Can I tell you again how awesome Tunisia is? At the Friends of Syria meeting on Monday, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president (chosen just recently in December by the Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament) played an active role. He suggested only half ironically that Russia back up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by offering him asylum should he choose to abdicate. And today Marzouki put his money where his mouth is, and offered President Assad and his family political asylum in Tunisia itself.
Proffering what even Marzouki admitted were undeservedly soft terms for a dictator might seem odd, especially coming from a country so intimately acquainted with the pain of despotism. However, I don’t think anyone could possibly question Mr. Marzouki’s motives. An M.D. by profession, he is also a long-time human rights activist and admirer of Gandhi, and has spent his life studying transitions to democracy. Like most Tunisian political activists, he was arrested multiple times by Ben Ali’s regime, and spent many years in exile.
His offer of political asylum simply acknowledges the reality that President Assad’s safe departure is the best way to secure a democratic transition and future political and social stability for the Syrian people. After all, consider the contrast right now between Tunisia, whose former dictator-president lives on unpunished in peaceful luxury in Saudi Arabia, and still-troubled Libya or (heaven help us!) tortured Iraq, both of whose presidents met vengeful and violent ends on the heels of international intervention.
Mr. Marzouki is in the running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If he can get Mr. Assad to accept his invitation, I’d say he definitely deserves it. And who knows? Maybe an offer of hospitality from a fellow physician-president is just what the mad ophthalmologist needs to start his desperately needed early retirement.
February 28, 2012 1 Comment
This time last year I was in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of revolution, and observing curfew every night to stay out of gunfights between the army and the rogue police still loyal to ousted president Ben Ali. Egypt had followed close on Tunisia’s heels, and Qaddafi’s Libya was teetering. But as of yet, despite widespread unrest across the Middle East, Syria was still as silent as the grave.
Today in Tunisia, representatives of over seventy nations, (including the United States, but conspicuously missing China, Russia and Iran) are meeting to consider once again what can be done for the people of Syria. The party (known as “Friends of Syria”) was briefly crashed by several hundred Assad supporters who had been bussed to the hotel where the talks were being held. The infiltrators gained access to the hotel, but were eventually stopped at a security cordon.
Never having visited Tunisia while huge posters of Ben Ali’s face still graced every building, I couldn’t compare pre-revolution Tunisia to the euphoria of freedom I saw last year. But I could make a pretty good guess at what it must have been like. After all, the Syria I lived in was similarly plastered with posters of Assad, and the Syrian secret police were equally effective at stamping out even whispers of discontent.
Yesterday I opened my box of Syria memorabilia to see what pieces of Syria I had kept. It was a bit like opening a box of letters from a tragically-ended love affair. My heart did that same little double flip in the pit of my stomach. Among all the maps, postcards and brochures, here are a few of the things I found:
One fairly ornate green dress, which I fell in love with and bought at the Souq el-Hamidiyeh on one of my many outings there “to practice my Arabic.” Yes, I used to wear it sometimes afterward.
A gorgeous inlaid wood box; one of those arts like damask tablecloths for which Damascus is famous. I actually have several of these, of varying sizes and shapes.
One poster of Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez, wreathed in flowers and fireworks (dog-eared from having been hung in our apartment in Damascus when a dictator straight out of 1984 was still a novelty to me).
One small book of out-of-focus official photographs from a Mother’s Day visit to the border of the occupied Golan territory. If you can’t read it, a sample caption is the upper one: “Al – Golan hospital destructed by zionists. !!”
The offending keychain. He hasn’t really changed a bit, has he?
Journals I kept during my time in Syria. I am a sporadic journal-keeper, but I wrote almost every single day in Syria. I’m curiously reluctant to open these. I turned twenty-one in Syria, and living there was in many ways a rite of passage for me. It was the first time I’d ever been so far away from everything: my family, my friends, my country, and the way I had always understood the world. I found myself suddenly dropped into what was simultaneously a beautiful dream and a sinister nightmare, and I attacked it with all the passion of an uncontrollably romantic temperament. I was enamored of everything. I was in love with the whole country; the ancient streets, the beautiful colors of the souq, the incredibly hospitable people, the unresolved angst of the Golan, the ghostly ruins rising out of the desert, the attentive men who were always proposing marriage, and a whole way of life that was so foreign as to be irresistibly alluring.
Always in the background was that hint of danger; the stranger around the corner, the look of fear on a friend’s face when I said something insufficiently circumspect about the government, the security guards with machine guns everywhere, the feeling of being slowly suffocated by totalitarianism. I was both fascinated and repelled by the amount of control the government exercised over people’s minds. I was always in disagreement with myself about whether I could stand to live long-term under such severe repession. Because other than that, Syria was a perfectly beautiful place to live. My secret dream was to buy one of those crumbling houses in the old city in Damascus and slowly renovate it, like a sort of “under the Arabian sun.”
In fact, I’ve tried our whole marriage to convince Tony of how delightful it would be to live in Syria. The closest we’ve gotten is Tunisia. And in Tunisia, after that gloriously unexpected revolution, when I watched everyone I met taking in great draughts of their newly discovered freedom, of course I thought immediately of Syria. Of how much it would mean to so many Syrians to feel what the Tunisians felt on that incredible Friday when they filled Avenue Bourguiba and demanded that their president leave, and he went. And then they could talk, for the first time, really say everything they had wanted to say for a lifetime. They didn’t stop talking for weeks, and listening to them was like listening to the birds sing and the tigers roar on the first morning of the world.
There’s really nothing more to say, except that I hope beyond hope that something will come out of this meeting in Tunis today; that something will come out of something sometime soon that will bring peace, real peace, to Syria.
February 24, 2012 4 Comments
I blogged today over at Times & Seasons about what Mormons and Muslims have in common. Pop on over and have a read: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/10/mormons-and-muslims/
October 24, 2011 No Comments
The Assad regime specializes in torture. After every demonstration, security forces round up hundreds of protesters, suspects, and random passers-by. In some areas, they go from house to house, dragging out every young man they find. Once detained, these people can look forward to savage beatings, restraint in stress positions, filth, humiliation, rape, mutilation, or worse. Although they brave bullets every time they go out on the streets to protest, many are more afraid of being detained than shot.
And the reach of the Syrian government is long. Those the regime cannot get at directly, it targets indirectly via threats or actual violence against friends and family in Syria. This is likely the reason for the strange events surrounding the aborted defection of the Syrian ambassador to France in June. The regime continues to intimidate Syrians abroad, aided in part by its ambassador to the U.S., who spies on his countrymen in America. Just last week, a Syrian-American pianist performed a song he had composed during a rally against the Assad regime in Washington. Shortly thereafter, his elderly parents were beaten in their home by Syrian security forces, who dragged his 70-year-old mother out of bed and broke her teeth.
Beneath the glamorous, glossy photos in Vogue magazine is a brutal regime adept at finding the place that will hurt the most, and kicking it till it bleeds. In the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Bashar al-Assad has “lost all sense of humanity.”
The city of Hama right now is reliving its worst nightmare. A protester my age would have been two years old when the Syrian army sealed off the city in 1982, sent the army in at dawn, and massacred between 10,000 and 20,000 people (no one knows for sure, and the dead still lie in mass graves). Although the incident took weeks to leak out to the foreign media and mention of it was strictly forbidden in Syria, the inhabitants of Hama have lived for thirty years with their secret grief and terror.
On Sunday, history began to repeat itself, as tanks rolled into Hama to crush opposition protesters there. 150 people have been killed in the past four days. Hama’s electricity, water, and communications were cut before the attack, and the city has been under constant heavy shelling, with no sign of a let-up. Thousands are attempting to flee the city, although the road toward Turkey and safety has been blocked, and snipers are posted on rooftops, shooting at anything that moves.
In the context of all this, I was flabbergasted to read that the British oil firm Gulfsands Petroleum is planning to continue business as usual with the Syrian regime. They apparently don’t care that “business as usual” for this government is code for torture, murder and oppression. The company spokesman’s only further comment was that Gulfsands Petroleum “should be entitled to be confident that [its] existing contractual arrangements will be respected by any incoming government in the event the current Assad-led government is displaced or not re-elected.”
I feel compelled to say that those who continue to do “business as usual” with a ruthless tyrant while simultaneously feeling entitled to keep making just as much money after he leaves, have also “lost all sense of humanity.”
On other fronts, complicity is reduced to mere apathy. A grand total of one Senator attended the confirmation hearing for Robert Ford, our ambassador to Syria, to hear his firsthand testimony about events on the ground in Syria. The Syrian Ambassador in Washington still roams where he pleases, although Mr. Ford has been confined by the Syrian government to Damascus, due to his dramatic show of solidarity with Hama earlier this month.
Although Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton have condemned the regime’s actions with varying (and sometimes backsliding) degrees of severity, the U.S. administration has yet to call outright for President Assad to step down (as it did relatively quickly for both Mubarak and Qaddafi, neither of whom had yet been half this brutal to their people). Yesterday’s “presidential statement” from the U.N. is an important gesture, but only underscores the relative toothlessness of the international community when it comes to stemming the continuing violence against the people of Syria.
The Assad government is doing everything it can to encourage sectarian violence, without much success so far. I only hope that the opposition protesters will have the strength to continue to cling to their high ideals despite their desperate situation. Change is possible. Evil can be overcome. And truth, freedom, and human dignity are eternally worth fighting for.
August 4, 2011 1 Comment
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thirty-six short words, but what an idea! As Americans, I think all of us have our special reasons for not taking those words for granted. Some serve in the armed forces, defending those very liberties. Others are first-generation immigrants from countries where such civil liberties do not exist. Here is one of my reasons:
Last night I woke myself in the night, weeping for a man I’d never met. Ibrahim Qashoush was a fireman who wrote poetry in his spare time. When his country, Syria, rose in rebellion against an intolerable dictatorship, he turned his talent to writing revolutionary jingles. His songs became famous, and were sung by hundreds of thousands as they peacefully protested the regime.
Earlier this month, Qashoush disappeared. I avoid graphic material on this blog, so I won’t describe what they did to him. It’s enough to say that he is dead, murdered by the security forces of his own government. He leaves behind a grieving wife and three boys who will grow up without a father.
This is an intensely personal story to me, because I have lived in Syria under Bashar al-Assad. Four and a half months is not very long, but it felt like a long time for me to have my voice stifled. I saw the fear in my Syrian friend’s eyes when a few days into my stay I innocently made an imprudent remark in the presence of the wrong listener. So it only ever happened once. I learned to be quiet, just like everybody else.
Syria is a beautiful country. I’ve visited many corners of the world, and Syrians are the most warm and open people I have ever met. But the silent, menacing force of an oppressive government is crushing to the spirit. Certain topics are simply never discussed. There’s a peculiar universal and obsessive impulse to compulsively look over one’s shoulder. Because even the walls can’t be trusted to keep a secret from the dreaded mukhabarat (secret police).
I don’t know if it’s possible to understand this feeling without experiencing it. As a connoisseur of dystopian fiction, I had read about it in plenty of books before I arrived. I was so acquainted with the concept of a totalitarian society that at first it was a sort of novelty living in one, like being a character in a book.
But the novelty soon wore off, and I found myself frightened in spite of myself, and then angry at being frightened. Most of all, I was angry on behalf of my Syrian friends. I was an American. The mukhabarat couldn’t really do anything to me (at least I believed they couldn’t). And I could leave if I wanted, and in fact was planning to leave. But how dare the government keep its own people feeling so miserably afraid for a lifetime?
A few months into my stay in Syria, I had a sort of breakdown. I shut myself in my room, and poured out a tirade at the mukhabarat. I had a convenient captive audience in the person of my ceiling fan, which I had been cautioned to assume had been bugged by the mukhabarat. Whether it was bugged or not, that ceiling fan endured an hour-long diatribe detailing my fury at the oppressive Assad regime, and those creepy, shadowy, awful mukhabarat.
It was only naiveté, not bravery, that allowed me to face my invisible foes with the truth of what I thought about them. I hadn’t lived long enough in Syria to personally know anyone who’d been dragged off by the mukhabarat to disappear forever or be returned a tortured corpse. That’s why I am in awe at the courage of the Syrian people, who know full well the hideous strength and brutality of their government, and defy it anyway, because of their unquenchable belief in an idea. That same idea embodied so beautifully by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
I think about Syria every day, and my heart is with those young people waving their signs in the streets. The headlines are always the same: so many killed in Dara’a, so many in Hama, so many in this or that suburb of Damascus. I watch the videos of protests, taken surreptitiously with civilian cell phones because journalists are not allowed in the country. I read the horrific first-hand accounts of what goes on behind closed doors in packed-to-bursting Syrian jails.
I choose to believe that the peaceful activists in Syria will prevail, because I believe their cause is just. And because all I can give them right now is my belief. May God bless them, speed their cause, and re-gift to them the precious rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
July 30, 2011 2 Comments
The Water-wheels in Hama, Syria
The foreign service usually seems like a somewhat safer place than the military. But U.S. pilots flying NATO missions in Libya might be safer than Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria at the moment. Last Thursday, he and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, made a symbolic visit to Hama, site of the infamous 1982 Syrian massacre, and recent target of a crackdown by the Syrian government. They stayed into Friday, traditionally the most active day for protests. Demonstrators greeted them with smiles and roses, and they spent the day shaking hands and visiting hospitals in an expression of solidarity with the Syrian uprising.
The Syrian government was furious, and used the visit as fuel for their claim that the nationwide protests are orchestrated by Western powers. And on Monday, both embassies were attacked by violent pro-government protesters (who had curiously managed to evade the Syrian government’s otherwise tight security in Damascus). The protesters scaled the wall of the American embassy, draped it with a huge Syrian flag, and proclaimed Ambassador Ford a “dog.” I guess maybe they didn’t know that canine epithets don’t carry the dire connotations in English that they do in Arabic. Still, it had to have been somewhat unnerving for Mr. Ford, whose house they proceeded to attack next.
But Ambassador Ford is no stranger to danger. He served as the Political Advisor to the Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006, and then as Ambassador to Algeria. The United States has had no Ambassador to Syria since the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. President Obama nominated Ford as Ambassador to Syria last February, but the Senate failed to act on the nomination. So Mr. Obama used a recess appointment to put Ford in Syria in December, when the Arab spring was just a handful of protesters in a few dusty Tunisian towns. In hindsight, the President seems to have almost clairvoyantly sensed how crucial it would be for us to have an ambassador in Syria during this delicate and historic time. And the fearless Mr. Ford definitely seems to be the right man for the job.
Going back to what happened yesterday, the protesters were eventually driven off from both the Embassy and the ambassadorial residence by American marines. During a similar attack on the French Embassy, security guards resorted to tear gas and firing live ammunition into the air. Syrian government security, of course, made itself noticeably scarce during both attacks.
There’s been a lot of talk in the Arab world about a double standard on the part of the West when it comes to dealing with Middle Eastern dictators. After all, the Qaddafi regime has killed far fewer civilians than the Assad regime. But a multitude of factors make NATO/American military intervention in Syria (even if it were truly desirable) simply impractical. Ba’athist Syria is much larger, better armed, less politically isolated, and more geographically problematic than Qaddafi’s Libya. So caustic foreign ministry speeches, asset freezing, sanctions, and sending the ambassador into the midst of the fray are about as good as it’s going to get. Hopefully it’s good enough to let the Syrian people know that we are firmly on their side. I still believe that they have what it takes, and will be able to topple this government by themselves, just like the people of Tunisia and Egypt.
In the meantime, whether Ambassador Ford’s visit was his own idea or suggested to him by superiors, I think he is incredibly courageous. And when he visited the people of Hama, he was representing not only President Obama, but all of us in America who support the Syrian quest for freedom and wish we could be there too.
I, at least, would like to say thank you Mr. Ambassador, for your bravery in the line of duty, and for your truly-lived commitment to the democratic beliefs and aspirations we share with the people of Syria.
July 12, 2011 1 Comment
Yesterday the Syrian ambassador to France defected in protest of the government’s violence against civilians. Oh, wait, actually she didn’t. The truth is, nobody really knows what did or did not happen. Yesterday France 24, a French television network, broadcast a telephone interview in which Lamia Shakkour, the ambassador in question, announced her resignation. Little more than an hour later, Syria state television broadcast a different telephone interview in which Ms. Shakkour denied resigning. She later actually appeared on television (not by telephone this time) in front of the Paris Syrian Embassy, confirming that she had not resigned, and threatening to sue France 24.
So did Ms. Shakkour resign and then change her mind under pressure and threats from the Syrian government? Did an intrepid Syrian employee of the Embassy borrow the cell phone used for the call (which France 24 claims it had used previously to contact Ms. Shakkour) and Shakkour’s Embassy email account (which France 24 insists was used to confirm the resignation after the interview) and stage a perfectly-timed political hoax? Did France 24 fabricate the whole thing? At this point, all three of the above seem plausible. Pretty much equally plausible, in fact.
The thing is, if you read too much Middle East news lately, particularly about Syria and Libya, you start to feel a little disoriented; a little dizzy. There’s a disturbing quality to much of the information that has been trickling out of the embattled Middle Eastern dictatorships in the past few months. Government and opposition accounts of what is obviously the same event are so eerily disparate that it feels like two alternative realities being built simultaneously, one on top of another.
I’d like to think that it’s the big, bad governments promulgating misinformation, and the embattled revolutionaries holding up the inviolate truth. But how many times in Libya did the rebels misrepresent or downright lie about their actual position on the ground? And what’s going on in Paris at the Syrian embassy anyway?
When I attempt to understand what’s going on, I tend to drift uncontrollably into the realm of science fiction. Like the protagonist in Ursuala LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, I find myself waking every day from a different disturbing dream of what the world is really like. Ultimately, it all seems to lead toward doubting the reality of anything and everything.
It would be easy to say that the truth exists, and we just need to find a way to find it out. But that’s the paradox and predicament of living in a totalitarian society. When the government controls the window through which you view the world, your options are to see it their way, or to go crazy. And the “crazy” can’t be tolerated in a world of absolutes. For those who don’t remember a time when the current regime didn’t spy on and control their every action, thought, and perception, perhaps it’s a little difficult to imagine a society in which truth can be spoken and reported impartially.
It was surreal a few months ago to hear Qaddafi declare a cease-fire, and then immediately break it. Or Bashar announcing the end of the decades-long state of emergency, and then carrying on as usual with the same brutal repression. Imagine living for forty years under a rule where truth is an arbitrary thing, to be manipulated whenever and however it happens to be convenient. No doubt each of these governments has its own equivalent to the darkly ironical Orwellian ”Ministry of Truth.” The question is, when the Ministry of Truth is under attack, where do we go to find the truth? We need to get our information from somewhere. Do we just believe the opposite of whatever the Ministry says?
I’m almost inclined to say yes. I have read eyewitness accounts like this about what is going on in the black box of Syria, and I believe that the government is committing atrocious crimes against its own citizens. But the little that can be independently confirmed and explained is like a frightening patchwork of half-remembered nightmares. And then there are the seriously weird things happening in the Syrian Embassy in Paris.
Please let me know if you’ve sorted out the mysterious truth behind exactly what’s going on in Syria. Because my own private Ministry of Truth is seriously confused.
June 8, 2011 2 Comments
Yesterday Tony and I went on a really lovely date. It was one of those beautiful, still, early-summer nights, where sunset fades gently into a blue velvet canopy of stars spread out brightly over a calm sea. We were sitting beside a fountain just outside the walls of the 15th-century Hammamet Medina. The antique streetlights cast a warm glow over the walls and falling water. It felt like a picture out of the Arabian Nights. I couldn’t help but think back to Syria, and my first experiences in the magical world of mosques, minarets, and medinas. It’s a world rocked now by the winds of change, punctuated sharply by the iron-clad pounding fists of despots.
I don’t ever watch T.V. at home. But when I’m out and about, most places, including all restaurants and even our neighborhood fruit stand, have televisions. More often than not, what’s on is the news, which invariably features protests. The surreal thing is that it’s often not possible at first glance to tell which country I’m watching, or what month the event portrayed occurred, until I catch a glimpse of someone waving a flag. Even then, countries still agitating for freedom often use the flags and slogans of those who’ve already been successful, so Tunisian and Egyptian flags still appear in protests in other countries. Sometimes the footage really is celebratory flashbacks to the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions. But usually it is demonstrations happening today in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, or maybe Libya.
My heart jumps when I see a Syrian flag waving over a street full of protesters. I can’t bring myself to check the news about Syria by choice more often than once every couple of days. The news is always bad. It’s like watching an awful accident happening in slow motion, with nothing you can do to prevent it. The Syrian government yesterday shut down most of the internet in the country (government websites are still active), a large portion of coverage from the nation’s one cell phone provider, and water and electricity to dozens of towns involved in the protests.
Friday is always the bloodiest day of the week. This has been true in Tunisia and Egypt as well. Things happen on Friday in the Middle East. Everyone leaves the mosque together after the noon service, which more or less marks the beginning of the weekend. They pour into the streets to protest, and then the army starts shooting.
This week, despite the government’s desperate measures, some of the largest crowds yet turned out to protest the torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy in a Syrian prison. Graphic photos give me nightmares, so I didn’t look at the videos and photos that have been widely circulated via facebook and twitter. Hamza al-Khateeb (please be aware that the NY Times article I linked to is disturbing enough without photos) disappeared at the end of April, and spent a month in prison. His parents had no word on his whereabouts until his body was returned to them last week.
What were you doing when you were thirteen? What is your thirteen-year-old doing now? Shopping at the mall? Going to school? Listening to music and hanging out with friends? I think of that boy and his parents, and I don’t know how to reconcile the normal life of a young teenager with the reality of theirs. It’s hard to believe that we live in a world where a thirteen-year-old can be tortured to death. I guess for now we can only hope for a time when funerals like these will be a thing of the past.
photo credit: I did it myself. What do you think?
June 4, 2011 4 Comments
It has been a month since I last wrote about Syria, but I have thought about my favorite Middle Eastern country every single day, and watched the news anxiously, hoping for some miraculous happy-ever-after. Since then, any illusions that President Bashar al-Assad might not be quite as bad as his infamous father have been washed away in rivers of blood. Over 500 civilians have died at the hands of the Syrian military during the past six weeks, with 62 killed just yesterday in protests that brought 15,000 Syrians to the streets of Damascus alone. The southern city of Daraa, where the protests began, is surrounded by a tank blockade that has cut off its citizens from water, electricity, medical support, and even milk for children. For Syrians, this blockade recalls dark memories of the city of Hama, which in 1982 was surrounded and besieged by the Syrian army before being completely wiped out in a massacre that killed tens of thousands of people. Many Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, although the Syrian government sealed the Jordanian border last week.
Hundreds of members of the Syrian Parliament and other officials have resigned to protest the killings. Their resignation from a sham parliament does little to affect the real leadership of the country, but is a hopeful sign that there may be some cracks in the hitherto seemingly iron-clad dictatorship. Scattered soldiers have refused orders to fire on civilians and been speedily executed themselves. However, rumors of large-scale military defections appear to be unfounded. The international response has been slow. On Thursday, The British government did issue a last-minute “uninvitation” for the Syrian ambassador to attend the royal wedding. And yesterday the United States froze the assets of President Assad’s brother, although not of the President himself. The gesture is largely symbolic, since Syrian political figures don’t tend to keep their money in the U.S. The EU also held an emergency meeting in Brussels last night to discuss sanctions, which may take weeks to implement.
Helping along any kind of meaningful change in Syria seems a mammoth task. It was hard enough to begin an international intervention in Libya, where a single, isolated madman ran a sparsely-populated country in Africa. Syria’s Bashar is a British-educated doctor with a glamorous wife and three cute kids. His regime has been courted by the U.S. to prevent closer ties to Iran, is paradoxically an important pillar of security for Israel, contributes to a fragile stability in volatile Lebanon, and borders troubled Iraq. Syria’s military is loyal, and its central circle of leadership appears undivided. The Syrian people are finally heroically standing up to decades-long repression, and the rest of the world appears powerless to prevent the resultant bloodbath. It seems that all there is left to do is to hope and pray.
April 30, 2011 No Comments
I’ve only been once to a Turkish bath, or hammam as they are called in Arabic. I don’t know that I’ll ever go again, but it was certainly an experience. The hammam I attended was the Hammam al-Nasri, located in a 14th century building in the charming old city of Aleppo, Syria. I don’t remember every single detail, but there are certain parts that really stick out. After disrobing and putting on a special towel, I was ushered into the steam room, where I was soon surrounded by billowing white clouds, which rendered it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away. After a while, I noticed that from the direction of the indistinguishable doorway I could descry a dark shape. In a moment, it had materialized in the form of a very large and nearly naked woman, who beckoned to me ominously. Summoning all my courage, I followed her into a somewhat less steamy room. She sat me down on the floor in front of her, and lathered up my hair. Then she took off my towel (my only attire), had me lie on the floor, and scrubbed me all over. If you have never been given a very rough naked spa treatment by a female version of Hercules, you have never lived. By the time she decided I was clean, I was also thoroughly weirded out. When I emerged a couple of hours later, pink with the scrubbing, I was glad that I had been able to have the hammam experience. However, I decided that in the future my personal hygiene would remain, well, personal.
My only other hammam experience happened by accident. I was hiking with a group in Morocco, when we stopped for lunch at a small Berber village. Our very hospitable hosts gave us delicious melissa tea (which I later learned was lemon balm, and I cannot smell now without being transported back to that little Moroccan village). They also made us delicious couscous. When I asked if I could use the bathroom, I was surprised to be taken out of the house, through the village, and finally to a wooden structure with a low door. A little apprehensive, I cautiously pushed open the door. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, I saw that the structure was full of women in various stages of undress, all bathing together in what was obviously the village hammam. There was a cascade of giggles, and they enthusiastically waved for me to come in and join them. Evidently, my host had been under the impression that I had experienced a sudden hankering to take a bath. I was impressed with the hospitality, but politely declined in favor of a visit to that other kind of bathroom, the one I actually needed. I had previously known that the Arabic word hammam meant both a regular bathroom and a communal bathhouse, but this was the first and only time that the ambiguity ever affected me personally.
I’m not sure whether he was moved more by my account or Lonely Planet’s glowing recommendations, but ever since we moved to Tunisia, Tony has been longing to visit a hammam. He mentions this desire to everyone we meet, including random shopkeepers and taxi drivers, many of whom have offered to go with him. Finally, inspired by our visit to the colossal Roman baths in ancient Carthage last week, he decided that the time had come. One of his friendly shopkeepers had recommended a particular hammam, and even given him a map of it, showing what to do in each room. He also gifted Tony with a set of little papers written in Arabic, one for the taxi driver with the address, one for the masseuse to explain that he wanted to be scrubbed, and one for Tony himself with the hours of the hammam. The hours were important, because certain hours are set aside for women to bathe, and others for men.
Having chosen one of the times on the list, Tony set off in high spirits, although a bit nervous. When he arrived at the address of the recommended hammam, he only saw a small door in a wall. So he loitered around watching it for a while, but nobody went in or out. Finally, he plucked up his courage, opened the door, and walked in. However, he was quickly compelled to turn around and walk back out, forcefully shooed by a vociferous and indignant old lady. Unfortunately, there just happened to be a cafe full of men across the street, all of whom watched the entire proceeding with great interest and obvious amusement. One of them helpfully pointed out the obvious to Tony, that he had tried to enter the hammam during the women’s hours. Apparently, his shopkeeper friend had been somewhat less meticulous about his information than he had seemed. Tony later also realized that he had walked in the back door of the hammam, which I am sure further underscored his apparent disreputability.
Chagrined, he didn’t go back to the hammam for a couple of weeks. I thought he had given it up altogether. But no! Last Friday, armed with the real, true hours of operation for men, he went back to the hammam, this time through the front door. Apparently, it went off without a hitch, unless you consider the masseuse severely straining his client’s back a hitch. Tony’s masseuse sounded like an even more vigorous scrubber than mine. Tony reported that he kept piling up the resultant dead skin on his chest for him to see. Eww. In any case, something about the whole process of sitting in a room sweating with strangers and having all his skin scrubbed off unaccountably ended up appealing to Tony. We spent yesterday afternoon hunting down all the little hammam accessories for him (soap dish, scrubber glove, water dipper, mini shampoo bottle, backpack, money purse, etc.). And he’s back at the hammam (a different hammam actually) as I write this.
Update: he just got home, and says this second hammam is even better than the first. This time, he got in on the back scrubbing. He says they all scrubbed each other, and it was more of a “neighborhood hammam” experience, whatever that means. He now considers himself conversant with the inner mysteries of the hammam, so if you happen to need a guide for your own personal Turkish Bath experience, I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige.
March 29, 2011 3 Comments