Alistair Caldicott

Opening Up the Middle East

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Chapter 10 - Having the Stomach for Sheep's Balls

By nightfall, Damascus had retained its daytime warmth a little, but the temperature was more pleasant. I decided to bite the bullet and take on my first proper sit down meal for three days. Syria's capital city had its fair share of smart, fancy restaurants tucked away down its winding streets. But the restaurant I chose was very close to the prophetically named Martyrs' Square.

After studiously browsing the menu, I kept things simple, unsure how my stomach would react. So it was vegetable soup and some potatoes, with the complimentary flat bread. Things seemed to be going down OK and my new found hunger was not quite sated, so, after surveying the menu for something a little more exciting, I thought, "What the hell, let's go for the sheep's testicles."

For some reckless reason, I couldn't let the opportunity pass, but would I have the balls to order it? I thought it best not to think it about too much and hurriedly beckoned the waiter over to blurt out, "Sheep's Testicles!" It made no noticeable impact, and he casually marked it down on his pad, as if I was simply ordering more bread, leaving me to catch my breath, and contemplate what I had just done.

Momentarily, I called him back and very lamely attempted to explain I only wanted to try them, so did he have any small ones? I gesticulated "small" with my hand, which must have looked rather ridiculous.

"No Sir, same size for each plate." was the matter-of-fact reply. At this irretrievable point of my dilemma, I had a quick look around me. The omens were not terribly reassuring. Nearly all of an already small number of diners had made their way out of the restaurant; a couple of waiters looked to be redundant, while another had started to sweep the floor, as if the end of the evening was imminent.

Worse still, I was seated facing the front door. This meant I wouldn't be able to see the waiters arriving from the kitchen, a long way behind me. I also caught glimpses, and could hear the sound effects of large, metallic trolleys sliding up and down the aisles. For for some reason it implanted in my mind the horrifying image of one of these trolleys screeching up to my table, with a whole sheep lying on it, bleeding in the last throes of life, just so I could eat its balls. You could guess the rest.

I steeled myself, trying to think other nicer, different, distracting thoughts. Every now and again, I kept a firm eye checking on the front door escape route. However, it was a civilised anti-climax in the end, as a bowl of diced grey looking meat, garnished with salad and vegetables, was smoothly eased in front of me. And I have to report the texture of this menu item was surprisingly tender, slightly similar to liver, but I could not manage more than a couple of mouthfuls, as I tried to hurry it down with plenty of bread and water. One man's meat was another man's poison and I hoped not to lose any sheep over it.

After that experience, I definitely deserved a beer, but had to make do with tea. So slightly gingerly, I began easing myself by foot into the Damascus night, for what turned into a longish walk. Moving away from the landmark Umayyad Mosque, I followed a group of animated locals to see whether they might lead me to some hidden corner of nighttime activity. Damascus was that sort of city. You had to know where all the best places were hidden away. If there was such a place, I totally missed it. My search to find a cold beer was nothing more than hard, dry work.

Nonetheless, the winding cobbled streets and tunnel-like alleyways had a definite sense of timeless, mazey charm in the murky darkness. They symbolised a city, which was intriguing, but rarely threatening. Some passageways were only just more than an arms length wide. Cats darted in and out of furtive shadows. It was close to midnight as I finally navigated my way back to the famous mosque for some late-night tea with the locals, mostly all of them men.

By early morning, the Damascus climate had started to cool noticeably, perhaps hinting that the fierce heat of summer was mellowing into more gentle autumnal fare. Although the quick piercing jabs of mosquitoes still unpleasantly accompanied a nights sleep, which necessitated a blanket in the early hours. From the hotel roof, the noisy closeness of Damascus' main road traffic slowly blurs and blends into a sound like sea waves. Although it was Sunday, it was more like a Monday, as the city swung back into a frenzy of life and activity again. Once again, I got held up well before my intended destination, becoming majorly distracted by what was catching my eyesight along the way. I couldn't get away from the animal theme, which continued. On the street cages of colourful birds were stacked high and jammed upwards on top of one another, budgies and pigeons mostly, I think.

Then I looked closer; rabbits, white cats, owls, even tortoises also piled up - pets of all shapes, sizes, feathers and furs stacked up next to each other. I suspect Syria does not have a RSPCA and you can see why. These stallholders were doing a roaring trade, captivating small crowds with special species and offers. Even the sheikhs stopped texting on their mobiles to catch a glimpse. Many of the animals looked like they were expecting Rolf Harris and Animal Hospital to come to their rescue.

Pressing on over the main road bridge down into the old city proper, more eye-boggling economic activity thrust its way into my vision. Fruit, dates, nuts, spices, sweets all bursting out competing for attention like one big endless market stall. The narrow, twisting back streets were shadily draped with hanging foliage, vaguely in the French colonial style, rather similar to the old Quarter of Hanoi in Vietnam. I stood to watch a man, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Osama Bin Laden, serve tea to another man dressed like Yasser Arafat. Anyone could hide away here.

Inside the main thoroughfare of the covered souq, everything was trading at full throttle. After the rambling stalls and congested streets outside, it was considerably more civilised and more along the lines of a shopping centre. Tidy boutiques crammed everything inside. I saw women in black veils and burkhas, implausibly rummaging through racy looking red lingerie and bright coloured bras.

It was quite a sight, and reminded me of the previous evening when I was in an internet cafe. A teenage boy was sitting next to me, and out the corner of my eye I noticed some very graphic images of hard core pornography. As soon as he had noticed I had become distracted from my own screen, he hurriedly closed the window in silent embarrassment, but he had already helped to reveal some of the contradictions of this country.

Eventually the long, dual carriageway sized tunnel of the souq broke out into daylight at the exit, and the mighty Umayyad Mosque was once again looming over me with its sparkling sea green mosaic outside the entrance. The mosaic portrays peaceful views of the Mediterranean, evidence perhaps of early Islamic multi-culturalism and enlightenment during the Umayyad era. Fabulous gleaming gold and green mosaics dazzled under the midday sun. So I had to go in and check it out.

But first, I got kitted out with a fetching green skirt to cover my knees, before walking inside the fabulous interior of the Mosque. Everything seemed so magnificently polished and shiny. Small children gamely chased pigeons in a white, open courtyard, while I nearly tripped over a couple of times trying to negotiate some chunky steps in my long skirt. Appropriately, this mosque is one of the holiest places in the Muslim world. It is also possibly on of the smelliest feet places in the world thanks to hundreds of people taking their shoes off together in the same confined area. A friendly local Syrian man sitting nearby, beckoned me to come over and talk to him. Out came my Arabic phrasebook to exchange some pleasantries, and he pointed out a few helpful landmarks inside the mosque. He pointed at something, which sounded like a minibar. I strained my eyes and had to look the word up in my book – minbar, meaning pulpit. After he had gone, I lay down and fell asleep on the carpet inside. It was a very restive place…before the call to prayer starts to belt out.

Hamam or Hammam? I felt in need of another good cleansing bath again so I set out to find one, which had briefly been mentioned to me in my guidebook. But, like most things in Damascus, it seemed to be very well hidden. Repeatedly I asked for directions, before realising I needed to put more emphasise on the word Ham-mam rather than hamam, which meant "pigeon" in Arabic. No wonder I had provoked a few curious expressions. Who wouldn't look a little bemused, if someone came up to them demonstrating a scrubbing and rubbing action all over their body and asked, "Pigeon? Pigeon?"

Anyway, I found it in the end, the bath that is, not the pigeon. It was a proper bath for locals, no Westerners in sight. Although, on a wall just inside the front door, I spotted a certificate extolling the virtues of the establishment from no less than the Finnish Sauna Society. If it was good enough for them, it would do for me. In fact, there wasn't really a lot to see inside, because huge clouds of misty steam largely engulfed the interior. They fitted me out with some ladies' wooden summer shoes (?) and I was soon slipping and tripping my way across the wet, floor into the sauna.

"Here ten, fifteen minutes" barked the assistant who had generously pointed me the right way. I could barely manage more than fifteen seconds. The temperature I noticed was a rather intense 120 C. So, after a cold shower, I queued for a brief, but unmistakably intense, massage from a very well built chap with a gruff beard, which made him look aggressively Russian. No lasting damage was done, and everything was proceeding smoothly, as I took another wash and headed for the steam room, which was a more comfortable couple of notches down in intensity from the sauna. Perhaps the most enjoyable part, was the sensation of a cold, fizzy drink throbbing through my body at the end.

To round off my day, I learnt that in another part of the city a car bomb has gone off blowing up a senior member of Hamas. Rumours here indicated the suspected involvement of secret Israeli agents. If true, it was the first time the Israelis have struck in the heart of a Syrian city. It should be fun trying to get out of the country tomorrow then! Nonetheless, it seemed fair to conclude that the streets of Syria were generally peaceful. Crime, of the everyday violent type, corruption aside, was fairly rare. Syria, like Iraq, is a cocktail of ethnicities, but the tensions never seemed to burst above the surface with any menacing intent.

From the Syrian capital Damascus I travelled on to the capital of Lebanon, Beirut.

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