Gone… some things forgotten

(continued from last post)

It was then that I got a bit ambitious. I keep wanting to cross the next hill, the next hill, the next hill, which served to demostrate the aforementioned emptiness of the place, occasionally punctuated by disused tracks and huts, as well as single trees or small groups of them. Reaching the highest peak in the area, I was tempted to burst into Mighty Boosh-style crimp, but running low on water and having nobody to provide a smattering of polite/disturbed laughter I decided that was somewhat pointless.

‘lost in the blinding light of the deseeeeeeeeeeeeert’ doesn’t quite work as well…

Coming back towards the monastery from there, I noticed some movement across a ridge to my left, and my brain must have thought something along the lines of ‘oh, let’s see what that is, because obviously nothing could conceivably go wrong in that scenario’. Sure enough, I crossed the ridge and was faced with this massive, slavering, enraged wolf, and the perfectly cloudless sky behind it suddenly read تباً. Fortunately a bit of running like a lunatic before he could howl for his pure young team saw me alright.

It doesn’t look like much for that distance, but I’m telling you it was at least this big (imagine me holding my arms very far apart)

His friends turned out to be more like massive, slavering, enraged feral dogs than wolves per se. Maybe Syria is a bit like that. If you’re stupid, you get chased by wolves. This is my thought for the day.

Anyway, that’s that. Four months in the Levant… I’ve been back just about two months now, mainly happily. I do sometimes miss Syria’s simplicity and honesty, but then it had its disadvantages by the barrel as well.

Bad times? We can certainly say I’d love to forget being mugged in Bab Tuma, having my camera stolen and many of the events in the week before half-term. And we will say that.

But I’d say what I loved most about my time abroad was discovering things for myself. I’d heard at least a little about practically every area of the country for one reason or another before going, and I suppose the case in point is Deir az-Zur. Roundly criticised as a shithole by your typical expat, even in three short days there and despite its numerous warts, I really fell in love with the place, with its vaguely charming French-style riverside restaurants and really unique character.

Damascus? It was diverse. Sometimes bizarre. That’s the best way to describe it, because I could give the city its own blog (horrified gasp from any remaining readers there…). Certainly 81 Baab as-Salaam Lane is a house with many memories, mainly good, which will never leave me. And while I suppose I had the occasional valuable experience at the university, it was largely a necessary evil.


So. Good times? There were plenty, no doubt. Character building? Yes. Friends for life? I reckon. Piety? I kept it up. Alcoholism? Borderline. My Arabic? Pretty good.

Would I go back? !لازم


Thanks for reading: and, more importantly, congratulations if you made it this far. Next up? Archaeology this semester sees me going Schliemann on the collective proverbial asses of the Peloponnese, Attica and parts of central Greece. Given I have a course diary to keep, there’ll be lots to write about and I hope interesting pictures. Plus maybe tales of massive slange on the lash in Athens. More plus, there’s some wild talk of Alexandria this summer.

Those will be ones to watch. So come back in a bit, draw up your chair and leave a comment. !إلى اللقاء

Mar Mousa

The same week’s holiday I went to Deir az-Zur (early December, how time flies), I also took a trip north into the Anti-Lebanon mountains to the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, just to chill out for a couple of days. But as it turned out it was fucking freezing that evening and I had a bit of a liturgical issue (more on that later) with the clergy there, so I just went back the next day. I did see some amazing scenery there in that short couple of days, though.

I arrived around sunset from Damascus and faced the usual issue of having to haggle like the dirtiest Egyptian stereotype for a reasonable price for transport. The town of an-Nibik is about an hour away from Damascus and represents that quite common place outside the capital, ‘Syria’ – I walked into a kebab shop and had to repeat my order of one shwarma, no gherkins four or five times before the laddie behind the counter could quite get over ‘wow, he looks a bit different’. Walking around the streets I failed to pass anyone unwilling to stare at me for far longer than really necessary. I suppose it’s quite fun, in a way. Because of the trousers.

Anyway, I eventually found a driver to take me about 15km to the base of the hill on which the monastery itself is situated, and hopped out, the sun having set by this point. I’d been warned about the wolves that hang out around there looking for lone walkers on whom they might forcefully peddle crystal meth, and about facing a long and difficult trek up the mountain, but actually I arrived at the entrance to the monastery about half an hour later not under the influence of a psychoactive stimulant (that was the next day) and only mildly out of breath.

I came up the track you see to the right at the bottom, and the view, especially at night, was pretty والله, defo.

I was staying in the building ahead there, very spartan and monastic, but there was a good library and not much light pollution. These are the first things I look for in a place to stay, obviously.

I awoke fairly refreshed and happy, and that day being Sunday there was a Mass in the mid-morning in the ancient chapel on-site. There was some wonderful artwork there which had been damaged because the building had fallen into disrepair during the Ottoman and early modern periods, and the service itself was particularly difficult to follow, my Aramaic being rather limited…

Talking to a Frenchman who had stayed there for a week, I heard that by legend early Christian hermits had used the many grottoes and isolated wadis in the area for meditation, and that the thumb of St Moses’ right hand had been miraculously separated from the rest of his body and brought to an-Nibik.

It was this nonsense that went on afterwards which irritated me. Drums and guitars have no place inside churches. But a priest beating a drum and chanting الله, الله, الله over and over again is really too far. It’s meant to be a place of worship, of contemplation, but most of all respect. Turning the worship of God into mere spectacle is wrong, and something I would condemn more fully and coherently if this weren’t a blog that’s meant to be vaguely entertaining.

Filled with thoughts and anxious to dwell on them, I set out into the hills for a walk. It was pretty hot.

Only a few minutes into my climb, I ran into a Lebanese chap who very kindly offered to take a picture of me looking like an prize dickhead.

So I walked on. I thought about the landscape I saw, about how empty and bizarre it seemed, but also about how this must have been the same terrain Jesus traversed as he went into the desert for forty days. I suppose it’s particularly appropriate that I’ve not bothered writing this blog until Lent, as I can now add reflections now to active thoughts then. But I suppose I dwelt on life. And I dwelt on my life.

That eerie silence let me think thoughts that I can’t really write down, but that I’d say are some of the most memorable I’ve ever had. I’ve always been a bit of a mystic. But looking over that barren landscape that stretched out forever and standing under baking sun and pure blue sky, with each of my light footsteps a gunshot through complete stillness was a truly bizarre and amazing experience. I spent hours out there. The best part of the day, at any rate. It was one day in Syria that my eight hundred words just can’t even begin to get to grips with – even more so than normal.

But what really puzzles me:

How the fuck did I get sunburnt dressed like that?