Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Caught Dead In A Syrian Sandstorm!

Dry hills of Syria
After saying our good byes to our Bedouin friends, we continued our journey, driving even deeper into the desert; that is if “deeper” was even possible. At some point when digging to the center of the earth, you start to come out the other side, of course, in this case, that other side was the Iraqi border.

Looking for a good place to camp for the night, the horizon seems to be getting darker, but those aren't low lying rain clouds. Haji, explains, “Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourself, we’re about to be caught in a sandstorm.”
Of course, this was new and exciting for yours truly, who ventured outside the car to see the sand storm up close.

(See the sand storm as we saw it in the middle of the desert)

Moments after we cut filming, a deluge of sand nearly blows us away. Strong winds whipping sand around like shrapnel, your body instinctively positioning itself in a fetal position attempting to limit damage to vital organs. The storm rages for several minutes around us. When it ends, sand is everywhere, in our noses, ears, throats, underpants… even cameras …
Annie’s Nikon has stopped working, sand has penetrated her lens despite her best efforts to protect her baby. She wipes it down, hoping to fix it.
Lars and I, though the experience itself was not exactly pleasant, feel emboldened and alive having survived what we just did. Haji suggests we get back to the car and look for a place to camp, as he would not be surprised if the next sand storm would be far stronger, and longer.
“How long can sand storms last,” I naively ask.
“Days,” answers Haji, with an air of morbid seriousness about our situation.

We get back in the car and start driving, seemingly aimlessly. Haji announces another storm will be arriving, we must find shelter. Ten minutes later it descends upon us, the dark clouds of sand blotting out the setting sun entirely. The wind howls, the swirling sand under its command makes visibility a joke, forming icy spears of high velocity shrapnel, denting the sides of our beleaguered car.
I laugh somehow. Annie starts to freak out- the fear of death. She wills herself to maintain some sense of control. At first it seems fun to tease her about it, an art which Lars, Haji, and I have attained black belt status. I start to feel sorry for Annie, barely able to continue keep up her Germanic stiffness, let alone her composure.
“Don’t fight against it Annie,” I explain in a calm voice, “there’s really nothing we can do. If we die, we die, it’s not that big a deal, just rest peacefully in the Now, that’s all we have.”
I feel Annie’s hands around my neck. She wants to choke me, despite my helpful intentions. Apparently I would make a terrible bereavement counselor.
Annie H and Lars Buckholder- not Haji
Haji apologizes, and tells us we likely won’t be spending the night under the desert stars. He knows of a place we can stay.
We drive around for an hour, relying on our guide's knowledge of the desert and experience. Eventually we find it, a small government owned building with a well, set-up to help the Nomadic Bedouin people survive.
Haji knows all the men here, there isn’t a large contingent of people, even in the Middle East, who want to spend their whole lives in this desolate tract of sand.
A strapping man greets us, shaking our hands, and offers the standard welcoming Arab gift of overly sweetened tea. We sit inside a very modest structure, hoping that the storm will pass.
Eventually the sands die down, though it takes several hours. By now it is pitch dark, the only lights coming from our structure and the few stars not hidden by the remaining sand clouds. Haji announces it is time to prepare dinner.
Over a fire we grill chicken and vegetables. It tastes fantastic, I could a eat a ton of this stuff, and I come close to the mark. We dine with the caretaker of the well, and his nephews, who have been hunting in the surrounding desert. A half-hour into dinner, a small truck pulls up. They know the driver and greet him as a brother.
His eyes go wide at the site of Annie. A white woman in these parts is an unheard of prize. His heavy flirtation becomes more aggressive as he consumes more shots of the hard liquor everyone except for me is drinking. He excuses himself. I feel uncomfortable, I ask Haji where he is going. “To get something to give you a proper greeting,” Haji reveals, chuckling.
I ask who the guy is. He's described as the village idiot, who no matter how long he has been out in the desert, can never find his way, getting lost every time.
Moments later the idiot reappears with a loaded shotgun. I ease away. He points it at the sky and fires three times. Then silence. No one’s dead, I’m half-surprised.
This is an Arab tradition for welcoming guests of honor. You can tell me all you want about embracing other cultures, I find this custom absolutely idiotic. Aside of the potential accident of having a drunk discharge a loaded fire-arm, those bullets have to land somewhere.
He continues his flirtation with Annie. Lars and I both remark to Haji that the idiot should take it down a notch. To her credit, Annie’s doing a marvelous job of staying friendly, without giving way. Eventually it gets too much for me. I don’t really want to insult the idiot with the gun, I just want Haji to intervene, which he finally does, in a calm, friendly way.
We eat in peace for a few minutes before the idiot starts up again. It’s not like he’s touching her inappropriately, it’s the energy of a stupid, horny drunk man, who hasn’t been around a woman, much less an exotic one, for years, and can barely contain his predatory instincts. Haji assures me he would never harm a soul.
Almost on cue, in an effort to impress Annie with his “power” he picks up his shotgun and points it at the sky. Lars is more okay with this than I am with it, but then again, Lars has been drinking. I hide behind whatever cover I could find. The Arab men take the idiot’s gun away, and wrap it in its cloth holder. We finish dinner in relative peace.
We’re sleeping outside, Haji makes the beds, blankets over ancient mattresses covering the desert floor. Forget bed bugs, we’re checking these babies for scorpions. We stay awake for hours, chatting, explaining our dreams, what brought us here. For me, it was partly an ex-girlfriend who I found out only a few months before had moved back to Europe and hung herself. Someone who you would look at, speak to, and say, “Oh my God, she is amazing.”
I look around, the calm, dark sky, the ocean of sand surrounding us. There isn’t a noise to be heard for miles, aside of maybe my heart beating as I think of her. Memories often seem like a dream. Did they even really take place? Perhaps this moment is a dream. Perhaps this is a moment of "Inception." I look around. I see no top spinning.
Desolate hills of Syria

Monday, November 29, 2010

Meet The Terrorists- Deep in the Syrian Desert

Haji picked us from our campground in the early morning, driving an old, enclosed, red pick-up truck. He had equipped the rear with blankets and pillows to make comfortable seating for Annie and Lars, who willingly agreed to sit in the back as I was taller. We climbed in and quickly departed, drawing closer each mile to the Iraqi border.
An hour later we rolled up to the last outpost of civilization, the last chance to fill up on gas, water up, or purchase a snack. The paved road ceased its existence. It was like we were explorers from the days when the earth was flat, and had arrived at the edge of the world. We took the plunge, falling into the abyss of the Syrian desert, 4 x 4ing over the sands.
There are a few shrubs, these aren’t dunes of Merzugga in Morocco where any form of vegetation has to overcome insurmountable odds to exist, but you surely won't find a mango tree here.

Mid East Environmentalism
Haji quenches his thirst with our most valuable commodity, rolls down his window and tosses out the plastic bottle, a gift for the desert. Instantly he has three environmentalists yammering in his ear, voicing our displeasure over his actions, Annie leading the prosecution.
Haji chuckles, and offers the following contrite apology: “Annie, I am truly sorry, I promise that next time, you won’t see me do it.”
That’s one thing about Arabia, environmentally, it is a disaster zone. Trash is strewn everywhere, recycling is a foreign word, and pollution, especially in the bigger cities, makes breathing the most difficult of chores. Environmental consciousness is nearly non-existent here.
camels in desert

We pass a heard of camels, which used to transport the nomadic Bedouin people across the desert, now having been replaced for those purposes by trucks. There are few, if any, wild camels left, all are owned by the Bedouins, and are actually highly valuable, with the cheapest camel selling for $1,500, the most expensive have sold for millions of dollars to Arab sheiks. I guess all that oil money has to be spent on something.

The Bedouins
We haven’t seen another car or person in the 80 miles we are into the desert, when we happen upon a Bedouin tent. Haji takes us inside.
Bedouin mother and her children

These nomadic people live their entire lives in the desert. Their tents stand erect with the support of only wooden poles stuck deep into the ground. They don't have enough carpets to cover the entire desert floor they sleep on. The tent covers were made of hand spun, woven goat hair and wool, at least partially protecting its occupants from the super heated desert sun in the summer, the harsh winds and the daily sandstorms it brings, and the often chilly winters.
Their income is entirely almost based on their sheep, and the milk, wool, and meat they provide. Each head of sheep is worth about $300. The sheep graze on what little vegetation the desert offers, once they have consumed one area, they must move on. It hasn’t rained all year, and the vegetation is now extremely sparse. It is a harsh life for our hosts.
Bedouin children

We are actually the first white people they have ever laid eyes upon. It is exceedingly rare to receive visitors this far into the desert, let alone tourists. They eye us with curiosity as Haji attempts translations, enabling some communications between the West and this deep desert Arab culture.
The children eye me warily, used to seeing maybe one or two outsiders per year, much less an alien with white skin. In the end, fear is swept away by the energy of fun.

(Watch as I ingratiate myself to the Bedouin children in this video by playing Monster with them.)

Culture Clash- The High five

(Watch Rich introduce the high-five to his Beduoin friends as they teach me various games they played to pass the long days in the desert.)

You want to prejudge people? Any of the men look exactly like an Al Queda terrorist in any video I have seen, but I found had nothing to fear here, though we three, rich white people were the only ones without guns. These people are just trying to make living, scraping by on the meager possessions they owned out in the middle of nowhere, in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Their minds hadn’t been poisoned with radical, "us versus the West, kill anyone who disagrees with us Islam," but rather they were gracious hosts, even slaughtering one of their valuable sheep, and cooking it over an open fire to fill our stomachs.
The more I travel, the more I realize just how alike people are in all corners of the globe, everyone wants to make a living, feed their families, be loved, and have fun. What more in life do you really need?

Next: Near death, caught in a Syrian sandstorm

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kill Me, I'm American - Life in the Syrian desert + cartoons of Mohammed

I’m sure if you ever venture to the Middle East, you’ll find Arab culture to be overwhelmingly inviting. Enter any house, and the poorest family will lay out their best wares for you. There exists a general warmth and hospitality here that would humble most Westerners.
In Los Angeles, the prevailing attitude is “what can you do for me?” In Syria it’s, “Who are you? Tell me about yourself.” They really want to take the time to get to know you.
The average Syrian earns about $150 a month. Though beggars certainly exist, the majority of the population takes pride in being self sufficient, and as any just about any tourist has more money than all but the wealthiest of Syrians, you are seen much like a bee views a brightly colored flower.
Syrian children
But you don’t have to worry about being robbed of your proverbial pollen. Like the bee, they always want to provide you a service, or at least sell you something. I had one guy who persistently tried to sell me a headdress, and I told him that I didn’t want it, but that I would give him the money anyways. He refused. The challenge is, there are so many bees, and so few flowers. (it is the desert after all)
ruins of ancient Rome in Palmyra, Syria
I hadn't shaved in days. Walking through town I come across an old fashioned barber pole, probably imported here from the US in the year 1950. I enter the time warp; the interior matches. Two regulars sit on old leather stools, smoking cigarettes and reading the local newspaper, there just to pass the hot Syrian day. They speak no English, we communicate through sign language while the proprietor chuckles at our attempted communication while trimming a young boy’s hair. The warmth and laughter we share is genuine and mutual, though we don’t understand more a single spoken word of the conversation.
Now it’s my turn. The proud Arab barber sharpens his razor and goes to work. He is meticulous, pouring over every single detail, gelling my hair into shape as an added bonus, away from the listless mass I usually leave it in. He takes the blade to my neck. Like 99.9% percent of the Arab world, he’s not Al Qaeda.
He proudly displays his work, and charges me $4 for the shave, undoubtedly more than he would charge a local. I really don’t mind, I am happy to pay him for his excellent work, to share my pollen with him. I’m sure he’ll be able to make more honey with it than I would.
(me having my picture taken while I video Syrian kids playing with my other camera)
We walk through the remains of an ancient Roman town, which lies between the edge of Palmyra and our camp. I imagine how it looked at the time of Christ; bustling with soldiers, priests, and slaves, erecting these stone structures in the middle of the desert, an outpost for the great Roman Empire. Today, they lie in ruins.

Check out my view of some of the ruins.

For $10 a tour guide shows us where the Romans used to sacrifice animals to the Gods, where they laid their tables, and prayed. He shows us hidden artistic treasures of the ruins that would otherwise would be nearly impossible to notice. I can’t be sure he’s not making most of this up, but it sounds pretty good.

Meet Haji
Nearby the ruins is a restaurant with a camel out front. Like most businesses in this small town, it too has it regulars. Meet the big man on campus, Haji. His real name is Ahmed, but his parents went on a pilgrimage to Mecca when he was a child, which in the Islamic faith is called a “haj,” his friends all called him Haji. The name stuck.
Haji is in the middle smoking a cigarette, sadly this is the best picture I have of him
Haji was once a wealthy businessman, having lived in Romania and Hungary. He lost all he had worked for and saved during an Eastern European currency crisis, and came back to his hometown of Palmyra, where today he works jobs in construction and hopes to turn his building into a hotel, to meet, what he hopes, will be rising tourist demand.
He invites us back to his home. Haji is 43, and has two children with a woman twenty years younger than him. In Syria, men call the shots, and women dutifully obeys. Like any good father, it is immediately evident how much he loves his children.
Me, Annie, and Lars sit around talking to him. I ask him questions about what life is like here. Haji, having lived abroad, speaks by far the best English of any Syrian I have met.
“What do you think about Americans,” I ask.
“One of the things that hurts the most is that Americans know nothing about us. To them we are from another planet, like we were aliens,” states Haji, a look of sadness resting upon on his face, “The Europeans educate themselves on everything, I wish the American people would be more open minded towards us.”
“What about Israel?”
“It should not exist, but it does. That conflict will never be resolved. There is too much hatred on both sides,” replies Haji.
He laments the Iraq war and how it decimated Syria’s tourism industry, with the collective world fear created of traveling to Arab lands.
Haji, describes the sights and sounds of American fighters jets soaring over Syrian airspace at the onset of the war. He was working for a US construction company at the time, and an American pulled him aside, and asked Haji if he felt like killing him, if there was anything to fear. Haji’s reply was, “What could I possibly have against you. I work with you, I consider you a friend.”
Haji’s responses are largely measured, those of an affable man. That is til I ask him what he thinks about the Danish the cartoonist who created a cartoon with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (a strict taboo in Islam.)
A micro-expression of anger flashes across his face, then rather than try to hide his feelings the expression gains strength, and is finally expressed in words. “I tell you Richard, if I would find this cartoonist, I would kill him.”
Whoa. Strong words. At least he’s not trying to hide his feelings. I have a big challenge with human beings who assimilate some dogmatic rule into their identity, and a violation of this rule, could be considered grounds for murder.
“Would you kill me Haji, if I were to draw a stick figure and call it ‘Mohammed’?”
Haji laughs, “I know you Richard, you wouldn’t do such a thing.” … The sub-text is an undeniable warning.
“Do Arab people support Al Quaeda?”
“No, absolutely not. Our religion strictly forbids the killing of innocent people.”
“What about American soldiers?”
“That is a different story,” Haji answers.
He then offers to take us for a day and overnight excursion into the vast nothingness of the Syrian desert, alone with Haji, the harsh desert sun and wind, and the occasional hunter, toting his machine guns. With all we have been discussing, how could I possibly say no?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Desert Oasis of Palmyra, Syria- this way to Baghdad

This Way To Baghdad
We climbed into the “mini-bus, ” 15 people inside plus luggage, which, when you do math, comes out to about 7.8 people per seat. I stood, hunched over the entire way, praying that our driver would at least manage to avoid one or two of Syria’s famed potholes, which have been known to swallow full grown elephants.
The harrowing, deeply uncomfortable, ten minute ride to the Damascus bus station complete, and miraculously still breathing, we purchased tickets for the four hour ride to Palmyra, where ruins of an ancient Roman city are still being excavated.
We drive through the desert. Sandy, dusty, and when the wind kicks up here, watch out, as the ensuing sand storms have buried many an unlucky traveler alive, that is assuming they survived the onslaught of sand shrapnel being propelled at speeds faster than light.
Perhaps even more chilling was the sight of "Baghdad" on a road sign, and the knowledge of just how close we were to the Iraqi border, to the chaos my own country helped spawn.
green sign- Baghdad straight ahead!! Hooray!
Palmyra’s bus station is actually a couple miles outside the city limits. Imagine travelling from some distant galaxy through the vast nothingness of space to visit earth, and being dropped off on the moon. We were lucky there was a space shuttle to take us the rest of the way.
a date palm with more dates than you could ever eat!
A half mile outside the town’s opposite border, lies a Bedouin campground. Honestly, we could not have made a better choice of a place to stay. Drawing from a nearby, and rapidly disappearing, reservoir, drip irrigation has allowed the blossoming of a garden, a green island in this sea of sand.
With the owners keeping in lock-step with rightfully famous Arab hospitality standards, a massive ancient Roman wall sheltering us from the wind, pomegranate, date palm, and olives trees providing us fresh fruit and shade from the desert sun, a Bedouin tent to keep us warm at night, and of all things, a swimming pool to help stave off heat stroke, this place was as magical as Syria gets.

Our lush oasis campground in the backdrop of Roman ruins. (1:58)

Arab citadel atop the mount

the sun sets on the hills of the Syrian desert
A giant castle built in the late 1600’s sits atop a mountain. Perish the thought of ever conquering the citadel, it’s hard enough to make the treacherous walk up the steep hill. To gain access inside, you’d have to overcome a twenty-foot wide waterless moat with a hundred feet drop in case you didn't make the jump. Enemy soldiers should just announce their intention to chill out and watch the sunset to avoid being fired upon; at least it worked for us.
From atop the mountain, a panoramic view-- the oasis area, clashing with the harsh and barren desert which surrounds it on all sides, only a few precious drops of water keeping the army of green from being swallowed whole; the nearby town of Palmyra, and the red sun disappearing behind the Western hills.

See our view, post sunset (48 seconds long)

Annie, Rich Birecki, and Lars Burkholder atop the mountain
We stayed there a good forty minutes after sunset admiring the vista, and the peaceful, uncomplicated nature of the countryside. Entering into the tranquility of the meditative moment, I begin to wonder whether I am dreaming. Why we so often think every little challenge to be such a monstrous, life-threatening problem. Nothing seems real here, nothing seems important. Call it growth, that’s the way I like it.