Come with me once again to the Middle East for Flashback Friday. Today's story has neither a poetic ending nor a television falling off the wall. It is a tale of making new friends in a foreign city, of drinking warm orange pop on a hot day in an apartment without AC. It is a tale, my friends, of dolls' heads in birdcages.
It begins in early July 2004, in the afternoon of my very first day in Damascus, Syria. Jeremy and I had arrived at the airport just after dawn, checked into our room in a backpacker hostel with a shared bathroom and cold showers in the basement, and then headed out to see the city. I'll spare you the bulk of my thoughts on that day save these: it was extremely hot and I was feeling like I'd made a huge mistake in going there. I am not a magical fairy person who acclimatizes immediately to foreign surroundings while wearing a happy smiley face. Damascus was a huge adjustment and after only a few hours in the country, I was feeling rather shell-shocked. (If you read even one post of my Syria blog, you will realize that I grew to love that country, but it took more than one day.)
We were lucky to arrive on a day when the local (well, country-wide) Mormon branch was having a Fourth of July party at a member couple's apartment. Jeremy and I headed over there early and were loitering outside in the shade when we met an elderly Syrian man, also loitering outside. He struck up an enthusiastic conversation and immediately invited us into his nearby apartment. In many parts of the world, this would be strange behavior. In Syria, we would have reason to be offended if he didn't invite us to his home after two minutes' acquaintance.
Inside his small apartment, we met his wife and very aged mother. His mother was supposedly a veiled woman, but her very advanced age combined with the extreme heat and lack of AC meant that she was lounging on a sofa wearing a thin housedress, and her "veil" was a wet washcloth on top of her head. She made a cursory effort to leave the room to cover up when Jeremy walked in but the rest of us prevented her from troubling herself.
We had a nice chat. Nahel (that was not the man's name, but that's what I'll call him) played some songs for us on a neat little whistle. It was all very jovial and light and fun - good times for all. After a little while, we left his apartment to go to our church social and that was that.
A few weeks later, Jeremy and I stopped in to see Nahel and found him at home by himself. He invited us in and served us biscuits (cookies - whatever they're called) with warm orange pop. We chatted as before. It wasn't quite as fun and carefree as our previous visit, but we were still enjoying the polite conversation. Our host left the room at one point, possibly to refill our drinks, and I happened to glance up at the ceiling. There, I saw one of the more bizarre things I've encountered in my life: a doll's head sitting in a birdcage, suspended from a corner of the ceiling. It wasn't a tiny Barbie doll head, either - it was like a life-sized baby doll head with the bristly plastic eyelashes and eyes that open and shut as you tip the head forward and back. This doll's eyes were wide open, possibly from the shock of having its head removed from its doll body and placed in a birdcage.
Jeremy saw it, too, and we had just enough time to exchange a "wow, that was one of the freakiest things I've ever seen" look before Nahel was back in the room with more warm orange pop.
It may have just been time to leave; it may have been because of the severed head in a birdcage. Whatever it was, it was time to go. We started making our excuses to leave when I noticed another doll's head, in another birdcage, in another corner of the room, also suspended from the ceiling.
While saying our goodbyes to Nahel, we walked through the front room. As we passed towards the door, I mustered my courage and looked up: more dolls' heads in still more birdcages, hanging from the ceiling, all of their eyes glaring wide open in what could have been a silent, collective scream for help. Jeremy and I exchanged another look of bewildered, semi-amused alarm as we inched our way out the door, down the stairs, and finally onto the street.
I'm pretty sure we laughed about it almost immediately, but it was still vaguely unsettling. To this day I have absolutely no idea why an old Syrian guy living with his wife and mother in a regular old apartment would choose to decorate it with dismembered doll heads in birdcages. I kind of hope there's some famous movie I haven't seen or book I haven't read in which this was an accepted form of decoration and I just am not with the times. Please let me know if that's the case. Otherwise, I'm open to your theories.
We never went back to Nahel's place. I hope he realized in time that it was nothing personal.