Friday, November 14, 2008

Visits from back home

One of the great advantages of living in Syria is that I now live closer to Denmark than ever before. This also means that more people come down for a visit.
October was a particulary busy month. First two guests were my cousin, Martin, and his friend. They stayed with me for a couple of days, together we went to Palmyra for one of the biggest events of the year: The Camel Race

The two travellers then ventured off to see not only Syria but also parts of Jordan - in two weeks they covered almost as much ground as I have in a year....

Following this my parents came to visit. As always it is great to have them visiting and a great part of their time here was spent on eating, drinking and talking. Still, we managed to find time to travel around the country, see some of Syrias amazing sights, shoppe and dress up!!!

Now I am looking forward to 2009 and even more visits from around the globe - great!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sorry this is too crazy - but not unexpected unfortunately

In gender-sensitive Iran, a car designed specially for women

Robert Tait and Noushin Hoseiny
The Guardian,
Tuesday October 7 2008
Article history

Iran's biggest motor manufacturer is to take the country's gender sensitivity to new levels by producing a car specially for women.
It will be fitted with features common on the international market but seen as female-specific in Iran's male-dominated culture. These include an automatic gearbox, electronic parking aids, a navigation system and a jack designed to make it easier to change a wheel, suggesting that women drivers lack the mechanical competence of their male counterparts. Alarms may also be installed to warn of flat tyres. The vehicle will be painted in soft "feminine" colours and include interior designs tailored to women's tastes. There will also be audiovisual entertainment systems for child passengers.
Iran Khodro, the state-backed manufacturer, said it would put the first models on sale next June to coincide with Iranian women's day. The car will be part of the Samand range, which has been exported to allied countries such as Syria and Venezuela. However, the women's car will initially be aimed solely at the Iranian domestic market.
Vahid Najafi, managing director of Iran Khodro's order unit, said the design was prompted by a sharp increase in women drivers and car owners and was based on research into their preferences and needs. Cars will be built in response to orders from customers.
"Women's necessities are different from men's," Najafi said. "For example, a woman goes shopping, takes children to school - so this car is going to have some visual distinctions that will separate it from other cars. It will be more beautiful. Cheerful and attractive colours will be used - for example red. A series of decoration pieces will be added to the interior, on the dashboard for example. What's important for women is that the car should be comfortable and handle well."
The idea is in line with gender separation officially encouraged by Iran's Islamic authorities. Last year they backed a proposal for a female bicycle designed to conceal the rider's legs and upper body. Women are discouraged from cycling, mainly to preserve notions of female modesty, and are banned from riding motorcycles, except as passengers.
A women-only taxi service, with women drivers, was recently launched in Tehran and other big cities. Men and women are segregated in buses and on Tehran's underground.
Iran Khodro last year announced plans for an Islamic car - with a navigation system designed to locate Mecca - to be produced jointly with Malaysia and Turkey.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ramadan in Syria

September 1st 30 days of Ramadan started for all Muslims around the world and Syria was no exception. In my office the change was felt immediately; working hours were cut by one hour pr day and despite that people still showed up half an hour late – “it’s Ramadan!”

The water cooler (and heater) was emptied and turned off so I have to bring my own bottle of water with me to the office and can forget everything about a cup of coffee during the day. Luckily, the Syrians are very relaxed with non-Muslims not fasting and my colleagues have given me permission to drink and eat at the office. Same understanding does not exist with Muslims not respecting the Ramadan. A friend of mine was scold for drinking a beer – by the waiter that served him the beer!!!

The first two weeks are supposedly the worst – close to 15 hours without food or water in 40 degrees just can’t be too much fun! I have witnessed a lot of road rage and have been yelled at by cashiers and taxi drivers. Basically, people have more of a temper – understandably.

My Arab teacher has suffered a great deal from lack of food and as a consequence my vocabulary has been filled with food related words, which I guess is very useful.

As the clock approaches 7 pm the city changes dramatically. The streets are abandoned and the few cars left on the road are driving as fast as possible to their homes and the great Iftar – at sunset it is time to break the fast and finally eat. At restaurants great iftar menus are the only thing on offer with lots and lots of Arabian food. And though I love the local food I have to admit that after a few Iftars it is nice with a few friends how are willing to break the fast with lots and lots of sushi instead!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mini break in Egypt

Finally, finally did I manage to take a few days of from UN and Damascus – and it was much needed!

My good friend, Bodil, and her husband, Sigge, have been living in Cairo for the last three years. Since they are now leaving it was last chance to visit.

Though Cairo is a big and interesting city where we easily could have spent 5 days the three travelers, Sophie, Steve and I, agreed that a few days by the Red Sea was a must.

So first part of the break was spent on the beach and in the sea including an amazing trip with snorkel. Following this we went to Cairo to spend a day at the Giza Pyramids and a lovely evening on the Nile. Bodil and Sigge had prepared a wonderful picnic that we had on a small Nile boat while the sun went down – a dinner I will late forget!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A trip to the desert

The vast majority of Syria is desert and after 4 months in the country it was time to go out and look at it! 3 hours from Damascus is Palmyra, an oasis in the middle of the desert interesting not only for the bare landscape but also for the incredible beautiful ruins situated just outside the town.

We spend a full day in the burning sun by these ruins. Despite the impressive attractions there were very few tourists and we enjoyed walking around taking in the ruins and the desert by ourselves. Once in a while we were “interrupted” by a guy on a moped who had spotted us and came out to try and sell us a soda or homemade necklace.

In Palmyra we were lucky enough to made a new friend. Muhammed is a real Beduin disguised as a business man – or was it the other way around? He has 60 camels and runs camel trips into the desert for the tourists. One of his camels, Casanova, came in second at the yearly camel race – an event I will make sure to witness. I was fortunate enough to get a few moments on Casanova and there is little doubt that he is a winner!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

New York New York

As part of my introduction to UNDP I get to go to New York for a three week course at the Headquarters. I will not bore you with details from the course that was from morning till evening about UN, fortunately, there were lots of interesting participants who lived and worked in many different and exciting places in the world. Despite the many different nationalities and language we had one big thing in common: we all worked as programme officers with the UN. During the three weeks we had lots of good discussion and many interesting examples from the work of UN in as different places as Cuba, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Maldives – the list goes on….

Though the majority of my time in New York was spent in the course or in meetings, there was still some time to shop, enjoy the good restaurant and vibrating night life. Weekends were spent at Yankee Stadium, Brooklyn Heights, Coney Island – and naturally on the cafés of Manhattan.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Great Race

Already when arriving in Damascus in February had some friends invited us to participate in the Dead Sea Marathon - the 10 km part of it! For some reason, we have said yes immediately, thinking it would be a fun thing to do. The race took place April 11th by the Dead Sea, Jordan side. We went with two good friends, Sarah and Sophie, in a taxi to Jordan for a weekend of race and relaxation.

The race took place early Friday morning - it gets hot pretty quick when you are 400 meters below sea level. The 10 km went great for all of us and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves when we returned back to the hotel for a delicious champagne breakfast buffet and a full day by the pool and floating around in the Dead Sea.

I think we might be back for the event next year....

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


During Easter we went to Aleppo - a beautiful old city 350 km north of Damascus close to the border of Turkey.

We left Thursday afternoon with the famous fast train. The train is known for its fancy design (from Japan) and fastness, so we were excited about the trip. It was a nice train and it felt more like being in an airplane on business class with comfortable seats and staff serving coffee and tea. There was even a small screen and small headsets making it possible to watch a movie during the ride....

However, the fastness of the train was questionable since max speed was 50 km per hour - still, we made it to Aleppo and on time!

Like Damascus Aleppo claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world and is a very beautiful city with a fascinating old and new city parts. The old city has a famous souq (market) that opens out to an increible citadel/fort. This place is a very present reminder of the history of the crusades. The citadel was used to protect the citizens against the crusaders - and with success as well. It is still standing but lost of work needs to be done. This doesn't stop the locals from flocking to the place for picnics and family outings.

Also the "new" city is impressive. Small cobblestone streets with plenty of charme and life. This is the Christian part of the city and we were lucky enough to meet the priest of the Armenian church. He took us on a small tour of the many churches in the area and due to Easter there was lots of life and activities in most of these churces.

We also had time for a small trip outside of Aleppo to the ruins of a Byzantian church from the 5th century. According to legend a monk by the name Simon went to live here to meditate without any disturbance. However, the rumour of this monk all alone on a hill spread and people came from all over to see the guy. Simon was not too happy about this and decided to build a pillar to sit on creating some distance from the crowds. More and more people came and it is said that the last pillar that Simon built was close to 40 meters high and that Simon slept with a chain around his foot to avoid falling from the pillar....

Simon died in 459 and today there is little left of his last pillar - apparently pilgrims have taken small souvenirs of the pillar with them leaving little left for tourists to see...Surrounding the pillar a church was built to honour Sct. Simon - and though everything is in ruins today it was a beautiful place to visit.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Unlike life in the Nepali countryside there are several forms of entertainment in a city like Damascus. Already this week revealed some of these….

Here the weekend starts on Thursday afternoon and what a perfect start; I went with 5 female colleagues to the Hammam (Turkish bath) for three hours of steam, Jacuzzi, scrubbing, massage and lots of gossip – ending the evening at a cozy little restaurant with good food and wine (something that can be hard to find in this city).

Friday night we went to the Opera – yes, there is an opera house here. We saw Carmen, and though I must admit that the Carmen I saw in Buenos Aires was of a different quality, it was worth the trip. To finish the experience with a touch of sweetness we stopped by at the Benetton Café for cheese cake….

With one day left of the weekend we decided to get out of Damascus to go and visit a small monastery 80 km. north of the city. Rural Syria quickly revealed the great issue of water shortage in the country the landscape was little more than dry, brown dessert with small half-dead bushes. Occasionally, a small house or village emerged from the dust.

The monastery was rather isolated and well hidden about 1 mile up a mountain side, it was a bit of a hard walk up there. It was abandoned in the 1900 century but has recently been restored and has been turned into a bit of a tourist attraction. It is possible to come and stay there for as long as liked, participate in the services or just hang out and talk. The price is nothing more that a bit of help with the cooking and cleaning! It was a mixed group of visitors including nuns, school children and the mandatory dreadlocked backpacker, the guy with the guitar and the hot chick that sings away and fascinates everyone on the mountain.

Yes, quite the weekend...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Damascus – first impression

We have now been in Damascus for three weeks and it is time to share some of our experiences and impressions with you:

The Syrians
People here are incredible sweet and friendly and on top of that they have another quality which Anne after 1½ years as the Giant Woman of Nepal appreciates highly: they are tall! As predicted by Steve the men all have moustaches and smokes argileh (water pipe). To our big surprise argileh is extremely popular amongst all walks of life here even on the most hip cafés you see young students, males and females, smoking away on this fascinating instrument. In general, it seems that smoking is big here. Everybody smokes and you can be sure that the taxi driver would have managed to smoke at least two cigarettes before you reach your destination – now matter how short the ride might be.

Damascus is an increible city and despite more than 6 million inhabitants it seems very small. It offers a bit of everything from the old city with its small narrow streets and Arabian houses to an Opera house with lots of cultural experiences and the Shalaan neighbourhood in the centre with the many shops and cafés. Last but not least you have Sheikh Mouhiddin, our neighbourhood. About 10 minutes walk from the heart of Damascus it lays at the beginning of Mount Mezzah with small street crawling up the side of the mountain. It has a large number of beautiful mosques (kept us awake for the first night in the apartment) and is famous for the local vegetable market. We have found a very nice apartment here and are busy turning it into a home in a city we feel very comfortable in.

The job
UNDP Syria has so far offered plenty of pleasant surprises such as having the Danish Embassy as its neighbour. Having a staff consisting of 80 % women – something the boss (a man – of course) jokingly mentions as an issue simply because the office is too efficient. I have some amazing colleagues who have received me well. The atmosphere in the office is open and cheerful. There seems to be plenty of communication and cooperation across the different sections, something I greatly missed when working with MS in Nepal.
We are still working on specifying my tasks more clearly but everything points toward working with gender mainstreaming of the organization, coordination of donor aid in Syria and finally focusing on including more civil society organization in the development work of UN and the government. So as it seems now there will be plenty of interesting work - I will try to keep you updated on this blog.

…and in the end
After having made it through both Christmas and January in Denmark without too much distress I was somewhat surprised to find myself lost in a snowstorm on my way to an inauguration of an e-library for the parliament. But that’s life; strange and unpredictable….