Thursday, July 16, 2009

Portrait #91: Justice served

Continuing in, and possibly ending, this impromptu series on dubious encounters with Syrian men, I must share what may be yet the most amusing one.

Yesterday, my friend and I were riding in a taxi and got stuck in a traffic jam for nearly half an hour. As our taxi inched forward, we chatted and caught up with each other's news. A few minutes in, my friend pointed at my window and said, "What's with that guy?" I looked out and saw a big old silver SUV inching along next to our taxi, deliberately maintaining the same speed as us. The driver was a big greasy man with long gray hair: he was leering out of his window and peering into ours.

I shrugged and we continued the conversation, but we were aware that the leering and the peering continued, albeit ignored.

Until, that is, we finally were nearing the end of the backed up street. My friend looked past me to my window with a strange look on her face. I turned around and saw his hand reaching into my window holding out a business card. "Try to call me", he said to my friend in broken English. She is from here, though, so she replied in Arabic. He didn't catch on to the fact she was Arab, though, and instead he repeated: "Try to call me." So she rolled her eyes and said back to him, "I don't want to call you." In English.

Surprisingly, it worked. He withdrew his hand and his business card and pulled a little bit ahead.

As we approached the traffic light that caused the accident, he went through the intersection ahead of us and veered right. Then, BAM, an old Mercedes rammed into his back bumper!

My friend and I and our taxi driver, who had respectfully listened to but not joined in the entire conversation, laughed and laughed and laughed. We all turned back to wave at him as he lugged his heavy frame, suspenders and greasy gray hair and all, out of his seat to inspect the damage to his sleazobile.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Portrait #90: He called me fat, but not very fat

Last night we - that is, a big group of internationals - were sitting at an upscale restaurant in Old Damascus, on the rooftop overlooking the Roman arches marking the middle of the old city and the ancient Greek Orthodox Church to the side.

Over the last month, we have had many such evenings, so as idyllic and lovely as it was, we were somewhat uninspired by the view and absolutely uninspired by the menu: kebab, hummos and fattoush are good, but they do lose their lustre over time.

So when my roommate and I noticed that there was a "snacks" menu in addition to the dinner menu, we took a look, hoping to find something different. What caught our eyes was, of all things, home-churned butter with sugar. We've had every dip imaginable for bread during the last month, but butter has been quietly and rather tragically forgotten. So we decided to order a dish of butter and sugar to share.

Here is what happened:

I turned to the waiter and asked him if the butter and sugar is good.

He stared at me, then looked down at the notepad into which he was writing the orders, then furrowed his brow and went "hmmm."

So I asked again.

He then spoke: "So one order of butter and sugar for the two of you, hmmm", as he wrote it down hesitantly.

So I queried, "Is it not good? Do you recommend something else?" After all, we were looking forward to our butter but we weren't yet fully sold on it.

He glanced up and peered over his notepad, pen tapping on paper, and replied, "Are you on a diet at all? Because, you know... butter is..."

I let out a little giggle and replied, "Why? Do you think either one of us is fat?" Please note, neither one of us is fat, nor concerned about being mistaken as fat.

And he replied, I kid you not: "Well, not too much."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scenario #27: A real, respect-filled proposal

As foreign girls, we often swap stories about random guys in the Middle East who propose to us. I have friends who have been offered thousands of camels or sheep in exchange for their hand. Sometimes they feel like the proposal is a joke, sometimes they are scared by the propositioner and run.

My favourite proposal story until yesterday was the scarf salesman who, in the course of bargaining over a purchase, told me he had four wives but always wanted a Brasilian wife so would divorce one to marry me. I asked him if he'd give me a good price on scarves if I married him and he said I could have them for free. My friends took a photo of him so I could remember that momentous evening forever.

to encourage thoughtful ways...

Well, yesterday I had another proposal, and this is how it went down:

At a major intersection, I got off one bus and needed to catch another bus the rest of the way home, but first I stopped to get myself a bananas and strawberries and milk smoothie at a juice shop. Then I crossed to where my bus would come and waited, demurely sipping my juice. My bus was taking a long time to come, so I was soon halfway done my drink.

A man came up to me at this point and I smelled trouble. All I remember about his appearance was that he was dark and not too tall nor too short, and that his beard was going gray. He may have carried prayer beads, but I'm not sure. He stood rather close to me and said, "Excuse me." I took a step back.

Then he continued: "Do you have anyone for engagement?"

I replied, "What?"

He repeated his question, then said, "You know, engagement... like as in marriage?"

A bit suspicious, I was also a bit intrigued. I immediately remembered the wedding I attended last year in which the groom met the bride one day on the street. He saw her walking home from school, approached her, and asked her if she was engaged or married at all. When she said no, he asked for her number and said she'd be hearing from his mother. And the rest is history: they are apparently a very cute and happy couple. But still, I was mostly suspicious: "What do you care?"

Then it was his turn to reply, "What?"

So I said, "I mean, like, why are you asking me?"

Then he replied, "Oh, are you a foreigner?"

To which I responded in a rather indignant voice, "Oh, I'm sorry, sorry." And he walked away.

Strangely enough, I felt extremely flattered after this. Clearly this was a serious proposition, with all levels of respect, and as soon as he realised it wasn't an option he stepped back. When I finally caught my bus, my heart was rather sprightly.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Portrait #89: Two is better than one

Yesterday I was reminded of one of the most fundamental values of many Syrian girls: two is better than one. In fact, anything is better than one.

I was walking on the side of a highway that connected the President's Bridge, a major intersection connecting the different central parts of Damascus, with the neighbourhood where the University is located. With cars whizzing past, I was wandering up along the site of the old Fairgrounds, which is now an abandoned lot. The sidewalk was brick-tiled and smooth and wide. But it was also rather isolated.

A girl a few metres in front of me glanced back and stopped, with her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as she peered back at me. Was she looking at someone behind me, or did she think she recognised me? Did she recognise me? I was afraid I didn't know her.

I kept walking and as I came near to me, she turned and started walking alongside me. "Are you going to the Administration Building as well?" she asked.

"No," I replied. "I'm headed to the Higher Institute for Arts at the University."

"Oh, do you study there?"

"No, my friend works there. I'm going to visit her."

We got to chatting, and I learned that she is from Mezze, the neighbhourhood beyond the university, that she studies Agricultural Engineering, teaches high school level science, and is 25 years old. She learned that I'm not Syrian (I was excited that I had to inform her of this fact!) and have been in Syria since about 8 years ago.

When we arrived at the gate I was to entered, I bode her farewell, we agreed it was good to meet, and we exchanged names.

A bit later, when I passed the Administration Building, I saw her walking out in the company of another young woman. I presumed that this was a new acquaintaince of hers as well.

How clever, I thought, to befriend a strange woman. On an isolated wide sidewalk like that, even if it was noontime, men might think anything of this girl walking along. Walking with someone else would trick them: now she's a respectable girl. And why would anyone want to walk by herself in the first place?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Portrait #88: Transitions

Sitting on a sofa on a balcony overlooking a room full of dignitaries listening to heart-wrenching Iraqi instrumental music, written and performed by three refugees living in Syria, with lovely and thought-provoking paintings on the walls.

Transitions is the name of their album.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Portrait #87: Mudeiraj Bridge

This bridge, on the road between Beirut and Damascus, crosses a steep gorge in the Lebanese mountains. It's extremely tall and has been destroyed and rebuilt often during Lebanan's tumultuous history. It's still not operational after the war with Israel in summer 2006. Right now, it's almost complete, and there is a big sign at its entrance informing the world that the US government (US Agency for International Development) is paying for its current rehabilitation.

As I drove under it, through the gorge it transverses, it struck me that this bridge is a symbol of courage, of refusal to give up. Anyone can destroy it but it will always be rebuilt, no matter how long it takes. Even though it's the last thing to be rebiult and the first thing to go in any new conflict.

It's also a symbol of power: an ongoing standoff between two worlds, and the stakes are getting higher. USAID funding helps to raise the stakes, somehow. The bridge itself is excessively big... as if the time and effort for building it will makes imminent destruction more significant. Build a bigger bridge so they can destroy a bigger bridge and then can be accused of a greater offense.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Portrait #86: An Ethiopian working in Lebanon

A house in the mountains overlooking the sea - gorgeous interior, exterior, breathtaking view: steppe, baby cedar trees, olive trees... shrub and dry.

As we walk through the mountains together walking the dog, I try to picture her view of the world. She arrives on a flight from Addis Adaba in the middle of the night and is taken to this house: 12+ rooms, not counting bathrooms. It will be her job to keep this clean and to cook for the family, and to do their laundry.

Then she looks out the front balcony window and sees the city laid out before her and the sea beyond. She wanders up the path and discovers that behind the house are some standy footpaths in the hills. Look up to the mountains and down to sparkling blue sea.

But she rarely leaves the house. There's no time and no excuse to go for a walk.

She misses home - her family is there. But it's not this nice, even if life is easier. There is much less work for her to do there. She can't get paid well there. How conflicted she must feel.