Abu Roberto? Akeed?

Basil the landlord strolled into the house one afternoon as usual, and sat down awkwardly, periodically divulging utterly irrelevant and frankly laughable details about his depressingly uneventful life (‘I like action films’, ‘I want to name my next son Osamu’, etc.) until we caved to the pressure and offered him Earl Grey.

We didn’t understand the next bit in Arabic, so he tried his English on us: ‘I give task you, must have Rozin die, away house. I want blanket’.
‘You want us to get rid of Rozin the prostitute by means of a gruesome murder?’
‘Aywa. Then we talk blanket. You have blanket?’

Then there was a house meeting for the five of us after he left, the Turkish coffee flowed.
‘I’m getting a shwarma’, Johnny declared after about three seconds, and immediately left, neatly avoiding any defamation of character in the following… er… passage.

So the four of us slowly brought our heads round to look at the entrance to the beast’s room, distaste etched into every face as we imagined a particularly perverted client taking delight in depilating her copious body hair. Actually that was just Roberto. Thinking about it, I mean (well, I hope, anyway).

‘As unquestionably the funniest person here, I should definitely not have to do this’ I declared.

‘You’re not the funniest person here, Mick’ Aubeida replied with a look of incredulity, ‘you’re a wanker’.

‘I call second’ hastened Roberto.

Carlos ‘Third’.

Aubeida sighed heavily. ‘Fourth…’

‘Don’t worry, ya shabaab!’ I added, ‘any bizarre, criminal and probably quite dangerous activity becomes fun and culturally important if we opera up! Just imagine!’

Suddenly we were standing in some nameless Neapolitan palace lavishly decorated with ceiling paintings of frolicking cupids, candyfloss skies and (artistic) nude women. Everything henceforth we sang in high Italian and repeated three or four times whilst cavorting around like it had been about two years since we’d last had a wank, but I’m sure you can imagine that easily enough.

‘If Rozin looked like one of those, we might not have to kill her’ suggested Roberto, pointing to the ceiling and thinking hard for a few seconds before adding ‘yanee, habibi’.

‘Someone’s external physical appearance has no effect on their potential to be venereally diseased, you know’ Carlos corrected him.

‘THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!’ I said, sounding fairly convinced that I was funny. Aubeida seemed to ‘get’ it and we high-fived unnecessarily. I glanced around to see if we’d get some rolling banter but wasn’t too surprised when instead I got Roberto’s typical reaction of a stare with mixed fear and incomprehension for quite a bit longer than strictly required to chastise me.

Swaggering through into the next room, we quickly spied the source of the problem. A vile, disgusting mass radiating palpable physical, moral and spiritual repulsiveness was slumped in one corner, farting and coughing up mucus at regular intervals.

‘Is anyone else horny?’ Carlos asked.

An awkward silence ensued, whereupon we decided, mentally so as not to introduce more nauseating dialogue, that henceforth we’d just stop every fifteen minutes and pool together the awkward silences so that we didn’t have to interrupt the… wonderfully descriptive prose narrative or, for that matter, our scintillating conversations.

Matters didn’t really come to a head when the composer inserted a gratuitous bassoon obbligato while Aubeida sang ‘Muraglie abbattere, disfar incanti, se vuoi ch’io vanti darti prove d’amor’. I’d been at the toilet for the seven minutes that took, playing Snake on my phone and getting a little carried away (they added a campaign mode so all my shits now take double the time), so only caught the last two minutes, after which he informed me that it wasn’t a reference to my mother, which was nice to know.

We agreed that it would be very difficult to get within an erect penis’ length of the monster without choking on the smell or simply losing the will to live, but there was some debate over exactly how great a distance that was, and more importantly over how incredibly stuipid an idea that would be even with immediate death temporarily ignored.

‘I know!’ Carlos volunteered, ‘what about I dress up as a woman, slowly gain her confidence and then poison her? That way we can make out this largely unrelated selection of concert arias to be a genuine play set to music. It’s not that I’m a transvestite or anything’.

I'm telling you, dressing up as the same thing every Halloween and every now and then besides constitutes an underlying mental issue, not a great costume
'I'm telling you, dressing up as the same thing every Hallowe'en and every now and then besides constitutes an underlying mental issue, not a great costume'

We all sang a few songs about spurned lovers, fighting people, loneliness, the importance of marital fidelity and fighting people, then a handy deus ex machina resulted as Apollo got seriously fucking bored with watching us all mincing about, driving his chariot right into where the beast’s head should be/was before it was swallowed up by the body. It seemed to do the trick, and so after some great storm music that resulted in a few violin strings breaking which would be kept by Roberto and used as sex aides (some people are into that, I don’t ask), we were left with a mass of slowly decaying flesh which smelt marginally better than the living version.

It took about ten seconds for a herd of stray cats to pick the body clean (oh wait, this is 18th-century Naples, not Damascus. But no matter).

‘Wow, this has been a great success’ said Carlos with a disturbing smile on his face. ‘Also not a reference to your mother’.

In the cavernous folds of fat we discovered, amongst other things, an ornate backgammon set with a piece missing (‘Mmm, this is irritating, yes?’ Roberto suggested helpfully), three formerly-notorious Saudi paedophiles who had apparently been trapped there since the late ’70s and a small car filled with heroin.

Johnny came back holding a half-eaten shwarma and his face quickly contorted into a look of disgust.

‘Roberto… um… Saahib al-bait…?’

What’s in a blog. Romp?

There’s something very comforting about the genre of escape opera. Probably because it helps you escape from the dark reality you face, or more commonly because you can just sit and have a good laugh. In this instance, it’s the former. Or really, Rossini’s ‘l’Italiana in Algeri’ is more properly a rompish parody of the escape opera, I suppose. Regardless, it’s – WAHAHA SOME ARAB JUST RAN FULL PELT INTO A GLASS DOOR, I’M FUCKING CRACKING UP HERE – a great Arab romp without too much Araby-ness, and lots of romp. Italian woman gets shipwrecked in Algeria, horny Arab wants her, horny Arab gets denied by not-too-dashing Italian antihero, and there’s plenty of singing and romping and rompiness and all that, spiffing. Why can’t Syria be more like that? Romp. (I’m a bit of an antihero already, though). I say that, but I suppose guiltily that I quite like this place on some base level, because of rather than despite its numerous flaws. Complaining loudly and now getting, er, ‘romped’? on antifreeze wherever possible are quite fun, but this is just a microcosm of how bad things are quite good, in a way. Think about it. If you didn’t have bad things to make good things good, good things would just be normal, and there’d be no yardstick. We use Tennent’s as a yardstick, compared with which Carling tastes like decayed corpse and McEwen’s is pretty good. If we had McEwen’s as the only kind of beer in the world, it wouldn’t be good or bad.

This is my profound thought for the day. Also, romp. Do that.

romp [romp]
–verb (used without object)
to play or frolic in a lively or boisterous manner.

‘I’d romp that’.
‘Go for it, that’ll be romps’.


The class went to the National Museum of Syria today. We worked on the usual text of frolicsome fun and joy for an hour, or about sixty-one minutes too long. I was at the point of choking someone with my ‘Ranch’ coated peanuts (akeed, shabaab?) when we left. Fortunately I can vent my rage by writing about ancient history. Some people don’t have that option. We call them ‘serial killers’.

It was quite good. One of the lads from another class with chat pointed out my first seen snow in Syria on a mountain across Lebanon way, and also informed us that this is rated as the tenth-best museum in the world. It would have higher points if people read ahead on certain items rather than rely on captions, but never mind.

I’ve always been amazed by how the Romans could incorporate new cultures and religions into their own without a hitch. One of the most famous cases in point has to be St Constantine the Great’s adoption of Christianity and the subsequent building of a triumphal arch following his victory at the Milvian Bridge in the same grand style of its pagan-dedicated precursors. Hro-chis, fish and crosses seem immediately at home amongst all those capital letters and that very Roman stone laurelling for some reason. Maybe it goes together so well that we’ve been copying it for the past 1700 years.

The synagogue of Dura-Europos is like that. Dura is simply the must-see site in Syria for the discerning/zealous classicist, and the synagogue there is the first built after the diaspora which survives today. Painstakingly dismantled and transferred to (marginally) better conditions in the museum, you can see why it was a big deal for the chaps who found it. Roman figures clutching menorahs have their names inscribed in Greek above them and enact various famous Biblical scenes. I could bore you with a bit of the more interesting detail and, funnily enough, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

I was talking about cultures dying out in one of my last entries, and was interested in light of this discussion to note several figures cruising around on horses wearing Phrygian caps (Dura having been destroyed in the mid third century AD). Even after their conquest by the Persians about eight hundred years earlier, the Phrygians were a fiercely independent people who clung to their national dress and as a consequence it has taken on strong connotations from ancient Mediterranean cultures up to the present day. The Greeks – …

Okay, fuck that. It’s not like anyone seriously reads this anyway, and those who might certainly won’t stand opera and the themes of ancient Judaeo-Roman frescoes in the same blog entry. Some of my classmates would probably implode on the spot.

Time for some ”araQ, 150 lire a bottle hell yes! I am getting MOTORED!

Finally some pictures to go with all this gibberish

There’s something very comforting about a proper pizza.

It should be cooked in a wood-fired oven. It should be thin and crispy. Most importantly, it should have three toppings, and three only – tomato purée, mozzarella cheese and oregano – the red, white and green from the flag of Europe’s mother nation. I’m sure there are lots of things I could say about Italy and Italians here, but I’ll save that for if I go to Pisa studying for three months. Plain sailing…

Mmm, bravo. Porco dio! etc.


I like blogging. It lets me separate various different points with series of dashes so that I don’t have to write something with any thematic continuity or particular coherence.

The Baradaa river, more filth for the filth of this filthy slum. Filth!
The Baradaa 'river', more filth for the filth of this filthy slum. Filth!


Unfortunately these pictures aren’t great, but I’m working on my camera.

The Gate of Peace on the north wall just up the road from my house
'The Gate of Peace' on the north wall just up the road from my house


When you fart in your sleep and wake up to find yourself in a small puddle of your own liquid faeces yet feel genuinely tempted just to lie there and pretend nothing has happened, you’ve really reached the dark place. I’ve always prided myself on having a stomach of iron (some of my readers may remember… more than me on this issue), but that’s gone to pot now. All for the sake of some spicy pasta sauce and about twelve cashew nuts. This has been food poisoning like never before, I honestly didn’t think there was enough manky water/acid/other nasty stuff in the world to cause such… problems:

0430: get up, not having slept, cursing the nature of physical existence. Spew like Alan on crack

0440: toilet (recurring about every fifteen minutes)

0500: spew

0530ish: find stray cat foraging in bin, encourage it to leave and in the process accidentally spew slightly on cat

0630: aforementioned mess of bed

0645ish: attempt to shower. Spew

It did get a little better from there. But that was yesterday morning (and oho, what a morning!), and the toilet trips still haven’t quite stopped. No Thursday night mayhem for me (well, maybe there will be, but not the usual kind of mayhem, and I’ll wager there will be considerably more human waste involved).


Whitey time...
Whitey time...


Why is it that some cultures survive and others are lost to history?

If we take traditional Scottish culture as an example, it has been centuries since the clan system, traditional ways of life, language and dress associated with our nation in the mists of time have all but disappeared. This is generally because that manner of existence has no place in the modern world, and it has been replaced by an entirely different – but no less recognisably Scottish – way of life in the land of today. I’m not complaining. There’s really nothing wrong with tweed jackets, ale and fried food. Preferably all at the same time.

This hasn’t been quite as true for the Arabs (and I’m not talking only about black pudding here. Some cultures are just better than others!). Travelling through some of the massive desert of central Syria, we could look out on a landscape that has remained largely unchanged for millennia, and we saw a way of life that has been more or less the same as well for many centuries. That classic stereotype of desert-dwellers, ‘Saracens’, living in squalid conical mud houses in small villages, with animals and children roaming all around without a care and sermons from the local masjid bawled around came surprisingly true. Sure, shepherds had switched from donkey to motorbike, the preacher had switched from shouting loudly to primitive loudspeakers, people had switched from the floor to cheap, broken plastic chairs, but the ideas were the same. It was pretty easy to imagine the land as it must have been all those years ago when these people were first Arabised. I suppose those more in the know must have thought that these new conquerors would be just like the Persians not long before, claiming the land and being driven out not long after. But, as it turned out, Arab culture has been there to stay, a (slight) unifying influence on a region where chaos has always ruled.

Things aren’t dissimilar in Damascus, on a larger scale anyway. I can gaze out from the roof of my house onto the other rooftops of that charming slum of the old city, and it’s not hard to take the satellite dishes and occasional red water tank out of my mind’s eye and imagine myself back when life was simpler. When it still had that certain… extra something which I suppose has been lost with the advent of aspects of modernity around the world. Taking in the mountains, the archaic, alien grandeur of the Umayyad Mosque, and yet the skyline of this slum city, I suppose too that I can begin to see why people have fought over this place for most of the about twelve thousand years it has existed.

Part of the Umayyad Masjid, to this day the biggest (and most impressive) in the world. Photos of the interior to follow
Part of the Umayyad Masjid, to this day the biggest (and most impressive) in the world. Photos of the interior to follow
The Roman eastern gate, from which the Arabs first entered the city
The Roman eastern gate, from which the Arabs first entered the city