Under the Tarboush 08.24.05

Greetings, friends, and welcome to another installment of Under The Tarboush, the home of everything Middle Eastern here at Inside Pulse, save for any future Command and Conquer: Generals sequel reviews or commentary elsewhere. Last week, I returned to the States from the fair, beautiful, and rather hot nation of the Syrian Arab Republic, or simply ‘Syria’ for those who bring economics to the lungs.

After a long six-week stay (yes, SIX WEEKS!), you’d imagine that there must be something remotely remarkable- something worthy of words in some kind of context. Well, you’re right. And during those times when my laptop didn’t have to be diplomatic with the 220-volt outlets, I had time to put such words and musings down in text. Lots of stuff. Some stuff written after the fact, some written during the moment. However, it’s all pure and it’s all real.

Over the coming time, interspliced in between premiers on the Iranian Revolution and stuff of that nature, I will be putting up musings of the trip as well as travel logs. This is one such travel log about three days that I spent in the mountain town of Slunfeh, which enjoys the status of being the highest point in Syria (1200 meters!) as well as one of the coolest. Enjoy!

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Day 9 through Day 13:

Upon the last weekend, my Uncle orchestrated a trip with his family and ours into the mountainous region of Syria to a town called Slunfeh (this is the colloquial way of saying it; change the ‘eh’ to ‘a.’ Arabic = صلنفة). The interesting thing about this trip is that instead of having an orthodox hotel available, people who wish to spend a night or two actually rent whole apartment/houses. While I can’t guarantee a map detailing our excursion’s path -due to equal parts of not having access to a map, and inattentiveness by yours truly- I can say that the scenery between Aleppo and Slunfeh was beautiful. I initially attempted to get pictures, but trying to do so with the camera I have was an exercise in futility. In lieu of such futility, I’ll attempt to describe it.

We exited Aleppo from the road that lies south of my Grandmother’s house; the very same road in which I wondered exactly what lay beyond. At first, we found a rotunda atop the hill that played open office to many ‘street-entrepreneurs’ and their respective vehicles. Upon making an elongated left-turn, my Aunt had pointed out a factory in the area that used to be in her family before it was taken by the government. Roughly 3 miles outside of this, we entered the largely- no- immensely agrarian countryside. Many a family were outside tilling the fields which included everything from cotton, to various citrus fruits, to tobacco and other such stuff. Come to think of it, every square inch of sea-level land I saw was being agriculturally developed. There wasn’t a single instance of desert to speak of.

Aside from this, too, we passed through the town of Hama, which plays host to some very large water wheels that were part of Roman aqueducts dating back to the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any glimpse of these. But the livestock were so cute!

We entered the mountains roughly 2 hours into the van ride. I’ve noticed that whenever I find myself in a mountain range (which, unfortunately, isn’t nearly enough of the time), I get taken back by the scenery. These Syrian mountains are no different. This particular range was filled with different kinds of trees- no doubt the same type of scenery if not eerily similar- to that of Lebanon. Every so often, about each mile, you’d find a small thrift shop offering different varieties of ‘cola’ and chips, as well as residences which varied from small concrete works to larger stone-based houses. Note that this is the first time I’ve found concrete used for the construction of homes.

Having departed from Aleppo at roughly 8:30am, we arrived in Slunfeh at around 2:00pm. When we arrived, I noted that the place wasn’t nearly as populated as Aleppo, and this was confirmed by my Dad and Uncle who said it was actually a popular resort town. Perhaps I was overtaken by ethnocentric thought, but if it was so popular, why hadn’t I heard of it? I decided to let the thought take a backseat as I took in the local scenery.

One thing to note about the Syrian Education System: every parent whose been bitten by the bug of Westernization wants their child to be a doctor. Those who don’t cut the muster grade-wise (read: non-top echelon) to become a doctor go into an engineering. That said, the engineers and architects did a marvelous job in constructing city-style homes on the sides of extremely steep mountains. Ours in particular appeared to be built in a different style, but offered a spectacular view of the side of the mountains and the accompanying valley. The view in question was interesting if not for it’s beauty, and for it’s post-modern sense of irony, as the development of houses atop the mountains were in direct contrast with the nature below. At the highest point in Syria, we stood upon it at 5000 feet.

After we got settled in, we took a small foot-tour of the town. It consisted of a roughly 4-mile long main street complete with small businesses, as well as off-shoot streets with offering various services from travel to housing, as well as many restaurants. We made our stop at one such restaurant and took in the unique view it offered, as well as the damn good food. I swear- between the sedentary nature of the office job, and now this, I’ve got some work to do when I get home!

After we got out of the restaurant, we went to our rented home for nap time. Upon waking up, the entire city came to life, as my skepticism regarding Slunfeh’s status as a resort town fell silent and dead. It was indeed a popular resort town, as license plates from all regions could be found on cars from all makes. Sure, there were the Iranian-made taxis, ready to take you to wherever need be on a moment’s notice, but their nearly overwhelming prevalence took a sharp downturn in the face of the number of private cars on the road. You had all makes and models coming from the gulf countries; everything from Chevy Suburbans and Nissan “Sunnys” (Nissan model that isn’t state-side… perhaps a different name for a like model?) to BMWs to 300-class Mercedes to Skodas and Peugots. Le Citroien made an appearance as well. The countries noted amongst the visitors: Saudi Arabia (whose license plates bare the same naming system of any US plate outside of California i.e three numbers, three letters: XXX-YYY), Dubai, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Iraq, Romania, Turkey, the US (a California plate! With a driver who had the attitude of a stereotypical New Yorker!), and the United Nations (from the Population Fund. I was very close to snapping a photo, but my parents bugged me into submission about “not taking photos of” what they thought were “private cars.” Upon learning it was a UN vehicle, they said “Oh’ we didn’t know.” This put me in a bit of a crabby mood so, out of spite, I refused to take the photo).

I began postulating the reason that so many of the visitors had been coming from the Gulf, and with some assistance from my father, I reached a rather solid conclusion. In contrast to the social system of mores and folkways that govern places like Saudi Arabia, i.e vieled women and such, Syria offers a secular haven where conservative religious doctrine is only as pervasive as the ideas in your head. This, meaning that women here don’t have to cover up like they may have to in their home country. This didn’t surprise me much, as when the Ba’ah Party came to power here they did so on the promise of secular Western-style rule; and insofar as secularism, it’s held true. There’s also a prevalence of American products here that you might have a harder time finding below the mountain, like candy bars (Twix تويكس) and the like.

Slunfeh’s make-up and history, as conveyed to me, is a town that had been historically Christian, populated between Christian Arabs and Armenians in the area. Just down the street was a Syrian Orthodox Church (my Father’s religion) which had a vibrant youth group that was audible from the street (every time I walked by, they would yell “Welcome!”) from about a 25 feet distance. The demographic shift has been occurring steadily as some Muslims have made the place their home. But it appears that those that have are a secular as the Christians. Case in point: my Father, whose ‘Faith-dar’ has a very high validity rate, was unable to guess the faith of our temporary landlord. He had guessed Christian because of her mannerisms and dress, and was baffled when he found out that they were Muslim. As with all parts of Syria I’ve seen and what events I’ve been privy to, there isn’t an ounce of antagonism between the faiths here. Like the physical incarnation exhibits a secular divide between development and nature, Slunfeh’s demographic operates in a likewise secular harmony.

During our two day stay, we did much of the same that we did when we arrived: eat, take in the sites, sleep, and really just absorbed the culture. On the second day, my Mom and Sister wanted to use me as an intermediary for buying American candy bars. Upon unsuccessfully trying to make a joke about my Sister’s purchasing indecision in Arabic (this happens a lot in English too), I asked the vendor if he spoke English. He then gestured for a his cousin.

يا اوسامة! طعى تحكي انجليزي! (Ya Osama, come speak English!)

“Hello there! Are you British?”

This is the third time this has happened when we’ve divulged our native tongue. As you can imagine, with the help of such fine quasi-governmental institutions like Fox News and Hollywood CA (the most influential Non-Governmental Organization on the planet!), they don’t get a lot of American tourists.

“We’re American, actually” I replied.

“Oh! Americans! Hello! My name is Osama, but not Bin-Laden!”

That’s just plain awesome.

“Do you know what the name of the town you are in is?”

“Sol-ne-feh?” The reason that my reply was so weak was that while my pronounciation would have been sound in written Arabic, the local pronounciation apparently wasn’t from Arabic at all. In fact, as of this writing, it seems like it’s Indo-European because rarely do you have three consonants in a single syllable in Arabic. This leads me to believe, as well as being supported by the local Christian population, that this area was historically Armenian.

“No. It is Slunfeh, which is not an Arabic name. Do you speak Armenian?”

“Unfortunately, I do not. I know of the Armenians, and of their language, but I do not speak it.”

He smiled and said “OK. Every Armenian name ends in the sound ‘ian.'” This is true.

“I know,” I said. “I have a good friend in America whose last name is Dikijian.”

“That is correct,” he replied. “Let me give you my information.” It was here that he proceeded to write down two addresses: one for his home in Slunfeh, and one for another location in the port city of Latakia (لاذاكية – literally said “lathakia”).

“I have a degree in International Law, but now I am in the military.” All Syrian citizens between the ages of 18 and (don’t hold me to this latter number) 30 are required to serve three years in the military (methinks this is the number. I’ll research it for accuracy when I get back).

After finishing giving me his contact info, he said “I speak Armenian, Syrian, Aramaic – the language of Jesus- and Turkish. Do you know Turkish?”

At this point, I had come to the conclusion that my life in the US, complete with all the modern discractions afforded by an uninterrupted 110-volt current, affordable silicon transistors, and radio waves had made me intellectually complacent. Such is the humbling case, I suppose.

“To say ‘Welcome’ in Turkish, you say ‘gulesh gulsh’.” If memory serves me correctly, that is how you say it. But if you know otherwise, let me know- I’ll correct it.

He then wished us a good time and good ‘luck’ on our visit.

After staying in Slunfeh, we departed on Sunday morning for the port city of Latakia. Serving as Syria’s largest seaport, Latakia’s form and presentation was much like that of Aleppo, down to the stone-made residences and apparent 1:2 person to taxi ratio. It was remarkably clean too, for reasons I’ll delve into later. Our stay here was short, however, as while we had a train to catch in three hours. After stopping at two resturants for lunch that didn’t meet the satisfaction of my Uncle, we found the Dolphin Resturant and ate there.

By and large, Latakia had many photo opportunities, and I took them as I could. It was unfortunate, however, that I couldn’t take as many as I would have liked to. This, like Cairo Airport, was due to the sensitive nature of sites that could be mobilized for military purposes.

The train ride was remarkable in more sense than one. Because of the cut-off time, we were only able to get tickets for the second-class cabin, which ran us, a party of 8 people, the unforgivable sum of 8 dollars. What struck me as interesting, even though this may be commonplace on other train rides, is the fact that we stopped at places along the route that had no processing facilities whatsoever and actually let people off. Evidently many of these people had been riding second-class, as after about 5 such stops, our cabin was significantly less congested. As the windows were open and safety regulations a thing only found in European operation manuals, we took the opportunity to spend the last hour of the trip standing and admiring the scenery which was, again, full of forestry in the mountains and agricultural development in the low-lands. Again, no desert.

Also, just as I had done when I was a small child growing up in central Texas, there were children and others waving to the train as it passed by. As my sister and I returned the favor, it made me feel wholesome. I guess there’s just something about it.

In any case, we arrived later on that day in Aleppo around 6 or 7, which clocked our trip at about 3-4 hours. We retired that evening sometime after.

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If you have any questions, comments, etc, don’t hesitate to e-mail- satisfying curiosity is what we’re here for.

So, for now, that’s what’s Under the Tarboush.

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