Birds, frogs, and men selling watermelon


Hello from summer in Southern Syria!

Their song begins well before sunrise. I went out to the flat roof above the large reception room at 5.15 this morning to wake Ibrahim, as I had promised him I would. I found him folding up his bedding without my call. I had needed the World Service to drag me into wakefulness so early (I've only once this past week been woken by the call to prayer at the first glimmer of light, at 4 or so), but perhaps it was not just Ibrahim's powerful mastery of the flesh that had eased him into this day of making inspections. For the tune of the birds at that time, as I discovered when my fuggy brain eventually tuned into my ears, is fiercely symphonic. And by midday the stream of chirps, tweets, and cock-a-doodle-doos continues incessant, complementing distant honks, and the bangs, scrapes and splats of the men building the new house next door, a straightforward if sweaty task in this hot dry weather. Yusuf, my unfailing support during Ibrahim's absences, transformed himself from model student (results in the high 70s and 80s are rolling in now as in February) to labourer the day after his last exam - mixing cement, and lugging newly fabricated breezeblocks up to the roof/floor of the storey-to-be-built. They look blinding in this early afternoon sun, even through the fly screen on my window.

The mosquitoes make it through the gaps, even if the flies can't. Malaria is very rare here, but the children received vaccinations last week anyway. Baby Kamal, now three months old, had his forehead feasted on two days ago, and I've become assiduous about spraying my feet, ankles and wrists after being attacked upon arrival. Evening of course is the time we are most vulnerable, them waking up just as we sit outside, enjoying the wafts of jasmine on the gentle breezes towards sunset. Although the jasmine seems to flower all year, the garden has been transformed by summer - the spaces between the houses going up in the family plot are filled with budding olives, pomegranates, lemons and pears, as well as herbs, okra, cucumber, tomato, and 'mologheeya', a leafy green that I have neither seen nor tasted anywhere else, and whose English name is 'Jew's mallow', apparently. I can't wait for the figs to ripen, as well as the teat-like grapes which are just a few weeks away. Ibrahim's home, like many here, has a simple metal frame that the vines grow up and over, forming a shady canopy just outside the two main rooms downstairs. Last week we had stuffed vine leaves for lunch - yum - using leaves plucked from these vines.

As you can tell, I am getting quickly re-accustomed to the gentler pace of life here. I haven't got an established routine for myself yet - this will begin on Saturday, with the onset of my fulltime Arabic study. But the household activities continue in summer as in this year's exceptional wet and snowy February - cycles of rest, prayer, talk, cooking, eating, and cleaning, the essentials of humanity. The sun makes everything easier, though, and a lot less muddy. I'm loving cold showers, which in the middle of the day are not really cold at all. And the watermelon! The cry of 'bateekh, bateekh' is another sound that fills the backdrop to our daily existence. One sister-in law's family has a watermelon farm, and so we don't need to stop these sellers on their trucks - the other day we were delivered several as a gift. Despite twenty-four preceding hours of rather uncertain insides (probably the result of a chicken shawarma I had consumed at the bus station in Damascus with not the cleanest of hands) I couldn't resist a couple of sweet juicy slices when the first one was expertly divided, not least because I sensed that having stuck to boiled potatoes and yoghurt for the day had already solved my problems. Ibrahim and his father had suggested garlic too - and cautiously I had consumed a few raw cloves. Perhaps it was them that did the trick.

Ibrahim's leave for a week has just begun. We realised with astonishment last night that this will be our first full week together without visitors! What a thing to have had to wait for. We are so happy to be with each other after the harrowing period of aloneness we both suffered during the three months that intervened between March and last week. We have so much to talk about, and can't bear to be apart for long. Alas, he is busy today, and my study starts on Saturday morning. But it is morning classes only, and judging by the placement test I sat yesterday afternoon, I should be in the bottom level, so perhaps for the first few days I'll find it easy and homework won't take long.

What a tidal wave of 'real Arabic' that was, I had to laugh as I sat there, and it dawned on me just how much I've got to learn. I recalled my first day as a student in Beijing, when we were talked at in Chinese. During the break, after the Listening, Reading, Grammar and Writing tests (multiple choice answers, but with the questions all written in Arabic of course, including the instructions), I didn't really speak to any of the others, as I had no idea where any of them came from or if they could speak any English. Just one girl told me she was fourteen, from Cyprus, with a Syrian father. I have a feeling I was the least accomplished in the group, but I assume I will have to have some classmates in level 1! There seemed to be Japanese, Europeans of some description, and perhaps some Iranians (or were they Turkish? or from somewhere in the CIS?), as well as Africans, Spanish speakers (someone called 'Manuel'), some Arab-looking Muslim women who were chatting away in French (emigrants?) and someone who looked like he came from the Gulf. Surely he won't be in my class. I was glad to be the first to do the Conversation test, as Ibrahim had been waiting patiently for me all this time - I had assumed the whole thing would take fifteen minutes, not two hours. And that final part didn't last long - the two smiling women (my future teachers, perhaps) introduced themselves. I managed to explain why I want to study Arabic, but we couldn't get much beyond that. The usual approach was being used: pick a card with a topic on, and discuss the topic. Except for one snag, from my perspective - the cards were all written in Arabic. I stumbled aloud through the first card I picked, and understood not one word of it. The kind ladies then helped me pick another, and one of them read it for me. This time I understood about three words of the fifteen - so I smiled helplessly. They acted it out for me - something to do with not wanting to lend the keys of her car. So a minute later, having said 'no, my car is new and beautiful', when the woman asked for the key to my car, I was released, and told 'just turn up on Saturday morning!' This course continues until August 23rd, so I'll let you know how I get on. I strongly suspect I am going to find it harder than Chinese, despite living among Arabic speakers and already knowing some basic domestic vocabulary and local dialect.

My study will be broken by our marriage - or at least, the Muslim ceremonial part of it - which we hope will take place at the end of this month. It's the first half of getting married here, anyway, and so I am very glad that most of my family and four friends are coming to visit and help to celebrate with Ibrahim and me and some of his close family. We are saving larger celebrations and a larger party (so don't be offended if you haven't heard!) for a later date, when we will register our marriage with the state, probably after Ibrahim has completed his military service. That will be the official 'wedding', even if Islamically speaking we are husband and wife from the end of this month, God willing. Prayers are requested that Ibrahim's leave actually falls on the dates that he estimates, which is when all my visitors are coming - as my other big wish is for them all to be able to get to know him, and he them, so that my two disparate worlds begin to weave themselves together. This division between existences is the hardest thing in my life at present.

The growing together began in February and March, when my parents and Elizabeth, and later Nanette, visited Ibrahim and his family here. The gruesome weather and dark days, cold bedrooms, language barriers and stress about Ibrahim's posting and as yet unsought marriage dispensations didn't make it an easy time, but I know Ibrahim's family and mine were glad to begin to make each other's acquaintance. Elizabeth slipped effortlessly into family life, and was a hit with many little girls. Nanette during her visit became beloved for her smile, her good company, and her interest in everyone and everything around her. Ibrahim could see immediately the worth of our friendship. I can't wait for him to meet more of the people who are special to me.

I'm sorry I didn't write an account of my six week stay here closer to the time - but the many photographs that I did manage to post should give you an idea of what it was like. We enjoyed our visit to Aleppo, to see whoever was to be seen at the Latin Vicariate. In hours not spent pursuing this aim, in freezing snow with stinking colds we marvelled at the ruins of the pillar-stump and surrounding basilica for St Simeon Stylites as well as other early Christian monuments not far from the city; and on a rather brighter morning Dad, Elizabeth and I (Mummy now succumbing to the germs and resting) enjoyed several spots in the old city and the Christian quarter. We had all been impressed by the souk shortly after arriving (I shouldn't have felt so surprised that it was 'just the same' as three and a half years ago - as it surely has been much like that for two thousand years!) and in particular, an impromptu tour of a mediaeval mental health hospital, which was given by Aleppo's smoothest and most informed young merchant. After his efforts, we were happy to buy several items from his shop.

Back at Ibrahim's home, the most exciting event during my six-week stay in Syria was the arrival of his latest nephew, Kamal. He was born with so little fuss that it seems inappropriate to call this arrival 'exciting' - it was certainly uneventful. I can't help thinking I would rather have my children here than in the 'developed' world, where almost every birth I hear of among friends and friends of friends (and everyone's doing it these days) involves huge amounts of pain relief, lots of 'emergency' caesareans after days of awful labour, babies upside down and back to front, almost everyone not well-informed, or over-informed and excessively nervous, and just horror from both parents and a dread of any future childbirth experience. Kamal's arrival could not have been more different, and is quite the norm here. I found the hot water tank, which connects to the shower head, on and hot when I went to the bathroom that morning, and since this doesn't happen every day (water heated on gas, enough for a bucket bath, is what happens usually) I told Nanette, and we took our chance. Half an hour later we had both got nice and clean - and only then we realised that the water was being heated for the heavily pregnant sister-in-law - in labour? So in she went to her shower, looking fairly normal, at 8.30 am. Shortly afterwards her mother arrived, and the midwife, and they went up to her room, while the rest of us sat downstairs, including Ranss, the nervous husband, who looked after their little boy. At 9.40 am (i.e., less than an hour after the shower), the arrival of their second son was announced, and we all had breakfast. Simple. The bit I liked best was how well looked after this lady was for the following two weeks - when she scarcely even came downstairs. She had been doing housework until the day Kamal was born, but afterwards she rested, was brought her food, and received visitors (quiet ones) and gifts for a couple of hours every afternoon - after the first couple of days. Her mother was always around, and their bedroom was a haven of peace and warmth and sweetness - particularly in the form of 'gheriff' and 'harissa', the intense cinnamon drink and syrup-drenched cake that are consumed at these gatherings. Nanette (and Elizabeth, who with me visited a mother and child) will testify to this. I suppose I just need to find out what happens here when, and if, things don't go to plan during labour.

Our visitors this summer should have the opportunity to get a taste of Damascus, in the days not centred round betrothal and 'getting to know you' activities. I am excited about learning this ancient city, and have high hopes of building in daily walks to and from the university as a way of doing exercise without trying. There are also various swimming pools to be investigated…. Otherwise I may find that with the usual round of delicious olive-oil laden food and sweet tea here, my newly tailored jacket is too small before I need to put it on!

On that note, it's nearly lunch time (4 pm). In the next instalment, I'll let you know what has happened in the intervening months between my stays in Syria.


Click here to see the second entry in this double journal update

The tiles on this page come from the ceiling of one of the temples at the palace of the Boghd Khan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia |Click here to view the original photo|