I’m not a violent man, but I punched him in the face.

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A Nice Quiet Corner of Damascus Old City

It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.

I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.

I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.

He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.

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The Shuttered Shops of Damascus Souk

The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?

Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag  turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.

 

For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;

Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.

Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.

Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.

I think we all know what a toe-rag is.

For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.

John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration

Istanbul Photographer Portfolio

 

 

 

The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.

Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.

Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.

Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.

In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.

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Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.

The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.

Sabah relaxes while his pigeons fly around the rooftops of Damascus Syria

I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.

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What Do You Know About Syria

What Do You Know About Syria

So tell me:

It’s been five years of a brutal war and almost every day the international media has carried some Syrian related story, from revolution to refugee and while most of Europe is now cowering under its bed in fear what can you really tell me about Syria and its brutalized population?

For a future blog post I would like to try and paint a picture of Syria before the war but with your help and contribution:

Did you have the chance to visit Syria?

Are you Syrian or have friends and family who have or are living there?

What do you think Syria was like as a country before the conflict?

Do you know where it is?

Please post your thoughts, your questions and experiences, I would like to avoid turning this is into another place of conflict so let’s not get bogged down in the political whys and wherefores, for those wishing for more in depth information on any such issues I am happy to provide links and sources so just drop me a line.

My  Damascus Diary blog posts offer some insights and I promise to update and organize this more professionally shortly:

Meet The Syrians is also an ongoing project that will introduce some of my Syrian friends:

Looking forward to your contributions.

 

Syrian school children
Syrian school children

The Gates of Damascus

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Bab al-Jabiyah Damascus

Four great gates has the city of Damascus
And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining,
All day long stand like tall stone men
And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.
This is the song of the East Gate Warden
When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden.
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear,
The Portal of Bagdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.
The Persian Dawn with new desires may net the flushing mountain spires:
But my gaunt buttress still rejects the suppliance of those mellow fires.
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose
But with no scarlet to her leaf–and from whose heart no perfume flows.
Wilt thou bloom red where she buds pale, thy sister rose? Wilt thou not fail
When noonday flashes like a flail? Leave nightingale the caravan!
Pass then, pass all! “Bagdad!” ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky
Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,–
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And one who licks his lips for thirst with fevered eyes shall face in fear
The palms that wave, the streams that burst, his last mirage, O Caravan!
And one–the bird-voiced Singing-man–shall fall behind thee, Caravan!
And God shall meet him in the night, and he shall sing as best he can.
And one the Bedouin shall slay, and one, sand-stricken on the way
Go dark and blind; and one shall say–“How lonely is the Caravan!”
Pass out beneath, O Caravan, Doom’s Caravan, Death’s Caravan!
I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your Singing-man.
This was sung by the West Gate’s keeper
When heaven’s hollow dome grew deeper.
I am the gate toward the sea: O sailor men, pass out from me!
I hear you high in Lebanon, singing the marvels of the sea.
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.
Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.
Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.
Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Beyond the bay in utmost West old Solomon the Jewish King
Sits with his beard upon his breast, and grips and guards his magic ring:
And when that ring is stolen, he will rise in outraged majesty,
And take the World upon his back, and fling the World beyond the sea.
This is the song of the North Gate’s master,
Who singeth fast, but drinketh faster.
I am the gay Aleppo Gate: a dawn, a dawn and thou art there:
Eat not thy heart with fear and care, O brother of the beast we hate!
Thou hast not many miles to tread, nor other foes than fleas to dread;
Homs shall behold thy morning meal and Hama see thee safe in bed.
Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:
And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers’ price,
And buy a fat Armenian slave who smelleth odorous and nice.
Some men of noble stock were made: some glory in the murder-blade;
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honorable Trade!
Sell them the rotten, buy the ripe! Their heads are weak; their pockets burn.
Aleppo men are mighty fools. Salaam Aleikum! Safe return!
This is the song of the South Gate Holder,
A silver man, but his song is older.
I am the Gate that fears no fall: the Mihrab of Damascus wall,
The bridge of booming Sinai: the Arch of Allah all in all.
O spiritual pilgrim rise: the night has grown her single horn:
The voices of the souls unborn are half adream with Paradise.
To Meccah thou hast turned in prayer with aching heart and eyes that burn:
Ah Hajji, wither wilt thou turn when thou art there, when thou art there?
God be thy guide from camp to camp: God be thy shade from well to well;
God grant beneath the desert stars thou hear the Prophet’s camel bell.
And God shall make thy body pure, and give thee knowlede to endure
This ghost-life’s piercing phantom-pain, and bring thee out to Life again.
And God shall make thy soul a Glass where eighteen thousand Æons pass.
And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as men see dew upon the grass.
And sons of Islam, it may be that thou shalt learn at journey’s end
Who walks thy garden eve on eve, and bows his head, and calls thee Friend.
James Elroy Flecker

Just Another Day of War in Damascus

From my back-dated Damascus Diary.

Emerging from Hamadiyah souk the light is almost blinding, the shoppers silhouetted, the modern world outside the Old City is noisy and harsh; in the summer the heat slaps you in the face and where the traffic is frustrated and angry.
The Old City an urban oasis offers protection, a sanctuary where the narrow alleys and trellised vines shield the sun, the mud brick thick walls of century before muffle the noise, its only necessity that compels me to walk the half kilometer of covered bazaar, leaving behind the calmness and languid pace, where only pigeons being chased by children disturb the peace until the Muezzins recital, a sound even to the unbeliever is as harmonious as birdsong.
Always it feels like leaving one world for another, a world of cars and commerce, of electric elevators, offices and underpasses.
In the past when I had to leave the Old City I would avoid Hamadiya simply to avoid the crowd of shoppers seemingly all heading towards me but these days I prefer it simply as it avoids a couple of checkpoints, that’s not to say it’s not watched, soldiers lounge in front of the Mosque at one end and undercover police mill around at the other, they never shown any interest in me and I pretend not to notice them.
Sharia Thawra, Revolution Street, every Middle Eastern city has one and this one no less revolting, clogged with traffic, the car park opposite empty since the car bomb, I had been in the exact spot twenty-four hours exactly before it exploded, I felt the blast under my feet while walking in the souk near my house, I should vary my route I keep telling myself-kidnapping is becoming more and more of a threat, past the Palace of Justice and more irony, over the road and into the electric souk, a thriving market in generators that now only the very well off can now afford to counter the frequent cuts.
Standing on the corner of Merjeh Square I think how anyone of the hundreds of cars parked randomly on corners could be full of TNT or whatever it is they use.
I cross over the foot bridge as a convoy of ragged Syrian troops trundles underneath to or from the front line just a couple of kilometers in either direction, at the bottom of the footbridge a soldier is checking bags, the road is closed now and concrete blast walls line the street, perhaps when all this is over it could stay pedestrianized I wonder, its much nicer, another bag check, everyone being very polite.
My current favorite watering hole, for coffee that is, Pages café, Americano coffee and electricity, well more than in the Old City anyway, the WiFi is somewhat iffy but enough-it’s not as though I have images to file these days. The café is crowded as usual, the smoking ban being flouted, I can’t see anyone being brave enough to try enforcing it either given the situation, most of the familiar faces of my friends have gone now, some have died but most have left the country, the waiter brings my coffee without me ordering it, I perch on a redundant barber’s chair by the window, most of the clientele are students busy with studies, hunched over books, ipads and laptops, the sound of artillery thundering overheard gets no attention whatsoever, if it wasn’t for a war outside the scene inside would be the same anywhere, bright young things working on a bright future, on various occasions I have been approached and asked for help with language study, CV writing, job and visa applications, rarely we discuss the elephant in the room.
Despite everything happening I retain great faith in the young Syrian generation to drag the country from the mire, however long it takes.
The following day a massive car bomb explodes in Merjeh square, dozens are killed and scores injured, mangled cars are strewn across the streets and every windowpane blown out of every building, I felt the blast under my feet at home and watched the black smoke billow in the breeze.

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Outside Pages Cafe Damascus on a better day.

Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

wreford-6The ancient walls of my Damascene house are a foot deep and yet the noise from outside penetrate as though its wafer thin, fortunately for the most part it’s a quiet neighborhood, just the kids terrorizing the feral cats or playing football are a nuisance but I can hardly grudge them that.
Lost deep in muddled dreams I woke suddenly to the sound of boots thundering along the alley outside, my heart rate and mind racing I lay wide eyed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling, a split second and the butt of a gun was being hammered against a neighbors door and a yell of “jeish” followed by the unmistakable metallic click clack of a Kalashnikov being cocked, I stumbled out of bed and comically tried to pull on my clothes, I grabbed my papers and flung a coat over my camera sitting idle as usual on my desk.
Then the inevitable crash on my door; “jeish” the young conscript barked at me, yes the army I can see that I thought but what the fuck do you want, I offered my papers instead of my thoughts and welcomed in several recruits and an officer, while the officer looked through my passport and questioned me his subordinates rooted through my house.
Did I have any weapons? Well, now there’s a funny story I thought. The truthful answer was yes I did, I had a hunting knife given to me by Ahmed the Egyptian, a failed drug dealer who was trying to move into the stolen art market, the knife was an incentive for my art world connections, probably I should relate that story at a later date, do remind me. I also had a .22 Air-rifle, a pretty harmless weapon unless you are a sparrow or a rat; in fact it was a rat that induced me to buy it, I liked the sparrows and had three regularly flitting about my courtyard, the rat though was not welcome.
Abu Eid the carpenter who worked on my house was also a gun dealer-well collector is probably a more accurate description-maybe, in his workshop he presented various options including an French army pistol and a pump action shot gun, I felt a bit of a wimp going for the .22 but I paid him a 1000 Syrian Lira and hid it inside a rucksack to take home.
Needless to say my reply to the Syrian officer sucking the atmosphere out of my courtyard was a definitive no, of course I didn’t, over his shoulder I watched one of the conscripts poking around near the sofa where I had concealed the rifle, they searched the house as they had been searching all the houses in the Old City, the officer handed back my papers and they all left leaving a stale smell of sweat and tobacco lingering in the night air.
I didn’t really think the silly gun would be a problem but had decided to hide it inside the sofa just to keep it out of sight; nosey neighbors able to peek down into the courtyard could easily mistake it for something more sinister.
This was the first house search, there followed several more, each time a similar routine, on one occasion one of the soldier checking my terrace yelled down excitedly I had a chair up there, the implication being I may be a sniper, I explained its where I drink my coffee in the mornings, you can ask the snipers on the other roof I was tempted to say who some time earlier had waved me from my morning ritual. On another occasion I stupidly decided to sort out all my camera equipment, my desk was strewn with everything I had, old, redundant and broken as well as current, I knew before going to bed I should hide it all away again but couldn’t be bothered, what were the chances of another midnight visit?
They bashed on the door early next morning, I wearily welcomed the troops in, the cannon fodder fanned out and poked around my laundry while for some inexplicable reason I ushered the officer into my office, you are an artist he asked-referring to my answer earlier about my occupation, yes a painter I emphasized with a squiggle movement of my hand and an imaginary brush, a routine I had practiced often, once while crossing the border at Qamishly the border guard suggested we go to his office where I could paint his portrait! There were precious few signs of any painting around my office only something akin to the annual stock-take at Dixons, yep an artist I repeated, I can’t say he looked convinced but he didn’t pursue it, weapons is what he was after and once again they failed to look in the sofa, which I should mention is a style common in Syria with a storage cupboard under the cushions.

As I continued to think about my inevitable departure from Syria I packed boxes and re-arranged the house, I wouldn’t be able to take very much with me so it was just a case of preparing the house for someone else to live in, I decided perhaps the sofa was not such a cool hiding place despite getting away with it three times, I found a narrow gap beneath the closet and slipped it under.
Getting a good night’s sleep was becoming an increasing problem, the noise of the gunfights or the sudden silence, either way it was hard to switch off, sleep was always interrupted, always.
I leapt startled from my bed again, I slept dressed these days, the hammering at my door worse than the shelling, I swore I would replace the metal door with a wooden one after this mess is over, which according to one very well informed friend would be a couple of months, I let the soldiers in and went through the charade again, this visit it slowly dawned on me was slightly different, only my house was being searched this time and not the neighborhood, the raid was being conducted by a Moukabarat officer not military, I recognized him although I couldn’t remember from where, they choose the night because you are half asleep and can’t think straight, I remained polite and answered the usual questions, they searched the house undoing the boxes of books I had packed up, this time they did look inside the sofa but by now it was empty, they bid me goodnight and departed.
I allowed myself a momentary smile of self-satisfaction even though I was under investigation and one way or another would end up either kicked out of the country or well, dead probably.

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Damascus The Beginning of the End ( PT6)

I knew what I was getting into moving to Syria, I knew the risks, I have no regrets, my bank cutting me off and leaving me without funds was to say the least fucking annoying, it’s hard to imagine being made bankrupt is the least of your problems, I could live with the war, I wanted to stay in Syria as long as I felt the risks were calculable, Syrians had to live with this and if I was being denied the opportunity to photograph what was happening at least I could bear witness, the media was as is no surprise all over the place and hardly giving a true picture of the situation.
My issue with the Moukhabarat was obviously something to worry about; for the most part I had been following Kipling’s advice and keeping my head, it’s just routine everybody would tell me, if it was serious they would have come for you, the Old City was crawling with security these days and I wasn’t hard to find, if they did surely my blood coloured British passport would save me from diplomatic embarrassment, my embassy and minions needless to say had long since fled, I had placed all my faith in a corrupt not very secret secret policeman, one thing stuck in my mind, the words of the soft immigration officer, after telling me I was wanted at the intelligence building he advised me not to go.
I sat on my terrace, shielded from snipers, ignoring the shelling and read Eat Prey Love; a book so annoying I wanted to throw it into the air and see if it got shot to pieces. When the power was working my television viewing was just as banal, ten years of being detached from popular US/UK culture I was now well versed in Kardashian catchphrases.
Wasseem would call and tell me where and when I should meet him, numerous visits to filthy offices, usually I would wait outside, at the passport office in Merjeh I sat at the guards desk and watched as several detainees were lead away handcuffed and chained to each other, the filed through the reception area and up the stairs, nobody paid any attention, now as I think about it I hardly paid attention only looking up from the messages on my phone as they passed.
Cruising the clogged streets of Damascus with Wassem as my chauffer had its advantages, closed roads were open to us, checkpoints were just a formality as we skirted around long queues of those waiting to humiliated; a friend had been arrested at a checkpoint a few weeks previously, when he asked why he was told “we’re arresting everybody today” Wassem would pepper me with questions about my financial situation, the value and size of my house with obvious thoughts in the back of his mind, he had an agenda and was helping me not only for the few hundred dollars we had agreed but had his eye on a bigger goal, despite his position he never questioned me on the current situation which was unusual for those connected to the regime.
A battle was raging a few streets away, I climbed to the roof to get an idea of where it was happening, some neighbors had the same idea but they thought it prudent to bring the children too, as if the collapse of the country was entertainment or a video game, suddenly bullets were flying above my head and striking the satellite dishes, I ducked instinctively for cover although I knew I was shielded by the higher building, my neighbors on the other hand were not and made a run for the stairs, the shooting only lasted a few minutes but it gave me plenty to contemplate after, how far do those bullets travel.

Things were not looking any better.

Damascus Old City
Damascus Old City