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Life is Too Good

The next morning, we woke bright and early and headed off to meet Hossam in the same market district of Damascus’ old city where we had met the day before. He met us there with his friend, Delia, who was in very high spirits. We all wandered together through the market, talking excitedly about our plans that day. Not far into the place, Hossam ran over to a vegetable seller and grabbed a few onions and a handful of herbs. “For the kebabs,” he explained.

Our first stop was a meat shop. Hossam definitely had his favorite suppliers, and took great pride in carefully selecting some fantastic cuts of lamb. The first of these he directed the shop owners to blend  and run through a grinder with the bundle of onions and herbs that we had just bought. While they got to work on that, we headed down the street and bought more pieces of lamb from another seller, who proudly hung a bunch of freshly skinned lambs outside his storefront. The lambs had been gutted and cleaned, but for one reason or another, the testicles were left attached. “It is the Syrian way,” Hossam explained to us, grabbing a giant, brown paper wrapped hunk of meat and two chickens, strolling back out into the bustling alley.

We then bought a giant watermelon and a smaller honeydew from an man with a giant room full to my head level with melons. I grabbed the watermelon, and Claudia the honeydew. Hossam protested at Claudia carrying the melon, to which she responded with a feminist retort. Hossam’s friend instantly recognized her and joined in in solidarity. Hossam soon shut up as he became preoccupied with other things, such as fresh cheeses and homemade hummus. We also bought a large bag of fresh cucumbers and more onions.

As we were leaving the market, we noticed this kid selling the kind of child’s bouncy balls that included a set of handles up top, allowing the user to bounce around on it, presumably as some sort of enjoyable though inefficient mode of transit. In any event, he was looking so enterprising and debonair, that while we could not bring ourselves to buy a bouncy ball, we couldn’t resist taking his portrait.

Hossam left us for a moment to run into his friend’s apartment and grab a bag of utensils and a large grill. It was not long before we were met by Hossam’s dentist friend, who pulled up in his Hyundai Verna. There were six of us needing to cram into his five-passenger vehicle, but I was more than happy to climb onto the console, and do my best to avoid the stick shift, snuggled in-between two heavily cologned Syrian men.

Hossam and the dentist began cackling uncontrollably as Hossam told us that he had managed to get off work that day by telling his boss, at the large phonebook company where he worked, that he had just gotten a call from a real big potential client and would need to run off immediately to go close the deal.

We stopped outside Hossam’s place, and he ran inside to talk for a bit with his grandfather. While he did this, we continued to joke around in the car, playing musical sunglasses. Scott looked particularly dashing in the dentist’s shades.

We proceeded from there to drive out of the city of Damascus and into the countryside, where we found ourselves turning left and right into a tangled maze of deserted and dusty back roads. Eventually we stopped outside a giant half-built concrete, multistory structure. “We’re here!” our new friends exclaimed, and we all hopped out of the car, grabbing armloads of food and equipment.

Hossam turned to me and put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he stifled a giggle, “we are going to need to steal our way into this one.” He then jumped over a low-lying wall and into an overgrown courtyard. From the other side of the wall, he took out a knife and jammed it into the lock of the gate, wiggling it around. He then began violently kicking at the gate. Eventually, the old rusty thing gave way and swung open with a gut wrenching creak.

In we went, picking our way through the grasses and over to a small clearing by a somewhat sewage-laden babbling brook. Delia, the dentist, and Claudia began to set up shop there, while Hossam and I scrambled up onto another concrete wall and pulled off some of the corrugated asbestos roofing tiles from a nearby building.

At Hossam’s order, I dropped into the building, which proved full of dusty stuff, and began collecting things, handing them up to him. First two cobweb-covered hand-woven carpets, then the seats from an old couch, followed by a rusty saw, some silverware, and a number of folding chairs. With that done, I scrambled out.

Then we all gathered around the clearing while Hossam and his friend changed from their city clothes into their country clothes: this meant flowing pants and undershirts.

In the meantime, Scott had already headed out to search for firewood. I was about to join him when I decided to question our dentist friend as to the chances of us getting caught in this little ex-Syrian military breaking and entering escapade we had found ourselves participating in. The entire vibe of the experience felt safe, but the last thing I wanted to do was run afoul of the law in this police state.

I was most pleased to learn, however, that Hossam had just been joking, and that his aunt actually owned this land. From there I relaxed considerably, and headed off to search for firewood with much lightened spirits.

We came back with a bunch of firewood,  to find that Hossam had been hard at work putting together the kind of ground meat kebabs that the Russians call “Lula,” meaning ”gun barrel.”

Scott set to work flexing his old Eagle Scout skills and putting together the fire, while the girls gathered around a central plate and started chopping veggies for a salad, and to skewer into shish-kebabs. I had the great pleasure of lounging on the old couch cushions with the dentist and playing the ukulele. Soon the fire had raged down to a good solid burn, and Hossam headed over to start cooking.

He began by filling a couple of wire rack presses with spiced chicken. He then followed up with the kebabs. From time to time he would use a piece or two of the gigantic stack of flatbread that we’d bought as hot mitts, or as tools to transfer the hissing and fat dripping meat from the grill back to the picnic spot.

For each of the kinds of meat, a piece of bread was used as a plate, and as the soft flatbread soaked up the juices, I began to realize I had not eaten all day and was damn near delirious with hunger. Suddenly I heard a chorus of shrieking over by the grill. It seemed that Hossam had realized some of the kebabs were done and, rather than risk them drying out, he had just grabbed the red hot metal with his bare hands, and screaming in pain, but refusing to drop the skewers, made his way, huffing and puffing in brave agony, to the pile of bread. What a fellow we’d found!

We then all sat down to feast.  The girls had put together a very impressive salad, which we squeezed lemon over and salted.

The dentist cut a hole in a large bag of the magnificent Syrian garlic mayonnaise, and squeezed forth a giant pile of that onto a plate. Meanwhile Hossam sliced a similar hole in the corner of the bag of hummus, and squirted a giant spiral of that into another bowl. They spread both sauces out with a spoon, and poured olive oil over them, and then it was time to eat.

And my goodness, dear reader, did we eat that day! By the time we wandered down to the river to get the melons that had been chilling in the water, I was nearly bursting with some of the most succulent meat, bread, and salad I had ever tasted in my life. It was just too good.

The sun shone, and birds sang in the trees. Feral cats wandered up to us, and we gladly threw them pieces of chicken and lamb bone. “Life is good!” the dentist cried out, as he rolled back onto his cushion, stuffing his face with a slice of what turned out to be one of the sweetest and most strongly flavored watermelons I had ever encountered.

Hossam laughed and clapped his hands “Life is too good!”

And with that, we began to transition into a phase of feast-induced drowsiness. We just laid around in the shade of the trees. I played relaxing tunes on the ukulele, and time slide by.

Eventually the sun was sinking and our hosts indicated we needed to go, so we hustled to clean the place up and pick our way back through the grass to the car.

The sun was just setting as we made our way back into Damascus. It had been a beautiful day. You’re right Hossam, life is too good.


  1. Albert | October 14th, 2010 | 9:03 am

    It seems to that Syria is more popular than Lebanon. Haha~
    When will you update the impression that you two travel in Taiwan?

  2. Maui Jim | October 14th, 2010 | 10:01 am

    What a good day indeed! Now you have us craving watermelon and home made hummus. Thanks for all the posts, we enjoy sharing them with our fans. Aloha, Maui Jim

  3. Woody Schneider | October 14th, 2010 | 7:28 pm

    @ Albert
    They Each had their charms 😉 Taiwan is coming; we promise. All in due time.

    @ Maui Jim
    A great day, agreed. And all the more beautiful through those PolarizedPlus lenses!

  4. Albert | October 15th, 2010 | 10:05 am

    When will you two go back America? If you two are available before going back, I was wondering if you two could meet up with me? I’m able to lead you two to visit some tourist attraction.^^
    Albert DAI

  5. Nate | October 20th, 2010 | 9:31 am

    With every step of the foraging and preparation process I became increasingly excited about the meal. And “Meat in Bread Plate” is the Money Shot.

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