Friday, April 16, 2010

SYRIA-SLY AMAZING

Guess who skipped out on Passover with the family this year to load up on arab pop and bellydance music in Istanbul, Lebanon and Syria?


I've been to Istanbul and Beirut before so I didn't feel as obliged to be a tourist this time around, though who can resist an aerial shot of downtown Istanbul.


I mostly did a lot of eating and walking and eating with my Turkish friend Ilker, pictured here. Cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese was pretty standard when we weren't feasting on kebabs.


That turtle in the remnants of my Turkish coffee means I'll soon be moving. And I will! Who has a rent-stabilized East Village apartment for me?


Elif is the sweetest, coolest disco DJ ever. She invited me to spin with her but I only lasted a few songs, as I brought house cds with me not realizing that Istanbul is majorly into disco.


Dara (left) kind of appeared and disappeared in whirlwind fashion but it was also very late and I had drank way too much raki, a Turkish licorice-tasting drink.


Was dying to buy one of these and wear it on the airplane over to Lebanon.


Beneath the city, the Basilica Cistern built by Romans to house drinking water. Now its just a tourist site where apparently there was a huge rave-like party eight years ago. Gag!


There's also two columns down there that have upside down and sideways Medusa heads carved into them and no one really knows why.


Daytime shopping around the downtown souks yielded such finds as this mustached mannequin.


And dangling baby dolls with itty bitty bridesmaid veils or something.


Ilker (left) and his good friend Eray were kind enough to show me some gay city nightlife as well, which is nothing to really write home about.


Stop number one was called Tekyon which is an Istanbul institution. These guys worked there and were happy to ham it up for my camera.


Then this motorized block rose up from the ground and this guy did some striptease in an I Heart NY tank top. This was when some dude tapped me on the shoulder and was like, NO PHOTOS! cuz Istanbul is religiously Muslim and homosexuality is not legal.


Though that didn't stop club Love from hiring this greased-up beefcakes.


Again, I was told NO PICTURES! So on to Beirut I traveled.


People in the middle east are ob-SESSED with Louis Vuitton. Not sure why.


Wedding cake-like tomb of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, located smack in the center of Beirut.


On Sunday evening, my travel companion Mike (not pictured) and I had drinks at our friend's gay food and liquor hangout called Bordo, where we met Ziad (right) and Ryan (center), who showed us photos of his budding modeling career on his phone.


Out at the Sunday night hotspot Milk with our new friends Charbel and Patrick (from left).


Mike (right) moved in quick on this sexiness known as Hussein, though since men are not allowed to kiss in public (this includes indoors at gay bars. You'll get ejected), Mike had to mostly look and not touch.


We also made friends with a big Lebanese teddy bear known as Michael.


Hello Damascus! We already love your weird rabbit vendor who wouldn't let us take a photo with him but we snuck one anyway.


Inside the tomb of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. His death finalized the division between Sunni and Shia muslims. Not sure what sticking your head in this box does but EVERYBODY was doing it, which gave me weird germ phobias.


Amazing baby toys. My favorite is the one in the denim halter top.


Just your run-of-the-mill Syrian machine gun toy.


Inside the Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus' number one tourist attraction, completed in 715 AD.


Another mosque outside the city where there were tons of black-clad Shia visitors.


Inside it was covered in mirror from floor to ceiling, making for another awesome rave spot if any Shia promoters ever get into that.


Obsessed with kinky lingerie for Arab women, which apparently they wear under their burkas or in the bedroom to please their husbands.


TELEVISED BABY BELLYDANCE REALNESS!


Creepy taxidermy shop near the old city in Damascus.


Damascus is pretty cheap for the most part including these animal goods, though I'm sure you'd have a rough time trying to get a hookah-smoking wolf through U.S. customs.


More kinky lingerie!


Though we couldn't take any pics (hence the stock photo), we did discover Damascus' gay hamam. Being gay is like, very illegal in Syria but men congregate here anyways to hang out, dance together as other men drum out Arab music on plastic bowls and have sex in dark back room.


At nighttime, we came across this decrepit Damascus amusement park which is still very much alive and functioning despite the rides looking like they were shipped over from the Soviet Union back in the 70s.


I think the Big Wheels-placed-on-a-metal-platform ride was the most depressing.


My favorite was this open air Gravitron type ride, operated by an eight year old as you can see in this here pic.


We took a bus up to Aleppo (second largest Syrian city) and wandered around its old city as well.


Since there isn't any nightlife in Syria (it's a dictatorship), most youngsters hang out at coffee shop smoking hookahs, drinking coffees and playing dominoes or cards. I think this handsomeness was the owner of this one coffee shop.


Aleppo sightseeing at the Citadel, a large fortress atop a city mountain meant to stave off crusaders back in the day. Very Indian Jones.


A Western tourist we liked to call Lawrence of Arabia for totally blending in with that headscarf he's wearing.


Aleppo has the biggest souk ever which goes on for miles and miles. They say you can get anything you could want in this souk but I was hard pressed to find Butt Magazine.


Old-fashioned barber shop in the souk.


Ummmmm, why is there a fucking cigarette in that baby mannequin's mouth?!?!


Aleppo has a pretty huge Armenian Christian population, including our friend Yurri who runs this souvenir shop with his dad and was kind enough to offer us teas and tell us about cool coffee shops in Aleppo.


BEST CHERRY KEBAB EVER (an Aleppo delicacy).


The sexy son of the former Syrian dictator, who was poised to take over as president before he died in a car crash, leaving his brother to take over instead.


View of typical Syrian architecture from our hotel balcony. These houses are very very old. Literally.


Back in Beirut, we took a day trip up to Jeita Grotto, a naturally occurring cave system with amazing stalactites and stalagmites which you're not allowed to take photos of.


A postcard from Jeita Grotto.


Around Easter time, they don't just dye the Easter eggs in Lebanon. They dye the entire chick.


Old school funicular ride (aka the Telefreak) we took to the top of a mountain near Beirut. Mike was petrified and told me that the cable cars had broken down not too long ago and everyone had to endure a six hour rescue mission.


Swore she was a tranny waiting to go up on the Telefreak.


Statue at the top of the mountain. Ummmm, hi, we're in Rio now.


Mamacitas who were both crying and graffiting the base of the statue simultaneously.


Regretting that I didn't buy a Lebanese mask for my next Halloween costume. Or bank heist.


Once the weekend rolled around, we partied at Bardo, Acid and this after party at Le Grey Hotel, a spectacular, newly opened boutique hotel. Everyone we had previously met was also at this party.


Habibi Sparber and friend.


Habibi Mike and his new friend Elly.


The party then moved to B.O. 18, a famous Beirut nightclub with somewhat of a stuffy crowd but great music and a retractable roof!


MOON OVER BEIRUT DJ BOOTH.


We were in the gay corner with all the gays we had met earlier in the evening. Was kind of like being at B-Bar's Beige if Beige turned into a druggy dance party.


Mike's friend opened a cute magazine and bookshop out in Gemmayze, one of the hipper parts of Beirut.


Sunset over the waterfront, where alleged 18 year olds were partaking in a little hookah action.


Beirut's downtown creeky old ferris wheel, which I rode for the second time in my life and lived to about it.


That night, we got details about this renegade underground party called Cotton Candy which happens in outlaw spaces but nobody knows about it till the day of. This time, it was at an old metal factory. Sadly, the music sucked.


TELEVISED CAMEL RACES ON OUR HOTEL TV!


And some ginormous cassette collection at a random Beirut cafe. This was a time capsule either - cassettes are still pretty big in the middle east. Iphones, not so much.


On our final day in Lebanon, we went into the Chouf mountains to see some old towns and a national park with lots of cedar trees.


Lebanese tour guides and car drivers insist on having you check out Moussa Palace, this tacky castle built 30something years ago by a rich dude who wanted to impress some chick.


Inside he made all these paper-maché-meets-animatronic mannequins and robots depicting biblical scenes and scenes from his own childhood.


He is also something of a gun collection and has a huge artillery of weapons from the past 400 years .


Camel rides out by the road.


Finally, we lunched at this fancy hotel up in the mountains that had a beautiful mosaic-tiled swimming pool which was empty in April.


And we did a little lounging. Like, one minute.


Yummy farewell hummus, beet-flavored hummus, some other hummus and eggplant dip.


Bye bye middle east! Hope to see you again soon!

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