Just after finishing that last post and heading out the door of the internet cafe, a torrential downpour struck Homs, quite unexpectedly. The streets flooded, the traffic cop across the way retreated into his little capsule and, amazingly, I didn’t see any wrecks (amazing because of the very slick roads from an unexpected rain storm, not because of the lack of intervention of the traffic cop, who mostly just seemed to scold drivers for not yielding to pedestrians anyway). Figuring the rain would clear out fairly quickly, I waited out the storm underneath an awning, casting the occasional sympathetic look towards miserable-looking cyclists (who inevitably disobeyed the traffic light, though I’m not sure if it was in haste or out of habit) and guys on mo-peds, which seem to be quite popular here. After the winds changed direction, the terperature cooled, the thunder subsided and the rain cleared, I waited a bit longer for the water on the road to clear. Since my experience in Cairo riding only a couple kilometers in a simarly unusual rain storm, I was keen to avoid getting filthy in the same way. Another 20 minutes later, there were still puddles around, but it had mostly dried up, so I made my way slowly to the main strip and the cheap hotels.
I eventually stayed at a place called al-Khayyaam Hotel, which translates to something like “Camper’s Hotel”, which adequately describes the facilities, although the species of flora and fauna were a bit different than one might expect to find camping under the stars in the countryside.
I spent the remaining few hours of daylight wandering around Homs, stopping at sandwich shops and cafes. Along the way, I walked past the foul place I mentioned in my last post, and noted the dishwasher’s professional attire: a plastic garbage bag fashioned into an apron. After this first sighting, I started to notice that it was a more general phenomenon, as the guys in the back all seemed to have the same black plastic apron, custom-made every shift. At the sit-down sandwich shop, a few guys were hanging around the television, watching the game between Iraq and Spain, in which it was clear that everyone was disappointed in the Iraqi team’s performance.
I headed across the street, crossing the shady park (the one I had stopped in upon arriving into town) taking up the triangle between two streets converging at a sharp angle. I walked toward a curious little stream of smoke coming out of a little smokestack and as I approached, realized that it was a small peanut roaster, about a foot-and-half cubed, mounted on the front of a small cargo bike. The owner had attached a telescoping smokestack to keep the smoke out of the eyes of the passing patrons of the two high-end restaurants right nearby, as well as the general public, which seemed to use this thoroughfare as the place to be seen, preferably wearing the colors, if not the flag itself—or a cloak made out of the flag—of their favorite Syrian football club. The latter was about to appear on television, helping to lift the spirits of those left disgruntled by the Iraq-Spain game.
I headed to what seemed to be the cafe to go to to people watch, with three rows of tables on the sidewalk, perpendicular to the long building, all with the chairs facing out toward the sidewalk. I picked up a paper called “Tishreen” (a reference to the October 1973 war, October being “Tishreen” in the Levant), not finding any better options. I had appreciated previous issues for their coverage of protests against the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank. This one was disappointing, however, consisting mostly of government press releases about meetings of various officials. I gather Syria’s short-lived experiment with an independent press had little effect on the media organs of the state, who were the only ones to make it out of that experiment, for reasons that had little to do with their economic viability.
I sat down at the cafe, refusing the persistent shoe-shiners who were more focused on my nationality than my canvas shoes, despite the fact that most of the people around me likely had more disposable income than me. I sat against the wall of the building, looking out on the sidewalk and the other two rows of cafe patrons. Just in front of me, furthest out into the sidewalk, was a man who looked vaguely hip, in that particularly Arab manner (I’m afraid I don’t pay enough attention to fashion to describe it to you in detail), and he had a very well-behaved and friendly white fluffy dog with him. I think maybe it was a bichon frise. Anyway, the little creature was the object of everyone’s attention. Groups of teenage boys would come by and take pictures of one-another posing with the pup, with its owner seemingly content to be one step removed from the center of attention, if not completely absent altogether.
As the sun dimmed, the clock in the tower sitting in the middle of the adjacent traffic circle emitted an electronic Big Ben “chime”. Sparrows circled above while pairs of urbane boys walked hand-in-hand and a continuous stream of blue and orange flowed past in the form of t-shirts, jerseys, cloaks and flags waved out of car windows, or even draped entirely over the roof and rear window of the car. The cafe’s sidewalk crowd relocated to the inside seats, facing the small television as the players lined up for the national anthem.
In the meantime, I considered some local linguistic oddities. On most non-Arabic maps and in publications, the name of the city is written as “Homs” or “Hums”, and yet I had met no Syrian who pronounced it this way (I have since met one—the English-speaking guide at the Tishreen Panorama in Damascus). Everyone pronounces it “Homos,” not to be confused with “hommos,” which is of course the word for chick-peas. Still, after Aleppo (pronounced “Haleb”, which is oddly similar to the word for milk), I was starting to wonder about the fact that the names of Syria’s second- and third-largest cities sounded like basic foodstuffs. It also made me wonder what sort of linguistic influences resulted in the habit of Syrians to largely disregard the usual injunction in the Arabic language (which it shares with Spanish) against pronouncing the beginning of a word with two consecutive consonants with no intervening vowel (e.g., the utterly un-Arabic place name of Sqalbiya, and the habit of omitting the vowel of the common Arabic prefix “mu” or “ma”). At the same time, while it is quite common in Arabic to end a word with two consecutive consonants with no intervening vowel, Syrians do not seem to like this convention, and will insert a vowel (e.g., Homos for Homs and “tahet” for “taht”–meaning “below” or “down”).</linguisticnote>
I returned to the campground—I mean hotel—and proceeded to have a somewhat lengthy discussion with a fellow patron on vacation. He was from South Lebanon, and he liked to talk. But, like all good talkers, he had the courtesy to start with a question. He asked me how I found Syria. I responded that I loved the place, and found the people to be some of the nicest I’ve met anywhere. He seemed a bit surprised, repeating the mantra: Syrians are a simple people. He added some thoughts of his own to the standard: the problem with the Syrian people, he said, was that they thought and acted from their hearts. “We Lebanese have learned to kill our hearts and to think and act with our brains.” He repeated this idea several times during the conversation, alluding to the way Lebanese, particularly those from the south of the country, have coped with repeated traumas, the violent deaths of their loved ones under Israeli bombardment. “Why is it,” he asked, “that they kill our babies, but when we attack their soldiers, on our land, that we are the evil ones? Where is the justice in that?” Where, indeed. He mentioned several times that he still loves Israeli people, that he respects them for loving and defending their country, but that he wishes that they would simply fight like men with honor, and leave a little something for those the Jews have shared the land of Israel with for centuries and millenia. At that, he appologized profusely for talking so much (no need, I assured him) and bid farewell as he headed to the bus station to return home.
For myself, I went to my tent—I mean room—and changed my chainring and cog in preparation for the climb of the next day, especially the steep part up to the monastary of Deir Mar Musa al-Habasheya.