Love and life in Syria

When I visited Damascus a decade ago, I observed many times similar scenes of a comparatively free private life, despite the regime’s strong grip on politics and society. This is now unimaginable in Syria. What was gained in the 1960s/70s, is now seemingly lost. We should, however, not forget that this region has its own humanity and should not be reduced to a mere theatre of war as portrayed in the daily news. Just like the Balkans, it will eventually overcome the civil war and rebuild itself. We just cannot see this at the moment, since virtually all imagery currently coming from the Middle East is marked by pictures of war, suffering and destruction.

See more photographs on my Instagram feed.

Vanishing memories

It is more than ten years ago that I visited Damascus, a short side-trip after a conference in Amman. Recently, I went again through my overflowing hard disk with photographs taken since I could hold a camera (although I still have hundreds of Kodachrome slides and black and white negatives in their original analog formats), and found the stack of images from that four-day visit, most of which have never seen a social network from the inside. One is right above this paragraph.

Instagram, with its terrible rigueur of forcing perfectly framed landscape or portrait photographs into artificial squares (not the natural habitat of most pictures, except perhaps those of the fashion photography élite, who often work in medium format – check out Richard Avedon), was never my medium of choice. However, over time it has become clear that even the very well-established picture-takers have fallen for the overpowering popularity of the service: Magnum and VII Agencies are represented, as are the New Yorker and the New York Times picture blog. From Bruce Gilden to Chris Anderson, Ed Kashi to David Alan Harvey, high-profile photographers have hopped on the bandwagon, and now IG also offers other formats. So no reason anymore for me to limit myself to posting iPhone snaps, pushed hard through various filters to make them more trippy.

More complicated is the uploading of “normal” photos to IG. Since the service is mainly catering to mobile shooters, it doesn’t make it exactly easy to regular-camera-holders to share their work. There is no free plug-in for Lightroom, so the workflow involves a lot of resizing, exporting, copying and re-importing. What one doesn’t do for some social media presence.

To come back to my first paragraph, I decided that I would – after some due warning embedded in a few images posted to IG – post my visual memories of Damascus, a place that represented the wonderfully authentic Middle East at the time, which is now in the process of disappearing into the violent quagmire that is the Iraqi-Syrian civil war. Whatever the underlying political context, I am afraid the Middle East I was able to visit in parts – not enough – since the 1990s, is a thing of the past. You can follow these pictures on Instagram itself but I will also add some of them – without too much text – on these pages over the next days.

British Embassy Tehran

On a serious note… the attacks by protesters against the British Embassy in Tehran has brought home to me again that I ought to do something with the large amount of photo material that I have still in my archive from Iran. These include pictures I have taken of the Residence of the British Embassy, which was able to take by invitation of the Embassy members one day in 2008, to document the historic relevance of the building and the artifacts that have been collected over the time by the various inhabitants of the Residence. I have sorted through the material and plan to publish them in the form of a book soon, but as a teaser I am publishing here the two drawings my children made of the building after a school visit by the British School Tehran to the premises.

My daughter Madelene's painting of the Residence when she was in year 4 of the British School Tehran, in 2008

My son Tristan's painting of the Residence, its garden and pool, when he was in year 3 of the British School Tehran, in 2008.

Seeb nadere dar Iran? (part 2)

But now to Mirdamad. Usefully, the building is located on Mirdamad street, at the cross-roads with Wali Asar, Tehran’s – and possibly the world’s – longest street. Dozens of years ago, this used to be a wonderful spot. Old black and white pictures from the 1960s show people wandering up Wali Asar from Mirdamad, no doubt on their way to one of the many parks alongside this long and busy road. But this is definitely a thing of the past, as everyone can witness when trying to brave the nerve-wracking traffic there. Since everyone wants to hit Wali Asar to either go north or south, and since Mirdamad is nowadays a three-line city highway leading straight to said Wali Asar, traffic jams are not only a regular possibility, they are an absolute certainty. If you are unhappy enough to drive to Paytakht – actually, there is no other way, really – then you will despair trying to find a parking space. There are no multi-story parking lots. If you don’t find a free space, and you haven’t got the nerves to swerve madly across the road to turn around and try again looking on the other side, you will suddenly find yourself on Wali Asar, in traffic that hasn’t moved for an hour or so, going the wrong way. If you however do find a parking space, then you have to run, because you will either find yourself parked in two or three levels deep when you come back – no chance to make any appointment after that, better to go home right away; if you can, that is – or the police will already be waiting. For it is not allowed to park there at all.

This all means that one rarely has the leisure to amble through the Paytakht shops with lots of time at ones hands. I always arrived with cold sweat on my forehead, hurried and unnerved from the traffic, hoping that the shop that existed last week is still there. It is a sad fact that the competition in Mirdamad is so tough and the rents so high that the shop where you bought your laptop a week ago might already be gone by the next. With one exception: the Apple Shop. Now, there is obviously no Apple Shop in Tehran, the sanctions definitely take care of that. But there are several shops that resell Apple products in Mirdamad, and one of them, located on the ground floor, even has helpful English-speaking staff with some knowledge of maintenance and service. It was to this stall that I directed my path.

I had a small problem with my laptop, which was awkward not only because it was new, but also the latest model. For some reason, it didn’t want to start up, and after long sessions with the non-certified Apple service staff at Mirdamad I managed to isolate the problem. They couldn’t do much about it – after all, they had never really undergone any sort of training, nor did they have the required tools – but they were Genius enough to tell me what had gone wrong with my hard disk. Basically, a strong magnet had confused its mental abilities and meant that it needed urgent exchanging.

No such thing was easily possible in Iran, so I wandered about the shop and looked around to see what other goodies were available there. In the 15m2 the shop occupied there was hardly any space for the two shop assistants, let alone customers, but there were still three other Apple fans waiting behind me, squeezed in the space between the door and the wall. I navigated around them and found myself in front of a large pile of boxes with MacBooks. There must have been about 50 of them, all neatly piled on top of each other. Next to them, two large boxes containing the iPod boom boxes, and hanging next to them every possible gadget that you could want to make your Pod do the things they could in “the free world” – broadcast to your car radio, blast Jamiroquai right into the centre of your ear, hide your gadget in funky but otherwise useless cases, and get charged with mobile replacement chargers (only US standard). And so on and so on. In between, the shop owners had piled up printers of all sorts, mobile phones, cameras, displays – anything that either was a computer or could be used to further outfit one. It was astonishing and depressing at the same time.

I had nearly forgotten about my parking predicament, but then suddenly the afternoon tea carrier came into the shop and I remembered that I had a few other things to do that week and couldn’t be sure if I would make it home before midnight if I got swept up by the afternoon rush hour. So I left, but not without a brisk walk to the other three floors of the building, just to see what else there was. In a way, it was more of the same – shop fronts after shop fronts filled up with the latest machinery in the electronic realm, plus cameras, mobile phones, mobile phones, more mobile phones. Later, I would discover a fairly decent camera dealer in Mirdamad as well, and astonishingly both him and the Apple Shop managed to stay in business for the entire two years I lived in Iran. When I walked back down to ground floor level, I quickly noticed also a fast food shop with a bench in front, which was the only place where I saw a woman. The entire place was dominated by male shoppers, shop assistants, and tea carriers, and it was only here that I saw a couple slowly eating a burger, probably waiting for someone else coming back from a shopping spree, holding up a few Nokias and a new laptop in his hand. The hunger for technology in Iran seemed to be insatiable from a Mirdamad perspective – and in fact, the country is one of the most active on the Internet, especially when counting the number of bloggers and social media users. The State, however, shackles access to the Internet, and thus it is hard to get a proper image how advanced the country actually is in this field. Given unlimited and uninhibited access, my guess is that Iranian web use would top any other country in the Middle East.

By the way, I made it home that day, but only because I argued hard with both a police man and a construction worker, who apparently had started work on yet another house construction while I was having fun in Mirdamad Mega Techno Shopping Complex.