Wednesday, November 3, 2010


DATELINE DAMSCUS: The entrance to the mosque is through a 1/4 mile long covered souk jammed with locals nd vendors of every item imaginable. At the end of the souk soars the massive remains of a roman temple, a half dozen 30' columns and facade still reminding us that Rome owned this neck of the woods 1900 years ago. But the enormous mosque - which incoroporates many Roman fragments - remnds the viewer of who's boss now.
We had to put on nondescript putty-colored robes, with hoods,  to enter the mosque. Instant anonymity! The outer walls are perhaps 45' high, the entrance portal 18' or so high, great double doors dating back hundreds of years. We removed our shoes, as required.
The main courtyard is nearly the size of a football field, the marble paving gleaming and smooth from millions of unshod feet. It's surrounded by an arcade of massive arches, all once decorated completely with spectacular mosaics; the remaining ones are magnificent and rival any in the western world (Ravenna's Byzantine ones spring to mind, but really can't hold a candle to these in either size or impact).
People roamed about, sat in the shade of the arcades; kids ran and screamed and tussled, women - resembling bundles of dark laundry in their voluminous robes - chatted in small groups. Men strolled around or sat with other men doing basically what the women did but looking far more comfiortable in their western clothes. Families - the fathers tenderly solicitous of their children, regardless of gender - congregated both in the courtyard or inside the huge building. 
As with most mosques, there are no pews or other seating, just thick carpet on the floors, and no illustrations or pictures, just a line of flowing arabic script high on the walls. Women ranged along the back wall facing the mihrab, which marks the direction of Mecca, to which all Muslims prostrate themselves.
In the center of the space was a large tomb, perhaps 10' x 18' x 10' high, enclosed with green glass, around which worshippers gathered and pressed their forheads. Green is the color of Islam. This is the reputed tomb of John the Baptist, regarded as a prophet in this religion.
Children played noisily everywhere. Mosques are not simply places to worship, but places to meet or relax. Except during services, they are treated much as a public gathering space. As children are a precious asset to any family, they are allowed great latitude in behavior, and more than a few brawls broke out while we were inside.
When we left, by a rear door, we were in the old souk, and faced with a wall of carpets (many made in India, for pete's sake), a fresh juice stand, a score of shops with scarves swaying in the light breeze, and an impatient string of cars waiting to pass.
I state this categorically: Syrian drivers are, in my estimation, the worst drivers on the planet. Bar none. The Syrian people are lovely, friendly, open, welcoming, smiling, happy and generous. A Syrian driver is absolutely the opposite: aggressive, impatient, indifferent to your fate as a pedestrian, unapologetic, willing to nudge you aside with their fender (yes! really!), foolhardy, addicted to speed under the most absurd conditions ( a crowded souk, for example, or a jam-packed intersection), and believes that he owns the very earth you walk on. The police seem to agree, which makes walking - or should I say jogging - in Damascus quite an event.
But to the most important thing: food. We were repeatedly told Syrina food was excellent. We read that Syrian food is excellent. We have made Syrian food at home and it is excellent. So what the hell happened to Syrian food in Syria? It is, except for the street corner juice or shawarma stands, dreadful.
We had dinner at what was purported to be the best restaurant in Damascus and, leaving aside indifferent service that would give any decent French waiter a seizure,  the food was mediocre, mostly flavorless, and noted only for its large portions.
We go to Lebanon next; now, that's supposed to be really good food. I can hardly wait!
SYRIAN STYLE TABOULLEH: mince two bunches of parsley. Put in a bowl. Chop two fresh tomatoes. Put on top of parsley. Drizzle oil over. Serve, if you dare.

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