Happy Christmas


Happy Christmas everybody! I hope you all have joyful ones, and brilliant new year celebrations too. I am sending my wishes now with this news update as I am planning to actually spend Christmas Eve, Day and my birthday in the desert in Jordan so will be pretty much incommunicado at that time......

I have so much to say - so much has happened since I last wrote some news a month ago that it is difficult to know exactly where to start. I will try and be vaguely chronological and see where that takes me. Apologies in advance for rambling.

So, what happened after I wrote from Antalya? Probably the most interesting while still in Turkey was a visit to the Deir El Zaferan monastery in the far south east of the country. This monastery was formerly the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, but there are now only three monks rattling around there. I had not considered visiting it, but was persuaded to by the bus conductor on my overnight bus to Urfa from Konya. Musa was a (Muslim) Kurd who spoke no English, but as we somehow communicated, he told me about it, and used the word 'oenemli' (sorry no Turkish keyboard to spell correctly!), which means 'important' or 'significant', to describe it. My interest was piqued by this choice of language despite his own unrelated heritage, and having recently read 'From the Holy Mountain' (where William Dalrymple describes his odyssey through the lives of eastern Christians in Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt). For those of you who have read that book too, let me put your nerves at rest by saying that the three or so years intervening between our respective visits to Deir El Zaferan have brought a significantly less tense security situation in SE Turkey - partly because of the capture and imprisonment of one of the PKK (Kurdish liberation force) leaders earlier this year. We too travelled to the monastery from Mardin, (where the bus service from Konya had ended - 2 hours further east than Urfa where I was originally planning to alight). But in contrast to Dalrymple's, our journey was fun, not terrifying. Musa had persuaded the bus driver to lend us his car, and kept stopping to ask Kurdish children if we were going the right way - clearly he had not been there before either!!! It was a beautiful clear and warm sunny day, and I began looking forward to heat in Syria and Jordan (Turkey was largely pretty chilly!). The monastery itself is set dramatically on a hillside of honey-coloured rock. Inside, a young man (not a monk) showed us round, and the tour consisted largely of 'this item is 700 years old, this item is 200 years old, this item is 75 years old' types of narrative - since my Turkish could not handle anything more advanced.....but interesting enough. I was shown a photo, taken about 30 years ago, where the monastery was crammed with monks. They could certainly not all have just died, so I asked the young man where they are. Lebanon, Germany and America was the answer. Musa on the way back talked about government pressure as the reason for this exodus.

My first and only stop in Syria before heading to Alexa and Rachel in Jordan was in Aleppo, its northernmost city. I decided to splash out and stay in the Baron Hotel for three nights, a class joint from the turn of the century run by an Armenian family (Aleppo is stuffed with Armenians, many of whom came/fled from Turkey). There I luxuriated in deep hot baths every night and had Fawlty Towers style service at breakfast, and got laundry done for the first time in a month (just did it yesterday as first time since, too). I spent one day seeing a few of the many ancient bits in the countryside near Aleppo (e.g., the basilica surrounding the stump that used to be the pillar that St Symeon was the first saint to sit on top of in the ?3rd century?), and Walid my guide and driver became my first Arabic teacher too. But I had spent the night in battle with at least one mosquito (I got the bastard in the end, but he was full of my blood by then and it was morning) so I was not particularly receptive. My second teacher, Hassan, an Aleppo-an on short break from military service in the very south of Syria, had much more success. Matt Luckett, just know that he had your style - he knew absolutely everyone in the souk so was a lot of fun to spend time with. He was also a mean backgammon player and was kind enough to tolerate my game for multiple hours. Most sad to leave new friend when I hopped on the overnight bus to Amman.

Jordan Jordan Jordan. Basically a brilliant time with Alexa and Rachel where I felt like I was on holiday ('strange', I hear you think - 'you are on nothing but holiday', but honest, this was different). I quickly got used to it being not just me on my own - not hard given Alexa's and my mutual gassing capabilities. We did the Jordan thing in a whirlwind week. The Dead Sea swimming experience was hilariously bizarre. By the way for those of you (Catherine) wondering who Mohammed is in my visitor's book: he is a guy that we met that day. But you be squeezing the wrong fruit for juice there, sister. We went diving one day in the Red Sea, so I am reminded how to do it ready for New Year with Kim in Sinai. We spent a good day and a bit at Petra. But the best bits were Wadi Rum, where we spent a night in the desert; and the time spent with the family of Jemal, our taxi driver. Jemal is a lovely but shy guy who does not speak much English. With each successive trip in his car he emerged further from his shell. And when we stopped by his family's home for tea en route to Kerak, they made us incredibly welcome, and we ended up staying the night. He has a beautiful wife and two babies, a strong-willed mother, many and lovely younger sisters and brothers and a real grand old man of a father (Jemal is the eldest in the father's second set of children after his first wife died). We were stuffed with food and were entertained by his siblings - his younger brother (9?) Mohammed in particular put on a show for us. Early the next morning Jemal conjured us away again and took us to Kerak (where there was a castle we wanted to visit), but the hospitality wasn't over. Lunch was an absolutely delicious meal of chicken potato and onion with many herbs, cooked in foil over a fire in the olive grove of one of his uncles in a town near the castle. My grunts of appreciation as I tucked in meant I was fed several choice bits - liver (ok), but also the poor bird's HEART and cartilage (!!) both of which I was pretty surprised to enjoy.

I am going to try and see Jemal and his family again when I go back to Jordan next week.

I'll mention 'in passing' that in the last couple of weeks I've had my first 12 hours of upset tum, and have also benefited from some really delicious dates at times.

Alone again, I spent the last two weeks in Syria and Lebanon. Only 3 and 1/2 days in Lebanon but that was enough time to get some strong impressions. I would definitely like to return there for longer. Tim and Kaz for some reason I thought it would particularly suit the two of you for a holiday destination for a week! I did not stay in Beirut, which is apparently expensive and its main/only attraction is its central location in the tiny country. Instead I stayed in Tripoli in the north, a really manageable and elegant mediterranean city with a fantastic citadel and old city and almost no tourists. Signs of the civil war in the country still abound - bullet holes in many buildings and metal doors, and I am not sure if the war is at all related to the reckless driving of the Lebanese. I was horrified to see more head-on collisions in 3 days than in the rest of 27 years in countries all over the world. The children also seem to love blowing caps in the street and you can hear them, like guns, going off all day. But the natural beauty of Lebanon's mountains and coastal areas is at times breathtaking. I spent one day walking above the Kadisha Gorge, including to the source of the Kadisha river, deep inside the mountain. Tony Gea Gea was a local guy who took me up above the snow line where there are cedars thousands of years old. The skiing should start in a week or so, and it felt pretty nippy, but back down in Tripoli it was t-shirt weather!!

In Syria I visited lots more ruins. Palmyra of course, where I got up to see the sun rise and it didn't - it was cloudy - but also a number of medieval castles. My favourite was the Qalaat Al Marqab. This was not far from Tartus, where I based myself for 3 days (another mediterranean city - my hotel was right by the shore so I could watch the sun set over the sea. Also for two nights I woke confused, thinking that the crash of waves was cars driving through puddles on a rainy night!!) I liked Marqab so much because it totally dominates its hilltop and the coast around, because it was a lot of fun getting there, and because it was in a state of tumbledown decay. I spent a couple of hours one warm afternoon scrambling among long grasses and brambles around it.

Two days ago was honestly one of the best days of my whole life. The previous day I had still been in Lebanon, and had gone first to Byblos (Jbail in Arabic) for the morning and then back to Syria. With little vigour after all this history already I was heading towards De'ra which is close both to the Jordan border and to Bosra, yet another famous ruined city, in the south of Syria. Unfortunately I had a long journey as I had (typical!) left my Psion in Tartus so had to go back there first to collect it rather than go straight south. I got to Damascus about 7.30 pm and only because I was helped to get to the right bus station quickly did I not end up spending the night there. The bus to De'ra was wild - I was the centre of attention when I climbed on, and the driver made someone give up their seat for me. I thought I was receiving my ticket when I received a little slip of paper that read:

"Dear Miss, Pardon me I am a university student in the English Department, English Literature, Damascus University Fourth Year and I like to make friends with tourists or people who visit Syria. So I invite you to come with me to my home. Would you? Thanks."

After a screening process of notes going between me and him (Kasim) and a glimpse of his face I decided to trust him, and climbed out with him when we got to his town, Epta'a. I ended up spending two nights in Epta'a at the home of his mother in law, Faizih. She is an amazing woman. Her husband is a long distance taxi driver between Syria and Kuwait so is only home one week in four. At the age of 36 she has ten children (she started at 14!) and they are all wonderful. Even though it is Ramadan she insisted on preparing food for me to eat during daylight hours - so having also munched a bit with them at 4.30 am I also shared breakfast at 9.30 with 2 year old Rahab (the only one in the family not fasting). The only English Faizih knows is the phrase, in American, 'come on', which she has learnt from the TV. With each meal she would use it on me with increasing confidence. With Kasim I visited the school of some of her children, and felt ambassadorial when I was told by their English teacher that I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. I also was privileged to meet Kasim's grandfather, who is anything between 104 and 110 years old - no one really knows anymore. I was invited to break the fast when darkness fell with the family of one of his uncles, and it was a real feast. They passed all the best bits my way, again. And I had done nothing to deserve all this hospitality except to be a foreigner when I climbed on board that bus in Damascus. I was virtually in tears when I left Faizih early yesterday morning. Kasim came to meet me at the roadside where I was with Firas, Faizih's 21 year old son, and leave me with some words he had copied and translated from the Qu'ran. Firas insisted on accompanying me to De'ra to make sure I found someone to take me to the border at 7 am on a Friday during Ramadan.

I have run out of time here to write any more. Next news will be I hope from Iran towards the end of January. Thank you everyone for the lovely e-mails - sorry not to have had a land address. I am in the middle of sending letter responses (probably repeating some of this). Some are sent, some are half written, some are still to be begun - but they are on their way.

Much love to all


The tiles on this page are of children who visited Aleppo's Citadel on the morning I did. |Click here to view the original photo|