Year Abroad in Syria – Day #53

20/10/08

Day 53

The other day, as I left my apartment building for class, I was surprised to find it was raining! I’m told it’s unusual for Damascus to get rain so early and this could be a sign that there will be too much rain this season. I have a hard time imagining that, however, with things being so dry here.

Today I took a microbus to college again. I thought I would write a little bit about the microbuses here. To get to class, I first walk for about 10 minutes down hill to the main road and then I take a microbus for about 3 minutes, which stops right outside the college. The microbuses actually stop whenever you like on the route, you just have to call out to the driver. People usually say: “ala al-yameen, ya mu-alam, izi b-tureed”, (literally: “on the right, hey teacher, if you want”) which is the equivalent of, “on the right please, mate/buddy.” The buses are really quite small, sitting around 12, and are more like minivans than buses. They have their route printed on the top of the bus, sometimes in very obscure Arabic, that you have to read quickly before you know it’s the right bus to flag down. If the bus is full then the driver will carry on, while giving you a kind of apologetic expression or hand gesture. If the bus is full, but there is just enough room for you to squat down in the aisle (you have to squat because the ceiling is too low to stand), then the driver will hold out his back-hand to you, with his five fingers spread and if you don’t mind squatting then you continue to flag the bus down. I tried it once; it’s not all that fun.

The price of the bus ride is 10SYP (about $0.20), which is extremely cheap, especially considering you could take the bus for about 40 minutes through town if you wanted to. When you get in the bus, you give your money to the guy in front, who then gives it to the guy in front of him…etc until it gets to the driver. Usually you don’t want to be the guy at the very front collecting all the money, because sometimes it can get quite complicated as to who has paid and who needs how much change – and all that in Arabic! Once you have managed to gather how much money you have been given and for how many people, you then hand the money to the bus driver, but not without giving him the numbers (in Arabic of course!) and collecting the change to hand back to the passengers. I have gotten used to it now, but in the beginning I sometimes just had to tell someone else to collect the money!

Because the buses are not all that big, most of the time you find yourself squashed in some uncomfortable position and, of course, it’s usually blazing hot, which doesn’t help. I have noticed it is one of the few places in Arab society where men and women are together in the same place in such close proximity and it can create some awkward situations. Speaking of which… I remember this one time it was actually a little awkward. My housemate and I were sitting on the seats opposite this Muslim mother and her daughter. The daughter was about my age and was smiling because she found it quite novel to see a foreigner in a microbus. The mother, however, quickly said something to her. Later, my housemate told me that the mother had in fact told her not to speak to me. Anyway, it was, of course, as crowded as usual and so there was little to no room to move and so it ended up that the only place to position my legs was kind of interlocked between the daughter’s. – The mother was not amused at all and for what seemed like the whole journey was staring at me in disapproval! Looking back at it, it was definitely one of those awkward Ben Stilleresque moments and my housemate and I had a good laugh about it once we got out of the bus!

At college today I noticed that the guys who check for student IDs at the entrance gate actually carry AK47’s. Myself and the rest of the group from England are not given Syrian student ID’s, but so far it has never been a problem because just seeing that we are Western seems to get us in. The native Arabs, however, have to give in their ID’s at the gate, kind of like in Durham when you have to hand in your student ID at the entrance to some college bars and then collect it on your way out. The guys checking the ID’s are, of course, not in uniform – their authority is indicated instead by what they are carrying.

Today I spent half an hour clearing away the litter from the staircase that leads up to my apartment entrance. It was clear that the litter had just gathered there for years. Much of it was buried under layers of rock and dust and had almost become part of the stonework that makes up the staircase. It’s still ridiculously dirty at the bottom part that leads to the street. Littering is a really big problem here in Syria and is another low point in Arab culture. Not everyone does, but unfortunately many do and don’t care at all about making a mess. It doesn’t help, however, that the trash removal system here is very poor, quite literally. One passerby walking up the stairs asked me why I was clearing all the rubbish! I wanted to answer in Arabic, “Because I’d like to live in a civilised place!” but unfortunately I didn’t know how to say that, so all I could say was, “Because there’s a lot of litter.” It can be quite annoying sometimes not being able to communicate properly because of the language barrier. Like in class today, for example, we were attempting to compare relationships and marriage in the Muslim World with the Western World and were trying to hold a debate about it, but soon discovered that one’s contribution to such a discussion (when you can only speak in Arabic) is only as good as your knowledge of vocabulary. So you can see how this might be frustrating when such a topic is hard enough in English. I suppose it’s the same sort of frustration that a toddler feels when he wants some milk but doesn’t know the word for it! – Slightly different, of course, but the same principle.

I’m still enjoying my new apartment. Because of its size, however, it takes a long time for the water boiler to heat up; about one hour. So if I want a shower in the morning I have to get up at 6:30 just to switch it on and then go back to bed for an hour. It’s not very pleasant.

Anyway, speaking of bed, I had better be off to sleep.

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