Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Syria Is A Dream, But Journalists and Lesbians Are Not Allowed (Memories of Pre-War Damascus)

There is a snake in the courtyard. And I'm not talking about Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, even though God knows I should.

No, this is a tiny but poisonous snake. You wouldn't expect to find one in the middle of Damascus, but here it is at the Danish institute, waiting to bite a degenerate Dane and all the other authors, scholars, and painters who are working and studying at this gorgeous place.

One of the Syrian guards catches the snake and puts it in a glass. "It's very dangerous," he says with a big smile and starts to play with the 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 the middle of the Syrian capital.

"And now," the guard adds, "we're waiting for the snake mother."

Some of the other guests go pale.

"What ... what do you mean?" an older scholar asks nervously. He's only used to deal with Rumi, so this is a little bit too real.

"The snake mother will come to seek revenge, of course" the Syrian beams.

That night none of us sleep well at the institute. We are all waiting for an angry mother snake, attacking us through our bed sheets, ready for the kill.

I'm reminded of this innocent scene from my 2007 visit to Syria.  Those were the days when Bashar-al-Assad and his state psychos had everything under control.  Luckily, they don't anymore. Syria is coming undone, and I hope things will end well because the Syrians are some of the most generous and warm people I've ever met.

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 construction is from the 17th century, but one wall is actually from before Christ. It used to be part of a Roman structure. So here I am, surrounded by sultans, baby snakes, and the smell of apostles and curry.

I've always been crazy about the Middle East. Maybe it's because my grand father was born in Safed eighty miles away, in what today is Northern Israel. He was born Jewish but his father was a Coptic Christian with an Arab background, so I'm happy to say I carry that confusion inside of me.

One of the many fantastic places in old Damascus is the Umayyad mosque, which is among the most important in the Muslim world. It's a ten minute walk through the suq with its donkeys, silk vendors, and water bearers.

The mosque is not just a place for prayers and agitation as we like to think in the West; it's also 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 actually Norwegian," I smile. 

"Thank you so much. I'll bring this important information to my professor," he says solemnly.

Zeid is a nice guy. His English is decent, so I take him to a restaurant with my favorite lesbians from the institute, the Danish author and critic, Leonora Christine Skov and an illustrator friend. It's Ramadan. Everybody is chewing on their head scarfs, but most Syrians succeed in being pleasant until around 5 pm. Then they just can't take it anymore.

When we return to the institute, we're told they have found three more snakes. A  few hours later, a Syrian terminator shows up. He looks like a reptile himself, sticking his tongue out, putting out poison in every conceivable hole, including some of my mine. 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."

However, the Institute is always infested - it's full of hidden microphones, and several of the people who work there are definitely informants. We are probably followed when we venture out into Damascus. Syria is one of the most efficient police states in the Arab world, and at one point, a local shop owner tells me that he is forced to have a picture of Assad on the wall.

"I would have preferred Cameron Diaz," he says.

The snakes finally disappear from the institute. Or so it seems. You never know with the Devil.

One day I visit one of the many Internet cafes in modern Damascus - a place that looks like East Berlin in the sixties. As usual, most of the visitors are local men watching porn. I try not to notice their erections, but I'm sure the secret police does.

I want to publish a piece on my blog, but is forbidden in Syria. It's hardly surprising because the first time I was in Damascus was forbidden. My second time here it was Yahoo's turn to cause the wrath of the regime.

Leonora and her friend have the same kind of problem. When they try to get into the official Danish website for homosexuals, they are met by the stern picture of Bashar-Al-Assad, may peace not be upon him.

In a certain sense, it's all very logical. Bashar-Al-Assad sees everything. Before he became a dictator, he worked as an eye doctor - my condolences go out to the world of optometry. But soon, his regime will be history. Let's pray for that. Syria deserves a lot better, so I'd like to dedicate this blog entry to all the Syrians who have had enough. May Allah and all gods in the universe be with you.

March, 2011 (I visited Damascus and worked there on two of my novels in 2003, 2004, 2007, and loved it)

**********All photos copyright Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent
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