Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Kicking my old bike into life and heading east toward the hilly terrain around Tartous. With no intention, without a purpose, I make a left turn here, another right there, follow an uphill path, or chase a narrow trail down ahead.
I follow the road. I'm alone with the thumping monotonous din of the engine and surrounded by the most beautiful Godmade natural scenery anywhere in the world.
I return to my office a couple of hours later, feeling new and invigorated. I receive tired looking clients and visitors. They tell me that I look relaxed and fresh, I must've had a nice and long nap...
I'm just a lucky guy I guess.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Here it goes:
It Was A Very Good Year, by Frank Sinatra
When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
When I was twenty-one
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls
Who lived up the stair
With all that perfumed hair
And it came undone
When I was twenty-one
When I was thirty-five
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We’d ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five
But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
from fine old kegs
from the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year
It was a mess of good years
Friday, June 23, 2006
Just to be on the correct side and not out of pride, Tartous is the second largest port on the eastern Mediterranean (Alexandria having the largest basin). So the port of Tartous is indeed larger than that of Beirut, Tripoli, Banias and Lattakia. I’m just making a point; imagine starting an article on Aleppo with: “Aleppo is the second largest airport in Syria”.
That being out of the way, let me tell you what I know about Tartous.
Tartous was founded by the Phoenicians as an agricultural satellite to the more important settlement then, the island of Aradus (Arwad). Thus, it came about during the Roman era that the original name of Tartous reflected this secondary role “Anti-Aradus”, meaning the town facing Aradus. Anti-Aradus has morphed over the years to Antaradus to Tortosa then eventually to Tartous (Tartus). At a certain time (346 AD) the city was named Constantia after Constantine who favored its Christian inhabitants over the pagans of the island. A temple in honor of the Virgin Mary was built in the city in the third century. It is believed that this temple is one of the earliest in the world honoring the Virgin. Some Christian historians even claim that St. Peter himself consecrated a church in the same location where the museum of Tartous stands today. This magnificent building was constructed in 1123 by the Crusaders who named it the “Cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa”.
Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Fatimids, Crusaders, Ottomans and the French played yoyo with Tartous over the course of centuries and it passed from one hand to the next, witnessing and absorbing the different cultures, true to its heritage as a city by the sea. From the Arab conquest in the 630’s on toward the final day of the presence of the crusaders in the East on 14 August 1291, Tartous was governed by, among many others, the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus II Phocas, the Fatimid Caliph Aziz, the Emir of Tripoli, the Count of Toulouse Raymond de Saint Gilles, King Baldwin IV, Nur al-Din, Saladin and Sultan Qalaun. Indeed, the last exit of the Crusaders from the east was through Tartous when the Knights Templar escaped silently to Arwad where they remained until 1303 until they ultimately withdrew to Cyprus.
Today, the old city of Tartous remains an historical treasure. It is one of the least credited sites in Syria and acknowledged mostly by western scholars, architects and historians specializing in Mediterranean cities. Known to locals as the “Saha: الساحة “, the old city is a typical example of a military garrison of Crusader architecture. It is surrounded on three sides (North, East and South) by a wide ditch, an outer wall, another ditch (Al-Khandaq) then an inner wall. The sea reaches the feet of the outer and only wall on the west and makes the city totally closed in. The outer ditch was the first line of defense and it would be filled with sea water when the possibility of an attack was sensed. Within the walls, the crusaders built a huge banqueting hall (Salle des Chevaliers), a chapel and a dungeon. The cathedral was built nearby, a couple of hundred meters toward the south on a hill in what had been known as the Episcopal city. In addition to the Crusaders (the Templars as they were known), the local inhabitants, the real Tartoussis also lived within the confines of these walls. The site was transformed by the Crusaders to become a bastion and a citadel, but it was a city nevertheless. The crusaders had long since left when the Ottomans then the French occupied Syria. Both had left their conspicuous marks on Tartous by adding on its Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Crusader heritage.
The structures and buildings of the old Saha look like a multilayered cake where the expert eye could quickly catch the successive architectural trends juxtaposed one on top of the other. The most important fact is that the people remained and Tartous has always been inhabited. The sad truth, however, is that neglect, abuse and ignorance through the years by both the local population and the government have distorted the place into a decaying dump.
All the native families of Tartous descent directly from this place. People of my generation vaguely remember their grandparents’ home within the walls of the city. Those who remained did so because they had no alternative. Like a used piece of clothing, the old city of Tartous has been passing from one socioeconomic group to another. The concentric urban expansion trend of the west toward the suburbs has taken a freak twist in Tartous and other cities in Syria and the third world. With the absence of a proper urban planning model, the expansion is more canceric in appearance and consequences. Tartous which was once a beautiful and charming city became almost Tartarus (in Greek mythology, the lowest region of the underworld).
For an intelligent observer, traces of bygone beauty are still to be seen here and there. The discerning eye, even in the absence of reminiscence, can still attest to the splendor of past days. For many, myself included, who helplessly watched their city being maimed in vain, can only hold on to memories and the spirit of a possible resurrection, one coming day.
For further information about the history of Tartous and all other Syrian sites, I suggest “Monuments of Syria An Historical Guide” by Ross Burns, I.B. Tauris – Dummar Publisher, 1999.
The three black and white pictures above come from an old collection saved by the late photographer Zanco of Tartous.
The diagram of Tartus: Monuments of Syria (third edition) by Ross Burns, I.B. Tauris - Dummar Publisher, 1999, p.230
P.S. I will post many of my pictures in the time to come of the old city of Tartous.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
I had the chance to visit, again, Saeen (Ayn Al Jawzat - Majed Restaurant) with a few friends. Well actually, I'm what you call a regular customer there since 1987. Now, and for the first time, I had the sense to take my camera and take some pictures of the view from the place. I don't need to comment anymore since the pictures speak for themselves. That's why I go there. By the way, I also happen to like the food.
For more info check my previous post "Ayn Al Jawzat" http://abufares.blogspot.com/2006/05/ayn-al-jawzat.html
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Ten years ago, I tipped the scale at exactly 75 kg (165 lbs). Going even further, say 20 years back, I was a lithe young man of 65 kg (143 lbs). So I figure, as I’m trudging along this one way street, that I roughly gain 1 K a year. What I’m adding in weight, I’m obviously losing in hair and sheer good looks. As if it weren’t enough, gravity evidently is conspiring against me. What used to be my chest in the eighties is slipping toward my navel. There’s almost nothing up there in terms of attractive contours to show (or feel) anymore. No sculptured biceps are to be offered to hold on tight to a beautiful girl in distress. In short, I truly believe that a lady has to fall in for my brains now that the looks are all but gone.
I’ve read somewhere that in another century the average life expectancy would exceed 120 years. For now, and assuming that I’d live to be 80, I’m definitely middle-aged. I look back at what I’ve done over the years. Quite a lot or nothing at all, is purely relative and a matter of perspective. Speaking of relativity, theory has it that if I can go at or near the speed of light, I would age much slower than ordinary mortals. Apparently if I had the means, I would go for a 5-minute spin on a hotrod and return 10 or 20 years later by the clock of Big Ben. I would then play Don Juan with all the young women who keep telling me that I’m too old for them now. That would’ve been nice, avenging my slipping youth! Still, even in the wildest of science fiction scenarios, going back through time is sort of tough to swallow. We’re sure riding through a one-way street and it doesn’t look like that there’s any opportunity for a U-turn. I would say that I’m on the crest of my road at the moment. It will all go downhill from here. Now, this shouldn’t in anyway be interpreted as inherent pessimism. All joyrides take advantage of the downhill factor in providing the fun that thrill-seekers are after. However, the waiting, the climbing and the anticipation of the impending fall is gone after you cross the middle marker.
The fall has begun, slowly at first but with steady acceleration. Sure, sure, there’s plenty to do yet. Eventually though, it’s going to be Bingo Night instead of a night of banging. Let’s look at it this way; if we’re lucky we’ll grow old with those we love. There’s no blessing greater than that.
picture courtesy of Dave Corvino http://www.culttvman.com/dave_corvino_s_time_machine.html
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
It was much cooler than the city. The house lies on a 650 meter hill and was still deserted waiting for my friends’ two kids to finish their Baccalaureat and Brevet. No time to waste, we lit the fire, cleaned the veggies, prepared the meat and started drinking by the little shed out in the back. We sat in the shade, ate and drank for 5 hours. Slowly and with compassion, we barbecued the meat and sipped the Arak. We talked about “yesterday”, 18 years ago when we served in the Army together. We asked about lost acquaintances, reminisced over favorite stories and thawed frozen instances of the past. It all went well; although toward the end our speech became a little sluggish, our sight a little blurred.
There we were, 3 stooges on the theater of life, watching it goes by in haste. What’s the point in leading successful careers, going to and fro, waking up early, sleeping up late, worrying, tiring but not being smart enough to stop, take a respite and smell the… barbecued meat and the Arak every once in a while.
Time has slowed down that afternoon in Kamsieh over the hill. It has provided me with a better perspective to peek at every day’s life with a little more relaxed attitude. In our restless quest for wider horizons and further prospects, we often tend to ignore what lies here, barely beyond our own backyard. We dream of the exotic places we wish to visit but we each forget that there is a Kamsieh, scarcely afar from our consciousness. We vowed to make it some other time, and soon.
I wouldn’t be surprised though if next time we meet we wouldn’t talk about this lunch as if it happened “yesterday”, 18 years in our past.
Kamsieh is a beautiful and quiet village, perfect weather in the summer, a little bit on the cold side in the winter. Many small traditional restaurants before, at and after you reach the village. All serve good barbecued chicken/meat and mezza. Great scenery and low prices.
Driving Directions (Tartous – Kamsieh): Total Distance 32 km. Take The Lattakia Hwy and drive North for 15 km. Take the right exit marked Kamsieh. Drive due East for a short distance till you reach the old Tartous-Lattakia road. Make a left turn toward Markieh and drive for about 2 km on the old road. Follow the Kamsieh sign to the right and climb up the mountains (~15 km) passing through: Markieh, Bdayra, Saya, Blawzeh, Kamso Then Kamsieh.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
However, I am a strong believer that all religions, as organized institutions, should stay out of politics and public affairs, clear and simple.
That being said and over with, there have been moments in my life when I’ve felt overwhelmed and snuggled by faith. These moments are not frequent to say the least. I have to be alone or oblivious to those around me. Then, a certain word, uttered; a certain vision, seen; a smell, a tune, a breeze; a loyal dog eying me, a baby giggling, a child laughing, an old man crying, a young man dying; if the vibes are serene, I might find myself floating in a womb of faith.
I reached the Convent of Seidnaya after a climb on a magnificent desert road dotted with vineyards and guarded by imposing outcrops in the surrounding hills and mountains. The convent is perched high on a rock at an elevation of 1415 m above sea level. I was so lucky there were very few people about. When I parked my car at the foot of the stairs, it was the only one. When my pilgrimage ended there were two more. I had the marvelous chance of spending 45 minutes, almost alone, in the splendor and grace of Saint Mary. After entering through the humbling main entrance, I followed a series of mazes to reach the chapel. It was much smaller than I expected.
Inside, a solitary nun was attending the candles. I took to a corner in the small space and was overwhelmed by a feeling of security and peace. I lit up a candle and prayed in silence.The nun asked me where I am from and I told her that I came from Tartous. A woman and her child crawled in. She too lit a candle and sat facing the wall adorned by icons and pictures of the Virgin Mary. She started crying at first and then went into a sobbing fit. I was transfixed and paralyzed with the moment that stretched to the gates of eternity.I came out of my reverie and modestly walked the narrow passageways of the convent. I heard low voice and murmurs echoing on the blessed walls. I glimpsed shadows floating on the charming verandas overhead.
When I walked back to my car, I was still a faithful Muslim but not a religious one, honored to have been in the presence of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.
Why do both adversaries I’ve mentioned in the beginning refuse to believe that it ought to be this simple? It’s a shame.
Friday, June 09, 2006
Tune in on the following:
Name Sat Freq Sym
TSR Hotbird 11527 27500 H
SF2 Hotbird 12400 27500 H
Slov2 Hotbird 12302 27500 V
ZDF Astra1B 11954 27500 H
M6 Eutelsat 11283 27500 V
I'm watching ZDF right now in Tartous, 1 hour and 18 minutes until Zero Hour.
We have a choice of German, French and some other languages. Arabic was bought by a bunch of thugs. Put your Arabic commentary in water and drink it ART (انقعوا تعليقكم العربي واشربوا ميته).
More to follow after the Party.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
The temperatures were soaring high, the air thirsty and the winds gusting with smells of dry mud and desert sands. I finished working too late to drive back to Tartous. I felt like a fish out of water, gasping to breathe.
I was "taken" to Gusto, a high end cafe where boys and girls half my age go to see and be seen (more emphasis on the second). It's the sort of place where, I'm sure the same people reserve tables night after night and watch themselves and each other. The girls are dressed or undressed very seductively. The boys are well groomed with gel on their thick black hair. The girls smell sweet and the boys work very hard to radiate that "fuck it" look. Don't think I'm coming down too hard on the youth of Damascus, we have the same sorts in Tartous with minor and subtle differences.
I have to give it to the Damascene girls though, they are beautiful. Those on display were a little bit on the "Haifa Wehbe" side for my taste, but beautiful nonetheless. Having fishermen DNA in my genes, I inevitably compare women to fish. If the gorgeous Tartoussi girl were a Sea Bass (Le2ouss Ramli), that is the most delicious fish on the planet, the Damascene is more like caviar. You can drink whatever with sea bass but are restricted to Scotch or Champaign with caviar. Both are great to have; one on a regular basis, the other on special occasions. Caviar like Cuban cigars and a red Ferrari need a "refined" taste and high maintenance.
Sorry, my intention is not chauvinist in the least, I really mean the above as a compliment to both, sea bass and caviar. As a matter of fact, I'm crazy for seafood.
Monday, June 05, 2006
He had a face that resembled time. Not a very old one, but a face with enough tear and wear to give it that withered leathery texture. A tall man in his early sixties, bent from years of leaning on a lonely balcony watching fleeting cars go by. There was an enigma of sort engulfing this solitary figure. Rumors ran rampart in the village. Oh, they would say that his wife had poured a can of kerosene over her head one hot summer night, and burned herself to death right in front of his eyes. They would also say that his son and two daughters had left the country since, never to be heard from again. It’s been confirmed that one of the daughters was living in Miami a few years back.
So the story goes. Children taught to stay away from his small unfenced garden. Young courting couples walking in the cool of early evenings, shifted to the other side of the road before getting too close to his house. Had he been on a stroll down the tree lined main road of the village, they would do an uncalled for 180 degree turn to save themselves the embarrassment of possible explanation, each to each.
I was a newcomer to the village. Driving to Tartous everyday, I had to pass by his house. I would drive underneath his low balcony, and would often spot him sitting on a low rickety chair all by himself. Sooner or later, our eyes were to meet, and that brief contact evolved over the weeks to a barely noticeable and mutual nod. When my family and I became more comfortable and settled down, we became a little more intimate with the village life. This is how over the course of two years, I fathomed from fragments of conversations why everyone avoided the lonely and tall man.
One Tuesday morning as I was heading to the city, and right at the northern brink of the village, I saw him standing there, hugging a large white plastic bag and waiting for the bus. He didn’t signal but I stopped. Hesitantly, he opened the door and climbed right in.
“Good morning”, he said, to which I replied with the same.
As the brisk daybreak wind hit our faces from windows, rolled-down halfway, an awkward silence ensued. Finally, I asked:
“Got something to do in Tartous?”
Deliberately and slowly, he opened the plastic bag, resting now on the floor of the car between his legs.
“Yeah, this old clock needs fixing”, he said at a snail's pace.
“I had it for years, many years… and, and it never missed a beat… until now that is… it just stopped last night at 5 minutes to eleven… I’m taking it to Tartous to have it fixed… I haven’t been to the city for over 4 months…”
The clock looked ancient.
“It’s a beautiful clock”, I ventured as sincerely as I could muster.
“It’s beautiful all right… It’s an original, French made… Look at this wood, nothing like what they make nowadays”, he proudly continued.
“Hey, say, do you know of any good place to have it fixed?”
“I know an Armenian guy who fixes watches and clocks, do you want me to drop you there?”
“I hate to bother you, but I’d appreciate it”, he said.
I made that final turn in the suq of Tartous and stopped right in front of the shop.
“Here we are, I think Harout is the guy’s name.”
“Thank you”, he said. “Hey listen”, he hesitated, “why don’t you come to my home for a cup of… coffee one day, we can sit on the balcony, the view is…?”
“I would love to”, I replied.
We looked straight at each other. His eyes were transparent pools of calm water, showing from deep inside the recesses of his soul that he was smiling. So was I.
P.S. I have learned that the man with the clock has passed away last year. God have mercy on his soul.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
The history of Treviso is a colorful one. It was bombed heavily in both world wars. During the second one in particular, the Americans heavily bombed it (by mistake!?) and caused thousands of casualties while destroying monumental buildings and artistic treasures. Today, many medium sized industries are based in or around Treviso. Besides the fact that it is one of the richest cities in Italy, it’s also a place with a special spell of magic and charm. Before my first trip and due to my knowledge of some of the names of the industries located there (i.e. Benetton), I was expecting another industrial complex where everybody is a hardworking machine. It turned out that you have to look hard to find the industry, all of which is located smartly on roads and thoroughfares leading into town.
The city itself is a placid northern Italian città with a main square and a church, traversed by the tranquil river Sile (rhymes with Chile). Treviso is fenced by 4 km of walls with 2 main gates, the San Tommaso gate to the north and the Santi Quaranta gate to the west. The town square is called Piazza dei Signori and is the center of life for the Trevisani. The Piazza is the symbol of the city and radiates the cheerfulness and the joie de vivre of the inhabitants. Walking through one open gallery will take you to another smaller square, called the Monte di Pietà where more magic lurks in the corners. Then follow your heart and let your feet take you in any direction and sure you’ll find yourself near one of the many canals crisscrossing Treviso. The painted houses are stunning, the afternoon tantalizing, with the docile presence of water and the promise of a splendid evening ahead in a ristorante or bar. You won’t go hungry in Treviso and there’s plenty to choose from. I suggest you try the risotto al radicchio, a rice specialty of Treviso. No need to take my word for it, just close your eyes and randomly pick any meal listed in the menu and you’re going to love it. As for wine, ahhh, go for the white flowery/fruity spumante (sparkling) Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene originating from the countryside around Treviso. When you’re through, happy and fat, gulp down a glass of Grappa and feel the warmth in your veins as a salute for a very unique place and the good fortune which took you there.
I have my own very small place in the basement of the building where our apartment is located in Tartous. It’s not fancy or anything, but I have a bar (with 3 stools), a small fridge and a sink. The room is also furnished with 2 comfortable seats, a coffee table, TV with satellite and a regulation foosball table. This is where I entertain close friends and where I can be truly alone at times. I have walked alongside the river Sile and fell in love forever with Treviso. Now 6 years after that first walk and as a gesture of gratitude for not only the place, but also for the Trevisani who became my friends while working for an Italian company based there, I decided to name my little private place "Sile". It was mostly the money I made during these 5 years which helped me buy our apartment. It's simply a gesture of gratitude and of longing. Grazie Treviso, li manco!
Thursday, June 01, 2006
I might be less critical than other bloggers when it comes to passing judgment on the whole Syrian situation. Sure, many would excuse me because I’m sitting right in the middle of it and can’t really let go of the voices inside my head.
In all honesty, there are many things around me that I don’t like. But if I were to remain honest, there’s no place like being home despite all the nuisances. The things I don’t like cannot be solved by the United Sates government, or any other foreign government for that matter.
I’ve been there before, in more than one place where I can “freely” speak my mind. I lived in the rest of the world for many years. I tried to bridge the gap that exists between the western mentality and ours (mine). I succeeded with those who tried from their own side to understand how we (I) think. It was a mutual effort from both parties. The success in communication was really due to the fact that there are some people out there, regardless of nationality or origin, regardless of race or religion, who are good honest folks. These people are, let’s call them for the sake of argument, average people.
Unfortunately, the average person is the least represented in the political system, any political system, democratic or despotic. The average person has no say whatsoever in the running of his or her government. So no matter what “good will” average people have on all sides, governments are not going to follow suit because they might have a totally different agenda. What I am saying is clear, although American, French, Syrian, and Chinese people can be great average human beings, their governments do not necessarily share the same moral values.
Here’s what’s bothering me though. In their attack on the Syrian government, some Syrians are paying tribute to the United States government and/or others. I understand that many expatriates feel bitter and alienated, but still, that last step they took was, in my ethical opinion, dead wrong.
I’ve also noticed another troubling undertone. It seems that the recognition of Israel is becoming more and more acceptable. This bothers me a lot. Why should we (I) accept what still is our (my) enemy. The water passing under this bridge is still very much troubled and I cannot accept normalization even if it makes me look bad in the eyes of the whole world.
I was never an “ist” meaning anything that ends with an ist, I am just an average person who was born, by chance, in this very spot. I know and understand that there might be a person, who shares many of my values and who was born there, in what I still call Palestine and what he calls Israel. Had we both been born on Mars, and our planet came under attack from the Neptunians, it’s very possible that we could’ve become brothers in arms. But here on this planet, and until we have a comprehensive and honorable peace, we are still enemies. And, I’m not talking of a weakling of an adversary. I’m talking about an apartheid government with an awesome nuclear arsenal. I would feel much better if there are no longer any weapons of mass destruction on this planet, I really do. But, and I’m not only talking about Israel, but about every other nation in the nuclear club; as long as anyone has nuclear weapons, everyone who hasn’t should.
I’d rather have fun and not get into politics really. I’m not a politically inclined man. I’m more into the joy of living. However, may be once, I should make my position clear. I don’t live on the sideline and watch the world goes by. As an average person, as an honest human being, I really want the United States government (being called nowadays: The World) to get its hand off the only home I have. Hey, President George W. Bush, get your hand off my Syria.