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The Damascus tourist takeover – part 2

September 8th, 2009 · 6 Comments · Travel

Damascus really is the new black. The hotels are filling up, flights are packed. But there is one massive downside: bad travel writing.

Journalists and travel writers (there is a big difference) are flocking to ‘discover’ Syria. And nearly every single one of them feels the need to use tired and worn cliches referring to the ‘road to Damascus’, or mentioning some ‘conversion’ they’ve had. Oh woo hoo. I bet you thought you were being really original with that one. Yawn.

Australia’s Sean Mooney has penned a piece entitled ‘Road to Damascus’. But despite the title, it is different. Very different. Look, he starts on Jebl Qasioun, not in the Old City:

IMGP2039.JPG“A tyre-squealing, seat-gripping ride in the back of a crumpled Iranian taxi has brought me to the original paradise. From a rocky outcrop on the top of Jebel Qassioun – a mountain so integral to history, it appears in the Book Of Genesis – I gaze down on one of the world’s oldest settlements. On the plain below, partially obscured by a film of smog that, with the setting sun, lends it an apocalyptic hue, sprawls the ancient city of Damascus. Some believe the Syrian capital was the original Garden of Eden and Cain slew Abel on these

slopes. Moses, Lot and even Christ himself are said to have traversed Qassioun. One legend has it that when the prophet Muhammad neared this barren peak and looked upon the vast orchards of Damascus, he quickly turned back towards Mecca, not wanting to experience a utopia other than heaven.”

He continues, wrapped in metaphor, and painting pictures ignored by the Hamidiyeh-hunters (although he does eventually get to that Souq). One of the most sensory places in the city has got to be Straight Street. And Mooney does it justice:

“One evening I stroll down the famous Straight Street, where Saint Paul is believed to have rested following his conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. This experience left him blind until his sight returned to him on this street. It is, however, the sense of smell that’s behind my epiphany, as I pass carts piled high with thyme, sumac, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, with notes of rosewater and orange blossom.With my appetite piqued, I head east towards the Jewish and Christian quarters and settle at a roof-top restaurant where fresh saj, or flat bread, is baked in an oven. I dip warm chunks into fresh hummus. The bread is also toasted and sprinkled on a zingy fattoush: cucumber, tomato, radish, lettuce, parsley and shallots seasoned with garlic, paprika, oil and lemon juice. I order the national dish of kibbeh – falafel-like pods of minced lamb with cracked wheat and onion – and eat my tabouleh from a cup of iceberg lettuce.”

Tantalising. He’s doing something different. Writing with authority, avoiding cliche, steering-clear of the tourist traps that every other ‘journalist’ feels the need to reveal to us. I could quote from this piece all day. But I have other points to make – so savour it for yourself.

Unfortunately, Mooney’s visit is a rarity. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I like to pull apart travel articles.

Screen shot 2009-09-08 at 15.41.25

Lara Dunston is one of the latest professional travellers to visit Damascus. As co-author of Lonely Planet Syria (and 39 other countries), you’d think she knows what she is talking about. But she makes schoolgirl errors about internet access – claiming her blog had been blocked because she mentioned a country beginning with the letter “I”. And that it was only unblocked after the Minister of Information overheard her loud protestations in the hotel lobby.

She was told by a number of Syrian bloggers that, erm, all blogspot blogs are restricted – unless you use a proxy. That should’ve been that, but she stubbornly stuck to her guns, claiming she was too busy to do the research, but insisting her “advisors” told her she was right – without producing a single quote.

And it seems she has a history of getting on her high-horse, and then deleting comments on her blog when people contradict her. Have a look at this very public row.

Screen shot 2009-09-08 at 15.50.13Anyway, if you listen to Dunston, you’ll be dining in the Four Seasons Hotel, instead of the many fantastic restaurants dotted across the city. Venture out of your Abu Rumaneh hotel lobby – that’s my advice!

But her credibility is highly questionable. Would you take the advice of a writer who thinks it’s acceptable to receive discounts or freebies in return for potentially positive reviews? I wonder what she got from the Four Seasons!

Dunston’s cliche-littered writing, sprinkled with a heavy dose of clumsy mistakes and “stay in your hotel” advice is not unique.

The Times dedicated four articles to Syria over the course of one weekend this spring. But they claimed to have got some legendary Syrian ice cream from the Barada (you mean Bekdash?? – Barada is the river). In one of the other articles, its name changes again, this time to Bedach. Along with claiming Syrians didn’t know where England was, and all the woman are covered up in burkas, The Times makes a thorough hash of their visit.

Then there was this astonishing poorly researched rant by Rasha Elass. I critiqued it for Frontline, here.

You know what I’ve learned. The best travel articles aren’t written by people who fly into Damascus for 48 hours, and stay in the Four Seasons on their expense accounts. They never will be.

If you want to understand the real Damascus, turn to people who know the city intimately well. The writers who have a passion for this place. People like Qunfuz, who wrote what is still one of my favourite odes to Damascus: Cultural Capital. OrientalistaThe Blog and the ShowerAli Khan and Jillian C York may not be Syrian, but they made a habit of writing colourfully about Damascus. And just last week Batoul penned these poetic five paragraphs.

Dump the expert travellers, turn to the expert Damascenes.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Orientalista // Sep 9, 2009 at 6.25 am

    To me the most worst travel book mistake is in Bradt’s “Syria” book. I don’t have it with me right now so I can’t give the actual quote, but it says that Arabic has no future tense, just whether actions are still happening or have ceased, which is some sort of insight into the “Arab mind”. What? And the writer supposedly speaks Arabic or has lived extensively in Lebanon and Syria – yet has never heard or said “I will go there tomorrow” “I will talk to you later” or “I will write a shitty book”. Seriously it’s near the back of the book.

  • 2 Sasa // Sep 9, 2009 at 3.40 pm

    “I will write a shitty book” – hahahahahahahaha.

    Ok, just dug out my copy of Bradt:
    “There are also many interesting features of the language which hint at the nature and attitudes of the Arab mind, notably the existence of only two tenses, perfect and imperfect. There is no future tense. In the Arabic concept of time there is only one distinction that matters: has it finished or is it still going on?”.

    Diana Darke was the “first British person to buy a property in Syria”. Although a friend of mine – also a Brit – questions that statement.

    Apparently, she still lives in Syria, and for that reason her book has a lot more credibility in my mind, than Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or Footprint. I learned a lot from her book – although that grammar clanger is awful. A few reviewers have also pulled apart other sections of the book, like her definition of meaning of the word Mesopotamia. You’ve got to look at this!…it’s the sixth review down from the top (by IP Lund).
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/1841621625/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

  • 3 Jillian C. York // Sep 9, 2009 at 10.24 pm

    Well, I hear there’s a new, excellent book coming out by one of Syria’s own bloggers…

  • 4 cheb // Sep 10, 2009 at 12.26 am

    jillian – there is? please share….

  • 5 Jillian C. York // Sep 10, 2009 at 12.27 am

    I’m not sure if I should…let’s wait for the person to announce it him/herself.

  • 6 Janny // Jan 15, 2013 at 12.16 pm

    Good post!

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