Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Reel talk (sorry)

Posted in Lists, Miscellaneous by Quiet Giant on May 30, 2009

American movies being shown on Syrian hotel televisions, culled from overnight stays in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo:

– Beetlejuice
– The Flintstones
– The Butterfly Effect
– Something with Martin Lawrence, tough to determine through the static


Big and little

Posted in Encounters, Photos by Quiet Giant on May 30, 2009

When Lila was still part of our traveling caravan, I regularly thought about:

– how cool those giant Egyptian statues must have seemed through her elementary school eyes.
– how cool it would be to grow younger and younger until I was 7 again, then start growing forward. Seven’s a good age.
– how Lila was a sort of surreally gifted swimmer. (I couldn’t swim until I was 9!)

The important point is, sometimes, I wish I were 7.

Geoff and I talked about this in Luxor. His take was, yeah, repeating 7 would rule, but no kids that age even realize they have the best lives ever. Flopping around the pool with no concept of responsibility or reality. Getting to invent and unflappably believe the most fantastic possible reasons for stuff with actually boring explanations. Being even tinier than an adult next to the pyramids.

And he’s right.

But I found a loophole yesterday. Even if I hadn’t breached the double digits yet, I would have thoroughly appreciated being super small, super agile and super ensconced in the limestone crevices that lead to the monastery of St. Takla in Ma’loula.

When I was a kid, I used to stand near relatively enormous things – like the trees in our backyard – as points of reference for imagining other things that size, but alive, too. Like dinosaurs. I also used to spend entire afternoons pretending that a nearby forest was somewhere in Middle Earth. So, Ma’loula would have really blown my mind.

It’s got medieval origins, a healthy dose of intrigue and those deep chasms, flanked by tall walls that, if morphed into living creatures by my childhood imagination, would have housed any suburban foliage.

Via Katie.

Via Katie.

Our group descended into Ma’loula’s gorge* on Wednesday afternoon after a long drive through Syria’s infinite countryside. For lack of a more professional word that would, I don’t know, prove I can express myself, it was so cool. So. Cool. So authentic and old and spiritually charged. Impressively disconnected from commercial antics, considering its tourist appeal. (There were gift shops, of course, but they sold the sort of kitschy, brandless religious paraphernalia you’d fine in old Italian ladies’ apartments.) So fun to walk around.

I hate to harp on the gorge, because it’s hardly the most remarkable thing about Ma’loula. Just the part I reveled in most.

About 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, Ma’loula is the only place in the world where people still speak the Western branch of Aramaic – in short, the language Jesus spoke. Because of Ma’loula’s distance from heavily populated urban centers, its linguistic integrity stayed in tact for well over a thousand years. Our group even got to hear The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, delivered by a priest inside the Mar Sarkis monastery, erected more than 1,700 years ago on the ruins of a pagan temple.

Then we went to one of the most well-preserved Crusader castles in the world.

Via Katie.

Via Katie.

That’s even cool for grown ups.

*That’s what she said. (Sorry.)

Happy accidents

Posted in Miscellaneous, Photos by Quiet Giant on May 30, 2009

I’ve been doing this cute thing lately where I forget to charge my camera battery for the most picturesque legs of our trip. So far, two castles, an Aramaic hamlet and Aleppo’s ancient network of markets have evaded my lens. Bummer.

But there’s a bright side to every situation. In this case, I stumbled upon Loufi, a Flickr user with some striking photographic evidence of his world travels. Loufi approaches landscapes and buildings with an eye for the simple and bold: power lines draped across a Portugese sky or shadows swallowing a mosaic wall in Andalucia. It’s like he strives to capture instances of abstract contemporary art that occur in real life.

Thankfully, Loufi also uses Creative Commons to license his work. That’s how I found him, via this photo, while searching Flickr:


I love everything about this image, from its perspective to composition and, of course, its contextual content – in particular, the crucifix dangling from the cabbie’s rearview mirror as he schleps a family to the Syrian town of Ma’loula, where locals still speak the language of Jesus.

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Extra terrestrial

Posted in Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 29, 2009

Sometimes the most enormous moments seem absurdly ordinary.

It was practically silent on the edge of the Syrian Golan. Every so often, gravel crunched under the tires of UN vans or military trucks, but otherwise, the unlikely soundtrack to a walk through this contentious territory was a pristine hush. If it weren’t for thickets of barbed wire lining the roads, the landscape would have made for a pretty good postcard.

But we were actually walking through the veritable lotus of Syrian-Israeli conflict.

The fertile and strategically valuable Golan Heights territory belonged to Syria from 1944 until 1967, when Israel captured a significant portion of the region during the Six-Day War. Since then, Israel has returned part of the land to Syria but annexed the rest, a move the international community lambastes as illegal and inpermissable. Decades later, reclaiming that land remains Syria’s No. 1 priority, trumping even pressing domestic issues like the floundering economy, said Minister of Information Muhsin Bilal. It is a matter of dignity and principle, he said, and there will be no peaceful overtures toward Israel until the Golan is repatriated.

“Here,” Bilal said, “the occupation is the mother of all problems.”

On our walk Wednesday, those barbed wire thickets separated our group from a 100-meter no-man’s land, then Israel. If a giant wall marked the southwestern boundary of Syria, my toes would have been scrunched against it. But there’s a UN roadblock instead, and armed officers nearby. So my toes just grazed an invisible line at the center of violent controversy. Politics aside, I felt overwhelmed by the reality of standing in such a crucial geographic location. Even without my glasses, I could see the flapping blue and white flags, though Katie had to read me the sign that says “Welcome to Israel.”

To get this close to what Osama calls “limbo,” we picked up police escorts and passed through checkpoints. So once we got outside, near the rich soil and the barbed wire, I didn’t want to miss the point. Hardly anyone gets to stand where we stood. Certainly not civilians. When Syrian women decide to marry across the dividing line, they leave their families behind forever.

Loading back into the bus that afternoon felt, oddly, like a privilege.

Setting the scene

Posted in Encounters, General Updates by Quiet Giant on May 29, 2009

Before I start uploading a backlog of posts about our latest Syrian adventures, I should describe my situation. For two reasons. First, because it’s great. And second,  because tonight’s events really testify to our group’s  intrepid pursuit of the Internet on a global scale. 

Katie, Carlene and I needed the web tonight  to post stories and entries, but we couldn’t seem to find a single cafe with wireless access in the bucolic suburbs of Homs. Meanwhile, our guide and dear friend, Osama, seemed confident he could deliver us to the Internet. That’s how, after a 20-minute drive and navigational input from Osama, his close friend, his close friend’s family and people on the side of the street, we located a  “computer center,” with an uncanny resemblence to how I imagine a stockroom at CompUSA looked in the early ’90s.

When we got here, a  kind patron led us through swinging blue doors, tech-saloon style, to a small office with four prehistoric desktop computers and cardboard boxes of office supplies. That’s where I’m typing from.

Pretty good.

Point two:  Our absolute willingness to go wherever the Internet happened to lead is just one strand in the greater thematic fabric of our trip. We are always searching for the Internet. It is never easy.  Not only were we semi-giddy to be en route to any establishment with any degree of web access, but we knew, intuitively, that some bizarre adventure was the prerequisite to finding a place to post.

It’s going to be so weird when I check my e-mail in less than 45 minutes next weekend.

Northeastern in the NYT

Posted in General Updates by Quiet Giant on May 28, 2009

Enormous thanks to Michael Slackman at the New York Times for recognizing our program yesterday in his article “Why Freed Dissidents Pick Path of Most Resistance.” Michael specifically linked to my entry about Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, who recently revealed plans to finish a well-publicized prison sentence. Nour was jailed in 2004 following a bid for the presidency on an opposition ticket. In February, the National Democratic Party released Nour four months ahead of schedule. Since then, Nour said the government has denied him basic rights, like the ability to open a bank account or practice law. 

I also (highly, highly) recommend Katie’s account of our time with Mr. Nour, and Nick’s. We also collaborated on a news story for the main blog.

Thanks again, Michael!

On a lighter note

Posted in Quotes by Quiet Giant on May 28, 2009

Like most things in life, The Office has already addressed this issue:

Truth be told, I think I thrive under a lack of accountability.
– Michael Scott

Talking heads

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters, General Updates, Miscellaneous by Quiet Giant on May 28, 2009

In a couple of hours, we’ll meet the Syrian Minister of Information. Pretty incredible, but I’ve got a hunch it’ll seem familiar.

Since Monday, we’ve had unique access to a staggering number of high-ranking officials. Different people from different departments. Sort of.

They’ve all had the same stunning gift for sidestepping (or bulldozing, really) critical questions, and ultimately, they’ve all delivered the same carefully packaged, quality-controlled message about their country – from the minister of Foreign Affairs to the minister of Higher Education. Even the president of Damascus University eschewed real answers for aggressively one-sided fast-facts about the Syrian Accountability Act (SAA) and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like there’s a short list of really specific statistics embedded in the collective consciousness.

But I’m glad we met them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t believe the extent of this government’s concerted effort to appear functional and wrongfully vilified.

It’s mesmerizing, how precisely the Syrian political machine controls its image. Every morsel of information we consume, anywhere – from government buildings to our own tour bus – is shaped and delivered by someone with ties to the government.

Nick put it pretty well:

I didn’t take this trip to ask ministers to elaborate on a public relations pitch. There’s this notion among some of us that we have to evoke quiet respect and adoration, as these same Syrian authorities are our host. But I call bullshit! … I take warnings that we’re being watched as reason to give them something to see!

It’s important to recognize our nation’s faults. Like the SAA. I’m opposed to sanctions on principle, because they disproportionately affect the wrong people. One well-recycled talking point here does actually move me: Because no imports to Syria can be comprised of more than 10 percent American parts, hospitals lack crucial equipment and medicines, and schools across the country struggle to update their technology systems. Not to mention, America erected this embargo in 2003 for all the wrong reasons. Weapons of mass destruction? Nope. Supporting terrorism? No one here perceives Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But it’s not like Syria is just really misunderstood. Things have to change here, even for the sake of honoring basic human rights.

And the notion that we’re playing into these officials’ hands – setting them up to wax rhetoric on the SAA’s impact without asking about its origins – is especially scary since we have the unusual benefit of getting to ask questions in the first place. Myself included, some of us started to drink the super-strong Kool-Aid without tempering the information we receive. The stories are loaded, aggressive and compelling. So, that’s part of it. But maybe it’s also because we yearn to seem human here. To show these people we didn’t support our last administration’s bizarro agenda. We compassionately yearn to say sorry – to apologize for the way our country has misrepresented Arab citizens.

But we don’t owe that apology to this government.

Anyways. This blog’s been a little heavy as I try to make sense of the schism between appearance and reality. Sorry about that.

Unexpected answers

Posted in Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 26, 2009

“What’s the point of blocking Facebook?” Rula asked, rhetorically. “Facebook is something you can use without limitations, and that’s something scary for our society at this point. … But it’s a temporary solution.”

The colossal social networking site is banned in Syria, along with Blogger and YouTube. The government only recently lifted a block on Wikipedia. Regardless, Rula, a recent graduate of Damascus University, said she uses a proxy server to sign into Facebook every day. She relies on the site to keep in touch with friends abroad, for instance, and it’s her phone book.

Still, this afternoon, in a wonderful dialogue with Syrian students, Rula rationalized the ban:

“We need restrictions,” she said. “We’re not there yet [as a country], and we need restrictions to not fall apart.”

Just one of today’s many valuable perspectives.

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Posted in Junk Food Watch, Photos by Quiet Giant on May 26, 2009

Nick took some great photos on our walk through the market yesterday. These glamor shots, for instance. In case you didn’t know, vanilla ice cream rolled through bits of pistachio = yes, please. Also, mom: We should recreate this at home with soft-serve! You’d love it.



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