Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Archeological Adventure in the Parched Countryside of Damascus- Sept. 2006

At the language center in Damascus University I got to know a British girl studying archeology who mentioned her tutor, or professor, from her home university of St. Andrews was in Syria on an archeological dig. The day after the course session finished, she called to tell me that her tutor wanted her to find someone who spoke English to come help with the archeology work and who also spoke some Arabic to translate between the British team and the Bedouins working for them. She asked me if I would like to go and that it would be for 3 or 4 days and the site was located in the countryside 3 hours by car from Damascus. I had to make a quick decision as I would have to leave the next day. I was hesitant at first to accept as I felt I wasted my time in the university course and wanted to immediately start studying Arabic with the private tutor, but after some friends mentioned it would be a unique opportunity I accepted the offer. I wasn’t so interested in the archeology work or seeing the ruins, as I had been to Syria before and seen the major ruins; instead I was more interested in the chance to interact with the Bedouins; not to mention the peace and fresh air of the countryside was a nice break from the crowded and loud capital. One thing I learned from the experience is that I am not much of a city person but instead prefer the suburbs, a cross between the country and city lives.
The whole trip ended up lasting for 5 nights. I left on Sunday Sept. 17 and returned on Friday Sept. 22. I took a bus from Damascus to Hama, a major city located two hours away by car. I was delayed leaving as when I first went to the bus station I learned I needed my passport to by a bus ticket, an odd requirement, and so I had to return home to get it. In Hama, a taxi was arranged to take me to the archeological site in the countryside about an hour away. I spoke Arabic with the taxi driver for most of the trip. We had a little difficulty finding the village where the British team stayed as it was dark and there wasn’t much signage. Eventually, two Bedouins on the side of the road showed us the way to the house of the British in the village of Homé.
I arrived about 9:30 pm and was quickly introduced to the team. There was Dr. Mary Mayfield or the modeera, the Arabic word for director, who led the team and was a lecturer in archeology who specialized in Byzantine studies from a famous British university. However, she was an American who had lived in England over 30 years but was married to an English professor in Latin or Greek who had retired from the same famous university. Then there was the second in command, Lukas the Austrian, who was Dr. Mayfield’s postdoc and had received his PhD in Archeology with her. Then there was Bruce the New Zealander who had come to Britain for the specific reason to row on the famed university crew team and in the meantime picked up a Masters in something related to surveying. And lastly there was Alex, the only English person on the British team, who I assisted in his surveying work and had recently completed a Masters in Archeology. However, he was hired by Dr. Mayfield through his father’s surveying company to do the survey work. Among them, only Lukas could speak some Arabic. Even though Dr. Mayfield had been coming yearly to work on the same site and was now in her 9th year, she spoke very little Arabic. However, she could read ancient Greek, Latin, French, and I think Aramaic. The postdoc Lukas was also amazing in being able to speak several languages, maybe around 10. At one point, Dr. Mayfield remarked how her last vacation was over 20 years ago and consisted of staying at a Greek monastery and reading ancient Greek texts in the library. These archeologists were certainly an interesting class of intellectuals.
I was given a tour of the house by Lukas. It was simple and Dr. Mayfield had rented the house from a young Bedouin family with two little girls, about 2 and 4 years old, for the week and half that she and her team would be there for $200. While Dr. Mayfield was here, the family was staying in a tent they pitched next door. The kitchen had a sink with no faucet. The bathroom had no shower and the toilet was located outside and was an Arabic type, i.e. a hole in the ground. The bathroom contained a rusted metal container with a faucet which was filled with water from a well outside. Drinking water was brought in from outside the village. Showering consisted of filling a bucket with water and throwing it over one’s head, not very thorough at all and my white towel would show the brown dust that I had collected from a day in the field but had not washed off. Also, as I had not brought enough pairs of socks for my stay of 5 nights as I was expecting to leave two days earlier, I had the experience of hand washing my dirty socks and leaving them to dry in the sun. The conditions over all were quite primitive in my opinion. There were mosquitoes and flies but luckily there were mosquito nets for the sleeping bags. The house, which was more or less a concrete box, had this unique ability to stay cool during the day when the temperature would soar and remain warm at night when the weather would become very cool and windy. The traditional beehive houses of the region, one chambered conical mud-brick structures with thick walls to keep the house at a constant temperature, had the same quality of being impervious to the heat of summer days and cold of winter nights; although they are gradually being replaced by the favored concrete box. I slept outside for two nights and then inside the house as it was too cold at night sometimes.
But during dinner the first evening, I was quickly drawn into the affairs of the team and began becoming acquainted with the Bedouins amongst whom that Dr. Mayfield had situated herself. Mary wanted to rent a mechanical digger to dig and find an ancient water channel buried underground. She was researching the water system of an abandoned 5th century Byzantine village called al-Anderine. There were two Bedouins competing with each other in intriguing for the hire of a mechanical digger. It was a quest of how low could they go while still taking a nice cut of the rent.
The two competing Bedouins were Fayad and Abu Sultan. Fayad was about 25 and Mary’s assistant in the field and the driver for the workers. Abu Sultan, aka Abu Sharky for his shark-like business tactics, was a rotund thirty something father of three, the oldest being 10 or 11, and owned the house next door. His house was certainly the nicest among those in the village and during my stay there he had a big flat-screen TV delivered to his house. I learned he and Mary had a bit of a falling out. In all the previous years that Mary came to al-Anderine, she rented Abu Sultan’s house and built a separate toilet/shower facilities on his property for the use of her team when she comes. However, Abu Sultan wanted her to sign a contract and she rebuffed and he decided not to rent her his house for this year. He also told Mary that she would have to pay $170 in rent if she wanted her team to use the bathroom facilities that she built with her grant money on his property. The resolution was that only Mary could use the facilities but the rest of the team could not.
But back to the intrigue of hiring the digger, eventually Abu Sharky won two days later to the dismay of Fayad who I was told by Bruce and Lukas was trying to make last minute calls when he found out Sharky had won. Yet the intrigue of the digger was amusing considering the Fayad and Abu Sultan were related. Fayad’s father was the brother of Abu Sultan and the owner of the house we were staying in. It would have seemed they should have cooperated with each other but such was not the case.
The workers hired by Mary came from this extended family and then three other individuals, a middle-aged man and his two teenage nephews of 15 and 16 years, from another village. The latter exhibited a much different character, one of much less avarice and good work ethic than exhibited by Fayad and his relatives who were preoccupied with money and were lazier in the field. All in all, the workers were mostly in their late teens or twenties, although the youngest was 12 or 13. They came from Bedouins who had settled down and became farmers. I learned that they and their families had fields somewhere where they grew wheat and had pomegranate trees. They would take the wheat to Hama and sell it to the government. They all claimed to be poor and were thankful for the opportunity that Mary brought to them for they don’t have much else to do for unemployment is high. But poor is a respective term, they certainly had homes, clothes, sufficient food, satellite TV, and cars. I think the main reason that they are poor is that there meager resources are stretched over large families with most households when I asked containing six to ten children. Many of the people were illiterate even though there was a school across the street which was small and consisted of perhaps one or two rooms and a basketball court without baskets. I found out that the quality of teaching was poor as one day when I was in the field some schoolboys were passing home quite early at around 11 am. I thought they were skipping school, but they told me that their teacher had decided to dismiss them early. And such was the same with Fayed’s memory of school.
Although since Fayed was the oldest, he tended to suffer more as he didn’t have the oversight and care of older siblings, for now Fayed and the other older brothers make sure the youngest two learn to read and write. In fact one brother may be sent to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city for further study, which does show that with thoughtfulness, planning, and care these Bedouins are able to uplift their financial, although admittedly it is very limited.
Yet, a little anecdote will show that compared to the poor in, for example, India, the situation of these Bedouins is comfortable, although lacking in opportunity. One of Fayed’s sister required a kidney transplant a few years ago. So the father arranged for the sick girl and him to fly to India where they purchased a new kidney for her from a poor Indian. Now is she is fine and in moderate health. Thus, there are different classes of poverty and these Bedouins were among upper class poor.
Returning now though to when I arrived into this world, I introduced myself to the various Bedouins as being half-American and half-Kuwaiti. And to my surprise did my tie to Kuwait make me popular with them, especially with Fayed who dreamed of going to Kuwait. He has an aunt who is married to a Kuwaiti and lives in Jahra in Kuwait, which makes sense as Jahra is known as having a lot of Bedouin Kuwaitis. Afterwards, various people who I didn’t know would ask me if I was the Kuwaiti as word must have spread, probably through Fayed.
The next day we woke up at 6 am at around dawn, had breakfast, and headed out to the field. The team was well-equipped and had the main room of the house converted into their command center with laptops, drawings, and various other things. It was a five minute drive from the village to the site at al-Anderine. Mary had rented a compact blue Hyundai that was too low to the ground for the off-road driving that she did and was consequently slightly damaged. I wonder how much of her deposit she had returned in the end. The car was absolutely the filthiest I had ever seen, being completely covered with dust inside and out. I would ride out with the team in the Hyundia while the workers and maybe Lukas would go in Fayed’s pick-up truck.
The work of the Bedouins mostly consisted of digging for underground water channels that led from the reservoirs that the Byzantines had built to provide water to their city and fields. There were two reservoirs, one north of the city and the other south of city, or more correctly the village that was al-Anderine as Mary reminded me. Archeologists like to argue about the differences between cities and villages. At the time when the village was inhabited 1500 years ago, the land was very fertile and al-Anderine was known for its grapes. However, today the land is hard-baked earth and dust, but still farmable. The dramatic difference between how plentiful the water was in the past versus today can be illustrated by the depths of the wells. The ancient wells in the village were dug to a depth of 11 meters while today the wells are dug to a depth of 77 meters. Although I was told by some of the elder Bedouins that just 50 years ago the land was much moister, and Lukas mentioned something that cotton farming in this region had dramatically decreased the water table. As a result, Lukas said cotton farming was banned in the region but that some farmers still tried to grow cotton by hiding it on the inside portion of a field of another crop such as sunflowers.
Nevertheless, the coolness of the night would be traded for the heat of the day between 10 and 11 am as the sun rose. We would work until around 2pm and head back for lunch and a break. Lunch was the main meal of the day. Then we would return at 4 pm and stay until sunset at 6:30 pm. The work I did was boring and uninteresting. I was helping Alex develop survey maps or grids of the area, an important aspect of archeology, in order to determine where things are in relation to each other and where things were discovered. Hence, I had to carry a pole with an infrared scope at the top to various corners of a grid that would reflect a beam to Alex’s instrument at a base station and tell him the exact position of where the pole was in relation to the instrument. Once the grids were mapped out, he would use an instrument called a magnetometer to explore if any ruins were buried underground. I think the technique is similar to magnetic resonance imaging of the body. The instrument would give him a reading of the magnetic quality of the earth below it. Different soils and rocks have different intrinsic magnetic qualities. And since the black basalt used by the Byzantines in constructing their water channels and the buildings of their village gave a very high magnetic reading in relation to the natural earth around it, Alex could use the magnetometer to determine if anything of interest was buried underneath. Consequently, after taking sequential measures of the ground, he could draw up an image using his data showing where a water channel was buried as it would appear as a black line in the relatively light-grey image.
It was during my work that I enjoyed interacting with the Bedouins. The site of the ruins is not fenced off in anyway and the surrounding areas are farmland or grazing areas for sheep. Every now and then Alex and I would be approached by Bedouins inviting us to tea or asking us about our work. Although, one family of farmers were Kurds and one of the men was immaculately dressed and clean. Some of the Bedouins were settled farmers and others were still nomads like their ancestors, moving their flocks of sheep to different areas for grazing. I met one shepherd boy who was about 14 and another who was about 22 and said I was the first foreigner he had ever met.
Many of these people would ask me about Robert. He was the tutor of the British girl who had been searching who arranged for my travel to al-Anderine. I found out he was a young professor who was the professor of the Arabic Department at St. Andrews University and had interviewed and spoken with various people in the area in order to write up a history of al-Anderine. He was so appreciated by the Bedouins, that one colleague mentioned jokingly that he was their god. Funnily, Fayed mentioned he could teach me classical Arabic as he had taught it to Robert and weakly uttered a sentence or two in it. It was of course an attempt to take advantage of me since. That he knew classical Arabic or taught it to Robert were both blatant lies which he quickly dropped when I remarked that Robert knows how to read and write implying how Fayed could have taught him that while he himself is illiterate. Although I never met Robert as he left al-Anderine the day I arrived and I later realized, as he told me, that I was something of his replacement; but a far inadequate one at that when it came to conversing with the locals.
Nevertheless, the day the mechanical digger arrived I was put to work for Mary translating between the driver and her. She probably could have done without me just using sign language. We attracted much attention and three middle-aged Bedouin men came by to see what was happening. I was amazed again when they told me they each had about 10 children. I also realized that Bedouins age very fast, looking much older than they really are.
Abu Sultan, aka Sharky, came out to supervise the digger that had he arranged to come. He asked me at the end of the work to tell Mary to pay him $30 for sitting in his car or standing with his long flowing white robe around his rotund corpse and watching the work being done, while the normal workers were being paid $10 a day for digging in the heat of the sun. It was during this time that I learned that countryside here was something of the Wild West in Syria and how Abu Sultan’s avarice endangered his life and cemented his reputation in my mind as a real shark.
Abu Sultan recounted to me the following story. Three years ago or so, he had upset three people in neighboring village. He claimed of course he had done nothing to provoke them, but I found out from his brother who rented us his house that it was over money matters. Then one day, the three men sprayed Abu Sultan’s pick-up truck, with him, his wife, and baby child in the front seat, with fire from Kalashnikovs or AK-47s. Abu Sultan was unhurt but his wife took in two or three bullets but later recovered. He was reluctant to get the police involved, I was told by Mary, as probably he probably had dirt on his hands as well. The perpetrators fled from the authorities and ran off to Saudi Arabia. Abu Sultan told me that would kill them one day. I asked him why and replied because of the principle of a slap for a slap. At the end of his story, he pulled out a hang gun in its holster from the glove compartment of his pick-up truck and showed it to me. I was little taken aback by the gun but it was reasonable for him to have it considering the attempt on his life. It was a revolver and he opened up the cylindrical chamber to show me that it was loaded and ready to go with lead bullets. When I told Mary and the others about it they jokingly replied that they have to pay him now or else. Abu Sultan also mentioned he had a Kalashnikov at home, and I later found out that most of the other families do as well. Yet for some reason I just don’t trust Bedouins with guns so much. Perhaps a look at Yemen’s constant intertribal deadly conflicts would explain why.
At the end of the day when Mary was paying the digger, I will never forget the image of Abu Sultan driving his pick-up truck to where she standing a little bit away with a big smile on his face and his moustache and right hand raised sliding his thumb and fingers in a gesture referring to money while shouting out the window to me the word business.
Nevertheless, the week passed by quietly. The mechanical digger didn’t end up finding the water channel that was shown in Alex’s map of the magnetic data probably because it was too deep. But in another location where the water channel was buried shallower in the ground, it was easily found and recorded. Although as the heat of the day was tiring me, I began asking myself what the point of all this was. After all they were just burying the canals up again after they discovered it and their purpose according to Mary was to simply record what they found. Yet there were much more interesting ruins than this site in my opinion.
My archeological adventure was made more interesting by a layer of rivalry and clashing egos between Mary and the director of the German archeological team, also a woman, who were excavating a large house in the village. The German team was better funded than Mary as one of their patrons included BMW. For example they had a Land Rover which was much better suited to the terrain. Contact between the German team and us was nearly non-existent. Each director thought the other’s projects were useless or wild-goose chases. As a result, when the German director asked for one hour or more of magnetometry work in exchange for Mary’s request to use the digger they hired, Mary declined. But Alex noted that she freely offered his expertise to the third archeologist, the director of the Syrian team, the least funded of all.
It seemed most of the strain between the two women was a result of Marlie for at least the German director was trying to reach out to her. Yet both were women in their sixties with established reputations as experts in their similar fields. As Lukas told me, the excavation at al-Anderine was the German director’s project who, when it began about ten years ago, had asked Mary’s husband if he knew a young archeologist who wanted to share in the venture. He recommended Mary who quickly entered into a strained relationship with the German which was misfortunate for her as it was her original project and not Mary’s yet has to suffer for Mary’s boorish behavior.
The poor relations were exacerbated as well since Lukas, Mary’s chief student, was to move in month to Germany and take up a post as an assistant professor with the German director, Mary’s rival, as his new boss. Thus, Lukas had to diplomatically handle the carelessness of Mary towards his future new boss. For example, Alex, Bruce, and I wanted a tour of the site before we had left and the German director had offered to give us one. However, Marlie would not commit since there was still last-minute work being done, but did not bother to inform her colleague that we would not be available for the time she offered to us or when we would have time. Thus it was left to Lukas to quietly use my phone, the only one with credit in the end, to tell his future boss that we wouldn’t be making the tour at the scheduled time.
In the end, on the last day there Friday morning, Alex and I were sitting in the house, as we had finished our work, while the rest were in the field, when the German director pulled up to take us out for a tour. We sat a bit in the house and drank some tea while the she complained about Mary’s behavior and the rift between them. She then took us out in her Land Rover for a tour since in her words, “Mary doesn’t know anything about al-Anderine.” She was what I imagined to be the quintessential German with her accent, mannerisms, and tall stature with blonde hair. At first I thought how lucky Alex and I were to get a tour from the tour of the sites from the actual archeologist who excavated them and would later write the history of the site to be used by future guides. However, it was rather rushed and dry and was belittled by her for not knowing anything about the architecture 5th century Christian churches. In her defense she presumed I was an archeology student and I was probably asking basic questions that she thought I should know. But her exclamatory remark, “You really don’t know anything,” was not tactful at all and she was much too overcautious with Alex and me around the site.
We returned again to the site later without the German director but with the rest of the team as they wanted to see the site as well. The main things to see consisted of an Umayyad bath, a Roman bath, a cathedral, a garrison, and some houses. It was not at all impressive as it was, well, in ruins. I learned all the interesting things the archeologists find such as mosaics, paintings, or loose inscriptions are taken to be exhibited in the museum in Hama and so what is left are large blocks of basalt placed in different monotonous arrangements. Mary told an account of when she went to the museum with Abu Sultan, who was helping her to carry some artifacts, the museum director told her not to bring people like that back into the museum. I suppose some city people look down on Bedouins or people from the countryside or maybe he could just sense Abu Sultan’s shark-like business tactics.
Yet between the two visits to the site, Mary conducted the payday ceremonies. As the time drew near, a crowd was gathering and looking at Mary with expectant eyes. She sat down behind a plastic table with Lukas beside her and wads of money in her hand. Then she would call each person to come forth from the crowd, receive their wage, and sign their names in her notebook cataloguing her expense. The illiterate ones signed with slashed lines. I took pictures of the ceremony and in just about everyone there was Fayed kneeling beside Mary watching the money being transacted. Alex or Bruce even remarked how Abu Sultan’s sons, Sultan and Salmaan, were staring fixated at the amounts of money. Perhaps someday they too will be making shady business deals as their father.
After everything was packed and ready to go, we said our goodbyes to the Bedouins and departed for Damascus. Bruce was lucky and drove with a team member who had come up the day before. He was absent throughout the week because he was with his wife in Damascus who was having an operation. Unfortunately, Lukas, Alex, and I were stuck riding with Mary in one of the worst, nerve-racking car trips ever. The car had yet to be cleaned and thus the inside was filled with dust. Driving with the windows down made things worse as it would just kick up the dust in the back seat, where Alex and I were sitting, and made breathing unpleasant. Additionally, Mary was a horrible driver and refused to let Lukas drive. Her excuse was that only she was insured to drive the car even though Lukas asked to be included. It was her way to exert control and retain power. Lukas often complained that Mary would disagree with whatever he suggested.
The car ride was made worse by Mary’s timidity on the road. She was slow to react and when she did react it was sudden and dangerous. For example she would break suddenly if she spotted another vehicle 50 yards in front of her, and she would sometimes break too rapidly in the fast lane when cars where tail gating us since she was too slow. Lukas had his head almost constantly turned around from his place in the front passenger seat to let Mary know if she could change lanes. We were driving so slow that even the coach buses were passing us on the Hama-Damascus highway. Thus I would have arrived Damascus sooner had she dropped me off in Hama and I took a bus. In the end it took us four and a half hours to get to Damascus when it should have taken us three hours. Bruce and the other driver made it in two and a half hours. Yet, in the middle of the ordeal, Mary complained how when she first moved to England she failed the driver’s examination twice before passing. Her driving certainly did not vindicate her complaint. I hope she gives up driving at some point. Throughout the ordeal, I could not relax as my nerves were on end and there was too much dust. I subsequently ended up coming down with a cold and spent the next week recovering. Overall, the experience was memorable and I am glad I went; although I will not do it again. I now know that at least I don’t want to be an archeologist. Yet I wonder at times how much relations between east and west have changed from the past till the present. Mary’s relations with the Bedouins seemed strained. The owner of the house she rented complained for example how Mary did not understand them but that at least I did. And Bruce and Alex wondered whether Mary just saw the Bedouins as a means to an end. Yet the Bedouins of the village of Homé which we stayed in had a poor reputation. The German director told a story from the first year of the project of al-Anderine, when she stayed there, that a man had taken the wages paid to a widowed woman with three children, who had done the cooking for the German team, and spent it in one night on a dancer. The German was of course furious and she never returned to the village after that year, instead building her own house near the site al-Anderine. Nevertheless, the Bedouins of Homé certainly count on the money that Marlie brings in.

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