Travel Advisories, or Going to Lebanon

Ever since we started laying out our Syria travel itinerary, we faced the question: Should we go to Lebanon? The Syrian is Lebanon’s sole overland border (the border with Israel being closed), and Beirut is only about 3 hours from Damascus. The two countries share a great deal of history, having only been divided into separate political entities in the 20th century, by the French. All in all, the two countries make sense to combine into one itinerary. We even had a dual-entry Syria visa, making it easy for us to visit Lebanon and return. [Lebanon itself issues visas on arrival at the border. Syria will also grant visas on arrival at the border with Lebanon, but the wait can take several hours, especially for Americans.] Even after we decided to spend at least most of our time before Iran in Syria, we much wanted to visit Baalbek, which is said by many to be the greatest Roman ruin in the Middle East and can be daytripped from Damascus.

But weighing against these facts were the travel advisories we read. The U.S. State Department “strongly urge[s] that Americans defer travel to Lebanon and that American citizens in Lebanon consider carefully the risks of remaining.” This is a fairly high standard of warning from the State Department, telling Americans who are already there to consider leaving. The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against “all but essential travel” to Lebanon, and urges special caution “when travelling in the Northern Beka’a valley and the mountainous areas bordering Syria where extremist groups and smugglers continue to operate” and “on the border with Syria, where the situation remains tense.” Our trip would of course take us to the border, and Baalbek is in the Bekaa Valley, a “stronghold” of Hezbollah. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s advice for the Bekaa Valley: “Do not travel.” [And for the rest of Lebanon, “Reconsider your need to travel.”] To top it off, we met one American who had just spent time in Beirut and was dissuaded from going to Baalbek by his Lebanese host, who believed it unsafe.

Then we met in Palmyra a Frenchman who was working for the UN as an observer in Lebanon, and ensured us that Baalbek was fine. Some others we spoke to in Syria also thought that Baalbek would be perfectly safe, and we had heard of other tourists (including tour groups) going to Baalbek with no problems.

So we went, as a daytrip from Damascus. The ruins? Phenomenal, but I will save that for another post. As for safety? There were some Hezbollah posters up, but they looked no different than ads for any political party around the world, other than perhaps the dress of the candidates (camouflage and religious dress). [Hawkers near the ruins were also selling souvenir Hezbollah t-shirts.] There were several military and police checks on the way, which in this instance gave a feeling of security, that things were under control. People in the town of Baalbek were friendly, and, coming from Syria, seemed quite modern and western, with significant visibility of Christians as well–I personally could not see it as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. At least from the way things went for us, not to go on safety grounds would have been silly.

Perception of safety is a funny thing. On our way back to Damascus, we met a Lebanese man who, upon hearing that we were going to Iran after Syria, reacted strongly negatively: “Especially since you guys are Americans… Are you sure you want to go there? Is it safe? Do you think it’s safe for you? Unless you’re Rambo. You should go to Dubai, Syria, Lebanon, these places. Not Iran.” Another, “You’re going to Iran, but you’re wondering whether Lebanon is safe?” Note that the U.S. State Department only says that one should “carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran”–a much lower warning than Lebanon. And Iran, for all of its tension at the geopolitical level, has not recently been in a state of war, like Lebanon. Yet the Lebanese people, who consider their country western-friendly and modern, and indeed it is in many ways one of the most western-friendly and modern in the Middle East, can’t imagine that home could be potentially less safe than an Islamic republic that is considered a threat to the west.

What we’ve been using for travel advisories:

We find that the U.S. State Department’s website (link) is hard to use, and the travel advisories needlessly formally written and uninformative. The UK and Australia seem to do better jobs, and, after some looking around, I decided to subscribe to the mailing lists provided by the UK FCO. Updates are incredibly prompt, catching timely stories such as the recent Tibetan protests, risks related to upcoming elections, etc., all emailed directly to me. FCO Website. Australian Website, also with email subscription. We’ve also asked a friend familiar with our itinerary to keep up-to-date with the travel advisories and the news and update us by SMS with any important news, in case we are unable to check email/websites.

On a related note, we found that the Scottish Department of Health maintains an excellent travel health website, Fit for Travel, with the most detailed malaria maps we’ve seen (although I wonder whether Hainan Island is really malarial).

May addendum: Given the recent violence in Lebanon, perhaps one should pay more attention to travel advisories after all! I do think, however, in a country as sophisticated as Lebanon, it would be relatively easy for a tourist to steer clear of danger.

What Things Cost in Syria

To give a basis for comparison, an electrician working in the oil industry we spoke to said that he makes approximately 30,000 Syrian pounds (USD 600) each month.

falafel sandwich – 15 SP (USD 0.30)
chicken shawarma sandwich – 35 SP (USD 0.75)
can of soda (usually local brand) – 15-20 SP (USD 0.30-0.40)
dinner for two at a top restaurant in old city of Damascus – 1000 SP (USD 22)

one liter of fuel oil (diesel?) – 22 SP (USD 0.50)
one liter of unleaded – 50 SP (USD 1.10)
one hour minibus ride – 10 SP (USD 0.20), thanks to the subsidized fuel
taxi base fare – 5 SP (USD 0.10) (but it starts ticking immediately)

reasonably comfortable, good value hotel room in Damascus, outside old city – 1000 SP (USD 22)
upscale hotel room in refurbished house in Damascus, old city – USD 150-250
decent two bedroom apartment in Damascus, near university – USD 400
admission to museums, sites – 50-150 SP (USD 1-3)
hammam entry – 200 SP (USD 4)

As in other parts of the Middle East, there has been some serious inflation of late!

Hammam

Public bathing is a part of many cultures, from Scandinavia to East Asia. (I grew up going to public baths and love a good scrubbing.) Perhaps the most famous bathing culture, however, is the Roman one (I and many others probably have been in almost as many Roman bath ruins as actual functioning modern baths), which survives today all over the Middle East (though, as far as I know, not in Italy). In this post, I thought I would describe the experience of visiting an Arab hammam (pretty similar to Turkish hamams, at least from my limited experience).

In Syria, hammams are located all over the older parts of cities, sometimes just blocks from each other. Some hammams, especially the older and nicely refurbished ones located in central areas, attract some tourists and are accustomed to our relative inexperience with bathing protocol. Although some hammams have occasional hours for women, public bathing is more a masculine habit.

You enter the hammam, which is often located a few steps under street level, into a large open room (in Latin, apodyterium), which has platform seating lining the walls. This is the room in which you start and finish your hammam experience, in the beginning by removing your clothes. A hammam attendant furnishes you with a towel that you use to cover yourself at all times in the hammam (despite the fact that you are in a male-only environment, being completely naked is forbidden–more on this below).

From that open room, you go through a series of sequential rooms, ranging from cool (in Latin, frigidarium) to warm (tepidarium) to hot (caldarium). There are small rooms branching out, where you do most of your washing by scooping water from drainless basins that you fill with faucets. There is usually a steam room as well. In the Turkish baths I have been to, there is a large (often octagonal) marble platform in the central domed chamber, on which you can rest, and be scrubbed and massaged by attendants. In the Syrian baths I have been to so far, there is no such platform, the scrubbing and massaging being done on the floor in a separate area. [Some Syrian baths date from the Ottoman period, but many are much older.] When you’re done, you go back to the main room at the entrance, where your wet towel is replaced by a dry one, and additional dry towels draped on your torso and wrapped around your head. There, you sit and relax, drink tea, smoke nargileh, watch television, read a paper, whatever, until you are ready to leave.

Back to nudity, or the prohibition thereof. The strangest thing to me about the Arab/Turkish bathing experience is that you are always partially covered. In Turkey, at least in my experience, this is done with a relatively small piece of cloth (“pestemal”), which remains at least partially on (covering your genitals) but still gives you sufficient access to clean effectively. In Syria (and presumably other parts of the Arab world), the cloth is closer to a full-fledged, large (though thin) towel, making clean your nether regions a little trickier (though still doable). To someone coming from a nude bathing culture, to be naked while washing seems somewhat obvious. (I have not been to a Scandinavian bath, but I imagine in the enlightened north they even have nude co-ed bathing facilities–but I could be wrong.) Even in the non-bathing West, public nudity is something we grow accustomed to in lockerrooms and does not cause undue anxiety. (One hotel gym we saw had private changing stalls within the men’s lockerroom–I assume this is universal in the Arab world as well.) I do not know the history, but presumably the Romans (even if they did not love nudity as much as the Greeks) bathed nude. Perhaps the towel was a Christian Byzantine invention (although I believe that in the Byzantine period bathing as a whole was viewed as something of a pagan excess) or a Muslim one (lovers of modesty).

I think staying covered eliminates suggestions of homosexual curiosity and activity, which might otherwise be associated with an all-male environment. It is as if it is feared that, were the towels to come off, the hammam would turn into one huge orgy, people unable to contain themselves. And such fears are not totally unfounded. In Ottoman times, Turkish hamams were so well-known for offering (on a pay basis) same-sex sexual services that gay men are still called, in Turkish, “bath boys.” We heard from one Arab man that his parents told him when he was young not to go to hammams. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he knows as an adult that it was because they feared him being exposed to “inappropriate” sexual activity, which is apparently surprisingly common. When we discreetly revealed to a shopkeeper in the Aleppo souk that we were a couple, one of the first things he said was to ask whether we had visited a hammam, as though it were something we particularly would find of interest.

Keep your distance! Painted on a wall outside a hammam in Damascus.

And, perhaps the most revealing and surprising story: Back in 2001, when we were visiting Turkey, we met a ferry captain who was very friendly to us, largely because he had had positive experiences with my compatriots. Now, this middle-aged man was clearly heterosexual–he was married with children and kept sharing with us (in a typically macho Turkish manner) his various sexual exploits while sailing the world. He let us ride in the front of his boat in Istanbul and offered to take us around with his wife around his neighborhood, an offer we did not take him up on. As part of his neighborhood tour, he said he could take us to a hamam, a real good one that wouldn’t rip us off (some do, offering tourists really substandard service for inflated rates) but provide full service for (I believe it was) about ten dollars. The shocking part was the hand gesture he made when he said that the service would be complete–the universal motion for male masturbation. He sort of laughed it off afterward, but it was not at all clear that he was joking. Ever since then, we were wondering–do middle-aged, straight Turkish men really go get handjobs in hamams? The more I learn about hammams/hamams, I think the answer may be yes.

Food in Syria

Syria doesn’t really have a cuisine that is unique to itself, but rather shares a cuisine with Lebanon (and certainly overlaps with other Mediterranean countries, such as Turkey and Egypt). As you may know, Lebanese food is generally considered the most sophisticated and tasty in the Middle East (why so many Middle Eastern restaurants are called Lebanese restaurants), and so one could say the same about Syrian food.

The most common foods for the budget traveler, cheap, quick and ubiquitous, are felafel, shawarma and mini-pizzas. You are probably familiar with at least falafel, which are deep-fried chick pea patties usually served in a sandwich. Felafel in Syria is generally made in the form of a little doughnut, which increases the crunchy surface area relative to a sphere or disk, the other common shapes. The felafels are crushed on the bread as the first step of the sandwich assembly. I’ll miss felafel in the months to come–they are not only cheap and tasty, but the combination of the savory, crunchy fried felafel with the cool refreshing salad can be a real pleasure.

Shawarma, which comes in chicken or lamb, is a vertical spit meat (similar to doner or gyro) that gets gradually cooked by a heat source and sliced off, usually into sandwiches. The chicken variety is usually cheaper than the lamb, and also tastier. We were told that 30 chickens are used to put together a full shawarma “pole.”

Lamb shawarma on the fire

Chicken shawarma, being sliced

Raw chicken shwarma

Mini-pizzas (I imagine they have an Arabic name although I do not know it) come in many varieties, including perhaps most exotically a salty thyme (?) one that is green (I believe the Arabic is zaatar). They are baked in great big ovens, and if not fresh hot are reheated for you.

Variety–zaatar on left

More conventional pies, hot out of the oven

Stepping one step closer to restaurant food, but also cheap, common and served just off of the street in smaller shops, are foul and fatta. Both are derived from some combination of chick peas, tahini, olive oil, beans and perhaps some meat, served with bread.

From a restaurant in the Aleppo souk

Finally, the most common restaurant food, or what I think would be considered core Syrian-Lebanese cuisine. As with food in Turkey, my belief is that the foods below actually do not make up the bulk of what a Syrian household eats on a daily basis; rather, there is a sort of separate repertoire of dishes that one would cook at home. This latter category of food is somewhat inaccessible to tourists, but we were able to sample it at some simpler restaurants where pre-prepared food is served from bins (as we had once in Turkey and not dissimilar from the manner of serving at basic Latin American restaurants in the U.S.). This food is also delicious, but harder to describe as a cuisine–an assortment of stews served with rice, in contrast to most restaurant food, which is eaten with bread. I imagine that the split in the cuisine has a historical/ethnic history. [Speaking of rice, there are also restaurants that serve what is called “bedouin” food, including the dish mensaf which is a biryani-like mixture of seasoned rice with meat. My guess would be that the rice cuisine is of eastern origin while the bread cuisine is more natively Mediterranean.]

Anyway, back to the restaurant. You start your meal (as in Turkey) with mezze, which are hot or cold appetizers that are shared by the table. Each cold mezze generally costs something around 50 SP (or USD 1), although the serving size and quality of course differ. The most common cold mezze are spreads with which you are likely familiar: hummus, moutabbal, babaganoush, and so forth. Hot mezze, which are somewhat more expensive, include pastries with meat inside, sausages, grilled eggplant, etc. Also eaten earlier in the meal are fresh salads, most commonly fattoush (our favorite!) and tabbouleh.

“Arabian salad” in front, similar to fattoush though with different dressing, moutabbal on rear right and beans on rear left

Our favorite babaganoush, in a restaurant in central Aleppo

Muhammara, made with walnuts and pomegranate juice

In Turkey, we found and heard that mezze often takes over the meal, but in Syria we saw that people generally do order main dishes, which means grill items–some form of kebab. Predictably, there are chicken kebabs and lamb kebabs, the latter coming in ground (meatball-like) and unground (chunks of meat) form. In some restaurants, we found the standard of seasoning and preparation to be quite high.

Chicken kebab (shish taouk), served with fries

Kebabs grilled on the street, nighttime Aleppo

Note the bread being used as a plate–bread is always free in Syria and often used as a plate or cover for served kebabs.

Sweets. Some restaurants do offer desserts, but I believe the local sweets are eaten more often as snacks than after-meal finishers. Syrian sweets, which include a form of baklava, are sold everywhere, and are somewhat expensive. We also purchased (from the factory featured in my 4.19 post) really great marzipan-ny cookies that were in the form of macaroons (the mini-sandwich, not the coconut, kind). A more basic local dessert called muhalabiya is a form of rice pudding, though not as delightful as the Indian variety.

A sweets store in Hama

Pistachios are a common feature of sweets

Beverages. The most common beverage in Syria, as with much of the Middle East, is tea. Like in Turkey, it is served highly sweetened in small cups. In addition to tea, Syrians also drink yerba mate, imported from Argentina (the history of this may be related to Syrian emigration to South America). Coffee of the Turkish variety is also available, as is the universal “nescafe.”

Tea being sold in a shop. The tea is Syria is almost always from Sri Lanka.

From a coffeeshop near the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Fresh juice is also available from specialized stands, served in gigantic glass mugs for about 50 SP, or USD 1. The juice guys also make a pretty good banana milk.

Blended fresh

One special drink we saw, and one that all foreigners seem to love, is lemonade with mint. One person we met said that it goes well with gin!

Sandstorm!

While we were in Palmyra, a Roman-era city with extensive ruins on which I hope to blog later, we experienced a first (for us), a sandstorm. Below are pictures showing what it looked like from our hotel window. We could first see the storm approaching from a distance, as the quality of the light changed. Oddly enough, in the beginning, despite the surreal orange light, it wasn’t so bad to be walking around, although we could tell that we were breathing some dust; things got worse later as accumulated sand started blowing around. The whole storm passed by in about 12 hours. We were told that the storm came from Iraq and was worse than usual (speculation: social disruptions in that country resulted in greater erosion?).

View from our window, on a normal clear day.

At the height of the sandstorm. Note that this is happening mid-day–none of these photos have been retouched and the color is purely from the dust/sand, which around Palmyra is a pinkish orange.

A bit later, it turned white. The sandstorm also seemed to have an “eye,” when things were briefly quite calm.

Didn’t get in the way of his nap! Hanging on the left are dates, much sold in Palmyra.