We crossed the border from Jordan to Syria in a cab, our driver humming along to various Islamopop songs on the radio and zig-zagging through traffic. There were five or maybe six checkpoints, all of them involving giving up my passport and being squinted at by men in army suits. The Syrian border customs, when we finally arrived, disliked my visa and changed it from multiple entry to single entry, and to only last a week. I was happy not to have any more hassle than that; I’ve known people who were stopped at that dusty border for days.
We got into Damascus in the late afternoon and headed for the center of the city, a twisty maze of hodge-podge mudbrick and stone buildings. I took lots of photos of the mudbrick and plaster and tiny lanes full of people in a hurry. After a very circuitous wander and some of the best mezze of my life, we ventured down the dark alleys of the Christian quarter. Turning around one corner, we ran into a procession of Christians singing with lit candles, taking over the entire street. We looked at one another, shrugged, and joined at the tail. The lights flickering on the walls and the faces of the people was achingly beautiful.
The next day (if I’m remembering–it seems like ages ago now!) we went to the museum and then to the souk for some serious wandering around. Melissa and I waded through a large protest, with a person speaking into a microphone in obvious distress and flags and Palestinian scarves were everywhere. It was only later that we figured out that it was a protest over the IDF tragedy. Before that day, when we told people that we were American they’d smile and nod, and sometimes say, ‘OBAMA!’ After that, it was: ‘well, we can’t all be perfect’ or a just a slight grimace and nod. Still, the protest was entirely peaceful and people are beyond friendly.
After Damascus we went to an incredible coastal site and Krak des Chevaliers, but my time is running out on the internet. Tomorrow: Palmyra.
(Actually written from an internet cafe in the tire souk in Aleppo–I’m a bit behind! Also, sorry about the photos. I left my computer in storage in Amman)
I’m probably the only one among the hoards and hoards of people that felt a bit sad when I climbed to the Acropolis in Athens. Its destruction and reconstruction over the years gives it an uncanny feeling, and the measures that preserve the site make it also feel sterile and a bit fallow. I’m spoiled, of course, and used to climbing up and over ruins and poking my nose into all of the dark corners. But it was more than that, just a sense that people were there for a photo that they could send back to their friends, regardless of the greater meaning contained within the monument. I took the same photo, of course.
It doesn’t help that I have been reading a new book called Ruins of Modernity to review for the Visual Studies journal–ruins are in high relief this summer, with all of the interpretive baggage they bring along. More about that later, though. The Acropolis museum, on the other hand, was incredible–a very strong argument for the return of the infamous Elgin marbles, recent economic struggle aside. My favorite part wasn’t actually the display that mirrored the Acropolis, but the lower levels that displayed assemblages that had been excavated from recent sites, with interesting and fairly in-depth explanation. The glass floors showing excavations added a nice metaphoric sense to it all, with layers of history literally beneath your feet. Sadly you could not take photos within the exhibit–always a poor choice for museums.
The city of Athens was incredibly lovely. I think my favorite moment was walking down a meandering alley in Plaka behind an orthodox priest, watching him looking at all of the anarchist graffiti covering the walls. The graffiti was covering nationalist graffiti, with sections crossed out–vandalizing the vandals. The more touristy zones were a bit crazy with African immigrants selling all manner of things and being periodically harassed by the police. Cats and dogs fought over scraps and I watched the full moon rise over the city.
I hope that I can go back someday and spend more than a day and a night exploring the city.
Today is my last full day on Zakynthos, a medium-sized island in Greece. I’ve been staying in a small town called Kerri, at a house up on the hillside, overlooking the small bay below. Ancient olive trees cover all available space; there is one growing in the middle of the courtyard where we sit in the mornings and bask in the sun–my friend’s parents could afford the land but not the tree, so someone else comes to cultivate it each year. I suppose I didn’t realize that the trees were so methodically shaped and grown, or that they were such a precious commodity, especially when they approach a thousand years old, such as the tree down in the village. The trees here grow smaller olives with bigger pips which make them hard to eat but they are fantastic for making olive oil.
It’s been a fairly slow few days, as a holiday should be–mostly eating, drinking, and swimming. The beaches are mostly white pebbles and are a bit rough on the feet, but I managed to find some nice, small round ones for a backgammon set yesterday. The water is still fairly cold, but clear and blue and we took a boat out yesterday to cruise around the coast. Zakynthos, like most Greek islands, is a karst landscape, made out of limestone. One sheer cliff had thousands of layers in it, millions of years of geological time.
The house I’m staying out doesn’t have power, much less internet, and it’s been relaxing to get away from the hundreds of departmental emails and the constant noise of social networks. The candle-lit dinners and improvisational cooking have been nice features–buying fresh ingredients every day instead of relying on a refrigerator. Warm showers would be nice though.
Tomorrow I’ll be off to Athens for a short day in the city, then to Amman to start work once again. It’s going to be hard to leave!