Tales of moonlit wanderings and travels: I am a semi-nomadic writer currently based in Istanbul -but am always most comfortable running with the djinns and wolves. Desert obsessed with a penchant for Sufi Poetry, this blog is a documentation of my weird and wayward, postmodern-dervish ways.
So the school I'm teaching at here in Mersin, Turkey doesn't have enough art supplies, I am going crazy because the other Turkish teachers are not very helpful and they seem to expect me to be able to make amazing things out of thin air, I don't have any prep time whatsoever, its bloody freaking hot outside and exhausting working 9 hours a day for about 3 dollars an hour no less, not to mention the fact I have a terrible toothache all of a sudden...but these KIDS, these kids...make it all worth it.
"miss julia, miss julia...you are most beautiful teacher!"
Backpacking alone through the Middle east has taught me a lot of things, but nothing perhaps so important or as opinion affirming as how much gender is an illusion.
I have always been a pretty staunch 'feminist' i guess, (since i made my mom cut all my hair off into a boy cut, at the age of 4 and wore only my brothers clothes) but this whole experience of backpacking through a very "gendered place", where, lets face it, men dominate and rule the room...has furthered my radical beliefs more than i could have ever even imagined.
After lugging my own 30 pound backpack around for 6 weeks, through heat and humidity, on buses and trains and taxis where men's wandering hands somehow find their way onto my mosquito-bitten knees... peeing in all manner of filthy squat toilets, deflecting the constant glare of hundreds (if not thousands) of beady male eyes....all independantly, with my own scant amount of money and wits and not much else, there is nothing, truly, not a thing, not even taking a leak standing up (which i have virtually perfected at this point), that a man could do that i couldn't. i have never felt so strong and so completely self sufficient than i have on this adventure.
And so naturally... i get tired of the assumptions. That somehow, because I share the obvious physical qualities of being a girl, that somehow i have something in common with the large kurdish women sitting in the front of the bus, draped head to toe in sweat-stifling polyester layers of hijabs and floor length coats, the woman who shows me the bare hand of her teenage daughter (as though, what, this child SHOULD be married by now?!), who asks me if im married, where are my children, blah blah blah...I am tired of bus drivers who try to sit me in the front seat, squished into these woman when i would much prefer where i was in the back, stretched out on the spacious empty seats, regardless if there may be the glaring eyes of a few smelly men about.
i get so very tired of all the gender bullshit, when its all so obviously rules created in another time, simple thinking for simple small minds, and i am living proof of this. I have no boundaries or rules to abide by, and am proof that there is no such thing as "typical female". Im sick of explaining myself , defending my habits...and also of being lumped into the category of "girl", as though there is only one thing that matters in life: whether you are male or female.
Yes, i am a girl. Yes, i am traveling alone. No, i am not a prostitute. Yes, thats a tattoo on my arm. Yes, i want the stronger apple sheesha No i dont want the girly "mint" flavour. Yes, i am wearing a skirt. No, that doesnt mean you can take it off. No, i am not married. Yes, that is my choice. No, i dont have any kids yet. Yes, when i decide to have them i will still look and dress the same as i do now and wont cover my body because you cant handle looking at it without getting all excited. Yes, i think its pathetic that i am here drinking coffee watching all you men have a nice friday night out, while your wives sit at home. Yes, i have shoulders and arms. Yes, i like them to be free and exposed. Yes, they are probably stronger than yours and i could probably kick your ass in an arm wrestle if we were allowed such public displays of male/female contact. Yes, i am wearing makeup because i like the way it looks, not because i want to look pretty specifically for you.
"Intellect and love are made of different materials. Intellect ties people with knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything. Intellect is always cautious and advises, ‘Beware too much ecstasy,’ whereas love says, ‘Oh, never mind! Take the plunge!’ Intellect does not easily break down, whereas love can effortlessly reduce itself to rubble. But treasures are among ruins.
dirty dusty streets
sitting in a little hotboxed room
with the AC on fullblast
high ceilings and concrete floor apartments
while eating homemade coconut curry at midnight
lunar eclipses on the roof
paying 5 dollars for a stale bagel
in an American style cafe just for free wifi
live-wires dangling everywhere
ducking to avoid imminent electrocution
baggy highwaisted pants on kurdish men
glittery hijabs on their wives
machine gunned Peshmerga fighters
and American soldiers in army fatigues
talking about New Orleans
asking what-the-hell im even doing here
with rotting sheep heads on hot sidewalks
and cockroach inhabited toilets
a resident rat in the stove
i say i dont know but at least i have
fake Absolut vodka screwdrivers
mislabeled Spanish wine
dates and figs and tangy cheese for breakfast
(and food poisoned afternoons)
lazing with new friends in parks
reading feminist travel literature
and smoking superslim cigarettes
telling stories of sociopathic exes
we laugh a banshee laugh
into the night
i am sitting in a little air-conditioned Starbucks-type cafe in Erbil Iraq, drinking iced tea with a bunch of American army officers, who have been stationed in Kurdistan, typing this on my laptop as though i was in Canada.
I said it felt "surreal" to be in Syria…well it feels really incredibly surreal to be sitting on a hot June night in IRAQ, listening to eighties music on my computer, in a little 10 dollar a night hotel room, complete with my own shower/squat toilet, empty mini-fridge and TV that doesn’t work.
I am surely the only traveler for miles around, certainly the only foreign guest at this cheap hotel, and its just... such a strange feeling. I went to an internet café on the main road here earlier and the owner, who did speak English (praise be ALLAH!), said that every single person in the shop was staring at me, not only because they never hardly see foreigners, but also because I was “dressed like a hooker” – which I really beg to differ on, skinny jeans and a t-shirt? Uhhh, okay boys... whatever you say. *shakes head*
Anyways, I met a nice man at the border, named Hassam, who has accompianed me here to Dohuk, and is staying in a room down the hall. He is en route to Baghdad, and I know for a fact that he wasn’t planning on overnight-ing here, but he has, I think just to make sure im okay until I meet with my English teacher friend Emily, in Erbil. It is unbelievably nice of him, (at first i was concerned he was creeping on me, but now he genuinely seems to have taken on the air of over-protective father, which is quite sweet really). I'm grateful for our meeting because i'm a little out of element here, being the only female crossing the border today, and the only non- Iraqi for miles around. He helped me get a much cheaper rate on the shared taxi ride here, and also worked his arabic magic at the hotel, for a cheaper rate. We went for dinner earlier at a kebab shop as well (more kebabs., its really the only choice) and I ate more lamb than I really would ever like to, but it was still nice to eat with someone. I don’t enjoy dining alone, and am thankful for the company.
In the taxi from the border to here, I realized something very strange…as i watched signs return to the familiar Arabic script (from Turkish), and was lulled to sleep by the low muffled voice of Hassam talking with the Taxi driver…I have become really at home in Arabic places. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it in my last blog post, but I felt really alienated in Urfa, Turkey. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but I have become so used to everything being in Arabic for the past month, I swear…its like some reverse culture shock to see signs in English letters. Even though this is a predominantly Kurdish region, in northern Iraq, Arabic is still used, and im really grateful because it makes me feel at "home". Who ever though I would say that?! Haha. Even if I don’t understand much, its nice to be able to say hello and goodbye and thankyou, comfortably, and things like “yallah!” (lets go!), or read some numbers and hear other words I don’t know, but sound familiar to me at least. Turkish is like a totally alien concept to me right now, and I don’t like it, strangely enough.
Anyways, its very amazing to be here, and there is something so oddly thrilling about visiting these countries that have such a bad rap and are seen as dangerous based only on what the media shows us. The same owner of the internet café who said I was dressed like a hooker said it was cool I was here, and that “its not like the T.V, we aren’t all chopping one another’s heads off around here, hahaha" which made me laugh quite hard and shudder at the same time, because in very nearby Mosul (one of the most dangerous cities on earth), beheadings are all too common against anyone who doesnt abide by the most ridiculous extremist forms of Islamic law. Hassam has been trying to convince me to visit Karbalah, where he is from…but I don’t think I quite have the guts/insanity for that. (Also, it would be next to impossible to get a visa for the more southern portion of Iraq.) I still cant quite get over how amazingly well everything seems to work out for me (meeting strangers so easily, getting help from people), and it really makes me feel grateful.
Anyways, im going to go to bed here, as im getting up early to take the taxi with Hassam to Erbil. tomorrow.
“Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station...’”
There's always a point when im traveling when i feel like i've moved just a bit too far, and should have stayed longer in the previous place.
When i was alone in Romania last fall, i just wanted to be back in Turkey...and now, on this adventure, now that i am alone in Turkey, wandering around by myself... i just wish i was in Syria.
Nobody speaks any english in Turkey. i forgot that. and id actually gotten used to Arabic, to hellos and goodbyes and thankyous and how much, (to Salaams and Masalaama and Shukrans and Bikams , that is)...and now its all this crazy long turkish words that i can technically read but make no sense, and NOBODY else is here in Urfa..and it is truly the middle of nowhere, Turkey, which is cool...but it would be cooler if i met another traveler to eat with, drink tea with, hang out with etc.
All ive ate since getting here is shwarma and some peaches off the street, because i hate being alone in restaurants and having the constant attention of greasy men. ugh.
i also feel slightly homesick, and like...what am i even DOING here. honestly. what the hell. WHAT is the situation here? i mean, i know if i was back in Calgary i would kill to be here, doing nothing, in the sacred religious town of Urfa, but now that i am here, i just feel like i ought to be back where i was....bahhhh.
and im a bit nervous about Iraq. i know the areas im going to are safe, but...i just wish i had someone coming with me. I am much braver with someone next to me, even if its me doing the talking.
well...goodnight (which i dont even remember how to say in turkish. dammit)
Now that I am out of Syria I feel I should post another entry about my 10 days spent there.
Something about seeing Assad’s smug photo every 10 minutes, watching you from various vantage points like a hawk, makes a person (perhaps justly) paranoid, about writing anything less than 'complimentary' on an online travel blog. Don’t get me wrong, as a (female) tourist, I couldn’t have been safer, and i had an absolutely amazing time, Syrian people really are the kindest people i have ever met and I can't tell you how easy the borders and any situation involving the “authorities” were (the various policemen who sent me “I love yous” and photos of hearts on my recently temporarily activated Bluetooth device, or the officer in full camoflage army gear at the Turkish/Syria border who responded to my answers of his “where have you been/where are you headed next?” questions with, “ahh yes…well regardless, come back here and live with me in Syria, ok? *wink-smile-wink*) but there was a lot more to my visit than just fun, a lot more to talk about than just souks and falafels and sheeshas and arabic coffees with pretty (very pretty), Syrian men.
Now is the time to write a bit more in depth about Syria, and how it was for me to see a country in the middle of revolt, from the inside...writing from the safe distance of Turkey where i now am.
I wrote in my first entry from Damascus about how “surreal” it was to be somewhere that had a “do not travel warning” against it, and how positive my experiences at the border and whatnot were, and I feel like I really need to expand on this. It occurs to me that maybe using the word “surreal” was a bit trite and…ignorant. As in, the "spoiled rich tourist" who exists in a bubble of surrealism and fun and doesn’t quite acknowledge the reality of whats going on. Except sitting that Friday afternoon, in the Damascus suburb of Sehnaya, while there was no internet in the country at all that day, Shadi and i curled up on the couch...I WAS in that reality, however briefly and i saw exactly the brutality if it. That reality was a lot more sickening than surreal, and using the word "surreal", well, i feel like somehow i almost diminished the actuality of things and I don't want to do that.
It was painful to be watching Al-Jezeera news about the protests, shootings and so on, that occurred in Hama (25 at least killed that day), as well as the peaceful (from what I gathered) marches that occurred only 10 minutes from where I was, but resulted in the road being blocked (half the reason we stayed in the house all day)...and to see in contrast the amazing hospitality and kindness of the same Syrian people who's families had been effected by the shootings.
What I am trying to say here, with some difficulty (i'm still suffering the after effects of Syrian-induced sleep deprivation,i i think, bear with me here), is that it was more than a "surreal" experience to visit Syria at this time in history; it was heartbreaking. To be in such a beautiful city as Damascus, with its cobblestone alleys full of people (men and men, women and women, men and women), walking arm in arm... such genuinely kind and friendly people, still living life with more joie de vivre than the average Calgarian and knowing the bloodshed that was going on at that very moment throughout the country...it was really devastating. To walk the mysterious tangled streets and see Assad's smiling face peering down at you, from shop windows, cafes, bustop signs….virtually everywhere, and know that the general consensus on the street at this time was that he is responsible for these deaths, he is to blame...but yet people still have to stare at these photos or risk death if they rise up against him...I cant really put into words how that felt to watch.
I am so incredibly grateful that i made the choice to go to Syria, and the time i spent there was unforgettable. I met the most amazing people and i had the unique chance to see a country technically in turmoil, that still welcomed me and showed, an outsider, more joy and friendliness than most fortunate, stable, western, "free"countries.
InSha Allah, i will get to return one day to Syria, and see the towns and cities that i was forced to miss due to the regimes brutal crackdown on dissent, but more importantly i hope for a swift end to the suffering of the people, and a quick fall from whatever grace Assad has left (there ain't much), and that the people of Syria... get their beautiful country back, full, complete and free.
a mysterious old lady here at the hotel in Aleppo (i didnt think there were any other guests?), just said a whole bunch of things to me, in what i think was Armenian, and i thought at first she was scolding me or something, for wearing a revealing shirt (because she was so loud and staring at me intensely)...but then she proceeded to come over to where i was sitting, crouch down, hug me and give me 2 very big wet kisses on the cheek.
Sometimes the constant forced extroversion of travel can feel exhausting.
no one wants to appear ungrateful, so i accept every invitation for tea, coffee, beer, parties..but sometimes i just wish i could curl up in a corner of the old city, in a little hidden alley with no one around and just sit, alone by myself, for hours.
i dont understand how people dont need that alone time, time to recharge the batteries. i find being around people and talking constantly...draining. i appreciate the friendliness of people, i really do, and saying "no" doesnt seem to be an option here!
anyways, Aleppo is absolutely stunning and even when im with people, i try to zone out and imagine climbing the steps to the citadel, thousands of years ago, alone...or risk appearing rude, and choose to ignore your chatter about going out for drinks tonight, and instead breath deeply the smell of spices and sheesha, think about the ancient checkered roof of the medieval souk and how it has seen the tops of the heads of so many people, down through the ages...
i am here in Aleppo, 5.48 in the morning, in my little 8-dollar-a-night hotel room in the old city, listening to the cooing of pigeons and the miscellaneous tweets of over-energetic birds, window open facing the slowly rising sun...and i know i *should* probably go to sleep, but in this quick moment, i have to write something, anything, to document somehow, how absolutely happy and magical and ridiculous i feel.
these kinds of moments are rare in life, they happen fast and then are over, and as a writer you try to recreate the beauty and intensity of such times, on paper or on a computer screen, after the fact when you have the time to edit and refine your thoughts
i have no time or energy to do that, and no stability in my sheesha-filled, coffee-fueled, sleep-deprived brain..so i just had to say, right now, before i am lulled to sleep by a pigeon symphony lullaby:
tonight was pure magic. getting lost in the cobblestone streets of old Aleppo, just at the moment before the first call to prayer, before the dawn....watching men in long robes and women decked head-to-toe in layers of black hijabs and scarfs...seeing these few dedicated people, walking through the narrow alleys to the mosques while cats silently ran around corners, and shopkeepers slowly put out piles of fresh fruit...was the most haunting beautiful thing.
i have so much more to write, so much to say about the amazement that is Syria, the people, the families that stay up, small children playing in the streets while their parents drink tea at 2am....but if i dont sleep now, i never will. i will have to write more later and recreate the images in my brain, as with sleep, the vivid-ness might surely fade, and this poor substitute will have to suffice.
Today a syrian pigeon shat on my arm, whilst I sat near the Umayyad Mosque in the old city.
For real, a nice big glob of birdshit on my arm, as i sat surrounded by Iranian women in black sheets and old men drinking coffee and little kids eating ice cream and tea sellers in their fancy costumes.
Only in Damascus would this not bother me.
In fact...its good luck to be shit on by a bird. right?
I have been in Damascus now for 2 nights, staying in a suburb called “Sehnaya”, with my friend Shadi and his other friend, Hashem. Every once and awhile, (well more than once in awhile really), I almost have to pinch myself, that here I am, sitting around and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and drinking Syrian beer, with 2 Syrian guys, in a country that has an “avoid all travel” warning to it, and that every single person back in Canada warned me, pleaded with me, not to visit. It’s a touch surreal, but only adds to my enjoyment of it really.
The shared Taxi trip to the border, from Amman, is where the surrealism all started. Every single sign post on the highway, as I got closer and closer to the border crossing gave me this ridiculous shot of adrenaline. “Jabir 50 km", "Jabir, 30 km" etc etc”, until finally I found myself, along with the 2 Syrian men in the backseat and my loud and impatient Jordanian driver, at the Syria/Jorder crossing of Jabir-Nassib. And suddenly, in the most surreal moment of all, there I was, laughing with the border patrol guards over my writing “artist” as profession on my entry card. (I learned later that “artist”, when written in English, means something very different and more along the lines on “escort”, in Syria, so perhaps that was why they were so friendly. Haha. ), and being smiled at and looked at with some mixture of curiosity and fascination. They scanned my passport over several times, for what I assume was an evidence of entry to Israel (my Egypt/Jordan stamps etc etc), and then smiled and said “Welcome to Syria”. I have had more hassle trying to simply fly from Calgary to Vancouver, I swear to God. After several other checkpoints, all ending with a smile from the man with the machine gun and a “you are welcome in Syria”, we were on our way to Damascus, passing near Daraa (which made me feel nauseuous but was otherwise uneventful.), headphones on and cigarette smoke pluming out the windows of the taxi.
And now I am here, on a couch, sitting with my friends, in Damascus. One of very very few foriengers (I met another Canadian who spent last night with us, smoking nargileh and drinking tea, the only person in his whole hostel), and that’s it. It’s a completely strange feeling, and as I have said now several times, the only word that seems appropriate to describe it is “surreal”. But have obviously had no troubles thus far, and people have been nothing but friendly and helpful (the man in the taxi who forcefed me water, cookies, and countless cigarettes which of course I had to partake in, my couchsurfing friend Shadi, etc), and its amazing. The old city, its narrow streets and spicey smells and crowded cafes and pigeons fluttering overhead feel a million miles away from the Syria that you see on the news.
“You are alive when you live by the skin of your teeth”, and this is true.