Friday, June 27, 2008

The Businessmen Bullman

As my weary face stared back at me through the bathroom mirror I vowed not to make the strenuous round trip from Tartous to Damascus on a single day again. "I'm too old for this shit", I confided to my reflection a few years back.
The 250 km distance is divided in two major components and contains what is probably the most boring stretch of asphalt in the world. I have rarely in my travels encountered anything as depressing as the 150 km long reel of stark landscape between Homs and Damascus. It's of course in sharp contrast with the green heaving and cinematically picturesque Tartous–Homs segment. Once I cross Homs on my way back, my breathing returns to normal and my grip on the steering wheel relaxes by its own volition. I am closer to home.
A couple of times per year I break my own rule and I often end up regretting my sedition. As the pain shoots out omni-directionally from my stiff lower back I console myself that being stupid is part of the learning process. Be that as it may, I had to be in Damascus from 10:00AM to 5:00PM on a Wednesday. I also had to be in Tartous early the next morning. I had no choice but to exempt myself yet again. On top, I felt adventurous enough to perhaps commit another mistake. “Why not take the bus”, I thought, “Everybody does it, so why not me”.
It’s been a long time since I traveled in a Bullman in Syria. For those unaware, a bullman refers to a Pullman or a large bus. Arabs in general, including the majority of Syrians insist that there is no distinction between the letters B & P. They always substitute them with each other although they put a lot of effort into finally releasing the wrong P. As thus, a beautiful girl with a perfect body wearing a bikini ends up as a peautiful girl with a berfect pody wearing a Pikini instead. “Excuse me sir, can I bark near the bolice station”, asked the suave Damascene student to the American cop. “This is a free country”, Officer Jim answered, “you can bark anywhere you want.”
I have heard stories about the Businessmen Bus (باص رجال الأعمال), “It’s so comfortable you don’t feel it’s moving at all,” so I’ve been told. Instead of the usual 45 passenger arrangement, the businessmen bus of Kadmous Tours is equipped with 32 wide leather seats. It leaves Tartous at 6:30 in the morning and takes a little bit over 3 hours to reach Damascus. Along the way, it makes a stupid stop in what is called an Istiraha, a café/restaurant/rest area combination. These istirahas are almost always obscenely decorated and excessively grimy. The only advantage of stopping is probably the chance to take a bee, meaning a pee of course. A nasty ammonia smell permeates the dank air surrounding the restrooms corner and convinces me to hold it till I reach my destination. It would make for a very good impression to rush into the bathroom before I even exchange the necessary niceties with my hosts. With all these details vying for my attention I climbed the few steps into the coach and headed hesitantly toward my assigned seat.
In all honesty the bus was posh and clean from the inside. The leather seat was very comfortable and accommodating. I sat by the aisle and hoped that the next seat remains unoccupied. I had my laptop, I had an unread book, I had earphones to connect to my mobile phone and listen to my favorite music just as precautionary measures against a worst case scenario. The seats were quickly being taken and with each approaching unwashed mustached face I crossed my fingers and controlled my breathing so as to avoid an imminent anxiety attack.


-“I should’ve reserved both seats for crying out loud. There’s still time to change my mind and go home and take my car instead. I must …
-“Excuse me, can you let me in please”.
I looked up and my glance turned into a long stare at the most beautiful green eyes I have ever seen in my life. Green and shimmering like the leaves of an olive tree after the passage of a rainstorm. Tranquil, translucent and peppered by minute hints of hazel, her eyes meant to dint forever the inner walls of the most private chambers of the mind and soul. Hypnotized, I gave her way and was immediately awarded with an olfactory attack of a rainbow of sweet and exotic fragrances. She had just stepped out of a scented bath and her, still damp, curly hair brushed against my left ear as she eased her way into the seat.
Good morning”, she smiled.
Ye2berni your morning”, I silently replied.
As soon as the driver took the final exit out of Tartous and released the reins of his machine I turned and said, loud enough for her to hear this time, “ I have a laptop, a novel and enough music to occupy me for the next 3 hours if you so choose. But I rather spend it talking with you and enjoying your company. It’s your call.”
- “My name is Lama and there’s nothing I'd like more than a nice and entertaining conversation judging from the way you introduced yourself,” she quickly replied with a gorgeous smile on her face.
Her pearly smile and jade eyes won me over in a minute. There’s no point in hiding anything. “I’m abufares. I’m married. I have 3 kids although I don’t wear a ring,” I blurted out as I beamed at my own reflection swimming effortlessly in the calm pools of her eyes.
We talked for the next 4 hours, mostly about her. She is a civil engineer in a public sector company on her way to the ministry in Damascus. My quick calculations betrayed her age at around 28. I learned about her childhood, her college years, her work and her ambitions. I became aware of her tastes in reading and music, her personal assessment and outlook on life. We talked economy, politics, sociology and religion. She let me through a small window into her life and asked for my advice. We had coffee together in the Istiraha and neither of us showed any inclination to use the bathroom. I told her stories from here and there and opened up honestly to her gentle probing inquiries. When we ultimately reached Damascus she was already aware of my aversion to busses and my angst toward taxis. A car from the ministry was sent to pick her up and she would take me wherever I need to go. But eventually, and like all the good things in life, our journey through time and space was coming to an end.
-“You too have beautiful green eyes”, she said, “I’ve never enjoyed a bus ride as much as I’ve enjoyed this one.”
-“Are you by any chance returning to Tartous on the 18:30 bus later on today?”, I pleaded.
No, she was staying overnight at her aunt’s house. But we will see each other again, someday soon, she hoped.
I prayed!
Around 5:30 PM, I was walking the streets near the Omaya Hotel. I had a brief lunch earlier during the meeting and was looking forward a chocolate ice-cream at Apollo. I had a little time on my hand to kill before the dreadful ride in a taxi to Harasta then the return to Tartous on a regular (not businessmen) bullman.
As I glanced sideways before crossing the street I heard my name being called from a car right in front of me. A friend of mine, a sea master of a large tanker had just returned by plane from Amsterdam. His wife had waited for him at the airport earlier and they were leaving to Tartous now. I tried to convince them that I do not mind the bus ride but they would not hear of it. As the car sped up leaving the city behind, my friend really wanted to know how my bus trip to Damascus was.
-“It was a trip I’ll never forget”, I mused loudly with a big smile on my face.
-“I bet it was,” the captain said, “I bet it was.”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Burghul b Hummus

My accolade of the coastal Syrian cuisine is coming brazenly to a riotous gastronomical climax. Some of the provincial dishes I have already described and certainly the topic of today have been underrated for generations in Syria despite being the most ubiquitous. The truth of the matter is that the Damascene are the loudest when it comes to promoting themselves, followed closely by the Aleppine, then the Homsis and Hamwis as distant thirds and fourths. I have already unfeathered (natafet reech) the Damascene as being on par with the Lebanese when it comes to their notorious egotism. If left to their own devices, they might go as far as alleging that God Almighty comes from the Midan area. The Aleppine, whimsically gifted with robust yet supple vocal cords, had put their Tarab to self-serving use and advanced their city to the entire Arab world as not only the Mecca of authentic Mousika Sharkieh (Oriental Music) but of delicious food as well. The Homsis and Hamwis stubbornly pushed forward in their relentless quest to perfect their bombastic sweets until they succeeded in raising diabetes levels in the whole country. Have you ever wondered what sort of gargoyle conjured the Sha'aybiyat (شعيبيات)? Notice that the damn word doesn’t even have a singular form. They are always Sha'aybiyat in plural, never one Sha'aybieh. Legend has it that a Rastan native with a Homsi for a father and a Hamwieh for a mother created the first monstrosity.

Only the modest, hardworking and nonsensical coastal Tartoussis (and to a lesser extent their bitter neighbors the Lattakians) silently endowed the Syrian cuisine with the bare essentials conceived by their good nature and fertile earth. In a moment of pure ecstasy, a carnivore fisherman and a beautiful vegetarian maiden from the mountains consummated their love and introduced flesh (meat or poultry) to Burghul . While the landlocked Syrians were still trying to come to grip with our earlier invention, the Mjadra, we were making headways in our hedonistic pursuit of the ultimate Syrian dish: Burghul b Hummus with either Lahme (meat) or Farrouj (chicken).

Forget about silverware, china and hors d'oeuvre. Get yourself a Kas'aa (قصعة) and a Khashouka (خاشوقة) (in coastal mountains dialect = Metal bowl and a spoon), and let’s party.

Ingredients: 1 whole chicken, 1 large onion, 1 large cut onion, water to completely cover the chicken, salt, pepper, 1 carrot, 5 to 6 cinnamon sticks, 1 teaspoon cardamom, 2 cups coarse Burghul, 1 cup boiled chickpeas (Hummus) and olive oil

How to Prepare:

-Bring to boil a whole clean chicken, a carrot, the uncut onion, salt and pepper, a few sticks of cinnamon and a little cardamom. Reduce heat to medium, cover and let cook for 90 minutes (or until done). The carrot and onion are thrown away and used only to absorb any undesired taste or smell.

-Remove chicken and drain. Keep the broth on the side.

-Rinse 2 cups of coarse Burghul then place into a strainer.

-In the pot to be used to cook the Burghul, braise the cut onion in 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil until tender. Add the Burghul, mix well, top with 2 ½ cups of the chicken broth, cover and heat over medium for 10 minutes. Add the pre-boiled or separately boiled tender chickpeas (Hummus). Mix again, cover for 5 minutes then remove from heat.

-Present in any type of ware or in the cooking pot and spread the de-boned chicken in pieces and chunks on top. Pour a generous amount of virgin olive oil (4 to 6 tablespoons as per preference) and serve along with raw onions, yogurt, pickles and Arak if you want to go all the way.

-Unbuckle your belt, kick off your shoes, take a nap, wake up, wash your mouth with a cold slice of watermelon then you’re free to be whatever you were before you had Burghul b Hummus. You've just earned your right of passage to being accepted as a real Ibn Balad. Welcome to Tartous!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

abufares' net

This last year has been a test in resilience for the dozens of bloggers who write out of Syria. A decision to completely block BLOGSPOT was taken at a certain echelon of the Syrian government. Whether masterminded by some praetorian bigwig or by a quisquilian security clerk the wall was ultimately built. Many bloggers gave up eventually. It became a pain in the ass to post or comment on Blogspot. More pliant individuals made the switch to other platforms and continued unheeded by the unwarranted complicity of an archaic bureaucracy.

One day in 2006 I started blogging. It never occurred to me that I will eventually soil my hands with politics. I am of the seemingly insouciant apolitical type. Surely I have my opinions but I normally keep them to myself. Through their attempt to alienate me further the idiots could only achieve the exact opposite result.

So I got myself a net. www.abufares.net is the new domain of my blog. No longer do I have to sneak behind proxies to reply to comments. But more significantly, readers in Syria who wish to honor me by visiting my blog do not need to go out of their way to do so anymore.

Although having my own unique URL is more prestigious I can’t promise any improvement in quality. I will continue to write about Tartous and beautiful women. Every once in a while I will post a recipe that is arguably threatening to national security. I will elaborate in tedious details about the bounties of Syria and praise Arak and our delight of being alive, despite all.

I will fiercely defend my homeland against domestic and foreign foes while insisting that our public toilets stink and are a shame to modern and ancient civilizations. I will lament the fallen trees, the lost traditions and our battered personal liberties. I will continue my private vendetta against social and theological tyranny and hearten the younger generation not to succumb to fear or guilt.

I am neither an intellectual emissary nor a street visionary. I am a common man from Tartous who found a way to break his silence.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Thank You Yaman


I have read your excellent blog occasionally but never left a comment. My mistake of course. I have to thank you for saving our planet. It sounds like something Lois Lane would tell Superman after he drops her on a roof of a skyscraper.
I'm sure every single Syrian blogger and all readers of Syrian blogs have the same exact words to you:

Thank You Yaman!