Posted by Joshua on Monday, May 18th, 2009
Hassakeh: Dispatch from Damascus 22 (16/05/09)
By Ali Khan
Instead of taking the main road we decided to take a shortcut across the Euphrates that would later connect us to the road to Hassakeh. Food was still on our minds as we drove past huddled little villages. The sun was still warm as it slowly sank into the horizon and families of farmers walked back towards their houses. We stopped at the first shop we saw and managed to secure some provisions. Styrofoam crisps and plywood chocolate was on the menu of the day, washed down with some Ugarit Cola. As we curved northwards the greenery slowed faded away and was replaced by rocks and sand, although because of the melting light, the desert did not look as harsh as it might have in the midday sun. Finally, after an hour of meandering on small roads, which were paved well enough to rival some of our motorways in India, we managed to join up with the main road. There was not much traffic on the road apart from the odd bus and a wayward truck or two. Unfortunately, people sometimes drive without headlights here, even at night and the reason I was once given was that they think it might prolong the battery life and save petrol. We were talking about this when a motorcycle suddenly appeared out of nowhere and Nono managed to swerve just in time because we noticed the glowing dot of his cigarette dangling from his mouth. The cigarette had saved him! The rider seemed quite unfazed and even though one would expect such a person to at least scream a few obscenities, albeit to no avail, he waved at us grinningly and with a deft flick of his hand tied his keffiyeh over his mouth.
Eventually we made it to Hassakeh. Despite the fact that we arrived at night, it was easy to see that it is mainly an industrial town. There are virtually no surviving historical buildings and we had gone there because Nono wanted to attend the Syriac Orthodox Church’s Palm Sunday service. The manager of the first hotel we went to tried to argue with us that we must pay in dollars and wanted sixty dollars. Eventually after an exasperating five minutes we stormed out followed by a hail of expletives though we managed to sling some back before disappearing. The other option was tucked away in a little alley off the main souk and we drove around in circles for a while before figuring out where exactly it was. The whole town seemed to be out shopping and the main road was a blur of multi-coloured neon lights, Chinese counterfeit goods and busy shoppers. Fred spotted a sign for the Syrian Nationalist Socialist Party (SNSP) and we all agreed that I was exceedingly strange that they maintained an office in this farflung northeastern part of Syria. The manager of the hotel was a chain-smoking, slim man with chaotic facial scruff by the name Laurence. Before letting us into the room he gave us a grilling. Why were we in Hassakeh? Did we know anyone there? Where did we come from? When did we leave? Where did we stop on the journey? Where were we going next?
After a while he relented and showed us to our room. Later, we realised that it was probably because of the large Kurdish population in the area that the authorities were wary of foreigners coming to the area. Nono added that they probably wanted to make sure that we were not going to Qimishli, a town northeast of Hassakeh that is predominantly Kurdish. The most pressing concern was locating a restaurant and so we left. On the way Laurence offered to bring us food but when we insisted on walking around he showed us a little Kebab place opposite his hostel. The owners were Kurdish and everyone had congregated around the small TV in order to watch the Barcelona game. So far, the whole of the country seems to be awash in Barcelona, Manchester United and AC Milan supporters.
As one does, we ordered a kilo of kebabs and sat down to watch the game. One of the cooks came up to me and asked where I was from. After the usual disbelief and a slap on the back that meant, joke’s over, now tell me where you are really from, he frowned and asked if there were Kurds in India. I replied that there were none, which seemed to puzzle him, however, our kebabs were on the skewers and he went back to the oven, thus saving me from explaining why there are no Kurds in India, as I had done once before. A little boy in a Barca shirt plonked three plates of salad on our table and a jug full of a yogurt drink that tasted a bit like Iranian Doogh. We said our goodbyes and wandered into town. The streets were flanked by morose looking concrete boxes, and the fluorescent lights made the area look bleak. However, the throng of people, muhajjiba women pushing babies in prams, men in crumpled gallabiyyas, Christian women with huge crosses around their necks, and small groups of shabab added some much needed colour to the bazaar. On our way back to the hotel we wandered past a huge empty looking Church. The gate was open and the inside the building was only visible because of the dim street lights. On closer inspection it turned out that the builders had decided to style a huge Christmas tree in the brickwork. It looked like something out of a cheap Hollywood horror film.
As was to be expected, Laurence was still smoking when we got back but he was not alone. A young man in a leather jacket was inspecting his ledger. When we got there he too started with the barrage of questions. Where are you going tomorrow? Which road will you take? Where will you spend the night? After a while we simply said that we were too tired and went to the room.
The next day we bumbled out of bed early so that we could go to the service. As we got closer to the Church, I saw men in suits converging on the street from all sides and women in their gaudy Sunday best walking briskly towards the entrance. The older women were dressed more conservatively and had their head covered. By the front door there was a group of young people in scouts uniform who immediately spotted us and after applying a sticker to our chests, and loudly shouting welcome, ushered us into the church. They took us to the front despite the fact that there were no seats and so after sheepishly looking around we went back and found room to stand. It seems that there were meant to be different sections for men and women but some of the younger men had interspersed themselves in women’s pews. The church seemed to be new and the altar was separated from the main section by a heavy maroon curtain. This apparently signifies the veil between the earth and the heavens. Every so often one of the priests would draw the curtain during the service. There were many white crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and would have been beautiful if it wasn’t for the neon candle lights in them giving off a ghoulish glow. I strained up to see the plaques that hung from each one and found that various people had donated all of them. The deacons wore white flowing robes with red and gold embroidered sashes and two of them carried long staffs that had a silver plate at the top. They would twist these to produce a clacking sound. It seemed to serve the same purpose as Tibetan prayer wheels.
Towards the end of the service a procession of sorts assembled. The priest led it and walked from the altar into the courtyard outside with families trailing behind them. Then they entered the church again. At the head of the column was a young deacon who was enthusiastically swinging an a bronze incense burner and behind him the older priests carried a golden cross and people from the pews leaned forward to touch it. Behind them were young families with their babies. The children were dressed in fantastical costumes. The girls were dressed in frilly skirts and mini ballroom gowns and the little boys in white and black dinner jackets and suits. All the children carried multi-coloured candles and most seemed rather annoyed by all the fuss but the doting mothers manage to keep them calm. At the end of the service when everyone had reconvened in the church the final prayers were said in a mixture of Syriac and Arabic. An old man who must have been the head priest came out and sat on an ornate wooden chair. His golden robes twinkled in the light of the altar and he promptly yawned and dozed off. While I was observing all this the man next to me whispered ‘musafaha’ in my ear and shook my hands and then touched his own hands to his face. Musafaha literally means handshake and I think the blessings from the service were being passed around the church in a sort of Mexican wave style. I did the same with the person to my right albeit a bit hesitantly because I had seen him picking his nose and scratching his ears earlier. The choir on the balcony behind us broke into song as the consecrated bread was passed around. Shortly afterwards another basket weaved its way through the crowds, announcing its arrival with the clinking of coins. I craned my neck up to get a look at the choir. They seemed oddly out of place there and their dress and manner of singing was more reminiscent of a Gospel choir from Brooklyn rather than how I would have imagined a Syriac Orthodox Choir.
There was a massive surge to get out of the church as soon as the service was over and we ploughed our way into the courtyard, through a sea of wayward elbows. It reminded me of the dangerous crowds of Iranian women in Damascus fighting their way out of Seyyida Ruqayya’s shrine on a Thursday night. There was scout band outside belting out catchy tunes but the music didn’t really appeal to us and we pushed out way out of the church. Our luggage was packed and so we set out straightaway for Raqqa. As I was negotiating the late morning traffic, I noticed that the same white Peugeot 504, a favourite of the security services in Syria, had been following us since we left the hotel. I pulled in and went into a shop to buy water thinking that I was just being paranoid and that they would just drive past. I glanced out of the shop window and saw that the car did continue but they pulled in just in front of the car behind which I had parked. Not exactly inconspicuous but then again maybe they wanted us to know they were watching! I got back in and started driving again but this time in the slower lane and I could see in the mirror that they too had adjusted their speed according to ours. Eventually, we took the exit for Halab and about twenty miles later they slowly disappeared from sight. We discussed why they might have been following us and came to the conclusion that it must have been because they thought we might be going to Qimishli. Freddy and Nono nodded off while we headed west. The land became greener again and the afternoon sun was merciless. I switched on the AC, put in a Najat al-Sagheera CD, glanced in my rearview to make sure we were alone and then changed into the fast lane.