Saturday, February 6, 2010

Just Exploring Ancient Syria

Here's a small part of my Syria. The pictures were supposed to be presented chronologically in an aesthetically pleasing manner, but I'm blog illiterate. I decided my time in the internet cafe isn't the best place to work on such skills. Please feel free to create your own creative "peace" from my unorganized experience while always remembering that Syria rocks! Also almost all of these pictures were taken by my buddy Ty Arnold. He's an amazing photographer as you are about to see.
Palmyra! Some say it's the biggest best preserved ancient Roman city. I say it has the best landscape. Wiki "Queen Zenobia" and you'll be entertained by stories of one of the toughest women in history. This was her city.
Behind me is the Euphrates river plain! How cool is that? In this picture I'm on an ancient tel called Dura Europas. This tell has the oldest known Christian Church (oldest church built for the purpose of worship) and Jewish Synagogue in the world.
Oudai is the guy with the beard. When I first met him I couldn't stop staring at him. I hope I don't offend Shea Stott my saying this, but he's by far the best Jesus East of the Mediterranean. His Druze family invited me to their home in Sueida for New Year's.
This is a UN controlled deserted town called Quinetra in the Golan Heights. Israel took control of the Golan after the 6-Day War in 1967. In 1974 they gave a small portion back only after completely stripping the capital city of anything valuable, bulldozing the city, and taking it's 40,000 citizens.
Check out the stairs hanging from the building on the left. The city was completely destroyed.
The border between the UN-controlled Golan, and Israeli-occupied Golan. The other side of the barbed wire fence is a land mine. If you look close you can see the Israeli towers in the background. We had to get a special permit to come to Quinetra.
Abandoned Church in the Quinetra. Although, approximately 90% were Druze there was still a small population of Christians and Sunnis.
The fertile plain of the Euphrates. This is just below what you see in that first picture.
Palmyra's cardo!
These are tombs we were able to climb through and up on top to watch the sunset. Inside were dozens of individual tombs with lots of bones. I felt like Indiana Jones. During the trip to the Euphrates and surrounding areas, we were virtually the only tourists in site and on the sites.

The most famous and best well preserved Crusader Castle in the world, the Krac de Chevaliers. It's the castle they use in "Kingdom of Heaven"
Spent Christmas day with a Christian family. The lady in the black sweater in the middle is the only local of our 8 member Syrian branch. Being a faithful member didn't stop her relatives from having a good time on Christmas Eve. Drinking and dancing is an identity marker for Christians in the Middle East.
Palmyra bones!
Before and after shots. Let's just admit it, I'm freaking hot when I'm posing. I guess it comes natural. I decided to cut my beard because people thought I was 35 years old. Seriously though. The moment after the shave was complete, re-entrance into society was complete. A the barber was cleaning up the hair, he asked me how old I was. I told him to guess. He said 25. Anna if you like older men I can grow my beard back. Oh wait I already am an older man huh?

Me as a tall, dark, and handsome middle-aged man.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Long John Donkey Spoons!

The last three weeks have been spent doing splits/cultural exchanges with 4 painters and their band of hooligans. It was a great ride. While transitioning between homes, my artist friend Ali let me stay it his house. I would sleep in one bedroom, Ali would sleep in the other, and the other guys would sleep on the couches or on tiny mattresses thrown on the ground. Sometimes I would wake up to a houseful of other stranger artists strapped to their mini mattresses and tip toe my way across the crowded snoring floor. Arab hospitality of course provided royal treatment, but a moderate adaption to Levantine bohemian social habits provided a colorful brotherhood. By the way it was really funny.

I’ll use a description of Ibrahim as an archetype. Ibrahim sleeps all day. Literally. He was asleep at 8 in the morning when I left that morning and still asleep at 5 o’clock when I got back yesterday. I left at 9:30 pm for my new house. Ibrahim was still asleep. When he’s not sleeping, and manages to wake up in the mid-afternoon he hangs out in his long-John’s the whole day while drinking Arabized-Argentinian maté and smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day. He’s the nicest guy in the world. Having married an Italian woman 5 years ago, he someday aspires to live in Italy and continue studying Art. All great artists go to Italy. Ibrahim has long frizzled charcoal-black hair that he wears in a difficult-to-identify ponytail. He wears taped broken glasses, has a beard that he sometimes shaves every two weeks, and drinks anabolic protein shakes daily before he goes to workout at the local sports complex. He starts the night of usually playing cards with his friends or watching a flick with me on my computer. Midnight dinner is followed by creative and deep thinking, beautiful and professional drawing (some of the best I’ve seen in my life), a little bit of Italian studies, some thought provoking maté, and maybe another nap before finally fading off into a deep dream filled sleep at around 8 am.

These guys were great. They would do anything for me if I asked. They always cooked big meals, did my laundry, gave me my own private room, and loved laughing with me. One of my favorite highlights was playing introducing my family favorite, spoons. I had to explain the rules in Arabic. Whenever I was having difficulty with a concept they would try to guess. Their guesses and my lack of Arabic words provided an amazing version of spoons I will not forget. Instead of a spelling P-I-G, you get 4 donkey shots. Instead of a PASS the cards, it’s a short and lound BAHS, with these pass intervals being 5 seconds instead of 1 second looks. Always they would practice their English slang (usually learned from Hollywood). If it wasn’t the “F word” or “donkey” it was a dead arm or jab to the face. My favorite is when they think they are clever. Instead of saying “You are stupid/shi-” they often mix up their pronouns and loudly declare with a blaming index finger pointing to the other “I STUPID!” or “I DONKEY!” The game also ended with a little Syrian touch. With marker in hand, all of us were able to scribble as much as we wanted all over the newly crowned DONKEY’S face. I’ve had some great games of spoons in my day that was one of the best. If Mark Stein were to power rank them, definitely top five!

p.s. Please stay tuned for an accounting of my most recent trip to the fertile flood plain of the ancient Euphrates river!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Week 5 and 6

Let me do some explaining. Sorry about the order of the pictures and words, I'm not very good at blogging.

I went to Aleppo, the biggest city in Northern Syria, where our branch stayed in a really nice hotel. We went there to visit the gravestones of two LDS missionaries that died there during the 1920's. One of them was a mission president. My current District President serving a mission currently in Amman, Jordan is the great grandson of this past mission president and this trip was the first time that they know of that a relative has visited the gravesight.

I've eaten at Yehiiha's house twice. The first time went perfect, the second time (this week) I got sick.

Here's an account of my first time at his house:

So that friend I told you about Yeheeya (John) a really awesome, nice, and humble man invited me to his house for dinner. The house was small and simple but the love was grande and fantastic. for some reason his 4 kids (14 years old to 2) and wife were really intrigued by me. Seriously I don't know if i've ever been more funny, and I wasn't even trying to be funny. I don't even know what i was doing to be funny. It just happened, i just was. Imagine a really traditional religious muslim family that is really good and well mannered. All of them including the mom in her hijab were laughing hysterically. The type of laugh where it's inappropriate to laugh and they are trying not to laugh, doing everything physically possible not to laugh, but can't stop. I'm telling you it was ridiculous. The fact that they thought they were being rude and were trying to be good hosts in a place where hospitality to guests is extremely important (little did they 't know that I didn't care, but in fact was basking in the incredible moment) added so much to the moment. Seriously they were laughing hysterically. Their faces were bright red, veins popping out and they could barely breath.. They would to this thing where they would turn their faces away from me so I couldn't see them dying of laughter, as if I wouldn't notice that they were seizing up in their laughs. At one point I looked over at the mom and as she was hiding her face and turning from me, a huge slimy and stringy drool just gushed out of her mouth over her hijab and all down her dress. She was laughing so hard she was drooling like a little baby. It was a sight to see. i also was laughing so hard too.

This weeks experience :

(Saturday 11-14-09) Ok folks, here I go again. I’m behind a couple weeks so let me see what I can do to fill you in. In order to set the mood, I want to start out with a story from last night, the not so pretty yet extremely comical side of my experience in Damascus. I’ve mentioned to you guys before of a relationship I have with a shoe-repairman named Yehiiya (John). Our friendship is special in many ways, but my favorite part is the love and concern he has for me. He’s always watching out for me and making sure I have everything I need. He’s opened up some doors for me that have allowed me to experience Damascene life at the volk level rather than the Romanticized version usually experienced by tourists or foreigners in a different country. He’s invited me over to his house a few times and I’ve been able to see for myself how the common poor people of Damascus live. Yesterday he and his family had me over for dinner again. It was easy to tell that the family had gone all out to prepare a very special meal for me, probably only equaled a few times per year on very special occasions. I was very grateful and wanted to show my appreciation and my interpretation of that was to eat a lot of the wonderful food. As I started eating the chicken and potato dish, although very tasty, I could tell that it was made with a lot of cheap cooking oil. My taste buds allowed me a flashback to my first few months of my mission when my stomach had a very difficult time adjusting to the different food style. I would throw-up after every meal prepared similarly to how this wonderful potato-chicken dish was prepared. I was cautious not to eat a lot of only this dish but rather ration it amongst the appetizers, bread, soup, and salads. Yehiiya had different plans. Every time I made progress in clearing my dish of food, he would add more to my plate. I ended up eating a lot of chicken and potatoes. After dinner they brought out the customary tea (soda for me) and then dessert snacks after that. By this time my tummy was starting to feel it. I had obviously put too much faith in my digestive capabilities; I knew that I was in trouble. At this point I was completely refusing any snack foods brought out. My tummy was hurting, I thought if I laid down for a while it my help in the digestive process. This only prolonged the inevitable. I mentioned to Yehiiya a couple of times that I need to go home, but he would ask why and tell me to stay just a little longer and even suggest that I spend the night. After an hour and a half of ignoring gastric red flags I finally told Yehiiya I had to go home because I was sick. The only problem with this is that I stayed at his house to the last possible minute before things would start to get ugly and I still had to walk 10 minutes to the bus stop, 20 minutes on the microbus, and 15 minutes to my house. I wasn’t going to make it. As Yehiiya walked me to the bus stop, I knew that I was about to blow chunks at any moment. I couldn’t though because I knew that he would be completely devastated and feel horrible knowing that their special meal had make me sick. I prayed fervently in my heart as we walked in the cold night that I wouldn’t throw up until at least Yehiiya was out of sight. I finally made it to the microbus and said goodbye. I sat in the back next to the window preparatory to the blow. I said another prayer pleading for postponement of the upchuck. I made it to my stop. My stop is one of the busiest intersections in the city center. However, 50 yards away there is a dark pillared abandoned building alleyway. I straight lined it to my dark hidden spot and let loose. It was horribly violent and disgusting. I threw up everything I had eaten since breakfast. My first upchuck was done peacefully, during my second one I heard a loud moaning mumble. I look around and saw a deaf and dumb homeless man screeching out some sort of plea as he pointed outside my newly acquired dungeon. I thought he was worried about me and was pointing to help. I tried to mutter no thank you and beckoned him away. He wouldn’t leave. Every vomit his gestures became more earnest. By my third or fourth vomit, very fiercely I yelled “NO!” I just wanted to throw up all by my self and lay down until I felt well enough to make it home. Throwing up again, I could tell he was getting mad. He was yelling at the top of his lungs in the best fashion that a dumb person can. I couldn’t quite pay attention to him because of other grievances coming out of my mouth so he started punching me. I wasn’t done throwing up so I just scooted away from him and threw up some more. Was he trying to get help for me? I thought I was a little harsh on him initially so I told him kindly no thank you and that I would be fine. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing though, he started soliciting outside help and went knocking on doors still yelling and gesturing. That didn’t help. I was about done throwing up and wanted to sit down and physically recover. While he was still yelling I looked over again and saw him pick up a big stick/club. I decided I should probably leave. As I walked home I realized that he was probably upset because the abandoned building I was throwing up at was most likely where he slept. I hope I didn’t throw up everywhere and that there is somewhere there for him to sleep.

Anyway I went home and recovered quickly and today (the next day) I feel perfect!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Week 2: DamasGate


Week 2

Have you ever been to the biggest restaurant in the world? I have. Yep that’s right, last night as a branch activity we had dinner at the Guinness Book of World Record’s biggest restaurant in the world. DamasGate can sit up to 6,015 people at one time. Dang! The coolest part about our branch activity is that it was on our Sabbath day, Friday. I still haven’t quite figured that part out. Oh the hardships of having the sacred day on Friday and not on Sunday. I really enjoy it.

The reason we went to this restaurant is because the church humanitarian aid program has a representative here for this week. There is a conference taking place on training neonatal resuscitation. It’s actually an amazing program and has already saved thousands of lives. There was a session here in Damascus and tomorrow they are heading up to Aleppo for more training. While the representative is here, our branch president wanted to give him a good time in Syria. This afternoon as an Elder’s quorum we are taking our guest to the hamam, or Turkish bath. You gotta love it baby.

Let me tell you about my Arabic. As you guys know, I like people. I like interacting with others. It’s where I get my energy. Communicating love and concern for other in deed and word is one of the most beautiful things experienced. That’s the reason I initially wanted to learn Arabic when I was first introduced to it 2 years ago, it’s the reason I want to learn it now. It’s the reason I flew halfway around the world. However to a foreigner wanting to learn the colloquial Arabic, the resources are limited. 99% of the people you meet learning Arabic are learning fusHa or Modern Standard Arabic, the formal Arabic This means that they are learning the international formal Arabic language. The Arab world, as most of you know, is far from being homogeneous in culture, politics, and yes even in language. The Arabic that the common people in Morocco speak for example is very different than the language spoken in Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. It’s probably similar to something like Portuguese and Spanish. There are many very different dialects in the Arab world. With advancements in communication and media however, some dialects are becoming more familiar than others. Egyptian and Syrian dialects are perhaps the most widely know dialects as a result of entertainment. However to solve this problem of so many different dialects, Modern Standard Arabic became the official common language. It’s the very formal language spoken on the news or in academia, and derives from Quranic Arabic. Here in Syria everyone is educated in fusHa, but usually only speak it to foreigners that are trying to learn Arabic. When they do it is unnatural. This is the Arabic that American students learn. It’s very difficult for an American to communicate with someone on the street with fusHa and when doing so, essentially both speakers are speaking a second language. Upon understanding this concept of formal and colloquial Arabic better, I decided to learn the colloquial language. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I came all the way to Syria to communicate with the people, so why not learn the language that they speak?

As I mentioned before, other than the Syrian people, there are not many developed resources to learn the colloquial Arabic. I had to search through the city to find some books. One book I found is an illegal photocopy of a book, the other is a book that a store owner made and printed on a homemade press.

My new house is beautiful, my roommate is a stud, and the food here is scheduled to fatten me up. I am living my dream life. I am a blessed man.

The only downside is being away from the ones I love. I miss you guys and pray for you every day. I hope all is well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Week 1-Alhamdulillah

I am overwhelmed at the greatness of God. Allah Akhbar! God is great! I’ve been very intrigued by names. In Arab culture, names are very important and always have a deep and significant meaning attached. Everytime I am introduced or meet somebody they always ask me the meaning of my name. Growing up this never was really an important tradition for me, so I actually don’t really know the meaning of my name and most of the people don’t speak English well enough to know the deeper nuanced chivalries of “palace of fairies.” 90% of the population here is Islam, with that most names have a deep Islamic religious background. Ibrahiim (Abraham), Yousef (Joseph), Mohhamad, Ammar (Believer), and Abdullah (servant of Allah) are very common. One of my friends told me the meaning of his name yesterday, given the logistical context of my situation right now and what was taking place in that very moment, it became very important to me.

Ahmed. Ahmed told me that his name means to give thanks to Allah. It’s not just the regular everyday word that one would use in the street, or at school, or even to someone you’d like to show respect to like your parents or an elder. It is only used to express heavenly gratitude. Our thanks to Allah should be so holy, that in Arabic there is a word to express sacred gratitude. As he was telling me this it just happened to be about 11:00 at night. He and a team of three of his friends had put their lives on pause on a Thursday night (the equivalent of a Friday weekend night in the U.S.) to help some stranger that one of them had met briefly for 5 minutes a few days before. I was in awe.

I give sacred thanks to God for ALL that he has done for me this last week. Unbelievable! Story after story after story of the many times he has extended his hand. His hand has been manifested to me in the form of his servants’ service. Arab hospitality is famous the world over, and as you guys know I’ve experienced it before. However, it still hasn’t and I don’t think ever will cease to amaze me. Literally anywhere I go, and anytime I need help, someone is there willing to stop anything they are doing, and give me anything they have to offer. Such examples include a shoe maker demanding to take my watch that wasn’t working and put a battery in it, people escorting me on public transportation to make sure I go where I need to go, people offering their homes, tons of free food, and etc etc.

I give sacred thanks to him for my loved ones. You guys I know have been selflessly praying for me. I know this because it doesn’t make sense logically how everything has worked out so beautifully, but it has. I know it is a result of your prayers for me. I thank you.

The greatest blessing, or at least the biggest tangible blessing was the house that I was able to find. Wow. Scott you are going to be jealous about this one. My house that I will be staying in for the next few months suits well the exotic oriental experience in store for me. Check out the specs on this baytii (my house): My house is located in the Old City of Damascus (A walled city with a huge citadel and small allies that are thousands of years old!) literally about 30 yards from the northeastern outer wall of the Ummayad Mosque and about 100 yards from one of the holiest Shiite mosques called Sayyida Ruquyya, wedged between the two. My house is absolutely amazing! It’s the classic old Mediterranean Arab house, but better. I’m still amazed that we got it. I looked at about 10 different houses within the price range of 15,000-20,000 Syrian Pounds and talked to many locals and even students that have lived here for about a year or so, this is by far the best deal. It’s a shared house, so it will be me and another Mormon kid that just barely got here, a Swedish girl and a couple of American students. It’s an Arab house meaning there is a big open-air living section and then rooms on all the levels that face inwards towards the middle open section. Somehow our part has it’s own kind of living quarter. After entering you can go to this bottom section or you can go up one of two stairways. We have our own stairway. You go up one stairway and it opens up to an outdoor patio. As you go up another old wooden weathered stairway you enter our section. It opens up into a small beautifully colored, window-lit room. This will be the study room. It couldn’t be better; my desk has a view of two of the three minarets of the Ummayad mosque. There is a bathroom and shower in this section too. In this cozy hallway study there are two doors. One leads to our private patio and one into our shared bedroom. Once again both of these sections have views of the bustling old city streets below as well as the two most important mosques in Damascus. I am still amazed. UNBELIEVABLE! (That one is for you Joe). A two minute walk leads us to the main street of the old city, sharia al-qaimariyya. My life is good.

My Moroccan roommate for my first week in the hotel is named Tareq. He is Muslim and runs to a mosque to pray whenever the call to prayer echoes through the city. I have many stories to tell of him. He is probably the most loving Christ like person I’ve ever met. He is pure. He is solid. He is fun and fantastic. I love him. We will be good friends for a very long time. Anyway I’ve decided the prayer call is a good reminder for myself as well. After returning from church this morning and then working a few things out with the new house, I returned to our temporary place. Tareq had just left for prayer so I decided to kneel in prayer also. I knelt down desiring to express my gratitude. After gathering my thoughts the perfect words came to mind.

“ahmed allah. Thank you God for blessing my life!”

There was no need to say more. It was one of the most powerful prayers I have ever offered.

As all of you know, learning another language can be very comical. I’ve had more than my fair share of those funny moments. I am always going places and am always trying to speak and meet as many people as possible. Public transportation in Syria is an experience only understood hands on. It’s complicated for Syrians, so imagine a goofy American trying to get it done. In a lot of ways it’s kinda fun. The buses don’t stop to let you on, you have to run and push and shove to get on, and they are extremely crowded. There are big buses and there are little microbuses, just little vans. Sometimes those little 8 people vans have 15 or more people. You know how excited I get when there are a lot of people within my vicinity? hyper! Then I try to communicate by practicing my words on my little notebook. I’m on a little microbus, with triple the amount of people there should be, holding my little notebook and pencil high in the air, and yelling at the top of my lungs trying to figure out from the van driver when I need to get off while not understanding anything he says in return. It’s really really really fun! Arabic enunciation is very difficult for native English speakers. Often times I find myself continually repeating words out loud in the streets. This is also a funny sight to the outsider. One time I caught myself doing this in an inopportune moment. I ended up laughing really hard at myself. I was trying to talk to Tareq and another friend named Yeheeya (the shoe repair man). In the Egyptian colloquial I learned, kawayyis means good. In the unspoken more formal, or the type that most Americans learn at the university, they use the word jayyiid (That’s you Jude!). Here in Syria, the word for good is mneeHH, it is very difficult to pronounce. I said a very simple slow sentence using the word kawayyis. As soon as it came out of my mouth I remembered the other word and corrected myself. Once again it’s difficult to pronounce and forgetting that they were right there, I started saying it many times, over and over working on the pronunciation. There I was yelling a word that didn’t make any sense to them over and over.

I knew little of the Ommayad mosque before coming here and definitely underestimated it’s significance. This place is the real deal! Traditionally, it is said that Muhammad once while traveling, overlooked the city of Damascus from a mountain and said that he will not go down unto the city but will travel on because he only wants to enter paradise once, meaning when he dies. The mosque is in the location of worship dating back to the 9th century BC when the Aramaeans built a temple to their god Hadad (mentioned in the Book of Kings). Later the Romans expanded it to make a temple to their god Jupiter. When Constantine came to power a massive basilica was made to commemorate John the Baptist, whose head is said to be contained here even until this day. Muslims first came here in 636 and Muslims and Christians prayed side by side for 70 years. During this time Damascus became the Muslim capital and eventually the place underwent a10 year construction period of a new mosque sponsored by the caliph Khaled ibn al-Walid. Almost all the walls were covered with amazing mosaics, precious gems and stones inlaid in the prayer niches, and a golden ceiling hung with 600 gold lamps!

Today the mosque is considered by all Syrians and many Muslims from all over the world to be the third holiest mosque, only the mosques in Medina and Mecca are more important! Within the grounds of the mosque lies the mausoleum of the Arab hero Salah ad-Din, the shrine of John the Baptist, and the shrine of Hussein (important Shia Islam figure) In Islamic tradition this place still holds a significant role in the future also. As I mentioned before there are three huge minarets. The tallest of these is called the Minaret of Jesus. It is said that here Christ will appear on earth to defeat the anti-Christ and then make his way to Jerusalem on Judgment Day. Once again at this point I would just like to remind you that I all of this is my backyard! I live here!

I love you guys so much. Being half way across the world has highlighted once again how wonderful you are. Thank you.

p.s. Please excuse all grammatical errors. Let’s just face it. I’m bad! Also I didn’t have the time to proofread. Sorry.