(translation: why didn't you eat?)
I just got back from Spring Break in Syria (Spring Break! Wooo!), and had the most amazing time ever. I fell in love with the narrow, winding streets of the old cities and the welcoming people, and I've never felt so overcome with a feeling historical or cultural appreciation! Sure, I had learned about the Great Wall and Taoism before going to China, and the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame before going to Paris, but that was nothing like this. I feel like I've been studying the Middle East and Islam for such a long time now--I mean for the past six month's I've thought about nothing but Arabic and Arab culture--and it was incredibly satisfying to see things that I learned about in school.
Damascus was especially exciting. Not only is it the capital, claims to be the oldest city in the world (although so does Aleppo), and is home to the Umayyad Mosque, but it is also incredibly important to Shi'a pilgrims.
The Umayyad Mosque is the most famous mosque in the world, other than those in Mecca and Medina. The location has been a holy site since the 9th century BCE, but was transformed into a mosque in 705 CE. It's absolutely beautiful. The minarets all date to different time periods and have their own unique characteristics. The marble floor of the courtyard is cool and smooth, and the tiling on the inner walls glimmer in the sunlight. It is so peaceful inside; I felt as if I could have sat for hours watching the children slide on the smooth floor and their parents perform one of their five daily prayers.
Also in the Umayyad Mosque are the (claimed to be) heads of John the Baptist and Hussein, the Shi'a martyr who was killed by the forces of the Caliph Yazid at the Battle of Karbala. Hussein was the son of the fourth Caliph Ali and the grandson of Muhammad, and, according to Shiites, should have been the leader of the Ummah, the Muslim community. He stood up against oppression and tyranny, although he and his small army were outnumbered by about 40,000. Hussein was killed in battle, and his head was carried to the Caliph in Damascus.
Zainab, the sister of Hussein, wept for her brother and for the disgrace that was brought upon the house of the prophet. For Shi'a women, she is a symbol of strength and sacrifice.
Shi'as typically commemorate the Martyrdom of Hussein with the Mourning of Muharram, which often includes self-flaggelation of men (to represent the sacrifice of Hussein) and weeping of women (to honor the courage of Zainab). I first learned about this in an course about political identity in Iraq, and then later in Islamic Politics, and of course was fascinated by this ritual of remembrance. But I never thought that I would actually ever see it! While it was not Muharram and there was no self-flaggelation at the Umayyad Mosque, Shi'a pilgrims rushed to touch the shrine of Hussein, and the women wept over it, as Zainab had done over her brother.
The next day we went to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, which is a mausoleum for Ruqayya, the daughter of Hussein. The mosque is just about 30 years old, was built by the Iranians, and has the most mirror mosaics I've seen in my life! I had never heard of Sayyida Ruqayya before, but hundreds of Iranian pilgrims flocked to her tomb, and the women wept for her, just as they did for Hussein.
Syria recently opened its boarders to Iranians, and thousands of them covered the streets of the Old City of Damascus, especially close the the Umayyad and Sayyida Ruqayya Mosques. Many people would try to speak to us in Farsi, and we would try to speak to them in Arabic, and neither of us would understand. Although there were times where I felt overwhelmed by the crowds (especially next to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque), I felt totally welcome to these shrines and holy sites. The pilgrims were so excited to see to us and to try to speak to us. Some smiled, and some gave us candy, but all were warm and treated us as if we were one of them. Feeling that sense of community at a Shi'ite pilgrimage site made me really think about the sense of brotherhood during the hajj to Mecca that changed Malcolm X's life: "My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with a new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I never had seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, -- blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans -- in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshipping as one! No segregationists -- no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words."
It was amazing to see all of that first hand, and to experience the unity of a religious pilgrimage although I wasn't myself a pilgrim. (What is it going to be like when I go to Egypt?? And then Philistine?!?!) But, I would be lying if I didn't say that one of the best things about Syria was the food. And, boy, did I ever eat.
First of all, everything is more delicious is Syria. I don't know if it was because we were on break and I was excited about seeing everything and trying new things, but everything tasted better--i mean you can even drink the tap water there!!
The basics--hummus, mutabbal, baba ghanouj, and fattoush--were so much more flavorful! I think they use better olive oil in Syria, and these beautiful red spices that they don't use in Jordan. I'm not sure exactly what they are, but I tried to by some at the spice market in downtown Amman and I think it may be a combination of sweet and spicy paprikas.
Secondly, there are so many more types of food in Syria than there are in Jordan! Its basically the perfect mix of French and Arab cultures...every cafe has crepes or belgium waffles, and basically everything has something pomegranate in it.
Meet feteh. Feteh is delicious, and many could probably claim it to be the sole contributor to their obesity. It is basically pita bread that is drenched in tahini, then covered in ghee (yanie, pure saturated fat), hummus, chickpeas, and olive oil. So in other words, it is probally the worst thing that you could ever possibly eat. But it is amazing. I think we ate it at least 4 times for breakfast.
We first had feteh at this great restaurant in Lattakia that our friend Abdullah showed us. I've never seen bigger pots of hummus in my life!! It reminded me a bit of an old Coney Island where regulars go every morning for the special. We of course sat in the "family" section in the back and, thus, were out of the real action, but we were happy and full.
Wa baaden, foul. Now, I've eaten foul before, but never like this. In Haleb (Aleppo), we went to this great little foul place for breakfast each morning, Haj Abdo al-Fawwal. Yacoub somehow found this place amongst the nameless, twisty streets of the Christian quarter, and I'm so glad he did! The owner was maybe the sweetest and cutest cold man in the world, and they served the foul with the most flavorful, fresh tomato slices you could ever imagine.
And just down the street from Haj Abdo al-Fawwal was the bread factory where they got their bread from. The men would pile the bread on these giant rugs before delivering them to local restaurants. The first morning we walked by, I said something along the lines of, "hatha kiteer khobez!" (or, that is a lot of bread!). Of course they found it hilarious, and they gave us giant pieces of bread to eat (after we had eaten probably a kilo each of foul, mind you.) We thanked them and started to walk away and then they insisted that we take more bread that was warm and fresh out of the oven. We did of course, and we were happy and full.
The next morning after we ate foul, the men at the factory took us inside and we saw how the bread was made. It was really cool to see--all these pieces of dough being sliced and squashed before being rolled out flat and put into a flaming oven--and smelled so delicious. We akeed left with free bread, and we were again happy and full.
This is mouhamara--or, maybe one of the most delicious things i've ever eaten. Ever! (And for some reason, none of us took a picture of it! So I stole this one off the interwebs.) Like hummus of baba ghanouj, its a mix of walnuts, pomegranate molasses, toasted bread crumbs, olive oil, roasted red peppers, and spices. Sooo yummy. After we tried it in Haleb, we couldn't stop eating it. We had to order it at every meal because it made us so happy and full.
And now for the most wonderful things in Syria...the heluwiyat (desserts)!!!!! Just in case you don't know, I love desserts. So much. Ana amoot fi heluwiyat. And I especially love them from Syria, because pistachios (fustook halebe) are from Haleb! I love pistachios, and I made it a point to tell every person I met that I did (and of course they LOVED that).
My favorite heluwiyat is heressa, and in Haleb I ate the most delicious heressa with fustook halebe. And the owner of the dessert shop let me taste it for free. I was so happy and full.
Jill fell in love with aeesh abbulbul, or the brid's nests. The colors of the pistachios were so beautiful! And they were soo yummy. When Jill bought the biggest aseesh abbulbu (with fustook halebe, of course) we had ever seen, I was given a free piece of baklawa. Of course we were happy and full.
And the ice cream. Bakdash. Suhbanallah! This was the ice cream to end all other ice creams. Its in the souq al-hamidiyya, close to the Umayyad Mosque in Damasucs. The shop looks like an old fashioned little diner, and they hand mix the ice cream before it is "stretched and slapped, and then rolled into pistachio nuts." It's otherwise known as perfection.
We went to Bakdash twice (how could we not go the second day?). The beauty of Bakdash is that you can have as many flavors in one cone was you want, all for the same price of 50 Syrian pounds (roughly $1). The first time I had vanilla, chocolate, and mango. The second time vanilla, strawberry, and tout (berry). It was incredible. I am still thinking about how happy and full I was.
On the bus between Haleb and Hama, Ata sat next to this vet named Mohammed. He invited us over to his house for a quick lunch, because we told him that were only planning on staying in town for two hours or so--yanie, just enough time to see the water wheels and eat lunch before heading to Damascus. We should have known, though, that there is no such thing as a "quick" or "light" meal in the Arab world! Especially when you are invited into someone's house! His mom was so sweet to us, and instantly started cooking two or three chickens, minced meat pies, salad, pasta, and french fries when we walked into their apartment. This was, of course, in addition to the 2 kilos of hummus and bread she had her other son bring home. So we all sat on in the living room, watching Arab music videos while we waited to eat this "simple" lunch. There was so much food on the table! There were a lot of us--the five of us, plus Mohammed, his brother and sister, and his mother--but three of us (well, i guess two and a half of us) don't eat meat. Mohammed's mother sat next to me, and insisted that I eat two of the deep fried meat pies (they were quite delicious, but so is anything that is wrapped in filo dough and deep fried to a golden brown perfection), and kept putting giant pieces of chicken in front of me. We tried to explain that Ata, Yacoub, and I don't eat meat (they don't eat any here), and they kept looking at us with these sad, confused looks on their face saying, "hatha jaj, mish leham" (this is chicken, not meat). Mohammed's mother kept putting smaller and smaller pieces of chicken closer to Yacoub's face every time he said "la, shukran!", and at one point she scraped the lamb out of one of the little pies and handed it to Ata saying, "ma fi leham!" (there is no meat in it!). I think Jill was a champ and had to eat an entire chicken by herself once again to make up for us non-meat eaters. After I had stuffed myself with hummus, pasta, salad, french fries and one and a half meat pies, I had still had the giant pieces of chicken in front of me, and Mohammad's mother looked at me so seriously and said to me "lesh la eklte!?" (why didn't you eat?!) I ate!!! I was so happy and full--maybe too full to even be happy--but I ate, I promise!
Then we, of course, went back to the living room where we drank tea with cinnamon, ate a giant platter of fruit, drank kahoua s3da, and offered them a piece of our delicious pistachio baklawa from Haleb. Before we left, Mohammed, and his brother and sister, took us around Hama to show us all of the Roman waterwheels. Needless to say, we stayed in Hama for 5 hours more than we expected to, but we left for Damascus happy and full and exhausted.
Syria was by far the best backpacking trip I've ever been on; and i now i have very fond memories of being constantly happy and full. Check out my pictures on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/photos.php?id=2254734
انا اموت في سوريا