Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Seriously Syria: The Great Mosque of Damascus

"I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit." 
~Kalil Gibran
Saturday, July 28, 2001

Today we slept in. Perhaps we need it, we didn't sleep well in Amman. We had a hot room on the roof so we kept the door open since we seemed to retain a lot of heat from the day. All of the people who paid to sleep on the roof slept in sleeping bags on mats on concrete right outside our door, which meant we had to step over bodies to get to and from the shared bathroom. We were tired enough we slept right through the call to prayer which is happening later and later as fall approaches. 

I did get to chat with some young Canadian girls who just came back from Beirut. Apparently Lebanon was too expensive for a shopping spree, so they came to Damascus. Bags and bags of spices, pestles and mortars (stone), three gallabeyahs each, miscellaneous water pipes and four or five pairs of shoes each, they were the souk merchants wet dream! None of them knew the Canadian exchange rate, and didn't seem to care . All the money was spent and they were heading home to Montreal. I can imagine the theme party these four would have! 

And so after a lazy morning start  We finally made it to the Ummayad Mosque, known to me in Art History as the Great Mosque of Damascus. This is Islam's most holy building outside Mecca and Medina, making it the most important Islamic building that a non-Muslim can enter in the world. First, a bit of history. This site has seen many temples. The first being dedicated to the Aramaic God Haddad. The Romans identified him with their God Jupiter; Some Roman ruins remain between the mosque and the souk.

 Next, the Byzantines converted the temple into a church dedicated to John the Baptist. When the Ummayads came to power, they destroyed the Church and found John the Baptist's body in the process. They kept his head for good luck and made a little green dome enclosure inside to house it. (But I am assuming he was found with his whole body- but what did they do with it? Did they really need to save the space it would take to house a whole body?)

(Side note here: when we arrived in Istanbul and went to the Topkapi palace, we were lucky enough to see the OTHER head of John the Baptist. Who knew JB had two heads?!!? I feel doubly blessed. ) 

 And of course there are the Byzantine mosaics of lush trees and improved fantastical versions of Damascus. Apparently at the time of building there were no skilled mosaicists so they just hired Byzantine ones- kind of ironic since the Ummayads had just cleared away all the Byzantine rubble. It was the Ummayads who made Damascus the center of the Islamic world and the Abbasids who took it away to Baghdad. I'll get into Damascus history later on right now I just talk about her experience at the mosque. 

We ran to gauntlet of the souk which now, being Saturday,  was in full throw and we couldn't walk a minute without hearing, "Welcome to my shop!" "Where you from?" Finally we arrived at the mosque and headed for the ticket office. There René and I paid our 50 pound entrance fees, and because we are female, we got fitted with  dingy, unattractive  sackish brown monk-like robes. (René described them as grayish-brown hospital gowns with hoods) Once fitted in the somewhat hot annoying ugly outfits, we headed to the mosque. Maybe it's just the tourist area, but I didn't find the people we met to be very friendly. Upon entering and wandering around the mosque, I felt a little intimidated. Some of the looks I got especially from other women had me checking that I was properly done up and my head was covered. Perhaps it's because I am a foreign woman with no attached husband. At least that's the most logical reason I can think of. 

The mosque's courtyard was very beautiful, and when I saw the Byzantine mosaics everything I learned in Art History flooded back to me. It's funny. When I studied in Art History, I always had the idea that I would like to visit these places one day, but somehow it seems impossible. It was a very satisfying feeling to be standing in front of those mosaics and know again I had come full circle. 

Unfortunately my freaking robe  kept getting in the way of taking photos. It was a particularly windy day and either my sleeve blew in front of my camera lens or the wind tried to blow the hood of my head and my ankle would be exposed under the ankle length robe if I were facing the wrong way. As well I had a really annoying young guy (dressed in head to toe denim), 'psssting' me if I were to fall out of line in this regard. Of course Denim Man did it to all the foreign women running around and like he did with me, he smiled and try to pick them up after he had finished chastising them for not having their necks covered. (But this feature wasn't built into the robes, so I felt he just have to live with it.)

So even though I took the photo with great difficulty as my feet were burning on the sunbaked marble tiles as well, I got my Byzantine Mosaics in the end. 

And I got a slight feel of what it must be like for Muslim women on a day to day basis, especially in Damascus. The women here were few and the ones we saw were in full purdah; not even their eyes visible. A lot were in head to toe black and had their eyes and nose covered. Many women who were covered but didn't wear black wore tan trench coats over their dresses. How anyone could wear that in this heat was beyond me. Omar told me it was the woman's choice what she wanted to wear and that they chose to cover. Standing there in the Great Mosque of Damascus I decided there must be serious social pressure for the women to cover- probably most enforced by other women. I know now why there aren't many Muslim women photographers! Damn sleeves keep getting in the way. 

René and I went into the mosque  and to my surprise the inside was austere compared to the outside. there were cushy rugs all over the floor and people were either lounging or sleeping. I eyed René suspiciously as lounging is her new favorite hobby- after Dahab she can practically sleep anywhere at anytime! But this makes for a boring travel partner so she didn't sleep in the mosque. In the middle of the interior there was the large green domed enclosure holding poor John the Baptist's head. Rene and I sat down next to a group of women and apparently a little wrinkled lady kept getting giving me hell behind my back, but when I turned around she just stared. Apparently whatever I was doing wrong was not dire enough to let me in on it. I was really beginning not to like Syrian women, based on the little contact I had with them. René had also been complaining a lot about being elbowed pushed and shoved in the markets as well. 

 And so hot and a little bothered, but still happy to have been able to see the Great Mosque of Damascus, Rene and I continued on. We went to the mausoleum of Saladdin but this was largely uninteresting. I mention it only because it was there I realize that Denim Man was following us. He had there been the one chastising us in the mosque. With some fancy footwork near the entrance of the souk we were rid of him! The rest of our day was fairly boring. We had our shoes fixed as all this traveling has really put some miles on my Birkenstocks, my only pair of shoes at the moment- My other leather sandals didn't react well to the day at the Dead Sea and are now unwearable. (But it was so cheap we got everything fixed- even things that weren't quite broken yet! I got new soles on my Birks for twenty five cents Canadian!)  The most memorable part of this night was our discovery of tasty lemon ice-like a soft slurpee-only for 10 pounds. The lemon ice vendors sure make killing continuously scooping frozen ice into cups- usually they're sold before they melt in the 40+ degree heat. I would always watch for him to scoop a fresh one and I would scoop it for myself, yum!

-To be continued-


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seriously Syria: A Telling 2001 Adventure

"You can't make war in the Middle East without Egypt 
and you can't make peace without Syria." 
~Henry Kissinger

I've been following the news of the tragedies happening in Syria and it's been breaking my heart to say the least. Since I have my journals back from the WanderLust! Exhibition I cracked open my Syrian Journal and had a good read today. I haven't actually read my books in ages and since Nick Bantock and his wife Joyce had spent some quality time with them before the exhibition went up, I also wondered what they had read! I never wrote these journals for other people to read, though I don't think there is anything too personal in them. But reading them is like having a visit with a younger version of myself. It makes me a bit sad I haven't kept journals of all the places I've been to, but at least I have these ones. 

Rene and I went to Syria pre-9/11 in 2001. I seemed to remember it being a wonderful place with beautiful architecture and friendly people, my journals tell me things long since forgotten. It still is a beautiful place and I'm praying for a quick end to this nonsense over there. I don't want this blog to be political though, But I've decided in light of my frustrations I would publish the Syrian part of my 
journal here. I don't have my pictures though. They are in a box at my parents house in slide form, waiting for a day I find a good way to switch them to digital. But I will include the pages of my book to show you instead. 

This journal was part of a three month trip from Egypt to Turkey. My first time in the Middle East. I hope you enjoy it! I'll publish a day at a time for brevity. 

Saturday, July 28th, 2001

This afternoon we arrived in Syria. We changed money by going in the back of a news stand on the street and up several flights of stairs to a little office on the fifth floor. It seemed a little weird to be going upstairs to the store room to a little office in the back; I got the idea that the other business was just a front for the real moneymaker: changing travelers cheques. What we really didn't know then but know now, is that Syria has a serious black money market, and as we strolled through the souk a few hours later, we couldn't walk 10 feet without someone offering to cash travelers cheques, change money or even  give us cash advances on Visa!

 We had taken a taxi there, and though we really had no choice but to go with this taxi driver, (we were spoken for, no one else would take us) he turned out to be a bit of a shyster, especially when we figured out he set the meter at triple of the going rate! And while we were changing money, of course he left the meter running. This was just as I suspected, especially since he kept insisting we sit and drink tea with the moneychangers. Idle, idle, idle. 

Once we arrived at the hotel, we had a big problem as he wouldn't accept a 500 pound bill for 322 pounds. He had seen us change money and knew we had nothing smaller, and no one in miles willing to change it. A small scene ensued, and in a giant huff he took our 300 pounds and forgave our outstanding 22 pounds. And so he should have! The ride should have cost us about 100. We generally are careful not to get shafted but it was our first 2 min in Syrian public, and I guess no travel story would be complete without a scam or two. 

We checked into the Al Haramain Hotel, and thank God they had a room for us because according to our guidebooks everything else was the flea pit or a brothel in Damascus, and not a lot in between or better. After we dropped off our stuff we headed out to finally eat! We went to a little hole in the wall restaurant and ate like vegetarian queens, as both of us were afraid of the meat we saw hanging rock in the window. People (all men- I guess women stay home to eat in Syria) chomped away at chicken carcasses and rice all around us. I went for the hummus and pita once again after we finished, we went for a stroll in the souk. 

The Souk is like a large covered neighborhood huge market selling anything from spices to car parts. This day was Friday, and though most of the shops were closed, there was still a lively trade of all sorts of clothing and Max Factor makeup. Nae I walked through to the old city, checked out what we were going to do the next day and then went for ice cream back in the souk.

 Apparently this place was famous and all of Damascus for quality ice cream. Nae and I ended up in the wrong line; we wanted to order, instead we got to pound the doughy looking ice cream with the really heavy wooden paddle. Of course we weren't as strong as the guy working there and our feeble attempts brought smirks from him and giggles from us and the other customers in the restaurant.

 The ice cream was a bit too slimy for my liking, but it was worth stop and the time to soak in some Syrian ambiance. The place was filled with families, all eating the same vanilla ice cream under two huge portraits of the late President Hafez Al- Assad, a gray-haired evil looking man with a comb over and his son, Bashar Al-Assad, who is the current president -an unattractive man who seems to be frowning behind sunglasses in every portrait we saw of him.

 A happier portrait next to them showed our jovial Jordanian King Abdullah receiving his luscious portion of slimy vanilla ice cream. We missed our happy King! At least in Jordan Abdullah and his babe-a-licious wife smiled, welcoming you to Jordan. The late King Hussein was good looking enough to hang on the wall without his kingly status. But these two in Syria! Sheesh! Scary!!!

-To Be Continued!-


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Okanagan Originals: The Slide Show Experiment!

There is a reason I surround myself with smart, creatively thinking people.

Obviously this page is an experiment in progress! (Apparently I'll need to change the width of my blog to make this work properly, But I'm going to save that for another day.)

I learned how to embed videos tonight. Hence the reformatting of my blog to fit the video format.

Eww, blogger, you need to work on your uploading of videos. This looks terrible!

As you know, my paintings have been pirated and can now be found for sale all through the tourist areas of Istanbul, and by more than one Turkish company. Obviously protecting my images is important. But setting up a new website is time consuming and expensive, and frankly I don't have the time right now.

On another note, people have been asking which original paintings are still available after the exhibition at the Penticton Art Gallery and Cafe NeverMatters this past summer. I'd post them, but I am reluctant because I don't like the look of the watermarks all over my paintings. My friend Peter in the U.K agreed. So he suggested an idea worth exploring. Why not make a slideshow?

So here is my slideshow of original paintings which are still up for grabs. I admit, I did this through imovie and it's not as clear as I'd like it to be on blogger, so I uploaded it on to Youtube as well. (Seems to be an issue with blogger.) In the meantime, I'll keep looking for good slideshow software if it seems this is working out. Ultimately, I'd like my own website but this is something worth exploring in the meantime.

I would love it if you would drop your feedback/ advice/ brilliant ideas about the slideshow. Do you feel you get a good sense of the paintings? Is it annoying? Would you rather look at the watermarked images for the time being? Is it brilliant, creative and innovative and you wish you'd thought of it yourself? (Truthfully, I'm still not sure what I think.)


Friday, January 6, 2012

The Last of the Turkish Prints!

The Hamam Ladies

Only Five prints left for Sale
at Java Cafe, Sultanahmet, Istanbul!
(And that is it for the 2009 Turkish Series!)

My sister and I and a few of our terrific friends at our first show in Istanbul!

I had a really good summer.

After I collected my paintings and prints from the Wanderlust! Exhibition The Penticton Art Gallery, I took inventory of which paintings I had left. Strangely enough, I sold the rest of the Turkish series between the two shows I had this summer, but I still have a few of the Okanagan pieces. An employee of the gallery remarked, "Maybe we are too close to the Okanagan stuff. The Turkish series is far off and exotic, and beautiful. I'm not surprised you've been cleaned out."

So it's great that the Turkish paintings are all gone, though I admit sometimes I feel a little sad when I think I won't see a painting again. I know it's the business and I'm happy to part with work for two reasons: It makes someone else happy to have it and I am inspired to paint more.

But the Istanbul series was painted at a really spectacular time of my life where I was surrounded by wonderful friends in a wonderful, inspiring city- a bit of a golden age for me, where I got back into art full time and did some hard thinking about what was really important to me and where I wanted to be headed in the future. Ironic that I'm hoping my future will lead me back to this fabulous city that has lost a few of the golden friends over this hiatus, but still contains some people I miss greatly. I'm really hoping that the stars align and I am able to return- there is still so much left for me to paint!

Anyway, on that note, I have just received word that there are still a few Turkish prints in Istanbul for sale through Java Cafe at 55 TL each. If you are in the area or are going to the area, or knows anyone in the area, there are three prints left: Click the blog link under each picture to take you to the links where you will find more info about each piece.

Contact Virginia Lowe @
Java Cafe in Sultanahmet
Peykane Caddesi, Su Terazisi Sok 9A.
Sultanahmet, Istanbul

(Again, sorry for the over watermarking, but if you'd read my piracy blog you'll know why!
Still working on a solution for that one!)

The Bosporus Ferry

The Sultanahmet Bird Feeders

The Umbrella Ladies

The Fish Mongers of Kadikoy
xx Melanie