phone deal, but they came through with 16 days and easy possibility for renewal.

When I've questioned Ibrahim about these discrepancies, he has kind of furrowed his eyebrows and looked up from his low chair behind the desk and smiled with a giggle. Then he's shrugged his shoulders. Often he has told me that the price he's giving me is very low, just for me. And other times he has left it with the shrug.

Today, I had a problem with the phone charger I bought from them a few days ago. I went into the tiny shop ready to argue and complain, but I guess we're friends now, because Ibrahim immediately replaced it for me, telling me that the replacement was his own personal charger. Then we left, and he and his friend bid us fond fond farewells.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Portrait #23: Francophone lady

There are a couple sites in the Old City of Damascus that all tourists hit. One of them, specifically popular among Christian tourists, is the Ananias Church, which is said to have been built in the location of the home of Ananias. In the book of Acts, Ananias is a Christian man who has a vision in which he's told that Paul, the guy who came to Damascus to kill all the Christians, has now had a change of heart and if Ananias would just go to visit Paul on "the street called Straight", he could help Paul along on his new life journey.

So this guy Ananias's house-turned-church gets quite a bit of tourist traffic. I've been there several dozen times.

Today, I saw an open door that's usually closed, so I decided to peek in and saw a rather large room. At the far end was a desk and office equipment, in the middle was a dining table, and near the door was a commercial refrigerator with soft drinks apparently for sale. There was a woman sitting at the table and she looked up as soon as my head poked in. She asked in English, "Can I help you?" And I replied in Arabic that I had been here several times but not to this particular room.

She came over to me and started explaining to me in French that this was a multifunctional room, and that they had soft drinks for sale. I've been feeling the need to brush up my French lately, so I went with her on the French thing. She asked me about where I was from, about my group, where I'd studied Arabic, what type of job I was looking for, the typical questions. After answering the formalities, I asked her why was she speaking French, of all languages, with me? Where was she from?

She told me that she's Syrian but was raised Francophone. Her education was all in French, and she speaks French quite a bit better than English. In fact, she is currently a French teacher... or a teacher at a French-speaking school, she may have said. Even when it became clear it's been awhile since I last put together a sentence in French, and even when she found out I've been in the Middle East for several years and know Arabic, we still chatted in French. She said her English is a bit rusty now because she doesn't use it, so she understands about my French. Her name is Violette, what a lovely French name!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Portrait #22: The gym trainers

Today I learned a new Arabic word, but I'm afraid I already forgot it. It's the word for pee-pee.

I'm thinking a Middle Eastern exercise gym could provide a portrait a day for a long time coming. Today I want to tell about the role of the trainer. The trainer's job is to suggest ways for me to improve my body. Not to get into shape, not to tone muscles, not to live a healthier lifestyle. To get a better body.

Since the gym I joined has a full-time trainer at the service of its members, I decided to ask her about a specific type of tummy toning exercise. She was excited that I was asking her for advice, I suppose she felt reassured by the fact that I was considering doing something at the gym other than exercise. She directed me first to a horizontal wheel to stand on. I was instructed to stand on the wheel and grip a handle at about shoulder height. Then I should twist back and forth on the wheel, trying to twist my hips while keeping my shoulders stable. This is supposed to tone my waistline, I guess, although I didn't really feel anything, no stretch or burn or anything like that.

Then she grabbed a big wooden stick and handed it to me but before she told me what to do with it she got called away. She told me to wait there and went off to do something at the front desk while I stood in the weight room holding the wooden stick. When she returned, she enthusiastically presented me with a special offer. Would I like a free trial of their toning services? It's on the house today, just for me!

I've always been curious about these services, so figured it was worth a try. I was ushered down the stairs to a side room with four massage beds. Another woman was waiting on one of the beds, but apparently the trainers didn't want to serve her today, and my sudden "appointment" was intended to convince her to go away. So I was stuck sitting out my toning treatment until the lady was gone.

A second trainer had me lie on the bed and bare my tummy. She splashed some water on my tummy and started rubbing it with some kind of sucking device - imagine sonogram. The thing rubbed hard all over and actually hurt quite a bit. Was not comfortable and certainly no where near as much fun as running! I asked her what it does, and she explained that it pulls the fat in my tummy area - or any other area I want to treat - down to my gut, from which it will be excreted next time I go pee-pee! Next time I go it's supposed to be a different smell and colour, filled with all that fat I've now lost.

Then she switched machines to something that was a bit more like an electric massage but apparently was made for a different type of sucking. This one didn't hurt as much, and apparently its job is to suck out the empty space in the skin - to tighten up the skin, so that I get to be more toned without actually toning!

She offered to do a third machine with me, which she described as a contraption which makes the body exercise without the owner of the body actually doing any exercise. Fortunately, the woman vying for my spot in the fat-sucking bed had given up by then, so I was able to get out of not exercising and go back to my regularly scheduled workout.

Portrait #21: Woman who needs to lose weight

So I have joined a gym in Damascus. Today was the first day I had a real proper run and boy did it feel good. It's taken me two weeks to find a gym, largely because I couldn't find anywhere that offered a real treadmill for my use.

Everywhere I went, I explained that I was looking for a place to run, and they would reply by saying that the first thing I'd have to do was meet with their trainer or, in some cases, with the doctor, to determine an exercise regime. Or they'd reply by asking, "What is it that you want to change about yourself?"

So I'd reply by saying I'm really happy with my exercise regime and just want to use the machines to run. So they'd clarify, do I want "Mashee"? That means "walking" in Arabic. I'd say, no, I want "Rakad", running. They'd just kind of ignore that and show me to some extremely ancient machine that didn't look like it would hold my weight. Or more likely to a manually operated contraption that would probably make for a good walk but could never keep up with a jog. In one case, I was told that the doctor who owns the gym says has determined that walking is better than running, and in another case I was told by the gym manager that he limits treadmill use to 15 minutes because he "bought the machine for its preservation."

I was thus overjoyed to finally find a gym that had not only one, but two, fully electronic, buff-looking treadmills at my disposal, so I signed up. When I went for my first session, though, I learned that one machine doesn't work at all, and the other one was randomly stopping and resetting every couple of minutes, each time contributing an electric shock to my physical workout. Upon seeing my frustration, they promised to get it looked at, and so today I went and was able to jog a full 20 minutes without being zapped.

As I ran, I observed the other women in the gym. Many were doing aerobics, but there was one rather heavyset woman who didn't seem able to keep up with the aerobics, so the trainer assigned her to the bicycle. When I was wrapping up my jog, I saw her discussing with the trainer the possibility of using the treadmill. The trainer said that the treadmill was too hard for her, but she protested that she walks at home. In the end the trainer won, and the woman was sent to do some lightweight weight lifting.

I ran across her and the trainer again in the weights room. She was explaining to the trainer that she has diabetes and is tired of her large size. She is really eager to do something about this. From this I gathered that this was one of her first sessions. I recalled hearing several similar conversations in Middle Eastern gyms and wondered how long this woman would really stick with her program, and whether she really would manage to make a dent in the diabetes and weight problems if she wasn't even allowed to walk. Then again, though, they thought walking would already be quite a workout for me!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Portrait #20: Cop -- I think?

Upon confirming that my friend's money was nowhere to be found (see yesterday's portrait), and concluding that it had most likely been stolen from under the big black cloak she had to wear in the mosque, we found ourselves in front of a police station. So we decided we should look into reporting the deed.

As a group of three foreigners, it seemed somehow natural that we be immediately ushered into the station director's office to report a simple robbery. The director was very sympathetic to our plea, and when he learned that we had a suspected culprit in mind, he asked if we could identify her in a photo. We decided to try, and out came the most fascinating lineup ever. It was roughly 50-sheet-or-so notebook with about 10 faded passport photos stapled to each sheet. Each photo had a different background so was presumably brought to the station by... the convicts themselves? On the line of each photo were a few words describing the person and his/her criminal history.

We didn't find our suspect in the notebook, but there was one woman who looked somewhat like her. That woman's crime was astrology: palm reading and predicting the future and the like.

Once we had failed to identify our suspect in their lineup, the real fun began. We were ushered, by the guy who seemed to play the role of director's-assistant, into a back room of the police station. We walked through two dank hallways, then through a room with about five civilians sitting around waiting for something, into a tiny room which somehow had barely space enough for three bunk beds and a desk. There were two men lying on two of the bunks. One of them got up and left when we walked in. The other groggily rolled over, and only after about five minutes managed to pull himself out of bed.

Meanwhile, we took our seats and our handler, who was dressed in plainclothes, opened up a notebook. It was about A5 size, and looked like his diary. He asked for my friend's passport but settled on my driver's license. The lineup notebook lay on the desk next to his right arm.

As he wrote the report, he was very friendly and jocular. We joked about things like the funny way our names are spelled in Arabic, and the number of random bits of information he was asking of us. As we chatted, he wrote. Into his notebook he entered three pages of handwritten information, including but certainly not limited to my friend's name, date of birth, father's name, mother's name and marital status, the time and location of the robbery, a very, very superficial description of the missing wallet, a slightly more detailed description of its contents, and my name, date of birth, father's name, mother's name and marital status. I was to be entered into the official police report as the "translator."

Nearing the end of the third page of his writing, three of his buddies came in. They too wore plainclothes but acted like they belonged in the inner chambers of a police station, with its smoke-yellowed and faded walls, iron beds with ripped-up foam mattresses, and two fans fighting to make a difference. Our guy chatted a bit with them, but mostly focused on the task at hand: the three-page-long paragraph in his agenda. Meanwhile his friends chatted with us about speaking Arabic and English, about what we were doing in the country, and the fact that... oh I'll stop talking about that conversation in a public forum! Feel free to imagine an end to that conversation!

Our guy wrapped up his essay and asked us how he could get a copy of a digital photo that my friend had of our suspect. There weren't very many choices: the station doesn't have a computer, much less email, nor a way to print out photos. So he asked us to print it out and bring it to him. When he saw our hesitation, he gave me his phone number and told us to call him as soon as we had the photo, and he'd come to us to get the photo and drop off our report-of-crime-committed. He did all this with utmost sincerity, but was friendly and laughed as we said our farewells and thank-yous.

Portrait #19: Passionate about heads

The other day we went to visit Sitt Zaynab, one of the principle Shiite Muslim pilgrimage sites. It was a very eventful mosque trip and at least half a dozen people there made an impression on me. But for now I'm going to share about the man who stood at the entrance making sure women were appropriately dressed.

That was his entire job description, as far as I could tell. Make sure women were appropriately dressed.

The first time we walked into the mosque, he stood up and pointed at the coat rack with big black cloaks hanging on it. He did this even though I was already walking straight toward it and reaching to grab one of the cloaks. There was a woman also, whose job was apparently to help women like me arrange the cloaks properly on our heads. She did help, and the man pitched in with advice as to how to cover me up well.

As it turns out, we entered the mosque three times that day. The second time, I wanted to talk to them, not get a cloak from them. It took some convincing for them to listen without throwing a huge black sheet over me. The woman was kind and sympathetic to my query, and so pointed me to an office right by the entrance. When I started walking the two metres to the office, the man went into a rage at the woman. How could she let me walk into the office without covering my head?! They had a bit of a shouting match and I quickly grabbed a cloak and slipped into the office.

The third time, we wanted to go straight to the office. In fact, we were a bit indignant and my friend was mad about the very fact that we were forced to wear things that limited our mobility so much. We were going to the office to make a very serious complaint. In fact my friend had lost a significant sum of money. The man didn't really quite seem to get the fact that someone in the mosque had stolen from us. What he got was that our heads weren't covered. We tried to explain to him that we weren't even entering the mosque, just the office, and were in fact here on a serious matter. He replied by shouting to us that our heads MUST be covered. He kept shouting that at us even after we grabbed cloaks and slung them over our shoulders for the 2 second walk.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Portrait #18: Taxi Drivers in the Emirates

I have been off this week at a friend's wedding, and it's been a great holiday! On many many levels. But I did not take that much time to observe new people I was meeting so it's been a few days since my last portrait. So I now present you with a little snippet from my time in Abu Dhabi: its taxi drivers! Here are a few of the men who at one point or another toted my friends and me around town:

- The hotel we had booked was newly opened and therefore not well-known. So when we arrived in the neighbourhood of the hotel at 4:45 in the morning, our driver couldn't find our hotel. We repeated the name, but he didn't know it. So he drove around the block. Then he picked up his phone and called someone and talked in Hindi. He handed me the phone and said to say the name of the hotel, which I did. Then he took the phone back and chattered away. Upon hanging up, he was still lost. We suggested he ask someone, but he kept driving. Then we suggested stopping to get the phone number out of the boot of the car, but he kept driving and asking us where it was. Driving and muttering and asking. (Eventually we found it by stopping and calling the hotel... after perhaps the third lap through the neighbourhood.)

- The next morning we had to get to a mall across town. Our driver was great, but we got a little concerned partway through the ride when we learned that he is a hyper-conservative Pashtun from Pakistan. But he's lived in Abu Dhabi for 15 years, and spoke good Arabic. He wanted to know everything about us.

- To get back to our room to change for the wedding, we found a cab easily enough. We got in and I asked the driver to go to "near Abu Dhabi mall". When we approached the mall, which was to our left, I told him to turn right. He nodded and got in the left turn lane. So I repeated, "No, right!" In response, he drove through the first light then got into the left turn lane at the next light. This time I tried hand gestures. I reached into the front seat and pointed with my whole arm to the right, and shouted, "NO! Right!!" He inched forward to turn left. So I screamed, "NO! We're not going to the mall!!!" And finally he said, "But the mall's to the left." By then we'd missed our turn, but I was able to convince him to turn RIGHT at the next light and had him drop us off as soon as we were close enough to walk.

- Going to the wedding, we had another driver who wasn't the brightest with directions. We said, "St. Joseph's Cathedral" and got a blank stare. Then I said, "Kanisa", which is 'church' in Arabic. He brightened and said, oh, I know where the church is! It is the Emirates, I thought, so perhaps there really is only one church. But to confirm, I said it was on the Airport Road, and he nodded. We had to stop to pick up a friend on the way, which again was a grueling affair. He went straight, and I said pull over, and he kept going, but at least he responded when I shouted, "STOP!" With our friend happily collected, we headed off. Eventually we got to the neighbourhood and he asked us where to go. We had no idea; we'd been in the country well less than 48 hours. But my friend saw a street sign that looked promising, so we decided to turn. Sure enough there was a church, but it wasn't St. Joe's! We drove around a bit, then stopped at the church to ask directions to the other church. That worked, and fortunately we were pretty close. Once we got to the final turn, we needed to go left but were only allowed to go right. So what did the driver do? Stopped and call his friend, and had a chat in... uhhh, I think it was Urdu. Then handed me the phone and told me to say the name of the church into the phone and hand it back to him. Deja vu. We felt like we were very close and very late and wished he would just quickly find a way to go left. Finally he hung out and what did he do? TURN AROUND! So we told him to stop and let us off, which proved a wise decision as we soon discovered it was just around the corner all along.

- To get back to the airport, I was told I could catch a bus from a special airport terminal station that's walking distance from the hotel. I set out at the crack of dawn to catch the 6 a.m. bus. When I got to the station, the guard told me there's no bus anymore - they cancelled it for lack of customers. I asked him how to get to the airport, and he said there's another bus station a ways away but from there it's 45 minutes, which would make me potentially late for my flight. I asked if there was no other way, expecting him to point me to a taxi. Instead, he stood up, walked to the SUV parked in front of the building and told me to get in. Another guy got in the front and off we went. This guard was actually Emirati but his mother is Indian and he was speaking Tamil, I think, with his pal. He drove me all the way to the airport, then turned around and returned to town.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Portrait #17: Janitor on the lookout

Today's portrait just flung itself at me, shamelessly!

At the moment I am in Damascus International Airport, awaiting my three-hours-delayed flight to attend a friend's wedding in another Arab country. I'm sitting on a plastic chair pulled up against a column in the big waiting hall, with my back to a little coffee kiosk. I'm typing away at my computer which is plugged into one of the few working electric sockets at this airport. I'm enjoying a bottle of cold water at my side, and I think some coffee might be on the way. How did I get here to this dubious throne of luxury?

Well, it went like this. After sitting in the airport restaurant for a couple of hours, I decided to walk around the airport a bit. I wandered around the various waiting halls and thought I'd stop wandering if I happened to come across a place to plug in my computer. I found a plug and, fortunately, the seats around it were empty, so I took a seat and started pulling my computer and power cord from my bag. A janitor was rolling his heavy-duty mop bucket and a mop around the same area. He rearranged the trash can nearest to me and I wondered if he wanted to mop the floor where I was sitting. But instead, he came up to me, grabbed my plug and started rummaging around the electric socket.

I asked him if that electric socket works.
He said he doesn't know.
I said let's try.
He said, It's plugged in, is it working?

But it wasn't working, so he wiggled the plug a bit but it still didn't work.

He asked me if I would know for sure if it was working.
I said yes and pointed to where my computer lights up when it is plugged in.
He said, OK, we'll find you a plug.
I said, don't worry, I actually still have plenty of battery. Really, it's ok.

He wandered slowly off, dragging the mop bucket behind him, and I started to roll my wires back up. But then just when I was putting them back in my bag, the janitor came back and motioned for me to follow him. I tried to insist that it wasn't that important, but he had already turned around and started inching back towards this column where I am now seated.

He pointed to this column and to another one nearby and said, These both have sockets, let's try them.
I looked and didn't see a place to sit, so replied, I don't think I want to sit on the floor there.
He then promised, If we get you plugged in, I'll get you a chair.

One of the columns had a planter with a ledge next to it, but the plug there didn't look like it was any good. So we came to this column, my column, and tried the plug. Sure enough it worked. So he started trudging off to get me a chair and I stood by the column for a few minutes wondering what to do. He came back soon enough with a plastic chair, and so here I am.

I wondered if I was to give him a tip or something, and wasn't sure how to offer. Meanwhile, he moped around my column for a few seconds. Then he asked me if I wanted some coffee, but I refused. So he dragged his bucket off to another section of the airport.

A few minutes later he was back with a bottle of water. He opened it for me so I couldn't protest - or upon closer inspection, I discovered that he'd probably hoped I wouldn't notice that the bottle had been recently refilled from another bottle, or perhaps even from the tap. Then he wandered off again, muttering something about coffee to my protests.

Since I started writing this portrait, he has wandered by again, checking in on me and giving me a half-smile. No coffee. I'm thinking I need to give him a tip, but am not sure how to do that, since he is really acting like a guy who just wants to be nice.

And now, I hear once again the squeaking of the wheels on his mop bucket. I turn around and there he is again, this time he hands me a diet Sprite.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Portrait #16: Lady on Bus who Put Me to Shame

Yesterday, late in the evening, my bus home was quite a bit late. I waited for it for almost half an hour, at the stop right across the street from the city's biggest hospital. By the time it arrived, there were several dozen people thronging to get on. My friends who had been waiting with me recommended I get on at the back and worry about paying my fare later, once the crowd thinned out. So I did that.

Most of the seats were taken, but since I had a long ride ahead of me I decided to try for one. I went up to a little boy who was sitting in an aisle seat with the window seat next to him empty. He said the other seat was taken. Across from him was a little girl standing guard at another empty seat. Then I came to an elderly woman, also sitting in the aisle seat while the window seat remained unoccupied.

"Can I sit there?" I asked.

She looked up at me and didn't quite smile but wasn't frowning either. "I guess I can stand up," she said.

I looked at her and then at the empty seat and then back at her, "I mean, Is that seat taken?"

She waved at the seat and then moved to get out of my way, so I inched in past her. When I sat down, she started explaining to me something about someone who had leg problems and couldn't stay standing. If she hadn't gestured for me to take the seat, I would have thought she was saving it for a patient being discharged from the hospital.

But I wasn't sure what to do until an elderly man, probably her husband, emerged from the mini-mob of people paying their fares. The woman immediately stood up and told him to take her seat. At this point, I realised that she didn't want to make him stand up and so was willing to stand herself. Of course, I couldn't leave an elderly woman standing while I enjoyed my window seat, there is a certain etiquette about these things!, so I got up to vacate the seat. But she insisted. Both seats remained empty as I urged her and her husband to sit, and she urged me to sit, and her husband just stood there looking confused. Finally, a young man from the row behind us stood up and offered me his seat, so I could bow out gracefully, in awe of this woman who loved her husband so much and who cared for a young strange woman so much to stand up herself in a crowded bus - even though she was the first one there.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Portrait #15: Pleading Woman

Today we were guests of honour at the graduation ceremony of a training program for young Iraqis. The ceremony was simple but festive. We watched a powerpoint describing the vocational-lifeskills training program and then a video with testimonials of some of the students. Then we, the only foreigners in the room, were introduced to the whole group by our host, who is also responsible for the school.

We are here as representatives of a small private organisation, which the introduction made clear, but one woman was not convinced. She came up after the ceremony was over and asked our host if we were representatives of the UN. He said we weren't. She asked if we weren't connected at all, in any way, and he confirmed that we have no connection whatsoever with the United Nations.

Then she said, "Because I really just want to connect with them, I want my words to reach them somehow. I just want to talk to them!" I shook my head and tried to smile with as much empathy as possible in my face when she said this. This was a story I had heard before.

She stayed quite composed as she explained how whenever she goes to the refugee office, she is turned away, or she's directed to the end of a long queue but then the office closes before they reach her. She just wants to know if there is hope. That's all. All she wants is to talk to them, to know whether there is any hope or not. Going home really isn't an option, she said, especially not for the Christians. The situation is impossible for Christians in Iraq. But she can't even get two words with the UN. And her husband is sick, so sick he just lies in bed all day. Then the conversation changed direction a bit when she said that she really wants to talk to someone before Tuesday because she travels on Tuesday, but that's a private arrangement and only temporary. Her sister lives in Canada, so she wants to go be with them. And then she again said, she just wants some hope.

Our host interjected at every few sentences an encouragement to her to be patient, just be patient. Once she had said what she had to say and was sure we couldn't help her, she nodded and went back to her friends.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Portrait #14: Conniving Businessman

On my flight from Doha to Damascus, I found myself tightly sandwiched between a big middle-aged guy and a windowless wall. Fortunately, the big guy was aware of his size, and so took care not to spill over into my space too much, making the three hours spent in my tight space enjoyable enough. At first I spoke to him in English, but he only replied in Arabic. He was friendly and polite, for which I am grateful.

So it wasn't completely with displeasure that I found myself sitting next to him in the front row of the bus from the airport to Damascus. I told him that I was rather frustrated that we would pass right in front of my destination but the bus wouldn't stop to let me, or to be specific my bags, off, so I'd have to go all the way downtown then catch a taxi back out to the beginning of the airport road. Then I asked him where he lives. He said Jermana, which is right near where I wanted to be let off.

We chatted a bit and I learned that he owns a business in Qatar, but has recently handed it over to his two sons. One son has been in the business for several years, but the other son trained to be a doctor. After a few years trying to make it in medicine but unable to earn a large enough salary, he gave up on his profession and decided to join the family business. So three months ago he moved to Qatar, and now the family patriarch, my new friend, spends most of his time in Damascus and only goes to Qatar once every few months to check on things. He stays there longer in the winter when the weather's a bit better, but made a brief visit this summer, too.

After the bus was well on its way, he leaned forward and asked the driver's assistant to drop him off at Mufraq Germana (the same spot I'd been told was not going to happen). The assistant gave him the same answer he gave me: no, because he can't open the cargo hold until they pull into the bus station. Businessman insisted, assistant refused, businessman begged, assistant apologised, businessman protested, assistant said no and sat down. So businessman and I chatted for another minute or so. Then, as we were approaching the intersection in question, he called softly to the driver to pull over and let him disembark. The driver nodded and stopped the bus. My friend and I marched confidently down the stairs and the assistant had this disappointed-puppy-dog look on his face as he chastised my new friend, even while opening the cargo hold to get our bags out. Then the bus driver came out and had a full-blown shouting match with my friend, claiming that he could get a huge fine for this. Then he and his assistant got back in the bus, closed the door and drove away.

The businessman flagged me a taxi, helped me load my luggage into the taxi, and invited me to lunch. When I refused, he sent me on my way and walked the two blocks to his house.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Portrait #13: Man from Qatar

As I walked into the hotel today, there was an x-ray machine with metal detector. The man in front of me and I put our bags on the conveyor belt, but before we could go through the metal detector, a very wealthy-looking man who was surely from around here passed us. He was dressed in a flowing white thobe and an elaborately draped white head scarf, the typical dress of men from the Gulf, and he walked with a light air of confidence.

When he walked through the metal detector, it beeped. The [non-Arab] security attendant tried to stop him, but he quickly reached in his pocket, pulled out a phone and waved it in the guard's face. And, without a blink or even a glance at his questioner, walked straight on in.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Portrait #12: Migrant Workers in Qatar

I am in the Gulf region, on a day-long layover in Qatar! So far I've had a 13-hour flight with my video not working (had it worked, it was the largest personal TV screen I'd ever seen and apparently the largest selection of films), been made to stand in several queues which were often the wrong queue but no one would direct me until I got to the front, and am now waiting for a hotel shuttle that will be a while yet. None of these are really worth complaining about, but it's the absolute attitude of disregard by which they've been done that has challenged me to remember to keep a good attitude.

That's actually not too hard to do when there are other people queued up behind me, when it is actually a whole section of seats on the plane that didn't have entertainment, and when I find out that I got a comfy exit-row seat while a semi-disabled elderly Indian woman had to sit in an awkward centre seat.

So, today I'm not portraiting any one person, because no one person has stuck out to me. I'm portraiting a world where my Arabic is useless even though I'm in an Arab country. The various staff who have neglected, ignored and misdirected me come from various countries of East Asia, South Asia and Africa... and a handful from the Middle East. When I stepped out of the airport door I practically stumbled over dozens of men, mostly from India and neighbouring countries, camped out as they await the privilege of being poorly-treated employees in this lush nation of Qatar. No wonder they don't care if I stood on a queue for 20 minutes longer than necessary, or if my bag is heavy!

I found myself observing the interesting nature of relations here between client and service provider. I may never have gotten my in-flight cinema, but whenever I asked, they promised to try to fix it for me and then fed me more food and drink. I may have had to wait patiently behind four men with no visa to get through immigration, but when my turn came they didn't apologise - they just processed my visa efficiently. They promise and they probably deliver. When it works for them. They are gracious and kind - no matter what country they're from! - but not too vested in the final result.

Today, even when I've been treated as crap, I feel like royalty. After all, in the end I win. I'm on my way to the glittery Ramada hotel, airline's treat. I deserve to sit on the sidewalk with the migrant workers, don't I?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Portrait #11: Ukrainian Natural Beauty Enthusiast

I spent much of this evening rambling through Tyson's Corner Mall while my family caught a film. (My reasons may be petty, but I refuse to set foot in a cinema for now.) Tyson's Corner is basically the flagship temple to Materialism. Every store, every brand, every fashion, every new gadget is available in shining colour for dazzling prices in an impeccable ambiance. And it's all on display by the equally beguiling yet somehow diverse clientele.

Since I had a couple of hours, when a woman in a white labcoat, from one of the centre aisle kiosks, offered me some hand cream, I accepted and allowed her to begin her pitch. It went something like this: all of our products are completely natural and healthy, and when you use products from chemicals you are doing yourself huge damage, but it is nonetheless very important to use facial treatments. She then asked me something rather personal - I think it had to do with my cosmetic regimen - so I answered then asked her where she was from. She's Ukrainian and has only been in the country for two weeks.

Then she offered to demonstrate for me how her all-natural facial cream could make me look younger (should I have been offended?). It would diminish wrinkles and puffiness under my eyes. She picked up a rather frightful-looking device and proceeded to photograph the edge of my eye. Then she turned to her laptop, but she couldn't get my face to appear on the screen. As she fiddled, I asked her about the scent of the cream she'd given me: orange vanilla. Everything her company sells is all natural, she said: I just have to check the ingredients list, and if anything is unclear, she has a guide-to-her-products'-ingredients that will support her argument that it's all natural. I should check the ingredients of everything I put on my face, she insisted. And she asked me more details about my facial regimen and told me that Dead Sea mask is bad because it's not natural (huh?): instead she could offer me a mud scrub that came from real mud in Austria. Poor girl, if only she'd known how loyal I am to Middle Eastern Mud... for that was the proverbial nail on the coffin of a sale.

The photo never came up on her screen, so she proceeded to wet a cotton facial pad and put some soap on it. When she gestured to start washing the area around my eye in the middle of the centre of a posh mall on a Saturday night, I asked her to, well, to not wash my face. She asked why it bothered me, and I was at a loss for words. I wasn't ready to explain why yet still be polite. So she started explaining how important it is to wash my face, to which I explained that I had showered right before coming to the mall. She told me that our faces get dirty quickly with all the yuckiness in the air, and expostulated on all the natural ingredients in the soap she purported to use. I said that wasn't the problem. She asked me again why this bothered me, and I swallowed a comment about how I think my eyes really aren't that wrinkly or puffy.

Eventually she was convinced that she wouldn't be able to wash my face or do a miracle with my eye. I felt a bit sorry for her, only having arrived in the country two weeks ago and now desperate for a sale, or at least a real conversation. And she couldn't even get her computer to work. So once she gave up she asked me where I was from, and we chatted a bit about Brazil and about the Ukraine and about how she's here for only six months and she's here to work. And I must say, in only two weeks she has developed quite a passion for the cause of selling all-natural ingredients to the world's elite.