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One Man's Junk Food is Another Man's Truffle
02.26.06 (7:49 am)   [edit]
Wanna know two of the hippest and most expensive places in Damascus? TCBY and KFC. Interesting to me that the only two American franchises allowed/bold enough to operate in Syria are acronyms. Perhaps the regime sees them as less threatening because they don't actually contain any English words in the title. I think that is the philosophy which also operates behind the most infamous brothel in Damascus being called the "al-Mathouna al-Hamra" instead of its untranslated "Moulin Rouge." There are knock-offs a-plenty, mind you. Among the most egregious, at least to my Southern sympathies, are "Dixy Chicken", "Old Rock Cafe" (with the logo of its more famous pseudo-eponym), etc... In parting, just pause for a moment to consider that TCBY stands for "The Country's Best Yogurt." I don't know how many people actually know that in America but I'll bet the number is even smaller in Syria where all the overweight (or working furiously at becoming so) daughters of the Syrian privelaged class would be steamed to know they were eating at America's Best. Best, Yank

Deutchland Ander Alles
10.30.05 (3:19 am)   [edit]
Had the opportunity to entertain a nice Bavarian girl in my flat the other day. We were heading to the old city to atend a mutual friend's birthday party, or, as the germans say, birthtimecongratulationparty, and she mentioned she was hungry when we were only a block away from my place.

Over the course of sharing with her my hoarde of what may be the world's best olives, spinach pies, thick yogurt, and baklawa, we broke into a gentle discussion of the Palestinian in my class at the University of Damascus who refused to shake my hand upon meeting simply because I am American and who informed me that he is my "enemy both in class and outside of it"--all this without yet knowing my name.

Fom there the conversation turned, over tea, to the Iranian despot's latest statement of erasure regarding "Occupied Palestine." At this, she demurred saying that this was common for them and that we shouldnt fuss over such lamentable but harmless rhetoric.

After reminding her that this was the first time in years that Iran had made such a blatantly genocidal statement at such a public event at such a high level, and then casually mentioning that such talk may not be so empty in these days of the side issue of Iran's mad race for the bomb, she took it a bit more seriously.

Nonetheless, she by and large stuck by the entrenched policy of Europe which reads roughly as follows: There is no clash of civilizations. Our heads fit nicely and comfortably into the guillotine which our immigrants are preparing for us in a generation or two and besides, we aren't worth defending anyway.

I may be exagerating slightly. But it is fair to say they don't believe in a "clash of civilizations", they will not tolerate any suggestion that the forces of 9-11, Khobar Towers, Madrid, London, and Achille Lauro et. al. are anything other than the more or less justified reaction of Arabs to Past and Present Imperialism, Israel, U.S. greed, and perhaps some isues of poverty and education.

But as we nibbled on honey-dipped Damascene beignet, Patricia (pronounced "Patritzia") interjected that what really most concerned her was that it seemed as if the U.S. and Islam were very much alike. That the two, if there is a clash, are equally wrong because they were both religious! There is no clash between Europe and Islam, she said.
Quoth she: "My grandmother used to take me to church when I was young and I suppose I am a Catholic but I'm not religious, for heavens sakes! I don't go around reading or quoting the Bible like your president seems to!"

To her, it is the idea that there is revealed truth that is anathema. Suicide bomb all you want: The idea that there might be death, judgement, heaven, and hell is the true barbarism.

Europe, she said, has grown beyond religion. To which I replied that europe was not growing at all but rather shrinking, losing influence, and dying on nearly every level. I mentioned a British friend who teaches English at the British cultiural institute in Damascus who had only that day confided in me that the only reason any Syrian wants to learn English, and, hence, the only reason she has a job, is because they all want to learn about America--some because they love it and others because they hate it but they all want to learn about it.

Patricia conceded that Europe was not doing well but that this was because of economic reasons. She was not trained in the art of asking what may lie behind the economic and the material in this world. Questions of the human spirit, the soul, and the deeper needs of man are buried so deeply under the Marxism, the Hegelianism, the Rousseauianism, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation that the process of trying to dig them out is a painful one indeed. Personally, I felt awful on the bus as we sat in the blaring horns and careening near-death experiences which constitute the Damascene street because as we spoke, the exchange parted us further and further. I am unused to trying to convince someone that there may be something more to live for than comfort and she was certainly unused to having such a thought asserted. We finally stopped our conversation just outside the door of the party. She went in; I turned around and went home.

I didn't even call my Norwegian friend with whom I have spending the last few weekends. The son of a convert, he prides himself as being the first native-born Catholic in Norway since the country went entirely over to Luther 350 years ago. We spent many's a happy evening until the subjects of gay unions, abortion rights, and being taxed up to 60% of one's income accidentally came up. I knew as I went home that night from his elegant apartment that our friendship was dying young.

It's hard to party when you realize that Usama Bin Ladin is right: Europe is Byzantium, within the palm of Islam's hands. Europeans are absolutely right in thinking, as I am more and more convinced that many of them subconsciously do, that Islam is more appealing to their souls than the dispair, ennui, hedonism, and materialism which has characterized the past 200 years of their history. And indeed, under Islam, they may be swathed in darkness but their women will again bear fruit, their men will have something to fight for and believe in, and the abject servility of the European people will be raised at least to the level of submission, a word which translates neatly into Arabic as "Islam."

Then we'll see how we define American exceptionalism, shall we? When the pope has to flee to Washington because Rome is under Sharia law, will he crown the U.S. president Holy American Emperor or will he persist in denouncing everything we do to defend Christendom? When there are no more romance languages left besides English will he finally substitute English as the lingua franca of the church? God willing, you and I won't know the answer to these questions. But our children, or their children, just might.

"All The News From Anti-Christendom That's Fit To Print And Plenty That Ain't."

Mom, like, get a Hijab!
10.02.05 (5:01 am)   [edit]
Sitting in one of the restaurants which I tend to leave unsick, sipping a coffee, reading about Arab Nationalism, and feeling very international about myself, I witnessed an extraordinarily common site.

Strolling in that leisurely Near Eastern way down the street was a mother and daughter. One didn't have to know the pair intimately to surmise with confidence that the coincidence of schnaz and jaw were not accidents.

The mother must surely have been something of a looker in her day and her hennad faux red hair was nonetheless shiny and full as she proudly carried it atop her well-proportioned and attractive middle-aged frame.

The daughter may well be a looker in her day, which is today, but it's a moot point since no one is allowed to look: She is has decided to be "muhajaba" (veiled) and that means "no looking."

"She has decided to hold out for a man who will marry her for her moral character rather than for her body" will be how her mullah would answer if queried. But the reality is that all her friends do it and so do all their friends. Whether she wants to be loved for her character or her face, she is going to wear the trapping of her generation. This means that, for the rest of her life, the colors available to her from the entire range of the ROYGBIV spectrum, include Black, Brown, and off white, the latter being frowned upon but still common enough in liberal Syria.

The two ambled down the street together in the unathletic way of non-westerners for whom exercise and esteem of the body are highly suspect concepts. As they passed by the front of my cafe, I became aware that I was witnesing what I have been reading about for the past few years. It's not just the Middle Eastern barbie doll which has had its head covered: The whole generation has draped a crepe over flower of its youth and seems to want to incise the clitoris out of its lust for life.

Indeed, this generational retrogression, which my own recently post teen-age mind finds amusingly counterintuitive, goes right down to the heart of the Islamic world. Reading about secular pan-arab nationalism, essential to understanding middle eastern polities (minus, now, Iraq and Lebanon) as they are today, is like reading ancient history.

When you mention Nasir to young people today in the Middle East, they are likely to gently scold you, an ignorant westerner, for not knowing that he was "almani", secular, and an enemy of Islam.

Nationalism, pan-arabism, anti-reactionaireism, socialism, and all the rest of the catchwords of the 20th century are like the cuneiform carved on the walls of ancient Assyria: interesting to foreign academics whose living balances atop remaking the Near East into one beautiful progression from The Pharos and the Babylonians down to today. But it's entirely meaningless to the people who actually live here now.

The catchwords, as I am hearing them now, are "Consumerism", "Moral Decline", and "Revival." The only things which mullah and baathist can all agree on are "western corrupting influence" but where the Baathist or Nasirist would have difined them as "imperialist", they are now simply "decadent" or "anti-islamic."

The paradigm has shifted drastically in the Middle East even in the 10 years that I have been studying it! The soviets and their influence are out. The fearful spectre of the spread of communism is somewhat less dangerous than Alexander the Great rising from the dead and marching to Transoxiana.

What is happening is a subtle and quietly orchestrated melding of pan-arabism into pan-Muslimism and socialist doctrines of nationalization of industry into religionization of law and civil society. The chiliastic western paranoias about the eschaton born in the inter-bellum period of the 20th century have now been absorbed and reformed as Messianism among the shiites, and Caliphalism among the Sunni.

The resultant beast, shifting, ungainly, and hideous, which wants to "erase Bethlehem from the map," is Islamism.

The First Devil Defeated
09.29.05 (3:28 am)   [edit]
28 September, 1425 A.A-C.

The grip of the first demonic hand which has been on my throat since my return to Washington has been fatally weakened. This is meet and right for it is thus that I have come. To gain insight into the spiritual warfare, the desert fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, the penitents, anchorites, and pedestal-sitters and, ecumenically, their curious spiritual step-children: The belly-puncturing, snake-handling, 7-story mountain climbing, whirling, piping Sufis.

It was only after I arrived that I learned that I was one of six (out of a total of twelve) US Fulbrighters studying Sufis in Syria this season. So I have decided, at least for the nance, to turn my spiritual warfare in another direction.

The devil of self-contempt, as reflected in my complete disdain for my personal appearance, and, especially for my hair, has been exorcised. I am human again, not ashamed to walk down the street or go out to eat. A Syrian with the smooth face of the 18-year old boy that he was but the rough and untempered voice of a fallah, or peasant, having dropped out of school at age of 15, performed the sacred rites.

The rites of cutting hair in Syria are not those of America. The average hair cut in America takes about the same amount of time as the mowing of a medium suburban lawn by someone who does it every day and is trying to maximize dinero to send back to la republica bolivarana de banana whence he swam.

American (Latin or otherwise) mowers and barbers pride themselves in productivity and conservation of motion: Knock out the big stuff in the middle thoroughly and effectively the first time, trim the edges carefully but not belaboring any minutiae, and then touch up as necessary. I don’t think any American barber has ever been in the “touch up” phase on my hair, no matter its length, more than 4 minutes, and that at the long extreme.

In Syria, a haircut allows 30 and for challenging operations, such as mine today, indulges 45 minutes. Young Mohamed took all those 45 and a few over. After 20 minutes of electric trimmer he finally noticed what a mess my hair really was. After cutting it myself, in darkness, sweat, tears, and rage all summer, it had several different lengths in several different places and, admittedly, was not an easy job.

I had been waiting for the time to be right to get a hair cut. I first had to lose 10 pounds. I was planning on walking all over town and using the embassy gym which is pointedly near my flat. Luckily, nature put me on her own diet program on the day I arrived in Syria and has only let me off for a few hours since. Of the ten meals I have eaten in the sixteen days I have been here, precisely two of them haven’t made me protractedly, debilitatingly, bed- and/or john-boundedly sick. One was at a party at the embassy and the other was at a restaurant in the Christian ghetto. But, gastro-intestinal bumps in the road aside, I’m back to my maiden figure. I can see my abdominal muscles again and the love handles are under control. It was time to strike the decisive blow against the devil of poor self-esteem and fix the hair.

I had told Mohamed in the beginning that I didn’t expect miracles; that I had done it myself, and that it was a mess. But when he started using water and pressure to push down the left rear cowlick to no avail, he realized this was going to be more than the normal job.

He said something to me which I didn’t understand at all. It was an interrogative to which I responded in the affirmative without really considering what the consequences of said affirmation might be. His accent was so thick and his word choices so very colloquial that I wasn’t quite prepared when he got the electric trimmer out again and just mowed down the whole thing.

Fair enough. Sometimes you just have to admit that your efforts in life really are in vain. That was what I did, by proxy, as I watched my uneven but beloved locks falling. But after the full-on attack came the sweeping up. And this was at least 30 minutes of my life. With that blithe comb and scissor combination which barbers master or make it look like they have mastered, he feathered away at every hirsute detail of my cheveux. First he snipped at the ruins of the undying cowlick’s once proud domain, then evened up the right rear to preserve balance and harmony.

He proceeded on to both sides, at 10 minutes/per, and then, only then, once he stopped and commenced to look about, did he begin the unenviable job of straightening out the front at a cost to me of another 7 minutes

He had, then, the blazing audacity to offer to shampoo the little hair left on my head. When I declined, he counter-offered gel, as a permanent seal of my regained ritual purity. Only after similarly declining this did he realize he hadn’t trimmed up the hair on the back of my neck. A mere 3 minutes later and he was saying “Naima”, just like the jazz tune, which another barber told me was the Syrian symbol for double bar lines in the music of barbery, namely, the fine.

The Italian and the English dovetail nicely here to produce the other net result of a service rendered, namely, the fine. Syrians have a neat trick of charging Westerners what the goodness of their hearts seems to award. Taxistas and others who perform services for foreigners which would be prix fixe elsewhere in the world subtly turn beggar when they have a prime young westerner in their astute web.

Psychologically, it works thus: Syrians well know that Westerners are not only ill-aware of the inherent (big mac index, e.g.) value of a foreign currency in a foreign culture so much weaker than their own, they are blithely unaware of the value of their own stinking currency in their own filthy culture!

Witness our blithe willingness to casually toss out $10 dollars plus another $2-5 in tip for a man’s hair cut. It is insane. But they also know that we all (with a few ill-coiffured, hand rolling, non-credit card using exceptions) do it. So, rounding up to reduce sig figs, in our decadent Western minds, the average value of a hair cut is $13 dollars. The Syrian barber knows it, can’t believe it, and wants as much of that as he can get.

Two factors work in their favor when they ask a young American to pay according to the generosity of his heart. They know they can’t lose. There’s almost no way an American will have both the cultural fluency to know both the value of a thing in Syrian terms and the hard-heartedness to actually pay such a pittance.

They were dead wrong on the first count with me. I knew exactly that if I paid anything more than 40 lira (80 cents) I was getting killed. But they got me with the second. The proponents of unbridled markets will scorn me but I just couldn’t pay a man 80 cents for 45 minutes of work which, unnecessary as some strokes might have been, resulted in a decent hair cut which, in comparison with the ragged and unkempt mop which I wore all summer, is downright haute couture.

So, with the whole shop looking at me and watching the delightful game of “Watch The Westerner Make An Ass of Himself”, I decided to diversify my remittance. If an ass was called for, it would be delivered. So I made a bit of a tounge-in-cheek speech in which I praised him for being a “doctor of hair” who had performed the necessary operation to save the life of the patient and that, since he was a doctor, he deserved his fair fee. This was received with the bewildered approbation which, I have found, is the best I can ever hope to win from the Arab street. I then laid 100 lira ($2) in young Mohamed’s hand and reveled in the muted thanks which I received.

A happy smile means you paid 10 times what you should have. A happy smile and a piece of candy on your way out means you just fed a young terrorist somewhere for a year. But a muted and not especially sincere thanks means you paid only a little more than you should, as a capitalist Westerner. Ideally, I would have paid $1.50, or about 75 lira. But coins are cumbersome and no one really carries them. Besides, at $2 for a haircut, I can afford to be a little on the grand side.

Well, not to strike a sour note after all this but I stopped by a seeming clean and well-kept place with a very modern décor and bought myself a burger on my way home from the barber. I waited nearly 20 minutes for it and as I stood up to tell him not to put “mayonnaise” on it, he showed me the ready made and wrapped burger and smiled apologetically. I demurred and said “Khalas” which means “No problem” or “I have other things to fight in my life.” I paid the $125 for two burgers, carried them home where I put on decent cheese and hot pepper and wiped off as much “mayonnaise” as I could before sitting down to enjoy my lunch.

Now, an hour post, it’s time to run back to the john and fight those other things. Next time, I’ll mention “no mayo” upon ordering.

”All the News From Anti-Christendom That’s Fit to Print and Plenty That Ain’t”

Sham, Cham, and Japeth
08.29.05 (7:07 am)   [edit]

The Great Cham:  Person, Place, or Thing?

Being in, or about to be in Sham, a.k.a. Cham, the unofficial name for Damascus, and Greater Sham (or Cham), the unofficial name for the entire Levant, my first Syrian investigation is into the name itself.  

Famous to Shakespeare buffs and second only to Prester John for featuring in Elizabethan tale-tellery, the true identity of "Cham" is quite confused. What does seem clear is that the Elizabethan Cham had nothing to do with Syria.  The Sultan of Tartary, that land between Turkey and Persia whence comes the sauce, was called "Cham" and may have been great but Genghis Khan (Khan-Chan-Cham) in China was probably greater--if wars make one great.  Either of these characters could have had the requisite beard with which Elizabethans, in the Roman tradition, always painted barbararians.

But if we look to a sailor instead of a bearded soldier, we will uncover something of the Sham which is Syria.  The eldest son of Noah was named Shem and his descendents are known as the Semites who  populated what the Romans called the Levant but the Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians call Greater Sham or... Cham.

Noah's second son was Ham.  Making that initial "H" a little harder (as Semites are wont to do) turns him into "Cham" and the resulting retroflex vs. dental aspirate confusion has begun. 

How he breathed his name aside, his children were cursed because he looked in at his father's nakedness one fine evening after pops had been throwing back a few too many land-ho celebration rounds.  These children, known as Chamites (but not Semites), were the Amorites, the Mesrim (Pharonic Egyptians), and Cannanites.

Why Ham/Cham was cursed is another question.  It just may mean he looked into his Dad's tent at the wrong time.  That is all that the words say on their surface.  But, Biblical texts being what they are, Scholars wonder if he actually uncovered the nakedness of Mrs. Noah and it was this Oedipal crime which had to be gouged out over the course of generations of hapless Chamites.

Or perhaps it was one of old Noah's mistresses whom he uncovered that fateful evening.  Understandably omitted from the scriptural narrative to avoid the incongrouous image of all the animals monogamously marching up the gangplank in staunch pairs of two as old Noah benevolently looks on and then saunters on up with a harem of ten, nonetheless, scholars wonder whether it wasn't one of these "maidservants" who, in accepting, cursed Ham's seed.  According to Shamite laws, whether Leviticus or Sharia, your father's mistress is no good for you no matter how you cook her.  

In all this confusion, there is one point of scriptural clarity.  None of this would have happened if Ham had been more respectful of his father's indosposed (i.e. sailing his Ark four sheets to the wind) state.  So the undisputed and etymologically clear moral of the story is that God wishes us to accord privacy and respect to the drunken--whether on Cham or Champagne.