Why do I get along with Muslims?

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That is indeed a good question. I have long ago noticed that I get along well with muslim people in any country I have travelled to so far. In other words, I have no problem with their religion, their rites, their restrictions on food and clothing, or even their attempt to bring me to Islam.

Do I feel special for this reason? Not at all. However, with all the islamophobia raging all around me, I feel like I should feel, ehm, different. Is that because of my personality, or did I just get used to muslims after all that time living in the muslim countries?

I have found out, that neither of the two is the right answer.

The answer seems to be coming, surprisingly, not when I am with the Arabs and muslims, but when I am far away from them, back in my little hometown Tisovec, in central European tiny country of Slovakia.

Thanks to good weather we have gone out with a friend of mine, for a couple of walks around our town. So rarely does actually one encounters his friends, classmates and people he knows. Unfortunately many have left the town to find their future elsewhere, be in in bigger towns, the Capital, or even outside the country. This is actually something I have always disliked – towns without people where streets stay empty even during the daytime. So sad, and so contrary to what I am used to in the Arab countries where streets are never, ever empty of people. This is one of the aspects which I love, afterall, the most about the atmosphere of muslim countries.

We were lucky to visit the old house of my friend´s grandparents which has been turned into a cottage of some sort – mainly for staying when my friend´s parents work in the garden and take care of their rabbits and chicken. An unexpected visit, which turned into a very pleasant hour talking about the joy of working with animals, relaxing at a wooden table surrounded by mountains and fresh air, with a little brook flowing nearby. A neighbor shouted hello at us, interested to know what my life has been in the last decade.

There is something about my hometown, or rather, its people, that I have adopted in myself, and that has opened the door to the muslims of the Arab countries I have visited, worked or lived in. We are simple, rural people, connected to the little fields our families have owned for centuries. Life was, and has remained tough in this part of the country, which ties us together and makes us responsible for our parents, sieblings, grandparents. When we meet, we love to chat and share and take joy from simple and ordinary things.

I know that these characteristics may apply to any country and its rural, under-developed areas. We certainly drink much more hard alcohol than people in Arab countries altogether. But we are hospitable, cheerful people who prefer human relationships over material satisfaction and luxurious way of living. The real luxury is the clean air, singing birds and bio-quality vegetables from our garden. Simple, little things.

I have noticed that the Arab communities, whether in southern Lebanon, Egypt or Morocco are actually very, very similar. Family around the table, friends meeting for (non-alcoholic, of course) drink, love for the homeland and immortal sense of humor is what simple people love.

I have moved from Slovakia to Czech republic, from Czech republic to France, then to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and finally to Morocco. The more people I meet and more time I spend abroad, the more Tisovec-like people seem to me. We are, first of all, humans, and relationships cannot be replaced with goods and money. Finding a friend in Morocco, meeting with a family for Friday couscous is not a foreign concept to me thanks to my childhood experience and upbringing. In such meetings, whether in Morocco or Tisovec, I fail to see differences of culture, mentality or religion. After 12 years across the Middle East and North Africa, I have actually found home in every place I got a chance to come close to the local population.

I guess barriers have to be built, they do not just happen. I prefer to use my energy to build relationships rather than the barriers.

What To See in Fes

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This post is just a quick overview of what not to miss during your stay in the beautiful city of Fes.  I have organized it to several categories, and even if you are on a busy schedule, make sure to tackle each one of the groups to get the taste of the city!

MEDRESAS

Fes is famous for its religious schools (or medresas/medersas), some of them dating back to the 14th century! They used to cater to male students and provided education in islamic sciences and Quran, some of them being active up to the 20th century as dormitories for the students of Qaraouine university. Today a number of these architectural jems are either shortly after their renovation or in the process of it. You should definitely not miss them! I would suggest the small, but beautiful Attarine medresa just off the Qaraouine mosque, the Cherratine medresa, and of course our dear neighbor – medresa Bou Inania.

QARAOUINE MOSQUE

You will not be able to enter this mosque unless you are Muslim, nevertheless it is worth spending some time peaking through its doors inside. You are looking at the OLDEST educational institution in the world! It was established in the 9th century (in the year 859) by a woman – noble Fatima al-Fihrí who felt it the best to invest her dowry into establishment of such an institution for the city of Fez. What we have in the medina today is only the mosque itself as the university has long moved away to modern buildings outside the medina walls. This place remains, however, the most sacred point of the medina.

FOUNTAINS

Let us see how many you are able to find during your visit of the Medina: five? ten? Do not miss the most beautiful one at the Nejjarine square!

PALACES

Our Medina is full of beautiful palaces, some of them, unfortunately not being in the best shape at the moment. You should still head for the Moqri palace and the Mnebhi palace for some good pictures.

TANNERIES

This is one of the highlights of the Medina – old techiques and proccesses still used today for tanning the animal skins. The biggest tannery is called Chouara, and you need to head towards the northeastern part of the Medina, but there are other, smaller tanneries as well. My favorite one is the tannery in Chorba district where you get to meet the tanneurs personally.

CITY GATES

Fes Medina has fourteen gates, with the fifteenth being our internal gate – Bab Boujaloud. It would take you the whole day to walk all around the Fez city walls as they have several miles in length, but do pay attention to the beautiful Bab Semmarine or the massive Bab Ftouh, just to name a few.

JEWISH HERITAGE

Fes has amazing Jewish heritage with a number of sites to explore, within walking distance from our Riad! Explore the Jewish cemetary, marvel at the beautiful architecture of the houses previously owned by Jewish merchants, and visit the two newly-renovated Fes synagogues.

PARKS AND GARDENS

Jnane Sbile is probably the best place to enjoy some serenity under the shadow of willows.  It has been carefully landscaped to please the eye and bring rest to weary legs of the Medina visitors.

SOUQS

Souq is an Arabic term for market, and whether you are looking for rugs, leather goods, jewelry or ceramics, the local market is ready to cater to you! Look for some traditional footwear (babouch) and beautiful caftans at the Kaisareia market, and head to the Henna souq for products such as argan oil, henna and ghassoul.

The “Holy” Valley

There is not a place in Levant that would not bear holiness … from Jewish and Old Testament trees, rocks and memorable valley through the tombs of Muslim imams to Christ and places where he performed miracles … all of them are holy, some even duplicated, so you can have your preference. So it is not a surprise that there is a valley which actually bears the name of being Holy, and the locals call it Qadisha.

Qadisha is first of all the name of a river which springs in the Lebanese mountains and flows towards the Mediterranean. Then, it is the name of the valley which the river chose for its path. Wadi Qadisha is tucked away underneath the city of Bcharré and the surrounding villages, creating a unique environment for wildlife and flora, but also for the people who long ago decided to remain on its slopes and devote their life to prayer. Qadisha is the valley of Maronite Christian (for most part) monasteries and convents, and its soaked with prayer.

There are many paths that can be taken to explore the Qadisha valley, and I know well only one of them. So our trail goes like this: We start at Bcharré where we descend to the valley, go past the Mar Elisha monastery towards the bottom of the Qadisha valley, onward to Qannoubin monastery, and then to the hermitage of Hawqá. After Hawqá, we ascent one more and find ourselves at the Hawqá village, from where we take the vehicle on. It takes most of the day (about 8 hours) in a slow pace with the aim of enjoying the views and the monuments. The distance has been measured at 13 kilometers with about 250 meters of altitude changes (final ascent). Click on the pictures to see description.

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Four-by-four of the Levant (2)

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This is a continuation of my account of the most enjoyable moments and the most beloved aspects of four Levantine countries – Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. I have written about the first two in the last post, and now its time to think about four things I love and Syria and Lebanon.

Again, they will not be in any particular order, I write them as they come to my mind.

SYRIA

1. Old Damascene houses turned into restaurants

This is a big one! I love the renovated courtyard where music is played and the waiters come with the array of mezze, mmmm …. I have had so many sweet encounters with friends at these places, eating, drinking and smoking shisha for hours, enjoying the music and our conversation. Relaxing and refreshing.

2. Lemon juice with mint

Light, full of vitamins, shining green! Those are the attributes of this amazing drink that you can put as much sugar in as you like, according to how sweet you want its taste to be. I go for less sweet, rather sour version of it, and I enjoyed it most after a filling lunch or dinner in any place in Syria. I know they make this awesome drink in other Arab countries, but in Syria it has reached its perfection.

3. Sunrise in Palmyra

If something can beat the fabulous sunsets in Jordan, it is the sunrise in Palmyra. That moment, when the wind ceases and the first rays of sun kiss the ancient ruins … everything turns light pink, or rather apricot color. My last sunrise in Palmyra in 2011was the most memorable one, having some of my best friends around me and thinking of what is going to become of Syria in the years to come …

4. Breeze and pine fragrance by Qalaat Samaan

Oh, what a place! Hidden in the northernmost corners of Syria lies an early Christian ruin of a monk who lived on the top of the pillar. While I often thought this must be a made-up story, I understand that if it was for real, the pine forests with its amazing fragrance when the breeze moves must have given the pious man so much relief in his self-chosen physical suffering.

LIBANON

Moving just a bit to the west, we hit the tiny country of Lebanon, and these are the Lebanese top four:

1. The moment you see all of the country in once …

Lebanon is so tiny, that you can actually see it from west to eat from the same place, you just need to turn your head! This place is in the Lebanese mountains, above the Cedars of the Lord where the road first climbs up to the top of the mountais pass, and then slowly descends down to the Bikaa Valley. Turn right, and you have the Qadisha Valley in front of you, and beyond the mountains are retreating and giving way to a narrow strip of lowlands before disappearing in the Mediterranean sea. Now look left, and the Bikaa valley is first what you sea, with the Anti-Lebanon mountains marking the border with Syria following. This is a huge and big WOW, which I just cannot get over!

2. Living as a hermit

I wonder if I could do it – I guess I could, if I had the internet connection in the Hawqa hermitage in the Qadeesha Valley which is where Dario Escobar has been living since 1990. His little house with an adjacent little chapel and the gardens around looks like an ideal getaway for busy postmodern Europeans. Even a couple of hours in this place serve as a much needed relaxation.

3. Yummies of Em Nazih

And there is the food again! Each Levantine has its culinary attractions, and Lebanon is not an exception. When I think of good food, I think of Em Nazih, which is the mother of Nazih at the Saifi Language Institute, and this precious lady with her family prepares delicious while cheap dishes at the café of same name. Yum! The first that comes to mind is the biryani dish which caused me so much trouble in Iran and then there is mujaddara, lubyeh and of course the wonderful manaqeesh! Simply precious and priceless.

4. Anjar and its beauty

If I had to name one historical site and recommend it to visitors of Lebanon, it would definitely be Anjar. It is not well known and thanks to that, it is very rarely visited (compared to Baalbek and Byblos). Its uniqueness is in the fact that it is the only early Islamic city whose layout and most of the buildings have survived until the modern days. Set on the slopes of the Anti-Libanon hills and not far from the Syrian border, it is a great place to spend a couple of hours before sunset. Look for McDonalds sign when you are there!

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Four-by-four of the Levant (1)

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I got a question from a friend on the blog about my  preferences when it comes to the four Levantine countries – Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The question about which of the four I love the most comes from time to time, and I never know how to answer. Shouting out the name of one of them seems at least as unfair as saying one of the four children is above the other, and I love him more than the rest of them. At the same time, this question leads to the necessity of comparison of the uncomparable.

I love each one of the four deeply, and each one is unique and special to me

Just like with the children. It is because I have experienced both good and bad moments in each one, I shed my tears and rejoiced beyond measure at some point in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well. Let me, therefore, share some of those priceless moments and experiences from each one of them, and let us limit it to four items per each country. They will not necessarily be my favorite four sites in the country, though some of those ideas might serve as a recommendations on what to see there.

ISRAEL

It comes first in the alphabet, so I mentioned it as the first one, without making its primacy a statement of any kind. And these are four of Israel (again not in any particular order):

1. Dead Sea Nights

I used to be coming to the Dead Sea once in a week, but I never enjoyed it more than during Shavuot of 2009 when I spent three days (and two nights) at its Ein Bokek beach, sleeping at the lifeguards hut and keeping waking up to the noise Beduin youngsters were making while swimming in the darkness. The heat during the day (it was late May) was almost unbearable, while the nights were just lovely, air filled with salt and minerals.

2. When the Plane Approaches

Eilat. I prefer not spending Shabats there as no planes are flying during this day of rest. But just as the end of Shabat comes on Saturday night, a plane after plane keeps landing at it airport, located in the very heart of the city. Standing next to the Mall haYam, I feel like this huge bird is approaching to pick me up and carry me away. Scary and wonderful at the same time.

3. Negev Desert Highway

By far my favorite part of the country, with its amazing serenity and vastness. Knowing, that the highway to the right is already behind the Jordanian border, and I am driving while watching Jordan on my right hand side, is an amazing feeling. This one I guess is hard to describe, so you need to just believe me that it is cool :-).

4. Israeli Skirts

If Israel gave me any piece of life advice, it is this one: Wear a skirt, you will look much more feminine. I heed the advice, follow it, and I rarely put pants on nowadays. Skirts (and dresses) are amazing, and one place to learn about it is in Israel.

JORDAN

1. Where Bible Comes to Life

Jordan is MY Bible-land. Strangely enough, I do not feel it as much in Israel as I do in Jordan, and I cannot help but think of Moses and all his troubles with the disobedient Israelites as they were passing through in their quest for the Promised Land. I sense it in Wadi Musa where he stroke the rock to get the water. I imagine the sides of the Kings Highway being covered with manna when I ride by in the morning. I think of his last days and what he felt when seeing the land which his feet was not to ever stand upon.

2. Zaatar-o-Zeit

Mmm… the taste of the freshly baked bread, of which pieces I break and dip in the olive oil and zaatar spice. Nothing else to add, this one you just have to try on your own!

3. Amman Love Affair

This means love affair WITH, not IN Amman … I spent six weeks which I did not plan to spend, in Amman in 2011. Living in the west Amman and commuting to work every morning – it made me, for a short moment, one of Ammanis. I dearly and deeply love this city with its great little shops where bread rolls are not counted but sold by weight, and where oranges dry up on their trees on the balconies. If I had to live for the rest of my life in one of the Levantine capitals, let it be this one.

4. Jordanian Sunsets

The most stunning pink color I have ever seen is the pink of the desert sunset in Jordan. Period.

To be continued for Lebanon and Syria! Stay tuned!