Jan 1, 2012

An Intimate Look At Syria: Pre-Revolution

A minaret looms over Damascus.
With the advent of 2012, I'd like to share a little story about my background. Despite being born in Italy, and being currently situated in Austin, I kind of had a bit of a strange upbringing..Growing up traveling from place to place depending on where my parents' work took them. However, around the mid nineties my parents decided to settle down in the capital of Syria, Damascus and start their own business as contractors for foreign interests. As a result I spent quite a few years as an expatriate in an  Arabic country, and had enough time to pick up the language, gain a few friends and really grow to love the place.

This year marks the very first time in years I haven't been able to go back to visit my folks due to the unfortunate turmoil that has enveloped the country, and it's not easy sitting back and watching the downward spiral unfold. In a way I kind of feel like I'm losing a place that I called home for quite a few years, which has been a very uncomfortable issue to deal with. My heart goes out to the Syrian people in their struggle. The purpose of this post is to shed a little light on the rarely seen side of these middle eastern countries and everyday life prior to recent events. These photos were gathered in late 2010/early 2011 prior to the uprising. Check out over 200 photos after the break.

6/15 Update:
My family has been forced to leave Syria, and the future is uncertain at this point. We're scattered across the globe and it seems like the future of the place I once loved is set to spiral into civil war. At least I have these memories.

Fun fact: Syria is one of the main countries that Iraqi refugees relocated to during the peak of the Iraq war. The massive influx of population drove up the cost of real estate, increased traffic and resulted in a crime rate spike. Among the items they brought with them? Saddam Hussein era currency, sold as a novelty.

The images coming up are from an open air black market on the outskirts of Damascus. Before your imagination runs wild, these black markets are held for caravans migrating from Europe to Saudi Arabia for 'Hajj,' a major pilgrimage for most people of Muslim faith. These guys bring everything from legitimate Russian beluga caviar (At about 1/50 the cost compared to the US) and fresh honey to clothing and even Soviet era memorabilia out of the back of their trucks. Some were friendly and open to be photographed, others not so much.

This guy even pulled out his own digital camera.

A sample caravan, carrying about 20-30 people.

Absolutely insane, delicious flatbread made fresh at 5am in a hearth. There's about 20 varieties of flatbreads alone in Middle Eastern culture.

Some of the wares hanging at an 'alternative medicine' shop.

The upcoming images are from the 'Midan' district, a well known food district specializing in traditional Arabic sweets, 'fast' foods and produce (Like the pomegranate vendor above).

Roasted nuts are huge in Syrian culture. If you ever get invited to somebody's house, expect a bowl of nuts to be there by default. Also: Cinnamon tea, mandarins.

Baklawa and other traditional sweets, ridiculously good and 100% handmade.

A shop dedicated to nothing but preserves of every variety under the sun.

Deep fried sweets, typically coated in honey.

Think of Daoud Brothers like the Syrian equivalent of Godiva..High quality sweets at premium prices. Local cha

The quintessential fast food to go: Shawarma. Chicken or lamb flavor.

Efficiency in effect.

The picture above and the upcoming ten pictures or so are from Tartous, a coastal city well known for having some of the best, and fresh fish. People drive 3-4 hours from Damascus to get fresh catch.

This famous roadside restaurant specializes in two things: Vegetables and fish, prepared in every variety possible. As fresh as it gets.

Engrish for 'push.'

Roadside fruit vendor, more than happy to let me sample his wares.

Vodka and legitimate Beluga caviar: Purchased for under $10 at black market.

Improvised street sweeper.

There are plenty of covered markets in Syria. This one still has the bullet holes in the canopy from French air raids back in the forties.

Omayyad mosque, one of the most famous religious sites in the middle east.

Legit falafel.

If you haven't noticed yet, most people install satellites to get access to entertainment outside the two state run channels. There's an entire industry dedicated to installation and providing people with decrypted satellite channels from around the world. Piracy at its finest.

A famous crooked building in Damascus' old city. Old city is a historic enclosed citadel surrounded by gates that has been around since BC. Its a mostly Christian area with plenty of churches, and is well known for its narrow, winding streets and distinct architecture. Also a great area for bar hopping.

One of the gates in the old city, still standing after thousands of years.

A ton of Roman ruins have been found in Syria. This little piece is displayed at the Damascus museum among countel

Did I mention the museum is being renovated?

The entrance to Souk Al Hamidiyeh, one of Damascus' biggest covered market/bazaars.

They sell everything, skimpy lingerie included.

The image above and the following are from Cherobyn, a famous monastery situated atop a mountain located about an hour from Damascus. There's also a village nearby with the last of the Arameic speakers, the dying language that its been said Jesus spoke in.

The Syrian/Turkish border, located in Lattakia.

The port city of Lattakia, just a month or two prior to the events that enveloped the country in a storm of violence. It was a really serene place to visit, and I made some good friends there. Hope they're alright.

This one girl was walking around on the beach singing 'Hotel California.'

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