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24th Jan – 4th Feb 2011: Damascus – another whirlwind of food, festival, food, luxury, food and robbery

March 5, 2011

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Arriving in Damascus was an exhausting affair, and the illness I had incurred had me bed ridden for the first day in the city while the lads went off wandering. The stiff pillows and crusty bed sheets did little to ease me out of illness however, and I ended up just laying motionless without sleeping for the majority of the day. Eventually I was pulled outside in the search of food, and we blindly followed a recommendation by the guy at the reception desk to a Syrian version of KFC. Suffice to say chips and a coke did me right, and by the next day I was sharper and ready to take on the charms that Damascus had in store for us.

My first full day in the city couldn’t really be beaten for stimulation and wonder. On our meander towards the Umayyad Mosque in the centre of the old town we were confronted by a huge gathering of topless, chanting men, filling the main covered souk corridor down to the mosque. Naturally we ventured in further to see what the fuss was about, which was the sight of all these hundreds of men viciously flagellating themselves in unison while chanting a curiously upbeat chorus down the corridor. Those who weren’t involved in the beating were either crying in floods of tears and desperation on the sidelines or going about their daily shopping unawares. It was a bizarre and incredibly intense scene, particularly in the bustling and slightly contagious proximity the covered souk creates when it’s crowded. We later found out from some English speaking onlookers that the procession was in the culmination of the Remembrance of Muharram – A Shiite festival to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, grandson to Mohammed, who was killed by Emperor Yazid in The Battle of Karbala (thanks Wikipedia). The flagellations are performed to show solidarity with Husayn and to mourn the fact they were not there to protect him in his plight to preserve Islam.

Once you’ve seen something like this occurring within the magnificence of the Damascus Souks, they don’t quite look the same during the day to day. It was an extremely rich experience and made our welcome to Damascus and The Middle East that much more poignant.

The next few days culminated in Harry’s departure from our tight grasp around his spare parts (although he ended up leaving a lot of them for the benefit of yours truly). It was a sad day to see Harry leave. He was a great cycling partner; a very spritely companion particularly in the mornings when I was not at my best. You could always rely on Harry to have the breakfast up and running before I’d even opened the zip on my tent, he was that good. He was a bundle of energy too, and great to have around to make conversation with people on the road. We would just wind him up and let him go, often painfully listening to him try and gesticulate his sentences in what tiny use of Turkish / Arabic and sometimes even German that he had at his disposal. There are many moments that we shared with Harry that I will cherish for a long time, some that are not decent enough to mention on this blog. The most blog friendly moments being listening to Harry despair over almost losing his top sheet twice in bad weather, losing the map, falling off his bike on many occasions, watching him struggle to walk around in his clips and watching him try and take a leak in his full body spankies. Cheers Harry for the great times, and there is a great big space on the road for your ass to join us again down the line!

The feeling of emptiness that Harry’s departure left us with was vast but ultimately short lived, with the imminent arrival of Julian’s parents. With the new arrivals came a new base of operations, and we moved into our very luxurious new accommodation with ease to wait for their arrival.

It was fantastic to have John and Angela join us and share our time in Damascus. Unfortunately Julian had come down with what seemed to be the same illness I had endured just days earlier, so he stayed bedridden to recover while we took in the sights. We wandered the souks in his absence, enjoying tea in the afternoon sun in the bustling narrow streets. We had plentiful amounts of mezze in the best restaurants in the city. Julian recovered in time for us to take in the Umayyad mosque, a truly spectacular site with a huge courtyard and beautiful colonnades. We were blessed with the weather, and even managed to squeeze in a day trip to the formidable Roman ruins at Palmyra in the middle of the Syrian Desert.

We were later joined by John and Angela’s good friend Sophie from Jordan, who gave us many insights into the political, social and cultural organization of The Middle East. She is an architect who used to work at SOM with Angela, so I had a great time picking her brains about her working life and her experiences as an architect in The Jordan.

All in all, we had a truly fantastic time in Damascus. It was a time of many tales, with many people. We had the arrival and illness stage, the goodbye Harry stage, the arrival of John and Angela and seeing the sights stage, and finally, we had the departure and robbery stage.

Robbery is a horrible thing on all counts – to accuse someone of being a thief was for me just as bad as being the victim of said thievery. Either way it went down, and it was not pleasant.

I decided to withdraw a decent some of cash (7,400 Syrian Pounds to be exact, about 100 quid) and stashed 6,000 of it in my handlebar bag in my room. I came back to it the next day and found only 4,000 in there. First I thought I had spent it or thrown it about the street in a more ditzy moment that I seem to succumb to more often these days, resigned myself to my stupidity and got over it. Then the next day it had happened again. How could I have misplaced another 2,000SP? Surely I hadn’t spent it. Again I thought I must have done; it definitely hadn’t been lifted out of my bag, this is a classy hotel after all.

Anyway the final straw came when John and Angela were set to leave early in the morning and discovered $200 had gone missing from their room. They were in a hurry to get to the airport so put it down to bad luck, but it seemed far too much of a coincidence for me. I decided to at least let the manager at the hotel know that some money had gone missing, not make too much of a fuss about it. I had a shower to compose myself on how to broach the subject when I discovered that yet another 2,000 SP had gone. That was it, this is too much now. I had to confront the manager and seek a resolution for this.

All this, on a day when we are planning to leave a city and it doesn’t get much tougher. We are resigned to spend the majority of the day sitting in the smokey office of the hotel analyzing CCTV footage taken that morning to determine who may have taken the latest sum of money from my bag. There is some rather suspicious activity from a couple of the cleaning ladies, and the camera even cuts out for a minute or two as they are outside the room, but there is no concrete evidence to prove they did in fact take the money. In the end it ends up being us against the hotel, as quite rightly the manager backs his staff. They have never had any problems in the past or any complaints about theft, so they treat our report with suspicion. The whole time I am thinking ‘have I really just lost the money? What if I did spend it?’ the feeling of uncertainty creeps in and eats me alive, feverishly as I sit there with the eyes of the entire staff bearing down on me; word has clearly spread like wildfire about my claim, and the feeling of wretched discomfort is painfully acute.

In the end, much to the credit of the hotelier, and because I think he grew tired of the situation, he gave me the money from his own pocket, with a stern warning never to leave money in hotel rooms again. Advice which I have taken with me since- He even put us up for the night in another hotel down the street at the expense of himself, for the inconvenience we had received. I felt guilty to take the money, but at the end of the day I was robbed – I haven’t found the money since and I definitely wasn’t foolish enough to have spent 100 quid without realizing, so justice was served.

We moved to our new accommodation feeling rather deflated by the day’s events. The rain came down hard on the roof and in the end we were glad not to have been venturing out of town today. We grabbed some super cheap Syrian style pizzas from round the corner, had a chocolate waffle and forgot about the incident.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sophie Dahdah permalink
    March 5, 2011 4:05 pm

    ye (..) was great

    • March 5, 2011 4:38 pm

      my sincerest apologies Sophie, I was meant to put your name in after consultıng my dıary but completely fogot… ıt ıs corrected now. sorry agaın!!!

  2. Julian permalink*
    March 6, 2011 11:48 pm

    hook line and sinker

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