Mar. 25, 2008

Historical Tourism*

(Above: A naive and happy tourist in the Syrian desert;
Below: The closest I'll ever get to Iraq)

*Alternative titles for this post: How I Was Scammed in Palmyra; The Longest Post I Have Written in a Long Time; Why Ruins Are Less Interesting Than Real Cities; Our Unnecessarily High Tolerance for Big, Heavy Blocks of Old, Carved Rock; The Relative Merits and Detractors of Camels as a Mode of Transportation; Proof That Reflection is Preferable to Narratives of My Experiences in Syria.

When discussing housing for students in southern Ontario, my dad often jokingly claims he would be very happy as a slumlord to charge inflated prices for lousy apartments. Well dad, if you want to be a slumlord and laugh all the way to the bank on a monthly basis, then I want to work in a tourist town selling overpriced novelties to suckers on a daily basis.

These are the words of an embittered tourist. The short story: I paid the equivalent of one hundred Canadian dollars for a four-hour camel ride in a country where a fifteen-minute taxi ride costs fifty cents and a shwarma is under a buck.

It was only at 8 am on the first day of my five-day weekend that I received a call from a fellow Canadian teacher asking me if I wanted to accompany him and his wife on a three-day trip to Palmyra, which Lonely Planet calls “Syria’s prime attraction and one of the world’s most splendid historical sites.” Since my weekend plans had been fluid to begin with, it was a matter of minutes before I was packing my bags for a little road trip into the Syrian desert. We arrived in Palmyra after a four-hour drive and just in time to view the ruins as the sun was setting. Before we sat down to dinner, our innkeeper, who ran a somewhat questionable establishment, introduced us to a fellow who would take willing tourists on a camel ride past the ruins and into the desert to have breakfast with a Bedouin family before returning via the oasis beside which Palmyra is situated. We paid S£3000 ($60 CAN) in advance, and our inquiries as to the remaining payment were met with the response “Just a little bit more.”

Why should I have worried? I was traveling with a couple who, despite only having lived in Syria for six months, knew their way around Aleppo better than many of the Syrian teachers at the school in which I am teaching; furthermore, they proved themselves effective bargainers as we went through the different shops that evening. Both John and Wain (Yep, that’s her name. It was a constant struggle to avoid making John Wayne comments during our time together.) effectively and repeatedly brought venders down to sixty, fifty, and even forty percent of the original asking price through effective haggling. If they were not worried about having a price nailed down, who was I to argue?

(Our fearless leader, aka An accomplice in the scam)

As I discovered at 5 am the following morning, camels are a comfortable mode of transportation for approximately fifteen minutes, and this quantity diminishes as the camel’s speed increases. We rode out into the freezing desert as the sun rose behind our backs, but since I was more concerned with staying warm and atop my hump-backed steed, it proved particularly difficult to turn around and capture the ruins against the first light of the day. After riding for a little less than two hours, we broke our fast with a meal of flat bread, olives, pickled peppers, and apricot jam in the tent of a Bedouin family. While I definitely questioned whether invading this family’s home was a responsible choice or not, I was grateful for their hospitality and the opportunity to stretch my legs by playing some soccer with the two boys living in this particular tent. I even got a laugh out of the entire family when I was putting my kufeyya back on. Upon returning to our camels, our guide led us through more of the desert and then into the oasis. It was beautiful but way, way, WAY too long a camel ride. Of course, when we finally arrived at our stopping point and John informed me that we still needed to pay another S£7000 ($140), I knew two things: that we had indeed been taken for a ride in more ways than one, and that Palmyra would never be a place fondly-remembered.

(Top: Two soccer-playing champions;
Middle: Worst form of transportation ever;
Bottom: Okay - so you can get some pretty impressive pictures)

Palmyra reminds me of Niagara Falls. In both instances, I navigated though dozens of tourist traps, souvenir shops, and over-priced hotels to arrive at the attraction I had actually come to see, and in both instances I found myself wondering if these sites garnered more praise and hype than they actually deserved. The Falls are impressive, but I would not return more times than absolutely necessary. The same is true with Palmyra – I would not try convincing somebody to visit this ancient city unless she or he was going to be in Syria for more than five days. Don’t get me wrong – there is something incredible about standing in the ruins of a city predating the Roman Empire, but… what is left of that city is only the briefest outline of what once existed. A good deal of what is standing has been roughly re-cobbled together, and in the absence of reliable interpretation, most visitors will take away little more than some neat pictures, a booklet on the history of the site, and an over-priced necklace (unless they bargained successfully).

(Tourists are often followed right to their car by locals trying to sell a variety of trinkets)

I arrived back in Aleppo in the afternoon on Good Friday just in time to get changed, start a load of laundry, ride a taxi downtown (all by myself), and meet another teacher to watch the Passion processions taking place that afternoon in the Armenian Quarter. The Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Maronite Christian churches hold afternoon services on Good Friday, and each church, led by a small band, servers, and the local bishop, process with a shrouded image of Christ through the square into which each church building faces. Afterwards, we followed the tradition of visiting and saying a brief prayer at seven different churches located in the vicinity.

(Top and Middle: Two pictures of the Roman Catholic scouts playing for their procession into the square;
Bottom: Cross-bearers, servers, and the bishop, who is near the back-right)

When I was having dinner with yet another Syrian teacher (you can tell that I’m being looked after while I am here) that same evening, we ended up talking about how being present at the Passion processions, along with hundreds of other Syrians and Armenians who lived in Aleppo, was so much more meaningful and tangible for me as a visitor in comparison to my trip to Palmyra. Maria and I agreed that Syria comes alive through its people. The history of the country would complement and inform my experience, but it was more important to interact with Syrians or at least people-watch to gain a more genuine and real-life appreciation of the country. This conclusion leads me to think that public historians might want to spend more effort fostering authentic encounters between visitors and host residents rather than only mediating the visitor’s experience through a historical trip and a camel ride. (This is not to say that somebody has given extensive thought to a tourist’s experience of Palmyra but rather that place and history are only two of the many facets by which it is possible to understand a culture)

As a combined result of my own weariness, my “ruin-fatigue,” and my conversation with Maria, I did a very unhistorical thing and decided to cancel a visit planned for the following day to Apamea and a museum filled with ancient mosaics. Instead, for the next two days I slept in a little, finished my laundry, and went on some long walks through Aleppo. I may not be as good as John and Wain at making friends wherever I go in spite of language barriers, but I nevertheless can take pride in finding my way home after getting a little lost and buying groceries all by myself!

I am still incredibly excited to visit the Crusader castles next week. These fortresses, which are more complete than the ruins of Palmyra, will without a doubt be a wonder to behold. Until that time though, I believe that I will very content encountering the living history of the souqs in Aleppo and the people of Syria more generally.

(Note: I owe my readers an apology for both the length of the above post and for the number of posts appearing all at once. The amount of free time has enabled me to reflect copiously upon my experiences in Syria thus far, but the opportunities that I have to actually get my thoughts online are limited. It is likely that few will even read this footnote after having only scanned over the above post. This is the game that I am playing here. Sorry!)

Re-Thinking Syria: Clothing

When I was flipping through my Lonely Planet book for the Middle East, I came across a passage that essentially read: “Take a look around – almost all men in Syria wear pants, regardless of the weather.” When I began thinking about the Syrians I had seen on the street, I realized that the majority wear not only pants (rather than the shorts that we Canadians sport once the thermometer hits a balmy nineteen degrees and the sun shines brightly again) but also usually have long sleeves on. I had been considering taking shorts to wear when visiting Palmyra, which is in the middle of the Syrian desert, but I decided to stick to shorts after re-reading this passage.

Even after being in Syria for two weeks and seeing otherwise, two general stereotypes still come to mind when I first consider what people wear in this country: dusty clothing and women wearing the hejab. If I think about pictures that I have seen from the Middle East, the people photographed often look like they spent their morning rolling in dust. The hejab, a scarf worn by many Muslim women, is well-known to many Canadians thanks to the coverage that it gets in the media.

I hope it is not too surprising to read that Syrian clothing reflects the diversity of ethnicity, religion, and wealth that exists within the country. While it is true that in most neighbourhoods of Aleppo, one can hardly walk two blocks without seeing a woman who is wearing black and fully covered from head to toe, one is far more likely to encounter Muslim women wearing the hejab along with a long dress and jacket. When I visit the Armenian quarter of Aleppo, I come across Western hairstyles, make-up, and clothing. When considering the men of Aleppo, the vast majority are wearing Western-style clothing. Jeans and long-sleeve shirts, sweaters, or blazers are the norm for both Muslim and Christian men. There are some older men who I have seen wearing full-length robes, but these have been made to match the coats the men are wearing, and to my eyes go together as naturally as the jacket and pants of a suit in Canada. Bedouin men wearing the kufeyya are essentially the only people sporting any sort of headwear, so I know that I will probably stick out as a tourist whenever I wear a hat!

The quality of clothing varies among people as well. Some people are wearing clothes that are faded, worn, or look slightly out of date, while others are clothed in fine fabrics with bright colours, brand names, and intricate designs. I have seen a number of people who do look… well… dusty, but to be perfectly honest, this is a dusty city! Even after a rainfall there is a haze from both the pollution and dust in the air, and people cannot hang their clothes to dry outside because of the layer of dust that will accumulate over the course of a sunny, windy afternoon!

I usually wear pants and a short-sleeve button-up shirt to school, but I have been switching into shorts at home if I know that I am not going out again in the evening. I cannot say that I particularly enjoy walking around wearing pants when the sun is shining and feels like 25°C outside, but suppose one would get used to the habit after suffering through a summer here! Thank goodness I am here in the spring!!

Mar. 18, 2008

The Hash

This past weekend I became a hasher. No, this is not some bizarre, drug-induced psychedelic experience but rather a run through the ruggedly beautiful Syrian countryside. Of course, it should be noted that hashers are always proud to say that they are a drinking club with a running problem!

(Baptized a hasher)

I will leave Wikipedia to describe the history and essentials of hashing, and simply begin by saying that our course started about a half-hour’s drive out of Aleppo. The course was marked with blue chalk powder that took us over five kilometers of stony hills, through abandoned towns, under the shade of well-tended olive trees, and up to the walls of a pilgrimage point dedicated to St. Simeon. It was an absolutely beautiful day – the mountains of southeastern Turkey were visible in the distance - and a wonderful way to escape the noise and smog of the city. Throughout the day, I got a good sense of how life worked in the villages of Syria: I maneuvered in between grazing cattle, saw families out for picnics, and saw the challenging farming conditions from which many Syrians must make their living. Contemporary Syrians can in no way be blamed for the erosion of topsoil due to thousands of years of agricultural mismanagement. Cattle and sheep can graze among the rocks, but a Herculean effort would be required to remove all the rocks that have been laid bare by over-farming!

I could not help but feel that I was both an observer and participant of history. When visiting the former home of St. Simeon, a hermit who dispensed advice from atop the high post that he chained himself for over thirty years, it was amazing to imagine how the hilltop must have been transformed over the years from an isolated dwelling to a popular pilgrimage point to a large chapel and later to a ruin of that chapel. I have a lot to look forward to when I visit the castles in two weeks! Soon after making my way past the ruins of St. Simeon, I was initiated into the worldwide community of hashers. After wandering over hills under the bright midday sun, I was baptized with blue chalk and beer alongside other hash initiates and then downed a Heineken while veteran hashers cheered us to drink it or pour it on our head. (Fear not friends – the cool and refreshing beverage was in no way wasted on the colourful crown of my head!) It was a bit of a cultish experience, but it is funny to think that this tradition was started by a bunch of British diplomats living in Malaysia in the 1930s!

With tongue slightly in cheek, I cannot help but wonder whether this is what Public History ought to resemble: experiencing the modern and ancient history of a country by spending the day outside, exploring farmland and historical ruins, and winding down with a some laughs and a few drinks. (My professors: “Great Jeremy – bribe them into enjoying history with beer.”) Well, all I can say is we would certainly be making steps towards appealing to and engaging a new and broad audience!

(In the midst of the ruins at St. Simeon)

Mar. 17, 2008

Re-Thinking Syria I: Weather

While I prefer to capture moments of my trip rather than give a simple narrative of my days in Aleppo, I can appreciate that some of my readers might be looking for something that is a little more linear and gives a better taste of life in the Middle East. Allow me to inaugurate the "Re-Thinking Syria" series of posts, which should satisfy the aforementioned needs while also allowing me to provide a little critical analysis of some the assumptions people hold regarding Syria and the Middle East.

The last few days in Syria have been cold. I may not have been putting on a toque and snowsuit to go outside, but as I write this wearing socks, pants and three shirts, I am strongly considering putting on my rain jacket to keep a little bit warmer. That's right – my rain jacket, which I brought because it has been raining so hard today that water was seeping through the windows and doors of the balcony and onto the tile floor of my bedroom. The words "weather" and "Syria" probably do not invoke images of chilly weather, but there you have it – the weather here in Aleppo is comparable to a cold and rainy October day in southern Ontario.

Of course, I should not complain too much. After all, the latter part of this past week has been sunny and breezy with highs averaging around sixteen to twenty degrees Celsius. I have not put on shorts, but it has certainly been comfortable to wear short-sleeves in the evenings!

So have a little pity for me – it's freezing here!

Mar. 14, 2008

First Impressions

When the plane touched down in Aleppo and I made my way up the boarding ramp, I was seized by a fit of chills. I do not know whether they were caused by my tiredness, the cool morning breeze that was coming through open doors in the airport, or the anticipation that I was feeling as I stepped onto Syrian soil. I had arrived in Aleppo.

Aleppo International Airport is about the same size as Windsor Airport, but the similarities end there. The fields surrounding the tarmac are more rocky than grassy, signs inside the terminal are written in both English and Arabic, and Middle Eastern music plays over the loudspeakers. The airport was relatively deserted because it was 6:00 am local time. I had only to clear customs, pick up my bags, and meet a representative from my host school.

One of the first things that I was told by one of my hosts at the school was that Syria seems stuck in the 1950s. Whether or not this observation is true, it is undeniable that the history in this country comes in tangible and intertwined layers. During my time walking or driving though Aleppo, I have seen (and dodged) cars in various states of repair from around the world that are brand-new or fifty years old. I have visited beautiful, modern apartments and driven past homes that seem like they are half-falling apart. I have bought Kellogg's Corn Flakes at a grocery store and purchased vegetables off the street. I can sit at a computer to type an email and hear the call to prayer from at least three different nearby mosques – and I can tell you that that was a surreal experience when I was experiencing severe jetlag my first day here! It would be unfair of me to describe Syria as being stuck in the past though because such a description would categorize and pigeon-hole a country that is clearly in the midst of change. In the last week, I have encountered and met Syrians who are generous and friendly. People might be aggressive on the road – the meanest, most aggressive driver from Toronto or Boston (the two cities in which I have seen the craziest drivers) would not stand a chance on the streets of Aleppo – but nobody I have spoken with, whether from Syria or abroad, has spoken of concern for their general safety.

(The current and former presidents of Syria - Their faces are everywhere in the city)

Many people have asked me if Syria is
what I expected. Because I tried to purge generalizations from my mind, I really did not know what to expect. At the same time, I have been very happy to discover that kids are still kids here in Syria and that the sense of history, tradition, dynamism, and community are all so powerful and ubiquitous in Aleppo.

(Banners in one of Aleppo's many narrow streets)

Mar. 3, 2008

To Syria

In September, it was a possibility: “Yeah, Syria is one of the places I’m thinking about.”
When December arrived, it was a choice: “I’m hoping everything works to go to Syria.”
By January, the wheels were in motion: “So I’ve got my ticket to go to Syria!”
In February, I was assured: “I think you will be pleasantly surprised about traveling to Syria.”
This past weekend, I began saying adieu: “Check out my blogs while I’m in Syria!”

Being a somewhat less eloquent writer than some others, I find myself at a loss for the words to appropriately describe my intentions at the outset of my visit to Syria. The official reason for this trip is to gain experience teaching and learning in an international context. I have the incredible opportunity to introduce students the history of the Crusades and accompany these young individuals on trips to a number of the castles that were built during this period of history. As a historian, the prospect of traveling through one of the cradles of civilization where innumerable historic figures lived, fought, and traveled even now leaves me awe-struck. While I hope that friends will never peg me as merely the guy who will always be happy as long as you find him a museum, historical site, or dusty manuscript, I simply cannot wait to find myself surrounded by the walls of castles that once sheltered Salah al-Din and his armies or crusading knights from Europe.

To understand my most deep and fundamental desire to visit Syria though, my reader needs only to recall recent history, hysteria, and horrors. Despite its rich past, its cultural diversity, and its devotion to religious values, the Middle East has been characterized in black-and-white images as a haven for terror, a region of instability and intolerance, and a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism. This is simply an unfair characterization of a region inhabited by hundreds of millions of people. If it is the historian’s job to present and analyze information in a fair and balanced way, then this historian is seeking to address the imbalance in the story of the Middle East that is being told and retold in the media and in households today. If educators are responsible for preparing students to live well and make thoughtful and intentional decisions, then this educator believes that students need to hear an alternative narrative to the prejudiced, conflict-driven message that is currently being circulated. If there is ever to be lasting peace on this little planet of ours, that peace is going to come from understanding.

To this end, as I write over the next month and when I return to Canada after my trip, I hope to be an ambassador for Syria. I do want to describe the amazing experiences that I am having and reassure worried family and friends that I am indeed safe and sound, but it is my deepest desire to convince my readers and listeners that we need to consider these people – Syrians, Arabs, Muslims, people from the Middle East – as individuals who are our friends and neighbours rather than a faceless mass to be feared and contained.

I am not the greatest storyteller –I can never think of the appropriate story at the party unless it occurred in the last two months and often need to be reminded of events that happened only a few years before; consequently, my blog posts and the photos I take will help me to recall teachable moments and surreal experiences in the unlikely event that this trip does not leave a profound impression upon me. At the same time, I will likely comment on matters historical here and educational in Humility in Education, and some posts (like the one that you are now reading) will appear in both blogs, so please look forward to posts that are academic but hopefully not too irregular or uninteresting! When you read though, it is my desperate hope that you will also consider the serious purpose of my visit.

Syria-usly? Yep. Seriously.

Finally, I hope that you will share in my travels by commenting on my posts. Well-wishes and wish lists, comments and concerns, stories and suggestions are enriching for everybody who will continue read on.

“What’s new with me? Well, I’m going to Syria.” What an adventure!

Working at Library and Archives Canada

I had the opportunity to work at Library and Archives Canada for the summer. I am truly sorry that I found myself too busy to blog regularly about what I was learning as a historian working in the public sphere, so I will be unable to do real justice to the institution and my experience there. It is nevertheless important for me to post a few enduring understandings I realized during the summer.

First of all, I would like to say thank you to the folks with whom I had the opportunity to work. For students studying both Public History or subjects in History, the archives provided a terrific mix of short- and long-term projects as well as the satisfaction of knowing that the majority of this work would benefit clients down the line. Overall, the internship proved to be a great opportunity to employ my historical skills in an forum that was both accountable for storing and managing information while also making historical sources available to the public.

Secondly, I gained an incredible appreciation of the challenges that archival institutions face. If Canada’s national archive struggles with the enormous challenges of acquiring, assessing, organizing, and describing collections, I can only imagine the state of smaller archives with fewer resources. It will take increased financial resources to maintain the massive volume of information acquired annually archival institutions. In order for governments and taxpayers to agree to the allocation of greater resources towards archives though, I believe that archivists will have to prove and demonstrate to the public that archival institutions have value to an audience broader than historians and genealogists.

Thirdly, I cannot say enough times that I think it is more important make documents available than to preserve them. I strongly believe that documents should be put at some level of risk if it means that more people will appreciate the historical, educational, and social value of archives. While some documents have legal value and are kept for that purpose, there are certainly documents of purely historical value that should be more widely used in traveling and in-house exhibits and educational programs.

I wish Library and Archives Canada and my co-workers all the best as they continue on with their very important work. They can look for me soon when I bring a class of students in to cause a ruckus in the reading room at the building on Wellington!