On Sunday morning, our apartment started to reek like tar. We couldn’t tell where it was coming from until Jeremy did some investigating outside. It turns out that the rig you see pictured above was set up just outside our apartment building, spewing smoky billows of tarry goodness into our home. Our only defense against the stench, some thin, loose window panes, was breached almost immediately.

We suffered all that day until the afternoon, when the smell gradually disappeared. It looked like they had quit work for the day. They had, however, left out all their equipment and leftovers, and we saw some kids playing in it later.

Fast forward to midnight. The tar smell, to our great, great disappointment, began to return. Unbelievably – or perhaps not so much, really, now that I’ve lived here for a while – they were firing up the tar vat in preparation for work the next morning. At midnight! Jeremy went out to talk to the workers and they helpfully explained that the reason they were doing so was because tar takes 8 hours to heat up to a temperature of 400ºC (who knew?). Never mind the nearby apartment buildings full of sleeping residents, unknowingly breathing in noxious fumes.

Jeremy went to the police station but suffice it to say, nothing was resolved. The workers promised they’d be done the next day (bukra, insha’allah) and that seemed to satisfy the police officer. Meanwhile, we were absolutely gagging on the fumes. At three in the morning, we finally fled the apartment to find a cheap hotel room for the remaining hours of the night, casting nasty looks in the tar-mongers’ direction as we walked down the street.

Needless to say, they weren’t done the next day. What’s more, they quit working at the leisurely hour of 1 o’clock, for some reason preferring to let the tar cool down all afternoon so they could heat it up again at midnight. The funny part is that this work was being done on the entrance to a girls’ school next to our building. During the busiest hours of the day, when class was in session and young students were walking in and out of that entrance, there was a large, open vat of boiling tar in their way, with workers slinging it around as they labored. As soon as school let out, the workers quit, too.

We ended up spending one more night as refugees in our own city. Words cannot describe the relief we felt when we rounded the corner later that afternoon and saw that the tar-mobile had packed up and gone away. What a luxury it is to be able to breathe freely in your own home.

The way you say tar or pitch in Syrian Arabic is “zifit.” They use the same word as a mild expletive, similar to the English “crap!” or Russian “блин!” The connection between the two meanings is now unfortunately part of my life experience.

Tar fumes

Apartment shopping in Damascus - Part 2