Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 6

When I was setting up our Iran/Syria trip it was a challenge figuring out how to get from Tehran to Damascus. I thought since the two countries are buddies it would be pretty straightforward. Not so. The most convenient flights were non-stops on Iran Air, but they fly only three days a week and the day we were leaving wasn’t one of the three. The next best was Kuwait Airlines, which would get us to Damascus with a change of planes in Kuwait City. They were afternoon flights that would have us arrive at a decent hour. So Kuwait Airlines it was.

We had a short layover in the Kuwait City airport. I found the terminal rather exotic. I should say the people in the terminal. Some women were totally covered, face included, in black abayahs. Others were wearing chic, revealing western dress. Most of the men were wearing a long sleeved one-piece white Dishdashah and a scarf-like red and white checked head cover. We had clearly moved from a Persian to an Arab place.

The flights were on time and except for an exceedingly hard landing in Damascus (and I mean really hard – I thought the pilot was on the verge of losing control of the plane) we were safely in Syria.

I’d heard that there were some wonderful small, boutique hotels in Damascus and Aleppo. I went on the Internet to check them out and found the Old Vine in Damascus. It turned out to be a jewel. I arranged for a car to pick us up, which turned out to be a really wise decision. As we were to discover, the Old Vine is not easy to find, even for local taxi drivers.

The car came to a stop on a busy shopping street. I didn’t see any hotel and wondered why we’d stopped. The driver got out, opened the trunk, and began unloading our luggage. As we stood there not knowing what to do a young man with a hand truck arrived and began loading our bags onto the truck. No one had said a word to us. Given that they didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Arabic I guess that wouldn’t have helped anyway.

The driver said goodbye and the young man with our luggage took off at a fast clip down a narrow street into a bazaar, called a souk in that part of the world. It was about 7 in the evening at this point and the souk was crowded with people. Shops on both sides were open and doing a brisk business. We had no idea where we were going and daylight had disappeared.

Sandra rushed ahead to try and stay close to our belongings. I guess the young man knew we were following, but he showed no sign of that or concern about where we might be. I was lagging behind, intrigued by the street scene through which we were passing and figuring that in the end it would all turn out OK. As far as we could tell there were no other foreigners around. Not that they would have been any help should we have needed it.

I kept both Sandra and (most of the time) the young man in sight as we kept walking. I guess we went about 300 meters more or less before coming to a very small lane on our right. Finally there was a sign directing us to follow that lane for the Old Vine. After another 50 meters we caught up with the young man, his hand truck, and our luggage in front of an old wooden door and a plaque that said Old Vine Hotel. We were there, safe and sound.

You know how sometimes when you arrive at a new place you have a feeling you’re going to like it (or not)? You walk in and it takes about three seconds to conclude, “Hey, this is great.” And there are those rare instances when you don’t even have to walk in. That’s the way it was at the Old Vine. I liked it even before we walked through that old wooden door.

Everything was done well at the Old Vine. The décor. The art. The staff. The food. Our room. The public space. I’ve described flying first class on Singapore Airlines as a seamless experience. With no offbeat notes, everything works well. The Old Vine is seamless in the same way. More about the hotel soon. For now, back to our first night in Syria.

We were looking forward to a good dinner and a bottle of wine, so our first order of business was to ask the man at the desk for restaurant recommendations. He suggested Narange, Damascus’ current #1, but we couldn’t get a reservation on such short notice. His Plan B was Al Dar. It was, he said, very good and only a 10-minute walk from the Old Vine. Sounded good to us. Now, how were we going to get there?

Our man gave us a map. Sandra loves maps and over the years has used them successfully to help us locate hard-to-find places around the world. There were just a couple of problems this time. First of all, the street and other names on the map were in Arabic. Second, the scale was such that not every lane was shown and it would take a magnifying glass to really see what was shown. Third, while we had little ‘x’s’ indicating where we were and where Al Dar was we weren’t at all clear on the best way to get from here to there. Basically, we were told to go out the door, turn left, go to the end of the lane, turn right, and then turn right again at either the 1st or 2nd or 3rd street we came to. Our man’s mastery of English and our complete and utter ignorance of the local language were such that we weren’t sure exactly what he was telling us.

But, hey, we’d had challenges before and overcome them. We’d do it again this time. So in that spirit an hour later we headed out the door for the Al Dar. We did the left and right OK, but when we came to the first right after that we weren’t sure whether to take it or not. We decided to pass on that one and go to the 2nd right. A short distance after that we came to an intersection and were unsure of what to do. I wouldn’t say we were lost. We hadn’t even gone far enough to be lost. Just unsure. Sandra found enough light on the street to study the map. And then she studied it some more. For the first time I can remember in such a situation she acknowledged that she didn’t know what to do.

Fortunately, our man had given us a little slip of paper with something written on it that he said would be a help if we had trouble finding Al Dar. I decided to show the paper to someone in a shop across the street. It worked like a charm. The man pointed us in the right direction. We were a long way from the finish line, but at least we were on the way. Not too long after that I took my trusty little piece of paper into another shop, and again it worked like a charm. We were told which way to go. It was like using a compass. If we asked often enough we wouldn’t go too far wrong. We were awake enough to pay close attention to where we were on the assumption that we’d have to find our way back to the hotel later that night.

I must have gone into at least eight shops on this journey. Without exception, the shopkeepers and shoppers were happy to help. As we came closer to our destination we were told ‘300 meters’ straight ahead. We heard ‘300 meters’ several times, but finally, voila, Al Dar. We did it! Dinner was, literally, just around the corner.

On Al Dar’s website is the following statement:

In the oldest city that the history knew.

Within the most Damascene districts nobility.

Inside the old fence to Damascus city.

In Thomas’s door Al Dar Restaurant falls.

Contempt we founded it on old house rubbles with new spirit.

Foods derived from the past by western breaths.

The past atmospheres we put them between your sights by the present language.

Hospitality is our principles.

I quote this not to make fun of the contorted translation of what is written in Arabic on the same website (its infinitely better than I could do were it the other way around) but to give you a sense of the environment and the place.

We were inside the walls of the Old Town of what many think is the oldest city on the planet. What was originally built as a home centuries ago had been renovated and converted into a ‘hip’ eating establishment. I’d describe the structure and décor as antique modern. Elements and the flavor of Old Syria were integrated into a 21st Century design. These carried over into the menu, which included both traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and European dishes, and the ambiance – live jazz music and upscale service.

As we sat down at our table I’d say our mood was giddy. While we’d loved our time in Iran, we certainly liked the idea of indulging ourselves in a place that closely resembled what we were used to. And that we’d successfully navigated our walk to get there increased our pleasure.

So now, how about something to drink? We quickly learned that the most available wine in Syria comes from Lebanon’s Ksara Winery. Ksara has many different bottlings and all the ones we had were quite drinkable. So we began our Al Dar experience by ordering a bottle of Ksara. But I had a yen for some Arak, the anise flavored liquor that has its home in the Middle East. Arak is a clear liquid usually diluted with water (which turns it a milky-white color) and served over ice. So we ordered a bottle of Arak as well.

Sandra isn’t an Arak fan, so I was on my own with it. Cut to the end of the meal. We’d eaten and drunk well – too well in my case. The Arak put me over the top. I was loaded. I can’t remember the last time I was a giggling, happy drunk. I didn’t misbehave and I could function well enough to walk home (we did remember how to get there), but I wasn’t going to set any records for coherence. I had the feeling we’d paid twice what we should have paid for dinner, but I hadn’t challenged the bill so there was nothing to do but let it go and congratulate ourselves on doing exactly what we set out to do that night.

Our first full day in Damascus was a Friday, the day many things are closed in the Islamic world. We did want to visit the National Museum, and it was open, so no problem there. The owner of the Old Vine, Sami Maamoun, was in the hotel as we were about to leave and offered us a ride. Sami looks to be in his early 30’s. He’s an attractive guy, cosmopolitan, cultured, and speaks impeccable English, which is not surprising since he was educated in England and has a British mother and Syrian father. He told us it took 2½ years to turn the Old Vine from a rundown 17th Century mansion into the hotel that it is today.

Later we were told by a woman who manages the hotel for Sami that the quality of the Old Vine reflects the taste, attention to detail and relentless pursuit of perfection that he brought to project.

The Old Vine has only nine rooms. We were in the Fulla room. In Arabic, Fulla means jasmine. The furniture in our room featured an Arabesque design and mother of pearl inlays. Our bed, which was quite large, had originally been an old Diwan (couch.) I particularly loved the black and white pictures on the walls. They featured people and scenes from the Syria of a hundred years ago. In our bathroom floor was a large lovely tile design. We didn’t realize until we were in the room that we didn’t have a window. Normally I would have considered this a major drawback, but at the Old Vine it didn’t bother us.

We had breakfast down in an open courtyard in the center of the property. The food for breakfast was excellent. We particularly enjoyed being able to have eggs made to order by a woman who did the cooking. Freshly made pastry from one of the nearby bakeries was reminiscent of France – not surprising since the French controlled Syria under a League of Nations Mandate between the first and second world wars. And of course the coffee was plentiful and strong.

The National Museum was well worth the visit. The building is set in a shady garden, with trees, flowers and many works of art. When we were there a class of schoolchildren was tracing some of the stone objects. The entrance is a work of art itself. It is the main gate of a 7th Century desert palace in Palmyra that was moved stone by stone to Damascus.

In the museum itself there is much to see, but three things in particular stand out for me: Large 3rd Century Roman mosaics in great condition dominate the walls and floor of one room. Downstairs is a reconstruction of a burial chamber in Palmyra, with statues and decorated walls with openings into which bodies were pigeonholed and interred. And finally there is a special section dedicated to a 2nd Century synagogue that was discovered in the ancient city of Dura Europos, removed and reconstructed here. Frescoes in a naïve style of drawing depicting scenes from the Old Testament cover the walls. I’ve never seen anything like it.

A market near the museum catered to tourists and Sandra wanted to check out the possibility of buying some silver items. Her job is to decide what she likes. My job is to bargain. She found a few things she liked, and I went to work. The shopkeeper was a young guy, rather cocky at first. I offered an amount that was way less than what he asked. We went back and forth for a while, until I convinced him that we’d walk away rather than pay his price. I’d give a little, but not too much.

What finally became obvious was that this was his father’s shop and he’d have to answer to him if he sold the merchandise below whatever their minimum was. I guess we were close to that number, because he hesitated before agreeing on what I said was my final offer. I thought later that I might have gone too far. Usually the seller is in good spirits when a bargaining session is successfully completed. This young man didn’t look very happy. Sandra was, though. She had three pieces of silver jewelry that she likes a lot.

Finding a taxi to take us back to the hotel was a challenge. There were plenty of empty taxis. The problem was we couldn’t find a driver who knew where we wanted to go. I said the name of the city gate near the hotel. I was sure I was pronouncing it correctly, but whatever I said didn’t compute. Finally, I remembered that we had a slip of paper the Old Vine had given us, which said in Arabic where we wanted to go. With that we were able to communicate and we were dropped back at the same spot the airport car had deposited us the night before. Except by now we knew what to do when we got there – 24-hour experts – and we completed our excursion.

Dinner this evening was to be a little more modest that the Al Dar the night before. We went to the Al Khawali, an easy walk in roughly the same direction we traveled on our search for the Al Dar. The Al Khawali is a large, family-oriented restaurant, also converted from an old home and nicely decorated. We saw quite a few women who we thought were having a night out after attending Friday prayers. No wine was served, but the food was fine, the price was cheap, and we enjoyed it. Since we had a couple of bottles of Ksara red in our room, we weren’t feeling wine-deprived.

The next day we spent in the Old Town area near our hotel. The main attraction is the Umayyad Mosque, and it didn’t disappoint. The Umayyad is very old, built at the beginning of the 8th Century. It is one of the holiest places in the Islamic world. In style it is very different than what we saw in Iran and beautiful on its own terms. It is huge, with a large open courtyard, and has many extraordinary mosaics. For architectural and design details I suggest you look elsewhere.

On the eastern side of the Umayyad is the Shrine of Hussein, grandson of the prophet, who was killed in Karbala. For Shiites, this shrine is revered. It is said that while Hussein’s body stayed in Karbala, his head was entombed here. Naturally, we wanted to see it. (The shrine, not the head.) When we entered the shrine we found ourselves in the middle of a mob scene. Wall to wall people. Shiite pilgrims. More black-clad women than men. Emotions running high. Tears. Prayers. Pushing forward to touch the side of the shrine. Following the lead of several male pilgrims, I stood back out of the way near a wall and took pictures. It was an unbelievable sight. I’ve described the craziness at the Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz. The Shrine of Hussein was more of the same.

It was a struggle getting out. We ran into a large group of pilgrims, almost all women, in a frenzy to get inside. I would have stepped aside and let them pass (figuring at some point there would be a break) but I couldn’t. I was being pushed forward by a group behind us also trying to get out. Not a good place to be if you have claustrophobia.

Adjacent to the mosque is Saladin’s Tomb. Saladin was the Sultan of Egypt and Syria who led Muslim resistance to the Crusaders. Just outside the front of the Umayyad is an old Temple Gate built by the Romans. This gate was the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter, which stood on the ground now occupied by the Umayyad. And just beyond the Temple Gate is Damascus’ old souk.

The souk wasn’t quite as crowded as Hussein’s Shrine, but it was close. Lots of people, almost none of who paid the least attention to us. We saw more foreign tourists in Syria than in Iran, but there weren’t many in the souk and the locals were focused on taking care of whatever business brought them out – shopping, meeting friends, taking the kids for a walk – whatever.

Sandra wanted to buy two things: ice cream and a cap. We saw many people carrying cones or cups of ice cream, so we knew it must be available somewhere close by. Sure enough, up ahead we saw a crowd of people trying to get into a place called Bakdash. It had a large window in front, and we could see men in white scooping gobs of ice cream out of large containers. Sandra was on a mission, so – undeterred by the crowd or knowing how to ask for what she wanted – in she went.

I watched from the outside as she wormed her way into the store and disappeared. I found out later she’d figured out that first she needed to pay for what she wanted. Her problem was that she couldn’t communicate. Thanks to sign language, pointing and helpful people behind the counter she got that job done. Then she reappeared behind the window near the containers of ice cream. I saw her tell one of the guys in white what she wanted him to scoop out for her. A few moments later she emerged, cup of ice cream in hand, triumphant.

Not far away we saw a cap shop. Sandra found a cap she liked, which led to a chat with the shopkeeper. Turns out he has a son in the U.S., in Baltimore. He seemed very happy to talk with us. Our excursion into the souk was a success.

On this, our final night in Damascus, we had dinner at Narange, the popular restaurant we couldn’t get into on our first night in town. Who knows what makes a restaurant ‘the’ place to go? Maybe it is because President Assad is said to eat there once a week. Maybe because the food is good. Maybe because it has a cosmopolitan ambiance. Or more likely, none of the above. My guess is that Narange is hot just because of the buzz.

In any event, we had a reservation. To get there we followed the same path we took to Al Dar. Except by now we were veterans and knew exactly where to go. We loved the place. The food was great. There were many large tables filled with families or friends. The energy in the room was strong and positive. The service was good. When we left we noticed that the street in front was filled with many new, expensive cars. No surprise. What did surprise me was that several had Lebanese license plates. While Lebanon isn’t that far away, it does seem like a rather long way to go for dinner.

Later, I noticed on our Visa bill that the charges for Narange came from a vendor in Jordan. Which reminds me, our expectation that in Syria we’d be able to use credit cards in most places proved not to be true. In Damascus, the Old Vine and Narange took Visa, but that was it. Everywhere else either the machine was broken, or they hemmed and hawed a lot, or they simply said ‘no.’

Many restaurants in Syria didn’t have prices on their menus. The menus we saw were in English or English and Arabic, so I’m not sure if the ‘no price’ policy was the same on all-Arabic menus. It wasn’t a problem; I just found it strange.

Speaking of Arabic – I thought what we call Arabic numerals are the regular 1, 2, 3, etc. But in Arabic-speaking Syria the numerals are written in (I guess it’s accurate to say) Arabic. And since I can’t read Arabic I couldn’t read the numbers. Seems like there’s a misnomer in here somewhere.

The Narange was our farewell party in Damascus. We’d leave for Palmyra in the morning.


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