Sunday, July 31, 2005

Balls in souq by Sayeda Zeinab mosque

Life and freelance journalism by an amateur at both

I shan't be wearing my girfriend's pants again. It's not so much that I don't like them - they are a cute orangey pair with big hippie flowers on them - and neither are they impractical to wear, unlike the g-strings - 'tangas' - I also tried on, which leave you with at least one testicle poking cheekily out of the side as well as foliage cascading over the top. It's not even that I look perverse in them - the bushy red beard that I have grown just exacerbates the my general ability to look extremely camp. No - it's much, much worse.

I don't know if it's linked to the unstable stomach I've had or simply the fact that they rode up into my cleft, but whatever the reason, and in an exceptional case, they have become somewhat marked. I have spent the entire day washing them, applying stain remover and detergent, scrubbing away with my hands, a sponge - and to little avail. For it doesn't matter how much progress I make - if it is not all gone I cannot give them back. Maybe the marks were already there - I don't remember but there's no way I can take the risk... Meanwhile fate has dealt me a kind hand - she is in Beirut watching a famous Flamenco dancer and sampling the Beirut nightlife with some other girls, but she will be back later today and, like the Palestinians, she will come looking for what is rightfully hers.

So the great panty wash has kind of dominated my day. As usual I went to bed with the intention of getting up before 12. As usual I got up at 12. I cooked some rice, onion and cucumber because I have nothing else, watched some Al-Jazeera and read some Tintin in Arabic. Al-Jazeera is tough - although they speak in Fussha, the vocab is complex and unguessable. But the Tintin is coming on really well - I know the stories, I have pictures to guide me and the words are pretty simple and oft-repeated. In the Crab with the Golden Claws, Tintin and Captain Haddock are just crossing the desert after crashlanding their seaplane. Doubtless the young reporter Tintin will write up his Middle Eastern adventures to great acclaim at the end of the book.

I am still waiting for my acclaim. In the four-and-a-half-months that I've been in Damascus I have sold two articles and been paid for one. The first was on what a good place Damascus is to study Arabic for the Christian Science Monitor in the US. I have since sent them a welter of stuff and not had a single reply from the newsdesk. The second was about a Jesuit monastery here - Deir Mar Musa - which is making great strides in building bridges with Muslims here in a bid to reduce global misunderstanding, prevent the Clash of Civilisations etc etc. They are pretty broadminded and have a thirst for learning about Islam - the monks pray from the Quran and take the approach that learning Islam gives them new ideas and so enables them to become better Christians. But on the other hand I guess it's tricky to make meaningful strides if you explicitly believe one thing - that Christ is the son of God and came back from the dead for example - and they believe another - that Islam is the final and best version of the three big religions, it's logical and so belief is not so much a matter of choice but more a self-evident rational approach - if the world, thus it's creator God. Nevertheless at least they have God in common - not all of us do. If they can take the view that all religions are different routes to the same God then progress can be made - and these monks do. Anyway sold that to the Catholic Herald in the UK and I'm still waiting for payment as well as a response to my many emails asking for my cash. Can't trust these religionists....

More frustratingly, I am on the cusp of selling three further articles but after having three bites from different publications, the trail has gone cold and I am in limbo - having email as your main/only means of contact makes it tricky to find out if these guys are still interested if they simply ignore you. With one story - about a Scottish woman who lives here after converting to Islam, the paper has been really keen and it is the woman who has thrown the spanner in the works - no way can we have a picture of her before she converted - that's Haram! She has destroyed the pictures from this previous life she wants to forget and the surviving photos are just for her family to see. Can't help thinking she's being a tad radical here - that the zeal of the convert is far in excess of how a born Muslim would behave - but whatever, the piece is about a convert and she is absolutely not budging. Having agreed to be interviewed she now doesn't want to be in an article because she is worried that the all-seeing Syrian media monitoring service will read about her and automatically conclude that this woman must be booted out of the country. Changing her name doesn't seem to allay her fears. I feel it is the same paranoid syndrome I experienced on the local paper - that people you interview are adamant you must not print the name of the road they live in because burglars will definitely read the article and automatically want to burgle them in particular and somehow know exactly which house to burgle. But it's also true Syria is unpredictable, they are not keen on converts because of the US pressure to crack down on militants going to Iraq, and the stakes for this woman are much higher.

Anyway, I will make my daily trip to the internet cafe in the hope of new hope. Allahu Akbar. But one of the idiosyncracies of the Muslim God is that, according to the verses of the Quran I have read, not only does He favour those who admit him i.e. Muslims, He also goes out of his way to mess up and increase the confusion and suffering of the 'Kaffirin' - those who do not admit him. I feel this is quite capricious behaviour for a Supreme Being but on the other hand, as an American professor of comparative religion pointed out, why does God have to be perfect? In terms of the history of religious belief, this is quite a recent development. Zeus for example was a rascal. In his opinion it's more likely there are a load of different Gods, none of whom are particularly trustworthy...

I should also bear in mind that it is Sunday and the Western media are therefore having a day off.