(sorry, shocking lack of links. if you can tell me where to find the brackets on an arabic keyboard...i'll add some more. or, when i get back from Syria)

tea, tales, and feather skirts

Damscus is full of sun, and, as it's Friday, the souks are all but derserted and the Omayyad Mosque is full to overflowing. My frumpy clothes are paying off already - I was spared the indignity of tripping over one of the brown Jedi cloaks which are provided in the Special Clothes Putting On Room. The ticket seller, and guardian of morals, approved and let me off. As long as I covered the inch or so of throat which I was brazen enough to display to the world.

In the sunshine, the mosque was dazzling. Despite the inches of birdseed fed to extraordinarily happy pigeons (happy enough to be protected from the small children chasing them with widespread arms and waaaaah! calls by a man with a Very Big Stick) the marble floors acted as polished mirrors, throwing shards of light back up into eyes, and to light up the remaining green and gold mosaics. I am always amazed by how much life and activity there is in this mosque - none of the whispering hush of European cathedrals. Picnics of roast chicken under the arches, gatherings of friends and family, and kids tearing up and down with no one shushing them.

I arrived yesterday morning, just after dawn, in a blur of no sleep and too many miles in one go. My flight arrived in Amman, in Jordan, at the unfriendly hour of 1am, and by the time I'd got into town, to Abdali bus station, it was pushing three and I was obviously the only traveller-target within range, because every taxi-tout within a hundred yards pounced on me with recommendations of cheap hotels, good hotels, and a very good taxi to take me there. Eventually, I was driven round and round the bus station, being shown the sleeping corpses of the servees drivers, and their empty empty offices. I would have to wait till NINE O'CLOCK TEN O'CLOCK to get a ride. Not believing a word of it, I still caved and chartered the whole taxi up to Damascus. A grand solo ride, in a mile wide american old beater car, strewn with carpets and tablecloths and scarves in the back. I pulled my hat over my eyes, and half dozed all the way to Syria.

Except when the driver wanted to tell me things. He wasn't the chattiest man on the planet, which was a relief, as we didn't share a single word in any language we attempted. When frustration at my idiocy overcame him, he switched on the light, and repeated himself. Several times. When understanding still resisted me, he huffed, puffed, and put the light out again, shaking his head in disgust for the next five miles.

Ten miles outside Damascus, with the sun starting to seep pink into the sky, he stopped at a row of Wild West style shops. Dust blowing across the road, doors creaking, not a person in sight. Only the gruesome vision of a hundred bagged Pink Panther dolls, swinging by the neck from the rafters. At the next, Mickey Mouse and Minnie, and a range of other ripped-off Disney dolls swayed in the wind, strangled and suffocated. The driver dashed inside (we had already stopped at five or six duty free shops on the way, for sacks of potato crisps, cigarettes, and what looked like a bottle of whisky swathed in plastic to preserve his good name). Expecting to be joined in the back seat by one of the fairground attractions, instead I was presented with apricots, plums, and a marl-bo-ro-o-o cigarette to welcome me to the city.

The hotel was just a five minute walk from the bus station where I was dropped off, and the skies were as full as swifts as those above home. But there was no room for me until noon, and I after a pot of tea with about half a kilo of sugar stirred in, I pottered off to kill some time at the Tekkiye Mosque, and then the National Museum when it opened. The Tekkiye complex is cool and elegant, with thin pencil minarets, domed cloisters of the old housing for Hajj pilgrims, and a wide courtyard with a shallow pool patrolled by fealbitten skinny cats. The anomaly is the collection of MIG fighter planes which are strewn around in the gardens. The place is the Army museum, as well as one of the loveliest mosques in the country. If it wasn't quite so funny, the visual shock would be more bothersome.

Once the museum was unlocked at nine, I started a slow drift around the halls. The collections are worldclass, but the curation and the labelling is beyond belief.

Beautiful lady from Palmyra.
Stone head.
Old glass.
Lion with his mouth open.

I attempted to draw things, so that I could concentrate, try to remember what I was seeing, look at the details so that my eyes wouldn't skim across and reduce me to nodding daze of 'oooh, old things. cool.' I drew little bronze weights in the shapes of animals, clay cows, high priests in feathered skirts and plenty of eyeliner, tablets of cuneiform.

One of the guards was entirely perplexed. "You can buy a postcard! We have pictures of this!"
"Oh, I'll get the postcard too"
"Then no need to draw! We have a shop!"

In the next room, he found me drawing again.
"You don't want the poscards?"
"Oh, yes, I want the postcards, but I also want to draw."
"Ah, you are an artist."
I showed him my godawful drawing and shook my head.
"No, you are not an artist. Buy the postcards. We will be happy then."