vacation


I heard about it ofter and thought it was a myth, but it was real and not only was it real… it was FANTASTIC! What am I talking about? The Cairo Metro.

The Cairo metro gets you to most places in the city for One Egyptian Pound. Yes you read right, 1 Egyptian pound. But that is not the beauty of this metro system. Nor is the cleanliness of the stations of the cars, since they were clean. Not a piece of rubbish in sight! The best thing about this metro system was the two women only cars! The thought of being in mass transit and not be harassed, jostled, touched or grabbed by a man was such a relief. I was so happy about this that I took pictures of this amazing idea. What was even more surprising was that I learned today that there are other places in the world where this is implemented.

Now this makes me both happy and sad. Happy that I can ride the metro in peace. Sad that it is necessary. I dream of a day when we wont need to segregate men and women for fear of violence. Until then, I will ride the women’s car when I can and complete my journey with one less thing to worry about.

Women's Section

Section of the Platform where the women cars stop.

Women's Section

Section of the Platform where the women cars stop.

Women's Car

The Car- text on top reads "Women only until 9 pm"

This year I did one of my favorite things, I ventured into the desert, and instead of writing about it I am uploading a few pictures of that breathtaking place.

Wadi Hetan- (Valley of the Whales)- Fayoum – Egypt.

Wadi Hetan

Wale bone fossils

Wadi Hetan

More beautiful fossils

Wadi Hetan

More desert :)

Wadi Hetan

the whole spine!

Wadi hetan

An Amazing sky :)

Wadi Hetan

The clouds were inspiring

Wadi Hetan

A close up of some the fossils

Wadi Hetan

Whale food- fossilized mangroves

Wadi Hetan

Doesnt it look like a turtle head popping out of its shell?

So this is a stretch for a number of reasons including my lack of knowledge of this city, so here goes nothing…

1- Go for a walk on the Ain Mrayseh Cornish next to the sea and walk all the way to the light house- its free

2- Have a manousheh or Lahmeh b3ajeen- depending on where you get it from its 1$- 3$

3- Have cheesecake at Bread Republic in Hamra – its pricey but worth it. If you get the coffee you may jump the 10$ mark.

4- For as little as a dollar you can ride the old Ferris wheel by the sea side and they will stop you at the top and you can look out to sea from way up high!

5- Go to Dawra and try and find an Ethiopian restaurant, the food is interesting and the quizzing looks on the faces of the Lebanese when you tell them you are looking for an Ethiopian restaurant are amusing! It’s a treasure hunt that is rewarded with a big meal at the end. It would cost about 10 dollars.

6- Walk through the streets of Gemayzeh and Achrafieh to look at some old buildings that are quaint.

7- The national museum is tiny and a bit boring, unless you take note of three things in there that tell you more about the modern history of the city rather than the ancient one on display, the clue is look for the artifacts that have been affected by the civil war- FASCINATING. Ticket is a few dollars.

8- This might put you over the ten dollar budget but I highly recommend you splurge on an Armenian meal- the food is different and really good. Try myrig or mayas for a nice meal.

9- Take a walk through AUB- it’s the greenest spot in the whole city and can be very relaxing.

10- One of my favorite things to do on a Monday night is to go to this tiny little place called l’ Osteria in Mar Mikhail to listen to some live music. An orange juice is 3 or 4 dollars, have more and you jump the budget- but its worth listening to, especially if you sit outside on the street. The music starts at 9:00 pm.

I’d love to hear more about what to do in Beirut for under 10 dollars from others to since I am still exploring this city and trying to learn more about it. So add a comment with your favorite things to do here and lets go exploring!

This weekend me and a couple of friends decided to go to Damascus to see Ziad Rahabani in Concert. We unfortunately could not get any tickets so instead we made use of our time by walking through the old city and enjoying what old Damascus and its souqs had to offer. And I realize that when in Damascus there are things that I like to do, things that become ritualistic and others that are habits.

On my last trip I was introduced to a lovely popular restaurant called Abu Al Ezz (أبو العز) which serves the best meat pies or pastries, sfei7a. They come in a yogurt sauce or a tomato sauce. Both are delicious and well worth the walk down the alleyway past the throngs of people. When you walk into this place, you see an oven and three men continuously making the delicacy. But walk up a short flight of steps and you walking into a restaurant of three levels that can seat around 400 people if not more.

I love this little place at the end of Hamidieh. Its on your right just as you walk out to the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque. Here you walk up windy old basalt steps lined with all sorts of handicrafts and antiques. At the top of the stairs is a little deck that is also littered with goods and in the center, beautiful old chairs that you can sit on and look out to the square and the mosque from. I like this shop and it is a ritual of mine to visit it whenever I am in Damascus. I like to look around and walk through and try and see if there is anything I like. Unfortunately this time there wasn’t. anything that caught my fancy, but I still enjoyed the view from the top.

The Nawfara coffee shop and its story teller Abu Shadi are staples in my visits. I can never really tell what he is saying but for half an hour I am back in my childhood listening to a theatrical voice, tell a story of some hero or other fighting battles, reciting poetry and wooing women. I keep saying this, storytelling is a dying art that needs to be revived and this man may not be the best but he is one of a few, and infact the only one I know of who does this on a regular basis and can be counted on to present everyday at the same time and the same place, without fail.

Do you know Mahmoud Shahin? An artist and a writer who has a little shop where he sits every afternoon painting away as times goes by? I stop at his shop every time to say hello and chat for a few minutes. This is a wonderfully old man who has a lot to say in his own way about how the world works in words and in colors.

On this trip I also did something new. We all went to the National Museum. This is a huge complex made up of about 30 large halls full of all sorts of artifacts from different eras and civilizations. Walking through I was reminded of the museum in Cairo and of the artifacts in Jordan. And just as I thought oh boy not another stone I walked into the last two halls, where I perked up with joy at seeing beautiful old books, and scriptures. On them was writing in all sorts of Arabic scripts and illuminated in the most beautiful of ways. I enjoyed pouring over every page laid out. And just when I was done with that I walked into the woodwork room to see some beautiful old workmanship. So exquisite, so detailed, so beautiful, I love every piece of craftsmanship in that hall and if I could I would have taken them home with me. We were also lucky to see the art exhibition that was up for the month. Six halls full of Syrian Art some of it old from the 1920’s and 30’s and some of it new. The museum which at first I thought was going to b e a letdown, turned out to be a wonderful way to spend the morning.

Damascus is an interesting place. I don’t know much of it outside the old city walls. And I am quite content to keep it that way. But I did make it out and got to see a different Damascus. One that is new, modern, and glitzy. I kept thinking I was in a different world, and was very happy to return to the old part of town. It never ceases to amazes me how there are different worlds, side by side. Old and new, affluent and poor, modern and traditional all in one small space. I like being able to move between them, but my heart is an old one that likes worn stone and wood, old cobbled streets, and history etched in the atmosphere and peoples bones.

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
I’ll and show you it faces
I’ll show you its places

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
You can hear it voices
You can feel its pulses

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
It is as old as time
It has many stories to tell

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
You can write your own history
Make your own tapestry

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
Meet the players
Feel its rhythm

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
A walk through antiquity
A walk through history

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus
See it through my eyes
See it through new eyes

Let me take you for a walk in Damascus  

We walked everywhere in the old city. We usually started and ended our walks from our hotel, The Haramain. Part of the walk was under a bridge where an old man resided. Every time we walked by there he was there hunched over an old tin can full of blazing firewood. This is a sight I never expected and broke my heart whenever I walked by. I always wanted to stop and talk to him, ask him why he lived here and slept hunched over his tin. I never got the chance because he last time I passed I had worked up the courage to do so, but he was gone and his tin was strewn aside with all the ashes scattered all over the floor. I wonder what happened to him, what he has seen, where he has gone, and what will be of him. 

The old woman of Damascus in Bab Sharqi though was very forth coming with her story, she stopped and spoke to us of her children, her travels, her health and only left us to continue her walk in the neighborhood after wishing us all the luck in the world and muttering a small prayer on our behalf. 

Our walks also had us stumble across a writer and artist who told us of his political imprisonment, his atheist writings and his love of women. He was a welcoming man with a vivid brush and a sharp pen. He was also a generous soul, and invited us back for lunch the next day. Unfortunately we couldn’t oblige. 

No visit to Damascus is ever complete without a stroll to the Nawfara Cafe. There if you time your visit right you can sit in the warmth of the café and hear the storyteller tell his tale. He spoke of an old Arabic hero Antar Bin Shadad. He spoke with humor, anger, passion, and anticipation. He involved us all and made each of us feel special. His art is a dying one and I believe he is the last of his kind that still tells the stories of old. 

The characters of the city are many, you can find them all over. The story teller, the twirling dervish, the baker making sfeiha, the man roasting fresh chestnuts in the street, the shop keeper who is a collector at heart, the artists, the old lady going to church, the men playing backgammon in the street, the bar keeper, the homeless, the children playing in the streets, the mothers, the fathers, the visitors and the residents. They are all there, no visit is complete without them, no walk realized without an interaction with at least one of them. 

The people make the place and the place makes the people. Damascus is one with its people. The city is in their faces, their voices, their actions. 

 

I try my best to leave the country whenever there are ritualistic festivities. Last Eid I made it to Sri Lanka, this time I crossed the northern border into Syria. I went with a few friends and from the minute we set off till we came back the hilarity never stopped. 

Our journey started off on an interesting note. We were told at the border that our Syrian car could only cross after three in the afternoon! And so after our driver sweet talked the guard and my friend and I joked and flirted (Jordanian style) we were let through with no delay. 


We arrived in the early afternoon at my favorite hostel, The Haramain. The Haramain is an old Damascan four storey house. The basement is dedicated to laundry and showers. The first floor is the tiny lobby staffed by a couple of very friendly young men, and once through the lobby you see the small “bahra” a typical fountain found in the center of most of the houses’ courtyards. This foyer is surrounded by 5 small rooms with wrought iron beds and tiled with old beautifully colored tiles. A lopsided wooden staircase creaks as you climb up to the first floor also with 5 rooms each with narrow long windows looking out at the alleys surrounding the hostel. The rooms here are charmingly simple also tiled beautifully and housing big old iron beds. The rooms all open to a small sitting room furnished with brown leather couches and armchairs that make an ideal setting for meeting other travelers passing through the city. This place has charm, and a comfortable energy that is laid back, making you feel you really are at home.


After dumping our stuff in our rooms, we walked out towards the old city, which is a lazy 10 minute walk away. The old city of Damascus is by far the most charismatic place in the city. The streets and alleys are well worn by the feet of the many that have traversed through there. The many souks covered and otherwise are an intricate maze of color, sound and people. 


Wherever we went I was struck by the simplicity and the commonness of our surroundings. The people if judged by their dress and outward appearance are conservative, yet they were out in droves at all hours of the day and night walking, playing, loving, living and just being. Men, women, and children, the babes, the young and the old were all out despite the stereotypes in our heads that these conservative societies are closed and hidden. They were enjoying the antiquity of their city and it was a refreshing sight to see. 


Also surrounding us was the beautiful old architecture of the Umayyads, Ottomans and many others who have left their imprints in metal work, wood, stone, and masonry. All around us was antiquity in a modern space. Walking the alleys and streets of the old city was like walking through time. There were turns that lead down narrow streets with windows set high and doorways leading to all sorts of lives and pleasures. You never knew what to expect when turning a corner or walking through a door way. I will never forget the tiny door that only showed a baker making delicious pasties and a stairway. Walking up was the marvel of storey after storey of a restaurant. That tiny doorway was an entry way to a restaurant that seated over 250 people without trouble and it was constantly full with a waiting list! That doorway was not the only one of its kind many a marvel waited behind a small wooden door for us to stumble upon it. 
 


Once such doorway led down a staircase into the Umayyad Palace Restaurant. There under beautiful arches and amidst gorgeous collections of antiques, memorabilia, artwork and inlaid furniture we were treated to the beautiful sounds of oud and some exquisite music that relaxed the soul. But it was not just an experience for the eyes and ears ever sense was treated with delicacy. The smell of kina and jasmine floated to us from the burner where the leaves were soaked in water in an old iron engraved pot on top of the burner. The eyes were treated with reverence with the beautiful surroundings and if that wasn’t enough then there was the performance of the twirling dervish, who spun around for us, twice, with such grace and elegance. Our taste buds were also indulged to a culinary feast with a four course buffet laid out before us to choose whatever we fancied. Who knew that such an experience was at the tip of our fingers once we pass through a simple doorway in a simple alleyway off the side of the mosque. 

Another doorway led us to a museum called the Azem Palace. This was huge old house with three main areas: The Haramlek, The Khadamlek and the Salamlek. These are the family area, the servants area, and the reception area respectively. The house was a fine example of how families lived with the different quarter clearly defined and separated and non interfered with the day to day life of the family. This stop was also a clear example of how nothing is truly closed! Parts of the museum were “closed” for renovations however, with a kind word and a beaming smile we were let through to the Haramlek which as I mentioned was closed for renovation. We sat in this huge courtyard that had a fountain and a small pool, beautiful citrus trees and a small band of cats. They were following the caretaker around, for he feeds them daily. We were introduced to their names and they played and sat with us for a while. Today they alone are the true inhabitants of the palace. 

At complete odds with what it led to was the doorway to Villa Moda, set in the heart of the old city, with a huge old wooden door opens to the most luxurious, most lavish and most expensive designer wear available in the city. It was in such contrast with everything around, meant to shock, awe and intimidate. 

Regardless of where the doorways led, they were beautiful. Some were huge with smaller doors within others were just the right size, and others required us to duck down as we walked through them. As I was inspecting one such door I turned around to see a swarm of children who suddenly gained the same interest in the door and about 10 boys wanted to help me peer through and open the door. I was astounded at how fast I went from being alone to being circled by these ever helpful boys, that it was so comical I couldn’t stop laughing for a full 10 minutes. 


 

But not everything we saw was through a doorway. Some of Damascus was laid out before us and for more on the Damascus we experienced read the next post: A Walk Through The Land of The Umayyads.

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