Another Nasty Couple of Weeks Damascus Syria

Another Nasty Couple of Weeks Damascus Syria

4 March 2012
Another nasty couple of weeks have passed, carnage and killing in Homs and beyond, two brave journalists died for trying to tell the truth, they chose to risk their lives believing that showing the world what is happening in Syria would make a difference, they like thousands of Syrians were killed for what they believed in.
Getting to the truth these days despite the digital age is just as difficult as it has always been, I am spending less time watching and reading the news regarding Syria, FB and Twitter equally tiresome, in all cases we have to draw from whom we trust for accuracy but it involves wading through a mountain of shit to do so.
A few nights ago while making my way to Mocha and More in the civilized surroundings of the Four Seasons my musing was interrupted by an explosion, not huge but not fireworks either, as I rounded the corner seconds later I watched the Four Seasons security guards extinguishing a few flames under a parked car, it was nothing, a small car parked on the corner opposite the now closed Taj Mahal restaurant, after the smoke had cleared there was no sign anything had happened, it took an hour until Twitter had the answers, the Four Seasons had been attacked, a sound bomb in Abu Ramanah, Molotov Cocktail thrown at high ranking officer, several people saying in fact there was no explosion, like everything else in Syria I really only base my opinions on what I see and what I hear.
One thing that did stick in my mind was a conversation with a friend who had been at the funeral in Mezzeh that drew such a huge crowd, it was not the tale of snipers shooting at peaceful mourners, not the gangs of Shabiha that flooded into the area to break things up, not the local residents opening their doors to the fleeing protestors, not the bit about bullet dropping out of the side of the stomach of the wounded man while trying to compress the wound, what really struck me was him telling me how much he had shouted and screamed at the regime, going home hoarse, a quiet mild mannered educated young man seizing the opportunity to vent so much built up anger, like so many others around the country.
People are of course still cautious, its amusing to see how suddenly conversation will stop when you happen upon people in the street, eyes glancing from side to side, talk resuming as you pass out of earshot, though not always the case, as I walked past the court building the other morning the area swarming with security as usual, I overheard a man openly cursing the “Shabiha cunts” to his friend as he correctly identified a bus load heading out to the suburbs.
The regime clearly has support but I like many others can feel a palpable change in Damascus.

Damascus Morning Raid

Damascus Morning Raid

It was dawn; I was lost in that moment between the conscious and unconsciousness of sleep, then the sound of heavy boots thumping the cobbled stones in the alley outside, in my confused state I didn’t understand what I could hear, then suddenly the sound of the stock of a gun being repeatedly bashed against a metal door, the fog of sleep banished in a second as I sat stone still, within seconds the shout of “jeish” screamed at the unanswered door, I sprang from my bed and stumbled into my trousers, comically tripping as my heart and mind raced, I through a coat over my camera bag and slid it under my desk, then the same bashing on my door, my heart heaved through my chest, I shouldn’t have been so surprised as the army had been searching houses in the Old City over the previous couple of days, I hadn’t quite realized they were going literally from house to house and had assumed just to those suspected, I opened the door and the soldier just stared at me and said nothing, other soldiers were milling around in the alley while others were going in and out of my neighbor’s houses, yes I said half expecting him to have opened the conversation, “jeish” he shouted at me, oddly I was calm, he was the same height as me and I smiled and said I could see he was the army, I handed him my ID which he had not actually asked for, he looked a little confused and passed it to a superior, they seemed a little amused when they read it expired in 2015, I invited them inside and they questioned me, had I any weapons, now there’s a funny story I thought but decided against mentioning the fact I did in fact have .22 air rifle hidden inside the sofa, I knew it was harmless but didn’t feel in the mood to tell them the very amusing story of the rat and the gun dealer, no I said, no weapons, had I seen anyone with weapons in the area he asked, my eyes glanced at the four Kalashnikov wielding soldiers poking around in my laundry basket and said I hadn’t, they didn’t look very hard and did their best to be polite, the plain-clothed superior handed back my residents card and said I was welcome, it was my house but I didn’t feel very welcome, they all filed out, I closed the door and my heart started to thump again.
Diary from Damascus 14 August 2012

Damascus Diary: Sunday July 29th 2012

Damascus Diary: Sunday July 29th 2012

As a photographer my eyesight is naturally enough the sense I most rely on, these days though since I am denied the opportunity to use my camera it’s my sense of hearing that seems to be working overtime, almost every morning the jarring sounds of conflict wake me from my sleep, yesterday the sounds continued throughout most of the morning, today they seemed to have paused, I sit with my morning coffee waiting for the noise to return, during Ramadan mornings tend to start very slowly, most of my neighbors seem to be still asleep, for a few minutes the only sound is of the sparrows darting about the rooftops.
By midday the peace is shattered this time the noise an explosion the fills the air and shakes the foundations of my house, the outside walls I am told are 400 hundred years old and I wonder if at any time in the past they endured such torment, another bang and I feel my stomach flinch, the sounds are much closer today, how close I can’t really tell, a couple of km’s maybe, what must that noise sound like there I wonder.
It’s a little unusual here to go to bed before midnight, its summer and Ramadan, not to mention the war, midnight is ambitious to say the least, still it’s what I attempted to do, in my mind I knew it wouldn’t work, a phone call maybe or just the neighbors TV, I lay down and drifted off, it was just twenty minutes later the sound of automatic gunfire had me jumping from my bed, this time the shooting was very close, sustained bursts, I heard Hassan and Osama running franticly back home, best friends they often hang out at the entrance to our alley, the shooting and small explosions were reverberating all around, the fighting was clearly in the adjacent alleyways, I dressed and tried to workout in my mind what scenario was being played out, the Old City is not what you would describe as strategic to anyone, the sounds were coming from all directions, very close but also from further away, I had little option but to stay in my house, I wanted to go to the roof and get a better idea but bullets had been zipping in the air above my head, I was pretty sure whatever nightmare was being played outside that I would be safe in my house, I never thought of myself as a typical Englishman but nevertheless I put the kettle on and made tea, I listened to the sound of different weapons being used, not knowing the type just the seriousness each sound makes, was this just another clash, the like of which I had been hearing for months in other parts of the city or was this the beginning of something even worse, as awful as things have been all over the country I knew things could still get worse, the fighting continued through the night, the sounds mostly further away from my house and less sustained, I heard the dawn call to prayer from my local mosque and not long after that I fell asleep.
By morning peace and quiet had resumed, my natural inclination was to go out and see what had happened but part of me was in no rush, when I eventually I did life seemed back as it was, no obvious evidence of the previous night’s gun battles, I spoke with a few friends who had differing versions of events, more rumor and hearsay, the media seemed slow on the uptake but were soon to imply sectarian motives, the two eastern gates of the Old City; Bab Touma and Bab Sharki are easily labeled as government loyalist areas, a simple assumption but only an assumption, the fighting though was not confined to those areas, most of what I could hear was from the Bab al Salam area, ironically meaning The Peace Gate and further to west, the Old City is easy to carve up into sectarian portions but in reality its very mixed, like the rest of Damascus, mixed by sect and mixed in loyalty, there are many making mischief out of this, the majority of Syrians I speak to are more than aware of this and are refusing to fall into the trap, the Syrian people are being tested to the limits, I have great faith in their ability to overcome this appalling time.
Sunday July 29th 2012

Help a Syrian Child

Help a Syrian Child

Every day my Facebook time line is filled with pictures of your beautiful children, their birthday parties, dress-up Halloween, guitar practice and first day at school, happy moments you share with friends and family, I love this insight, the peek into another life often far away.

So I want to share with a photo of a little girl who’s life is not so happy although with her straw blonde hair, blue eyes and knowing smile she could easily be a part of any of your families or friends, but she isn’t, she is unfortunate enough to live in a tent on the side of a freezing windswept hill in Syria, her Mum is not instagraming pictures of her blowing the candles out on her birthday cake she is just too busy trying to stay alive, she is not there by choice, she has fled the horror of war, she would love to go back home but she can’t.
She could though with a little help and kindness benefit from a wonderful educational program organsized by the Karam Foundation called Zeitouna; is it really too much to ask for you to make a small donation or at least share with your friends the link-please?

  • Please click on the image for details


Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

I have to confess Aleppo has never been my favorite city in Syria, I tried often to like it, after a decade of life in Damascus I guess I succumbed to the Shami perspective of preferring the capital, that said I did enjoy my frequent visits, the bus journey though was tedious, five hours of monochrome monotony apart from a brief glimpse of greenery while passing through the gardens of Hama, arriving in just the wrong mood for a city too busy to woo me the way Damascus would, I preferred the train, leaving on the midnight sleeper and arriving just after dawn, it was a longer journey but at least sleep was a possibility, arriving in any city by train is infinitely preferable, Aleppo station has seen a great deal of history pass along its platforms, the Berlin to Baghdad posters have given way to Bashar’s but the essence has been retained, well run and spotlessly clean with toilet facilities a joy to behold, not that you would, in 2003 the management even had the foresight to agree to hold the Syrian International Photography Gathering arranged by the eponymous Issa Touma, I remember old Bedouin farmers stepping off the train from the north east and pondering my images with genuine interest before heading off to do battle with the businessmen of the souk.
From the station into town is a casual stroll through a well-kept park that early in the morning is always busy with joggers and walkers, old and young, Christian and Muslim, male and female, Versace sweat pants and ipods, sitting on park bench sipping coffee it would seem to me it that it was almost compulsory that every facet of Syrian society was represented, the fountains and pools the manicured lawns, you could learn more about Syria sitting here drinking coffee than you ever would staring at Saladin’s stones, judging by the media representation of Syria recently I get the impression though that nobody ever did, so let’s stroll on to the souk, and yes it’s a labyrinth and an assault on the senses, lets gaze up at the medieval marvel that is the citadel and remark that it is, indeed imposing and then let’s turn our backs and walk away.

Another Damascus Night

Another Damascus Night

The ancient walls of my house are a foot deep and yet still the noise from outside passes through them as though they were wafer thin, generally it’s a pretty quiet neighborhood, the children are loud and boisterous when they play but it’s hard to be annoyed, they don’t stray far and they don’t sit in front of TVs playing video games, when I was the same age I played in the street and we made our own entertainment often at the expense of others and more often than not the local copper, I have not lived in this hara for that long but already I watched toddlers having their first day at school, cheeky girls starting to wear the Hijab for the first time and becoming a little more coy with it, teenagers leaving school at the first opportunity just as I did and aimlessly hoping for some kind of a job, I know all their names and they know me, when I return home I get high fives from them all, they call out my name when they see me in the Souk, culturally we are poles apart but underneath we are pretty much the same.
Last night I was lost to my dreams when the noise from outside interrupted them, in my muddled state it took me a few seconds to recognize the sound of boots thundering along the alley, images of Monty Python were just starting to form when I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked, the metallic click clack had me fully awake and on my feet, it was 2.30 am, not for the first time were soldiers going from house to house but this time they were going straight for somebody specific, whatever was going on outside for a few minutes passed me by I as dressed and grabbed my papers, soon they were marching off again with whoever it was they wanted, then the women started to screech and curse, the other neighbors were coming out, everyone was shouting and one women either wife or mother was hysterical saying she had no idea why they had taken him, then the children all began to cry, it occurred to me for the first time that some of my neighbors have babies and until now I had never once heard them cry, compared to what is happening all over the country just now this episode was brief and hardly noteworthy but the utter desperate sadness of this awful crisis crushed me, I thought I could live with the sound of the bombs and bullets but not the screams of a mother and her terrified children.
Syria is a country like any other, her people are like you and me and they are all suffering immeasurably.
(September 2012 Damascus Syria diary update)

Fragments From Notes On The Book Of Defeat

Fragments From Notes On The Book Of Defeat

If an audience could be arranged
and also my safe return
this is what I’d tell the Sultan
This is what he’d learn:
O Sultan, my master, if my clothes
are ripped and torn
it is because your dogs with claws
are allowed to tear me.
And your informers every day are those
who dog my heels, each step
unavoidable as fate.
They interrogate my wife, at length,
and list each friend’s name.
Your soldiers kick and beat me,
force me to eat from my shoes,
because I dare approach these walls
for an audience with you.
You have lost two wars
and no one tells you why.
Half your people have no tongues.
What good their unheard sigh?
The other half, within these walls,
run like rabbits and ants,
silently inside.
If I were given safety
from the Sultan’s armed guards
I would say, O Sultan,
the reason you’ve lost wars twice
was because you’ve been walled in from
mankind’s cause and voice.
Nizar Qabbani

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Sitting in an café in the Fatih district of Istanbul I file my pictures; a rare story this time of Syrians doing pretty well for themselves in exile, I enjoyed the same Syrian food I ate with my friends in Damascus, now all exiled themselves, Abo Nour was shoveling Ma’anish into the oven as fast as he could, from Shargour in the heart of the Damascus, a true Damascene anyone will tell you comes from the heart of Damascus and he was putting his heart and soul into baking the Ma’aish, the waiters were buzzing around bundling up the take away orders for the queue outside the shop, the café I am now sitting in is a reasonably upmarket patisserie and many of the customers are also Syrian, they made me smile while they stumbled with their Turkish, Syrians making an effort to look after themselves while their country is ripped apart and the world turns its back, while my pictures upload I read a new dispatch from Syria, a tale of gung ho and daring do, the world needs to learn what is happening to Syrians yet we read more and more drivel, I try to stifle my anger, two Syrian women are in fits of giggles as they order sweets from the counter beside me, mixing Arabic and Turkish to their, mine and the patient assistants amusement, I pay the bill and head out into the rain, despite the weather I decide to walk, as I pass a park I notice some huddled figures sheltering from the rain, I go closer and see several children huddled together and guess they are probably Syrian so I go over to them, an old guy stands up as I approach and eyes me with caution, I say hello and he welcomes me, his name is Hassan and he’s from Saida Zeynab in Damascus, his friend is from Aleppo, the kids look on curiously as we chat, he’s been sleeping rough on the streets of Istanbul for a couple of months but thank God everything is fine he tells me, he tells me of a problem he had in Damascus I and I tell him of a similar experience of mine and he shakes my hand furiously in acknowledgment of my understanding, I bid them all a good night and make my way home, the rain has eased and its not, thankfully, very cold, I think again of the article I read earlier and the injustice it does to Hassan and the forgotten people of Syria, I will go back and see him again tomorrow and maybe bring him some Ma’anish from Abu Nour, baked with the heart and soul of Damascus.

Syrian Tears in Istanbul

Syrian Tears in Istanbul

On my way back from applying for my Turkish residency a process that reminded me so much of being back in Damascus, not only the chaotic bureaucracy and complete lack of information but also the fact that the building was full of Syrians, a babble of various Syrian dialects grumbling at the 200 Turkish Lira fee, a small price it may seem for security but still a hefty sum nevertheless for most, handing over my privileged claret passport cost another 175 TL on top of that, I also grumbled in various dialects but mostly cockney, the air of despondency followed me into a shopping mall just down the road, sitting beside a water fountain performing to orchestral commands beyond my comprehension, I logged onto Starbucks fading wifi signal while some tourists from the far east snapped away at the aquatic display.
A more depressing globalized environment would be hard to imagine I thought as I surveyed my surroundings, once again it’s the Syrians that grab my attention, this time a young women pushing a child in a buggy, she looks upset and as though she’s about to burst into tears, she’s followed by a couple of young lads, aged about seven and eight they all sit down on the step of the plaza and no sooner sitting she does burst into tears, the boys are kicking their heals, soon they are joined by who clearly must be her husband and another son, they are well dressed, not wealthy but typical Syrian middle class, families like this I would see everyday shopping along sharia Hamra, her tears could be nothing more serious that the usual marital trauma brought on by a visit to overpriced shopping mall but I can’t help feeling it’s another sad Syrian story, he paces around the plaza trying to call on his phone, he seems agitated and looks as though he is just trying to do something, anything, he knows it’s his job to solve the situation and he is making the calls, the look in his eyes show a lack of confidence, the women is sobbing non-stop and I just want him to go and comfort her, I want to go and talk with them but I don’t, over the last almost three years I have witnessed the tears of Syrians sobbing countless times, on occasion I have tried to console but what you can you say or do, futile reassurance that everything is going to be okay, they really do seem like a nice family, they seem lost and out of their depth, I have listened to the conversations before on what to do for the best, to leave Syria or stay, to go where and do what, how much money do we have and how long will it last, what country accepts a Syrian passport, who will give me a job, what about the car and the house, what about the rest of the family, the decisions to leave are not easy, she sits there alone tears running down her face, like the nation she has left behind, alone and broken.