Nuptial contrasts


Syrian weddings, country style

'They're coming, they're coming!' called one of the girls keeping watch outside. The circle of girls dancing looped arms in front of the bride broke up, the music changed, and the women around the room started to clap. Ranss's son Thea', ever-rhythmic, joined in from my knee. Nerves were palpable as the bride stood, pulled the many huge hoops in her skirt into place, and lifted the veil that had been hanging down the back of her piled, twisted and glittered hairdo - up, over the top of it, and down over her face. It took discussion and a couple of attempts before a shiny white scarf was successfully placed high on top of that, folded around the side of her face, and pinned under her chin. The scarf's peak was so deep that all that could now be seen of the bride's face was her painted pink lips glistening through the veil, held tightly in the expression of demure solemnity - perhaps intended to denote modesty and shyness - that she had been wearing all afternoon. A matching shiny white cape was fitted around her hot neck, and fastened at the front so that we could no longer see any of the gold and jewellery that the groom had provided her, or the figure-hugging parts of the lacy long-sleeved white top and multi-layered bridal gown, also courtesy of the groom. She sat back down, and the music playing inside was stopped as the drum and chant of the arriving women of the groom's family took over. For five minutes these women sang and danced, pleading for the new female addition to their family.

Finally the groom and his companion entered the room and came to the bride on her plastic chair throne. Evidently acting the part she had seen played by others many times before, she rose, stepped off her platform, and with less than a glance at her new husband she walked slowly towards the door beside him. The two were ushered into the back of a Mercedes, and his mother climbed in next to her new daughter-in-law. The atmosphere where the party had been deflated immediately. Women from the bride's family wiped red eyes and hurried with bags of necessary goods into the backs of trucks and minibuses to travel to the groom's home for the end of the party that had been going on there for three days.

Ibrahim's eldest sister Fatima went on to the final party with one of her daughters. As at the bride's party, the chief festivity that takes place at the groom's home here in southern Syria is dance with linked arms in a circle, and similarly food and drink feature little, though occasionally glasses of tea are passed on trays among the clusters of women sitting behind the dancers. There may be as many as a hundred men or more in this loop, all stamping and skipping in time as they rotate, the head and tail of this spiralling snake occasionally breaking into a series of wild leaps and crouches, with a triumphant sword being brandished to the music. The groom (or grooms, as in this case - brothers were getting married in a pair as is very common here) stands in the centre of the huge spiral, perhaps on a stage, occasionally waving his arms rhythmically, or mounting the shoulders of friends and being sprayed with white foam. Sweets are thrown sporadically by women of the family, and dust flies as hordes of children, otherwise playing and fighting on the outskirts of proceedings, charge into the space and grab whatever they can find like pigeons after crumbs in a city square.

I declined the offer to join Fatima, having been to the previous night's festivities at the groom's home with her as well as to the last night of a smaller wedding just three days earlier. At that one I was in the company of several members of Ibrahim's family as well as the brothers, sister, and friends of mine that remained of the visitors to Syria for Ibrahim's and my much smaller-scale and less traditional 'wedding'. My families and friends and I were fortunately ushered into a room occupied otherwise by a row of eight slumbering little boys and girls as the dancing came to a close, and served with large platters of traditional wedding fare, which is something that far from all the guests are able to sample: rice cooked with peas and almonds and spices, and topped with cucumber, tomato, and large pieces of lamb (no skulls and eyeballs this time, though you'll see in earlier photos that I was served those at the wedding I went to in much muddier March). We were brought spoons, which Ibrahim and his brothers were happy to take, but my brother John tucked in with his paws like a Haurani man.

Back to Ibrahim's and my wedding, which took place on the evening of the last day in July. It was wonderful to have to organise so little! And (if a little strange) for so much of it to be a surprise, even for me! First, I must make a point of clarification for those friends reading this that hadn't realised it was happening and received no invitation. Since we were not this year going to have a wedding party in the style of the others I have been attending lately, my family and I had been referring to it as our 'betrothal' - for Ibrahim and I had the intention of completing the process with a public party perhaps a year from now - and we may still do. However, the event last week was much more than Ibrahim's formal request for my hand and my initial agreement to the idea, which is the usual first step in the Syrian Muslim marriage process - and is itself often accompanied by a sizeable festivity along lines very similar to the wedding itself. What took place between us this year was the full wedding ceremony. This is primarily the drawing up of a marriage contract, in the presence of a local sheikh (prayer leader, preacher and religious scholar) who leads the proceedings. What I had not confirmed (or had perhaps forgotten) before arriving in Syria again in late June and at last being able to have more conversation with my beloved was that there is no other ceremonial element at the time of that party. So we are now married before God (thankfully all the necessary Catholic dispensation paperwork was completed before I left England), if not according to the bureaucratic niceties of the State, and although we have not yet had the public party to indicate that I am now living in my husband's abode.



What did I look like?

Since this wasn't going to be the 'wedding party', I had decided against a large white dress, or any kind of large dress, in fact - even though it is common here for such garments to be worn (in baby pinks, blues, lilacs and peaches often) at the party when the marriage contract is concluded, as well as at the celebrations when the bride moves into her new home with her husband. The flowery bias-cut airy silk skirt that I had bought after passing several times in a shop window was extremely comfortable and suitably floor-length, and in the end I was convinced by all around me to feel happy in the matching special jacket that Anna Fink in Oxford had designed to go with it, according to my interpretation of Syrian countryside levels of acceptability.

My family members and the small sample of my close friends that could come to our celebration had started arriving the Saturday before, and most were in Damascus by Tuesday afternoon (even if some were lacking their luggage, courtesy of British Airways). So after class that day I met them at a beauty parlour that my ever-glamorous teacher had recommended to me, in Damascus embassy land. For five hours we were preened and polished, with the parlour virtually to ourselves! The session culminated in me being made up Syrian style - I wasn't intending it to last two days, but was looking for ideas and technique, and was interested in the visual effect of such a treatment. The hitherto patient Madame began to show a little exasperation as my four friends peered on, those lacking the necessary spectacles zooming in to my face to see it in detail - and not exactly hiding their shock as the eye shadow got darker and darker and my lips were sealed with a strong crimson, with comments like 'well, I like the eyeliner, that's nice.......'

I kept the makeup on for a special meal with my family and friends in Syria's revolving restaurant that evening. Daddy was impressed with my 'look', as it reminded him of elegant Grandmother in the 1950s, and I am sure Ibrahim would have liked it if he had seen it. I've yet to see the photos. But by bedtime my eyelids were screaming from the daub, and as my sleep-deprivation continued they remained red and sensitive for the week to come. But early on Thursday evening, in the hotel room that my friends and sister were staying in, I hid this reaction as best I could with hypoallergenic products and in haste, whilst attempting to take inspiration from Madame's previous artistry.
The haste with the dress and makeup was on account of our trip to some very creative hair-dressers right here in the village! Ibrahim's eldest niece had suggested that I get my hair put up, and having been impressed by the professional hair lady at Kim's wedding six weeks previously, I was enthusiastic about the idea, if rather cautious about local tastes and skills. Alas, we somehow failed to make the appointment she made with a woman of some repute in the next town along in the mid-afternoon, but Fatima had come to the rescue and about twelve of us were minibus-ed to these alternative craftswomen, who set to work on me without much ado. Most of the group were there just for company and audience and to eat the delicious fudge and caramels that Stephanie supplied. But as these remarkable skills became evident, others agreed to have something done to them too! While Michelle's huge quantity of hair was painstakingly twisted into a well-shaped mound of Shirley Temple ringlets we sent the minibus away twice with instructions to 'come back later'.

Even though of course I have been living in my in-laws' home for well over a month, I decided to change and prepare myself in the company of my friends and family at the hotel and to travel with them together to Ibrahim's home before the ceremony, to give at least some sense of me being a bride arriving, especially in the absence of any church aisle! I had been quite nervous enough of the momentousness of the event that was to take place - a week or so before, when telling a colleague in class about the ceremony, it had suddenly hit me: I was about to get married! Quite something for independent me. My stomach knotted and my sleep suffered thenceforth - not only from early morning travel to Damascus and late night journeys to the airport!

On Thursday afternoon, the delay from the hairdresser and some temporarily-vanishing pals at the moment of the bridal party's departure from Ibrahim's home for the hotel to get ready brought me almost to tears. Ibrahim or his family had had no idea of my abilities in the bellowing department before the moment that I spotted the missing pair. Fear not, I knew our decision to marry was right; and despite my fear and anxiety about what was about to happen, no amount of soul-, heart-, and mind-searching that was as honest as I could manage could surface any doubts about it. QED.



Our ceremony and celebrations

Tension spread among Ibrahim's family when our party arrived back at their home in our finery but did not alight from the minibus immediately. For in my rush to gather my things to take to the hotel I had forgotten the beautiful light silk beaded scarf that Anna had made to go with my jacket and skirt! Nanette and Michelle rushed up to my bedroom and brought it to me. As I placed it awkwardly on top of the fully starched flower-studded sculpture that my hair had become, Nanette reassured me that my husband-to-be was looking extremely fine. At last I was ready, and after a couple of deep breaths I entered through the blue metal gate at the front of the house in the company of my parents, family and four friends. My sisters-in-law began immediately to congratulate me, and to marvel at my transformed appearance, and then I caught sight of Ibrahim, looking as nervous as I felt, but in a dark suit and white shirt and tie, indeed very fine.

The two of us walked along the edge of the house and we were showered with fresh flower petals and incredible homemade confetti. This stuff is worth a sentence of its own: little bits of coloured paper cut into many shapes and sizes were ingeniously stored in eggshells that are then sealed with tape! The children joyfully hurled these 'eggs' at the ceiling so that the confetti rained down over us! Ibrahim's mother thrust a double bouquet of plastic flowers into my empty hands and gave me a huge kiss. Despite my nerves I started to beam with emotion. My fiancé and I sat down beside each other on a double throne - our plastic chairs were covered with a flowery cloth - and the women and children joined us - my father and brother in law, I think, were peeled off into the men's area near the front gate for the time being - or perhaps they were with us, at least for a while.
Everyone became a bit uncertain. Poor Ibrahim couldn't bring himself to smile despite the many photos being snapped, while I was grinning furiously. We chatted quietly to each other, sharing compliments. The Syrians weren't sure how far to express themselves according to their usual habits of celebration at such occasions, since for them this was far from usual, while the bridal party had no idea quite how to behave and I for one was dying of thirst! Many people came up individually to congratulate us, and some of my new nieces danced in front of us, with small sliding steps and remarkable jolts of the pelvis.

The wait was soon over - the sheikh, having turned up accidentally first at 5 pm, was back. Contravening local custom, Mummy and I joined Daddy who was to be my representative in the drawing up of the contract, so that we were able to witness the full extent of the official proceedings in the family's large reception room. The sheikh is a kind and sensitive man, and once he had gathered the necessary facts (my specified dowry, our names and places of birth, and religion) he dictated the wording of the contract in Arabic and called upon both my parents and me to sign it, as well as Ibrahim and his father and two witnesses. Then Dad's secretarial skills were called upon to record and refine the wording of Ibrahim's translation of the contract to English. Dad first of all got my consent (which happened quickly, but was terrifying all the same!), and then Ibrahim and Dad sealed the agreement verbally while shaking hands, their clench shrouded in a white cloth. This was the 'I do solemnly declare' equivalent. But it was all in Arabic, of course, with the sheikh prompting everyone, just as the priest does in a church wedding.

Phew! At some point during this process the reception room had started to fill, and my friends and sisters were hovering just outside. There were more congratulations, and I suddenly heard the voice of my brother John outside. Hooray! He and Thomas had just arrived from Germany, in time for dinner! After brief hellos and introductions to Ibrahim, I was separated from my new husband as I dined with the women on chicken and rice. But I was so THIRSTY by this point! My sisters in law were rushing round doing everything, but of course in Arab style the men got their tea first, and I was really gasping by the time our glasses came round. While the party remained segregated, my dear friends and Elizabeth took the chance to shower me with gifts, which I was happy to open in front of their eager eyes, according to our habits but going quite against the Syrian tradition, where gifts are scarcely even acknowledged when received on public occasions, and are only looked at later. More music, some sweets, and suddenly it was one in the morning, and time for the visitors to be returned to their hotel, while my brothers were provided with bedding in the reception room.

The celebrations continued the following day, with all my party and almost all of Ibrahim's immediate family and a few extra friends enjoying a huge lunch in a restaurant in Damascus, hosted by my parents. I was responsible for the venue, a pleasant courtyard in a traditional large old city house, and for arranging quite so many things to eat - I couldn't choose between all the possible options! Ibrahim had arranged our transportation to the capital - by hiring a bus! Part of the deal with the driver was that he got to eat all that food too. I'm not sure he had realised what he had negotiated himself into, but it was an excellent arrangement, with him first taking my family and friends and their luggage to the city, so that we could all change once more in the fewer than purported multi-star local brand luxury hotel, whilst his family could have their usual Friday morning, culminating in the noon prayers at their mosque, by which time the bus was back to collect them. Since many members of Ibrahim's family travel only rarely to the capital city it was a major outing. But after a rather chaotic start and a bit of a squeeze at the restaurant everyone settled in to the big eat, and consumed what he or she could, among conversation, and by the end of the afternoon it was hard to break up some of the party!

Ibrahim and I travelled together in the bus back to the countryside, leaving my family and friends in the city, and after a very short period back at home I had collapsed into bed in exhaustion. Although I was supposed to be back in class on Saturday, of course, I took the next four days off - until all my visitors had returned to England, after renewed sightseeing and more time spent in Ibrahim's home. John and Thomas were duly impressed with the unaccompanied intoned mass in the fifth century Greek Catholic church in the nearby Christian town of Ezra'a on Sunday morning, and we managed a quick visit to St George's Orthodox Church next door - which is of an even earlier date, and contains what must be one of several of the saint's legendary tombs.

The following Wednesday I was back in class, and everyone had gone, including Ibrahim.



A trip through southern Thailand

The dates of my time spent away from Syria this Spring was determined by the timing of four weddings of friends around the world, and I was very glad indeed to take part in each one of them, even if it did mean that I missed Ibrahim's leaves twice: as chance cruelly had it, these fell first when I was in Thailand on my way to Ben's and Ollie's wedding in Penang in April, and then just as I set off for the East Coast of the United States of America for the wedding of my dear friend Kim.

Since Ben is English by blood and Welsh by heart, and Ollie is from Singapore, and they live in Kuala Lumpur, they decided that the first part of their multiple wedding celebrations should be in Penang, the former colonial trading island in the north west of Malaysia. A look at the atlas a few months earlier had decided for me that I would get there by flying to and from Bangkok in Thailand, and travelling by land southwards and across the border into Malaysia. I was hoping to see Kliang, a good friend from my Beijing study days, while in Bangkok, and was looking forward to taking at least one train. In the event, I was lucky that I had unwittingly chosen the dates of Thailand's New Year holiday to be there! This meant not just witnessing and involuntarily participating in a huge amount of water throwing over the course of the three day festival, but also that dear Kliang was able to take some time off work in her family's little gold shop in Bangkok to travel with me all the way to Penang - as she said, she had never been to Malaysia!

I am very sorry that I did not write a full journal entry immediately after my return from Thailand and Malaysia in mid-April, because my experiences were *extremely* enjoyable and made a great impression on me. I couldn't believe the natural friendliness of everyone; despite the huge numbers of tourists that Thailand sees every year. Kliang's own family were of course very welcoming, and I loved being in a 'Chinese' Thai environment whilst in her home even if I couldn't speak her family's southern dialect. The two of us tried to oil our rusty Mandarin, with a gradual decrease in the squeaks and cranks as our week together progressed, a pocket dictionary always within reach.
The weather in Bangkok was very hot and yes, sweaty, but not nearly as exhausting as in my very short visit to Bangkok during the rainy season in September 2001. And of course travelling in the company of a local friend meant that I was not dependent on my less than adequate guidebook! Kliang has significant social skills, and was always able to find us hotels, restaurants, and ways of getting between places by relying on local recommendation.

As usual, a highlight for me during this holiday (because it certainly was one) was the food. I think that I had one of the best meals of my life at an open-air restaurant on the street in the coastal resort of Hat Yai - superb garlic and chilli fried fish, and delicate scallops grilled in butter and onion in their shells! We were very glad that we had waited some time to get a seat at this place, and I loved sitting close to the chef, watching his boy collate the necessary ingredients for each order, and for the chef to take one look at them to know exactly what he needed to cook. On another day, we gorged ourselves on food sold at stalls at the seaside. This was on the last day of the New Year's festival, and we travelled from Chumpon to the beach in the open-sided 'minibuses' that provide local transport all over Thailand. Inevitably, as sitting ducks, we were drenched by the time we got to the shore, but no matter of course, we were dry again in a ten minute stroll along the beach in the sun, and were soon enjoying freshly grilled squid, corns, followed by a heavenly sweet coconut paste that is barbecued inside narrow leaves held together with little wooden pins. This wasn't the only divine sweet I discovered, however. At the Temple of the Dawn in Bangkok Kliang introduced me to iced milky dessert filled with floating coloured shapes moulded from fruit and bean pastes. Believe me, it is wonderful! So of course, I had to sample it several times more over the following days…. And then there was rapture for me in the savoury department too - the papaya salads, which I ate from sellers whenever I could find the space, continues to take first place on my Thai food scale, but I also loved the various noodle and fish ball soups with their interesting unidentified floating objects… mmmmmmm.

While in Thailand it wasn't all eating and sightseeing however. In Bangkok I managed to get a great pink silk top made, to wear at future weddings, and of course had my body massaged and my pressure points kneaded at Wat Pho, having enjoyed that so much during my previous visit to see Kliang. On my last night, just an hour before I had to leave for the airport to return to the UK, she took me a mile up the road from her house to the flower market. The lotuses, jasmine, and endless bunches of orchids were the final cherry - I boarded the plane home determined to convince Ibrahim that we should move to Thailand! That is, if we didn't live in Penang…



Weddings in Long Island, London, Penang and the Fens

I arrived in the former Straits trading colony remarkably uninformed. After all, the reason I was there was to be at Ben's and Ollie's wedding, not to sightsee. Perhaps for this reason, I found the atmosphere of Penang all the more pleasurable. I loved the combination of old Chinese, with plenty of Mandarin speakers around (even if I don't like their accent when they speak their mother tongue!) and South Indian (Tamils are a marked segment of the population). The two groups of course together with the local Muslim Malay population contribute to Malaysia's own peculiar atmosphere, which combines a 'take it easy' feeling with industriousness. I just find the syntax and endless abbreviations of the local English variant rather irritating! But perhaps that would grow on me. After all, I have been known to shorten the odd word myself, in the past.... And I was very drawn to the decrepit-yet-interesting-and-colourful feel of Georgetown, in contrast to my culture shock horror in April 2001 at the shiny glass and fast roads of KL (there you go! an acronym!). Taxi drivers confirmed for me that foreign English and Arabic teachers could well be required, for there are several international schools in the former colony - Penang is a much less expensive option for foreign education than that presented by Australia, the USA, Canada or UK for parents in Thailand. But don't start making plans to visit Ibrahim and me there quite yet; we have several hurdles to cross and decisions to make before we start looking for teaching posts in Penang!

Ben and Ollie held their first wedding party, after a visit to the registry office, a Chinese tea ceremony (parents only) and a set of a-religious vows, beside the beach in a resort which was really exactly to my taste - extremely comfortable, not too big, bungalow colonial style, and relatively inexpensive. I'm sorry to have missed their fourth and final ceremony (strange to think they have now 'got married' four times!!!) in Wales this July, but am very glad that I chose to make their celebration in Penang a priority. Since the numbers were small, and Ben and Ollie are so nice, it was easy to feel very welcome, and the party went on for days before and after the main event. After the sunset ceremony, we dined superbly on Malaysian food - ending with that local speciality, sago. Having just delighted in the milky desserts in Thailand, with relish I consumed mine and the portions of those around me who were finding it too much like school dinners to stomach. And then we all danced, on the grass, for hours.

The next morning was Easter Sunday. Having dragged myself up from my cool and comfortable bed after significantly less than the required amount of slumber I was rather disappointed to discover from a warden at 8.55 that I had misread the acronyms outside the Church on Good Friday afternoon - and that Mass was not until ten! Nor could he even be persuaded to open the Church for me to go inside and sit in the relative cool, dark, peace until 20 minutes before the mass began. Grrrr…. But soon enough I was back at the hotel among those who had survived the party longer than I had, who were just beginning to stir, and we all graduated from the late breakfast table to the barbecue lunch. What bliss.

But Penang was not my only exotic wedding this season. My return to Syria was delayed until after I had taken part in the wedding of my darling friend Kim to her beau Tom Forte. I flew to New York a week before - in order to be present at the girly fun on her last unmarried Saturday night, and more importantly to spend some much needed time with my friend. She generously shared her whole week with me, and I was glued to her wherever she had to go - final dress fittings for the most sumptuous wedding dress I have known, last minute thank-you gifts and honeymoon swimwear shopping, a few days at her best friend Kristen's house in deep Connecticut countryside enjoying Kristen's hospitality, and meals and outings in New York as Tom's friends and relatives from Chicago began to arrive in town. We loved having time to talk, which we couldn't stop doing, to the detriment of the poor bride's sleep! In my usual fashion I took the opportunity of a theatre ticket to catch up on some of my nods, and felt much better for it afterwards. Luckily Kim was the only one who could see me snoozing, and knows me well enough to tolerate the wasted ticket she had generously invested in!

In fact, Kim's generosity with her time and her money was boundless, also including a spa afternoon for the many ladies in the bridal party at an exclusive NYC salon. The two of us had burnt holes in our wallets a few days earlier on facials at the same establishment - my face, naturally using the latest in high technology, was SANDBLASTED! But it felt and looked great afterwards… Kim and Tom were at last having a little meal together, away from the crowd (me), so I took the chance and rushed from the salon to meet Bill, and then John, friends and former colleagues of mine that would not be at the wedding on Saturday. They both commented how well I looked. It was definitely the facial…

Kim may well have inherited her huge heart from her grandmother, whose house on Long Island I stayed in for three nights, including the night after the wedding. She is ninety-four, and is as clear thinking as she has always been, if more tired, deafer and less mobile than in the past. It was always well worth making sure she could hear what I was saying, and waiting to hear her replies. I am not sure how much choice she had that this foreign visitor was part of the influx for the wedding, but she and her daughter Joan and Kim's parents made me feel very welcome and part of the family, especially on the day after the wedding, which was by its nature rather deflated. I had become fully caught up with the final preparations that Kim had been busy with in the days before the wedding, and as a bridesmaid felt like a special part of the ceremony and the party. And by the end of that evening, when Kim's sister Betsy and Kristen helped her out of the amazing dress and into her going away clothes I could no longer contain myself. Tired and emotional I certainly was, without having drunk a drop of anything stronger than lemonade.

But hamdulilla I have not lost my friend to her new husband! Rather, being a part of her wedding and us spending that week together has deepened the roots that we share, and although Kim and Tom were unable to come to Syria this summer I am sure they will be here soon! And now that Kim has a new job, she seems to have more time to email! Let's hope her stress levels stay down….

The two weddings in England were no less special. Sarah and Jonty sealed the knot in our alma mater, SJC (I just can't stop those acronyms now), held their receiving line in New Court just a spit away from Michelle's and my third year room, and then entertained us with a quite remarkable meal and reels in an exquisite restaurant somewhere in East Anglia. I am not even sure exactly where it was as everything was so well organised, we just climbed on the coach from the Backs and taken there, and were delivered to wherever in Cambridge we wanted at the end of the evening. A lovely chance to indulge in conversation with good friends that I see too rarely - and in some very fine cheese late in the evening…

Finally, I was very touched to be invited to the blessing of Dave's and Sally's marriage in late April, especially since having been out of England so much in the last few years I had not even met Sally before that day! The joy that the two of them share was very evident that day, and on the chances we had to meet up again after their honeymoon. Dave had told me last autumn how special his wife to be was, but meeting her in the flesh made me understand just how happy they make each other. Their church blessing and reiterated vows symbolised this happiness, as did the support of their friends and family around them. I could mention the beauty of the church itself, the lovely venue for their reception, the excellent entertainment in the form of a medieval musician, and the bride's dress in a lot more detail, but time (I need to get to church myself!) and space prevent me, alas.



The continuing Syrian summer

Before coming to Ibrahim's home, my friends asked if they were going to see any animals while in the countryside. Perhaps they were expecting dogs, or sheep and cows. But I answered 'certainly frogs, probably cats - and perhaps scorpions'. Frogs had already made a great impression on me during the winter - I had accidentally squished one that had been crossing the path to the toilet one evening just as I bore down it in my clogs. Since they had been in evidence in all but the coldest of February weeks, I had not quite appreciated why Yusuf claimed that the renewed singing of frogs in March made him happy inside, as a sign of the approach of more enjoyable weather. That was until I returned this summer: now wherever you look in the garden, and especially in the region where we empty out the kitchen rubbish, they are to be seen bouncing and bounding. And singing. For frogs do not croak here, they warble, quack and squeak; ferociously, urgently and tunefully. Sometimes at night I find it hard to tell whether the sound is of frogs mating or cats fighting, and at other moments they remind me of kookaburra cackles. Stray cats, a wonderful diversion for the small children in the household to hiss at, also like to prod the rubbish at any time of year - perhaps they eat the frogs. And I came rather closer to a scorpion than I'd want to in the kitchen the other day, as I leaned under the sink to investigate a blocked drain. I thought my sister in law Umayya was just concerned that I was getting down there and prodding with my fingers, but when I moved back at her request she lifted her shoe and bang! The scorpion that had been an inch from my ear fell to the floor. With another bang it was lifeless and deftly scooped up with the dustpan straight into the bin. I was glad to not have had the chance to examine it more closely, but Yusuf has promised to jar at least one for me at some point.

The fruit and vegetables from the garden that I was looking forward to in early July are with us now - yummy fresh figs, sweet grapes the size of elephant teats, the okra. Once I get a break from my studies (this coming Saturday), I plan to participate in the magdus-making process, as the season for this approaches! Magdus is my favourite (I think) of the Syrian daily staples: small eggplants stuffed with walnuts and sweet and hot red peppers, salted, and stored in olive oil. Alas the annual supply was exhausted about a month ago, and I am dying for some more!

There has been definite progress in my study, despite the interruption to get married! The daily travel to and from Damascus is extremely tiring, however, and I am only just becoming literate enough for it to be less than an extreme chore to memorize new words. I am now into the final week of this course and expect not to do excellently, but plan to register for the next session tomorrow, and DV will do well enough to be promoted to the next level. If not, I can repeat this level - as there is so much I still need to learn, and time is now on my side!

I have to finish this news now as Mass is calling and this is weighing in as my heaviest-ever journal entry. Apologies. And with Richard off to Edinburgh and me loaded with (re)vision, we've no time even to pepper it with links to photos for you! I will do my best to post photos from mid-April until now during a flying visit back to the UK in September, when I am taking a couple of days off from my NEXT course here in Damascus to attend the wedding of more friends, Harriet and Mark….. but in the meantime do take a look at the ones that are there, which include my journey through Thailand, and Ben's and Ollie's wedding celebration.

With much love to all friends and family. I am sorry for my delay in email replies, but with our wedding ceremony and my study and travel rather a backlog has built up. I will reply as soon as I can, I promise! And I look forward to seeing some of you on my flying visit in September!


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