The Arba3een (The Forty): Part I

The Forty...thieves? I'm not entirely sure. However, the Arba3een is the name given to the house that marks the place where Cain killed Abel (allegedly) on top of Jabal Qasiyoon (the mountain on the edge of Damascus). You can actually see this house from our terrace, and it looks to be the highest structure visible on the mountain. In any case, this past week I went up the mountain with one of my roommates (Bud) to visit the Arba3een. This is our story.

So I was sitting in my room, watching Al Pacino movies when I got the urge to get out of the house. I knock on Bud's door and ask if he wants to go climb a mountain (some of my friends had told me of al arba3een). He says he has to study for the GRE but after some gentle prodding he gives in. Who wants to study on vacation anyhow? So he's like,

"I'm in. How do we get there?"

"I have no clue. Let's go."

So we're about to walk out of the house and I'm thinking perhaps a taxi would go up the mountain if we paid him enough, when I have the sudden idea to call our apt owner to ask for directions. He picks up and says we have to trek to some random area called "Tiki" in Rukn al-Din and find someone with a "Suzuki." From there we pay the driver 2 or 3 bucks to take us up the mountain. All set for our Indian Jones Tiki Suzuki adventure, Bud and I set off for Rukn al-Din.

The most important thing to know when asking for directions in Syria is never ask just one person. Use the first part of whatever the first guy says and once you reach there, ask somebody else. Continue this process until you either reach your destination or are so lost you are sitting on the curb and sobbing. So in Rukn al-Din, I ask for more directions and some random old man says we can take a taxi that costs 20 cents all the way up. We didn't have to worry about Tiki or finding a Suzuki. Anyhow, we take the taxi up for about ten minutes and the driver tells us to get out. Lo and behold the taxi only takes us to some mosque called the Arba3een and not the actual murder site (or whatever). So Bud and I ask for directions from a couple of old men drinking tea and they proceed to have a 5 minute yelling match about who has better directions. Eventually one of them gets up and tells us to follow him. He says in very very very syrian arabic:

"Follow this road you'll hit a fork, take the left, then follow that until you hit a another fork, take a right, then take a left, then a right..."

All the while he's slapping his forearms to emphasize the rights and lefts. He starts laughing at as and as we're walking away hoping that we find this place before it gets dark, I turn around and ask him how long the walk should take.

He shouts back, "5 minutes!!" And laughs some more and shakes his head and goes back to drink his tea. Bud and I look at each other. 5 minutes. right. TID. We both look toward the sky, steeling ourselves for a journey that could last days, buy some water, and start following the old man's directions.

Bear in mind, this area is basically the slums of Damascus. The roads are narrow and winding, the buildings are dilapidated and tall. Children are running around playing soccer and screaming. Women in niqabs are pushing baby carts along the stone streets. The smell of garbage and car exhaust fill our lungs. As we wind our way up the mountain the houses get smaller and dirtier. Our legs are getting tired as we're trudging up this mountain winding through these slums. After a good 20 minutes of climbing we reach a fork and we're not sure where to turn. We are also apprehensive about venturing randomly down these streets because they could turn out to be entrances to somebody's house, and nobody likes Americans wearing sunglasses and holding water bottles showing up in their living room. So we're standing at a fork in the road when we see an old lady staring at us. We look at her for about 5 seconds and she smiles and points to the right. I guess the foreigner was just oozing out of us (Bud's whiteness helped). So we continue our hike, pausing on occasion to look to an old person who wordlessly points us in the right direction, until we finally reach a set of stairs. By this time, we're high enough on the mountain to get one of the best views of the city to be had. We pause for a water break and laugh at our randomness. I feel the soreness in my legs and ask Bud if we could simply roll down the mountain to get down. He agrees.

Ok folks, writing up the journey up took longer than expected and I have to get going. I will complete this tale in the coming days. Until then, keep your chin up and always brush your teeth.