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Harassed in Hama

October 14, 2009: In the morning the same driver collected me from the Mirage Palace, took me to the station, and helped me deal with the intricacies of buying a train ticket. This time we started at the second window, and were sent to yet a third, where my passport details were laboriously written down in Arabic. Now duly  ticketed, I found a place to sit under the chandeliers in the main hall, and chatted with a young, fully-veiled woman with a two-month old baby while we waited for the train. She had been visiting her family in Aleppo and was traveling to rejoin her husband in Damascus. Although she held a masters degree she had been unable to find a job.

Given the small extra cost, I had opted for first-class. The open carriage had 2-1 seating, and my reserved seat turned out to be a single on the shady side of the train. (I always opt for the shady side when possible, but this was just luck.) Free papers and cartons of juice were handed out, and although music played, it wasn’t too loud. The countryside between Aleppo and Hama was very flat, and stony, except where irrigation created patches of green.

The Four Norias of Bechriyyat

Very few people got off the train in Hama, which might explain why only two taxis waited outside the station, which was 2km from the center of town. I shared the second taxi with a Swiss couple toting big backpacks who were just stopping briefly on the way to Palmyra. The driver didn’t recognize the name of my hotel (www.noria-hotel.com), but thanks to the Lonely Planet map I got him to drop me close by. It took me a couple of passes to find the building with the right hotel sign, and then an elevator in an arcade which took me up to the fourth floor reception desk. The staff were friendly, and my room had a big bed, but no daylight, sheets that were too small for the mattress, and insufficient power to charge my n800.

Finding the new town a bit noisy and grimy, I walked through the old town to visit the Azem Palace. I would later visit another Azem Palace in Damascus, built by the same governor, Assad Pasha Al Azem, after his promotion. The Hama palace, while smaller, had a second story with a second courtyard to catch any available breeze. Both the courtyards and the interior rooms were elaborately decorated, with red, white and black banding on the exterior walls.

Azem Palace, Hama

My search for lunch took longer. The first two places I looked for had gone out of business, and the third was either closing or about to be renovated. The T.I., amazingly, claimed to have no-one who spoke English. I finally found a place on the river, Al Atlal, that provided kebabs, fries and salad, and a good view. Hama is known for its “norias”, huge wooden water wheels. After lunch I followed the river towards the “Four Norias of Bechriyyat”, but restaurants blocked access all the way. I finally walked through an apparently closed restaurant to the river bank, but at a busier time this wouldn’t have been possible.

Closer look at a noria

I had been thinking that after a month on the road I could use a Turkish bath, and when my hotel was unable to find the hamam’s phone number I set off to check on the “women’s hours” in person. I found the hamam deserted, and walked on into the old town down an almost empty street. Just one young, overweight boy, perhaps 11 or 12, walking towards me. Nothing to worry about, you would think, but, as I passed him, he suddenly reached for me! He seemed to be aiming for my breasts, but I struck his arm aside and as I yelled at him he ran away.

I could hardly believe what had happened. While I don’t look my age, especially in countries where women age fast, I certainly don’t look young, and although I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, I was modestly dressed and had not made eye contact. But I unquestionably looked western. Once I recovered from the shock, I started to wonder about the education and upbringing that could produce such behavior.

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