Time to deconstruct a bit. When I was in Syria in March 2006, attending a course in the history of Damascus, I realised that I could probably artistically exploit my stay there. I remember thinking a lot about what it means to be a stranger, viewing the others through a cultural lens, wondering how it distorts. I also remember I was thinking about how the others saw us and what they were thinking.
The answers I got to all these questions were mere fragments, really. The natural first step would be communicating, but we didn't really do that. Actually, we were visiting Syria as if Syria was a museum. We were there, at least formally, because of our academic interest. The phrase "of academic interest" is often used sloppily and jokingly when describing something rather unimportant. But I think I know what it really means and that I can illustrate it. We were right in the middle of the Old City of Damascus, near the big Ummayad Mosque, which had previously been a part of the gigantic Roman Jupiter temple. The interesting thing about the Old City is that people actually live amongst the ancient ruins. They live among the objects of our History course. This was painfully apparent when we had to brush aside someone's garden plants, because they were growing over some old Roman inscription. All the time, there were real live people around us, sometimes irritating us, because they were too curious and would not let us concentrate on some disappearing architectural feature of a building.
Of course we were interested in Syria and its people, too. We are humans after all. But I can't say we learned that much, other than perhaps how to behave towards people who wanted money. I learned that the hard way, of course. I, more or less accidentally, let a boy polish my shoe. When he wanted pay, I realised I had only a 1000 SYP note. I asked him if he had change, and he said "no please mister" and "for allah" and pointed upwards. I became so confused that I gave him the note and left. But his sister ran after me, furious that I had given his brother this absurd amount of money for a shoe polish. I was terribly embarrassed. It wasn't much for me, but still perhaps 20 times what I should have paid.
So, the line ”at this fare I could have him polishing for ages” is a lie, really. If I had known the average fee, and if I had been more decisive, I could have had him polish them for quite some time though.
On the other hand, my cab rides in Damascus WERE laughably cheap.
A female coursemate said, as we were walking on the pavement, just the two of us, that it was much easier this way. She told me that we didn't draw as much attention now that I was with her, as they are very respectful when it comes to marriage. Since they think we could be married, they are hardly even looking our way. Or something to that extent. I decided that I was quite content with being useful in that sense.
There's a street in Damascus that has been known since Biblical times as ”Street called Straight” or ”Straight Street” (in Latin ”Via Recta”). In fact, it is mentioned in the Bible. It is also mentioned in Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, where he makes fun of the fact that it isn't actually straight at all:
”The street called Straight is straighter than a corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow. St. Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but the ’street which is called Straight.’ It is a fine piece of irony; it is the only facetious
remark in the Bible, I believe.”
At the end of Via Recta lies one of the old Roman city gates, the only one retaining its old Roman arch.
I read and studied the Mark Twain book in the months following my trip. But it was already in Damascus I got the idea for the song; I remember that I had the first line and the melody for it already there. But from there, it was hard work, and the song was among the last ones finished for ”The Province Complains”.
written by Mattias