One of the Syrian guards catches it and puts it in a glass. "It's very dangerous," he says with a big smile and starts to play with the small reptile. I almost feel sorry for it. A snake doesn't look right in a tea glass. On a desk. In the Danish Institute in Damascus.
"And now," the guard adds, " we're waiting for the snake mother."
"What ... what do you mean?"
"The snake mother will come to seek revenge," the Syrian beams.
That night none of us slept well at the institute. We were all waiting for an angry mother snake, cuddling up in our beds, ready for the kill.
The Danish institute is situated in an old Arab villa in the suq in Damascus. When you walk out of the door, you're in the middle of 1001 Nights. It's a magical place with a small fountain, gorgeous walls, and a high iwan. The villa is a national treasure. Most of the building is from the 17th century, but one wall is actually from B.C. It used to be part of a Roman wall. So here I am, surrounded by sultans, baby snakes, and the smell of curry and coriander from the suq.
I'm crazy about Damascus and the Muslim world. It's the third time I'm here, and I've just finished my new novel which is a fairy tale based on Arabian Nights, the poet Rumi, Boccacio, Andersen, the Grimm Brothers, Greek legends, and my own sick imagination. It takes place in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Mali, Nicaragua, Brazil, Tibet, India, Switzerland, Russia, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, and God forbid, Iowa.
Yes, I think it's damn good, but why would any one believe somebody as unreliable as me?
I feel like opening a lunch restaurant. Only tourists eat in the middle of the day. The poor locals (may peace be upon them) have been fasting since day break. The Syrians are wonderful people but around 5 pm they get nasty. THEY WANT SOMETHING TO EAT. They can't wait for that sun to set. They start chewing on their head scarfs, they run their bodies into lampposts. The true Muslims can't even have a glass of water, even though it's 92 degrees in the shade ....
I love the mosques in Syria. One of the oldest in the world, the Upiyyad, is just around the corner. I go there to meditate and to bury my ancient feet in ancient carpets. The mosque is not just a place for prayers and meditation. It's a place where kids play grab ass and where you meet a lot of Syrians. One day I run into Zeid - a student of English literature at the University of Damascus.
"So what writers do you study?" I ask.
"William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Henrik Ibsen," he says.
"Henrik Ibsen is Norwegian," I tell him.
"Thank you so much. I'll bring this important information to my professor," he says solemnly.
Zeid is a nice guy. His English is okay, so I take him to a restaurant with my favorite lesbians from the institute. Things have changed in Syria though. Three or four years ago, almost everybody was honest. Now a lot have been caught by the cash cow syndrome. Tourists are taken for a ride; you don't get your change back; strange items are added to your restaurant bills ("Fried camel legs, I never ordered fried camel legs!"). Unfortunately, I always get mad when people try to take me for a fool. Sometimes I get into large arguments because I've been cheated out of 78 cents. Quite pathetic if you ask me but at least I'm aware that I'm a moron.
They found three more snakes today.
A Syrian expert shows up at the Danish institute. He looks like a reptile himself, sticking his tongue out, putting out poison like there's no tomorrow. After half an hour, the whole place stinks like a chemical plant..
"We've never had snakes here before," the secretary complains. "Only a few adorable scorpions in my office."
She starts to go through her desk, looking behind the tables, hoping not to find any baby snakes. For the first time in my life, I actually start to look where I go. But hopefully the snakes will be respectful of the Ramadan and only attack us after sun set.
One night when I'm having dinner with a Syrian friend Sameer, I run into Jacques. Jacques is an older French gentleman who has two jobs. He works for UNESCO (job number 1) and does nothing (job number 2). "I prefer doing nothing," he says.
After the food, he invites me and a French student of cheese (!) to see his home in the old part of the town. It has a gorgeous court yard, beautiful 18th century rooms and a roof top with an obscenely beautiful view of Damascus. We drink arak, looking at the lit up mosques and the mountain side where Kain killed Abel. Oh yes, those were the days.
On my way out, Jacques shows me his bedroom.
"You told me you're interested in history?" he asks.
"In that case, I want to show you my favorite carpet. It depicts a historical event you might've heard about."
He points to the carpet. I look at it. Then I look at it again. It shows the twin towers and two airplanes blasting into them.
"Do you think my carpet is in bad taste?" he asks innocently.
"If it's meant as a celebration, it sure is," I say.
"Well, if you look closer, you'll see the reason I love it. Up in the left corner you see George Bush's head. Every morning when I get out of bed, I step on him and that makes me feel so much better."
I look at him for a second: "Do you mind if I step on him as well?"
I step on the president, then I step on him again. It feels good. But then I start to feel sorry for him. Just like I did for the snake in the glass.
Two more days left.
The snakes are gone from the institute. There is nothing to fear any more, only the milk going sour in the kitchen.
Our villa is the nicest in Damascus. What has Denmark done to deserve this? Is it because we gave the world Hans Christian Andersen and Lego? All the other countries have their home base in modern Damascus which looks like East Berlin in the sixties, just without the Skodas.
It's my last day in the Syrian capitol. It's been a great stay. I did't even get the runs, but God knows I tried.
I want to put this piece on my blog but fogtdal.blogspot.com is forbidden in Syria. It's not that surprising. When I was here in 2003, hotmail.com was forbidden. In 2004, it was yahoo's turn. And when my lesbian colleagues tried to get into the official Danish website for homosexuals, they were met by the stern picture of Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator, may peace be upon him.
Maybe it's not surprising that Bashar sees everything. Before he became a dictator, he worked as an eye doctor.
"Mend your ways," he says to us all. "Mend your ways, you neo cons, you westeners, you lesbians ..."