Thursday, 16 December 2010

Well, this is embarrassing

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The blizzards have set in again. The latest one arrived when I was in the shop, buying flour and mackerel (how very Scottish I sound), which was a bit of a problem since my windscreen wipers are on the blink. I had to clear the windscreen with kitchen roll and then drive home very slowly with my head out of the window.

I made my mother and the HS soda bread and smoked mackerel paté, contemplated the making of Florentines, decided it was a bridge too far, and settled instead at my desk, where all I can see from my window is a miasma of white.

It is snowing in Syria, I thought. I heard that on the news this week. I was amazed. Syria. Surely they do not have snow there. It felt like a portent of some terrible shift in the global weather, as if black is white and up is down. Then I suddenly realised I knew absolutely nothing about Syria. This is when the surly dog of shame came up and nipped me on the ankle.

I am supposed to be educated. I crave facts. I read a lot. I like to think I am a bit of a citizen of the world. How can I know nothing about Syria?

I bashed my brain about a bit, to see if something would fall out. I had a picture of figs and orange groves and olive trees. I realised, oddly, that if I met someone and they said they were from Syria, I would be delighted. But why? It made me think of the assumptions that we all hold. I have been thinking of assumptions a lot lately, there is almost nothing that interests me more. I think about where they come from and how they get soldered in stone without us even realising it.

For whatever mysterious reason, my assumptions about Syria are that it is a sophisticated place. Wonderful food, I thought; a great culinary tradition. Muslim, but not Islamist. There must have been some Ottoman Empire, somewhere along the line. (At this point, Mr Woodhouse, my utterly coruscating old history teacher, would be weeping into his tea.) Is Claudia Roden from Syria, I wondered. Or is that Lebanon? I wondered if Syria and Lebanon get confused and conflated with each other quite a lot, and, if so, how that must piss them off. It would be like people thinking that Scotland and England are the same just because they share a border.

I have a picture of it, from where I have no idea. It is of a place with a thick yellow light, and a sense of near history, where people gather outside in the evenings and eat sweet things made with honey and pistachio nuts.

I went to the Google, where I discovered that I am a complete idiot. Claudia Roden is Egyptian. Not even close. She did write a famous book about Middle Eastern food, which must be what made me think of her, but even so. At least I was right about the Ottoman Empire, but it's paltry consolation.  I know that one cannot know everything, but sometimes when I am faced by the vast spaces of my ignorance, I despair. I resolve to learn a little bit about a faraway country of which I know nothing every day. I am going to start my own Open University, with just me and the miracle of the internet.

I go first to the CIA Factbook, which I always find riveting. It is so dry that I sometimes think they are being ironic. 'Slightly larger than North Dakota,' it says, laconically, of Syria. Well, that puts those piddling little countries in their place. (Britain, by the way, is reported as 'slightly smaller than Oregon'.) Although the climate is considered 'mostly desert', apparently there is 'periodic snow in Damascus'. Its natural resources are: petroleum, phosphates, chrome and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, and gypsum. I have no idea what gypsum is, but I love lists like this; they sound like poetry.

Its population is mostly Arab, with some Armenians and Kurds, and the preponderant religion is Sunni Muslim, with minorities of Christians, Druze, and Jews.

Moving right along, I discover that Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. I had no idea. I find this blazingly interesting. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, the Romans (of course), the Muslim general Kalid ibn al-Walid, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Turk Ahmad ibn Tulun, the Qarmatians, the Ikhshidids, the Fatimids, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols (led by Ghengis Khan's grandson), and the Ottomans, which is another symphonic list. After the First World War, it was handed over, under the shameful Sykes-Picot Agreement, to the French.

Oddly, I did know a little about Sykes-Picot. Rory Stewart did a brilliant documentary for the BBC a while ago about T.E. Lawrence, and he vividly told the story of how France and Britain and Russia were secretly carving up the Middle East between them, in direct contradiction to the promises of Arab independence which Lawrence had given. Lawrence was wracked with guilt and shame, feeling he had urged the Arabs to fight under false pretences. At the Paris Peace Conference, two years later, he toured the salons and tea rooms and corridors, desperately pressing his case to any powerful statesman he could find.

At the time, he said, of Prince Faisal: 'The Emir is speaking for the horsemen who carried the Arab flag across the desert from the Holy city of Mecca to the Holy city of Jerusalem and to Damascus beyond. He is speaking for the thousands who died in that long struggle. He is the bearer of their last words. He cannot alter them. I cannot soften them.'

For all my visions of a golden place with the scent of oranges in the air, Syria has a tortured post-war history, of military coups and geographical disputes, most famously over the Golan Heights. There are also acute political tensions with the Americans, who accuse Syria of sending weapons to Hezbollah. Yet the Lonely Planet Guide says: 'Syrians are among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world, and most visitors to their country end up developing a lifelong infatuation with its gentle charms'.

And while my fantasy of the evening promenade might be not entirely accurate, apparently café life is a big thing in the cities, where people drink the strong Arabic coffee and play chess. And there is a great culinary tradition.

Well, the curtain of my ignorance has been twitched a little, at least. Tomorrow, I may well do the Stans.


Pictures of the day are of the new snow.

The view to the south, as the gloaming sets in:

16th Dec 1

Two views of my dear little garden gate:

16th Dec 2

16th Dec 4

The pines, the pines (so good I named them twice):

16th Dec 5

The shed, looking rather resigned to the weather:

16th Dec 6

The garden:

16th Dec 6-1

The fallen trees:

16th Dec 8

More southern view:

16th Dec 8-1

This is not an especially good picture, but I wanted you to see the moon rising behind the skeletons of the rowan trees:

16th Dec 10

The lovely flash of colour from the beech leaves:

16th Dec 11

The Duchess refused to stand still for her photo call, so she is slightly blurry, but I could not resist this. She has on what my friend M calls her Elvis face:

16th Dec 12

(Interestingly, the Duchess of Devonshire, whom I am convinced this dog thinks she is, is absolutely enraptured by Elvis. Oh dear: WHIMSY ALERT.)

The Pigeon, who actually sits down when she sees me wielding the camera, is perfectly ready for her close-up:

16th Dec 14

The pot table in winter:

16th Dec 15

The hill:

16th Dec 9


  1. I don't know much about Syria and Lebanon but there is a wonderful cook & travel book by Greg & Lucy Malouf called Saha: A Chef's Journey Through Lebanon and Syria. If you read it, I guarantee you will want to jump straight onto a plane and visit. I got it from the library but I wish I'd bought it.

  2. I knew a bit about Syria because she is one of our biggest importers of Tea!!! But I never knew about snow in Damascus. I hope your blizzard disappears fast and the green appears again. I was so sorry to see your pot table. I can remember it looking so pretty not very long ago. This is rather nice as well (photography wise) Looks like ice cream cones! Thank you for the dogs photos. I do not want to sound a repetitive bore but they are gorgeous.

  3. SNOW DOGS! - You have made my day :) and oh, Lawrence, I do so adore that complicated darling of a man.

  4. Jo - fabulous recommendation, thank you.

    Mystica - you CAN NEVER say too much about the dogs. I love it. And don't worry, the dear old pot table will survive.

    Anne - you are so sweet to like the snow dogs. You know it always makes me smile.


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