We discovered a major problem with my sound equipment that I had to find a solution to on Monday . . . then finished packing and zipped to the airport.

I am now safely ensconced in the Sister to Paradise:

Some weirdness actually started at the airport as I made my way from Cyprus. After boarding the flight and hanging out for half an hour or so, I glanced out of the plane window and saw a man being forced onto my flight. He fought the police and airline crew, who were trying to get handles on him to drag him aboard. I took a few touristic shots of the action. Finally, he boarded and got to ride in the front of business class -maybe I should have put up a ruckus as I was the only other person in business class.

He disembarked last, but I pretended to have hand luggage issues, and shadowed his progress. He met some men but did not seem to be in trouble.

As the plane took off and climbed midway to cruising altitude, I was served my meal, which kept slipping into my lap due to the rakish angle. Fortunately, it was a relatively dry treat. The flight was short, so they must have wanted to get a jump on slow eaters. I generally refrain from putting anything served on an airline near my mouth anyway.

Zilal and a friend picked me up from the airport. (Zilal means “Shadows” – coolest name yet.) I was relieved. The flight was late and the passport clearance was slower than usual, so I was afraid she may have left. She is a fashion designer, writer and teacher. I want her to design a dress for me out of some hand made, natural-colored silk that she showed me.

Tonight I am seeing Sara Shamma, who is a wonderful artist and great film subject. Tomorrow night I meet the President of the Encyclopedia - doesn't that sound like a great job. Friday I am meeting the kids from the birthday scene.

Damascus is all around me, but staying in dingy suburb - Dahayat Tukdsiah - with Zilal. Her name is Arabic for shadows.

Will meet Dr Shukri tomorrow evening.

 Dr. Mustapha has not written back about      the appointments with the First Lady and the new Vice President. I am especially excited to meet Dr. Najah al Attar. Friends in the U.S. were surprised to know that Syria has a female V.P. - the highest female official in the history of the Middle East.


It is hot here . . . wait until Autumn to visit.

I raise my glass of Zurat to you,

Hoping to get interviews with the First Lady and the new Vice President, Dr. Najah al Attar. Dr. Attar’s amazing story will leave a great impression on my audience. In several of my interviews, Syrians refer to the First Lady in favorable and amusing speeches - Sara  Shamma, for instance, discusses having tea with the her after winning the BP International Portrait Award.

Thank you again for your open mind and generosity. You must have great, long lists of obligations to keep the wheels of diplomacy turning at the Syrian Embassy in the United States, so I appreciate your time.

Back in the Sister To Paradise:

Yesterday I went to lunch with Zilal and her friend, Mays, a Christian from Aleppo. Mays told me her Grandmother always wore hijab when she traveled to the country because it was the country tradition for all women to cover. She also told me that more and more Christians in the cities are wearing lace head covers to church - maybe there is a bit a of conservative backlash here too. Mays let me know that she has a great relationship with God, but will be the last person in the kingdom to don a headcover. Zilal used to wear hijab, which she adorned it with jewels and fancy fabric. Her French instructor was wild for her look. She decided to uncover because she thought she  was perverting the iconography of the headcovering.

While I was at the internet cafe yesterday, a good pal passed by and recognized me. It is nice to have many old pals to bump into as I bump about Syria. At the cafe, I learned that interviews have been requested on my behalf with the First Lady and Vice President. As V.P. Dr. Najah al Attar is the highest female official in the history of the Middle East.

At tea yesterday with my favorite college kids, I filmed a funny series of contradictions. Nour said it would be impossible for a Christian to date a Muslim. Luah interjected that it is entirely possible to date but to marry is impossible. Annas wound up the discussion by saying Christians and Muslims can intermarry, but this union creates problems and he told a story from his family. Lina brought up that inter-sect marriages were also problematic for some.

The amazing revelation was Lina's inability to get boyfriends. She is regarded as someone who does not take enough care preparing her makeup and hair. Lina is gorgeous - this news could cause traffic jams to Damascus from the outside world.

As usual Nour, Sara, Luah, Lina and Annas were candid and funny. I hope my camera work does the scene justice. The waiter at the cafe approached, offered assistance and explained to the kids that taking sound and picture and interviewing is very complex work - it was gratifying and amusing that he noticed.

As usual my Arabic is providing daily amusement. Yesterday Zilal and Mays found my mistake "Moffi moufti" pleasing. It means "no judging morality" . . . sort of.  I meant to say "no problem" - Moffi mischkle. A moufti is the guy in Islam who makes moral pronouncements.

Last night I went to the night club Mar Mar and saw Amal’s little brother, Khaled play bass. Filmed lots of people smoking and drinking.

I ran into a friend who I need for a follow up interview. He was happy when he finally remembered me. It amazes me that most of the people I filmed take a moment to get in touch with our shared past. If someone filmed intimate details of my life and disappeared - even for ten years - I think I would instinctively recognize them, even from behind at a great distance.

Zilal is lovely, but it is difficult for me to be so far from the city without a car and driver, and I considered moving into a hotel in Damascus. We know several of the same people. I will film her breaking into laughter because her facial transition is magical.  She has the aura of a poem. She understands English - it is my Arabic that gives her trouble.

Plan to film a scene at her school, Esmod Fashion Academy that I think will be powerful. Her students appear in a range of fashion from bare headed to fully covered. I hope to capture their unprejudiced socio-religious outlook and conduct interviews about their thoughts on hijab.

I raise a glass of Zurat to you,

I filmed the college kids yesterday - only Lina, Luah, Sara, Nour and Annas could come, but they are the main players. Tomorrow I will meet the Nour who wore hijab and found herself "Cute".

We discussed hijab and dating. Very funny revelation: Lina has no luck with boys, does not have ability to make herself presentable (ie: hair and makeup). They are wonderfully open and smart.

They watched the video and noted without a trace of jealousy that Lina had the starring role.

Annas is only 23 and he is starting his surgical residency this year in Houston.

I missed filming the international award winning whip-cracker today. Last night I was out late at a night club – filming. I ran into Bisher ("first murder in history" fellow from excerpts).

When I interviewed the President of the Encyclopedia and his wife, who met at George Washington University, she was a bit sniffy about my referring to Asma al Assad as “First Lady” – she explained in a meaningful tone that Asma is merely the president’s wife while his mother remains the “First Lady”. Seems a bit of tension dwells there. While I was visiting, the door kept rattling violently and neither host acknowledged the source; until the door flew open and an adorable 3 year old – identified as their grand daughter - raced in and rushed to place a kiss on my cheek…she took her duty as sweet, Syrian child seriously. Children here are generally delightful and this one is exemplary.

Glad you’re only sugar on the inside. Enjoy the scent after the rain.

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Letters 2006

It is hell living out in Kutsiarh, but Zilal is a lovely person and I am afraid I will hurt her feelings if I move, not to mention her bank account. I would add that the air is much better, but the drive from the house to the city is so arduously toxic that I feel worked over by the time I gasp out of the taxi.

This morning I was meant to film at Esmod, a fashion school; instead, I was escorted to the Ministry of Information where I was informed that I should not film, until the project is sanctioned by the embassy in D.C. Dr. Mihoub is a very nice man, but in this time of political tension, it is not in his interest to give me permission without blessings from on high.

If I do not get a letter from the Syrian Embassy in Washington facsimiled to Nezar Mihoub, I may get arrested. This letter should state that Jean Marie Offenbacher is allowed to film in Syria . . .

Thank you for your kind support. I assure you that you will be happy with the film.

With gratitude,

I am nervous. This morning was a fashion school disaster. After a late night out, I arrived early and the same school officers who pretended to be nice last week, harrassed me and told me not to film - so I took about 200 photos.

Once again, a car not of my own choosing took me to see my former guardian angel, who proceeded to use language that implied that there is a link between me  clandestine Kurdish activiy. Rubbish, of course.

I requested support from their embassy in D.C, but the wheels of justice are speedy compared to the cogs of diplomacy.

Here they should say "do not count your chickens until they are hatched, raised, slaughtered, roasted and digested and you do not die from the meal."

Instead of a nice film session . . .last night - at the last moment - the school officials decided they wanted to me to arrive with a permit. I phoned the ministry of info and received the all clear; but when I arrived this morning, they claimed the ministry knew nothing.

Whisked - at a snail’s pace given the traffic - to the Ministry of Info I discovered that some lying fiend accused me of interviewing Kurds.

My legitimacy as a filmmaker was called into question. . .they could find a bunch of my credits on the internet.

If you can think of any useful documentation, sent it. Government ministries are impressed by paperwork.

When the world is ruled by paranoia, being innocent with good intentions does not preserve one from lying snakes.

Write and call my lawyer if I do not write back.

For now I am only allowed to take touristic shots and interviews in private.  I am denied official interviews. I worry that carrying my camera about could place me violation of the dire pronouncement made yesterday at the Min of I.

Could you call the embassy in D.C. and vouch for the authenticity of my film? Please pull some fancy legal jargon out of your expensive memory box and conjure logical and quick action.

I continue to believe that Syrian DNA contains a special gene for kindness, but this diplomacy-free zone established by the Bush regime is making the world dangerous even here in Syria.

You are too lovely. In Syria they always express extremes in the adverb "too".

Until my letter from the embassy arrives, I should probably refrain from writing about my film plans...but, you know I plan to alter nothing from my original shooting schedule.

I will not let a little thing like big government get me down for long. I think the bureaucratic red tape will melt in this heat.

Onward and upward and hopefully to the beach.

I am devastated at the turn of events. You have been sensitive and very kind in your support of my project and I want to regain your faith. I promise you that I have filmed nothing to hurt anyone in Syria.

The only political subject I filmed included interviews with a people who discussed their discontent with the speed of liberalization in Syria. They were demonstrating the freedom Syrians enjoy in discussing politics, even opposition politics. The impression abroad is that Syria is a police state such open discussion disproves this prejudice. The strength of this context transcends to the content of this material.

I never discussed politics with Kurds. On two occasions in Aleppo, Kurdish taxi drivers began to spew about their support for George Bush and the Iraq invasion. In both instances, I removed myself from the vehicle. I have no interest in rebel rousing.

I visited Ras al Ein and Qamishle to film Easter celebrations. In Ras al Ein the people I filmed were mostly Assyrian Orthodox and a few Catholics. I did not meet any Kurds as far as I know - unless there are Christian Kurds. I actually had limited discussion as few people spoke English. I rode horses with people of Chechyan origin and Bedouins. In Qamishle, I took touristic shots of the vegetable market and filmed an Armenian family rolling yalangi. I found Qamishle depressing and lonely, so I did not stay long, not even long enough to ride horses. Nothing that I filmed should interest the security police.

Would it be possible for you to arrange an interview for me with the people in  Security who slapped me with this nefarious accusation. I would like to give them an opportunity to interview me and clear my reputation.

One sickness in Syria is gossip-mongering. I do not know the source of the prevarication against me, but I can guess some sycophantic snake wanted to gain points with security by accusing an American.

You were wonderful to have faith in me and my project. I do not want to reflect badly on you.


I hope you are not distressed. The film will vindicate us and you will forget these people who value petty politics over public relations. We will all be happy when the film is finished.

Please call me with any questions, requests or announcements. Thank you again for your kindness and confidence in the past.

I went swimming in a pretty suburb today. My host boasted that his daughter is friends with Paris Hilton. I neglected to mention that this relationship is not one that an American parent would be proud to admit.

Just met a charming Iraqi gentleman, who is in the oil business. He taught me the difference between Shi’ites in Iran and Shi’ites in Iraq and explained why Iraqis identify more strongly with their national than religious identity. In Iran, they believe that the Ayatollah speaks directly to God = a conduit functionary similar to the Pope to Catholics; while in Iraq, they believe that each individual accesses their god directly…quite a difference.

I will attend a dinner to meet the former Democratic Senator from South Dakota tonight. Hopefully, he can help to advance my meeting with the Minister of Culture who can advance my security and in turn I can advance my plan to complete filming. I have been advised by many friends not to even carry my camera on the street.

Last night when I arrived at a meeting with a musician, I was happy to realize that he is my former neighbor. His wife is one of my favorite people. She is already in the film - singing "Alu hatha durp" (On the Road Again). Next weekend we will take an excursion to the beaches just south of Turkey, where it is necessary to hike in -  no crowds.

On our way home Zilal and I stopped for groceries. She returned to the car, frustrated, and said in Arabic to the driver that the shop had camel meat, but was out of lamb. Fortunately I understood the Arabic. We enjoyed a delicious meal of camel meat. Zilal had never partaken of this tasty beast.

WHile I await permission to film, I spend the days gently, eating chocolate croissants in the afternoon, zatyr salad at night and macduce for breakfast - not an entirely miserable predicament.

I had dinner last night with the delegation from the U.S. My sense from the former Senator from SD is that he sees no benefit in assisting me out of my predicament. He travels on a mission to engender understanding between our cultures, but he did not seem interested in a documentary portraying Syrian people above and beyond the stereotype. He kept telling me that I should see a 31 minute doc shot in 2 weeks a couple of years ago, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”.

Meanwhile in the Mother-in-Law to Paradise:

I visited with an old friend and his family. On my first trip here, his wife was in Jordan having a baby so he had lots of time to hobnob and I spent several Ramadan evenings helping him and his Grandmother break the fast. She cooks a mean kibbeh and liked sharing with me the satellite fed scenes from Mecca at the Kala. She wears hijab, but the other night at the forbidden beach, she briefly. Her hair is dyed raven black. She maintains her secret beauty.

The secret hair was revealed near Tartus, a small town with smaller action. It is so lacking in excitement that I noticed young girls (aged 5 to 8) playing traffic cops, by standing in front of the lights and beckoning the traffic to flow when the light turned green. Maybe they would have more fun, covering the lights, and beckoning the traffic to flow on red, then it would resemble big city traffic Syrian style.

I spent one night in Safita - a mostly Christian town in the mountains - with my roommate and two of her friends. When we arrived at the hotel, I thought they were joking. It quickly became apparent that it really was a hotel and not an army barracks, and we were not there to study the travel habits of the disenfranchised. Fortunately our car broke down that night and we did not get to bed until 5am. I was so tired that sleeping in my clothes without a shower did not phase me and the next night

We had attended a wedding in the hills over Tartus. Many people from the Damascus theater scene were there. The bride spent the entire evening be photographed. She seemed older. The custom is changing from girls to women marrying. 

I spent in the Tarusian idea of a luxury hotel:The Tower hotel is shabby and at night a disco downstairs sent memories of ghetto blasters dancing in my head.

Hussam and I went to Arwad Island, which is the poorest place I have been in Syria, despite its perfect location for tourist trade. They sell shell tchotchkes from China (say 5 times very fast). Some very young girls looked at me like they wanted to rip my head off when they noticed me filming their play.

Hussam and his family took me to a hotel called Green Beach on the beach north of Tartus. In October and September they have diving excursions.

Hussam and I took a paddleboat past the perimeter ropes, and were washed ashore on the wrong beach - huge barricades stood between us and his family and my camera. Seven swimming angels came to our rescue - a gaggle of 4 to 7 year-olds tugged us out beyond the surf where we regained control of our short-term destiny.

Tomorrow I am off to Haleb, where I will sleep in at least one pretty boutique hotel.

Salty mint kisses,

Meanwhile in the Mother-in-law to Paradise:

Earlier today I whipped sheep skins with a metal rod. The fellow who loaned me the weapon/tool is named Mohamed Ali. He showed me his muscle. I boasted that mine also were "kabeer" and proceeded to dazzle with my rod action.

I almost bought a turban style hijab today - in hot pink - that would have gone great with an “I Dream of Jeannie” costume, but the salesman was a creepy and tried to arrange the draping on my chest, so I fled with only my hat. Halloween haunts me in the vicinity of those specialty shops.

My flight to Haleb was pleasant enough. The unfussy approach of the flight attendants is impressive. As usual in these parts, the flying customers are allowed to keep all of their carry on strewn all over the place. A PA system voice suggests the option of raising tray tables and fastening seatbelts. I feel like screaming "Yee-hah" at take off. No one applauds the landings (thank god) which are always smooth, except when the plane is vibrating violently.

On Sunday night I ventured in to Little Falluja with some friends in search of shwarma and for sight seeing; but I did not leave the car as it was too obvious that I had, from the back seat, already become a sight seen. People are highly attuned to the most subtle variation in dress and gesture that signify cultural identity. Maybe I should wear a hot pink turban/veil next time I go shwarming in Little Falluja.

Zatyr kisses and jasmine hugs,

I ate a raw chicken schwarma last Wednesday, on my way home from Aleppo. After attending Ibsen's "Ghosts" in Arabic (very nice), I had nice dinner at Zeitouna and went home and spent the night throwing up. We had dinner upstairs at Zeitouna because I wanted to discreetly interview the brilliant actress, Amal Omran. I had forgotten that it is World Cup season, so the roomtone of the interview is racous tv soccer action. The beautiful old restaurant has been altered by the addition of a massive tv screen and speakers everywhere. The waiters turned the upstairs speakers off for us. They were amused by the challenge of serving an Arabic feast around a table mounted camera.

Yesterday we went to Suweida, an area between here and Jordan predominantly occupied by Druze. This Shi’ite sect is especially tolerant. They believe in reincarnation, so their dead are buried above ground for quick return. Druze are not allowed to learn the practice until they reach the age of 40. Most do not engage in active practice until they are much older, if at all. To become an active practioner one must give up smoking and drinking and wear special clothes; so few people take the devotional route. Those who choose not to learn the religion are still accepted as good Druze, so long as they practice moral conduct - respecting the rights of others.

We attended a wedding in a tiny village with dirt streets and basalt stone block homes. The children were very enthusiastic to practice their English. I was peppered with perfectly enunciated "Hello, what is your name? where do you live? how are you?" and, of course, "how old are you?" The girls are almost all gorgeous and the boys almost all love me. Our car was floated out of town on a cloud of young love, about 12 10-year-olds loudly professed, "I love you." The wedding takes several days. Yesterday when we arrived, Lina and I joined the women in a dancing and singing circle. Then we all ate together from the same dish. The food was delicious - mensaf with a special ghee and yogurt dressing and lots of kibbee for growing hips. Since I am still slightly poisoned from the schwarma incident, I was not able to impress them with my big appreciation of their cooking.

Earlier yesterday, I visited Lina's amazing family. They have a big country house parts of which are over 2000 years old. Her maternal grandfather was the leader of the resistance against the French Mandate. Her fathers parents dress traditionally, but think modern. Her cousin, who lives in Dubai and is one of triplets, loves to say "holy moly" with an occasional "holy mackeral".

On Tuesday, in Aleppo, I was walking along the street when Inoticed a ... Will write later!

in the Sister of Paradise

I was with friends in Aleppo earlier, beach bound this morning, but back in Damascus instead. Two musical friends and I went to Aleppo by car yesterday. One performed last night in a play about the Arabic Hamlet… Rasha’s singing was lovely. We were meant to move to the coast in the wee hours today to take in two days at remote beaches just south of Turkey, but they were called back to Damascus to do an emergency advertisement recording. What would the world do if it had to wait 48 hours for the release of the next Syria Tel ad; and what were the folks at the ad agency doing for the past six months that they forgot to book the talent. My friends explained that the talent inside Syria's largest ad agency claim that they operate in a professional manner, like “Disney”. I disliked working for Disney intensely, but organization was not one of the issues with those fascists. I tried to explain union rules to my friends and compensation for rush work.

Last night in the hotel, I expected the desk manager to resent me after I changed my room three times; instead, he asked me to please be home by 11pm so he could take me for a drink (not likely). Later he called my room to remind me that I had an appointment at the theatre.  I thanked him let him know that I would pass by the desk in a moment and he responded "Yes, I will see you in a moment, my darling." Now, when I leave my friends, they call out "See you in a moment, my darling." Darling is a charming address.

Sweet dreams, my darling...

On Sunday night my interview with the Druze/Sunni married couple was cancelled due to Mukabarat intervention. The young duo was sufficiently intimidated to meet the muks demands. They had no former experience with such forces and did not know how to call their bluff. It is much more difficult for a local to call this particular bluff, only the intellectuals seem to be very adept at this game.

On Monday morning I was 1/2 hour late to my meeting with the international whip cracking champion, so he made other plans. The whip will have to come down next trip.

On Monday afternoon as I was conducting a clandestine interview with two friends who wear hijab without makeup, when I heard the door open behind me, and the sound of two large men. My blood froze and my friends dashed - the 14-year-old disappeared from the souk entirely for at least an hour. I thought my interrogation had finally arrived and the camera felt very heavy. They asked me where I was from and I merrily sang out "New York", they confirmed "American". I chatted rosily until they interrupted to ask to take my photo. I refused on the grounds that I was tired and looked ugly. They asked to photograph my camera and I laughed replied in the negative. Then they said they were from Iraq. I apologized, awkwardly, for my government's destruction of their country. They asked to photograph themselves with my camera. I decked one of the big fellows up in the rig, turned it on and took pix with both our still cameras. They left, very happy. When I turned to my friend, she gasped "Look I am wet, when I realized that they were from Iraq and you are American I was so scared and then you told them..." Meanwhile I had been relieved to find that they were from Iraq. The mystery remains, why two burly Iraqi men entering a women's specialty shop.

Over the past couple of years, I asked many people if they were scared that the secular violence that was induced in Iraq could replicate in Syria. Most have responded, “no, not here, we are not bloody-minded.” The feeling seems to be that due to their relatively peaceful history, the Syrians are not susceptible to the violence that has taken hold of Iraq. Syrians are strained by the presence of so many Iraqi refugees. They do not want these people to suffer, but it is a huge economic and social strain on this small country. Even in my own situation, I noticed that apartments now cost at least double what they did two years ago – if one is lucky enough to find a vacant apartment.

My driver told me this morning that his brother got himself an Italian wife and an Italian greencard, then suggested that his brother follow suit. My driver reminded his brother that he was married. He told me he would forego the Italian option and keep his Syrian wife, even though he knows that "too many European girls need husbands because European men don't get married...European women need Arab men."

Last of the bodunas kisses

click photo for slideshow

Copyright © 2006  Jean Marie Offenbacher

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2006  Jean Marie Offenbacher

All rights reserved.