Tagged with Syria

The week: 1 June

I don’t remember taking the first pill but I do remember picking them up from the pharmacy. This was in August 1991 – a week or so after I got my HIV diagnosis. The doctor said the treatment options were limited, but there was a drug, called AZT, that would buy me some time. Of course, I’d heard of it.

So with my paperwork in hand I hesitatingly took myself to the pharmacy department at St Vincent’s hospital to pick up my drugs. The pharmacist looked dispassionately at my script, told me to wait, and a short while later handed my the biggest bucket of pills I’d ever seen in my life. It was a month’s supply, but it felt like enough for a year. I stashed the bucket out of sight and, when I got home to my flat in North Bondi, took my first dose. Two decades and sixty-something-thousand tablets later, I’m still here.

This week, I took another step on that path by starting HCV treatment. An extra seven pills a day, a period of abstinence from booze, and a hefty dose of luck, and by Christmas Iris and I hope to be rid of that uninvited hitchhiker for good. As I write this, four days in, I feel rather crap, but glad to have taken this step.

Meanwhile, in the real world, last week’s ugly racist incident at the MCG continues to have repercussions. Eddie McGuire, on Friday night one of the heroes of the story, reverted to form and made a spectacularly ignorant remark on Wednesday morning.

If we were all pulling together to avoid victimising a 13-year-old girl, when the 48-year-old president of Collingwood put his foot in his omnipresent mouth, it presents a unique opportunity for every pundit on the planet to weigh in. McGuire himself didn’t help things with a ham-fisted fauxpology, but the resulting Sturm un Drang did little to inform an understanding of the issue that went any further than ‘you shouldn’t say certain things or people might get upset’. A couple of notable exceptions: Debra Jopson in the (new!) Guardian Australia points out Australia’s ‘covert racism‘ and the six-year-old assault on Indigenous rights that is the Northern Territory Intervention. Helen Razer pointed out that Australia is a racist society and therefore she, he, and we are all racists, and ‘the only way out of this shunless truth is to acknowledge it’.

The Guardian finally launched its much-anticipated Australian edition and, lo, the luvvies were pleased (actually, it’s a welcome addition). It was National Sorry Day again. The British government said it wanted to supply more arms to Syrian rebels, and the Russian government said it would arm the Syrian government, opening the way for a horrible, drawn-out proxy war. An international drugs think-tank warned that the ‘War on Drugs‘ was driving a global hepatitis C epidemic. Cardinal George Pell fronted a Victorian parliamentary inquiry, admitting that the Church covered up paedophile priests, but not taking any responsibility himself. Julia Gillard tweeted in Dothraki. The remains of two Aboriginal men who were unearthed in Tathra in 1961 were reburied in a traditional ceremony. The NSW Court of Appeal ruled that not everyone is male or female.

And finally…

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Gillard ascendant


Managed to get internet access again last night just as the rumours started to circulate of a Labor putsch, and a scant 12 hours later, Australia has a new Prime Minister – the first woman in the Lodge, the first atheist (that we know of), the first redhead (I think) and the first from the left of the Labor Party in my lifetime. This is good news for Australia and for the Labor Party.

Following this news from Syria, it’s hard to think how I would explain the change to Syrian observers, who have been living in a one-party state since the 1950s, and under a hereditary presidency for the last half century. Syria has a lot going for it, but a healthy democracy isn’t part of it.

I guess we could argue the toss about whether a party-room knifing represents a healthy democracy or not, but instead I’d like to nominate a few things I hope Prime Minister Gillard will achieve during her time at the helm of the ship of state.

Given her background, I’d expect a focus on workplace relations and social justice issues to be central to her ethos, just as foreign policy and managerialism were hallmarks of Rudd’s. I hope we’ll see a new conversation about asylum seekers and new approaches to meeting our responsibilities ethically and compassionately. The detention centre on Christmas Island must be closed, and the hysteria taken out of the national debate through some real leadership in this area.

Climate change is the other big challenge and I hope the new government will go back to tors and redevelop their emissions trading proposal in a way that makes real reductions in emissions and sets the foundation for a zero-emissions Australia. Meaningful investment in alternative energy is desperately needed and the coal lobby’s influence in this area must be shunned.

On health, I hope the ALP goes to the election with some real game-changing proposals for health reform, beyond the paper-shuffling of the recent reforms. A national dental scheme would be welcome. I’d welcome the junking of the 30% health insurance rebate, but I suspect that’s a bridge too far.

On communications, the proposed national internet filter should be immediately junked, and if possible I would like to see Senator Steven Conroy locked in a small, windowless room where he can do no further damage.

For me personally, I want my relationship to be recognised, properly, formally and at the federal level, through same sex marriage (unlikely) or a national civil partnership law. If nothing else, I want the debate on this issue to move beyond the rote recitation of the “one man, one woman” shibboleth.

And for Julia, I hope she can provide the leadership, and the resistance to factional influence, that the ALP and the country needs. Watching Kevin Rudd’s presser last night in my hotel here in Aleppo, I noticed he referred to unnamed forces influencing policy on climate change and refugees – which I took to mean that he had been frustrated in these areas by factional forces. The ALP needs a strong leader who can keep the factions in check, and keep the party to its promises. Whether Gillard is that person, I guess we’ll know in due course.

Finally, to Kevin. I will confess to a mote of sadness in the way that Rudd was deposed. Like a lot of Australians I had tremendous hopes for him in 2007 and it has been heartbreaking to see those hopes dashed. Rudd brought tremendous energy to the role of Prime Minister and carved out the beginnings of an enhanced foreign policy agenda for Australia – I hear he has said he will recontest his seat at the election and will serve on the front bench if asked. I hope Julia makes him foreign minister. It’s a job he could excel at.

Get the merchandise! Visit my RedBubble store for Julia 10 and PMILF T-shirts, hoodies and stickers – they’re going like hotcakes!

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Syrian Graffiti

Boys outside the Belgian waffle place on American Street. Photo by Brent Allan.

The city fathers may have designated it ‘Sharia al-Mutanabi’, but the locals know it as ‘American Street’ – a few blocks in central Lattakia crowded with western-style restaurants, fast food joints and trendy cafés, all decorated in what Syria imagines to be the American style, and where, every night, a curious Syrian version of a very American tradition plays out: young people cruising the strip.

From early evening onwards, reaching a peak about 10 p.m., young people mix and mingle along American Street, coalescing, dividing and recombining in small groups all along the street.

The girls are slim and pretty, unveiled, wearing makeup and jewellery to highlight their dusky, alluring faces. A few wear skirts but most are in tight jeans matched with brightly-coloured tops and high-heeled shoes. They chatter and giggle and snipe like girls anywhere.

The boys are all swagger in their fashionable jeans, Armani t-shirts and shiny leather shoes, their think black hair slicked back or cut short and complemented with a neatly trimmed beard and a saturnine air. They swap cigarettes and stories and watch the girls go by, like boys anywhere.

Outside the Belgian waffle place, a pair of youths lean against a steel cabinet and pass the time of day. Watching from the 50s retro diner ‘Café Express’ across the street, what they’re talking about I don’t know, but I bet it’s football. The whole of Syria is talking about football – it’s World Cup time. A couple of other Lattakian lads wander by and soon two become four, or six, then two again. It’s never the same kids standing there, but they’re always there.

Later in the evening, it starts getting busy after about eight. The restaurants fill up and the street is thick with adolescent hormones. Crowds of boys linger on the corners, lean against lampposts and sit on railings, individuals moving freely from group to group and the chatter and laughter perfuming the air. The girls move in groups too, nervously past the boys and into the cafés, all of which have big windows so no-one has to miss the action taking place on the street.

It’s a scene from 1950s America – a newly-liberated ‘younger generation’ toying with newfound freedom to occupy the streets and revel in youthful desire and desireability – but with a distinct Middle Eastern flavour: a kind of ‘Syrian Graffiti’. Despite all the primping and pouting on one side of American Street, and the swaggering and strutting on the other, the two groups rarely mingle, and you won’t see young lovers parading arm-in-arm down the street or making out in the back seat of a borrowed car: this may be American Street, but its still Syria.

Whether the dance ever moves beyond the furtive glance of the occasional exchange of a few clumsy words, I don’t know – I could only observe from a distance, through the big glass windows of the Express Café, and wonder at the familiarity of it all.

Photo above: Boys outside the Belgian waffle place on American Street. Photo by Brent Allan.

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Football conversations

“Hello! Hello! Where are you from?”


(PAINED EXPRESSION) “Australia no good. Four-zero.”


“Hello! Welcome in Syria! Which Country?”


“Aussie Aussie Aussie!”


“Hello! You like football? World cup? Which country you like?”

“I’m from Australia, so I like Australia.”




Qala'at al-Hosn

I’m sitting on the balcony of Beibers Hotel, having a cup of tea and writing in my diary. Just a few hundred metres across the steep valley is Qala’at al-Hosn, or Krak des Chevalliers, the magnificent twelfth-century crusader castle that we’ve come here to see.

Mohamed, the young kid who brought my tea, sits across from me on the balcony rail. We’ve already had the obligatory football conversation (the World Cup has captivated the interest of everyone in Syria, or so it seems) when he sees me looking at the castle and asks if I think it’s beautiful.

“Yes, of course.”

“Why? Why do you find this castle so beautiful?”

“Well, it’s an astounding piece of architecture, a tremendous feat of engineering, and so dramatically positioned there at the top of the hill with the steep valley falling away from it. Plus it’s an artefact of a bygone era, a time that was both romantic and very bloody.”

“I do not find this castle beautiful.”

“Why not?”

“I see it every day. I have seen it every day for my whole life. When I sit out here on the balcony I do not even look at it; I do not see it.”

I suppose that’s why we travel – to see things that are outside our everyday realm, and to discover the beauty that lies in them – a beauty that sometimes only a visitor can see.

(Photo above, Qala’at al-Hosn, seen from the balcony of the Biebers Hotel)



On board the Palmyra-Homs minibusRasheed is 14 years old and he is sitting in the back row of the Palmyra-Homs minibus when we climb on. After Brent finds a seat, the last available place is between him and and old man at the back, so I squeeze myself in, to the kid’s obvious delight.

I suppose for a 14 year old Syrian boy, having a foreigner sit down next to you on the Palmyra-Homs minibus qualifies as cause for excitement and a guarantee of entertainment for the otherwise dull 2–3 hour journey ahead – at least, the expression on his face and his intense interest in my every movement suggests so. I am the journey’s entertainment. The Playstation Portable of the Middle East.

We have caught the bus with seconds to spare – a feat achieved by having our taxi driver pull up in front of the bus to prevent it from pulling out – and I have the last available seat. Or so I thought, not having counted on the moulded plastic chairs which would soon be installed in the aisle of the tiny bus for passengers picked up along the way. Once those are full, additional passengers sit on the steps, or the floor, or hang on as best they can.

Up in the back row, Rasheed and I are getting on famously, although wordlessly. Not so the old man on the other side of me, who does not understand that salaam alaikum represents the vast bulk of my Arabic vocabulary, and prattles away at me, using the popular technique of endlessly repeating the same question in the hope that eventually it might make sense to me. The fact that he’s sitting on my deaf side as well doesn’t help.

Rasheed also speaks only Arabic, but his body English is easy enough to understand: You wipe your brow with a handkerchief and fold it before putting it back in your pocket? Hilarious! he mimes. You bring your own water in a reusable bottle rather than drink the free tap water available on board? Wait till I tell my friends!

He seems interested in the book I’m reading, so I show him the cover and explain, in English: “Hemingway. He’s rather good.” Not much recognition for the name but he’s smiling and making ‘thumbs up’ gestures at me, so I guess he approves.

Once we get out on the highway, the bus is getting too bumpy to read, so put the book in my bag and pull out the iPod, to escape the incessant Arabic pop music blaring over the speakers in the bus.

The bus is hurtling suicidally through the Syrian traffic, which seems always to be a kind of death-defying pandemonium where lane lines are just a suggestion and the only universally adhered-to road rule seems to be “always give a toot on the horn before doing something batshit crazy and risking your life and everyone else’s”, so I’m listening to some calming jazz to quiet my anxieties, and Rasheed’s interest is unabated, so I pass him the redundant ear bud and we share a little Chet Baker together. He sways his splayed fingers back and forth to the music in the hep-cat style, but after a few seconds he passes the earpiece back to me and shakes his head: Chet Baker’s not his style.

Eager to please, I mime hang on, I’ll find something you’ll like and flick through the playlists looking for something that might appeal to a 14 year old Arabic kid sitting up the back of the Palmyra-Homs microbus as it hurtles across the Syrian desert toward Homs, or death, whichever comes first. Got it. Put your earpiece back in. You’ll like this.

So let’s dance through all our fears,
War is over for a bit,
The whole world should be movin’ through your heart.
Your disco, your disco, your disco needs you…

Rasheed’s eyes widen and shine, and we start laughing and dancing in our seats, sharing a moment of Kylie-ecstasy so much like, and so different from, all the others I’ve shared before.

So in a few years’ time, when Kylie is about to embark upon yet another concert tour to the Middle East, you’ll know where it all started.

(Photo above: on board the Palmyra-Homs minibus. Click to enlarge.)

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At the Temple of Bel

View from the Temple of Bel, Palmyra

I’m sitting in the shade under the big stone arch at the entrance to the Temple of Bel in Palmyra when they amble up the hill towards me.

She: puffy and pink-faced in floral dress, sensible shoes and leopard print parasol, accompanied by the obligatory local guide. He: ruddy and corpulent in beige slacks, beige safari jacket (‘African Safari’ brand) and beige fishing hat, twenty metres behind. The outfits look like what English people of a certain age and class would imagine to be the proper kind of duds for a journey into the levantine, or darkest Africa. I wonder if they have steamer chests in their hotel room.

She arrives at the top of the ramp and dodders her way next to me under the tiny sliver of shade that is the only escape from the brutal sun, ignoring the guide who is pointing out the inscriptions and architectural features of the temple in a weary monotone, and turns back to the view of the temple walls, the massive corinthian columns and the rest of the ancient town and the mountains beyond. It’s the same view I’ve been taking in from my shady vantage point for the last few minutes.

“Oh how sad. What a pity they had to put that awful television tower there. I’d have thought they could have found somewhere more suitable and not spoil the view.”

She takes a photo and sighs, disappointedly.

Me: “You can always Photoshop it out later.” Look of horror #1.

Then he, huffing and heaving, finishes dragging himself up the hill, arriving just in time for her to leave him there, as she heads into the cella to enjoy more of the guide’s rote droning.

He takes off his hat and wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. “Ruins. More ruins. I’ve had enough of ruins and ruined cities,” he mutters as he galumphs off after them. “From now on I only want to visit living cities.”

Me: “Yes, get in early. After all, the living cities of today are the ruined cities of tomorrow.” Look of horror #2.

Brent, later, in the hotel room: “Sometimes I wonder if you have Tourette’s.”

Photo above: Syrian television tower, partly obscured by the Temple of Bel, Palmyra.


Bosra Panorama

A panoramic image, made from three smaller images of the Bosra Amphitheatre taken during our trip yesterday. Click the image below for the big version (1.2MB but it’s worth it).


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Syria: Day 4


Yesterday we took a day trip to Bosra, the ancient town a couple of hours south of Damascus that is home to one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres anywhere in the world, as well as a substantial Roman town.

It’s hard to do justice in words to the sight of this massive, ancient structure sitting in the middle of the desert – it was “lost” for about a thousand years, buried under desert sand and built-over with local houses, thus remaining preserved under the sand until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. One of the most extraordinary sights I’ve ever seen and all the more wonderful because there were only a dozen or so other tourists there.

There’s a set of photos from the journey on Flickr.

In other, less pleasing, news, both Brent and I have come down with a nasty case of travellers’ diarrhoea. We were planning to move on from Damascus to Palmyra today, but in our present condition a 3½ hour bus ride through the scorching desert doesn’t seem all that attractive, so we’ll stay in Damascus one more day and hopefully be feeling a bit better by tomorrow.

(Photo above: Brent in the Theatre at Bosra.)


Merhaba Damascus

After a long flight and in a very sleep deprived state, Brent and I arrived in Damascus this afternoon. Between the jet-lag and the endless social commitments of the London leg of our trip, I think I’ve been averaging abut 4-5 hours of sleep a night and, not surprisingly, it hasn’t been enough. Whether that will change in the next few days, I can’t yet say.

Stepping off a plane into a new and very foreign country is never an easy task, and doing so when your body is screaming for sleep is setting yourself a special degree of difficulty. We had a small mix-up with what I thought was the exchange office, but which turned out to be the place where you pay for your visa if you don’t have one. I had already obtained my visa, but the man happily took my money anyway. It took a few minutes to sort it out but it was resolved smilingly. A note to the operators of this facility, if they’re reading: the sign that says “Foreign Exchange” has a tendency to confuse first-time visitors into thinking that this is the Foreign Exchange office.

If the sound of London is the sound of jackhammers, then Damascus’ auditory accompaniment is the atonal orchestra of car horns that punctuates every waking moment. Fortunately our hotel is on a quiet street so it’s a symphony heard from afar, but it rises and falls in cadence and intensity as thousands of drivers navigate the madness of Damascus’ chaotic streets. Then there is the call to prayer, mercifully subdued as the nearest mosque is, apparently, a little way away.

After getting to our hotel, we decided that, despite our exhaustion, we’d take a brief turn around the neighbourhood to get a sense of where we are. We were both experiencing a bit of culture shock, Brent especially so because he’s never really travelled beyond the first world, and the airport madness, the white-knuckle taxi ride, the ramshackle buildings, the noise and crowds and incomprehensible language got to us both. Stepping onto the street, you get back to the human scale of things and realise that you’re not in such a foreign place after all.

Our brief neighbourhood ramble took us to the gates of the old city and the start of the al-Hamidiyya souq, Damascus’ famous sprawling labyrinth of shops and stalls selling everything from carpets to gold jewellery to everyday household stuff like sink plungers and cooking pots. We spent a couple of hours wandering (and getting lost), had an ice cream and bought some soap. Big spenders.

Tomorrow we’ll start our visit in earnest and go in search of some of the sights around town, and figure out how to get to Bosra, which we’ll probably do on Wednesday. But tonight we sleep.

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