And the band played on

As the flames took hold of the small pile of wood I had assembled I couldn’t shrug of an annoying sense of guilt nor the feeling that my fellow accomplices and I were desecrating an ancient and holy wonder.

Half and hour earlier, with twilight settling over the valley, seven exhausted and dirty travellers took to climbing a mountain track carrying an array of things that included; alcohol, food, more alcohol, kindling and a dead tree. One torch was considered sufficient for this expedition. Sense and reason had been intentionally left behind.

Scouting out a suitable location for our planned nights events was left up to a Dutch lad named Frank and myself. After an uphill trek and the inspecting of various suitable places we settled on the most precarious choice available. Together the seven of us then climbed, slipped, slid and tripped our way through the growing darkness to our final destination. The further we climbed the heavier the tree became – at least it seemed to for the poor saps carrying it.

Once we had all safely reached our sanctuary for the night we took a moment to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. Cappadocia. The valley of Goreme lay before us, the distant city lights and natural landscape was breathtaking. Our vantage point was courtesy of an ancient crumbling fairy chimney perched on the edge of a mountain. The fairy chimney was built out of the natural landscape of which Cappadocia is famous. The wall facing over the edge of the mountain and out to the distant city had collapsed some time in the past and as a result afforded us our spectacular view. Internally the fairy chimney was just as beautiful due to the soaring domed ceiling and incredibly well preserved wall and roof art. I was humbled. Then I lit a fire.

As the night progressed an exponential drunkenness curve asserted itself. For every extra year below thirty the loudness, slurring, swaying, inappropriate behaviour and accidental drooling of an individual increased rapidly. At thirty years of age I therefore held the titles of oldest and soberest. Although I believe that a lot of my sobriety could be attributed to years of intense alcoholic training rather than any lack of effort on my behalf to initiate bouts of accidental drooling.

It was around the time when everyone was competing for who could get their point across the best by talking the loudest that a lone dreadlock materialised from the gloom engulfing the entrance to our sanctuary. After the dreadlock had checked that it was safe, its owner, a fantastically stereotypical hippie, made his way into our midst. Moments later another three dreadlocked hippies joined our ragbag group of drunken travellers. The four hippies had seen our beacon fire from town and subsequently decided to make the pilgrimage out to the mountain to join our festive celebrations. Unfortunately at this point in time our festive celebrations didn’t involve any deep and meaningful discussions on the universe and our place within it, but instead were still revolving around who could talk the loudest on a topic that no one could remember.

The hippies, dumbstruck, quickly disappeared. I feared that they wouldn’t return, yet a few minutes later they reappeared with an assortment of musical instruments in tow. Aussie hippie started jamming on his guitar, which he’d only learnt in the last few months. English hippie rocked out on his accordion. Quiet hippie chick chilled on the ground while her fingers and mouth worked their magic on her Melodica and ‘well someone has to sing in this group’ hippie attempted to wear out the strings on his violin as he enthusiastically belt out the words to unknown verse. The result was an incredible mix of music that created the perfect background to a very special and memorable evening. Their repertoire of music extended to around three songs. Our unkempt musicians added in enough accidental variation to keep things interesting.

When our alcohol and wood stores were depleted we said our farewells to our guests as they set up camp in a nearby cave. Then, with the Goreme valley illumined via starlight our merry band meandered its way home. En-route we somehow lost Frank and via democractic vote promptly replaced him with a cute stray dog who proved exceptionally loyal for the small price of a little bit of love and attention.

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The five Pillars of Islam and the five pillars of Western Atheism

Shahada – There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah

Western Atheism – There is no god but me, me me me me me

Sala – The obligation to prayer, preferably five time a day

Western Atheism – The obligation to complain, at least five times a day

Zakat – Give one fortieth of your annual salary to the poor

Western Atheism – Give one fortieth of your annual salary to alcohol

Sawm (Ramadam) – The ninth month of the year in which no food shall pass your lips from dusk till dawn

Western Atheism – Depending on your regional atheist beliefs you may either have replaced Sawm with Movember; The eleventh month of the year in which no razor shall touch a mans (or womans – for those of Greek descent) moustache, or Detox; A self prescribed period of time in which one undertakes tormenting the body by denying essentials such as food with taste and alcohol in order to feel good about ones self

Hajj – Travel to Mecca once in your lifetime where all past sins will be forgiven

Western Atheism – Travel to the Kebak store at 4am of a Saturday morning where your nightly sins will be forgotten by morning

The only gay in the village

Earlier today a small child in Aleppo’s main Souk accosted me. While holding onto my arm he pointed animatedly at my eyebrow piercing. His uncle went to pull him away but I interrupted indicating that it was fine and then showed my ear piercing to the kid as well. Facial piercings are very uncommon on men over here. His uncle and I got to chatting and as soon as he realised I was from Australia he proclaimed that his uncle had just returned from there two days ago and that I must meet him immediately. Seeing no harm I followed him to a nearby scarf store where he introduced me to the two gentlemen running the shop. The first one, Majid exclaimed, “you’re from Australia? I just came from Mardi Gras, it was fabulous!.” I had found the only gay in the village.

Over the next thirty minutes and a Turkish coffee I was regaled with surprisingly sordid stories using very expressive and imaginative language (i.e coarse). The explicit banter between Majid and his brother Aladdin was an unexpected, humorous and welcome change. Majid is about as gay and out as you can get whereas Aladdin is straight and married with four children. Both Aladdin and Majid also hold Australian citizenship and often travel there. Majid then started reeling off the name of clubs and more intimate locations in London, Melbourne, Sydney and of all places Canberra that he had visited. I knew of only one club in Canberra and another in London that he mentioned. His expansive knowledge was daunting.

I took the opportunity to ask Majid about the difficulties of being gay in a country where it’s illegal. He explained that there is a large underground scene in which you must learn what to look for and how to interpret discreet signals from potential partners, or ‘quickies’ as he called them. Although he lamented that it does take its toll and his escape is to travel to more liberal countries for a break, or again as he put it, “where I can have sex for breakfast, sex for lunch and sex for dinner”. I got the feeling that he is a regular at Mardi Gras.

As I was leaving Aladdin was attempting to lure a female customer into the store. His opening line was “It’s all very expensive, I charge you double!”. Aladdin, realising his mistake smacked himself in the head as we all laughed at his expense. This joke wasn’t as funny the second, third and forth times.

Continuing up the Souk I soon discovered that Majid and Aladdin have a big extended family and that their relatives collectively run many of the scarf shops in the area. Word had quickly spread of my visit and as a result cousins, nephews and uncles greeted me warmly as I passed by. Later in the evening I dropped back through the Souk and was invited to their house for dinner with their extended family. Unfortunately my annoying shyness kicked in and I declined the offer and instead went and had my third kebab for the day.

Youth in Revolt

It seems that the Arab contagion has reached Aleppo. This morning the air was a little electric, the traffic was overly loud and a faint background throb of voices could be heard. At 4.15pm while hanging around the citadel I suddenly found myself in the middle of a demonstration. It engulfed me from all sides and I actually had no real way of avoiding it.

The streets are packed with beeping cars full of people holding high their national flag and president’s photo. A sea of young people chanting in unison and waving Syrian flags are flooding the pavements. I have had mixed results asking people what the demonstrators are actually chanting.
Watch this space.

Update – The chant is ‘Allah, Syria, Bashar, One’. It’s a completely pro Bashar and current government demostration, which I was surprised to find out considering what is happening in the south of the country. The streets have gone absolutely crazy with thousands of people blocking them. I’ll upload a video when I can. One girl in my hotel saw people, who she assumes were anti-Bashar supporters, forcibly dragged out of a mosque and rushed off to unknown locations. Security and police have seemed weirdly absent or just very discreet.

Further update. Unconfirmed rumours have people being payed up to 1500syp to support the Pro Bashar demonstration yesterday. More rumours of it being an orchestrated event seem to be circulating as well.

Further further update. It has now been going on for three days. The procession of cars destroying their horns goes on past midnight every night. The central square next to the main park has groups of men handing out Bashar posters and Syrian flags to young kids. It doesn’t seem to really get going each day until after midday when you start to hear the distant chanting get closer.

Public Displays of Affection

I’m basking in the sunshine outside the citadel in Aleppo, filling my hours people watching as the city pulses around me. Strangely I’m finding myself increasingly jealous of the affection the Arab people are displaying towards each other. As an Australian anything more than a firm handshake or an awkward hug is often unwelcome and foreign. When I moved to London I found the European double cheek kiss at first confronting and then an increasingly natural way to greet friends and strangers alike. Only when running into my Australian countrymen abroad or when visiting back home was this more intimate greeting no longer commonly accepted and I was required to revert back to my firm and manly handshake.

The Arabs have taken public displays of affection one step further. The streets are filled with friends of the same sex walking arm in arm, often with their hands intertwined. Their welcoming kisses to each other are more friendly and genuine than the now seemingly cursory and often insincere European equivalent. I am shamed that my own country and culture has repressed our ability to publicly express our affection towards each other. We pride ourselves on our progressive and increasingly open and equal society, yet walk down most Australian streets hand in hand with your best mate and if you’re lucky you’ll just attract disapproving stares, if you aren’t lucky you run a real risk of being beaten up.

In the Arab world I may not agree with the state of women’s rights, their political system nor their discriminatory laws and persecution of homosexuals (especially when contrasted with the open fondness shown between male friends), but in regards to publicly showing and declaring our affection for those dear to us without fear of embarrassment, ridicule or impropriety we have a lot to learn from our Arab friends.

Dear Hama,

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Alcohol often helps a shit load. Unfortunately no amount of alcohol will help me to fall in love with your stale putridity. Time has not been kind to you. I can see that once, in your earlier years, you were a beauty. But you’ve really let yourself go and I think you may have fleas. Seriously you need a good hose down and a shave. Your joints are creaky and I’m not interested in a ride. Apart from the fact that I don’t know what I’ll catch I’m pretty sure I’d break you.

I promise I’ll call.

Love,

Simon.