Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Makran 07

Every year we wait for winter to make small excursions in the region. I can bear the heat, Shahana doesn’t. From November to March, the weather in Sindh is pleasant. The only inconvenient is that the days are shorter. This year, we had chosen to go Hinglaj, to Lahut and to Shikarpur and Mehrgarh. Hinglaj because we had spoken about it for some time with Georgiana and she wanted to see the place. We had been there three years ago and we would be glad to go there again. Lahut Lamakan because it had been thought about going there for a long time and it had become in our minds a sort of mysterious place; ‘la makan’ means ‘no place’. Going to a nowhere place! This trip is planned for next week in the company of Wasim, therefore I won’t dwell on it now. About Mehrgarh, I got recently the bad news from the director of the department of archæology, Dr Qasim Qasmi, that the site has been destroyed due to tribal warfare and that there is nothing more to be seen. I wonder if he is trying to keep me away from it. On the way to Mehrgarh, we had planned to visit Shikarpur, the only city of Sindh I have not visited. Quetta: let’s see. Noé talks a lot about seeing snow. Seeing sandy tracks of land in Balochistan, he pointed out it was snow. I had to convince him it was not and that it had to be cold to be snowy. Jabal Gorak, the highest mountain of Sindh is also considered for a trip but our car can’t make it there, we would need a sturdier vehicle for that purpose.

As planned, we left on Wednesday, 21st of November. We had decided to hire a car instead of driving our own. We had asked a couple of car rental companies, and Shahana’s brother, Akhtar told us that he was renting out his car, with a driver.
At 10:40 am, we left Civil Lines. We were six people on board: Shahana, Noé and I, Georgiana Griffin and her daughter Iram, and the chauffeur, Mohammad Sumar Khaskheli.
We’ve been travelling with Georgiana on two previous occasions: in June ’06 to Chitral with her elder daughter Umbreen and to Nangar Parker in November of the same year. She is indeed a good travelling companion who can adapt to new situations. Georgiana is the principal of Piggott Girls College, Hyderabad. With Iram, her younger daughter, it was the first trip. Georgiana, Iram and Shahana are all Rotarians, but the friendship dates back earlier.
At the Qasimabad Caltex Station near Wadhu Wah, we filled up with both CNG and petrol, had the pressure of the tyres checked and Iram bought a few snacks and drinks.
Up to Karachi, the trip was uneventful. We wanted to fill up with CNG, and so we did not avail the Northern Bypass, which would have saved us time. We bypassed the bypass. At Sohrab Goth (entrance of Karachi), we filled up and proceeded through Karachi passing many unknown areas to us; first North Nazimabad, Banares Chowk, and then skirting the hills bordering Karachi to the North-West, entering Pathan mohallas, and then areas populated by Baloch folks. From avenues, we passed into streets, and from streets into lanes. We asked our way from chowks to chowks until we eventually got out onto the main road leading to Balochistan at 2:20 pm.
At 2:45, we passed Hub [179 km from Hyd], a fast growing town. It is probably the second largest town of Balochistan. We reached Gadani at 3:15 where we had a picnic lunch prepared by Georgiana. We all sat down by the jetty with a good view of the bay. Chicken, vegetable, chapatti and rice were on the menu. Gadani is a charming fishing town, which would be even more charming if we could get rid of the rubbish and flying plastic bags. (I have never seen how plastic bags are manufactured; I know now they grow on trees, yes I saw it!) It is ideally located in a scenic bay protected by a rocky hill to the South. Beyond this rocky spur is the well-known ship breaking yard not anymore in use since India, Taiwan and a few other countries have taken the lead in this field by better offers to companies which want to get rid of their old ships. This industry was conducted in total oblivion of elementary safety rules for workers and has cost the lives of some of them, or very often the amputation of limbs. The work they performed was comparable to that of slaves in ancient times as described in our books of history, the ships were hauled onto the beach by human muscle power. Poverty had brought them to perform this hard labour. But to us tourists, Gadani did not present this aspect of life, it was just another picturesque spot far remote from the reality of the hard life of fishermen. The tourist typically browses over what pleases him with special focus on landscape, local colour and handicrafts. We stayed for an hour and then proceeded on our journey to Hinglaj. It was 4:15 and we had lost hope to reach it before night. We would probably have to stay at Dur Mohammad’s, 62 kilometers before Hinglaj. Passing a few sandstone hills, we drove for a while parallel to the sea, a mere three to five kilometers to the West, along the escarpment of the continental plateau. The most common vegetation there is shrub and bushes, most of it tamarisk. Trees are rare and are mostly grown up devis. We passed Vinder, an important trade centre of the region and reached Zero Point as the start of the Makran Coastal Road is called.[278 km from Hyd]. There, the road to Khuzdar and Quetta (ca. 600km) proceeds northward and the road to Gwadar westward (570 km). We prayed in the mosque and had tea. I kicked the football with Noé.
The sun had gone down when the car was rolling toward Liari. The car slowed down, Sumar had switched to petrol mode. We passed the petrol depot, which had been mentioned to us, without noticing it, and so we had to drive 19 kilometers back to it in Liari to fill up. To our revelation, Irani petrol was not available, and the Pakistani one was overrated. We bought it after bargaining at Rs. 65 per liter (instead of 55 in the rest of the country – they wanted 70). We had also to check that we were given the right quantity; how can we be sure that the measuring doses really contain what they indicate?
Skirting Sonmiani Bay to the north, we drove until we reached at 7:55 pm our destination for the night: the oil depot of Dur Mohammad Jagdal at milestone 177 km to Karachi and 47 to Agor which only has the dim sign of a petrol lantern hanging at his hut. Dur Mohammad recognised me quickly and as a Baloch was very pleased to offer us hospitality. We had brought our tents and he showed us a spot where we could settle. After leveling the ground, the tents were set and we had our dinner, which consisted of the same dishes previously enumerated.
For Georgiana and Irum, it was an entire new experience; to sleep in the middle of this big empty land, with a minimum of comfort. All I know is that the ladies spent quite some time in the night chatting in the tent, as I once woke up - a rare thing with me - and heard their chattering. I had woken up in fact to check on Noé. His feet were cold, as he had removed the part of the shawl that covered us. The humidity was intense and the tent was dripping. I estimated the temperature to be around 17ºC. (I don’t know why but at this instant, I am thinking of someone …don’t ask me how many Fahrenheit this is!)Our tent was very simple, whereas the one in which the ladies slept was more protective.
The light of dawn woke us up. Tea was served. Ablutions and stuff, and soon we were on our way; it was already 8:20. Half an hour later, we reached the bridge at Agor and turned left on the dirt road to Hinglaj. At that stage, I proposed Mohammad Sumar that I should drive. We stopped on the way to enjoy the view and take a few photographs by the river. At 9:44, we reached Hinglaj. [453 km from Hyd].
The shrine of Sri Nani at Hinglaj is the most westerly located Hindu shrine in South Asia, a place of antiquity probably antedating the religion of the Hindus. It is surprising that the place has not been ‘islamised’ as it is the case with Lahut Lamakan and every other magic places. Because of the improved road, the annual pilgrimage performed here in April sees more and more people coming year by year. As a result, infrastructure has developed to accommodate the growing flow of pilgrims. Most of these visitors live in open places or in makeshift huts. Hinglaj is not just the shrine, it is the whole cañon. The heights are also used as retreats by holy men. This morning, it was only the five of us. Sumar stayed behind to put the spare wheel; we had had a puncture. Following the brook, I took Georgiana and Iram further into the gorge of Hinglaj toward the spring. Noé was proudly showing us the way. They got a bit tired, and half way we returned to the shrine where we had left Shahana.
At 12:20, we were at Agor, and had lunch at al-Hassan restaurant on the other side of the bridge. Fish, bindis, dal. I spread the tents still wet of dew. An hour later, we were heading up toward Ormara. We stopped for a while at the beach a few kilometers ahead of Kund Malir where I went swimming with Noé. The beach is not a lonely spot as there were crowds…of crabs. At our sight, they scrambled into the sea. I hurt the sole of my foot on buried rocks and I am still feeling the pain.
Upon seeing the name of Gwadar on the milestone, Iram wanted to proceed all the way to the end of the Makran Coastal Road. I told her it would employ all our time as it was 400 kilometers away, making it 800 to return to this present spot. On the other hand, they would probably never get a second opportunity, and we went ahead with a view to reach Gwadar. From now on, we would not be able to stop too long anywhere.
Leaving the coast, the road passing through the mountains become more scenic, and after two passes, we come into a valley, which I call ‘Monuments Valley’. There, the rocks and the mountains evocate figures and statues. Most of them have the shapes of forts and castles. Depending on the time of the day you are there, the impression will differ, also according to the angle of light. From this valley, the road took us to the third and highest pass, the Buzi Pass, a feat of engineering and one of the finest roads of Pakistan. Beyond Buzi, the road resumes its westerly direction following parallel ridges, which look like frozen waves. This is the straightest mountain road I have ever seen. After about 50 kilometers, the road descends gently into the Ormara plain and after passing three dry river beds, reaches the coast. At the junction, the town of Ormara is three kilometers to the East and the road to Gwadar to the right. [588 km from Hyd]. We prayed at the mosque there, and a little further away, bought 31 liters of fuel (@ Rs. 65.).I found out that Iram was good at haggling, something I am now getting tired of. I drove. Time passed. Miles after miles, the road took us through small mountains, hills, flat expenses with dwarf vegetation, mostly tamarisk and mesquite trees. From time to time, I listened to the conversation going on behind me. However, my intervention not being appreciated, I was kindly reminded that this was a ‘women conversation’. The orange sun was now burning my eyes. At a time, I felt I might have to stop for a while, but then the road passed through a mountainous areas therefore screening us from the sun. Sometime after sunset, we stopped at a little mosque. Sumar had the tyres checked for pressure, and two kilometers further we reached the Pasni junction [740 km from Hyd]. From there, the port of Pasni is about ten kilometers further south and the road to Gwadar turns at right angle to the East. Gwadar is now 105 kilometers away. This stretch of land is rather flat and the Makran Coastal Range rather remote to the North. It’s night, the passengers in the white Suzuki Liana are only thinking of reaching destination. Sumar is driving. Noé, as usual, controls the music player. We skirted Nalient. We reached another junction: Turbat road to the right; we turned to the left.
The Koh-e Mahdi was now uncovering itself from the hazy moonlit landscape; Gwadar was near. At 8:05 pm, we reached the check-post at the entrance of Gwadar. [863 km from Hyd].The policeman on duty asked us questions. We answered that in Sindh, we were not used to be asked questions, and upon questioning his sense of hospitality, he let us go with advices how to avoid the forthcoming police check-posts. The more I live in this country, the more I love it! From the check-post, the road goes directly South to ‘Downtown’.
Let me now tell you something about Gwadar.
Gwadar is uniquely situated on an isthmus leading to a tableland called Koh-e Batail. This big rock has a length of 15 km and is at the most a kilometer and half in breadth. It runs parallel to the coast and is surprisingly similar to the Ormara Mountain. It is elevated to the side of the continent and tilts toward the sea. They are in fact the first foldings parallel to the Makran Coastal Range and a continuation of the coastal range between Jiwani and Pishukan. Gwadar was purchased from Oman and joined Pakistan in 1957. The culture and tradition of the place have a tiny tint of Arabia. A fort is there as a testimony of this past. To this day, a very large segment of the population live in Oman and trade is maintained. As for the present demography, it is changing; changing fast and it is to be feared that the Gwadaris will soon become a minority in their own town, something seen before. Unless serious efforts are made to uplift the level of education, it is easy to guess that the foreigners will strongly establish themselves. The economy of the town is –or was- fishing and smuggling. The Iranian border isn’t too far, and launches cross to the Emirates. Items brought from Iran are petroleum products, paraffin, shoes, motorcycles, tin food, fresh food, soap, and more. There is a lot of booze too, which must be coming from the UAE or from ships plying by.
Not only is Gwadar a great place, but it could –and should- have a great future. Let’s put aside the promises given by property dealers, promoters and other crocodiles. Gwadar could indeed become another Dubai if…if the following conditions are met. First, peace in Afghanistan if Gwadar has to function as a seaport for the Central Asian countries. Two, internal security in Balochistan and every parts of Pakistan, especially the NWFP. Three, bringing up Balochistan to the economic level of Sindh and the Punjab. That can only be done through education. Education can make the Baloch competitive and assure their autonomy and rights. Four, get the blessing of Russia. (China is interested in Gwadar for obvious reasons.)
More about Gwadar: it is exotic, romantic, the people are nice, the climate is temperated by the sea, with not too hot summers and mild winters, the breeze is pleasant (Gwadar means Door of Wind; Gwa = Wind, Dar = door). Rainfall is low which used to cause water shortages. There were about ten wells in the city but water now comes from the Akra Kaur Dam and the Saji Dam. People speak Balochi in its Makrani variant. The old social order has weakened as it is now an urban society and the hierarchy Hakim/Baloch/Golam has disappeared in the new cosmopolitan fabric of society.

We stopped at the first hotel on the way, Islamabad Hotel. The ladies went to inquire and came back: too dear (Rs. 2000/) for what they had to offer was the verdict. Inspector Narejo called on Georgiana’s mobile but no khas arrangement could be done; his friend was in Quetta. Iram said she wanted to go to PC (That’s what the Pearl Continental hotels are called in the jargon of the elite). We couldn’t miss it; the PC is the big, bright, large, shiny building overlooking the city. Georgiana wanted to stay in the car while Shahana and Iram would go to inquire for rooms, she was obliged to follow. I did not, I was covered with dust and was looking messy - I always am but this time…-
I stayed with the chauffeur, but when they were late coming back, I went to the car to put a fresh shirt on and went into the hotel. I asked where the three ladies were and at that time, they came out of the lift. Everything was arranged, we would be staying at the PC. Noé was very happy and excited to stay at a luxury hotel. Oh, what a contrast with Dur Mohammad’s jhompri!
We had dinner at Diamond Hotel and Restaurant in the city, and returned to PC. Noé was the first to have a bath. He than sat in the bed like a king in front of a large screen TV set. Iram was in high spirits; I’m not sure she is into camping. We slept late, we got up early. The breakfast was excellent and the croissants tasted just like in France.
At 10:22, we left the hotel and drove around on Koh-e Batail. We then went to the bazaar. Most of the shop were shut for the fourth day in protest for the assassination of a leader of the National Liberation Front, by one of the Government agencies. Investors in Gwadar, please be a bit patient. A few boutiques were open to satisfy their shopping urge. It was high time to leave if we had to be home in time. Iram, Georgiana and I had to work the next day. After buying fuel (30 liters @ 55/liter), we left Gwadar at 12:10 pm. The journey back was rather monotonous, and Noé fell asleep. At 3:20 we were at Ormara where we had lunch, and refueled. From there, I drove; the chauffeur was too nervous, especially on the mountain roads. We reached Buzi before sunset and again got a chance to see the valley from a different angle in a different light. The next stop was at Dur Muhammad’s where we had tea, it was 7 o’clock. At 8:35, we were at Zero Point, Hub at 9:55 where we took CNG. We found the access to the Northern Bypass and from there there was just 172 km to reach home. We arrived at Civil Lines at 12:53 am, having covered 1737 km.


It hadn’t been a week since we had returned from Makran, but this trip had been planned with Wasim who was like us eager to discover

Lahut Lamakan

So off we were again. This time Husni was part of the trip. The car was the same we had had in Makran but the chauffeur this time was Nazir Hajjani.
In the interval, I had fallen ill. I still had no idea what ailed me and Shahana had asked me a number of times if we should cancel the trip. I wouldn’t; besides, Wasim had shortened his stay in the Punjab in order to join us.

The chauffeur was late, a quite normal thing here, but I was upset as this meant Wasim would have to wait for us in Karachi, a thing I myself hate to do. We left an hour behind schedule. Wasim would be at Sohrab Goth and we had convened to pick him up at nine at Sohail No.1 office. Right from the start, there arose a mechanical problem with the car but I thought the car was cold and would improve later. We eventually got to the main road to Karachi at 8:30 [29/11/07]and less then two hours later, we were at Sohrab Goth (Karachi) where our friend was patiently waiting at the designated place.
We drove back to the Northern Bypass and at 11:20, we reached Hub Chowki. After refilling with gas (CNG), we took the Shah Noorani Road that branches off at Seerat Chowk. We passed two roads branching off to the left, one leading to Pâlârri Goth and shortly after one going to Falcon Cement Factory, which we could see at the foot of the hills to the West. Ten kilometers after Hub, we stopped for lunch at a mosque bordering the road [11:55am]. We ate food prepared home by Shahana while Nazir was trying to find out the fault with the engine. 23 kilometer from Hub Chowki, we passed the shrine of Baba Hussain Pir. Until this spot, the land is cultivated and people seem to grow just every kind of crops. There were palm trees, guava trees, chikoo trees, castor oil plants, cane, cotton, maize, etc. From the indication given by a number of people, we understood that we simply had to keep on driving straight on to find Shah Noorani. Past Baba Hussain Pir, the land became arid and we drove through a plateau. Lorries loaded with big stones, usually two or three per vehicle, were plying on the road but we failed to see the origin of the quarry. The road crossed and then followed for a short while an irrigation channel, which certainly originates from the River Hub. After 35 kilometers, we reached Lang Lohar where there is a police check post. There, a road branches off to the West to Sher Mohammad Goth, which is just about a kilometer away. Immediately after Lang Lohar, the road descends and crosses a river, almost dry at this time of the year. We then again drove through a plateau for a while. 16 kilometers after Lang Lohar, a road taking from the right goes to Dureji. I think there is an ancient graveyard [Himidan], which I would like eventually like to visit on my next trip in the area. I do not know the distance to Dureji from this cross road though. Six kilometers further, there is another junction with a road leading west. 73 kilometers from Hub Chowki, the ‘pakka’ road ends and we then proceed on a shingle road. It seems there is a plan to turn it into a metalled road in some future. It was the perfect season to be out on the road in Balochistan; the air was brisk and fresh, yet winter had not yet set in. Our progress was slow, as Nazir had to stop often (every five kilometers in average) to fix the engine. We passed Hayan Pir, 83 km from Hub. We still had to cover 18 km to Mohabat Faqeer. The car was showing more and more unwillingness to go. The passengers were asking the locals how far Jeay Shah was, and the answer invariably was ‘half an hour’. At last, someone said it was a minute away, which translated meant we might reach the place within five minutes or possibly more. It is interesting to notice that time and time concept varies sensibly from a culture to another, from an urban to a rural environment, from the educated folk to the less educated.
We reached Mohabat Faqeer at 4:20 pm. We were glad we had left early in the morning as the day was almost gone and Jeay Shah was still a distance ahead. We posed for a while thinking if we should attempt to drive on or leave the car here and take a ‘kikra’for the remaining five kilometers. Eventually, our Suzuki car engaged on the dusty and winding track. We passed a shrine called Qadam Mawla Ali and at 5 pm, we reached Shah Noorani, 106 kilometers from Hub Chowki.

Shah Noorani Village is located in a green vale watered by a stream, which contrasts greatly with the prevalent arid landscape of this region West of the Kirthar Range. The mountain range where it is located runs in a north-south direction parallel to the main Kirthar Range.

About the man buried here, I haven’t yet got any information beside the one that he would Imam Ali bin Abu Talib himself. The legends want that every single personality of Islamic history would have been here, starting with Adam and including Noah and Muhammad (pbut). If historical evidence points to an impossibility, science-fiction helps the impossible to become possible. Noorani being Imam Ali is of course a secret passed only among the initiated. Shah Abdul Latif would have been here but that is quite acceptable since he himself wrote about it.
Was Bilawal Noorani a local revered man (such as Sachal Sarmast) or someone who had travelled to this spot (just like Othman Marwandi)? Was he renown in his days or did he acquire fame after his death? When did he live? What did he do? What did he teach?

Shah Noorani and Lahoot Lamakan are the destinations of pilgrims who travel on foot from Sehwan Sharif after the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. They take about 17 days to cover the distance –which appears a lot to me- or even seven. I heard about a record of three days only. Naturally, people can proceed at different pace, and the age of the yatri has something to do in it.

This settlement, or village, around the shrine is typical of all those places associated with a mazhar around the country. The shrines are surrounded by lanes of shops selling souvenirs and more useful objects: painted earth-ware such as jars, money savers, baby seats, mandânni (a tool to make butter), decorated plates and religious artifacts: bangles, rings, semi-precious stones or for the most imitation, ‘zehr mohri’ amulets, all sorts of amulets, ‘gano’ (a woolen necklace), chadors, holy pictures, but also ‘naqul’ (a kind of sweet which will be brought back home to the friends, neighbours and relatives), ‘chhunhâre’ (dry dates), ‘kishmish’ (raisins). Lots of plastic items too: toys, sandals, etc. Medicinal items are also for sale along with ‘surma’ (kohl), miswak and dandasa (wooden tooth-brush), ‘mameri’ (eye-cleaner), etc. There are lots of tea-stalls, ‘pakore’ and ‘samose’ vendors, restaurants where people can also sleep. You can also buy music cassettes, particularly devotional songs and qawali but also pop-music. There is always a market for mild drugs, from mainpuri to charas (hashish). Mussafir khanas are spread all around the village. The hammams are located downstream. I noticed a dispensary but I can’t assure the doctor there is really an MBBS graduate.

What make the place are actually the pilgrims, the mixing of people from all ways of life, who have come with their hopes and wishes. There is more of a holiday mood than of an austere religious gathering. People are happy. They pray, they implore but they also chat, pass information, buy, sell, flirt, propose, establish contacts. They all share a thing in common irrespective of their caste or religion; they now are Lahootis, part of the selected who have made it to the tomb of the saint. They yet have to prepare to go to Lahoot Lamakan, the final destination. They will go on foot on a path through the mountain, a distance of six kilometers to the South of Shah Noorani.
Who is –or was- Bilawal Noorani is utterly irrelevant for the pilgrim. They have come for the barakah.

After the visit of the shrine, we sat in the yard listening to dhammal until the namaz of Maghrib. Thereafter, we went off to prepare our camp.

We spent the night under the tent in the outskirt of the village. We woke up at dawn [30/12/07], and had breakfast at one of the restaurants (called ‘hotel’ in Urdu). Oily parattas and sweet caffeine-rich tea.
After paying homage to Shah Noorani, we left in a packed kikra (28 passengers in it plus luggage)for Mohabat Faqir while Nazir drove the car empty. When we reached Mohabat Faqir, the chauffeur was finishing his breakfast and at 10 am we left for Lahoot, a mere five kilometers away to the south.
We left the car and walked along a stream into a gorge. Noé, who had been designated leader of the expedition, was helping Shahana in her progression on this uneven terrain. They had to pass round large boulders detached from the flank of the mountain, hop over the stream, scale inclines. We reached a part where an iron ladder had been affixed to the rock. For this part, Noé was on my back while Shahana and Husni went ahead without difficulty. Wasim was ahead, and he was comfortably sitting at the terrace by the cave when we joined him. Over us hanged stalactites, and water was dripping from the top of the mountain. The air was moist. The sun never reaches this recess of the mountain and therefore the place is a sort of damp even though we are in one of the driest region of the world. After a short rest, we all proceeded to the cave, a few steps higher. An iron ladder, about five meters high, led to the small entrance of the cave. An overweight person could not enter it. Noé and I followed the group and they soon were engulfed into the rock. The tradition wants it that if someone cannot pass the narrow entrance of the cave, he/she is not the child of his/her father. With difficulty, we passed into the netherworld. In the dark, I felt a sudden depression under my feet and at the same time got hold of a thick rope acting as a lead. The ground was slippery, and soon our feet were in the water. Small candles held by other visitors helped us to perceive and discover the cave. People were shouting ‘Ya Ali’ both as part of their religious belief and part to reassure themselves. Noé was getting worried. I heard Shahana scream when she thought a fish was biting her. I tested the way but no fish or crab, or any kind of creature seemed to be present in the muddy, murky water. It was first only a foot deep, but as we advanced further to our right, we went suddenly into deeper water, half to the thigh. My feet planted in the soft muddy bottom, it was difficult to keep balance, with Noé on my back and the digital camera in my hand. Shahana was holding me, I was holding Shahana, Shahana was holding Nazir, Husni was holding herself. We reached an end (20 meters to the right), a pseudo-religious spot with a chanda box by it. Retracing our steps, –by now our eyes were getting used to the darkness- we came to the camel, a stalactite formation, covered with red and green chadors. [See the picture]. Wading up the pool, I reached the bank and leaving Noé with his mother, I went into a series of tunnels and rooms without the aid of light. I used my hands to recognise my way. Two youths who had hesitated to go took up their courage and followed me. Conversation gave courage. The air was becoming thicker and thicker. I followed the rope groping in the intestine of the mountain. I stopped using the light of the camera as I noticed condensation. [See picture]. Eventually, I got into the last room, a space of about 20 square meters which was the end of this speleological experiment.
People come to collect the dripping water from the ceiling, which they hold holy or endowed with curative effect. I drank it; it tasted fine. Exiting the cave with Noé once again on my back was more difficult than the way in. The group was again resting at the platform below, I went up exploring a bit more, passing a tunnel. I didn’t meet any girl at the end of the tunnel and therefore, I didn’t get a sister as the tradition wants it. Above Lahoot, there is a curious mountain in the shape of a sleeping dinosaur. [See picture] It is said that the gap in the mountain- or eye, hole- is the place where the prophet Noah (pbuh) anchored his ship. I am too rational to believe the story, but maybe you do. As a true Lahooti, I had to scale the mountain and I got there quickly. Be sure, no one goes there, or rarely. Once again in the mountain, I felt free. Needless to say, it may be a scary place for most to hang on a bridge just 2.50 meters broad at a height of …well, I don’t know the height but it was high: see picture.
From the top, I could now understand better the geography of the region, and see the path to Jeay Shah with its pilgrims coming and going. In the distance, I could also see the Kirthar Range.
At 3:15 pm, hungry, I was back to base camp. Dal and chapatti was my lunch. They make terrible bread in these parts but the stomach was contented and at four we left. We drove till Hayan Pir Stop where we decided to stop for the night. The clear river near by invited us for a swim. Dinner was chicken à la campagnarde. Early curfew.

With a cup of tea in the stomach en guise de breakfast, we were on the road again at 8 am (1/12/07). Destination Gadani.
We met an interesting gentleman when Wasim and I were chatting at the Allahwala Hotel at the exit of Hub Chowki. An old Pathan in his brown chador sat, apparently listening to our conversation until he presented himself,…in English! “People are uneducated here. There is nobody I can talk to in English. I was born in India. My father was in the police force of the Nizam of Hyderabad. I speak Tamil and Telugu, beside Pashto, Urdu and English. In ’47, I came to Karachi. I have been in Hub for thirty five years. My grand-father was from the Kakar Mountains above Pishin. We are Ahmedzai”. Hajji Moosa is indeed a nice man. I hope to meet him again. If you go to Hub, do meet him!

The police officers at the Gadani check post were a bit fussy, but we eventually got through and spent the rest of the afternoon at Gadani. I swam with Noé. Shahana chatted with Wasim on the rocky spur above the port [See pictures]. Lunch of fried sardines (called seen in Balochi), in the company of Sub-inspector of Police Aslam who had originally objected to the German presence in the area. It is quite natural that the Authority should show itself.

Gadani was followed by a visit to the ship breaking yard which is also a heart breaking business. The task is monstrous. It is an ignoble enterprise and I wonder why ILO does not take action against it. Needless to say, the business is extremely lucrative for the employers. I will send you a few pictures too; see them on

The three-day trip was coming to an end and at Sohrab Goth, we parted from our gentle companion Dr Jürgen Wasim, who was to return to Munich the next Tuesday (That is today). We thoroughly enjoyed his company and we hope to see him again at Hyderabad.

There remain many questions unanswered, which I hope the kind reader will help clarify.

The Ziarat is not (just) the destination, it is the way.
God bless you.

Aly Philippe Bossin Lahooti
Hyderabad, Sindh - 5 December 2007

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

SHAM 2007

An Account of a Journey through Syria and Lebanon

Day One 070608 Fri Hyderabad to Karachi Airport

We left Hyderabad at about 9 in the evening. Akhtar had given his ‘GS’ car at our disposal and his chauffeur Nazir drove us to the airport. We reached Jinnah Intl’ at 12 AM. We took off at 3:15 AM as scheduled. There was a one-hour stopover at Dammam.

Day Two 070609 Sat Karachi to Damascus via Dammam

Al Qazazeen, Bab al Faradis, Bab al Bareed, Souq Bzouriyeh, Midhat Basha, Straight Street and more

Noé enjoyed everything of the flight. Syrianair – RB 512. Upon boarding, he was shown the cockpit and he shook hands with the captain and the crew. Taking off was great fun. He even enjoyed the rather Spartan meal served on flight. I explained him the flight procedures and he understood them well. Needless to say, we slept very little that night, not much out of lack of comfort but rather because we were just very happy to fly and enjoy our holidays. After all, we had spoken of this trip for quite a long time.

We landed at Damascus Airport at 7 AM. Thanks we could remember something of our Arabic –May God bless our teacher Naima in Copenhagen- because the immigration officers weren’t really cooperative; they kept sending us from one counter to another. Their indolence could be interpreted as unfriendliness. No, they are in fact nice guys; just sleepy heads, but let’s not underestimate their capabilities. In this respect, Syria reminds me somehow of USSR. Of course, I tend to compare with similar situations in Pakistan where people –and not only immigration officers- are more helpful and resourceful. At 7:30, we were clear of all the formalities, walking up and down the arrival hall waiting for George. ‘George is never late’ I kept repeating to myself.
The first thing one notices when arriving in Syria is the incredible number of pictures of President Bashar al Asad pasted everywhere; I saw no less than six of them in the tiny post office of the airport, from the official photograph in a frame to the election poster with ‘yes’ or ‘we are with you’ written on it. (Bashar al Asad was elected president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafiz al Asad, with 99.70 % of the vote: Mabruk! )The second thing that one notices is the fact that the Syrians are plump and chubby, …or even fat though rarely obese: something which indicates a relatively good standard of living. Third, the airport is quieter and less hectic than Jinnah Intl’. It is also overstaffed; another reminder of communist regimes.

George had told Shahana he’d be at the airport at nine and at nine precisely, he entered the hall of the airport not expecting us to be already there as Syrianair flights are often late.
Damascus Airport is 25 kilometers SE from Damascus but linked by an excellent motorway. Beside the fact we’re now driving on the right side, we also can notice the traffic is significantly more orderly and less haphazard than in Pakistan. Less ‘mixed’ as well; I mean there aren’t animal driven carts and rickshaws or odd vehicles of all sorts which is so characteristic of our roads and streets.
It had been fifteen years since we were in Damascus and a lot of changes had occurred in the meantime. Hmm, think if you hadn’t been in Karachi for fifteen years, you’d probably feel the same! On the other hand, fifteen years away from Europe wouldn’t show much change.

Once the capital of the Muslim Empire and today the capital of Syria, it claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. To my knowledge, two more cities have the same claim: Aleppo and Jericho. They all could be right. With a population of 4 million, it is the most important centre of economic activity in the country. Flanked by the Anti-Libanon Range to the West, it receives little rain, yet it is situated in the midst of an oasis, the Ghouta, fed the Barada River and other springs. To the East, it’s all dry land all the way to Euphrates. It is situated on a north-south caravan route with the Yemen, the Hijaz and Bosra to the south and Aleppo and Turkey to the North. Beirut which functions as Damascus’ seaport is less than three hours drive to the West and Palmyra, an erstwhile centre of commerce, four hours to the North-West.

George lives in Al Qazazeen Street which links two important roads: Shara3 Malik Faiçal which runs perpendicularly along the northern limits of the old city and Shara3 Baghdad. Al Qazazeen is an animated narrow street where everybody seems to know each other and where George is also a well known and respected personality. The convenience shop next door is owned by Abu Basil, a gentle and kind fellow, very resourceful as well.
George’s house is a traditional stone and mud house built on two floors. On the ground floor, on both side of a patio, there are three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. On the upper floor, an open space, two large rooms and a smaller one. The ground floor is very cool. In fact, so cool that we hardly needed use the ceiling fans.
Since we hadn’t slept much in the plane, we had a good afternoon rest.
Our exploration of Damascus began with Al Qazazeen Street; we had to fill the refrigerator. After dropping the groceries, we went out again but this time to the south, entering the old city through Bab al Faradis, an area thronged with Iranian pilgrims. We passed Sayeda Roqaya –destination of the aforementioned pilgrims- and made our way toward Bab al Bareed which is on the west side of the Omayyad Mosque and from where al Hamadiyeh Souq begins. We pushed to the south into the Souq Bzouriyeh until we reached Souq MidHat Basha.
We took some rest at home before going out again for dinner. George chose to take us to one of his favourite restaurants, the ‘Old Town’, behind Church St Mary. The meal was luscious and the service impeccable. We went to pray in al Jauza (Walnut) Mosque which door faces George’s house. Noé was so happy to run in this mosque, especially on the ladies’ balcony. He would never let me go to mosque alone.
Naturally, one is subject to lots of impressions in a first day, and among these impressions, that of women’s dresses and fashion was the strongest. But I’ll tell more about it, later.

Day Three 070610 Sun Damascus

Sayeda Ruqaya, Omayad Mosque, Souq al Hamadiyeh, Shrine of Salahuddin

In the morning, we visited the following places in this order: The shrine of Sayeda Roqaya, the Omayyad Mosque which contains the shrine of Nabi Yahya (John the Baptist) (PBUH) and the ‘Maqam Al Hussayn’, the Souq Al Hamadiyeh and the tomb of Salahuddin Ayyubi.

The Omayad Mosque is just five minutes from George’s house where we can hear very distinctively the adhan.
A single visit would not do justice to this grandiose, big, beautiful, balanced, and harmonious compound splendidly decorated with exquisite mosaic and luxurious ornamentations. It’s also a place where people go to meet their friends and relatives partly due to its central position, to rest after shopping in the nearby souqs, to relax, to pray or read the Quran, for kids to play, to pay homage to the mausoleum of John the Baptist or honour the memory of Imam Hussain b. Ali b. Abu Talib.
The place has a very long history: a place of devotion from the earliest days when people worshipped Hadad who made storms and sent lightning, then replaced by the cult of Jupiter during the Roman administration, made a church in the fourth century, shared by Christians and Muslims for 70 years and eventually rebuilt for the worship of God by al-Waleed b. Abdul Malik of the house of Omayya in the year 705 AD when Damascus had become the capital of the Muslim Empire.
The mosque is dominated by three minarets built in different periods: the Jesus Minaret to the East, the Minaret of the Bride to the North and the Western Minaret. From these, five times a day, can be heard a unique adhan (call to prayer) sang by a chorus of muezzins in a most melodious and distinctive way. In the sahn, there are three monuments: the khazneh, the fountain for ablution and the dome of Zain al Abidin. In the prayer hall is the mausoleum of Prophet John the Baptist (Yahya in Arabic), (PBUH). To be particularly noted is its magnificent dome. The covered area consists of three riwaqs, the length being approximately 150 meters. For the kind reader who is not yet absolutely cognisant with the decimal system, it is 164 yards or 492 feet, that is ¾ of a furlong
Despite fires, earthquakes and wars, the mosque has retained its initial splendor through many works of restauration.
Today, it stands as one of the best and oldest example of Muslim architecture, an inspiration for architects through the ages.

We had lunch at home. Shahana prepared a dish of rice, potatoes and olives. We slept a lot that afternoon; we were still carrying with us the fatigue of the journey. At 5:30, George came back from office. George works on a project of modernization of the municipal administration of Damascus, Aleppo and four more cities of Syria.
At night we went again to the Omayyad Mosque where we prayed salat 3ishâ’.

Day Four 070611 Mon Damascus

Sayeda Zaynab, ‘Azem Palace, Souq Jumruk

We took a taxi to the shrine of Sayeda Zaynab which is remote from the centre of the city. In fact, the area around the shrine forms a separate township. There are many Zaynabs in Muslim History, but this shrine is consecrated to the daughter of Hussain b. Ali b. Abu Talib (r.a.). There are crowds of pilgrims, mostly of the Shia3 sects. The shrine is new, and it is built in the Irani style of architecture. It is lavishly and richly decorated and furnished. We spent a part of the morning there and returned home for lunch. We prayed salat 3asr in the Omayyad Mosque and then went on to visit the 3azam Palace, three minutes south of the Omayyad Mosque. This palace was built in the 18th century for the governor As3ad Pasha. It is a magnificent example of Damascene architecture. After that, we walked in Souq Jumruk (Customs Market), which joins the Hamidiyeh and MidHat Basha.
Sitting at Bab al Bareed, we engaged in small talk with a Khuzistani family. Noé likes to drink fresh orange juice from the vendors who stand by the Romans arches at Bab al Bareed. Eating and drinking out here is pretty safe: hygienic conditions in eating and drinking places meet the European standards.
Back home for dinner, we got ready-to-serve food from Lebanon brought by George. After dinner, we went up al Qazazeen Street toward Baghdad Street to buy vegetables. Vegetables are succulent in this country. On the way back, we had tea in Abu Basil’s shop.

To the attention of my Pakistani friends, I’d like to say that if you insist to have milk in your tea, it’d be better for you to travel east; in the Levant, it is anathema.
We found out that transportation is rather cheap in Syria. The petrol costs SP. 30/- per liter and the diesel only SP. 7/-
Yet, one has to remain careful with taxi drivers who sometimes overcharge foreigners for whom the fare still represent a small amount compared to what they pay in their own country. In town, fares vary in average from SP. 25. to 75.
One Syrian Pound is $ 0.051, so SP 100. = Pak RS. 120. (July ’07)

Day Five 070612 Tue Damascus

Midhat Basha, Straight Street, Bab Sharqi, Bab Touma

We found out that monuments and museums are shut on Tuesdays.
We walked around in the Old City. We bought an Ihram in Midhat Basha. We had a look at handicrafts.
Soft-ice and Syrian snacks. Back home at 2 PM. Noé is restless.
Shahana cooked biryani for dinner.
In the evening, we walked down the Straight Street (Via Recta) all the way up to Bab Sharqi and then down Touma Street till Bab Touma. This area is predominantly Christian and one can see churches of different denominations.

As far as my observations go, relations between Christians and Muslims are cordial contrary to the tenser situation prevalent in Lebanon between communities. The Druzes and the Alawis too enjoy equal rights and freedom.

Religion, just as in Pakistan, has its importance in Syria, not really in term of belief or a truth-seeking process but more as community attachment and cultural identity.

The Levant is quite varied in term of religious affiliation. Here is a list which needs to be completed and corrected. So, if you have any information in this topic, let me know.

Sunni Islam (Hanafi):ca. 15 million.
Shi3a Islam (Ithna Ashariya): less then 1 % in Syria but a considerable higher percentage in Lebanon.
Alawi (also called Nusayri): supposedly an offshot of Shi3a but in fact having older roots, 1.3 million, mostly found in Jabel an Nusayriyeh.
Ismaili Naziri Shi3a: 1 % in Syria, mostly in the Salamiyah region of Hamah Province & the mountains of Al Ladhiqiyah Province.
Druze: 3 % of the Syrian population, mostly in Jabal al Arab. In Lebanon, in the Chouf.
Yazidi: 10,000 in Syria, primarily in Jabal Sim3an & Amuda in the Jazirah, and Aleppo.
Maronite Christian: Mt. Lebanon,Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hasakah,
Greek Orthodox
Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Armenian Orthodox Church
Armenian Catholic Church
Assyrian Church (?)
Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite),
Roman Catholic
Syriac: (very few)
Copt: (65 000 = 0.4 %)
Presbyterian: (?)
Jews have left for Palestine, USA, France or elsewhere. There might be three of them left in Syria.

Day Six 070613 Wed Damascus

Citadel, Midhat Basha, Hariqa, Bimaristan Nooruddin, Khan As3ad

What did I eat last night? I wake up with a bad stomach. Never mind.

We began the day, with the visit of the Citadel (qa3lat).
The citadel built originally by the Seljuk in 1078 was rebuilt even more formidable and imposing by Malik al Adel in 1202. This is the only citadel not built on the top of a hill. It had fallen into disuse under Ottoman rule was recently restored and the souqs which obstructed the view were removed.
Inside the walls of the Citadel, we met two students – Zohair and Diana –of the Department of Arts of the University, which is situated inside the Citadel. Diana studies photography, so I asked her to take our picture. We walked through Hariqa, a quarter destroyed by the French during the 1925 Druze Insurrection. It was rebuilt in the modern European style of the ‘30s. We then walked around Souq Midhat Basha and the small parallel souqs. We spent some time in the Bimaristan Nooruddin, which has been turned into a museum of medicine.
The khan al As3ad, named after a governor of Damascus, As3ad al 3azam, is situated in Souq al Bzouriyeh. Completed in 1752, it is the largest in the city. As most khans, the lower floor was used for commerce and the storage of goods and the upper floor for the lodging of the traders. It is built on a symmetrical pattern with a square central yard. Black basalt and limestone on alternate horizontal layers is a design common to the region, and this khan is a superb example.
We returned home and Shahana cooked meat, potatoes and aubergines with rice or khubz for dinner. Black and green olives accompanied the meal.

I observed that there are many tourists coming to Damascus. The bulk of it comes from Arab countries, and next from Iran. From Europe, predominantly and in this order: France, Italy, Germany. There are a few Pakistanis and they are almost always Shi3a who have come to visit the shrines. Either from religious purpose or for tourism, the patterns of behaviour of these visitors are surprisingly similar.

I’ll now summarize the events of 1925-27. The Druze had always had a tradition of isolationism and had been able to remain semi-independent even during the Ottoman rule. The French administration did not understand that. Following discontent by the Druze regarding the way the French administration was forcibly introducing reforms which upset the practices and conventions of the region of Jabal al Duruz, General Maurice Sarrail arrested a number of Druze leaders.
In July 1925, Sultan al Atrash attacked Salkhad and the following month Suwaida, the main city of Jabal al Duruz.
They were joined by the Syrian nationalists from the cities and the revolt spread to Damascus. The French then bombed the city, and again the following year. 5000 people died under these bombardments. By the summer of 1927, the revolt had been suppressed but Jabal al Duruz was maintained under special control.

Day Seven 070614 Thu Damascus to Beirut

Jewish Quarter, Baramkeh, Borders, Beirut: Al Fanar

In the morning, we visited the Jewish Quarter (Harrat al Yahud).
Previous to the foundation of the State of Israel, the Jews lived in harmony with their neighbours, not only in Syria but all over the Middle East. There are only three Jews left, so I have heard, in Syria. The Jewish quarter, located in the South-eastern part of the old city definitely bears a distinctive character compared to the other parts of the city. It is now partly repopulated by Christian and Muslims and works of restoration are being slowly carried on.
We sat in the Omayad Mosque for a while and at 1:30 PM, we returned home.
At three o’clock, we reached the taxi stand for Beirut in Baramkeh. George was there waiting for us scrutinizing the traffic. Our luggage was checked before entering the ‘karajat’ as it is the routine. Our taxi was a spacious Ford ‘Caprice’.
The formalities done, we left at 3:30. We had a wonderful trip across the Anti-Lebanon Range (Jabal Libnân ash-Sharqi) and we reached the border after an easy 45-minute drive. In a half hour, the border formalities were rounded up and we proceeded a few kilometers further, to the Lebanese border check-post. In between the check posts lies a sort of no-man’s land. At the Lebanese entry point, the procedures went on swiftly with the usual Arab courteousness and we resumed our journey. The first town is 3anjar, and then we reached the bottom of the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa is a rift valley separating the Mt Lebanon Range and the Anti-Lebanon Range. It has fertile land and is largely inhabited by Shia3s. It is therefore a stronghold of Hezbollah. Further on, we reached Shtaura where the Lebanon Mountain begins, and a little further, we stopped for refreshments at a café-restaurant. We then drove across the Lebanon Range. After the pass, we began to witness the damages caused on bridges by the 2006 Israeli bombings. We then drove down the twisted road toward Beirut and the Mediterranean. Due to a high level of humidity, the sea wasn’t visible from the heights. Living in Pakistan and coming now from Syria, one experiences a neat contrast. It felt as if I had left the Orient and that I was now closer to my native land. Everything built was new and modern, not in itself a plus point but it seemed it was better administered or regulated. The billboards were either written in French or in English whereas the official signs were in Arabic or French.
At 6:10 PM, we reached Al Fanar, the suburb of Beirut where George lives.
We met his family: his wife Nawal and his two children, Marinus 9 and Marie-Nour 6. We also met the maid, Remaline from the Philippines.
Fanar is a residential area located on the flank of the mountains dominating the Bay of Beirut. To accede to it, you have to drive up a winding road. The conditions of living are similar, or even superior, to that of France. I’d even say better than California: same level of development plus culture. I’m talking of the northern and eastern part of the city where the Christians live.
It was good for Noé to be again with a family and to mix with kids. Noé takes travelling seriously: he has a good sense of observation, and enjoys every small thing. Yet, he also needs to play with fellows of his age.
It was great to meet at last George’s wife; we all had been looking forwards to this day. Nawal had cooked a fine dinner which we all enjoyed greatly.

Day Eight 070615 Fri Beirut & HiyâTah

Ashrafiyeh, Mosque Rafiq Hariri, Najmeh, Grand Serail, Eglise St Georges, Corniche, West Beirut, Fanar, Northern Part of Beirut, HiyâTah

At 10 AM, George took us to Beirut proper. I was truly impressed by the renovation and building works in progress. We went first to Najmeh, the centre of the city and then to the Corniche and then to West Beirut. In Najmeh, we had refreshments at a café. We visited the Emir Munzer Tannoukhi Mosque. Being built as a church by crusaders from the Poitou, it was striking to see the similitude with Roman style churches of Southern France.

No one can on a short trip hope to understand the complexity of Lebanese society. Traumatized by the civil war, feeling unsafe, unsure about their future and divided on religious lines, many Lebanese look bleakly at the future. Its assets are also its disadvantages: its privileged position in the world in terms of geo-economics and communication makes it also a vulnerable country. It is a beautiful land with fertile soil and it has an ideal climate yet this paradise can anytime turn into hell. The day before our arrival, a Sunni MP and his body guards had been killed by a bomb in West Beirut.
Besides, it is not a united country and though it has a long very history, it is a new state in the modern sense, only recently established, and the non-Lebanese Arabs do not agree with its existence, beginning with Syria from which it was separated. The term Shâm applies to the four countries of Syria (Suriya), Lebanon (Libnân), Jordan (Al Urdan), and Palestine (Falesteen). The first stage of partition occurred with the Sykes-Picot Treaty, with France receiving the northern part of Sham as mandate, while the south was given to Britain. In 1926, France granted independence to the region of Lebanon. The British did worse allowing, through the Balfour Declaration, an alien people to come and settle in the province of Palestine, something which would not only later on bring havoc to the region but to the entire world. There had been talk about sending the Jews to Uganda. I think they should have been given an entire state of the United States; they would have got a lot of space then. Utah is already taken by the Mormons, so why not North Dakota?
Another weak point of Lebanon is its small size both in term of area (10,360 km2) and population (3 million), which renders it defenseless.
The Lebanese are a very enterprising people bent on commerce ever since they started founding colonies around the Mediterranean. Intelligent and smart too since they invented the alphabet, helped build the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, built ships that could sail all the way to Agadir and who knows perhaps even further! I personally believe that the Lebanese will be able to establish peace and harmony in their land as they are indeed a hard-working nation. For this, a commonwealth of Levantine states will have to be established on the model of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). This will first require the blessing of the United States, something Israel will fight against!

We returned for lunch and then at 4 PM, we all packed up in the Hyundai 4x4 and headed up for the country house; a 45-minute drive from Fanar. We drove north following the coast and after Junieh, we turned toward the mountain following a winding road. I observed that Nawal was quite comfortable negotiating the hair-pin turns. As we were rising, we were able to discover the Bay of Junieh and the slopes of the mountains overrun by invading constructions. Past the town of Ghazeer, the road and the surroundings were becoming more picturesque.
At the beginning of the village of HiyâTah (elev. 900-1200 m), we turned right into a narrow ascending lane which after a couple of hundred yards stopped in front of a stone house. Wild, lush green landscape, cool air, calm and peace is what best describes HiyaTah. The ‘oriental’ hustle and bustle of Damascus was but a remote memory. The adhan was replaced by the sounds of bells. Noé was very joyful up there. George immediately sat at his laptop with full concentration to prepare a law that had to be delivered the coming Monday. Remaline was cleaning the house, while the children were sweeping the dead leaves of the walnut-tree in front of the house. Nawal brought coffee. (I still don’t understand how they can digest this brew).I went on exploring alone the surroundings, planning to go to the top of the mountain the next day.
Nawal had to go to the bakery, and we all accompanied her to al Qateen leaving George alone with his draft. The bakery was as clean as in Europe: employees wore plastic gloves to serve customers, and the cashier did not handle any edible items. Everything was displayed with taste, hygiene and the working area was open to the sight of the customers. Glass and chrome were sparkling clean. The supermarket next door too resembled those in the West and in term of cost as well!
It appears that the Lebanese are working on different levels of economy; the Christians have a standard of leaving comparable to that of Europe with salaries over $1000/-, the Sunni Muslims occupy the middle level, while the Shias are the poorer section living with just $200/- per month.

Day Nine 070616 Sat HiyaTah

In the morning, Nawal drove down to al Qateen to buy groceries. I played for a while with the children and then I scurried away from them to the mountain. I could hear Noé crying pathetically. He cried for two hours. I have always compared myself to Monsieur Seguin’s goat in the story written by Alphonse Daudet; the tale must have made a certain effect on me. I soon found myself in the mist of a most wonderful world where ruins of houses long deserted had been overwhelmed by invading wild vegetation. There were mysterious caves which I fancied must have been the dwelling of early men. This area had been, all along history, the perfect place to hide from enemies. Islam had not reached these parts, not even to this day. Thick clouds were passing producing an eerie impression. Probably due to high humidity, my digital camera stopped working. I struggled to make my way through the thick woodland. I was soon covered with mud as often I had no other options than to crawl. My shirt was being slowly cut by thorns. My arms were bleeding and I was trying to protect my face from scratches. In these conditions, the way up was rather difficult. Going down was even harder. I soon found myself hanging on a cliff perfectly vertical under me and almost vertical over me with trees and branches out of reach. I stood there and reflected for a long time. There was at least twenty meters under me. Hmm. Time passed. I was tired, but there was no need to rush. The place were I stood, though highly uncomfortable and small (I could only stand with my feet close together), was at the same time very charming and fascinating. How had I got there? By the help of branches; they had helped me to land on this escarpment but once landed, the branches had reverted to their initial positions. Sounds a bit like a Tarzan stunt. There didn’t to be any way; either up or down. I considered the way to my left, and to my right: in both cases, too far and too risky. The best option, it appeared, was to climb up. I selected the best spots to place hands and feet, removing first the unstable or brittle stones –it was a limestone cliff undermined by vegetation and humidity- and stretching my limbs, I ultimately made it up to a safe position. I got back to the house after a six-hour ‘walk’; I had somehow lost track of time. I kept the marks of scratches as souvenir for a few weeks. Nawal thought it was heroic!
The evening was cool and we had dinner indoors.

Day Ten 070617 Sun HiyaTah & Al QaTeen, Fanar

Sayada Qal3at, Sayada al Haqle, al Qateen

We drove to the cross which dominates the valley. From this spot, one can see the Mediterranean when the weather is clear, but we were there on a cloudy day. Did you notice that when you visit a place, the local gentry always tells you that had you been here earlier or at the right season, or on that particular day, you might have seen the right thing? The clouds did not mask entirely the mountain, but rather enhanced its appearance and gave it a mysterious look, as a veil does to a beautiful woman. A bit lower than the cross is the church of Sayada Qal3at. Sayeda Qa3lat is a recent place of miracle. In the twentieth century, there was an apparition of Mary mother of Jesus (a..s.). We then visited the Sayyedat al Haqle Convent which is near Ghazeer. We returned to the country house and in the evening, we went to the restaurant al Asaf in al Qateen. The owner of the restaurant is a distant relative of Nawal. We ate an assortment of succulent dishes, most of them new to our palates. If you’re acquainted to the Lebanese cuisine, water will come to your mouth and if you aren’t, it will then be a source of speculation. The dishes were, let me remember…
- Homos Mutabbal = chickpeas mashed in paste with olive oil and mint
- Badinjan Mutabbal = aubergines mashed in paste with olive oil.
\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Taboulé \u003d\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>salad of parsley, with a little cracked weat, tomatoes and ognions\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Salata Z\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>a3\u003c/font\>ter \u003d \u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>Thymian\u003c/font\> Salad?\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>",1]
- Taboulé = salad of parsley, with a little cracked wheat, tomatoes and onions
- Salata Za3ter = thyme salad / salade au thym
\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Labneh ma3 thum \u003d Curd with garlic\n\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>yoghurt avec de l'ail \u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Balilah \u003d\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>???\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\u003c/span\>",1]
- Labneh ma3 thum = curd with garlic / yoghurt avec de l'ail
- Balilah
\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Jadh Khedhâr \u003d\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>a standard mixed salad\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Shenkleesh \u003d\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>cheese with spices, there are several variants but the one with thymian seems the most popular one.\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>",1]
- Jadh Khedhâr = a standard mixed salad
- Shenkleesh = cheese with spices, there are several variants but the one with thyme seems the most popular one.
\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Jabneh Baladiah \u003d Cottage Cheese / Fromage campagnard\n\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Jabneh Fa3zeh \u003d Goat cheese\n\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>Fromage de Chêvre \u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Labah Akras \u003d\n\u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>???\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Sanbosik \u003d a very far relative of the samosa\n\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\u003c/span\>",1]
- Jabneh Baladiah = cottage cheese / fromage campagnard
- Jabneh Fa3zeh = goat cheese / fromage de chèvre
- Labah Akras
- Sanbosik = a very far relative of our samosa
\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>Burak \u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\nJabneh: \u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>spring rolls with cheese\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>",1]
D(["mb","\u003cspan class\u003dq\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Warq 3areesh \u003d Vine leaves rolls/ rouleau de feuilles de vigne\n\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\> \u003c/p\>\u003c/span\>",1]
D(["mb","\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>Ardi Shauki\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\n\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003d Artichoke / artichaud\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>",1]
- Burak Jabneh = spring rolls with cheese/ rouleau de printemps au fromage
- Warq 3areesh = vine leaves rolls/ rouleau de feuilles de vigne (one of my favourites)
- Ardi Shauki = Artichoke / artichaud
\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>Meshawi \u003d Grilled meat / viandes grillées\n\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\n\u003cp style\u003d\"margin:0in 0in 0pt 0.5in;text-indent:-0.25in\"\>\u003cfont face\u003d\"Times New Roman\"\>\u003cfont color\u003d\"#006600\"\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>LaHm Dajâj \u003d chicken / poulet\n\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\u003c/span\>",1]
- Meshawi = grilled meat / viandes grillées
- LaHm Dajâj = chicken / poulet
- Mishmish = apricots/ abricots
- Derâq = peaches / pêches
- BaTeekh = water melon / pastèque
- Limoon = lemon / citron
- Qareeshah + 3asel = dry milk, almost cream like with honey
- Fraiz = strawberries/ fraises
\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\u003cspan\>-\u003cspan\> \u003cfont color\u003d\"#ff0000\"\>Karaz\u003c/font\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003c/span\>\u003cspan style\u003d\"font-size:11pt\"\>\n \u003d Cherries\u003c/span\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/font\>\u003c/p\>\u003c/div\>",1]
- Karaz = cherries / cerises

How could we move after that?
The only thing I didn’t try was the shisha (Narguile).

Day Eleven 070618 Mon Fanar to Damascus

Shrine of Sayeda Roqaya

We left Beirut at 7 AM with Haytham and reached Omayad Square in Damascus at 9:25 AM.
At the time of Salat 3asr, we were at the Omayad Mosque. We strolled around and drank fresh juices. Since it is on our way and very close to George’s house, we revisited the shrine of Sayeda Roqaya.
Sayeda Roqaya is venerated by the Shia3. It is rather doubtful that this daughter of Hussain b. Ali b. Abu Talib is buried here, but this is the belief of those pilgrims who come a long way from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and other lands. She is said to have died of grief at the age of three, being presented on a tray with the head of her father. Rather improbable but little logic is used in religion since the Mutazila. Nevertheless, the extend of the work of enlargement and embellishment undertaken at this Mazhar, is rather impressive. The whole compound is superbly and abundantly decorated with taste, in the Iranian style with blue tiles, mirrors and gold. Fine Kashan carpets cover up the floors. The shrine is properly administered and the pilgrims given the best care. In the yard, lectures, given by scholars and religious men, are followed with interest.

Day Twelve 070619 Tue Damascus to Aleppo

Halab ash-Shahba

We left home at 9 AM and took a taxi to the Al Qadam Railway Station which we found deserted. The train to Aleppo? Oh my dear, it leaves at 3 PM! We were told trains to Aleppo were leaving every hours, which should make sense since these two cities are the two largest in the country with both having a population of over four million people. Rats! We now were at the mercy of the rapacious taxi drivers who seeing us in this vulnerable situation would not and did not hesitate to overcharge us. At that time, we weren’t yet aware of the rates, something which requires a stay of a few days in the land. This taxi driver did not even take us to the right bus stop. We hadn’t tried yet the inter-cities busses and we found ourselves at the ‘ordinary’ bus stop. There are two types of busses plying in Syria: ordinary and luxury also called ‘Bullman’ (air-conditioned). The ordinary one is still better than the Pakistani busses, those we use to go to Karachi. After security baggage checking, we bought three seats for Aleppo and at 10:30 AM, we were leaving. Up to Homs, the landscape is rather dry with the first fold of the Anti-Libanon Range on the left (West), but passed Homs, the country becomes gradually greener as the hills to the West are lower and therefore let the moisture from the Mediterranean pass. The motorway, I’d say, is excellent.
The bus driver was a horrible sort of man who kept on beating the young conductor/assistant who seemed to be his son; a blond boy of about 12 with a slender face covered with sadness. The lad was living in constant fear of this ogre. The six hours we spent in this bus was divided in three parts: 1/looking at the landscape, 2/watching the TV screen showing Indian actors singing in Arabic language on Arabic tunes and 3/observing the interaction between the boy and his father/boss/monster.
We reached Aleppo at 5 PM. After inspecting a few funduqs for price and comfort, I found one suitable: Funduq Al Andalus at Bab al Faraj. After freshening up a bit, we went out to explore the area of Bab al Faraj. We bought olives, cheese and peaches. Shahana stayed at the hotel when I went to pray –maghrib prayer- with Noé to the nearby mosque. Again, I went out to buy water for Shahana who at that time had not yet developed trust in the quality of water in Syria. She eventually started drinking water from the tap and she found this water most suitable to her health.

Halab ash-Shahba, called Aleppo in English, is probably one of the cities of the world with the longest history. According to tradition, it would owe its name to the presence of Prophet Abraham (PBUH) who milked his ash-coloured cows. The oldest recorded ruling dynasty is that of the Amorites. They were followed by the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and Byzantium. The Muslim era began with the Omayyad dynasty. It was conquered by Salahuddin Ayyubi in 1183. The Ayyubi dynasty was followed by the Mamluk. The Mongol took the city in 1260, 1271 and 1280. Tamerlane sacked it in 1400. In 1517, it came under Ottoman rule until the French mandate which lasted two decades until the outbreak of WW2.
The city has suffered many earthquakes, probably the most deadly ones taking place in 1138 and in 1828.
The old city itself which is the focus of the foreign visitors, with the citadel in the centre, is rather small. It is surrounded by a modern city which developed mainly during the 20th century. The population of the city is around two millions and that of the governate four millions. Aleppo has been a trading centre from its inception since it is ideally situated on the Asian-European route as well as being at the northern end of the Yemen, Mecca, Damascus trade road. The souqs with a total length of seven kilometers are a testimony to this. The Great Mosque, Jami3 la Kabir is surrounded by the souqs. The architecture differs sensibly from that of Damascus; buildings are made of basalt stone. In term of town planning and architecture, it is one of the cities I have been most impressed with. Besides the Citadel, Aleppo has a lot of madrassas, mosques, churches, khans, gates and official edifices all rivalling in grace and elegance.

Day Thirteen 070620 Wed Aleppo

Bab al Maqam, Waleed Tawil’s Shop, Citadel, the souqs, Jami al Kabir, New Aleppo

We walked to the Old City, a rather short distance from our hotel. Though I had a guide book on the monuments of Syria lent by George and a map, we rather navigated randomly in the narrow constricted streets trying to figure out if they were lanes or cul-de-sacs leading to private quarters. Thus, we came to a more elevated part of the city situated in the south-western part of the city. There, Shahana asked a man, a grocer, if she could borrow his stool, to have a rest in the shade of a tree for a couple of minutes. Yousuf -that is his name- gave her the stool and after a short while invited her to enter his home and visit his family. He came back with glasses of frozen lemon juice, for me and the neighbours present outside. His grand-daughter, a bit older than Noé, was staring at me with her enormous blue eyes sipping lemonade, her elder brother sitting by her side. Noé kept moving from the house to the street as a liaison officer. In the house, Shahana did not have lemonade though, she was given instead the strong coffee served in tiny cups which Syrians are so fond of. Yousuf, a tall fellow, dry and slender, Mongol-looking, white-haired, with kind eyes, in his mid sixties, has one son and four daughters in their thirties and forties. One only, the youngest, is married, but the husband had left her. She has two children: a boy of ca. 8 and a girl of 5. The son, married, has his own life and does not support the father. All these ladies, not expecting any more proposals are engaged in sewing table clothes on order, which is their main source of income because the shop does not really provide much: Yousuf sells only a few basic items but no vegetables or fresh stuff.
We left Yousuf and proceeded with our exploration of the city. We then came across an elderly gentleman, dressed in traditional clothes, who invited us to visit his house. “Ahlan, ahlan” said he as we entered. Nothing from outside could have suggested what revealed itself once the threshold passed. Mr. Subeih’s house is absolutely exquisite, built on the traditional pattern: fountain in the middle of the patio, Iwan on the South side, an upper floor basically with the same map. There are thirteen rooms disposed on two floors. We ascended the steep and narrow staircase and once on the first floor, entered what is the drawing room but seemed more like an Ali Baba cave or a museum. A most astonishing place filled up with not-so-precious objects of all sorts from lamps to mirrors, narguilés and swords, crockery, vases, baroque and rococo furniture, and more. “Kullu adim” (all antique) uttered Mr. Subeih time to time. I counted 19 chandeliers hanging on the ceiling and more than 30 lamps affixed on the walls. Coffee was served; strong. “More coffee?”, “No thanks, it is very good” did I reply politely. In Pakistan, I hardly drink tea, how would this concentrate of caffeine act on me?
Mr. Subeih took us then to the adjacent room; another museum. It is Mr. Subeih’s hobby, his pride, to have collected all these items all through his life. He is a collectioneur. I inquired if he had inherited them. “No, all from my own efforts and interest”. Rugs, frames, paintings, samovars et j’en passe. Mr. Subeih is a merchant and though he seemed to be free and have time to show us these wonderful things he had collected over half a century, he appeared to be still active in his trade. He has done quite a bit of travelling in his life, around the Middle East including two Hajjs. He could tell us of the world and how this world had changed and evolved. Yet, our Arabic was inadequate to carry on further and complex inquiries. We went to the roof from where one could see the citadel and the whole city. “Shukran, baytik halu jidda”: (you have a beautiful house) complimented we in our rudimentary words. Before leaving, we greeted Madame Subeih who stood respectfully at a distance and an old man whom we had noticed earlier when he had brought water to us and then coffee.
Back into the street, we carried the amazement with us, astonished by the fact that behind these sober and unpretentious mud walls, there could be gardens and fountains providing a cool atmosphere; places of delight and serenity. The Qur’ân brings repeatedly descriptions of Paradise in the form of a garden; by the way, what came first, the garden or Paradise? How has this influenced the Arab world and to a certain extend the rest of the Muslim world?
Further on, I noticed Shahana had stopped and was passing a door. It was a workshop in a cellar where a dozen of boys aged between 10 and 20 were sewing pajamas or nighties for ladies. Pink, salmon, pastel green. Alan -perhaps 25- was the man in charge. He offered Shahana a peach-colour pajama. “Hadia”(Gift) said he. Now, Shahana was really beginning to like the Halebis: kind people, hospitable and definitely friendly. We reached Bab al Maqam and since there was a falafel shop at the corner, we decided it was time for a light lunch. Delicious, fresh, inexpensive, nutritive falafel sandwiches, …yummy! Leaving this place, we heard the adhan and went to the mosque at the end of the street where we prayed the salat Zoher. It was an ancient mosque with a beautiful patio and a pool in the middle, cool arcades and trees. As we were leaving, a man came running after us and gave us fresh bread. Upon our inquest, he pointed the person who had sent the bread. That person came forward and then invited us to enter his shop. Ice-creams followed. Noé was now installed in front of a TV monitor, playing ‘Mortal Kombat’. Tea was served. With our limited language, we managed to develop a semblance of conversation. Waleed Tawil sells school-bags and school-uniforms. All these were covered with dust. The shop was grim and dusty. There were three small TV monitors with Play Station Joy-sticks and that was his real business; what he was actually living of. At that moment, there weren’t any customers. Noé was really enjoying; he wouldn’t leave. Waleed wouldn’t let us go either. It was like Hotel California. (Remember the song?) It was now hot outside. Sightseeing often turns into a job. Seen: tick it. Visited: tick it. I have seen this, I have ‘done’ that. So what? We want to see a country and we end up surveying monuments which soon will become a mixture in our memory. Another aspect of travelling: when going to places, it later feels like they belong to you. You’ve left your imprint. Some people even carve graffiti. ‘Ian was here’. ’ Bruce loves Terry’ in the middle of a heart. A date, a cryptic sign, a secret mark, something, it is hoped, archeologists at some future point in time will study. Oh! And don’t forget to take a picture in front of the place! Something to show, something to tell the guys home, the proofs.
“Eat chips” says Waleed. I am back in the shop; to reality. I survey again the shop, the bags hanging on my left with fading names printed on, the blue uniforms on my right protected by plastic covers, sky blue for boys, pink for girls. Noé is now becoming an expert in this video game. Well, it seems. Next door, there is a shop where Waleed’s son, Muhammad, repairs and fixes computers. He knows a lot about computers but doesn’t speak English except ‘delete, start, save, download, file, click’ and a few more. Ahlan wa sahlan! I am now sitting in this shop. The décor is different, I proceed to study it. A TV is showing some American action movies, the sort which does not require much knowledge of English: ‘bing, bang, ****, ouch, kazoom’, etc. I realize I can ask Muhammad to download the pictures from my digital camera which he promptly does. I want to pay him, but his answer is “friend”. Muhammad is now my friend.
Westerners need a lot of time to say ‘you’re my friend’. The procedure in the East is simplified.
We left Waleed and his son, to their disappointment, assuring them we were coming back and we moved toward the Citadel. Despite the heat –it was the middle of the day- we were here as tourists and tourists must we be! At the ticket entrance, Shahana tried to delay the ordeal by chatting with the guides, a way to improve her Arabic. Once in the Qal3a, our laziness was gone. It’s definitely a place to see, even if one is not much bent on history or archeology. Noé, first class traveler, was ahead, running and enjoying every nooks and corners of this vast fort. He even followed his dad into the deepest, creepiest dungeons and underground geols. There are two mosques inside the citadel. At the Ibrahim Mosque, there was a hose; Noé stripped and I gave him a shower. Now fresh and happy, he led the way to the walls from where the view of Aleppo is 360 º perfect! It was hot but Shahana was doing well. I knew however, she wouldn’t be fine if the visit had to last too long and yet there was so much to see. Many Arab tourists who had got in after us were already gone.

The mount of the Citadel, was first a graveyard in Hittite times. The existence of defense fortifications dating from the10th century BC has been revealed. The size of the citadel is impressive: at the base: 450 x325 m and at the top, 50 meters higher, 285 x 160 m. I was first built by Sayf ud Daula in the 10th century, enlarged and improved by Noor udDin Zangi in the 12th century and then Sultan Zahir al Hgazi.
In the Mamluk era Sayf udDin Jakam refurbished the citadel and built the fortified gateway. During the Ottoman era, the Citadel lost its importance. It suffered extensive damages in the 1828 earthquake. Since the ’70, restoration work is going apace.
Inside the citadel, one can see the Ayyubi Palace, the Amphitheater still being used today, the Weapons' Hall, the Byzantine Hall, the Throne Hall, the Ibrahim Mosque, the Musa Mosque hammams, barracks

From the citadel we went to the souqs, seven kilometers of them which we never completed. Being a covered market, it has the advantage to be cool in summer and warm and dry in winter. It’s perhaps the finest bazaar in the Orient, with things pretty much the same as in the past with a commercial activity comparable to that of former times. You can see traditional goods but also the mass-produced, industrial items for everyday use you might find on all the continents.
We reached Khan Kheirbay and we sat near a tea stall. A fellow called Khalid who runs the tea stall was eating and he invited Noé to share his plate of fool (fava beans). Noé who was hungry accepted eagerly the offer which was only meant to be formal. Khalid told us he has a brother in Cyprus and a sister in Germany.
If you keep on walking in the souq, you’ll certainly come to the Jami al Kabir at the centre of the souq and that’s where we now were, without having asked directions. There, we prayed salat al 3asr and salat al Maghrib. The place was full of children playing and women chattering. This mosque was made to rival in beauty and size the grand mosque built by the caliph al Walid in Damascus. The aim was not attained but the result is nevertheless splendid. One particularity of this mosque is that it contains a relic of Prophet Zachariah (PBUH), but this discovery came late and the matter seems doubtful. Nevertheless, the mazhar does attract a certain amount of visitors. Before Maghrib, I went with Noé to the hotel to fetch the cord for the digital camera so that Muhammad Tawil could download the pictures.
We were back to Waleed’s shop. Waleed asked us if we would like to see his house. I imagined he lived either upstairs or in the neighbourhood. We accepted. They closed the shops, and loaded with provisions, we walked toward Bab al Maqam (which is in the south of the old city) from where we boarded a taxi. When we passed Bab al Faraj (SW), I began to wonder how far we had to go, but the car was heading for the motorway. We reached a roundabout at the southern end of the city where we turned right. And we drove on, until we had passed most of the newly constructed area called al Jadid. We were at least ten kilometers away from the centre of the city. The building in front of which the taxi stopped was chic and well-designed and so were the stair case and the flat. I could sense that people had interest, keeping on with the traditions of architecture and stone carving, something now lost in Hyderabad, a city which had been an example for the whole of India, and we talk of only eighty years ago!
There was hardly any match between the somehow shabby shop and this beautiful, luxury flat. How could this be? We were trying to assess how this man could earn enough to afford this sumptuous home. He doesn’t sell much the bags and the uniforms, as he admitted and instead earns from the video games business. Could this be sufficient? The installments of the flat were paid, and he also mentioned that business used to be better in former days. Dinner was served. Delectable dishes were spread, most of them now known to us: Hommos, Baba Ghanoosh, Badinjan Mutabbal, Fatayir, Pizzas, chicken and more.
It was getting late and we bade them good night. Waleed dropped us at the main road and even paid the taxi fare in advance. When was it last we had met such a kind and noble man? Parda was strict; I never met the womenfolk and Shahana reported to me her experience and observation from behind the ‘curtain’.
Waleed’s wife is called 3ahad. They have two sons, the elder one works in Damascus as a journalist and Mohammad in the computer shop. They have three daughters; one married and living in Riyadh, Heba studying English in university and one in class 10.

Day Fourteen 070621 Thu Aleppo

Bab Faraj, Jadideh, Madrassa Halawiyeh, Madrassa Firdous, Masjid Adliyeh, Masjid at Tuleh,

We stayed in bed rather later recalling the events of the previous day and also to allow Noé to sleep as long as possible. We were aware that we were imposing a tough rhythm on the lad. Eventually we went down to a maT3am on the other side of the street to eat fool and hommos. We then walked to the extra-muros part of Aleppo called Jdeideh because it had been, in the 19th century, a new city where Christians had settled. It has therefore a particular cachet. It was now midday and Shahana, feeling tired and apprehensive of the heat, chose to return to the hotel. At 3asr, we went out to the Great Mosque; we then visited the Madrassa Halawiyeh, and again went to Waleed’s shop. Waleed brought tea and chips. From there, we went in the company of Jamal, a fellow from Waleed’s neighbourhood, to Madrassa Firdous. “Hek, hek” (here, here) kept on saying Jamal to warn us of dangers on the way: cars, donkey-carts, crossing streets and stuff. At maghrib, we went to the Khoswaniyeh Mosque near Waleed’s shop. Waleed gave a present to Noé: a ‘Brick Game’. Noé can’t really understand the game but it makes sounds and he is happy to have got something. Hek… Well, Jamal is perhaps ‘slightly’ mentally retarded but he certainly is a sweet fellow. Next, we visited Jami3 3adliyeh which is perhaps one of my favourites in Aleppo. I also like the small but very pretty and also quite ancient mosque at Antakiya Gate (name?). We had dinner at Bab al Faraj in a Turkish restaurant. There was rice and bamiyeh (okra, lady-fingers). Noé said “Mom, this is food”. Noé is a conservative fellow; he likes the regular mani-bor of his home and he is not much adventurous when it comes to new outlandish, weird dishes.

I often wonder when I look at tourists how much they’ll remember of all the sights they’ve visited. It’s like a huge smörgåsbord, you’ve paid for it and you’ve got to indulge in it until you become sick. We should not generalize though: the tourists come into different classes and categories. There is a world of difference between the lonely backpacker on a four-month vacation trip who calls himself a traveler and the one-week package trip tourist staying in ghetto holidays resorts, unloaded from air-conditioned busses and overrunning archaeological sites and mosques in the most stupefying gear. In between, there is just about every combination of sightseers and visitors. Some come to learn the language and the customs of the land, others have come to make friends, and some have come for the fun or just to be away from their rainy country. They are a few who write their experiences (☺) and put it on a web page or in a book.
Anyhow, it’s a bit late to be a Sir Aurel, a Richard Burton or a Lawrence of Arabia.
Be sure of one thing, if you see a franchised fast-food restaurant in the town you’re visiting, you’re probably too late!

Day Fifteen 070622 Fri Aleppo, Deir Sam3an

Deir Sam3an (St Simeon), Shahana at Waleed’s and I at his shop, Madrassa al Bahramiyeh, Madrassa Ahmadiyeh, Naser Gate

Waleed arrived at Funduq Al Andalus at 7:30 AM. In a flash, we were ready. Noé got hold of the situation; a minute earlier, he had been in his dreams and now he was being carried in empty streets toward the bus station. We passed the deserted vegetable market where only one shop was opening. Waleed bought loads of bananas. Chiquita, mind you. Have you heard of the US embargo on Syria? There are actually more American automobiles in the streets of Damascus than in any city of France). A van was leaving for Deir Ezza, and after bargaining for the fare to Deir Sam3an, we boarded the vehicle. A passenger boarded our van with a piece of bread and a milky beverage. Next, I found myself having his breakfast. (It never happened to me when I was travelling in Europe!
We enjoyed greatly the place of St Simeon. I was thinking that it was once a place of pilgrimage just as we have now in Sindh: people flocking at mazhars, asking the saint for favours. Saint Simeon had been here on his pillar and there had been thousands and thousands of people making their way to him in his lifetime. Once he had departed from this world, people came in even greater numbers and the authorities, who had never much approved of this fuss, built a cathedral, the remains of which we can see today. It was the largest cathedral in the world, bearing the stamp of the Empire.
The column is gone but its base remains where now Noé stood (see pic).
Simeon chose to withdraw from the world. Did he succeed? The view from where he stood is commending over a magnificent fertile plain bound to the North by the first ranges of the Taurus Mountains. I could see what he saw most of his life.

We took a van down to Deir ‘Azza from where we caught the regular ‘service’ to Aleppo. Waleed dropped Shahana and Noé at the house and we went to the shop. It was soon time for the Friday prayer and I wanted to be at the Great Mosque, something not easy to understand for Waleed. The sermon was uttered in a clear and fine Arabic (al-fusHa) and I was able to understand elements of it. I returned to the shop and after a while spent with Waleed, being sufficiently bored watching the kids playing virtual football and Mortal Kombat, I left again to explore more of Aleppo though it was rather deserted since the shops were closed. I visited the Madrassa Bahramiyeh, the Madrassa Ahmadiyeh, a Franciscan convent (name?), met a boy, Mustafa, who was eager to speak English. He accompanied me around and than walked me toward Qanasreen Gate where an uncle of his makes imitation of antique stone articles for foreigners, mostly Americans. I took a few pictures in the workshop. We parted and I decided to complete the visit of Jdeideh. I returned to the Old City through the Naser Gate. I took rest for a while in the Great Mosque before going back to the shop. Waleed was wondering what I could possibly do walking around in the city. I sat outside enjoying the goings-on of the lane. The shopkeepers were engaged in conversations. For a whole hour, I didn’t see any customers in their shops besides Waleed’s and the sugar-candy man’s.
Muhammad and Waleed finally closed their shops and we took a taxi home. Noé had spent much of his time in front of the computer. Shahana had been talking with 3ahad and her daughters. The mental effort to converse in a tongue which you haven’t totally mastered can produce weariness. She had a nap, or rather tried to, in the drawing room. Mrs. Waleed had been busy cooking for the whole afternoon and evening. Shahana pondered how she could be busy continuously with modest results. Mrs. Waleed is very particular with cleanliness: she washes the floor thrice a day. Doubtlessly, the house is impeccable and absolutely spotless.
I never met Mrs. Waleed and everything was reported by Shahana. For Mrs. Waleed, female segregation (parda) is an essential part of the Islamic law, but what about her daughter who studies in the university to become an interpreter? Where do the Muslims, the world over, find these decrees and regulations? They will tell you: in the Holy Qur’an and in the ahadith. Frankly, I am still looking for them!
God made things easy for man in the Qur’an and man added complications to their religion.
Dinner was served, gorgeous and mouth-watering. So many dishes were served that a mouthful of each would in the end result in overeating which became the case. Particularly heavy, but delicious nevertheless, was a warm dish composed of rice, meat, dry fruit and other stuff. Shahana told me it was cooked with lumps of animal fat.

Day Sixteen 070623 Sat Aleppo to Tartus via Latakia

We spent the night at Waleed’s. In the morning he came along to drop us at the bus station. We took the bus to Latakieh. The journey to Latakieh was great: we passed though a number of small mountain ranges. The landscape was becoming greener as we were proceeding westwards. At Latakieh, we took a bus to Tartus and reached there at 2:30 PM. We were disappointed: it looked more of a commercial port than a holiday resort. We took our lunch (pizza) in an air-conditioned restaurant and check in at ‘Ambassadors Hotel’ (room 114) (Funduq as-Safarâ’). View to the sea, balcony, a/c, hot and cold water, clean bed-sheets.
We took one of the boats plying between Tartus and the island of Arwad, two miles away. Arwad was hot, sweating hot. Arwad isn’t much today but it has a fantastic history. It is in fact older than Tartus which developed as the extension of Arwad. Its history goes all the way back to 2000 BC when it was a Phoenician maritime base. A part of the Phoenician wall is still standing. Arwad’s warriors are mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel). The crusaders (Knights Templar) occupied it and made it a fortress. It was their last foothold in the Levant when they retreated to Cyprus in 1303.
In the evening, passing by a hall, we stopped a while watching a wedding party. Coming back from dinner, we asked a taxi driver to take us the next day to the Krak des Chevaliers.

Day Seventeen 070624 Sun
Tartus, Safita, Krak des Chevaliers , Homs, Damascus

Hussam, the taxi driver, came to our hotel at 7:30 AM as convened. We first drove to Safita, ca. 30 kilometers from Tartus, which is his home town. Hussam is an Alawi. The people of Safita are Christian with a few Alawis in their midst. We visited the keep which has been converted into a church (Greek Orthodox). Mass was going on, we sat there observing reverentially the strange rituals. The crusaders called the place Chastel Blanc. Safita is marvelously positioned on two hills, or rather a hill with two tops, commending an excellent view of the surroundings. The hills were green though it was the dry season. In Lebanon and Syria, it rains in winter; from November to April.
We left the town and after a couple of kilometers, we stopped for tea and tanoor bread (flat bread baked in oven with herbs) at a tanoor (oven) by a river. Three elderly women were attending this business. Two were baking while one minding the terrace where people eat and drink. One will almost certainly never find in Pakistan a place like a tea shop/bakery run by women. The bridge nearby was built by the French and indeed, it looks French just as the view around us.
The twisting road took us through a most enchanting hilly land, planted with olive trees but also with all sort of fruit trees. We passed a Turcoman village (name?) which probably hasn’t changed for centuries.
There are two main ways to get to the Krak; at a fork, we took to the left and later we were to return the other way. We stopped at St. Georgios Monastery which is less than five kilometers from the Krak.
The Krak is surrounded by a Muslim town. East of this town, the population is predominantly Muslim whereas the area between the Krak and the sea is predominantly Christian. One understands at once why a fortress was built here. There had always been a military presence from immemorial times; the place commands the Homs Gap which links the interior of Syria with the Mediterranean coast. Indeed, the Krak is the most intelligently built fort in the world. Today, it is a World Heritage Site. Noé was particularly happy to explore it, though he began to show signs of tiredness at the end of the visit. The strategic position of the place was enhanced where the crusaders invaded the Levant. Prince Tancred won the Krak and some time later, it was given to the Knights Hospitallers who improved the fortress which had been originally built by the emir of Aleppo and garrisoned by Kurdish troops, hence the name ‘Krak’, from Husn al Akrad = fortress of the Kurds. The Hospitallers made it their headquarter. Between its thirteen towers and two concentric walls, there are ca. 3000 square meters of rooms, dwellings, stables, stores, corridors, underground passages, tanks, bridges, a chapel/mosque and a large yard. Up to 2000 soldiers, 60 horsemen and their equipment could live and sustain a five-year siege. Neither Noor ud Din nor his nephew Salah ud Din could take it. It was in fact taken by trick by Sultan Beybars in 1271 after a one-month struggle.
We had refreshments at the local cafeteria inside the fort and than boarded our taxi. We asked Hussam to leave us at Safita from where we took a bus to Homs.
In the Homs-bound bus, Shahana engaged in a conversation with

Shahana did not like Homs; it is a modern city. We visited the Mosque of Khalid bin Walid where Khalid bin Walid’s tomb is located. At seven, we took the bus (a luxury one this time) to Damascus which we reached two and half hours later.
In the evening, we went for dinner to a pizzeria on Baghdad Street.

Day Eighteen 070625 Mon Damascus

A day spent home, resting. Shahana spoke on the phone to Akhtar and Shahzaib. News of Hyderabad: the wet weather, Sojhro and stuff.
Yes, even during the vacations, you need a break!

Day Nineteen 070626 Tue Damascus, Palmyra

The Arch of Triumph and the Straight Street, the temple of Nebo, the Agora, the Amphitheater, the Tetrapylon, Qal3at ibn Ma3n

The bus left at 10:15 AM. We reached Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) at 1 PM. The bus dropped us in front of Funduq Faris. Mohammad, the owner of the hotel grabbed one of our suitcases to secure us as customers –it was almost a kidnap- and put us in room 106. In between, we ‘discussed’ the price of the room. The hotel was spacious and clean but rather remote to the centre of the town and the archeological site: 600 meters. To palliate to this inconvenient, a car was to take us to wherever and whenever we would need it. The weather, though hot, was quite bearable due to the dry air and if one avoids the midday heat, it’s fine to visit this place even in summer. Resourceful Muhammad recommended us a restaurant in town, The Pancake House. His car took us there. The food - chicken and rice - was insipid, the kind you eat in hospitals. One should not be fooled by the look of the restaurant, the smile and graces of the owner or the stickers on the window, because it wasn’t really worth what we paid for but the bellies were satisfied. The car hadn’t been that free after all! I chatted for a short while with a German tourist, Tomas, who was sitting with the owner of the opposite restaurant, learning Arabic. “Kenavo!” (Hello in Breton) said Muhammad, the restaurant owner. In a very fast French, he enumerated all the languages he could speak which included Japanese (700 words) and Breton (one). In the evening, I returned to this restaurant. He ushered us up a narrow stairway (or was it a ladder?) but Shahana was not pleased by the décor: a Bedouin tent set up on the top of the building too dark inside to identify the food. Sorry, even though the “Guide du Routard” recommends it.
It was 6 PM when we started visiting the ruins of Palmyra. Both Shahana and Noé enjoyed it and so did I. I explained to them what I knew of this place and its history.
Palmyra, already mentioned in Assyrian record 2000 BC, grew as a city of considerable importance as it became a place of halt for caravans on the East-West route i.e. from Iraq to the Mediterranean coast carrying goods from India and China for the European market. Eventually it became a power to be reckoned with. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a vassal state with extensive autonomy. When Queen Zenobia came into power upon the demise of her husband, she challenged Rome for the supremacy of the East. Palmyra was eventually defeated and Queen Zenobia taken to Rome in gold chains. Upon a second revolt, Rome did not show more clemency and Palmyra was destroyed. Eventually rebuilt, its history continues till the beginning of the Muslim era but the heydays were gone.
What the visitors can see is what remains of a whole city which became later abandoned. One can therefore try to recreate in one’s imagination what it could have been. You have a main avenue lines with columns, from which cloth covers like tents provided shade.
A trip to Syria without seeing Palmyra is incomplete. In fact, there are people who go to Syria just to see it. Indeed, Palmyra is one of the places of the world one should visited, even if not much versed in history or archeology. And here is found the largest concentration of Homo Touristis in the country, reporting to duty: Homo Touristis Gallicus, Homo Touristis Nipponis, Homo Touristis Britannicus, Homo Toutistis Scandinavicus also called Homo Touristis Vikingus, Homo Toutistis Italicus, Homo Touristis Slavicus, Homo Touristis Arabicus et cetera.
They are here at the Arch of Triumph, armed with their tools: cameras, guide books, maps, solar cream, bottles of water, sunglasses. Don’t mess with these guys; there’re here for serious business!
I am watching the incessant commerce going on between the tourists in search of something and the residents (Homo Sedentaris Localis) who live of the tourist trade: camel drivers, post-card sellers, taxi drivers, guides, souvenir sellers, etc.

At 7:00 a friend of Muhammad from Hotel Farsi came to fetch us to take us the Qal3at al Ma3n which dominates the plain of Palmyra. We visited the fort and we were in time to watch the sun set. We returned down and at night we engaged conversation with a family from Latakiyeh. Shahana soon guessed she was dealing with Alawis. They appeared pleased to be identified as such. We also met, while returning to the city for dinner, a group of young girls who wanted to invite us to their home.

New Tadmor comprises a main street meant for tourists complete with hotels, restaurants, souvenirs and antiques shops and behind a normal town for normal people. It is laid on a grid map. Though it is neat, clean and well-planned, it apparently offers little to the visitor. Well, that’s where we went to eat a shawarma. (I’m not sure but it seems that the word ‘visitor’ is used in the USA for tourist.)Another particularity of Tadmor, 90 % of the cars are Mercedes-Benz, most of them from the 50s and the 60s. Antiquity calls antiquity! It must have been Queen Zenobia’s preferred car!

Day Twenty 070627 Wed Palmyra, Damascus

Diocletus Camp, Valley of the Tombs, Temple of Baal, Temple of Baal-Shamin

We got up at 5 AM, and half an hour later we were heading to the ruins to continue our tour. Noé, very forbearing, was emerging from his sleep. Crossing the race course, we reached the ALLAT TEMPLE, and then the DIOCLETUS CAMP. We proceeded to the VALLEY OF THE TOMBS and visited a few tombs. After that, we walked back toward the ARCH OF TRIUMPH. We were too early for the visit of the BAAL TEMPLE and so we decided to take breakfast in town. Fool and hommos mutabbal at a non-tourists outlet. The temple opened at nine. We found it very interesting and very close to the layout of the Ka3ba, quite understandably since this civilization was Semitic. It consists of a building (cella) in the middle of a large area, a place for ablution and one for the sacrifice of animals. Circumbulation (tawaf) of the ‘cella’ was part of the rituals.
We then visit the TEMPLE OF BEL-SHAMIN. Baal Shamin was the main god of the Phoenician, the lord of the skies.
At 10:10, we left and returned to the hotel by rickshaw (rather similar to those we’ve got home). At 11:15, we were in the bus to Damascus and two hours later in Damascus.

Day Twenty One 070628 Thu Damascus, Beirut

Syrianair Office, embassies, Baramkeh, Fanar

In the whole trip, this is the day I feel less pleasure relating its events.
Around 9 in the morning, I went to the office of Syrianair to reconfirm our journey to Jeddah. One is supposed to do this at least 72 hours before departure or before; I still had a week to do it. The employee checked our passports and found out that we did not have a valid visa for the 6th of July as our visas were expiring on that day, the 28th of June. I explained that my travel agent had arranged a tour which includes hotels and trips for Umrah but she told me, quite correctly, that she had no concern with it. She could not reconfirm the ticket unless we had valid visas. They were valid for one month and had been delivered on the 28th of May. I immediately tried to get seats for the same day, but that flight was arriving at Jeddah at 2 AM, two hours after the expiry of our visa. She suggested I should try to contact the Saudi authorities to solve the matter.
I took a taxi and went to the Saudi embassy, they told to go to the Saudi consulate in Mazeh. At the consulate, after waiting a long time out in the sun as there are no waiting room but the pavement, I tried to explain the matter to the officer, a rather stubborn fellow not particularly fluent in English, who kept on telling me that “my friend, I cannot do anything for you, go to Karachi”. I tried every possible and reasonable arguments, but none worked. He even told me not to mix Islam with these technical affairs, to which I answered that in Islam, every matter of the world is related. I stopped as I realized I was only reinforcing the guy –his name is Nawaf- in his ego. I returned home and explained Shahana the whole story. We immediately left for the office of Syrianair, but we were told again there was no way we could board the plane without a valid visa. We then went to the embassy of KSA and she managed to talk, inside, to an officer, Muhammad, who was friendlier. He suggested that we obtain a letter from the embassy of Pakistan but that it could only be submitted when the embassy would reopen on Sunday morning. We then went to the embassy of Pakistan, situated in Mazeh as most diplomatic missions are. With some difficulty, we found it and as we were now tired and feeling helpless, the sight of the Pakistani flag brought us a certain relief; there could be someone in there who could lend a compassionate hear. The receptionist, a Syrian lady smoking like a factory, told us between two puffs, that there weren’t anybody to help but someone else advised us to sit down. After waiting a short while in the waiting room, we were led to an office on the upper floor. I understood that the man in front of me wasn’t the ambassador but that nevertheless, he must be important. He was the counselor. He looked at me mysteriously and than asked me my name. I would rather expect an introduction in the style of ‘what can I do for you?”. I said “Aly”. “Yes, but before” he asked. “Philippe”. “Than, you must know Pasha.” was his reply. Arif Pasha is like family to me and I lived for a considerable time in his house. He is in fact very instrumental for my being now in Hyderabad. “Yes, I answered”. He then went on to explain that he was related to that house and that we had met in the 70s. Eventually, he had left Hyderabad in the 80s. He said he knew me well; he remembered me, but I still don’t. The letter which I needed could then be written, but as a favour. A favour, because the man who normally does this work wasn’t present, but I would have just to wait half an hour and the work would be done. Tea was served and small talk followed. He told us about his postings and a bit of his life. I kept on watching the clock: we had a rendez-vous with George at 3:05 PM at Baramkeh, where the Beirut-bound taxis stand. I told this to Mr. Waleed and he offered us to use of the phone. We informed George we might be a bit late. We got the letter, and thanked Mr. Waleed and the staff who had been entertaining Noé with ice-cream and biscuits. We left in a car provided by the counselor. We collected our luggage from home and quickly made it to Baramkeh. There was the usual traffic jam around Hijaz Railway Station but we got to Baramkeh at 3:20. George was there and the taxi waiting. Once luggage checked and passports registered, we left for Beirut. An old man, not Haytham the regular driver, was driving. Forty five minutes later, we were at the Syrian border where the traffic was fluent. At the Lebanese border though, 5 or 7 kilometers further, there were lots of vehicles. The reason was the closing of the other entry points due to the current events in Lebanon at Nahar al Bared. There are four entry points between Syria and Lebanon. It took us about an hour to be clear. Another hour and we were in Fanar. We decided to put the visa matter ‘behind’ and enjoy our second stay in Lebanon. Noé was looking forward to playing with Marinus and Marie-Nour. Besides, he could watch ‘Mr. Bean’ on the computer.

Day Twenty Two 070629 Fri Fanar, Ba3lbek, Al Qateen

A Birthday Party and a Wedding

At 8 AM Haytham, George’s ‘regular’ taxi driver, arrived and had coffee with us while we were finishing breakfast. At 8:30, we left for Baalbek driving the same way we had come from Syria until we reached the Bekaa Valley where we turned left, that is northwards, at Chtaura. We skirted Zahlé and drove through the Shi3a strongholds. The country was beautiful and the soil looked rich but the towns had less glamour than the Christian ones and the streets were less tidy.
Eventually, we reached Baalbek. We drove into the town before stopping at the ruins. George showed us around and gave us plenty of information.
The Phoenicians built a temple for the worship of Baal around 2000 BC. By then the place had been inhabited for over a millennium as excavations have given evidence.
In 15 BC, Baalbek became a Roman colonia and was renamed Heliopolis. The complex built by the Romans in 62 AD consisted of three temples dedicated to the worship of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. The largest is the temple of Jupiter of which six huge columns remains and the best preserved is the temple of Bacchus, something surprising if we consider that it lies in a seismic zone and that many armies through the centuries have passed by.
On the way back, we stopped for refreshments at Chtaura, and at 3 PM we were back to Beirut (Fanar).
At 7 PM, we left for the mountains. On the way, we picked up the birthday cake from a famous sweetmeat and pastry cook, Sea Sweets. We didn’t go to Hiyata but stopped before at al Qateen. The celebration was to take place at the Asaf Restaurant. After a while Nawal’s mother, Maria arrived with Chadia, one of her sisters. They were soon followed by the rest of the family: her elder sister, Hélène, her husband Edouard and their two daughters, Layla and Maria, and than her sister Nidale, her husband Elie and son Anthony and daughter Sarah. Nawal’s brother could not come as he had work at the university where he teaches. We all had a great time; we danced and we enjoyed an opulent dinner. We were pleased to be introduced to George’s Lebanese family and it is probably the best part of our trip!
There was also a wedding going on and for this purpose, the whole restaurant had been booked. It was a chance for us to see a wedding though we had had a glance of one at Tartus. At 12:00 AM. we parted and returned to Beirut.

Day Twenty Three 070630 Sat Beirut, Saida, Al Chouf

Corniche, West Beirut, South Beirut , Saida: Old Town, Khan al Franj, Sea Castle, Deir al Qamar, Beit eddin, the Chouf

At 7:30 AM the “Charlie Taxi’ was at the door and we immediately left. We drove along the Corniche, passed West Beirut, stopped at the Pigeons Rock, then drove along the beach in the South of Beirut, passed the southern Shi3a suburbs and drove under the Airport runway. The sea was on our right and to the left we could see banana plantations and citrus fruit orchards. Encroached by the beach, an abandoned railway track run parallel to the road. We passed Damour and finally reached Saida 50 kms from Beirut.
There, we visited the Sea Castle (Qasr al Bahr) built by the crusaders, the Khan al Franj built by Fakhruddin II in 1690, the Old Town and the souq.
We had lunch (fish sandwiches, salad and fresh orange juices) at a café by the port.
Saida is the home of late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Many posters and billboards were rendering him homage.
We then took the direction of the Chouf following the Damour Valley. These mountains located south of Beirut are mostly inhabited by the Druze. We first stopped at Deir al Qamar, a former seat of the governor of Lebanon which includes beautiful and well preserved buildings reflecting typical Lebanese architecture. The Mosque of Fakhr uddin is the most outstanding edifice. The town is surrounded by green hills and endowed by a wonderful climate. A little further ahead lies Qasr Musa, a kitsch castle built by a wealthy man who had assembled in his life time enough objects and artifacts to create a museum. We did not visit it though. We reached Beit ed Din, the palace of Emir Bechir el Chehabi, built in early 19th century. I was quite impressed by its exquisite architecture and lay-out as well as its gardens and the view commanding over the valley.
We continued East and then North through the Chouf until we reached the Damascus-Beirut road. At 3:30 PM, we were back home.

Day Twenty Four 070701 Sun Fanar, Damascus

Return to Damascus, embassies, George’s office

We got up at 5:30 and at 6:30 we were rolling back to Syria. The Lebanese border was busy due to events at Nahr el Bared (Palestinian camp near Tripoli). Haytham left us at Omayyad Square; Lebanese taxis are not allowed to drive here and there in Syria but only on the particularly designed route to Baramkeh. We took a taxi and dropped George at his office on Malki Street. We then went to the Saudi embassy to submit the letter written by the Pakistan embassy. We received a number tag and were told to come back after two days. We walked back to George’s office where we had a cup of tea. It was nice to see the place where George works and to meet his colleagues. One of his co-workers even appreciated the disturbance; Noé was asking things thus producing a pleasant diversion. We then went to Syrianair office to reschedule our trip: we wanted to stay a week in Syria on our way back from Umrah (20 to 27/07). We had lunch (Shawarma) at Bab al Bareed. We spent some time in the Omayyad Mosque after salat zohar and went back home. After a nap, we returned to the Omayyad Mosque for 3asr. We are still tired, and we were aware that we were putting Noé under stress. He shows a remarkable aptitude to ever changing situations though at time he gets angry, but we do understand him. Noé is quite aware of geographical changes and we constantly inform him of our travelling intentions. We tell him our plans, warn him of eventual hardships, and we request him for cooperation. In this manner, he feels responsible and assists his mother.
We keep our fingers crossed until we get the KSA visas.

Day Twenty Five 070702 Mon Damascus

Salhiyeh, Mohyuddin Mosque, Ruknuddin Mosque, al Hamidiyeh, al Hamidiyeh Mosque

At 9 AM, we left for the Salhiyeh Quarter. It is an area located at the foot of the Qassioun Mountain. Salhiyeh used to be a separate township in the neighbourhood of Damascus. It was developed by separate waves of refugees. It is now in the near-central part of Damascus. This area distinguishes itself by a particular history and an abundance of historical building, often not maintained properly. It is also less frequented by tourists. Besides the numerous madrassas and mosques, one can visit the well-known Jami3 Selimi which includes the tomb of Sheikh al Kabir Muhyuddin Abū `Abd-Allah Muḥammad ibn Ali al-`Arabi al-Ḥātimī al-Ṭā’ī.

Leaving Salihiyeh, we took a bus to al Hamadiyeh. There is a mosque in this souq, not so interesting architecturally but nevertheless attractive, where we prayed. We had lunch at Bab al Bareed, and than sat in the Omayyad Mosque.

Day Twenty Six 070703 Tue Damascus


We went to the KSA embassy where we were told we had to go to the consulate. Why did he tell us: “come back in two days”? It implied at the same place. Obviously, we had here a language communication problem. We took a taxi to Mazeh. At the consulate, Shahana was told they hadn’t received any response. We were told to come back after five days. We got no assurance that in five days, things would be solved. We went to the Pakistan embassy and met Waheed Ahmed and then went back home. On the way, we picked up shawarmas in al Qazazeen. Noé and I went to pray at al Jauza. I went alone for Maghrib prayer to the Omayyad Mosque. We walked in the Old City in the evening and prayed 3isha’ at the Omayyad Mosque.

Mazeh is the equivalent of Defence Housing Society in Karachi, except that it is more affordable and better planned. Though it is a semi-posh area, I would not fancy living there.

Day Twenty Seven 070704 Wed Damascus

Embassies, Malki Street

We tried to call the consulate of KSA but without avail. We took a taxi and once there, Shahana stood in the queue. She had told me to stand aside and let her handle the talk. She was told to wait. I was standing with Noé in the shade of a tree watching the comings and goings of people who did not seem to apply for tourist visas. At last, the officer, the same guy whom I mentioned earlier, -Nawaf- returned with a negative answer. Shahana argued and implored. He then saw me standing near Shahana and realized her matter and mine had been the same. His tone became harsh. Nothing could be done. He said he had tried his best and that now we had to leave. As a last resort –someone could come up and say we hadn’t tried enough- we went to the KSA embassy and spoke to the officer, Muhammad, the polite one. He apologized for not being able to do more. Upon our insistence, he agreed to talk to a higher officer. He might have lied just to get rid of us. We went to George’s office which is ten minutes away. Shahana spoke to Waheed, the counselor at the Pakistan embassy and reported the talks and I sent an email to the travel agent in Hyderabad. (Travel Zone, Thandi Sarak). We all went for lunch.
At 2 PM, we returned to the KSA embassy. The final answer was negative. (…)
Their arguments were: “Why did you come to Syria?”, “Why do you have an expired visa?” (Back to square one), “I have done by best”,” It is God’s will”,” It’s better for you because you would perhaps be in more trouble if you had got a visa”.
We left dejected.
Next, we were sitting at the Syrianair office rescheduling our tickets. Seats were booked and reconfirmed for Karachi on the 10th.
We walked to al Hamadiyeh and prayed in the mosque there. From there we went to handicrafts shops. We took a taxi home.
George arrived at about the same time. We talked about the events of the day and began preparing the trip to Jordan.

Day Twenty Eight 070705 Thu Damascus to Jordanian Border and Back

Syrian-Jordanian Border

We left home at 9 AM and took a taxi to Sumaraya where the new taxi-stand is now located. It is way out of town and that adds to the cost of travelling, though it helps decongestion the streets. Looking at the new Sumaraya bus stop complex, I wished we’d have something similar to that in Karachi and Hyderabad in future for we are in dire need of it. We sat in a Damascus-Amman taxi (a large yellow Dodge) with two other passengers, a young Syrian lady and a young Kuwaiti man. There was very little talk between passengers till we came close to the Jordanian border. We checked out of Syria and then drove on to the Jordanian border.
Unfortunately, Noé and Shahana could not enter Jordan. The reason is that Noé and Shahana are dual national and had come to Syria on their Pakistani passports and so they had to enter Jordan with the same and visas to Pakistanis are not delivered at the border contrary to European passports. To get rid of us, the Jordanian immigration officers suggested that we should get an exit visa from their Syrian colleagues. We knew it would not work and it did not work, though a few dollars forgotten in the pages of our passport might have solved the matter, but we aren’t in this trade.
A few taxi drivers offered us their services for very hefty fares which we declined, though a group of three young pretty fashionable emancipated Arab girls –a Moroccan, a Saudi and a Syrian- in a similar situation did not hesitate and seized the chance. I decided to wait and soon, rescue came in the shape of a businessman travelling to Damascus. Given that the car was comfortable and its owner friendly, we decided to return to Damascus. When he had distributed a few green bills here and there, we drove on and reached Damascus covering the 120 kms in a little bit more than an hour. This gentleman is an Iraqi national who has established his business in Jordan about three years ago. He is one of the well-to-do Iraqis who have a relatively good life out of Iraq, which is not the case for the vast majority of Iraqi refugees. There are now 1.8 million of them in Syria and perhaps close to a million in Jordan. As a consequence of this rapid influx of refugees, the cost of properties and rents in Damascus have soared considerably. Zaid had a paper products (tissue paper) factory in Baghdad; he now is in the garment business. Zaid is still in the paper business, for he distributes those with George Washington’s portrait on them.
Back to al Qazazeen, we collected a few shawarmas, had our lunch and then a nap.
Al hamdu lillah.

Around 7 PM, we walked toward Bab Touma. We wanted to go to Sayeda Zaynab by van, but I suggested Shahana that we should be going in the afternoon the next day.
When one begins to know a city, travelling becomes cheaper. The problem with visitors is that, not knowing the bus system and the city, they have to rely on taxis who often overcharge them. But when one begins to be at ease with the language and the place, it’s time to leave.
From Bab Touma, we walked randomly till we had reached the Omayyad Mosque. When we were sitting in the sahn (yard) and Noé was playing around, a man and a woman passed by, looking at Noé and/or Shahana. Lots of people look at Noé; he is cute, playful and friendly. They walked two steps back, approached Shahana and asked if she happen to be Pakistani. They introduced themselves and the conversation went on and on until the mosque was closing; we being the last people to pass the door.

Mona has lived eighteen years in Karachi. She speaks Urdu fairly well and Hassan, her son, who was a babe when she had followed her Pakistani husband, is a fluent speaker with a few occasional faults. She has a daughter, Kausar, who is now married and has three children. They both live in Hajar Aswad, in the south of Damascus. Two years before, they returned to Syria. Hassan is a citizen of Pakistan and wants to retain this nationality. However, as a Pakistani national in Syria, he has no rights, no even that of working, even though he is born in Syria and his mother is Syrian.
In Pakistan, Mona was teaching how to read al Qur’an in a Deobandi madrassa. They lived in Lyari with a modest income. Hassan dropped from school and did menial works to supplement to the family income. When Hassan was 16, he returned to Pakistan to complete his studies until matriculation for he could not study in Syria. In 2005, they decided to return to Syria. I haven’t heard him say a word of English during our conversations, something rather frequent with urban Pakistanis. His Arabic –Syrian dialect- is excellent but betrays a life abroad.
Hassan’s father, a Baloch from Lyari, was brought in 1982 by a friend of his to Syria. The friend had found the land propitious. He had helped him get there and had found him a job. He even had found him a wife in the person of his wife’s sister. Later on, the gentleman had to go to Bahrain for work and he had asked Hassan’s father to look after his family. And that’s what he did, and perhaps too well; Hassan’s father left his wife Mona and married his friend’s wife, Mona’s sister. Oh là, là! The sister had not much remorse, apparently. They now live also in Hajar Aswad, not very far from Hassan and Mona’s house. It is quite surprising that they have never met even by chance!
Hassan works (without work permit) for a garment accessories company. The job is not too hard but the hours are long. He earns SP 8000. ($ 160.) a month and saves about 3000. In the past two years, they’ve bought a TV set and a refrigerator. They live simply, very simply, but they both are people who are satisfied with small ‘victories’. Mona says that if in a country, water and bread are good, it’s a good country. Indeed, the water in Damascus is excellent, gushing from the mountain and the bread is cheap (subsidized) and of fine quality. Food, in general, is of excellent quality and wholesome, a thing proclaimed since the beginning of history.

Day Twenty Nine 070706 Fri Damascus

Omayad Mosque, Zoo, Abil-Qabil, Hajer Aswad

We were supposed to be leaving for Umrah this day. With this state of mind, we got up. 9 AM.
George was in Lebanon.
We watched the news of Pakistan concerning the Lal Masjid events in Islamabad.
At about 12, we went to the Omayyad Mosque for the Friday prayer. I sat in the sahn with Noé who was playing. After prayers, Hassan found us. We were sitting near the tomb of Nabi Yahya (John the Baptist). Mona and Hassan suggested going to the zoo. The zoo. What kind of tourist would want to go to a zoo but,…why not? Noé would certainly like it and I would observe the various species which are outside the cages. Mona and Shahana got engaged in a long conversation, while I was playing intermittently with Noé and talking to Hassan.
We watched the animals and the animals watched us.
There were doves, and chickens, parrots, dogs- yes dogs- barking at teasing children, there were goats, and sheep, and…four couples of magnificent lions with their cubs. Only later did I understand that these lions were also part of the state propaganda. Lion in Arabic is ‘asad’, the name of the Raees. Noé liked particularly a couple of ostriches which he fed with popcorns.
When the sun had become less hot, around 5 PM, we decided to go to Mt Qassioun. On its slope, there are caves and one of them is linked with the story of Abil and Qabil (Cain and Abel). Many biblical stories as well as a few mentioned in the Quran are believed by the Damascenes to have taken place in their land. God knows better.
A small van took us as high as it was possible up the slope of Mt Qassioun. It was more a climb than a drive with at places a 25% incline. We walked up to the last houses and then continued on the bare slope. Noé was proudly leading the way. Shahana was gathering her strength, and Mona chose a comfortable spot to wait for our return. We reached the shrine which combines a number of legends: the story of Abil and Qabil, but also visits of Abraham and Khidr and naturally, the story of the Sleepers.
How many were they? Some say three and the dog, some say four and the dog, some say five and the dog…
At sunset, we went down and took a taxi to Hajar Aswad where we had dinner at Mona’s house.
We didn’t see much of Hajar Aswad as it was already dark and the streets not properly illuminated. The taxi had dropped us at the beginning of the lane where they live and we walked a furlong to their house.
Leaving our shoes at the threshold outside, we entered a flat which was the smallest I had ever seen. I’d say it was less than 4 x 3 meters. In New Jerseyan calculation, that translates as a place of 3.282 x 4.376 yards giving it an area of 14.362032 sq.yds. or more simply you might multiply 3 x 4 m = 12 m2 x 1.196 = 14.352 square yards though in Pakistan they prefer the rendering in square foot which would give (x 9) a total of 129.168 square foot (which can also be calculated by the formula 3 x 4 x 11 = 132 sq. ft. …(?), which make me think that something went wrong with my calculation somewhere) which even by Japanese standards is small. (By the way, anybody knows the measuring unit in Japan?)The ceiling was not very high but I will not bother you today with the cubic measurement.
Behind this room these was a space for cooking and a bathroom, roughly an additional 6 m2 or so.
(No, I’m not saying anything; you’re starting first!)
Mona was preparing chicken with rice along with other classic Syrian dishes enumerated in previous chapters.
While both son and mother were busy in the ‘kitchen’, I had time to contemplate the flat while Shahana was resting. You see, I am interested in people, and I think that psychology is an excellent subject, yet they are other ways to know or understand people. One of them is to examine what they produce and the setup of their dwellings that often reflects a great deal about their personality and even sometimes their history.
After that, the kind reader will certainly think and reconsider inviting me to her/his house.
Situated on the ground floor, the lodging opened directly onto the street which is inconvenient for privacy especially in Muslim society.
Though tiny, the room was clean and the few belongings were properly stowed. The only window onto the street was obstructed by a cage with a budgerigar in it and that had in fact the advantage to enable the occupant of the house to see the movements of the street without being seen. The main items in the room were –at my right as I faced the street side- a television set and a decoder over it, an almirah, and a computer with Bashar al-Assad pasted on it. The left side was free to give free access from the front door to the kitchen. Properly packed in the corner near the TV humming news of Pakistan (I wasn’t watching) were a stack of bedclothes and blankets. In this manner, the use of the space was optimized to the most. The walls were decorated with naïve paintings, religious calligraphy, and frames of relatives and the president. The president was on the fridge too. The president was on the computer, the president was in his wallet, on the roads, on the windows of shops, on the cars, on key holders, on TV, the president was tattooed on my chest,…(!),I woke up; I had had a nightmare.
The smell and noise of cooking comforted me. I adjusted my pillow and went on reflecting about concepts such as democracy, civil liberty, freedom of expression, choice, human rights, basic needs, happiness, conditioning of minds, pragmatism, perception, judgment, raison d’étât, Machiavel, US enmity and the so-called boycott, hypocrisy, apathy and revolt, …dishes were being spread on the dinning mat.
Hassan has this special decoder for satellite TV because he watches daily Pakistani programmes; in this way, he is more updated than me who live in Pakistan. Time to time I would turn my attention to the screen watching Amitabh Bachhan performing in a recent film, a near static dance he is good at.
We all ate with wonderful appetite. Asking Mona whether Pakistan was better or Syria, she answered that where water and bread is good and available, that is the good land. Karachi is endemically plagued with water shortage, water that must be boiled and filtered prior to consumption. After all, Syria has a long standing reputation as a land blessed for its climate, its springs, its fruit and its baths.
I particularly enjoyed the olive oil which I rather indulged in.
We looked at the clock and at Noé’s eyes and both told us that it was getting late.
H & M escorted us to a roundabout where a van took us to the centre. Once in the centre of Damascus, we didn’t know where we had alighted and taxis were asking high amounts which led us to think we were far from home; it was not the case and in due course we got home finely.

Day Thirty 070707 Sat Damascus

Salihiyeh, Hamidiyeh, Sayeda Zaynab

We returned to the tomb of Ibn Arabi. From Morsheed Street, we took a taxi to Ruknuddin and walked from there. We stayed for some time at the Jamia Selimi (Ibn Arabi). Two men were preparing and distributing falafel sandwiches in the mosque fi sabeelillah. We sat peacefully chewing this providential meal. Noé got toffees. Outside the mosque, Noé and Shahana had ice-lemon and I drank liquorice. It’s not my favourite drink but it’s radical against thirst. We then walked down a lane lined with vegetable vendors till we reached Hittin Square. Another taxi ride took us to al Hamidiyeh where we spend some time strolling and looking at damask, table covers and napkins. I do not find beauty in these items, so while Shahana was dealing with shopkeepers, I sat watching the thousand things one normally misses on a scheduled tour. We prayed salat 3asr at the Omayyad Mosque and then took a taxi to Sayeda Zaynab.
Not being religious, I sat religiously enjoying the activities going on around me. Noé was running around and engaging timidly in games with other kids. We returned to the Omayyad Mosque where we prayed the salat Maghrib. Shahana bought slippers near Bab Faradis. In Karachi, you’d have a million different models of shoes in a single shop to choose among, whereas in Sham, you’ll find only ten different kinds but it seemed Shahana liked the shoes. When we returned, George was already home. I went to fetch falafel sandwiches (encore) as no dinner was ready. Noé ate a mini pizza. George got interested to meet Mona and Hassan and so we invited them to join us for dinner the next evening.

Day Thirty One 070708 Sun Damascus

Bab Saghir, Al-Amin Str, Takaya Restaurant

This was a lazy day at home. Going out visiting places seemed an obligation, a work. We watched TV with particular attention to events around the Lal Masjid. Two places remained that we had to see: Bosra and Ma3lula.I was tired and I assumed Shahana also was. I didn’t ask Noé but he spoke often about Hyderabad. I could try, probably in vain, to figure out what it can be for a small fellow like him to have to follow us! Bus, taxi, walks, and again. “Baba, Baba, porter”. (porter, in French = carry, pronounce portay) Noé shows less and less interest in French and he speaks English more and more. My back is aching, result of carrying Noé? In fact, my back does not ache when I am carrying him; it aches the day after.
Sometime before noon, we went to the Museum of Calligraphy; very disappointing. I do a bit of calligraphy myself, so I look at calligraphic work at a different angle. I can write Naskh, Nastaliq, Diwani, Tuluth and I am trying my hand at ar Raqa3 which is seldom used in South-Asia. Nastaliq is the most common style used in Pakistan though Sindhi is written in a form of Naskh. There was a couple of Belgians, Jean-Paul and Klavdija, with whom we a bit of exchange. Interesting folks who like to travel. They had been in Morocco, Egypt and Iran and had written stuff on a web page with nice pictures on it.
Salat Zohar at the Omayyad Mosque and falafel lunch in Naufara Street; le rendez-vous des touristes. Shahana is still looking for a table cloth and I still have pain in my back. We had a short rest at home and then went to the Omayyad Mosque for salat 3asr (if you’re still puzzled with he Muslim prayers, email me and I’ll be glad to help clarify) and from there we continued on toward Bab al Saghir (south) and re-entered the Old City through Al-Ameen Street. This area had been developed in the 30s and bears a different look, uh French I’d say, definitely more modern than the prevalent style and design of Old Damascus, but not yet ugly as what I call the ‘60s/’70s socialist architecture’. We bought Halabi soaps; Aleppo is famous for soaps made with olive oil .I also bought a ring (aqiq). I like stones but I do not attribute any power to them as so many people do. Shahana was looking for earrings but found out that the quality is low and the price high; that is, comparatively to Pakistan. After sitting in the Omayyad Mosque for a while, we returned home. It was past 7 PM and Mona and Hassan were already there. They were talking with George. George then took us all to a restaurant. We were all trying to follow his hurried steps. We reach the Straight Street but the restaurant George had intended to take us to, was completely booked for that evening. (C’est domâge!).We retraced our steps and had dinner at the Takiya. The food was terrible; I do not recommend it. We returned home and then soon parted.

Day Thirty Two 070709 Mon Bosra

Sumariya, Bosra

We left home at 7 AM and took a taxi to Sumariyeh, the new bus stop mentioned earlier, from where we took the eight o’clock coach to Bosra. The bus was comfortable. After an hour and half journey, we reached destination and went straight to a restaurant for a breakfast of hommos and jabneh; we had left early with empty stomachs. There were several restaurants, all of them intended for tourists. I chose the Mat3am Philip. All the while we were waiting for the food to be served, the owner of the adjoining restaurant kept on shouting the name of the dishes on his menu with the price; 25 pounds. Everything was 25 pounds. I inquired to the waiter about his own rates. He would charge 250 pounds for the whole breakfast which when brought to the table did not seem much. I told him it was dear and his competitor was cheaper, and that if he didn’t lower his price, we might move to him. “No, don’t do that, he is a crazy man” he said. “He always tries to ruin my business, he is mad, I’ve given you fine portions; you’ll decide the price.” We stayed. I now believe we should have moved to the next restaurant, to the crazy man. While eating, the loud listing of dishes went on; “Orange juice 25, cheese 25, hommos 25”and so on. It’s a new formula: you enjoy the taste of dishes and hear them too!
If one day you go to Bosra ash Sham, don’t go to Philip’s; try the crazy guy on the right side instead! 25.

Rasulullah (PBUH) visited Bosra twice. When his mother Amina was pregnant, she told she had had had a vision of the castles of Bosra. This means that Bosra had exercised an impression on the people of these days, just like today Paris, New York or London!
Prophet Muhammad travelled to Syria at least twice, and Bosra was an important and unavoidable stage on the road to Damascus. People say that the monk Bahira was sitting in Bosra, God knows better.

Bosra is first of all famous for its Roman Theater (masraH) , a marvel of architecture, constructed in black basalt, the stone found abundantly on the surface in the plain of Hauran. The theater has also the particularity of being ‘envelopped’ by a fort built during the Ayyubid period. In this way, from outside, one can only see an ordinary fort. So, with one ticket you see two things! (A ticket costs SP. 150.- but if you have a student card, it will only be SP. 15., so don’t forget to take your student card with you when yountravel to Syria!) The theater, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is in use, and every year artists from all over the world come to perform in it. It has the particularity to have an excellent accoustic system and I tried my voice from the 45-meter broad stage and the remotest auditor could hear me well. Behind the stage are numerous rooms for the artists to change and annexes.
Noé led the way along the Ayyubid fortification walls, up and down narrow staircases and to the top of the towers.
After the visit of the theater, we proceeded to the old ruined city of Bosra, a strange looking place consisting of black houses, made of re-used blocks and columns, and now most of them deserted. We hired a buggy which was not much of use except that it made Noé quite happy. The driver despite his appearance could speak in a number of languages with a relative fluency. French and Italian, he had acquired while working with archeological missions as labourer. English was his daily practice. Since we could not see the site properly from the buggy, we later took a walk through the ruin entering through Bab al Hawa.
Of the Nabatean period, only one structure is intact: the Nabatæan Arch.
Belonging to the Roman period are the palatial baths, the covered market, monumental gates, paved roads, a very large cistern probably one of the largest in the Roman Empire, Bab al Kandil, the Omar Mosque which initially had been a pagan temple and then a church,
From the Byzantine period; St Sergius Cathedral. From the Islamic era, the Mosque of Fatima, the Khidr Mosque and most of the habitations made of recycled material.
Today, there are still a number of people living among these ruins despite a programme of relocation by the government.
Souvenirs shop are conveniently placed at strategic corners so that the gentle tourist may relieve his purse in exchange for genuine artifacts such as ceramics, jewellery, cloth and shawls (made in India), and other valuable items which will eventually end up in a garage sale in a couple of decades.

At 2 PM, we took the coach back to Damascus and we were home at 4:20 PM. We had falafel sandwiches. Oh, again taking food, I’m sorry. I enjoy restaurants during trips because we don’t really go much to restaurants the rest of the year.
We bought extra tahina to take back to Pakistan. I have a friend in the US who is a great amateur of peanut butter and he thinks peanut butter is the greatest discovery of human kind, especially the Homo Sapiens Americanus. He hasn’t yet discovered tahina!
We went again to town for some more shopping and spent some time in the Omayyad Mosque. Abu Basil got me olive oil at a good rate which he said should be of prime quality. We began packing up.

Day Thirty Three 070710 Tuesday Ma3lula, Damascus to Karachi

Ma3lula, Convent of Sayednaya, Airport

There was sadness in our hearts due to our missed Umrah and leaving Syria and our friend George. Noé was also longing to return home.
Yet, we wanted to go to Ma3lula. It is a place noted, with two other villages nearby, Jabaadin and Najaa, for the preservation of Aramaic, the language spoken in Syria in the time of Jesus (PBUH).

A taxi driver, Haytham (not to be confounded with Haytham who is the Lebanese taxi driver) picked us up at 8 AM. We took the highway north towards Homs and after 40 kms turned west toward the Anti-Libanon Mountains. The road was going up. I knew we were coming close and I began scrutinizing the horizon trying to spot the location of the town in this dry landscape. Suddenly, I saw a gap in the mountain range, like an entrance. Ma3lula means ‘entrance’.

Ma3lula with its blue-plastered houses is positioned in a cirque at an elevation of ca. 1500 meters. It has an agreeable climate in summer but winters are definitely cold. It is a place which has been inhabited from immemorial times and the numerous tombs and caves carved in the cliff are a testimony to it. There are quite many churches in Ma3lula but these following two are the most eminent: Saint Sergius (Mar Sarkis) dominating the town and the convent and church of St Teqla. The majority of the population is Greek Catholic. From Mar Teqla, there is a gap, or say a fracture in the mountain which occurred when Teqla, a follower of Paul, escaped from her fiancée who wanted to take her back to the pagan faith.
Similar explanations to geological peculiarity are common in many societies; there is in Makli at the Sri Mata Shrine, a rock from where Shah Abdul Latif would have travelled miraculously underground all the way to Hinglaj. Science fiction is indeed a very old form of expression.
The gap is rather long (ca. 300 meters?) and brings you further west to the plateau above Ma3lula. The ‘tangis’ near Ziarat, Balochistan are rather similar. A five minute walk parallel to the gap, that is toward the east, leads you to Mar Sarkis from where you can enjoy an excellent view of the town below and its surroundings. At Mar Sarkis, Ms. Nasrine, the lady who attends visitors, partly to guide them and partly to ensure everyone respects the rules of behaviour to be expected in holy places, recited the Pater Noster in Aramaic. For someone who knows Arabic or Hebrew, it is not too difficult to follow. To learn it…, well with whom would you talk? Well, nevertheless, I was quite pleased to hear it.
Sergius and Bacchus (Sarkis wa Bakhos) were army officers in the Roman Legion posted in Cappadocia who had converted to the new Christian faith. Upon being asked to participate to a pagan ceremony in honour of Jupiter to which they refused, they were punished, tortured and killed. Sergius’ tomb is in Russafa near Aleppo.
The church of St Sergius and Bacchus in Ma3lula is very old as it was first a pagan temple.
The altar with raised edges is unique and shows the influence of the pagan rite. The back of the church is cut into the mountain.
The shrine of Mar Teqla (the only female saint with the title of ‘Mar’) is one of these special places on Earth where one gets, or may get, a particular sensation or draw, and Shahana was prompt to remark that it does bear a certain resemblance with the shrine of Hinglaj in Balochistan. The church below is a recent construction. The nuns will never tell that the daily incoming of visitors disturbs them but they won’t nevertheless shut the place. However, certain rules must be followed, a ‘proper’ dress worn and no photographs must be taken. There are two types of visitors; the devout who come for offerings and blessings and the secular one in search of …something. The devout and the secular seem to be driven by different rationales.
Having visited what the tourist has to visit, the taxi driver expected us to move back to Damascus. But we hadn’t seen the town yet. Though it was his first time in Ma3lula, he told us that there was nothing to see, and at that stage, we met with a gentleman who was a standing by the main road. Georges Zarour invited us to follow him. He took us to his house and introduced us to his mother, Maria and his elder brother Yousuf. We had coffee, very strong, and apricots (mishmish) and cherries (karaz) as savoury as it can be. He showed us the house, which had a commanding view of the town and its approach and had the particularity to have parts of the mountain in the sitting room and the bedrooms; a strange house as most of the houses of Ma3lula in fact are. Georges Zarour spoke French with a tad of hesitation. He has started to learn English recently. He showed me his course books and I believe he is learning the hard way. He has two handicaps: no practice and a very poor eye-sight (He uses large characters books). He also showed me a text in Aramaic he had written. Maria, the mother, who must be close to 90 is resplendent with grace and beauty. Both brothers are perfect gentlemen. Yousuf is married and has three (?) children, all of them studying in Damascus. Georges is unmarried but he has a girl-friend. There is a problem though: he can’t marry her; she is a Muslim. We met her. He took us to her house. Her name is Amal. She is in the third year of her university studies, learning English. Amal has had little opportunity to speak English but we had a pleasant conversation. She took us to her ‘study room’, a cave in the back of a room. We declined the offer for coffee, but we ate a few mishmishes. It was very cozy to be sitting there; we would have stayed longer, alas time was missing. Down by the Main Street, Haytham was waiting. Besides, Noé was becoming more restless since he had had too little sleep the night before and weariness was showing.
I promised I would return to Ma3lula to learn Aramaic from Georges who would learn English from me and refresh his French.
How many promises I have made to myself which to this day…alright next.
Next, we returned to Damascus by another route, along Jabal Qalamun stopping at Saydnaya.
The convent of Saydnaya is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Syria. Pilgrims come to see a certain icon of Mary mother of Jesus said to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist in the first century. The story goes that in 547 AD, Emperor Justinian was passing by with his army on the way campaigning against Persia. He was pursuing a deer that led him to a spring, thereupon, the deer changed into a shining icon, and he heard a voice telling him to build a church on this very spot to be dedicated to Mary.

From Saydnaya, we drove down to nearby (3 kms) Deir Mar Brutus passing by the Hagia Sophia Church which was however closed up. We resumed our journey passing Deir Mar Mansoor, a rich town under development. We approached the suburbs of Damascus from the North-West and soon found ourselves in the midst of city traffic and life.

We went to eat at a nearby restaurant opposite Bab Faradis; a dish of fool. We then did the final packing of our luggage. At 5:30 PM, Mona and Hassan arrived and time was filled up with small talk.
At 8 PM, Haytham –the one who had taken us to Ma3lula- arrived and we left with George almost immediately. At 8:45, we were at the airport. We said goodbye to George. I noticed emotion on his face, the place at the security check was crowded; we parted.
We faced a bit of difficulty to pass the olive oil, but it was eventually solved. I send Noé to pay the airport fees. Was it the counter which was too high and the boy still too short? I helped him. We had plenty of time and Noé and I roamed around the airport sniffing bottles of perfume and looking at expensive watches, while Shahana chatted with Pakistani passengers returning from Umrah who had not much appreciated their six-day stopover in Syria. ‘khane-ka bara masla tha’ said the lady; her problem to get decent/satisfying food contrasted with Shahana having gained weight during the month!
The plane left behind schedule. No entertainment onboard, OK that was fine; we could entertain ourselves! Noé enjoyed the trip just as on the earlier flight despite the fact that the food was unsavoury and the service decidedly bad. During this trip, there weren’t many passengers and this allowed us to stretch our bodies on three seats. Most of the passengers got down at Dammam and only a few boarded the aircraft for Karachi.

Day Thirty Four 070711 Wed Karachi to Hyderabad

Flight RB511, Jinnah Intl’, Home

I did not sleep. I never sleep when I travel. I enjoy the trip; everything of it.
The light of dawn broke out; I prayed. I looked at the Sun rising, shaping and colouring the clouds. Yes, it was a cloudy day; unusual in this part of the world. Between the clouds, I could glimpse the sea; and than the coast, getting closer. Soon it was the approach to Karachi: Hub, Keamari, Saddar, Drigh Road, Malir, U-turn to face the SW wind; the wings of the plane, flaps up, were stroking the roofs.
Passport control, Urdu language in the air, rush, luggage assistants, the usual crowd waiting outside to welcome their relatives (I wonder if they are the same people or they work in shift). At that stage, the mind isn’t yet back from the trip; you need to walk out of the airport to finally realize that, yes, we’re back to Pakistan: the heat! The sticky heat of Karachi!

From the airport, we took a taxi to Hyderabad and reached home around 9 AM.
In the first days we were back, it seemed that we would not be able to cope with the hot and exceptionally humid weather. We also seemed to still carry accumulated tiredness with us but there wasn’t any hurry. We kept on eating hommos with olive oil.

I conclude the account of our journey with my expression of thanks and gratitude to our wonderful friend George for all the care and efforts he has given us on this memorable trip. May God bestow him ample reward!

Hyderabad, Sindh, 11 October 2007 / 29 Ramadhan 1428