Monthly Archives: April 2013

Treading Syrian Roads

24 April 2013

In the backlanes of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Damascus, Syria, early morning deliveries are already under way.

As Syria crumbles inward under the weight of civil conflict (already more dead than all the Americans killed during the Vietnam War), and the refugee count rises to ridiculous proportions, it can be hard to recall that we were joyfully walking its streets a mere three years ago:

Wandering after dark through the narrow back lanes of the Christian Quarter in Damascus’ Old City, we started to notice that the only other people in the lanes were young and fairly pumped up, like they were heading to a party only they knew about. Their energy seemed to bounce off the enclosing stone walls of the silent compounds and courtyards of the Quarter, and with nothing else particularly on our minds, we fell into step behind them. Past another bend in the lane, across a point where two others joined, and now we were seeing further little knots and groupings of youth, all moving in the same direction. We’d been vaguely heading for Ananais’ Chapel, but now we were captivated by what might lie ahead. One more twist in the stone pathway and suddenly we emerged at the top of the steps above Bab Touma (Thomas’ Gate). Below us was teenage uproar. A packed mass of hipsters in hoodies and Dirty South gear, girls done up in pencil-jeans and four-inch heels, headscarves abandoned or transformed into exotic accessories, scooters revving at the curb, a freeflowing vibe of pumping cross-national energy ready for the night to roll on down. Lots of black males, everybody styling, all that vibrant tension of the evening just getting underway, cop station down the block but the cops staying cool . . . Who knew? Here was a total hip-hop scene on the steps of a stone gate in one of the most ancient—and repressed—cities in the world.

Hip-hop clan gathers on the steps of historic Bab Touma, in the Old City of Damascus, Syria.

This was but one of many mind-bending moments during our time in western Syria. Now as we watch the denouement of the Assad regime, we are reminded that the status of the Assad clan as an Alawite religious minority meant they needed to cultivate support from other minority communities, such as the Christians who no doubt made up the majority of those kids on the steps of Bab Touma. Such tolerance (limited though it might have been) may no longer be available under the Islamist elements of the Free Syrian army.

What would never have been apparent without treading the roads of Syria is the swirling mix of cross-cultural elements that underpins the society. Even today, many Syrians seem to have family scattered strategically across the globe, which demonstrates a continuance of the longstanding Levantine merchant trading networks. It gives the whole culture a bit more of a cosmopolitan feel than, say, Jordan, where everybody seems more settled into the local landscape.

Centuries-old waterwheels speckle the Orontes River in  Hamah, Syria

Centuries-old waterwheels speckle the Orontes River in Hamah, Syria

We knew in advance about Arab hospitality, but even so we were disarmed by the genuine, widespread warmth and friendship people extended to us. Many times in our travels we’ve been hesitant to announce that we’re from the US (and wouldn’t you expect Syria to be one of those places?) but often, after our response, eyes would light up, and we’d hear something like “Ameriki? America very good. We love Americans.” I can’t guarantee all those people were fans of our foreign policy, or anything like that, but they certainly were pleased to have a face-to-face encounter with a couple of average citizens.

The only possible evidence of anti-Americanism came on the outskirts of Damascus, where we whizzed by an elegant new steel-and-glass shopping mall. Its name: the “9/11 Center,” in bold, flashing neon. Anchor tenant? Target . . . so maybe it was simply meant as a memorial.

There’s more to say about Syria, but I’ll save that for another post. Next up: look for a Syrian gallery on the Travel Photos page.

Living as a Vagabond

12 April 2013

I’ve been calling myself “a lifelong vagabond traveler” in my author bio for years. Think I first focused on claiming that term when I read Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa by Ed Buryn, back in the mid-70s. Among other things, Buryn knew as much (or more) than I did about hitchhiking, which was our major mode of transport in those days. His offbeat, follow-the-wind approach really resonated with me. Always wished I would have run into him somewhere along the road.

Buryn always seemed adept at not getting bent out of shape, a condition Evan & Alex  Gabriel deal with in Levoca, in eastern Slovakia.

Buryn always seemed adept at not getting bent out of shape, a condition Evan & Alex Gabriel deal with in Levoca, in eastern Slovakia.

Recently I ran across Vagabonding by Rolf Potts (pub 2003) and was excited to see how many of the same principles reappeared in his book. (Perhaps not so surprising, as Potts describes in detail the impact of his own discovery of Ed Buryn.) Potts is another off-the-beaten-path traveler who has made his way around the world without deep pockets—but plenty of nerve. Anybody looking for a template for how to approach long term travel (or just get beyond the tourist fringe) would do well to check out his work.

Just by example, here are three quotes that all appear on the same page (49):

“The world is a book, and those that do not travel read only one page.”
–Saint Augustine

“Traveling hopefully into the unknown with a little information: dead reckoning is the way most people live their lives, and the phrase itself seems to sum up human existence.”
–Paul Theroux

” . . . vagabonding is not just a process of discovering the world but a way of seeing—an attitude . . .”
–Rolf Potts

For me, one of the most valuable lessons that both authors stress is the need to remain light-hearted and roll with the punches. (I don’t think either one uses those exact terms.) So much of travel is out beyond your comfort zone, and beyond your ability to control. Ride with that. Embrace it. Learn to flow around obstacles, rather than attack them head-on. Both Buryn and Potts also remind me to savor the chance encounters of the road as well, with local and fellow traveler alike.

As a Christian, it’s a valuable reminder to me that we are all pilgrims, walking the long road home to glory. But oh, what twists and turns en route! Savor the journey . . . we only take it once.

FLASHBACK: The Rockcats Live at Duffy’s

5 April 2013

Just occasionally, I’d like to drift back in time in order to share some of my earlier pieces. Here’s my first published review, from back when I was still trying to skate along the cutting edge of the latest sounds:

Rockats Barry, Dibbs, Smutty and Tim be-i-bicky-bi-bo-bo-go at Duffy's. Minneapolis 1981.

Rockats Barry, Dibbs, Smutty and Tim be-i-bicky-bi-bo-bo-go at Duffy’s. Minneapolis 1981.

Lights down, a crowd whistle and BAM! The Rockats rip into their opening song, bopping the beat with a slash of guitars and the drummer’s stick slaps tight beneath the vocal warble. It’s Rockabilly Time. From the bar comes a crowd eruption of collective dance mania. No urging needed. “I’m an easygoing guy,” sings Dibbs, “but I’ve always gotta have my way.”

The band is a lunatic fringe gone mad on pastels and pompadours, wearing scuffed suede shoes of varying hue, pants pegged tight at the ankle and billowing full to the waistband pleats (wrapped tight on the gut in skinny belts and braces). Rabbits’ feet and belt chains. String ties and western scarves. Outlaw striders, rough riders and hair piled six inches above the brow. (Have you heard the news? There’s good rockin’ tonight!)

No time to breathe. The Rockats kick out another gear and drown us in a riptide surge of rockabilly guitar while they stamp out a chorus that tells us we need “a whole lotta ‘room to rock.'”) No chance. Not in Duffy’s cramped confines. But the crowd makes its own room, bumping and bouncing off each other like robot dodge-ems caught in a 220 volt current.

Onstage, chaos threatens. The high-waved grease plume is flapping on the singer’s forehead. Smutty (the bassman) has stripped off several layers of vestments and rides his stand-up bass like a bitch in heat: climbs it, totters, jumps down and rolls beneath, dancing with the wooden bulk in a parodied jitterbug.

Behind him, guitarist Tim is standing on the drumkit: Black boots, white belt, black shirt, white braces, black hair, white face. He flings himself at the dance-crazed crowd like a madman loosed. No time to lose, no holds to bar.

“This one’s about animals,” says Dibbs, so cool and blond. He grins hard while bouncing tentacles of wiggling limbs jive madly stage front. This band concedes nothing to time. No museum piece purists here, this stuff bites: “Don’t treat me like a dog . . . love this kat.”

Then we get Smutty’s “All Through the Nite” and it’s over. Fierce cheering brings them back for three encore songs. Still that full-bore, cliffwalking, all-but-out-of-control surge of sight and sounds: Cockney singer jiving and twisting beneath his lines, guitars a double burn, songs flung past like empyy beer cans from a speeding car. They cap it with “Around and Around.” “The joint was a-rockin’,” sure enough . . . and then they’re gone.


First published in Sweet Potato (now City Pages), July 1981.