Back in Britain. I may have arrived without my luggage (that only got as far as London) but I have had an experience which will stay with me for life. And while I may have not had a sudden revelation on my road to Damascus, there are some valuable lessons in life that travel always seems to impart.
Forget the vile cold I’ve been struck down with and the lack of sleep, the journey brought me into contact with some generous, fun and lively people. The image of the Middle East as a place of oppresive regimes and religious strife couldn’t be more out-of-sync with the secular, open view of the world I encountered in Syria.
As far as the food goes I’ve learned how a proper Tabbouleh should be constructed – mainly chopped parsley, about a quarter chopped mint and chopped tomato – no bulgar and absolutely no cucumber – with lemon juice and a little oil.
I’ve marvelled at the crispy saltiness of the bread sold on the streets and the flowery, fragrance of the herbal tea. I know now that I don’t like unripe almonds eaten complete with their furry coats dipped in salt but that the boiled apricot sweets which are so chewy are a wonderful thing.
I didn’t see any sheep being carried through the streets or singing kickers. I did see a lot of young people enjoying their leisure time and a culture where family life is central.
I’ve experienced traditional hospitality and I’ve truly valued the friendship of strangers who have gone out of their way to be welcoming even when the language could have been a barrier.
It may be goodbye to Damascus, a wave to this view of a city surrounded by mountains, but I feel a return visit could be on the cards.
Ice-cream with elasticity. There’s another first. Wandering through the crowded markets of Old Damascus I was led into a cafe where room upon room of people sat enjoying a unique type of ice-cream. Although ices are commonplace across Arab countries, this particular type of ice -cream can apparently only be sampled here in the Old City. The photographs adourning the walls showing the King of Jordan, the Queen of Spain and other such famous figures tucking in to the dish, bear testiment to its special status.
It’s a vanilla and comes sprinkled with crushed pistachio and served in bowls. Made on the premises with the milk and vanilla being transferred from large drum to large drum, solidifying as it goes, it is finally beaten with a large wooden implement a bit like an oversized pestle.
I was told that it is this pounding of the mixture which is unique to this particular product. The resulting ice-cream is creamy and sweet but also has a remarkable elastic property, behaving something like cooked mozzerella cheese.
I do have pictures but sadly the local telecoms provider doesn’t support MMS so will update the blog with pictures when back in the UK.
Syria is another great tea drinking nation. Tea for breakfast, to help digestion after an evening meal, for a break with friends and oiling the wheels of commerce during business meetings. The tea is strong, more often served black and always sweet with servings of sugar delivered alongside.
So I was surprised to see the familar yellow label Lipton attached to tea bags, on advertising and even adourning kiosks dispensing tea in the street.
For most foreign travel, in my experience, Lipton yellow label means only one thing – flavourless weak tea for which several tea bags are needed to make anything resembling a British stand-your-spoon-in-it cuppa. But here the Lipton yellow label tea knocks Yorkshire Tea into the long grass for strength.
Intrigued about this turn around, I took a look at the Lipton website hoping for answers. Sadly though Syria doesn’t exist on their list of countries supplied. Shame no-body told all these tea sellers.
Another first under my belt. A sheep’s head for lunch. I think I may have been a little rash to accept the kind invitation to a traditional lunch.
For some reason I thought it would end up being a type of lamb stew – a sort of comforting hot pot in a foreign land. There’s no way I could have imagined the enourmity of what I’d agreed to.
Sunday being a working day in the Arab world (Friday and Saturday are the weekend) it was off to work for me this morning.
Avoiding a serious road crash on the way – something that must be celebrated as a daily achievement with traffic travelling in no particular lanes and with no “give way rules” – my working day finished with the invitation to lunch courtesy of one of the culture journalists at the newspaper I’m working at and a guide book publisher fo the city.
I was shown into the upstairs of a small entranced restaurant into a large clean space where the waiter proceeded to wrap the table with polythene. Innocently I asked what was happening “it looks like they’re preparing for an autopsy” I joked.
Four bowls of thin, brownish soup were delivered.
It was clear and smelled strongly of lamb. Salt, pepper, cumin and fresh lemon were served alongside what was essentially a lamb stock. I tried a few mouthfuls but found it a rather too full on taste.
No need to worry about getting hungry though – a table full of courses soon arrived. First there were lamb’s tongues in yoghurt, then the famed sheep’s head meat, then stuffed intestines, lamb’s feet, stuffed stomach and finally sheep’s brains.
This was a lesson in offal the like I have never seen before, almost an autopsy in fact.
My hosts tucked in with gusto – sleeves rolled, diving in with hands and thoroughly enjoying the feast. I sampled a little of almost everything (the brains were really too much for me) using techniques I had seen on a television programme where an anorexic explained how she had kept the condition from her parents for years.
Talking a lot, remarking on the food, chopping it up, moving it all about and dropping bits onto other plates.
I think I got away with it.
For the record, just about any part of a sheep seems to taste (perhaps not unsurprisingly) of lamb. It’s just the textures that differ. The head meat was very tender and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from a quality cut of any other part of the animal. The tongues were sweet and tender, the feet very gristly and the stuffed stomach something like haggis. The brains remain a mystery.
Several hours later, and still feeling a little queezy, I took a walk through the Old City of Damascus. It’s an endless labyrinth of steets selling everything imaginable.
As I turned a corner and waited on the street for the traffic to slow enough to cross the road, a butcher’s shop caught my eye. Hanging outside was something very furry and quite large. I couldn’t work out what sort of animal this might be but, moving closer, I finally understood what it was – a camel’s head and neck.
Suddenly a boring sandwich at my desk seems quite appealing.
The gratuitous use of the camel picture is thanks to AntonioA at Flickr.
What a day. I’ve sampled my first hubble bubble(shisha) pipe, been a passenger in a car with nine people crammed inside for the first (and probably last) time and taken in my first views of Damascus at night from the Syrian mountains.
Seems the surprises just keep on coming.
A traditional Dasmascene breakfast kicked off the day rather late once I’d recovered a few hours of sleep.
Incredibly salty local cheese, pickled turnips and olives, hummus, yoghurt and boiled eggs were a tonic. All beautifully presnted and film-wrapped across every inch as if some Christo-inspired kitchen assistant was improving his craft – even the spout on the teapot was clingwrapped!
After a brief business meeting I was treated to a true Arabic experience in a vast coffee shop.
Every table had the hubble bubble on the go. Not unlike the atmosphere in a pub, people gather for a chat, to smoke to share with friends.
Although smoking really is no longer my vice – when in Rome!
The tobacco is fruit flavoured – in this case it was apple – and because it flows through water isn’t hot or acrid in the slightest. (And no, there are no other drugs involved). The ornate pipes are delivered to each table with waiters dropping round and topping up red-hot chunks of tobacco mixture for as long as customers stay.
And it’s not just the odd cafe where this happens – it seems to be standard across the city. I must conceed it is a very social way to interact with people, but eating and sitting around in a smokey atmosphere just feels alien to those of us for whom the UK smoking ban can’t come quickly enough.
A late lunch or early tea (it took that long to order, serve and enjoy) took the form of a feast of traditional dishes in a multi-level restaurant on the Old City.
Sitting at tables on a mezzanine floor above a courtyard with orange trees I was treated to a whole range of dishes thanks to a Syrian journalist’s family and their hospitality.
We had Arabic spiced pot roast chicken, craked wheat dumplings filled with spiced lamb, fatta and hummus, pickles, a pancake stuffed with creamy chicken and mushroom, tabboulleh and – french fries.
This was all washed down with an amazing mint lemonade – just stuffed with crushed mint leaves – and followed by yet more smoking.
Walking through the amazingly narrow, cobbled streets of Old City where the upper floors of the building nearly touch overhead, an old Buick seemed to appear from no-where to take us all to the mountains above Damascus to see the spectacular view of the city at night. If you’ve ever attempted to get five adults and four children into a car you will appreciate the squeez. Two adults in the front seats, three in the back and the children ranging from a 14-year-old to a three-year-old down the centre of the car.
Speeding over the bumpy roads through the chaotic traffic was a hair-raising experience – and one that prompted some second looks from other motorists.
As we sipped hot chocolates (and did some more smoking) in one of the many restarants on the high ridge over the city I certainly did marvel at the view. And wonder what more surprises are in store.
On my travels again, this time to one of the countries named as part of the so-called “axis of evil” – Syria. Leaving behind the relative safety of Manchester for a week in Damascus is certainly a first for me. It’s a work-based trip to carry out some online training at a national newspaper in Syria but of course I’ll also be checking out the food.
So with the prospect of everything I do and see being a first, I’ve been doing some research.
And on my favourite topic of food, one thing I learned from this extensive travelogue is that its not unusual to see a person carrying a live sheep through the streets.
Seems a bit extreme to my spolit Western eyes but, according to this photographer, refrigeration isn’t standard in most households so taking the animal home is one method of ensuirng the lamb is fresh.
A bit of a contrast to departures at Heathrow (pictured above) where not only can you browse in Harrods but you can pass those hours waiting for your flight feasting on lobster and caviar. The best I could do at Manchester was a pannini – isn’t it time we raised our game a bit?
Although anyone researching this part of the world can’t avoid genning up on the extremly sensitive political situation some of the stranger facts that I’ve gleaned about this fascinating and cultured country bizarrely includes the existence of singing ladies’ underwear.
According to the New Statesman (which isn’t prone to flights of fancy) the range of lingerie on offer in Damascus would leave Victoria with a rather red-faced Secret.
Thongs with tweety-pie decorations which sing Kajagoogoo songs and even bras which play through a rendition of “Old MacDonald”. Now those I have got to see!
I’ll update the blog as often as is feasible. It looks like there could be some surprises in store.