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Letters 2005
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Copyright © 2005  Jean Marie Offenbacher

All rights reserved.

Two days before I was to return to Syria, I asked Bruce to FedEx a saddle and bridle that I no longer use on my Arabian mare, Khember. At FedEx he discovered that the U.S. had recently imposed sanctions that forbid the lawful transfer of parcels larger than a letter from U.S. to Syria. Thanks to the Hariri assassination and ensuing witchhunt of ordinary Syrians, I was going to have to race the Bedouin challenger in an uncomfortable saddle, but at I was leaving for the airport, FedEx delivered the saddle to me in New York.

I checked it with my luggage. When I came through customs, the agent asked me in Arabic to describe the contents. Not knowing the word for saddle I said, “hosan yaqfiz” (horse jumps). He smiled and waved me in. My Syrian friends were amused. My Syrian Bedouin friends will be so happy when they see the black leather jumping saddle, bridle and hackamore.

I am living in the home of the artist Hayan. There are tables made from 2000 year old columns, chairs from old tree stumps and light flows from what looks like lumps of molten glass - very pretty. Even windows and doors seem to be constructed from found ancient objects. At the moment I have only one small bed in my loft-like dwelling. May ask Hayan to build me a little bedouin style tent in the private courtyard to accommodate guests. My new home is in a Christian neighborhood, near the Bab Touma entrance to the Old City.

Issa, a photographer has offered to help me find an apartment in Aleppo. Since I have so much filming to do there and it is only one hour from crystal blue Lake al Assad. It makes economic and psychological sense to have a home there.

I must be off to Palmyra tomorrow to start training my horse. Most likely will race the Bedouin challenger next Friday, so some of my friends from Damascus can come and watch. I must find a girth, leather and irons. I forgot to have them packed with my saddle. I still have no idea how long the race will be. If it is a long distance I will require a guide. I do not intend to follow.

Yesterday I was granted the right to film illegally. My contact at the Ministry of Information is highly regarded and well connected, so I can rely on his authority. Due to some mismanagement in DC, my visa does not allow me to film. Even if it did, they usually send an escort to "help" foreign media. It is impossible for me to schedule film shoots as most of my subject matter reveals itself spontaneously. I will interview my guardian angel – the fellow in the ministry of information who is in charge of foreign media, but I doubt he will expose personal details. Given that he is media savvy, he will probably be guarded on camera.

I am filming a fish who has been confined to solitary confinement in an old chocolate jar for behaving aggressively with the other goldies. The owner/enforcer is reluctant to be filmed as he says, "they will think I am a terrorist." What do you think?


Just back from the desert. I visited the Saleh family and my horse, Sultan Romadi. The Saleh family received us in their garden in the oasis near the Temple of Bel.

Bad news - the pomegranate season is over and there will be no fresh dates until next fall. Good news - desert truffles are in season.

The roses are beautiful now. Roses  are often strangely juxtaposed with cacti in the eastern part of Syria.

Awful evidence - We visited the desolate flats where the fantasy hotel designed by Hayan used to stand. It was to be my home in Palmyra. Not only was the place bulldozed, but all of the stones were carted off. The story of its demise remains a mystery wrapped in Arabic. Something wonderful has been replaced with nothing. As I surveyed the vacant space in search of architectural ghosts, Ghassan arrived with my horse, Sultan Romadi. I rode around the grounds and Sultan managed to cut his pastern. We all walked home and waited for dinner.

Back at the garden, some Dutch people had arrived. One is a textile specialist, an opportune expertise in this country of amazing textiles. Some women from Austria arrived and decided to spend the night too, followed by a group of Americans seeking dinner. It was a nice evening, but seeking to escape the company of so many foreigners, I opted to go to the desert and sleep at Ghassan's uncle’s ranch.

As it turned out, Ghassan's uncle was going to put me up in a tent with 4 other men, a loudly squawking tv and nearly enough ashtrays to accommodate this gang of chain smokers. The situation lacked the vista of stars, magical stillness of the air and distant animal sounds that I anticipated.

Ghassan took me back to town where I stayed with his wife, sister-in-law, mother and assorted babies from 4 months to 2 years. I spent the night in a room with Ghassan's mother and the children, but it was a sleepless night. Even the small children were noisy little sleepers.
Insuring against my loss of wakefulness in case I began to grow accustomed to the din, a clock erupted into raucous Christmas tunes each hour on the hour - the others snored through.

Breakfast of sheep laban and macdous was reparation for the night.

The next day I rode Sultan Romadi to a dam 20 kilometers away. Ghassan's brother, Khalid was my motorcycle guide. Another Khalid rode a horse beside me. I decided to tack Sultan in my saddle and hackamore from home. (A hackamore is a bit-free bridle for sensitive and obedient horses.) Sultan proved to be a disobedient beast with no brakes. I was nearly killed later that day as he careened out of control across a highway. Khalid swears that he clocked us at 80 kilometers an hour, faster than a speeding thoroughbred in the derby. I suspect his odometer was exaggerating.

Must finish my tale later . . . Mr Raslan has arrived.

Before I became subject to the post-Hariri-assassination political climate, I had a great living situation. All of the furnishings and architectural ornamentation were handmade by a Bedouin artist who grew up in Damascus. He designed the fantasy oasis hotel that the government mysteriously bull dozed a couple of months back. After the destruction phase, they cleared away the rubble, so there is no trace of the resort that never got to be. Glad I filmed it.

After spending nearly a week apartment shopping, I landed a duplex next door to Nadi Shark (Club Orient/East) in Shalon. Four Seasons is in the final stages of construction up the street.
There is a good Indian restaurant downstairs that the President likes.

Someone in the government lives on this block, so the presence of security casts a shadow. Several visitors have been stopped and interrogated on their way to my flat.

There is a new law that applies only to Americans – a little tit for tat answer to the post-Hariri sanctions. We are supposed to register our residence with the Foreign Ministry with a notarized paper from the U.S. embassy. The embassy charges $30. I refuse to submit to this inconvenience. From experience I know that the Syrian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. embassy are dirty and share a lust for wasting time. Completion of this fool’s errand will demand several days.

My friend, John is in town but has decided that he should not stay in the apartment as the atmosphere here is too paranoid.

The time difference is only 7 hours - we are ahead, as usual.

I knew your were moral and good and would support Mr. Goldfish. I helped Fadi change his water today.

Kisses with jasmine and mountain honey (so they stick),

One of my film subjects is one of the best female table tennis players in the history of Syria. Thomas Friedman refers to her team in "From Beirut to Jerusalem".

The Bedouins said they have only witnessed me and Ahmed moving so swiftly on horseback. When my mount, Sultan Romadi sped off with me near the highway, we attracted an audience. Traffic was tracking with us. I was so agitated that I noticed nothing except the sound of the bells on Khalid's horse, that set Romadi off.

On the way home, I had to walk. Romadi could not move above a slow trot without limping thanks to the wild ride on a thrown shoe. I was trying to take a direct route home, ie: a straight line. The guide bike could not handle the tough terrain that a horse can, so I asked Khalid to give me a landmark for orientation. Somewhere between the English and Arabic, directions drifted and we took a route that added at least 8 kilometers to the trek and landed us on a highway at 9 that night. We arrived back at the garden at 10. My 3-hour tour took ten..

Ghassan drove his truck with us for the last 10K.

After I showered, the eldest Saleh, Said wrapped my head up like a Bedouin to keep my wet hair warm. It is a good look. The Saleh wives and children had come to the garden to await our return and prepare a good dinner. It was a delightful evening in the end.

The next day I woke up and went to the ruins of Zenobia to find the eldest brother, Said. I got lost and another man came along on a white camel. He agreed to give me a ride on his camel to find Said. On the way a tourist vendor stopped us, but my escort told him not to bother me, as I was family. My escort was one of the Al Saleh cousins – and I guess I am too.

Back at the garden, headgear arranged, I drank tea with Said and several drop in guests. Ghassan arrived and took his cousin and me to the desert to buy sheep. I visited with the men for a while and then went to the harem to film.

The women all wanted to talk, but they were stunned that I could not chat in Arabic. The baby sported kohl on her eyes. The women wore thick eye makeup. Most had hennaed hair. They all wore bright dresses. As usual they put far too much sugar in their tea.

None of the women smoked.

Bedouin men almost all smoke.

They have herds of gazelles, but they were in stables to escape the afternoon heat, so I did not get to see them.

That evening the owner of my hotel joined Ghassan and I on another drive into the desert, this time seeking hot springs. It was about 5:30pm. The shadows were lengthening when we came to a section of the road that was under construction. We had to find a detour through the desert. It was another wild ride. Discerning paths in the desert is tricky business.

As we drew near the springs, it was dark. The place was quiet as a tomb, not a vehicle in sight. Ghassan honked. A couple of Bedouin guys appeared, turned on the lights and began filling a pool for us. This was my second trip to the hot springs. Both times we were given a private reception.

As I changed into my bathing suit I wondered how these conservative Bedouin fellows would feel about a woman in a swimsuit. Ghassan was the first to join me and he allowed me photograph him in his white trunks.

Afterward we drank tea and tried to follow the narrow dirt tracks home through the pitch-black desert. We stopped to look at stars and walk on salt flats.

Back at the hotel I filmed a funny rope trick and drank some zurat (flower tea).

At midnight I went back to the garden for dinner and sleep. I do not like the hotels in town, but pay for a room. There is creepy, official pressure for foreigners to stay in hotels now in Palmyra. The night was cold (ajo bared) and I could hear the camels, horses, and fowl over one wall and breathe the dates, olives and herbs through the backgate to the Gethsemane-like garden.

Back in Damascus, John was jealous of the gifts I had received in Palmyra: an antique silver bracelet for me and a silver and stone ornament for my horese, Graf. Graf will get in touch with his Arab ancestors – all horses have some touch of Arabian.

Kisses with cucumber and mint on a warm desert morning,

Since the Syrian troops left Lebanon, the internet is glacial.

I can visit the neighboring countries now. My guardian angel at the Ministry of Information will send a fax to the border if I want to travel.

I interviewed him. He is possibly the only person in Syria who understands the importance of public relations, so he appreciates my effort to present a positive vision of Syria at home.

He established an organization to promote Public Relations in Syria using his connections and personal money.

His openness well exceeded my expectations, though one young staffer was ordered to re-record her interview after he heard her say "Americans tremble when they think of Syrians, and we tremble when we think of Americans, but you are very shining and not what I thought an American would be. I thought you hated us and wanted to bomb us." I liked the part about shining.

The staffer is a beautiful young woman with a wise yet innocent aspect. Alas, those unguarded, voluble moments are recorded over with carefully crafted phrases. Her boss does not want members of the Syrian Public Relations Association to reveal their (understandable) reservations about Americans. Syrians I have encountered far and wide do not believe that the Bush regime reflects the hearts of America.

During the interview, I queried the doctor of journalism about using the arts as a PR vehicle, and pointed to the lack of funding for the arts in Syria. He promised that he will aid any international art shows that can be arranged. Not only did he agree that the new opera house was under utilized, but he has been petitioning for funds to expand programming. The interview is in Arabic.

John and I attended an art opening at Shoukran Moudarres’ gallery and saw Saad Yagan. He told me that I look too thin.

When I told John about my problem with the police interrogating my friends, he said that the subjects of his book had also been interviewed by security. No one is being treated harshly, but we are feeling the increased tension between the U.S. and Syria.

Last Thursday evening I heard from my friend Ahmed, recently turned 20, who has been in the Syrian military since the end of March. His training took place in the snowy mountains of Lebanon. When he returned to his home in Palmyra (desert) an hour earlier, he called his mom first and me second to invite me to visit him in Palmyra. The young men of Syria are naturals at ego-boosting. Adorable young men let me know that I have a place in their hearts. The doe-eyed Tarek wanted to go to Palmyra too and his friend Farez decide he would bring his girlfriend and drive us. My heart was light as I packed my equestrian attire.

Ahmed's big brother called me to let me know that he had a big tent set up in the desert, about 30 kilometers from town. When we arrived in Palmyra, my friends and I rode camels around the ruins. After indulging their tourist appetites, Ahmed and I set off for the camp on horseback. I used a bit (metal mouthpiece on the bridle) on Sultan Romadi this time.  By the end of the weekend I had him riding on the bit in collected gaits . . and stopping without the application of brute force.

At the camp Ghassan was entertaining my Damascene friends with scorpions. They would pour water in a the nesting hole, wait for the venomous desert elf to appear and remove its stinger, rendering it a suitable tent pet. If you need  a scorpion to emerge from its hole, just add water.

I left to fetch my camera. When I returned and tried to offer my arm to the neutered scorpion Tarek yanked him away and warned that the creature on his stick was fully loaded.

Ghassan has been stung 2 times. The pain is nearly unbearable for only 5 hours and tapers off to nothing by 22 - if you get the antidote fairly soon after the insult.

I filmed scorpions fighting and had a good time, despite the girlfriend of Fayez who seemed to think that high pitched squeals at every movement of any animal constituted feminine wile.

    That night when I fell asleep it was windy and rainy, but later I woke up to the hushed thud of hoof-steps. I found Sultan Romadi loose and foraging a few hundred feet from the tent. As I led him back to camp, I realized that I was wearing light leather slippers as I recalled that scorpions surface after rain.

On the way home the next day, I raced Ahmed on a racetrack – and won.

The first time I visited Palmyra last October, I stayed with 3 school teachers, 1 Christian, 1 moderate Muslim and 1 devout Muslim. They are the best of friends and I interviewed them for the film. When I departed I carried sacks laden with trinkets and dates. I had learned a new word, "haddiya" (gift).

Ghassan accompanied me as translator on a visit to see them Saturday night. These girls from Homs has never been beyond the ruins into the desert, so we are planning a camel camping trip for them. I cannot imagine what they do with their time in the dusty, 2-day tourist pass town of Palmyra. Hopefully, they will accept my haddiya to them.

Upon my return to Damascus, I nearly missed the curtain for a play that my friend, an assistant director at the opera, had gifted me. I arrived to find the ticket window closed, the doors barred, and a huge crowd milling about. I slid my way to the glass doors, rapped lightly on the glass and signalled my desire to pass. Some gallant soul inside, opened the door and allowed me to enter without a ticket. Miraculously I found my friend. As I began my apologies, the crowd leapt to its feet and began cheering happily. President Bashar Assad and his wife were coming down the aisle. They sat 2 rows and 4 seats over from us. It was amazing to see a large theater of artsy, liberal types responding enthusiastically to the president’s presence. He was out and about with no announcement and invisible security, as is his way. I spoke with the cast and director after and they had no idea that he was coming until they heard the ovation and saw him taking his seat.

My landlady is nervous that I have not registered, so yesterday I attempted to start the process with the embassy. I quit after a long wait in the embassy's dingy office that is crammed with old election materials and pictures of former Secretary of State, Colin Powell promoting careers in the State Department - "register by February 21, 2004 . . ." For this week, I shall just have to continue life outside of the red tape.

The weather remains very cool and beautiful here.

Out with a girlfriend from France last night until 3am. We saw the play again and were lucky enough to be spotted by a lead actress’ boyfriend and the director; otherwise, we would never have gotten in. The show is sold out until the end of its run and there are large crowds trying to get last minute release tickets each night. I filmed chunks of the production, but have a big problem with my microphone mounting. The input is faulty and the mounting is badly designed, so the mic keeps falling. The Panasonic AG DVC40 gets good color but it suffers some horrific design flaws.


If you were here, I would share my moutabal and zatyar salad with you and teach you to say in Arabic "When you are near, my mind is on wings."

It has been wonderful here. I am meeting many people and receiving generous invitations to ride horses and visit pretty estates. One of my new acquaintances is a talented actress, who works from Syria to France. When she was younger, she lived in the U.S. for a year, during which the first Gulf War broke out so she was subjected to verbal abuse at her job in Winchell’s Donut Shop. During that time, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, so her mother was subjected to nightmares of a daughter dined upon on distant shores. She prefers life in Syria.

I attended an art opening on Friday for an artist (Yousef Abdelke) who was exiled from Syria 25 years ago and has just returned. The opening was in a fabulous 18th century inn, Khan As'ad Pasha. The space was jammed with people, including many young politico types who invited me for talk deep into the night. One man I met was in prison for 29 years. He was only 23 when he went in. He looks very healthy and happy, so I asked if prison here offered golf.

Hope the Mukabarat like my new friends. They are in constant touch - seeking to keep me out of harm’s way. . .?

Saturday, I attended my first horse race here and came close to jockeying. A jockey showed up stocky and I was in my breeches and boots, but the race committee disallowed my ride for safety reasons - thank heavens. After the race they gave me one of the winners to take on a spin around the track. I had never ridden in a racing saddle and it was tough to stay on. A muscle I had never notices seem to catch fire after 3 seconds in 2-point. One man observing my ride invited me to come to his ranch claiming he could easily train me to race in 5 days. He has a peninsula in the Euphrates with all manner of water toys from scuba to skiing.

I was interviewed for Syrian television. I noted that our image of Arabian horses is as similarly distorted as our image of Syrian people – we think Arabian horses are frisky, high maintenance beasts, but they are, in fact, very gentle. Even stallions are calm enough to pop toddlers atop just after they have raced. No one will see this broadcast, since no one here watches the local SANA tv. The trusted source of news is usually BBC or Al Jazeera.

The weather has been gorgeous after a cold, wet last week.

Dear Wael,

I will see you before you begin military service. Probably, they will postpone your service due to your paunch.

Dear Alexander,

I am sorry, but in these past weeks, I had no opportunity to write.

I have not found a way to ship the tapes. too busy shooting, probably will not edit anything.

Wish you could visit.

Big favor, please:  could you email my lawyer, ----

He will draft a super simple release form based on the ones you sent to me last time. Internet here is a little slow, so it is difficult to search the history files.

Tomorrow one of the little girls I am filming is sending her driver to pick me up so we can ride horses together. Two of her father's horses won the races I attended last week. A big horse breeder in Aleppo has offered me a horse to race - if I dare. I tried riding a horse at the track in a racing saddle and I felt insecure, the leg placement leaves no place for grip and unless you stand up high, the pressure on the ankles & quads is painful. One is meant to carry this position while scheming how to get their speeding mount past other darkly-scheming jockeys. Jockeys and taxi drivers are rascals the universe over.

Tomorrow I begin my trip to Qamishle, a town at the Turkish border that is famous for its cultural diversity. This area has no dominant tribal or religious group, though there is a  large Kurdish population. I am sure to get plenty of caffeine and hope to get colorful interviews and scenes.

The northeast is green green green with mud-bricked villages providing a break between the grass and sky. The towns are ancient with no architecture to prove it, but the people are very friendly. They were always happy to see a foreigner and I drank too much tea and ate too many pieces of kleesure, a hard cookie with date filling.

Throughout most of the region there are many different ethnicities and religious groups all interacting very nicely. At social gatherings people are often introduced by the their ancestry. Genealogy matters and nearly everyone can trace their family tree back at least many hundreds of years. In a typical Ras Al Ein moment, my host introduced 3 men to me in this way "Hussam is a geologist, Bassam is an attorney and Khalid is a Chechnyan." The fact that Khalid's family had arrived in town 145 years earlier was not mentioned, so for a week I thought he had just jumped off the train.

Spending time in the far northeast of Syria - near the “porous” border. I had a lot of brushes with the Mukabarat partially because they seek to keep me safe so they do not have trouble.

I spent much of my time out riding horses. One day I returned to my hosts house and found her a trembling and pale. Representatives from security (Mukahbarat) had been there to inquire after my permit. When I called a friend in Damascus, he told me to clear out, “you are not in Damascus anymore.” I called my contact at the ministry and they not only dropped their request for my permit, they became solicitous and protective.

After I left, they became less nice and took to pestering my innocent friends and fellow equestrians. My more urban and academic friends are not intimidated by the security police, but these friends in villages are not accustomed to dealing with conflict, so I am afraid that I will lose them as film subjects and as friends…feeling irritated, guilty and sad.

I may jockey an international endurance race at the track next month to get publicity for the film. Two people have offered me fast horses.

May I send you some rugs? My appetite for rugs is not abated. Syria also has great bath towels designed for the traditional hamams. They are of light cotton with lovely designs woven in and are big enough to use as a sheet.

Damascus is the best place to buy carpets, kilims and other traditional weaving, especially from Iran. Two of the most important Shi’ite holy sites are here. A perk to having a martyr in the family in Iran is a pilgrimage to Damascus compliments of the government, so there are many Iranian pilgrims with family heirlooms to tithe the mosques, which are stacked to the dome with weavings. The mosques prefer money, so all those pilgrims sell their wares to the shops in the vicinity. It is wonderful to sit in the nicer shops and learn about the uses of the different pieces, the meaning of the figures and patterns depicted, and the ethnic origin of the works.

After spending months visiting Yasser Sagherjie’s kilim shop, I had downed gallons of coffee and tea and spent hours taking in lessons, but had yet to buy so much as a mirror bag. I mentioned that I felt some guilt that I was not much of a customer. The answer was, “You do not ever have to buy anything, but you must never stop coming in.”

I discovered an older woman whose family has been in the textile/tailor business for a few hundred years, so I have some pretty new frocks decorated in complex hand embroidery. I could live here just for the fabrics.

Probably I will make my way to Aleppo next week, by way of Salhieh and Hama.

A man in Deir Ez Zur invited me to his ranch on the Euphrates. He offered to teach me to ride to race. I remain on the fence about this invitation. Almost everyone in Deir smokes and few adults speak English. It used to be wealthy as it is in the midst of the oil fields, but the money flows out faster than oil and there are piles of trash on streets lining the banks of the Euphrates. The city feels neglected, especially the places that try to be nice for the foreigners who visit to check the oil. Maybe this man and his family will convince me that they can provide a new dimension to my experience of Deir Ez Zur and in a few weeks I will be writing about the leeches of the Euphrates.

Yesterday I returned from a 2-day adventure in Palmyra that included a motorcycle trip through the desert, past a dam over some big rock hills. All in all it was pretty and a tad scary. The terrain would be manna to dirt bike fiends. I was riding on the back with a very good driver but my mind raced to my khafila many times - only the khafila was covering my head and I thought it is not exactly the same as a helmet.

The desert offers marvelously diverse scenery. A neighborhood of trees will spring up suddenly after three small mountain passes of nothing but prettily contoured rocks and dirt. It is also exciting to come across wells that are probably 2000 years old, in the middle of wilderness.

I was the starring guest at a Bedouin wedding. When I was spotted lurking with my friends in the gloom just beyond the party lights, I was captured and dragged to the center of the dancing circle where I was instructed to film the groom, and everyone else astute enough to notice that the thing on my hand was a camera. When the groups grew tired of posing with family members, they hit upon the idea of posing with the filmmaker at which point I lost control of my camera and was made to dance before it. My hand was passed from person to person - that was not the dance part. Everyone wanted to say hello and hold my hand - everyone who was male or small child. The women remained in the line dance the entire time.

Occasionally a couple of the men get excited and break from the line and stomp about in a small cluster, but the women did not stray from the line. The line is dull. I have been told many times about the charm of the aptly named traditional bedouin dance "dupka". It seems light years removed from Arabic dance that I find beautiful.

Two days ago, we passed an excited crowd in the street carrying a celebrated character on a chair on the old Roman, Straight Street. Yesterday I met the man in the chair. He is a well-regarded actor in the Middle East. His name is Nour El Sherif and he invited me to visit Egypt. Everyone says he is an incredible talent and I believe it because he was very easy to talk to about cinema and life. My experience with actors was that the greater the talent, the more generous the personality.

Copyright © 2005  Jean Marie Offenbacher

All rights reserved.