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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Syrian Stories

We were looking for a place near UAE where one could take a quick break ,my well travelled ENT surgeon friend suggested Syria and we took it up ,never to regret
It was one of our best travels
Terminal III Dubai Airport welcomed us for the early morning Emirates flight to Damascus and thanks to a friendly cousin we had a surprise upgrade to its Business class ,we knew its luxury only when we took the return by the cramped cattle class !
Damascus airport did not give a very good first impression of the country ,it was pretty shoddy resembling Chennai airport a lot ,we scanned the waiting men and women with welcome signs but did not find the orient palace hotel man ,so much for our online booking and airport pickup request .
After umpteen calls with our costly roaming accounts Mohammed the person destined to do the honours of welcoming us explained over phone that he had just left 10 minutes back to the airport and would be there shortly ,but then we told him how can that be ?we are calling you in your hotel number and you are answering so how could you have left ten minutes back ?
what he meant was that he was going to leave in ten minutes !
luckily he didnt ask me OK should I leave half an hour earlier than now ?

( So when finally Mohammed arrived and gave me an Arab hug and a couple of kisses I turned on him and vented my fury ,he never reacted but smiled benevolently ,one he knew English and two he was around 62 years old , albeit very fit one so he calmed me and within minutes we were tumbling toward Damascus .
The road from the airport was lined with pine trees many barren as it was autumn ,seems winters are really cold here with occasional snowfalls .the residential flats were all faded and grey and reminded one of Soviet union to which Syria was very close like our India was once upon a time ,we were just going through the shoddy part and entering straight into old Damascus ,I was impressed by the slick new city which I saw later
The roads were smooth and had no potholes and right hand driving was in vogue .
The oriental palce hotel was right in the middle of old Damascus squarely opposite the heritage building called Hejaz railway station now a museum with a qauint steam locomotive in its front .
Everything about orient palace hotel was old it was built I heard in 1928 , it had old receptionists probably born then and old bellBOYS( no pun intended )
The lift groaned its way up
I remembered reading a review of the hotel online that to go up in the lift would be at ones own risk ,it conked on me once during the stay and I had some moments of panic in the dark as I banged on its metal walls when surprisingly it sprang to life and never erred again !
The rooms were high ceilinged but neat with decent toiletery and above all it had a lovely balcony gazing into the roads beyond ,the dining hall where one had the complimentary breakfast was ornate and one could sign the treaty of versailles there without compunction but its food was not at all worthy of its French lookalike .It was just some dry croissants with a boiled or is it a bald egg served by a balding waiter what a combo !
we decided against the breaking fast here after day one .
Food in Syria by itself was fresh and at times tasty specially if one had a taste for good Arabic food the shawarmas were juicy and meat tender and succulent The hummous were just the right consistency with the olive oil floating on it without submersing it .food was also costly here ,a simple cuppa cofee was 60 syrian pounds equivalent to 60 Indian rupees .( oh my dearest Chennai what lovely filter coffee one could get for rupees five in any Udupi hotel
We went for a walk and strayed into the Hamidiya souk ,history seeped through its domed roofs
the souk is an oriental market with all its exotics intact .
shops full of junkets,antiques, clothes colourful lights , carpets ,footwear ,Chinese dolls ,mobiles Arab headgears were all there ,sidewalk cafes ice cream parlours sweetmeat spreads ,fresh croissants coffee ,tea and hookah parlours .
I requested a smiling gentleman hookaying himself for a snap in the first one I got him covered in a puff of smoke the second one his smiling face appeared from the pall like the rising sun The souk went on and on for more than a kilometre people walking smiling laughing muttering two blind men meeting and conferring with each other children running vendors doing thier best to catch your attention ,a couple of sweet chubby children were walking along suddenly tugged my shirt and asked for pens ! strange to me being treated as a tourist
there was clamour confusion colour and collective plesure in its oriental abundance .
This was pure Arabia at its best the Arabia of the Arabian nights far way from the glittering cities of the middle east
Syrians are a very warm and hospitable people ,many greeted us with you India .... welcome to Syria Namasthhe etc even ladies gave us a smile and sometimes said namasthe ,Premilas bindhi of course was the cyansoure of attraction .
The square in front of the old Ummayad mosque had arched shops ,a million pigeons which flew up in unison darkening the skies flew up into and beyond the towering spires of the mosque .

Premila had to wear a raincoat like dress covering her head with a hood I was allowed in my natural self ( no no not what you think , dont get naughty ideas )
The Ummyad mosque was an abode of peace and tranquility it was huge magnificient structure with a courtyard smooth and neat and with towering spires all around
History was whispering from its ancient walls and one could feel the trod of men and women over the ages who came to pray here ,one could hear the prayers muttered over the centuries one could feel the spirit of its builders one could imagine the wars that crossed this holy place
The past was a living presence here .
We entered the hall and was stunned by its elegant red carpeted chandeliered brilliance
There were a lot of Iranian pilgrims that day in groups .
We sat for a long time inside the mosque and soaked in its rich spiritual atmosphere .
Out in the courtyard it was cool and clean with children rolling on the floors and playing .

Finally we reluctantly left the place and walked into the narrow arched streets with cobbled roads and plodded back to our hotel tired but happy .it was cold by then .
The next day dawn saw us speeding towards Palmyra the Roman city ruins 250 km from Damascus .
Our driver Hamoud was a mishcievous looking young lad with a penchant for smoking inside the car after pleasantly requesting us every time ,his friend Ali was a non smoker but both were similar in not knowing a single alphabet in English ! we did manage pretty well by communicating with my pidgin Arabic and also by traditonal sign languages .Thier smiles were infectious and bewitching and no language can compete with sincere smiles can they ?What can one say about Palmyra ?
The Romans ruled Syria for a long time in the times of Jesus Christ and a few centuries after that they built Palmyra a city in the silk route right in the desert ,it is said that Palmyra was a busy business and trade centre .

The ruins excavated by Germans from sand mounds were mostly intact .
there were roads of collonade pillars ancient temples dedicated to Roman Gods ,almost intact auditorium with stone galleries where gladiators fought and lions were let loose on prisoners watched by a roaring crowd ,Cleopatra could have sat on those seats and warmed them so I thought when I sat on one of those stones ( no harm in imagining right ? )
There were a couple of Roman emperors from Syria too over the times and Phillipa the great has his figure printed in the syrian hundred pounds .
The sands the billowing winds grazing camels the shining sun mellowing the biting cold grinning Arab boys who were salesman par excellence it was all romantic and we enjoyed every single bit of its exuberance .
Wandering into the temple of Bel a Roman God we found it had a wall around called peribolus with the diety inside a huge empty square in another building all made of yellow sandstone
By noon we went to the town and the museum where the antiques were all stored .
Lunch was in a gardened wadi hotel where the whole family served us with the children joining after coming back from school ,ripe red pomegrenates were plucked and juicily bitten into the khuboos were soft but the chicken was dry and tepid for our south Indian sensibilites .
After a long time we returned back to the ruins and climbed up an Arab citadel to watch the sun sinking down into the ruins its red splendour closing the curtains of history opened for us during the day
We returned to our oriental abode for a fitful sleep .the next day on is in part two syrian stories click below to read that blogpost


sushil daniel said...

Fantastic Hari. Reading your excerpts is always a exhilarating experience> I must confess I am envious of your ability to capture the scenes through your prose. The " Silence of Pramila" needs to be explored in more detail which I shall endeavour to do. Will be releasing the Ima Newsletter tommorrow. will send you a copy- tell me what you think. Waiting to see you soon.

Maddy said...

looks like you all had an enjoyable time. great place to visit...

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