Thursday, December 23, 2010

Falconeering in the Desert (Syria)

The desert is unusually busy this time of year, every twenty miles or so you can find an outpost of falconers, poor Syrians hoping to catch the world’s fastest bird, which they will in turn sell to Arab sheiks for prices occasionally reaching seven figures.
Haji too has falcon dreams. In eight years of coming to the desert he has caught one bird, which he sold for $9,000.
So how does one catch this rare feathered treasure, who’s only pier in aerial combat might be an F-14 fighter jet? With bait. When the Syrians see a falcon overhead, they release a pigeon, a tasty morsel for this bird of prey. But the pigeon has a trap on its back that that ensnares the falcon’s talons, forcing it to land where the bird is, at least in their dreams, scooped up by the locals for a big pay day.
We stop by a band of falconers, check out the video below to see how they equip the bird. Haji is seen briefly with the cigarette …

Smoking and Dental Plans in Syria
Speaking of cigarettes, I estimate that about 85% of people in the Middle East smoke, which means that what few remaining teeth most Arabs have are yellow and stained. Most Syrians make the British Book O’ Smiles look like a children’s fairy tale. It is rare to find a full set of teeth here.

The Trip Home
We drive through a sand storm. Haji shakes his head thinking of all his friends still in the desert less fortunate than us. We drive for hours, staring at the vast expanse of empty space around us. Even the German jokes have subsided as Annie sleeps in the back.
The sky looks threatening, but it doesn’t seem to be another sandstorm. “Those look like rain clouds,” I remark to Haji.
“Let us pray,” he responds.
An hour later it starts to drizzle, turning into intermittent showers. It is the first rain they have had all year. “Allah ahkbar,” (God is great) I smile at Haji.
“Allah ahkabr,” Haji responds with joy in his heart, “With the sand wet, perhaps we might go a few days without a sand storm. Maybe there will be more vegetation for our Bedouin friends and their sheep.”
“Let us pray,” I respond.
As I see it, the environment in the Middle East seems to be a lost cause. With sparse resources, huge families, a fast growing population, and seemingly zero environmental consciousness the Middle East had better start harmonizing with Mother Nature, or life will surely get worse there. Already river beds are becoming parched, water scarcer, and pollution blankets the entire region.
It’s not that I think the rest of us are doing well managing the world’s resources, it’s that the Middle East is probably most emblematic of the crucible mankind is putting the environment through.
Eventually we got back to Palmyra. Annie and Lars decided to head to head out onto the first buses to their respective Syrian destinations. I decided to hang out in town for the rest of the afternoon. As it turns out, I went to sleep, and didn’t wake up til long after the last bus had left. It looks like my trip to Jordan would have to wait a day.
Sunset in Syrian desert

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mass and Musical Slaughter of Small Birds in the Syrian Desert

6:30 AM: The silence of the desert is broken by operatic quality songbirds, accompanied harmoniously, that is if you are a weapons manufacturer, by an orchestra of gun shots. We wake instantly, bearing witness to the slaughtering of mass number of our feathered friends, a pre-recorded track of birds chirping meant to attract what little life there was (past tense) in the desert to its demise. The dead birds will be sold at market for food, the slaughtering is relentless. The longer it goes on, the more uncomfortable we get.
Haji is still asleep, hung over from his night of drinking. I shake him gently wanting to leave, he’s unresponsive.
“You guys want to go too, right?” I ask Annie and Lars. They nod. I ask Annie how to say “Get up now!” in German.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI,” I yell over Haji, hoping to replicate the same warmth of the average German, or Nazi SS Officer, whichever is greater. Annie and Lars shake their heads, in disbelief of my total lack of shame or manners. “Stehen Sie jetzt aufI!!” I command again, but Haji remains unresponsive.
“Stop using my beautiful language like that,” Annie complains.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI Haji!!” I shout once more. Slowly the blanket is lifted, Haji looks at me with bewilderment. “Richard, are you crazy?” he asks.
“Just teasing the German,” I respond.
“Oh,” smiles Haji, pulling the blankets back over his head. I wait a beat.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI!!!!”
Annie groans. Haji chuckles under the blanket.

You see, poor Annie was getting pummeled continually from all sides, the only girl amongst three, maturity wise pre-adolescent men, each with a third degree black belt in teasing. A typical joke went something like this- after smashing a fly, I look up and proudly state, “Now we have all killed something. Lars shot a deer, Haji has killed a rabbit, I just swatted a fly, and Annie, well … Annie is German.”
We teased Annie non-stop. She had no idea just how nationalistic she was until we got done with her.
Haji told her, “English is good for business, Italian is good for romance, French is good for poetry, German is good for giving orders, but Arabic, Arabic is good for all.” Annie was not a fan, especially as a journalist, that we were making fun of her harsh sounding mother tongue, but let’s face it, Haji was right.
Eventually Haji got up, and after, what was for me, an overly leisure breakfast, we left the Syrians to finish destroying their environment. I suppose we all have to earn a living …
Camels in the Syrian desert